“May I ask you something that may be too personal?”
She has been showing Phil to the door, and he has just asked her this question. He speaks in the same tone he would use to compliment the artwork on the wall, but she has come to understand that this is ordinary for Phil.
“You and Tony. Are you happy?”
He folds his hands and rests them in the small of his back, which she thinks means he is uncertain.
“You mean together?”
She hesitates, but she tries not to let it show. “Why do you ask?”
It’s his clear discomfort that gives him away; Phil Coulson is rarely uncomfortable with anything.
“You saw him. With Rhodey.”
Phil’s smile is rueful. “I did.”
“I…” Now it’s Pepper’s voice that trails off; Pepper who doesn’t have anything to say. “Monogamy isn’t Tony’s strong point, Phil. I understand that.”
“And you don’t mind?”
Phil gives her a sharp smile that she’s pretty sure means he thinks she’s lying.
“Well then. Have a good day, Pepper.”
He leaves her standing in the hallway and wondering if he was right—if she was lying.
Pepper has never placed a very high value on monogamy. It’s loyalty she requires, both in herself and others. She doesn’t mind the touches she has seen Tony and Rhodey exchange; she doesn’t mind the kiss they shared in an alcove as she walked past.
She does mind something, though, and she can’t put her finger on what it is.
She’s reading when Tony gets into bed that night.
It’s later than she would usually be up; she hasn’t been able to quiet her mind enough to sleep. She’s going to have to do something about that.
Pepper Potts has never been a procrastinator. She puts her bookmark in and turns to Tony.
“This isn’t working.”
He doesn’t look directly at her. “What’re you using? Nook, Kindle, IPad?”
She presses her lips together too tightly. She’s going to miss this man. “It’s a hardcover.”
“Oh.” He looks right at her now. “What’s not working, then?”
“This.” Pepper thinks she might cry. “Us.”
Tony sits up, leans forward, buries his face in his hands. “You know about Rhodey.”
“I’ve known about Rhodey for a long time.”
“You should be. I don’t like being lied to, Tony.”
“I…” Tony still hasn’t drawn his hands away from his face, and she can’t see his expression. “I thought you’d be angrier.”
“I thought so, too.”
“Look, Pepper, I…”
“You care about me,” she says. “I care about you, too, Tony. It’s just that I’m not Rhodey, and you’re not…whoever I’m supposed to be with. You’re not him. Or her.”
Tony looks up, and she can see his face for the first time since that conversation began. It seems frozen in place, oddly expressionless. “Her?”
She shrugs. “Why not?”
He doesn’t say anything.
“Do you want me to go?”
A bit of life returns to Tony’s features. “What? No. No, I’ll go.”
She sets her book aside on the nightstand—she had been clinging to it since they started talking.
“Don’t be stupid. It’s your house—I’ll go.”
But he’s already out of bed, halfway to the door and not looking back.
She moves out. She gets an apartment that she decorates with modern art and clean-lined furniture. She never leaves coffee cups lying around, and she plays smooth jazz on a low volume to calm her nerves. If she stays up past midnight, it’s only because she’s at work.
“Work” is still Stark Industries. Tony Stark is still Tony Stark. They hold themselves apart at first, but slowly, surely, they draw back together again.
A part of Pepper still misses Tony’s warm body under her hands, the look on his face when she caught him by surprise and kissed him. Mostly, though, she’s just grateful to call Tony Stark her friend.
She’s still one of two people welcome in his workshop, the other being Rhodey, of course.
At first, Tony and Rhodey are reserved when she’s there, as if either of them could possibly be laboring under the delusion that she doesn’t know about their relationship. In time, though, a feeling of comfort grows between the three of them, and things change.
Rhodey rests his hand on Tony’s shoulder when he’s working. Tony catches Rhodey’s fingers in his as he moves past him.
It makes Pepper’s throat tighten to see it, because it’s exactly what she’s always wanted, that intimacy. She wants to meet someone whose presence by her side will be steady and unassuming. She wants to trust and be trusted.
Much later, she realizes that that’s where her relationship with Tony went wrong in the first place. He was always trying to sweep her away when what she wanted was to be anchored.
Clarity brings Pepper peace, but not joy. It’s harder than she expected to make a life for herself outside of Tony Stark. She doesn’t doubt that it would be easier if she had another job, but she isn’t willing to consider quitting.
So she works with what she’s been given. She befriends Happy, and is delighted to discover that he isn’t half as tedious as she always suspected he was.
She’s the tedious one. She’s the one with nothing to do, the one who bores her friends with the too-mundane details of her life.
She takes to spending more time at home.
It’s so unexpected that she almost doesn’t recognize his voice on the other end of the line. “Phil? How did you get this number?”
“Stark gave it to me. I told him I missed talking to you.”
She’s oddly flattered. She sits down on her firm leather sofa and crosses her ankles. “So this is a social call, then?”
“A quick one. There’s going to be a SHIELD party—quite the affair, I’m told—at the Triskelion next week. I was wondering if you’d like to come.”
She frowns. “Is this a date?”
He chuckles. “I’m afraid I’m spoken for. Honestly, Pepper, I just thought it would be good for you.”
She only hesitates for a moment. “Alright. I’ll come.”