Fandom: Iron Man (movieverse); Tony/Pepper
Word Count: 7680
Rating: R, for language and non-explicit sex
Summary: This is not the end-of-the-line scenario she’d always envisioned. This is not a drunken mistake or desperation or declining years or no one else left to fight.
It isn’t until he’s moving slowly against her and whispering words like “yes, yes” and “always wanted” that she finally realizes:
Oh shit. Oh holy shit. This…this is exactly as bad an idea as she always thought it would be.
Pepper has a list. It starts with: 1. He will have almost died.
It ends with: 32. Because I’ll be the only one left.
In between, there are scattered thoughts. 12. I will be drunk. Or high. I will in someway be altered from my normal state. (Likely his fault.) 17. He is a beautiful man sometimes. 31. He will wear me down.
This is Pepper’s list of reasons why she will probably end up sleeping with her boss.
It’s not that Pepper doesn’t have sex. She does. Not often, but. Enough.
Three months ago, she went out with a doctor, a friend of a friend. Nice, attractive, didn’t laugh much but had a nice smile.
Tony spent all night texting her.
How’s Doctor Dillweed?
If he says he needs to give you a physical…I’m all for it. Just take pictures.
Hey, check to see if he’s in our insurance network.
At her apartment, she’d grabbed the front of his sportscoat in her fists and kissed him. The sex wasn’t clinical, like she thought it might be. It was good and she fell asleep after and then Tony called at four-thirty.
The doctor had been a little put out when she said he needed to leave. She called him a few weeks later because Tony had broken his thumb, and he was an orthopedic surgeon. He’d hesitated over the phone, and then, “Yes.” She tried to be sorry. But everyone has a job to do.
She startles awake one evening, her cheek slipping off her propped palm and jolting her into awareness, that sick sense of disorientation she sometimes gets when nearly falling asleep on long plane rides. Her notepad is still on her lap, her pen doubtlessly lost somewhere between the cushions of the couch. She had been writing reminders to herself: topics of research she needed to do for an upcoming speech (Norfolk, two days, sub-aqueous limitations of the suit and how they were being addressed), grocery list (her bananas were nearly black, she was sure; Tony had requested Chips Ahoy), repairs she needed to call about (Tony had tried glazing his armor in the oven, again).
This is what she does when it’s six-thirty and there’s still work she knows she needs to do, and she can’t quite focus enough to do it. She scribbles notes, she scans Google Alerts, she watches Brian Williams telecast from Basra.
She rubs her forehead between her eyes, slowing her heart rate from waking too suddenly and then feels panic wash through her when she looks over and sees Tony on the other length of the L-shaped couch, tapping at her computer keyboard.
He looks up and watches her as she crosses over to him. He leans forward and places the laptop on the coffee table, before she can snatch it away from him.
“Don’t worry, I didn’t schedule anything. I opened iCal and almost had a seizure. Very colorful, Potts,” Tony says.
She sits down next to him. “Color-coded, Mr. Stark. It’s…never mind. What did you do?”
“Nothing,” he says. At her look, he shrugs. “Triage. Redirects. Who to contact for quarterly reports. Low priority stuff.”
She shakes her head and leans back against the cushion. “You triaged my inbox?” And then, a little smile, “How many did you do?”
He leans forward and rests his elbows on his knees. “A lot. Seemed like a lot. You have a shitload of e-mails, did you know that?”
She replies, simply. “Yes.”
Tony turns his head toward his shoulder, looks at her knees at his side, or maybe her toes. Unpolished, no stockings. Closed-toed pumps today, and the heat of a lingering summer. She feels…examined.
“That’s, uh. That’s probably because of the whole Iron Man thing, yes? More now, because of that? Because your boss is…well, awesome, let’s remember, but also a kind of a superhero?”
It’s not an apology, but it’s as close as she’s known him to come, and it’s more than she expects. She watches the side of his face, his eyes looking up and squinting slightly in the dying light, ocean-tinted, reflecting through the glass wall. She thinks of how to respond, not “It’s okay,” because it’s not, except for all the ways he’s Tony Stark and it is, and she finds she’s reaching a hand out toward his back.
She sees herself doing it and the following thoughts run through her head:
2. Because he didn’t die.
I wonder how long it will take to research the existing diving protocols at the naval base.
I probably shouldn’t do this, but this will be the least inappropriate thing that has happened today, so.
So, she settles her hand on the small of his back, brushing against the hard leather of his belt. “We’re hanging in there,” she says.
