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The Courting of Tony Stark

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1996

For Virginia's twenty second birthday, her boyfriend presents her with two bus tickets to New York, a hotel booking, and two passes to the NY Tech Summit, which might not sound like such an exciting prospect, but for the fact that Tony Stark is the main attraction this year

She's wanted to see him in action since she was eighteen and had a crush that rivalled her friends' love for Jason Priestley and Luke Perry. As she worked her way through college, the crush had abated but her interest in Stark Industries grew. The company was doing incredible things, and the more she read, the more she wanted to be involved. It was almost impossible to get a job, though, and since, at the time, she hadn't even have completed her degree yet, so she tried to write it off as a stupid teenage dream.

But the convention is so loud and flashy and spectacular, how could it not reignite that desire in her? She's been dating Brian for four years – they're planning to go backpacking around Europe in the summer, planning to move in together in the fall, and her mother loves him – but she barely sees him the whole weekend. She gets swept up into the crowd and she doesn't look back.

On the first day, Stark gets up on stage and it's... amazing. She's transfixed from beginning to end, even though he's talking so fast she can barely understand him. She hears people saying that he was clearly high, but she honestly doesn't care; she could listen to him talk all day.

At some point over the weekend, a volunteer hands her a pamphlet about interning at Stark Industries. It's an incredibly competitive program that mostly takes graduate and doctoral students studying one or more of the sciences. Virginia majored in Accounting and minored in Art History, there's no way they'd look at her once, let alone twice.

And yet.

And yet two weeks later she gets on a bus and rides it the three hours back to New York, changes into her best pair of heels in a 7/11 restroom – her best friend says her ass looks fantastic in them – and walks into the waiting room at Stark Tower.

She's sure she's the youngest person there, and certainly the most poorly dressed. She sticks out like a sore thumb, really, with her short red bob and her patent leather red heels. A few of them glance at her, but for the most part everyone ignores everyone else as they wait. And wait, and wait, and wait.

A little over three hours later, the doors are shoved along with a voice saying, “Look, I don't have time for this, I have an engagement in half an hour. Cynthia, don't nag, Obi said I could do what I wanted with the interns.”

Tony Stark sweeps into the room followed by a middle-aged woman holding a stack of folders.

He claps his hands together. “Okay! Everyone who's just coming to the horrifying realisation that they might have to deal with me on a day to day basis, there are five emergency exits: two in the back, two in the middle, one at the front.” He frowns. “Actually, four of those are windows and unless you want on the evening news, I'd suggest you use the front exit.”

There's a low murmur and a lot of uncomfortable shifting, but no one gets up to leave.

“Guys,” Stark says, “there's at least one person here who already hates my guts, not including the wonderful Cynthia. Would it help if I closed my eyes?” He squeezes his eyes shut and starts counting back from ten. There's some more uncomfortable shifting and then, to her surprise – because why would you get this far just to give up? – a few people get up and sneak past him.

He seems to know as soon as they leave, because he smiles as he continues to count. “...five, four, three, two, one. Bye!” he calls over his shoulder, before looking at the group again. “Fuck, I thought I'd be able to thin the herd a bit more than that.” He turns to his assistant and asks, “Five people, right? Okay.” He points to a severe looking woman wearing glasses. “You look clever.” Cynthia quickly flips through her stack of files to find the right one as he turns his attention to a guy who appears to have an unfortunate inability to control his sweat glands.

“Kirk or Picard?” he asks.

The guy squirms. “Um, I- uh... Kirk.”

Stark grins and goes back to studying everyone's faces. He skips several people altogether before his gaze falls to her. He tilts his head, and she pushes her chest out, just a little. Her friends had suggested that she could probably get hired by shoving her tits in his face, and although she knew it was a joke, she'd kept it in her arsenal, just in case.

His eyes drop to her feet. “Nice shoes,” he says, and then he's indicating vaguely to two other people. “You and you. Okay passengers, thanks for flying Stark Airways, please put your trays in the upright and locked position.” With that, he spins on his heel and breezes back out of the room.

His assistant clenches her jaw, watching after him for a second. “You five, come with me. Everyone else, thank you for your time.”

Virginia does not go to Europe in the summer.

-
1998
They put her in the finance department for the length of her internship, then move her to HR, R&D, and Public Relations in quick succession, until, two years later, she's back in Finance and has a better working knowledge of the company than most of the managers. Her first week back, she catches a huge accounting error that could have cost the company millions – she's pretty sure that her department rep takes the credit for it.

Her relationship with Brian fizzled out quickly after getting hired. Really, it was destined to failure the moment she started looking for studio apartments in New York, and she only mourned the loss of her first serious relationship for a couple of days before she was swept up in the intern orientation week, which was at least twice as wild as orientation had been at university.

She only gets to see her family every few months, but... she doesn't miss them. Sometimes she feels guilty about that, but everything is just so... so much that she finds that she can't even hold onto that guilt for long.

If only it weren't for some of her co-workers, she wouldn't have any complaints at all. Most of them are okay: she makes a few friends, though no close ones. Acquaintances that she can go out for drinks with on a Friday night, at least. Then there's Jerry, who never asks her out but makes it clear that he thinks that she should want to. She ignores him quite effectively, smiling blandly when he makes jokes, talking about nothing when they're stuck in the copier room together, until he thinks their relationship has progressed to the stage when he can tap her on the ass while she's leant over the copier, attempting to fix a paper jam. It has not, and, well, she does what her grandmother taught her to do in situations such as these: she hits him.

It's really more of a love tap; with years of volleyball tournaments under her belt, she could have made him hurt. She doubts her supervisor sees it that way, though. She's told that there's going to be an investigation, and that she'll have to attend a hearing next week; she keeps her head down and starts looking for a new job.

She's in her cubicle, doing glorified data entry work when someone pops up over one of the thin walls. People have mostly been staying out of her way; she cringes at whatever this is going to be. “Miss Potts, I presume?”

Any interest in her spreadsheet dies when she hears that voice; of course she knows that voice. She looks up. Tony Stark looks back down at her.

“Hi!” he says and grins.

“I--” She pushes her chair away from her desk and stands. “Good afternoon, Mr Stark. Sir?” she adds as an afterthought, uncertainly.

“'Sir'? Yikes. So, I hear you, like, saved the company a squillion dollars or something.”

“Well--”

Annnd that you hit someone.”

She bites her lip. “That's, that's true.”

Stark looks at her with big eyes for a moment, then peers over the cubicle wall again. “Can you collect your things and come with me? Yeah? Good.” He's already turning away before she's so much as moved. She grabs her bag and her one lone personal item, a plastic potted plant, and follows him through the maze of cubicles. Heads turn as they pass, and the whispers start like a Mexican wave; her cheeks burn and with her complexion it's a neon sign that says: I fucked up and now the guy whose name is on the door came here personally to fire me.

He stops abruptly as they pass the copier room and she bumps into his back. He flashes her a sly smile. “The scene of the crime,” he says. And of course, of course, Jerry is in there, harassing one of the temps. “You're Jerry, right?” he asks, hanging around the edge of the door. “The, uh, victim?”

“Mr... Mr Stark? Ye-yeah, I'm Jerry West, it's an honour to meet you.” He extends a hand that Stark ignores.

“I know,” he says. “I hear you're on track for a big promotion at the end of the year. Supervisor position, that's pretty cool.”

“Well, there are lots of great candidates, but I'd-- yes, sir, it would be really cool.”

“Again with the 'sir', you guys are really polite around here.” Stark looks at her, then back at Jerry. “Shame about what Miss Potts did, huh?”

Jerry does his best to look solemn. “I think that maybe our wires just got a little crossed, there's blame on both sides.”

“Mm,” Stark hums again, and it's all she can do to not get in there and really cross Jerry's wires.

Stark starts to move away, then stops again. “Oh, one more thing. Um, what was it...?” He snaps his fingers a couple of times then nods. “Right, right. You're fired.”

Virginia maybe squeaks a little with surprised laughter at this. Stark looks at her approvingly.

“Ex-excuse me?” Jerry stammers. The way his face turns from smug to shocked in the blink of an eye is delicious.

Stark shakes his head. “Dude, it's the nineties, sexual harassment isn't cool any more. Come along, Miss Potts.”

She manages to make it into the elevator before she starts laughing in earnest – she tries to contain it, because she's standing across from the boss of the company, but he just grins and there's that sudden feeling welling up in her again, the infectious, overwhelming presence of Tony Stark.

“His face,” Stark says. “Fuck, I love a well-executed prank, no better feeling in the world. Well. Maybe a few...”

She clears her throat, and wipes her eyes as much as she can without smudging her mascara. “This was a prank? Does that mean I'm not fired? I can go back to my desk?”

Stark counts off on his fingers. “Sort of, yes, and... no. Did I get that the right way round? I think I did. Anyway, yeah, no, you're not going back to your desk.”

“I'm not?”

“You're not. Miss Potts, I'm in the market for a new PA. What do you say?”

“I- What?” She tries to rewind the conversation in her head but it keeps catching after 'new PA'. “Me?”

“Yeah.”

“Why? I don't have any of the necessary skills for that.”

He raises an eyebrow. “Are you trying to talk me out of this? Because that's kind of assbackwards. You're never gonna beat the Jerrys of this world if you don't show off what you've got.” He doesn't even turn his last sentence into innuendo; she's shocked. “If you must know, I see from your file that you're extremely overeducated for butt monkey cubicle work, you caught that accounting error that Obi said was kind of a big deal – and yeah, I know it was you and not your rep, because that guy is a fucking idiot, I don't know how we're still in business with employees like him – and you obviously don't mind dealing out some rough justice when needed. You very well may need to do that if you work for me.”

He speaks so quickly, it's difficult for her to absorb the words. The elevator doors open, but one glare from Stark sends the people wanting to get on away. “Who would I be... hitting?” she asks slowly.

“Not me, don't hit me, Miss Potts. Pretty much anyone else, though. I'll expect you to defend my honour at all times.”

She can't help but smile. Damn it, he is incredibly good-looking. “Okay.”

“But most of all, Miss Potts, I'm hiring you because I've had it with boring old people telling me what to do, and you wear incredibly inappropriate shoes for work, which suggests to me that you've got a little bit of fun in you under that atrocious pantsuit.”

She glances down at her open-toed purple heels. She really can't argue with him about the pantsuit, it's quite awful. “They're all I can afford at the moment.”

“That won't be a problem with your new salary,” he says. The elevator doors open on the ground floor and he reaches out to hold them. “Just promise me something.”

“What is it, Mr Stark?”

“Promise me that not a single pair of sensible shoes will turn up on your expense report. I don't think my heart could take it.”

She bites her lip, and can't help but notice how the action draws his eyes to her mouth. “I promise.”

“Cool.” He steps out of the elevator and she follows, still clutching her plastic plant. “So... You know I live in California, right?”

“I...” She thinks about it. She does know that. “Yes.”

“Plane leaves in two hours, can you make it?”

She stands in the lobby of Stark Tower, people passing all around but never bumping into them, like Stark has a five foot buffer zone around him.

She's never been to California.

“I can make that flight, Mr Stark,” she says.

-

The first time she meets Rhodey, all she sees of him is his foot, sticking out from underneath a blanket on one of Stark's vast couches. She's been working for Stark for a month now, and she's already had to escort a dozen people from his house, but they've never been on the couch before. She debates with herself for a moment over whether she should just come back later, but a cursory glance around the room and its littered beer bottles makes her think that it might be wise for her to check that this guy is even breathing.

He is, and in short order he's scrambling off the couch, clutching at the blanket, and leaving very little to the imagination.

“Um,” she says.

Tony!” he yells.

“Um,” she repeats, and he looks back at her like he wants nothing more than for the ground to open up and swallow him whole.

“Could you, uh,” he grimaces and waves vaguely across the room. “Pants?”

“Oh, yeah, right. Yes.” She looks around the room until her gaze falls on a crumpled pair of pants caught around a chair leg, then quickly picks them up and blindly shoves them at him.

“Thanks,” he mumbles while she keeps her back resolutely turned to him. “Tony!” he yells again, when he's got them on. She hazards a glance at him: it's not a bad view. “Get your fucking ass down here!”

“I don't think Mr Stark can hear you...” she says.

“Oh, he can hear me.” He pauses, frowns and extends a hand. “I'm Jim, by the way.”

She takes it. “Virginia.”

“I take it you aren't his girlfriend,” Jim says.

“Oh, God, no,” she says, and he grins. “I can't imagine what it would be like to be his girlfriend.” Although, really, yes she can. She'd fantasised about that enough when she was younger.

“That is perilously close to defamation of character, Potts.” Stark stands in the doorway, just a touch too long hair mussed and falling into his eyes, wearing nothing but jeans that she can't help but notice are extremely flattering, scratches on his hips that look like they were made by delicate fingernails.

“Mr Stark,” she says in greeting, proud that her voice comes out steady, despite feeling like her entire body is flushing with embarrassment. She really hadn't thought that this job would entail her being in a room with two extremely attractive shirtless men.

“I guess formal introductions are in order,” he says. “Rhodey, this is my new PA, Miss Virginia Potts.”

Jim raises his eyebrows like this means something to him; Stark ignores him, “Miss Potts, this is Major James Rhodes of the United States Air Force. He just came off an eight month tour of duty. We were celebrating him not being dead. He's, like, my best friend, or whatever. You'll probably be seeing a lot of him.” He looks Rhodey up and down. “Though, hopefully not too much.”

Rhodey narrows his eyes. “I'm not entirely clear that I'm not dead, after last night.”