Pepper looks at his back, and her hand there. She is weary, in this muted evening, unmoored without a clipboard or a computer or her hair away from her face, with her boss too close and a staggering amount of obligations and responsibilities that demand her attention even when she rests.
After a while, Tony makes a noncommittal sound in the back of his throat and turns away. She drops her hand and straightens off the cushion, their shoulders brushing as she does. He reaches forward and reclaims her computer, placing it in her lap.
“I return it to your capable care.” As he stands and starts walking away, he continues, “Please don’t yell at me if I deleted anything. Total accident.”
She smiles and opens a search engine tab, ready to focus once more. She glances toward his retreat and as he nears the top of the stairs to descend into the workroom, she says, “Mr. Stark?”
His hand on the banister, he turns toward her, his hair messy and his face lined in shadows. “Are you…” she starts, but cuts off before she can ask after him like a parent would, or a loved one, mildly anxious about his quietude, not uncharacteristic exactly, and yet…
She finishes, “Is there anything I can get for you?”
He pauses, briefly, meeting her eyes, and then he taps the banister and spins to head down the stairs, his voice trailing up after him. “Not right now, Miss Potts. But I’m sure I’ll think of something.”
And she thinks, oh. Oh. It’s hard being Tony Stark’s executive assistant. She is tired and bruised. But she is not Tony Stark, facing an unimpressed world and bearing a heavy suit.
Every so often, Pepper reviews her list, when she’s exhausted, when she’s shaken from watching Tony soar through unknown skies on shaky guerilla news footage. She always firmly caps it with:
Except I will never sleep with my boss, no matter the reason, because that would be Stupid. It would end in Disaster. And he would probably film it and it would get leaked and my Career would be Over.
She makes sure to capitalize certain words in her mind, underscoring their importance, reminding herself time and again that having sex with Tony Stark would be a really terrible idea.
Other times, she thinks Tony probably has his own list. Reasons Not to Fuck Pepper. She wonders what would be on there, and then imagines she’s better off not knowing.
It’s fully night now, that strange time when families are asleep and couples her age are going out for drinks with friends. The time she usually packs up to head home, that always reminds her that she belongs nowhere, really, except for this house, seemingly smaller now that she can’t see the waves outside.
She has her phone in one hand and her purse in the other when she realizes she can’t find her keys, so she drops both on the end of the couch and heads toward the stairs. She’s a few steps down when she hears Tony stomping below, louder as he climbs up, two at a time, his feet heavy but quick.
When Tony sees her, he holds up one hand, keys dangling. His eyes are bright, they way they gleam when he’s half-distracted. “After lunch, I guess you – ”
He stops talking because she kisses him. She reaches out and wraps her hand around his, to take her keys back, and with her other hand, as she leans forward and down, compensating for the steps between them, she cups the back of his head and presses her lips to his.
It’s a mindless gesture, one she’s seen a thousand times, on TV, on the street, in her apartment parking lot, between lovers and spouses. Not in her own life, not her own parents who split when she was four. Not between her and Tony, certainly.
The thing is, Pepper isn’t stupid. She indulges in fantasy now and again, but she knows she lives in a specific reality, one in which she is strong and independent and fiercely competent at her job and her boss is a billionaire eccentric megalomaniac. There is no Venn diagram, there are no blurred lines. She is Pepper and he is Tony and there is no Pepper and Tony.
It’s just, well. She was moving in one direction, mind still upstairs, tweaking tomorrow’s schedule, and he stepped in front of her, solid and familiar. She knew what she was doing, and she could have stopped herself, maybe at the last second, but still in time, but in that instant she didn’t want to. In that instant, she didn’t remember her well-worn resolution not to fall prey to her own reasons why this very thing was inevitable.
Tony is the first to pull away, actually. His surprise is enough to clue her in to her own, and she presses the back of her hand, still holding her keys, to her lips. Her eyes are wide and unblinking, watching him helplessly, for some kind of reaction, because she no longer knows what to do. Because her world is not the same as it was ten seconds ago. He glances down to her covered mouth, up to her eyes, and then down again. She can see the tic in his cheek when he sets his teeth together and then he is moving.
He steps up to her stair, crowding her, his thighs against hers, kissing her and not stopping. She tries to step back and she can’t, she trips, so he wraps one arm under her ass, lifting her up, and the other around her upper back. He carries her up the stairs, unsteady, until she snaps to and folds her legs around his waist. He shifts her once more, settling her firmly against him, and she places her hands on his shoulders, bending her neck down with this added height, moving her mouth against his again and again and again.
He sets her down upstairs and leads them back to his bedroom. She kicks off her shoes along the way, because walking backwards is hard enough without spike heels and her eyes closed. His hands slide up and down her sides, thumbs glancing across her nipples as he moves, not quite tickling but close enough that she presses her chest against his, forcing his hands to her back, because she is desperate, desperate to latch onto something and quell the reckless flush that is coursing through her body.
She sits on his bed and he stands above her, his hands tangled in her hair. She can’t stand to think how she must look, but his eyes scan over her and he isn’t leaving, so…that’s something. She leans forward and rests her forehead on his lower belly, bringing her hands up to undo his belt, the snick of his buckle startlingly loud in the white noise that constantly hums through this nearly alive house.
He says, quietly, “Pepper…” His fingers comb through her hair, entreating, maybe. She’s not sure. But she stands up and shoves his pants down around his knees and he kisses her again, like he wants to, like there’s nothing else he could possibly be capable of doing, in this moment.
There’s a giddiness that wells in her chest, a magnificent sense of power that she feels, at this. At having Tony Stark’s attention focused so solely on her. It’s a kind of precision that she knows has been honed with practice, but she doesn’t care.
He reaches down and pulls up the hem of her blouse, deliberately. When she’s topless, they make eye contact and he smiles, he smiles, this achingly tender smile that makes her clench her hands at her sides.
It’s nothing like she thought it would be, this inescapable thing. She thought it would be sloppy and quick and maybe one of them imagining they were with someone else. Not oddly endearing, the way their teeth bump when they kiss. Not Tony staring at her, staring directly into her, when he reaches beneath her waistband and presses his palm over her panties.
The rest of her clothes come off, and then his, and then she is lying down in his bed. His knees bracket hers, so she can’t really plant her feet on the mattress like she likes to, but that’s okay. He brushes her hair out of her face and kisses her under her jawline, scraping his teeth against her skin.
It isn’t until he’s moving slowly against her and whispering words like “yes, yes” and “always wanted” that she finally realizes:
Oh shit. Oh holy shit. This…this is exactly as bad an idea as she always thought it would be. This is not the end-of-the-line scenario she’d always envisioned. This is not a drunken mistake or desperation or declining years or no one else left to fight. This is knowing there’s going to be a tomorrow, and being fundamentally changed.
But Pepper Potts is nothing if not goal-oriented, so she files that away, assured that there is a time and a place to freak out, and that Tony’s bed, with Tony strong and sure above her, is neither. She will take this, and she will give this to Tony, and later…
Afterward, she hopes he’ll fall asleep or that she will. That she can slip away while he’s melting something in the basement. But of course it doesn’t happen that way. Of course, Tony sits back on his knees, his eyes searching her face for…something. All she can do is try to cover her chest with one arm and look away, her cheeks flushed and her breath quick, because she’s not sure what he wants and she doesn’t trust herself to speak.
He strips the condom off and she bites her lip when she hears it hit the floor. She’s only ever seen the aftermath from the other side. She feels dizzy. Tony swings his legs over hers and sits on the side of the bed, his back to her. “Are you going to quit?” he asks, his hands cupped around his knees.
“No! I don’t know. No, of course not,” she says, with a surety she doesn’t feel.
He glances back to her quickly and then away. “I would just like to point out for the record that you started this.”
“You’re being juvenile.”
“Don’t call me juvenile after I just had sex with you. It makes me think kinky thoughts.”
She rolls her eyes and sits up, drawing her legs toward her and crossing them indian-style. “Tony – ”
“Well, you’re not calling me ‘Mr. Stark,’” he says. “That’s something.”
His response is too quick, like he’s been thinking about it. Like he’s upset or…or touchy. She doesn’t know how to handle him like this, which is a problem, since handling him is kind of her job, and she’s at a loss.
He continues, “So if you’re not quitting, is this…I mean, this can…So we’re going to start having sex regularly, is what you’re saying. I like this mind of yours, Potts.” It’s half-hearted, which is more revealing than she thinks he knows. More so than anyone, she understands self-defense.
She breathes out in frustration and presses her fingers hard over her eyes, until starbursts explode behind her lids.
He turns to look at her, she can tell. She can hear his breathing in the quiet of the room and she can tell he’s turned toward her. The sheets are still damp and untucked beneath her and she can’t quite think quickly enough to smooth this over or explain it away.
So he gets up and she hears him shuffling around, grabbing pants she assumes, but she doesn’t look up until she can’t hear his steps in the hallway anymore. She takes her hands away from her face and opens her eyes and all she can see is white.