Stark makes a dismissive sound. “Lightweight, you've been away too long. I'll toughen you up again.”

“Sure, Tony,” Rhodey says with a level of affection that Pepper has yet to hear aimed at Mr Stark. They look at each other for a quiet moment.

“Miss Potts,” Stark says eventually. “There are a couple of ladies in my bedroom, could you please give them the complimentary gift bag and escort them out?”

“'A couple'?” Rhodey says.

She takes this as her cue to leave, cheeks beginning to burn at the thought of Mr Stark and these two ladies. It's not as if she hasn't considered the possibility of a threesome before, but Brian was kind of straight-laced and since then she's barely had time to sleep, let alone have sex. Really, though, it's just the idea of Stark, those scratches on his hips, and...

She really shouldn't dwell on stuff like this.

“Well, after you sacked out,” she hears Stark say, “I had to take two for the team.”

-

Virginia quits for the first time after she's kept up for three straight days negotiating Stark getting released without charges from a jail in Mexico. He gives her a fifty percent raise and sends her a new pair of shoes. They're her first Christian Louboutins.

She quits for the second time after he disappears right before a crucial meeting with President Clinton and she has to explain to Clinton's aides that Mr Stark had an 'emergency'. He gives her another fifty percent raise and a pair of Manolo Blahniks.

She walks out of the mansion and doesn't return to work for a week after he crashes his car at the Daytona 500, sustains a concussion and a broken arm, and goes right back to drinking and fucking the next day. He gives her another fifty percent raise, tickets to the opera, a pair of Dolce & Gabbana boots, and brings her along to watch the car get crushed into a cube.

-

At the beginning of the Stark Gala '98, she meets Bill Gates. He tells her that Mr Stark used to beat him at Donkey Kong when Stark was ten.

At the end of the Stark Gala '98, she's holding Stark's shoulders while he dry heaves over a toilet.

“Fuck,” he groans. “Fuckin' poison, fire those caterers, Potts.”

“Yes, Mr Stark.” She tugs him back a little. “Do you think you can get up?”

He groans something but is pliable under her hands, and she manages to pull him up and get him over to the sinks. “Just stay still,” she says, and he mumbles something that she doesn't catch. She grabs a handful of paper towels, wets them, and begins cleaning his face. It's mostly blood: he got into a fight with a guest staying at the hotel the Gala's being held at, when Stark and the guest's wife tried to... move festivities to her room. Mr Stane broke it up pretty quickly, practically picked Stark up by the scruff of his neck and hauled him out like he was a child.

The fight had destroyed what was left of his delicate equilibrium, though; she's been in this restroom with him for a good twenty minutes already.

“Ow,” he says quietly when she runs the paper towel over a cut on his lip.

“Sorry.”

“'sokay,” he mumbles, staring at her hands. “You've got nice hands,” he comments after a moment.

She can feel her cheeks begin to warm. “Thank you, Mr Stark.”

“Tony,” he corrects.

“Mr Stark,” she repeats. “You should really try to sleep the worst of this off. How about we go home?”

He bobs his head. After a couple of minutes of confusion, she manages to get a comfortable grip on him without it feeling too inappropriate. She leads him out out of the restroom and his bodyguard, Hogan, trails after them.

Stane stops them on the way out, looking huge as he places a hand on Stark's shoulder, especially in comparison to Stark. “We've got a shareholder meeting tomorrow,” he says in his deep rumble. “Remember?”

“Yep,” Stark says.

“I expect you to be there, son,” he says. Stark's expression flickers, with guilt, she thinks. He's never so open as when he's drunk, she's coming to realise. Any other time, his face is constant sneering mask.

“I know,” he says.

“Good. Take care of our boy, Miss Potts,” Stane says, and smiles. She wills herself not to be intimidated.

“Of course, Mr Stane.”

-

She gets a couple of hours sleep at home that night before she's back in her car on her way to the office. There's a hundred different things she needs to do, a hundred meetings she no doubt needs to reschedule after Stark's performance last night. She needs to run interference with the media, make sure the wronged husband isn't going to be an issue, and check that Mr Stark hasn't bought any new businesses in the last week.

It takes her all morning, and it's only at one in the afternoon that she's able to go over to check on Mr Stark. Honestly, she's a little concerned that she hasn't heard from him. He had really wanted her to stay, whined at her about it in a tone not unlike a child until he passed out in his bed, still mostly clothed. She covered him in a blanket and left.

The sun is burning hot as she drives with the roof of the convertible down (“Can't go showing me up, now, Potts,” Stark had said when he presented her with the keys.). She makes it there in good time and takes a moment to appreciate the incredible view of the ocean. Mr Stark says he doesn't care for it.

There's another car sitting outside the garage when she gets there to park. She's never seen it before, but it has a Stark Industries logo on the back. Probably Mr Stane, she decides, here to see that Stark's okay. The man's like a father to him. She can't imagine how much wilder Stark would be without him.

She gets into the house and drops her bag in the hall. The place looks like a tornado's torn through it, which is just how Mr Stark left it last night once she finally managed to get him out the door. She sighs; it's really for a maid to do, but Mr Stark is 'off maids' for the moment, while he's going through one of his paranoid phases. She sets about clearing away empty coffee mugs in the lounge from where they're scattered all over schematics for something completely unfathomable. She considers rolling the drawings up and taking them back down to the workshop, but thinks better of it. He tends to freak out if she moves his stuff. She heads to the kitchen with an armful of mugs in varying stages of mould sentience.

“Oh, you're finally up. I don't see what the point is of inviting me over if you're just going to pass--” a female voice starts, then stops when Virginia steps into the room. “You aren't Tony,” she says.

“You aren't Mr Stane,” Virginia replies. The woman is fantastically beautiful, even with her hair scraped back from her face, not a hint of make up to be seen. She has long blonde hair and long tanned legs, and Virginia stares a little longer, clutching at the mugs like an idiot.

“Agreed,” the woman says, then steps forward and relieves Virginia of some of her burden. “Let me help you with that. Ugh,” she says, wrinkling her nose as she peers inside of a mug. “Tony is such a pig sometimes.”

“Thanks. Do you mind if I ask...?” Virginia begins, and the woman laughs.

“Oh God, you probably think I'm some kind of crazy stalker, I'm sorry. I'm Joanna.” She holds out a hand and Virginia takes it. It's slightly damp, and Joanna smells faintly of chlorine. Must have been using the pool, Virginia realises. She's never gone in it herself, though she has vigorous permission to do so.

“Joanna...” she repeats. She doesn't know any Joannas.

“Joanna Nivena?” Joanna tries again, and frowns at the lack of recognition of Virginia's face. “I'm Tony's... fiancée.”

“Oh,” she says. Fiancée? Mr Stark definitely hasn't mentioned anything about that. “Oh, right, yeah. Miss Nivena, I'm sorry. I had a long day yesterday.” She cringes at the excuse, so pathetic, but the woman doesn't call her on it.