Pepper goes home. She drops her keys and her purse on her kitchen table with a numb kind of routine. She turns her phone off and doesn’t look at her computer. She strips naked and sits in her tub and doesn’t turn the water on. She forces herself not to think, forces herself to imagine a blank, black square. When thoughts of Tony slip into her head, she pictures that black square again until her breath comes easier.
She stands up, turns on the shower, and thinks about what she’s going to wear to work today.
When she gets back to the house, she heads into the kitchen, dumps out yesterday’s coffee and sets about the task of making today’s with a practiced ease. She stands at the counter, spreads her fingers along the cool granite and watches the coffee brew, drip by drip into the carafe.
She tells herself, this will be okay.
She will go downstairs and Tony will say something inappropriate to which she’ll smile indulgently, and it’ll be fine. Or he’ll be fussy for a few days and she’ll handle it. But they are adults, she thinks, or close enough, and they’ll get over it. People have sex everyday and manage to work with each other. It is not the disaster she once thought.
But when she heads downstairs to leave his coffee, he stops welding immediately and she hesitates for a split second at the bottom of the steps before crossing to him. He flips up his safety visor and watches her. She smiles, weakly. He doesn’t. She places his coffee down, out of accident’s way, and then she meets his eyes before she turns to go.
His eyes, she often thinks, are too young for his face. Like while the rest of him grew into a man, his eyes remained forever adolescent. Earnest. Sometimes blindingly so.
His fingers wrap around her wrist and she freezes at his side, turned away from him.
“What, exactly, do you want me to do?”
“Nothing. It’s okay.”
He’s quiet for so long that she looks over at him. “You want me to forget sleeping with you, Pepper?” His voice is flat. She thinks he might be angry.
“Well, too bad.”
“Too bad?” she repeats, her voice climbing, as she tries to tug her arm away from him. He keeps his fingers tight but follows her arc so he doesn’t hurt her. She could break his hold if she tried. “I don’t want to be another woman, Tony,” she finally spits out. “Okay? I don’t want to be the woman you screw around with for a few weeks and then toss out, because then you’d have to get another assistant and…that would suck, for you,” she finishes, lamely.
He considers her for a second, his eyes studying her face. She presses her lips together and yearns…for anything but this. Yearns to be upstairs, to erase yesterday, for Tony to let go because she knows he can feel her pulse, too rapid.
“Okay,” he says.
She stops straining against his hold. “Okay?”
He shrugs. “Okay, I won’t…you know, do that.”
“Oh Christ, Tony,” she says, shaking her head. “It’s not that easy.”
“Of course it is. I’m a superhero, Potts. I can do anything I put my mind to,” he says, flashing her a grin. He tilts his head, his smile fading, and continues, quieter, “Give me some credit.”
She doesn’t know how to respond without hurting his feelings or promising something that is overwhelmingly too much, for either of them, can’t he see that? So she reaches down with her other hand, uncurls his fingers around her wrist, and leaves.
For two days, they deal. He’s moody, frowning whenever she ventures downstairs. This she ignores, because frankly she’s dealt with worse. She still talks over his protests to the scheduling and she still picks out his suits. For the most part, she’s successful at being in his room and not looking at his bed. She knots his ties when he’s running late and her hands don’t shake.
On day three, she walks in the front door, juggling her travel mug, some contracts, and her keys. She’s already distracted and when she sees Tony sitting in the living room, lips quirked as he watches her struggle, she stops short. They study each other for a while, until she looks away first, dropping her stuff on the entryway table and kicking the door shut behind her.
“Good morning, Mr. Stark,” she says as she passes by on her way to the kitchen.
He hops up and trails after her. “I took the suit out last night. Saved twelve people,” he says.
“Yes, I got Jarvis’s text. Congratulations,” she responds mildly as she straightens the newspaper on the kitchen island.
“So, I’m thinking I deserve something,” he continues, as he comes up beside her and leans his elbow on the granite top, angling his body towards hers.
She raises her eyebrows and faces him, wary at this change in mood. “Oh really? What do you think you deserve?”
“Some crazy athletic sex, maybe. Or a great big steak, not sure.”
She can’t help but laugh and he grins wider in response.
“Or a spanking,” he says, “I was a little naughty. I might have totally blown up a grain silo. Not my fault, they were shooting at me. So, anyway. Interested?”
Rolling her eyes, not daring to ask which option he’s referring to, she steps around him toward the refrigerator. “Inappropriate, Mr. Stark.”
“Seriously, you refuse to call me Tony now?” he said, a familiar whine in his voice. And then, “Oh, wait, is this a kink? You like it propriety-style? Totally cool. You want me to call you ‘Miss Potts’ in bed?”
She slams the fridge door shut and whirls to face him. “Tony.”
He smiles. “There, see? Easy.” And he leans forward, places his hands beside her face on the door behind her, and kisses her.
Pepper pulls away, bumping her head. She licks her lips before saying, “I’m – I’m on the clock. I have to work for you.”
He leans away from her so she can see his face, but he doesn’t back up. “So, there’s on-the-clock Pepper and off-the-clock Pepper?” he says, taking his top lip between his teeth like when he does calculations in his head. “Okay. Okay, no problem. Nine to five, business as usual. Hands to myself. Got it.”
Tony nods once, decisively, a small smile playing across his face. “I like this, Potts, I like this very much. Nice work.”
And then he jams his hands in his jean pockets and walks away, whistling, his footsteps and his unfamiliar tune getting fainter as he disappears downstairs.
Pepper lets her head fall back against the door. She thinks about quitting. She’s thought about quitting often over these past years. It’s another idle fantasy that doesn’t hold much true consequence.
She thinks about quitting. She thinks about ignoring him, fighting him, throwing her phone at him and slamming her palms on the counter, trying to reason with him.
And then she thinks, maybe.
He’s as inappropriate as ever. He makes comments about the length of her skirts, and he asks her if she wants to know what Iron Man wears under the suit. But now he ghosts his hand around her waist as he walks by her in the kitchen. Now the way he smiles when he says, “You crack a mean whip, Miss Potts,” means something.
Now everything has purpose behind it. Now it’s not so innocent.
Sometimes, especially in the beginning, he tries to be sexy. He starts at her feet and kisses his way up her legs. By the time he reaches her knees, she’s giggling and flailing her hands around her face.
She knows he’s trying, so she just smiles down at him and says, “Oh, Tony.”
Rhodey comes over and she’s happy to pass Tony off to him. He’s been fidgety all morning, trailing after her through the house. She knows he’s stuck on something downstairs, meaning he surfaces to bug her with some variation of this conversation:
“I think maybe I need to go buy a Wii Fit. I tried TiVoing one of those yoga channels but…I don’t know, they’re too…”
“Chirpy?” she supplies, thumbing away at her BlackBerry.
“Exactly. Look at this, Potts, I’m getting a belly,” he says, rubbing his stomach over his shirt.
“That’s because you’re forty-two and your diet consists of Monster Java and Skittles. And you’re not getting a Wii.”
“Okay, what about an island? I could call it Iron Man Island, So Eat Me, Depp, which I think has a nice ring to it,” he says. “Hmm, but you’re too fair, so maybe an island wouldn’t work.”
When she glances up, he’s got a lazy smile and is staring at the V where her collar gaps. She can feel herself start to flush and knows that’s what he’d intended.
“You’re not buying an island, Mr. Stark, because you’re not going to have any money left since your assistant can’t get any work done and your company goes belly up.”
He’s quiet for a while, probably sulking, but she won’t look up to check.
And then, “Do people take trains anymore?”
So when Rhodey shows up in uniform and says, “Sorry I didn’t call,” she says, “Oh god, take him, take him please.”
Tony and Jim sit down on the couch in the living room and she follows them so she can gather her notepad and papers off the coffee table. As she stands in front of the couch, Tony leans forward, takes the fabric of her pants in his hand and gives it a quick tug.
“C’mon, Pepper, leave it and sit down with us.” He wraps his hand around the inside of her thigh, just above her knee.
She freezes. She glances over to Rhodey, whose eyes are focused on Tony’s hand. She can tell he’s wondering why Tony is suddenly treating her like one of his short-skirted stewardesses.
She licks her lips and backs up, clutching her files with white knuckles. “Oh, that’s okay. I’ve got work to do, and I’m sure Col. Rhodes didn’t come over to socialize with me, Mr. Stark.” She tries to smile and ignores the way Tony’s forehead creases as he looks up at her, before she excuses herself to her office.
An hour later, she hears the front door open and close. Then, footsteps in the hallway outside her door.
He doesn’t knock, and when he enters and stands in front of her desk, there is no trace of his earlier good humor.
“What is your problem?” he asks.
She meets his gaze but doesn’t stand up from her chair. In the hour that she’s been in here, not doing any work, she has rehearsed how she will act in this moment. She will not cross her arms, or raise her voice, or roll her eyes. Keeping her professional dispassion is the mantra she clings to, because he isn’t going to think this is a fight between employee and boss, and it is. Because she gets the impression that he still thinks this is some elaborate game between the two of them.