“I heard. Tony called me this morning and wheedled until I came over. Already unconscious by the time I got here, though. He's a class act. You must be Virginia Potts, I take it?”

“Right, yes, I am. Sorry, I guess now it's your turn to think I'm a crazy stalker.”

Joanna looks her up and down. “I don't think a suit and three inch heels is the stalker's wardrobe of choice, somehow.”

“It could just be a clever disguise.”

Joanna nods. “Could be. Pretty helpful stalker though, 'cause I'm pretty sure that the beginnings of the plague were being cultured back there.”

“Yeah, not exactly in my skill set,” she says. “Did... Mr Stark mention me?”

“Obi did.” Joanna's eyes flash with something. Not anger, but... something. Virginia thinks about the woman last night. The woman a few days before that. The women he and Major Rhodes brought home. “He said you were keeping Tony in line.”

“I really don't think that's true.”

“Well, nevertheless, you're doing the world a service, Miss Potts.” The smile she gives doesn't quite reach her eyes. “I'm gonna hit the showers.”

-

Through some careful research (typing 'Joanna Nivena' into Yahoo), she finds out that Miss Nivena is the daughter of Andrew Nivena, a corporate lawyer based in New York who worked for Stark Industries in the seventies and eighties. Apparently the two families were close in a high society sort of way. There's not a hint that Joanna and Tony are even dating, though.

Mr Stark doesn't really say anything about her beyond asking if she's still there when Virginia rouses him from his bed in the late afternoon, having completely missed Stane's important shareholder meeting. He seems relieved when she tells him that Joanna had to get to work.

The next time she sees Joanna is a couple of weeks later, in the office. Stark hasn't been in at all, and the last she heard from him he was in Las Vegas; she's working at clearing his schedule and signing a stack of documents that have been marked as urgent for the past week. She's getting pretty good at forging signatures.

There's a knock at Stark's office door where she currently ensconced. He hasn't quite seen his way fit to getting her her own office, yet. “Miss Potts?”

She looks up. “Yes? Oh, Miss Nivena, hi.”

“Is Tony here? He isn't at home, and he's not picking up his cell.”

“No, he's...” When she called him this morning, she heard a woman's voice in the background. “...in a meeting.”

Joanna smiles. “Of course. Such a hard worker. When you see him, could you tell him that the Nan Goldin exhibit opens tomorrow night at the museum. I thought he might like to come with me. It has the word 'sex' in the title, so...”

“'The Ballad of Sexual Dependency'? I've been trying to get tickets to that for weeks!” Virginia says, already feeling herself begin to blush. It probably isn't appropriate to chat with the boss's fiancée like this especially when you're aware that said boss has been sleeping his way around the West Coast since you were hired.

“Perk of the job, I'm a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art.” She pauses and cocks her head. “Would you like to come with me, Miss Potts?”

“Oh, I--”

“Tony has zero appreciation for anything that doesn't explode. Come on, you'd be doing me a favour. I just know my co-workers are going to laugh at me for going out with such a philistine.”

“Well, I mean, if it's for a good cause...”

“Tomorrow, seven o'clock.”

-

Virginia had wanted to major in Art History, she'd chosen a small liberal arts college for that very reason, and she'd been on track for it until midway through her second year. Then, her parents filed for divorce, and suddenly fees were a problem, loans were a problem, and she was working nights at the local coffee shop.

Once her room mate discovered that she'd been a Mathlete in high school, she started to pick up a couple of extra bucks a week tutoring first her friends, then everyone on her floor, math for their science requirements. She was the only one in her dorm that knew her way around a quadratic equation, and her time became highly prized.

Logically it followed for her to declare her major in Accounting at the end of the year. It set her up for a good job when she graduated and it came easy to her, easy enough that she could take on extra shifts at work through her third and fourth years and still come out of it with 3.8 GPA.

The Museum of Contemporary Art, though, is still a great deal more interesting than an end of year budget report.

“How long have you been working here for?” she asks, after she's been around the exhibit three times and looked at every photograph at least twice. Joanna is incredibly patient, following her around, introducing her to the VIPs (Virginia gets several job offers after they hear that she works for Tony Stark), explaining the significance of this angle or that.

“About eight months. I was at Tate Modern before that.”

Virginia thinks back to when she met Major Rhodes: eight months is about how long his deployment was, and he'd asked if she was Mr Stark's new girlfriend. She'd thought he was joking, at the time.

“Me and Tony have been together for six months,” Joanna says, “In case you were wondering.”

“I... was,” she admits. “That's not very long to already be engaged, if you don't mind me saying.”

“No, it's fine, you're right, it isn't long. Tony sort of... took me by surprise one night.” Joanna snags a couple of drinks off a tray as a waiter passes by them, and hands one to Virginia. “We've known of each other since we were kids, but Obi reintroduced us at a party earlier this year. And what about you, Miss Potts?”

She takes a sip of her champagne. It's divine. “Virginia, please. Not a lot to say, really.”

“Well, you seem to know a lot about Goldin and I noticed that Tony's acquired some new art. I don't think Gary Hume is really his speed.”

She shrugs. “He gave me a three million dollar budget and told me to do what I wanted with it. I studied Art History in college.”

“I'm glad he has someone to teach him about culture.” Joanna sips her glass very slowly, eyes tracking various people milling around the room. At length, she says, “He likes you.”

“I think Mr Stark likes everyone,” Virginia replies. He's certainly friendly enough with everyone.

“No, his feelings for people normally range from casual disinterest to 'will they let me fuck them?'.” She clears her throat politely. “You, he likes.”

“I-- okay. I like him too.” She instantly regrets saying this, but Joanna only smiles.

“You're one of the few, Virginia.”

-

She gets four days' holiday over Thanksgiving, and takes it to go home and see her mother and little sister. And her mother's new husband, Roger.

“Tell me everything,” Julia demands the moment Virginia gets out of the taxi. “What's he like? Is he cut? I bet he's cut. Oh my God, does he sleep in the nude? Have you seen his junk?”

“Hi, sis,” Virginia says.

Her family quiz her all afternoon about Stark, about her duties, and which famous people she's met.

“So, how are you really?” her mother asks later, after turkey has been eaten and Roger has been appointed washing up duty. “We've heard so little from you lately.”

“I'm good, everything's good.”

“Really? Because all I ever hear about this Stark man is how he has sex with everyone and gets drunk a lot.”

“Not all the time, he does occasionally sleep,” Virginia says. Her mother doesn't laugh. She forgot: humour like that doesn't fly around here. “But he's not that bad. He's actually kind of... sweet, in his own way.”

“Mm,” is her mother's final comment on that.

The next day, Virginia borrows Roger's truck and drives herself and Julia over to their father's. It's a five hour drive; Julia settles in with her Walkman and Virginia resigns herself to listening to the radio the whole way there.

“Gin?” Julia says after a couple of hours. Her headphones are hanging around her neck.

“Run out of CDs?” she asks.

“Yeah... Hey, so, I kinda got early acceptance into Columbia.”

“You did? That's great! When did you find out?”

Julia shrugs. “Last week. Haven't told Mom and Dad yet.”

Virginia glances at her; Julia's been going on about Columbia for months, ever since they visited it together over spring break, just before Virginia got promoted. “Wasn't it your first choice? Is there somewhere else you'd rather go?”

“No, it's just...” Julia rolls her eyes and shifts her gaze to the window to stare out of it despondently. “Dad got demoted and everything. I don't think we can afford it. Like, you got through college by working every hour you weren't in class, but you're a genius or whatever. I'm not going to be able to do that.”

“First, that is not true. You got into Columbia, clearly you're doing something right.” Julia shrugs again in response. “Second... don't worry about money, okay?”

“Yeah? How do you suggest I do that?”

“By being a very grateful sister. Let's just say that Mr Stark has been very... generous to me.”

Julia turns in her seat and stares at her. And continues to stare until Virginia begins to smile.

“A good person would say that this is way too much,” Julia comments eventually. She bites her lip. “Thanks, Ginny.”

-

She gets back to California on Monday and immediately picks her car up from the parking lot and drives over to Malibu. She hasn't heard from Mr Stark for the entire Thanksgiving break and that worries her. Usually he calls her three, four times a day, to get her to pick his dry cleaning up, order in Chinese, or just ramble about whatever it is that he's working on at that moment.

Joanna's car is in the drive again when she gets there; she parks alongside it and quietly lets herself into the house. She should have thought, maybe they've been holed up here over the holiday, maybe that's why Stark didn't feel the need to call her incessantly.

Joanna, Joanna, please, I'm sorry, come on.

She freezes at Stark's plaintive voice drifting in from upstairs.

It's not that, Tony.

I promise I won't ever... I won't ever cheat on you again. Please. I'm sorry, it didn't mean anything.

It's not that,” Joanna repeats. “This... it was never going to work.” There's a lull in the conversation, and then she says, “Tony, let go of me,” in the saddest voice Virginia's ever heard. Soon there are footsteps on the staircase and she backs up, looking for some handy shadows to hide in. Too bad Stark's house is all bright lights and open spaces.

“Virginia,” Joanna says as she makes it to the ground floor. All she has with her is a small travel bag. It's probably everything that she's ever kept at the mansion. A toothbrush and a couple of changes of underwear. “Look after him.” She strides out with more grace than Virginia could ever even imagine having.

She edges around the banister and looks up the staircase, where Stark's standing barefoot, in sweatpants, with lipstick marks on his neck. “So, how was your Thanksgiving?” he asks viciously. “Mine was awesome.”

-

She pours him two fingers of scotch; he swipes the bottle from her and takes a pull from it. “Fuck,” he says.

“What happened?”

He hasn't thought it necessary to put a shirt on, and she can't help but mentally tell Julia that he is, indeed, cut.

“Got caught fucking someone I shouldn't have been, didn't I?” he says. He takes another swig from the bottle.

“Mr Stark, Mr Stark.” She tugs at the bottle and it comes easily from his grip. She sets in down out of his reach. “That's not helping.”

“Beyond help,” he mumbles, rubbing at his face.

“That's not true.” She pats tentatively at his shoulder. There's really no appropriate place to touch him when he's in this state of undress.

He peers at her from between his fingers. “Yeah?”

“Yes,” she says. She rubs a little more at his shoulder and can't help but notice the way he leans into her, just a bit.

He drops his hands to his lap. “I really fucked everything up. She was, like, the perfect woman.”

“Well,” she says. “Why did you?”

“Dunno. Something to do.” He grins, though there's nothing humorous about it. “How's that for an explanation?”

“I think... If you don't mind me saying...” He nods for her continue. “I think you weren't that interested to begin with.”

“You think I didn't love her?” he asks, but it's weak and she notes that it's already in the past tense.

“Mr Stark, I have no idea what goes on in your head, but I think that when you put your mind to something, you follow through with it.”

“So, you're saying that I need to find my true love?”

She frowns. That's slightly more of a leap than she was aiming for. “Maybe? Or maybe just put a little more thought into your relationships?”

She wonders if she's gone too far. Lecturing the boss about his love life can't be a sensible career move, but he just ducks his head and smiles. “You're like my fairy godmother and Yoda all rolled into one, Potts.”

“Cinderella, the ball go to, you will,” she says.

-

She quits for the fourth time after she drives over to his house two weeks later. He hasn't been answering his phone all day, and she tells herself she isn't worried, that it's hardly unusual for him to ignore the phone when he doesn't want to be hassled, but he's been so delicate since Joanna left that she gives into her desire to check up on him. He hasn't been out clubbing at all in the past two weeks, doesn't seem to have been drinking, has even attended some of the meetings he was meant to be at.

Last she saw of him was late yesterday afternoon. Stane was about to take him out for dinner. He'd confided in her, in a rare show of openness, that he was worried about Tony's state of mind. Joanna, he told her, had accepted a job at the Met and was leaving for New York on the weekend.

“I think they really could have had something,” he said. “I don't know how he's going to take it.”

They left around six, Stane's arm around Stark's shoulders, and she felt relieved that he had someone else on his side, especially since Major Rhodes was away in Colorado training.

It's been a good twenty four hours since then, and Stane has no idea where he would be. Last he saw Tony, he was dropping him off at home.

She hears the music before she even gets into view of the front of the mansion. There are several cars in the drive. She parks where she can find a spot and walks as quickly as she can in her heels to the house. The front door is open.

The music is deafening when she gets inside; he's incredibly lucky that he doesn't have any neighbours. She weaves as best she can through warm bodies, occasionally having to slap at a wandering hand.

“Mr Stark?” she yells.

“Upstairs,” someone yells back.

There's not so much of a crush by the staircase, and she gets upstairs easily enough. The closer she gets to his room, the more her heart drops. She can hear things being smashed, voices and laughter. It sounds like Mr Stark. She forgoes knocking and pushes his door open.

Several things hit her: the amount of people in his room, the amount of open bottles on the floor, the amount of broken furniture, and, more literally, the bra that's flung in her face.

“Pottsy!” Stark shouts, falling out of the bed. “Join us, won't you!”

She takes the bra from where it lies across her shoulder and drops it to the floor. “What... is going on?” she asks slowly.

He stumbles into a wall. “Impromptu party!” he says loudly and several people laugh.

She clenches her jaw. “I see. The reason being?”

He stares for a couple of seconds, squinting at her. “You talk really clever, Potts,” he says at last.

“Really,” she says.

He nods, eyes and pupils wide. And yes, he does sleep in the nude. Or not sleep in it, more accurately.

“You realise that your house is being destroyed, don't you?”

He shrugs.