(Also in that hour, she thinks that if she’s not doing any work, then she’s getting paid to have sex with her boss. This is why she wanted boundaries, why she maybe never wanted this at all. Because she tries to frame this in a way other than something very near prostitution and comes up blank.)
“My problem,” she says, “is that you just treated me like some plaything.”
“Oh Christ, is that what that was about? It’s just Rhodey.”
“It’s not ‘just Rhodey,’ Mr. Stark. That was Col. Rhodes, your military contact, the man who calls me to schedule your meetings.”
“Jesus, Pepper, everyone already thinks we’re fucking anyway.”
She bites the inside of her lip and looks away. “Sometimes you can be cruel, Tony.”
He steps forward and places his hand on the desk, like he wants to reach for her. “I’m sorry, that was actually meant to be comforting.”
“It’s not comforting, how would that be comforting?” she asks. She talks over his attempts to respond, and says, “And no one thinks we’re having sex because they think you go through women like you’re going to win a prize at the end for having the most points. They don’t think we’re fucking because I don’t get comments about doing my best work on my back.”
“Pepper – ”
“Just stop,” she says. He says her name again but she looks away and focuses on her computer screen. “I think you wanted to review the new schematics from Weekley before your two o’clock call, didn’t you, Mr. Stark?”
He stands there for a long, silent moment before walking out.
She spends the night at her apartment and the next morning, she comes in and sees Tony sitting at the end of the couch, holding a cup of coffee. At her entrance, he can’t quite meet her gaze and then wordlessly goes downstairs. When she follows after him some minutes later with the schedule, he still won’t look up at her.
She’s just about to run down his morning appointments when he says, “I thought maybe you wouldn’t come back.”
There’s a second where she can’t quite focus on anything. She tosses her clipboard on his workbench and steps closer to his side but doesn’t touch him.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
She nods. “I know,” she says. “But do you understand why I was upset? I’m good at my job, Tony. Really good, and I like doing it. Maybe it doesn’t make sense to you, maybe I’m overreacting, but I feel like…like if people knew about us, it would lessen my position. So much of who I am and how I’m defined is tied up in you. I wouldn’t be your assistant anymore, I’d just be your latest fling.”
“You think Rhodey’s going to suddenly forget that you’re one of the smartest people he knows, just because we’re having sex?”
“It’s not Rhodey I’m worried about. It’s the senator who asks me to squeeze him in for a meeting after I’m finished with you,” she responds pointedly. “I don’t want to have to choose, Tony. Please.”
He sighs and wraps his arm around her waist, tugging her closer until she’s standing between his legs. “Okay,” he says, looking up at her. And then he grins. “Seriously? ‘Finished’ with me? Could you at least start with me?”
She laughs and pushes him away. “Nice try. Your meeting with Stephenson and Marcek is at nine-thirty. Go change.”
He learns. She thinks maybe he sees it as a challenge, cataloguing things about her that he’s never had to remember about anyone else. The way she likes him to kiss at her pulse points, on her neck and above her collarbone. That she can handle the redness for a few days, if he’ll just please, please scratch his goatee from her throat to between her breasts. He learns that she doesn’t always want him to be gentle, except maybe for when she’s been quiet all day, or if it’s raining. And that sometimes she doesn’t need words, just needs to hear the sound of him breathing, quick and sharp in the quiet of a darkened room.
He learns. It’s more than enough.
A military base is bombed. Rhodey is injured and two people die. It takes Iron Man a day and half to find the terrorists in the deserts of Nevada. Authorities will find their bodies a month later, and it won’t make the news.
When Tony gets home, he locks himself in the basement and bars her security code. He stays down there for two days and she stops asking Jarvis to check on him, because after the first bottle of whiskey, she stops wanting to know.
Her access is restored in the middle of the afternoon and she walks downstairs. She doesn’t run. She crosses to Tony, who sits on a stool, his eyes glazed and his face unshaven. She grabs him by the collar of his shirt, yanks him up and says, “Jim’s fine, but I’m sure you had Jarvis checking. I will only tell you this once. You don’t lock me out. You want to sit down here in the dark and think of all the ways you think this is your fault, fine. I’m not going to play a part in your pity party anyway. But you don’t lock me out. You don’t leave me upstairs and you don’t make me worry. You say you’re not a selfish man anymore? Start acting like it.”
When he comes upstairs at night, he slams her laptop monitor down and the look on his face keeps her from yelling at him. The sex is rough, but he can’t finish. He doesn’t turn away from her when she rolls them to their sides, and he sleeps until noon.