“Great,” she says. “Since you're obviously fine, I'm going to go home and sleep.” She turns to leave, but only gets a couple of steps before a hand on her arm stops her. She looks back over her shoulder, and his face is right there.

“I-” he says, and presses his face into her shoulder. “Stay,” he mumbles.

She looks down. Of course, of course, he has an erection. “No, thank you,” she says, pulling out of his grip.

“Please, but, if you... the others could go.” He reaches for her arm again, and she easily evades his hand.

“I don't even know what you're saying, but this is incredibly inappropriate, Mr Stark.”

He glances down. “Oh, I can... deal with that.”

It's all she can do to not slap him. “Goodbye, Mr Stark,” she says instead, and turns on her heel.

“...bye?” he calls after her pathetically.

-

When a FedEx courier turns up at her door late the next afternoon, she refuses to sign for the package. When a mysterious fifty grand appears in her bank account, she ignores it. When she finds tickets to the ballet in her mailbox, she sends them back.

She gets several interviews set up in the next couple of weeks, by working some of the contacts she made at the museum, and by just trying her luck shopping her résumé around different companies. Being formerly employed by Tony Stark turns out to be a huge benefit to her.

Two weeks in, he stops bombarding her with gifts, and she begins to think that it's over. It was her six month adventure that, really, was never going to last. Stark goes through PAs faster than he does toothbrushes, she never should have expected job security. It kills her that she won't be able to pay Julia's fees, though. She still hasn't told her family that she's quit.

She's hoping she won't have to until she's got a new job, though: Hammer Industries contact her in the second week of December and offer her an interview. The starting salary is a lot less than what she was making, but then again, it's a far more reasonable sum of money than what Stark was giving her. The position is in their Accounting department, as a junior manager. It seems almost perfect: a job that actually fits the skill set she has, nine to five workdays, a week off for Christmas and two in the summer. She gets more and more excited about it as the day of the interview approaches and as a treat, she decides to get her hair done before heading to the supermarket. It's just a trim, a little more shaped around her face to make her look older, but she's pleased with it. Her previous bob made her look like a teenager.

“Can I help you with those?” someone asks when she makes it back out to the parking lot, several plastic bags in hand. As always, she knows that voice.

Stark is wearing an oil-stained hoodie and jeans with the fabric worn away around the knees. Under her scrutiny, he shoves his hands in his pockets and looks at the ground.

“How did you find me?” she asks as calmly as she can.

“Uh, your cell.”

“There's a tracker in my phone?”

He glances up. “All corporate employees have them. Didn't Obi tell you?”

She sets her jaw and fishes around in her bag for the offending item. “Take it out,” she says, handing the phone to him.

He frowns at her, but flips it over and slides the back off with quick fingers, pulls the battery out, and removes the SIM card. There's a tiny... something attached to the card that he picks off with his fingernail, flicks to the ground and crushes underneath his shoe. He reassembles the phone and hands it back to her.

“I really thought you knew,” he says.

“Uh huh,” she says. “What do you want?”

“I heard you've got an interview with Hammer Industries. You can't go to it.”

“I can't?” she repeats.

He shakes his head. “No. Justin Hammer is the actual worst; you can't work for him. I won't allow it.”

“You won't allow it?” she repeats, and by the look on his face, he's just starting to pick up on the dangerous undertone in her voice.

“I mean I--” He spreads his hands. “Hammer would be a sucky boss. He's, like, twenty three.”

“And?”

“And...” He bites his lip and stares at her with wide eyes. It doesn't look like he's shaved, or slept, in a few days. “Do you want to hit me?”

She blinks. “What?”

“I know I said before that you shouldn't hit me, but I think you should hit me.”

“Hitting you is not going to make me feel better, Mr Stark.” Well, she doesn't know that for sure, but they're in a Safeway parking lot, and he's already drawing curious glances.

“It'd make me feel better. I mean--” He backs up a step at the look she gives him. “Not in a kinky way. Just... if it'd stop you being angry at me. You're a really good PA, Miss Potts, I want you back.”

It's his hands that do her in, clasped in front of him, fingers twisting together; it hits her that, God, he really is so young. “Do you understand how inappropriate what you did was?” she asks.

“Yeah, no, I know. I'm sorry you had to see my... That. It won't happen again. Scout's honour.” He raises his hand and gives her a Vulcan salute.

“I could sue you for sexual harassment,” she continues. “I'd probably win.”

“I know. Do you want a, um, a raise? Another raise?”

She thinks about it. She believes that he's sorry, but she doesn't believe for a second that something like this won't happen again. She doesn't believe that this is going to be the last time she quits. “My sister's going to Columbia next fall,” she says.

“Okay?”

“I want the company to give her full ride scholarship. Whether or not I remain with you.”

“Oh, yeah, sure, definitely.” His gaze flickers to her, then away, then back again. “So... will you be back tomorrow?”

She takes a deep breath. “No,” she says, and hopes she isn't pushing her advantage too far. “I'm taking a long break over the Christmas holidays. I'll see you in January.”

He narrows his eyes at her for a moment, then his mouth starts to curve into a wide grin. “Well played. Merry Christmas, Miss Potts.”

“Merry Christmas, Mr Stark.”

-

She does quit again, after Stark accidentally blows up part of his workshop, but he follows her out of the house, hair singed and sweatshirt slightly on fire, and by the time she's put it out and cleaned his burns, the matter is forgotten.

-
1999
“Miss Potts,” he says, flopping down across from her in the lounge. He's been down in the workshop for days, toiling away on something or other that he won't let her see. Not that she really wants to see it; seeing things leads to very long, very complicated explanations, and occasionally demonstrations that warrant a call to the fire department.

She glances up from her laptop. “Yes, Mr Stark?”

“Potts,” he repeats. “Potts, Potts, Potts.”

“Yes?” she tries again, but he's staring up at the ceiling. Maybe cabin fever has finally taken hold.

He throws his arms wide. “I'm getting so bored with Potts.”

“I'm... sorry?” It's been at least eight months since she last threatened to quit. Is this him finally getting revenge?

“What do people who aren't me call you?” he asks.

“Oh,” she says. “Well, my friends call me Ginny.”

He rolls his head to one side to look at her. “Like the character from that kids' book? No, I don't think so.”

“I have been considering changing my title to 'Ms',” she says. “If that helps.”

“It doesn't.” He slumps down further into the couch, his t-shirt riding up a little. “Why?”

“'Miss Potts' makes me sound like I should be a character in Beauty and the Beast.”

“Mm, you'd need a little anthropomorphic teacup to really bring it together. I could probably make that, wouldn't be so hard...” He frowns. “Does this make me the Beast?”

“If you're really going to insist on keeping the facial hair, maybe.”

He crosses his arms over his chest and huffs. “I like it, makes me look like a grown-up.”

“Sure,” she says, and looks back down at her laptop. Tony squirms a little, picking at threads coming loose from a cushion. She makes a mental note to get it replaced.