She makes him watch TV with her some nights. He likes to stick to the news mostly, but after a while, she switches it to something frivolous just so his mind will turn off. He likes watching Battlestar Galactica on OnDemand. (“Pepper, it’s genius. It’s spaceships traveling faster than the speed of light.”)
He runs his palm up and down her thigh, an absentminded touch. She turns to him and says, “You have Scarlett O’Hara hands.”
The television beeps when he pauses it. He turns his head to look at her, and she likes watching the way he rubs his lips together as he thinks about his response.
She smiles. “Scarlett O’Hara, Gone with the Wind. She tried to pass herself off as a lady, but her hands gave her away. Too callused. Well, her hands and the tapestry she made into…” she trails off at his look. “Never mind. Long story, you should read it. The guy swaggers around a lot, and drinks and has a moustache. You’ll love it.”
He regards her for a long moment. “Are you implying I’m not a lady, Pepper?”
She laughs and he pushes her down to the cushions, their kisses messy around their smiles.
One day she would like to be able to sit in a bar with Tony and Rhodey. She will drink a beer and their back-and-forth will become background noise as she relaxes and contemplates what to buy her nephew for his birthday. He’s nine, and boys are difficult.
She would like to listen to Tony try to find Rhodey a girl. She would like to talk to the woman Rhodey ends up dating, one not picked out by Tony in a bar.
Tony missed out on these things, she thinks, when he was growing up. These normal, everyday activities you do with friends, when your boss isn’t a vigilante and the two of you aren’t keeping your relationship a secret.
One day, but not yet.
“Could you stay down here for, like, three seconds? Is that too much to ask?”
“No, I’m sorry, I can’t stay down here and watch you blow stuff up. I have things I need to do. It’s kind of what you pay me for,” she snaps back.
They’re down in the basement, and they’re both yelling.
“For fuck’s sake, Pepper, could you stop being my assistant for once and be my – and be someone who will fucking listen to me?”
He stares at her and starts shaking his head. “Forget it.”
He turns in his chair, so his back is facing her. “I said, forget it.”
He doesn’t look at her again, so she goes back upstairs. Three days later, in bed, he tells her why he’d been upset, what he’d wanted to talk about in the first place. As she lies there in the dark, she wishes it could be different. She feels like it’s never enough, like she has only half of herself to give at any moment, like she’s living two separate lives and she doesn’t know how to reconcile them.
She thinks that if this ever ends, he’s going to have to be the one to leave because she can’t walk away now. She thinks about that first night, about all the chances she had to stop, and thinks maybe she never could.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers, after he falls asleep. She always thought she was more in love than he was, that she had more to lose, that she’d probably be the one to end up with a broken heart.
Now she thinks maybe it’s not an either-or situation.
The first time he does it, she stops mid-sentence and has to fumble her words until she catches the thread of the conversation again.
He comes to her when she’s sitting on the couch, making one in a series of endless phone calls, keeping Stark Industries tied together with a lot of “Yes, sir”s and forced jocularity, boys’ club lingo made unassuming with a woman’s voice. And like a dog who doesn’t like divided attention, or a sick child looking for comfort, he kneels in front of her, pushes her shoulders back into the couch cushions, lifts up her blouse and rests his head on her stomach.
The second time, she doesn’t pause. Never let it be said that Pepper Potts isn’t a quick study. It happens again, and then again. She thinks maybe she should ask why, but she doesn’t. Sometimes he’ll rest his cheek against her skin, his breath warm across her side. Other times, he’ll press his forehead and nose into her belly, his mouth open against the skin right above her skirt.
It’s not sexual, and it’s not a game. He’s not trying to distract her, or at least not entirely, she thinks. He just kneels there, and breathes, his eyelashes tickling once as he closes his eyes. She runs her free hand through his hair, and he always leaves before she hangs up the phone.
Someone comes to interview Tony for an Italian magazine, when he’s on one of his global community kicks. They sit on the couch in the living room, and when Pepper brings them both coffee, the journalist thanks her and says, “And this is Pepper Potts, yes? Your secretary?” Except with the woman’s accent, it comes out, “secra-tree” and it doesn’t make Pepper any less annoyed.
Tony cuts in, “Yes, this is Pepper and she’s not exactly my secretary. She’s…well, she wears many different hats, our fearsome Miss Potts. Couldn’t do it without her.”