“But, really,” he continues after a moment. “I can't keep calling you 'Potts' for the rest of my life.”

The rest of his life? She looks over at him again, but he's carefully inspecting his dirty fingernails.

“I must return to the Starkcave,” he says suddenly, practically vaulting himself off the couch and heading for the staircase at speed.

-

He tries a number of different nicknames over the next couple of weeks, ranging from the obvious, 'Red', to the ridiculous, 'Smurfette'.

“Flower!” he yells from the workshop one day. She's been putting out vases of freshly cut flowers for months, to make the places look less totalitarian – all he's ever said about it is that it makes the place look like a hospital.

“Flower Potts!” he yells again, “Come down here!”

“Oh God,” she mutters, and makes her way down. She keys in her code and steps in. “You are not calling me 'Flower'.”

He spins around in his chair a couple of times. “Yeah, you're not really a 'Flower'. I'm onto something here, though. Your surname is rife with potential.”

She knows, as did the everyone in high school.

He waves his hands dismissively. “Anyway, anyway, that's not why I called you down here.” He grins. He looks positively deranged. “Jarv, do your thing.”

“Virginia Potts,” a disembodied voice says. She jumps. “Aged twenty six. Born in New Hampshire, New York, May 5th 1974. Attended Concord High School, graduated magna cum laude from Bryn Mawr, 1996. Five foot nine inches, one hundred and thirty pounds, strawberry blonde hair, green eyes, size eight shoe.”

The voice ends abruptly and Tony does a couple more spins in his chair. “So! What do you think?”

“'Strawberry blonde'?” she repeats.

“'s just what's in the file,” he says, deflating slightly.

“Who put it in there?”

He shrugs. “Dunno. But it's cool, right?”

“It's very cool.”

He punches the air. “Ask him a question!”

“Um.” She glances at Tony, who makes an encouraging gesture. “When was Mr Stark--”

“May 10th, 1971,” the voice supplies tonelessly.

“He can anticipate over a thousand different questions! Go on, ask him something else.”

“When did I graduate--”

“1992,” it says.

Tony looks extremely pleased with himself. “High school, right? Isn't he the most awesome thing ever?”

“Well,” she says, and looks down into his wide-eyed expression. “Yes. Maybe just a little bit creepy, though.”

His eyebrows jump up. “Creepy?”

“I mean, being anticipated is a little... creepy. Off-putting.”

He taps his chin. “I hadn't thought of that.” He spins back round to his keyboard and starts mashing away at the keys.

“So... its name is 'Jarv'?” she asks after a couple of minutes silence only broken up the frenzied tapping of Tony.

His name, Honey Potts, please! His name is Jarvis. Say hello, Jarvis.”

“Hello Jarvis,” he repeats.

Tony grins. “That was on purpose, gotta start the humour subroutines off slow.”

“'Honey'?” she says. “No way.”

“I'll get it in the end,” he assures her.

-

The dinner in honour of Governor Davis is possibly the dullest event she's ever attended. She's surrounded by people at least twenty years older than her, whose eyes skip over her easily when she speaks and look away pointedly when Tony does. He's all nervous energy and irritation beside her, his shoulder bumping into hers every few minutes. It was a performance getting him to come tonight at all, and she was cast in at the last moment to come with him. She'd been all set to stay in the mansion and work while Tony and Stane went to the function, but Tony's plus one was... hardly an appropriate choice and Stane quickly vetoed her when she arrived in her fur coat and high heels.

For some reason, the mansion has a wide selection of women's clothing, and with a couple of strategically placed safety pins, she was able to fit quite nicely into a black dress, though it did nothing for her sad lack of a cleavage.

“Mr Stark,” she says quietly. “Stop fidgeting, we won't have to stay for much longer.”

He huffs. “This food,” he says in a stage whisper, “tastes like cardboard.”

She can't really disagree.

“Hand me the pepper,” he says, gesturing vaguely across the table. He's already on his fourth glass of wine, and his aim is a little wild. She grabs his hand and pulls it down, placing it carefully in his lap. He squeezes her fingers briefly before she extricates her hand.

She passes him the pepper and he shakes it over his food a couple of times, huffs some more, then pops the ceramic lid off and pours a small mountain of the stuff onto his plate.

“You're going to give yourself a stomach ache,” she warns as he starts mixing it into his food. People are beginning to look.

He shrugs. “I like pepper,” he says, then tilts his head to the side. “Hey...”

Stane is glaring daggers at them. “What?” she asks.

“Pepper. Potts. Pepper Potts. I like it. I really like it.”

“That doesn't even make sense,” she says.

“Yeah, it does. You've got red hair and, uh, sorta get freckles when you let your skin see the sun.”

“Pepper isn't red.”

“Cayenne pepper is,” he says, and waves his fork at her. “Ha.”

“Mr Stark,” she says.

“Yes, Pepper?”

“No.”

“Yes.”

“No.”

By the time they pour him into the back seat of the limo, he's made up an impromptu song that mostly consists of yelling 'pepper' in a somewhat musical manner. The Governor's aides suggest that Tony turn down any invitations he might receive from them in the future.

-

She has a room in his house to work. In theory she's meant to do her administrative work at the office, but Tony is putting increasingly ridiculous demands on her time that require her to within walking distance of him whenever he's awake, and his office in the mansion has gone unused for years, as evidenced by the thick layer of dust on the desk and the tops of all the shelves.

He stays in his workshop or his bed most of the time when she's working in there, making and breaking appointments, and perfecting her Tony Stark signature. She's even started writing 'personal' emails from him to people who want to consider themselves his friends; she's getting pretty good at his unique style of writing.

When he's not sleeping or tinkering, though, he invariably hangs around the office, 'keeping her company', poking and picking and passing comment on every little thing. He's been talking inanely for the last twenty minutes while she works on untangling the snarled mess of all the things he's promised to do without a thought as to his schedule.

“This is a nice pen,” he says, holding one of her pens up to his face. “Hey, it's engraved and everything, 'To the indispensable Miss Potts'. Is this from me? It seems very formal.”

“It was a gift from Mr Stane for my birthday,” she says, keeping her eyes trained on her computer. Eye contact only encourages him.

“It was your birthday?”

“At one point, yes.”

He twiddles the pen between his fingers. “I mean, don't get me wrong,” he continues, picking up the conversation thread from wherever he likes, “it's a cool gift, it's just kind of stuffy. Impersonal, you know? I've been given a lot of pens in the past, and all of 'em got lost or broken, and you have to refill them and stuff, way too much effort. But, I don't know, you are kind of stuffy, no offence, I don't know what I'd get you for your birthday-” As if that would ever be an issue, she thinks darkly. “-maybe a new organiser? Hm, Pepper, you're going to have to tell me what to get you for your birthday next year. Or... has it not come around yet this year? Jarvis, when's--”

“Mr Stark,” she snaps, “will you please... will you please shut up?”