It doesn’t make it into the article and weeks later – when he threatens to fire her, again, unless she hangs up the phone and comes to bed already, and he could totally make it two weeks without her, because he’s been sleeping with the enemy and picked up some new tricks since the last time he fired her and thought his social security number was five, so suck it, Potts – she really wishes she had a hard copy to wave in his face as she yells at him, “You said you couldn’t do it without me! You admitted it! And you still don’t know your social because it doesn’t have letters in it, and how did you graduate Phi Beta Kappa anyway?”
He hesitates before replying, “You must be mistaken, I said no such thing,” and the way he tilts his chin up when he says it lets her know he’s lying.
She throws her hands up and screams, which is precisely when he tackles her onto the bed.
They don’t get found out. She wonders about this sometimes, at the improbability of it.
Jarvis knows, but he’s not human, so. She senses that Happy suspects, but his sedate smiles never waver and he’s not the type to wink as he opens her door. She can’t decide if she thinks Tony has told Rhodey. On the one hand, the fight they had at the very beginning. On the other, he’s not one known to hold back a good brag.
When they go to events, he walks a step behind her, with his hand on her back. He glares at men who offer to get her drinks, looking for a way to ingratiate themselves to Mr. Stark’s assistant. When they dance, his hand doesn’t brush over her ass, and he only whispers in her ear if he’s very, very drunk or very, very bored.
She doesn’t let him fuck her in the bathrooms, but sometimes in the car ride home.
To the outside world, she is still Pepper Potts, long-suffering assistant. She gets sympathetic smiles from associates and especially from other aides. She still thinks these are better than smirks or insinuations, but sometimes she would like to go out to dinner with Tony, not Mr. Stark.
A lot of the time, the sex is fun. She’ll run her hands along his upper arms and laugh, loudly and often. He’ll provide a running commentary of something he built or disassembled that day, popping his eyebrows at words he thinks sound dirty.
Other times, he’s distracted, like he’s doing it more out of routine than anything else. She worries.
And then sometimes he’ll look at her and he’ll place his hands on her hips and all he’ll say is her name, over and over, almost reverently, just louder than a breath. Like he doesn’t even really know what he’s saying but it’s the only word he can form. She used to look away, overwhelmed. She would rock her hips against his and focus on the wall, or close her eyes.
Now she presses her palms to his, holding his hands above his head, as her breasts brush against him, and she answers back, “Tony, Tony.”
He doesn’t say “I love you.”
Showing her a paparazzi photo of a test flight at the air force base. She’s in the foreground, her back to the camera no one knew was there, wearing jeans and a red polo, her hair gold in the sun. Tony, in the suit, is in front of her, offering an empty hand. (“Snowflake,” he’d said. “Totally melted. It’s the thought that counts, right?”)
He says, stabbing at the magazine, “Will you look at that? That’s beauty right there, you can’t make this shit up. We’re matching, Potts.” He looks up and points a finger at her, saying, “No, we’re…wait, shit, what was it?” He snaps his fingers and continues, “We’re color-coded. iCal approves of our love.” His grin is wide and easy.
She folds the magazine up and walks around him. “iCal approves of you making your nine-fifteen meeting. Go shower.”
Tony looking up at her from the couch as she clenches her fists at her hips and flushes with frustration because he blew off his afternoon to play Call of Duty with Rhodey over their government-issued Bluetooth headsets.
“God, I love it when you’re all riled up.”
She doesn’t say she loves him when he leaves in the suit, or when he comes back with charred armor and a bruise that will bloom along the whole length of his shoulder blade in the coming days. She can’t stand to think “I love you” could mean goodbye.
She doesn’t say it when she’s wearing heels and a pencil skirt.
She says it in bed, where she’s most honest. He doesn’t say it back and she’s grateful that he’s never once made her feel like one of many.
It gets easier. He keeps pushing and she gets better at giving in. She thinks maybe he likes the secrecy of it all, but then again he unmasked himself as an avenger who can fly, so secrets aren’t really his forte. He definitely likes it when she keeps his appointments waiting because she’s down in the workshop and she’s not wearing panties.
He doesn’t leave, and she stops thinking in terms of yet. People find out, or maybe they don’t, and her phone rings as much as it ever has. She’s trying to simplify who she needs to be in order to get through the day.
One morning, she slips his arm from around her waist and gets out of bed. She grabs his shirt and her underwear, and pulls on socks to guard against the cold floors. Last night, she remembered that she needed to email some updates to the consultants in New York before the market opens this morning, so she crosses the house and slides into her desk chair.
On the corner of her computer, there’s a yellow sticky note that’s curling at the edges and losing its hold after some months of being up there. It reads, in block lettering:
Couldn’t do it without you.
She smiles softly to herself, and starts her day.