The pen stills between his fingers. He blinks and frowns, and she has a moment of cold horror, replaying her words. Their relationship may be somewhat closer than most working relationships, but in the end, he's still her boss; he's still her immature, prone to hiring and firing people on the basis of their shoes, boss. He can be breathtakingly petty and mean, and if he fires her right now, it won't even be petty, because everyone knows better than to speak to their boss like that. Everyone but her, apparently.

“Uh,” he says, and she forces herself to look up at him and not spill apologies that are just going to make everything a hundred times more awkward. “I'm sorry. I'll be quiet.” He places her pen back on the desk carefully, and slumps down in his chair, giving particular attention to his fingernails.

She stares at him for a moment, but he doesn't look at her again, and the corners of his mouth of turned down. “I-- Okay,” she says eventually, and goes back to her work.

-

His 28th birthday party goes smoother than she expected it would. He doesn't get naked in her presence, doesn't come on to her, doesn't do anything that would cause her to turn in her two weeks' notice again. She leaves for home at four in the morning, when the guests are dwindling and it becomes obvious that Tony wants some alone time with those remaining.

When she returns at eight, the house is in its normal state of disarray after a party, and she sets about dealing with the most immediately dangerous debris: smouldering cigarettes, glass, and suspicious white powder; they've lost more than one cleaner this way.

“The weather in Malibu in sixty degrees, humidity at fifty eight percent,” Jarvis's monotone, modulated voice begins. “The sun rose at 5.55am and-”

“Yes, thank you, that's enough,” she says. Tony has programmed Jarvis to recite all sorts of useless information and it's becoming a little trying.

“Um,” a voice says behind her. She turns around to find a blond guy clutching a collection of clothes to his chest.

She takes in his tousled hair and the beard burn on his smooth face, and says, “Would you like me to call you a car?”

“Um,” he says again, and she pulls out her phone to ring Happy.

The man, whose name she discovers is Jason, is the only loiterer in the house, and once he's dealt with, she finishes her preliminary cleaning downstairs quickly, and moves on to the always delightful task of Tony's bedroom.

“Hey.” Tony pokes his head around the bathroom door as she begins to collect various items of clothing from the floor. “Is, uh, is everyone gone?”

“Everyone is gone,” she confirms. “I sent your friend home with Happy.”

“Okay, cool.” He steps into the bedroom and nudges a pair of discarded pants with his bare foot. “Uh, I'll help,” he says, and picks the pants up awkwardly with his toes. He stumbles to one side, and bumps into a wall.

“Why don't you just sit, Mr Stark,” she says.

“Okay,” he says, and hands her the pants.

She can feel his eyes on her as she moves around the room; she's starting to get used to how often he watches her, but it's still a little disconcerting, mostly because she doesn't know why. It isn't leering, or, at least, it isn't just leering. It's... watching, cataloguing, with a kind of sincerity that he never displays at any other time.

“I need to tell you something,” he says eventually.

“You're finally shaving the beard.”

“Ha ha. No, um...” He pauses long enough that she turns round to look at him, sitting on the end of his bed, one knee drawn up to his chest. “I'm--” He pushes his shoulders back and looks her straight in the eye. “I'm bisexual.”

“I know,” she says.

His eyebrows shoot up. “You do?”

“You flirt with anything that has a pulse, Mr Stark.” She smiles. “It was a safe bet.”

“I've only ever told Rhodey,” he says. “I mean, he kind of got a live action demonstration, but... I haven't, like, come out.”

“I know,” she repeats.

“It's not that I'm ashamed,” he continues, “but I don't think that Obi would appreciate the media shitstorm it would cause.”

“I know,” she says again.

“Is there anything that you don't know?” he asks, but he's smiling.

“Nothing.”

“Man, you really are wasted on making my coffee runs.”

She tilts her head in agreement, and holds his gaze for a moment. “Black, four sugars?” she asks.

“How did you know?”

-

Tony's New Year's Eve party makes the gossip pages before it even happens, which is something of a first. It's billed as the party to be at to say farewell to the 20th century, and everyone who's anyone is invited.

“If the end of technology as we know it isn't a good enough reason for a party, I don't know what is,” he says, skimming the guest list that she's prepared. “Ugh, not George Lucas, The Phantom Menace was an insult to humanity.”

“I thought you said that Y2K was bullshit,” she replies, and neatly crosses out Lucas's name. She seems to recall a long, rather drunken rant on the matter that he delivered just a couple of months ago.

“Did you miss the part where I said it was a good enough reason for a party?”

“Evidently,” she mutters.

Her sister desperately wants to come. So desperately that she calls every night for a week to put the hard word on Pepper about family and loyalty and 'did I mention that you're my favourite sister?'. Eventually Pepper agrees on the conditions that Julia will stay by her side the entire night (lest she be initiated into the tawdry lifestyle of Tony's friends while Pepper isn't looking), that she won't drink, and that she will not, under any circumstances, tell their parents.

The latter two conditions aren't that hard to enforce, but the first one? Julia's practically as slippery as Tony, who for his part is immediately taken with her.

“My God, Potts, your gene pool, seriously,” he says, turning away from Brad Pitt mid-conversation. She does her best not to flush, and focuses on Tony.

“This is my sister, Julia,” she says.

“I can see that,” he says, and takes a step towards her. Pepper slips in and blocks him.

“She is off limits, Mr Stark.”

He frowns. “I can't even shake her hand?”

“No. I am completely serious about this.”

His mouth turns down at the edges. “Fine. Nice to meet you, Julia.”

“Nice to meet you too, Mr Stark,” she replies, and he flashes a grin.

“Call me Tony, please.”

Pepper crosses her arms over her chest, and he backs up a little. “Go find someone to flirt with,” she says, and smiles sweetly.

She hopes that will be the end of it, but Julia manages to slip off every half an hour or so, and Pepper always finds her talking to an increasingly inebriated Tony. Each time she drags them apart, she tries to introduce Julia to someone else, but apparently in the house full of movie stars, Tony is still the most interesting person there. Pepper does her best to get around and talk to people while dragging Julia along after her, but the whole affair gets more and more stressful as the night wears on.

When she catches Mr Stane talking to Mel Gibson, she's relieved; she's less so when she sees that he has his son, Ezekiel, with him, but Stane is still one of the few sane people that she can rely on. “Come meet my other boss,” she says to Julia. “And his son. Be nice.”

“Why wouldn't I be nice?” Julia asks.

“He's a little...” The word that comes to mind is 'unpleasant', but she goes for 'different', instead. She tugs Julia through the crowd; Mr Stane turns and smiles when he sees her approach.

“I didn't know you were coming to this, Mr Stane,” she says, holding Julia in check.

“Well, the kid wanted to come, and I think you probably understand why letting an eighteen year old come to one of these things alone might not be a great idea.”

“I do, sir,” she says, and manages a smile for Ezekiel, who peers at her suspiciously. “How's MIT going?” she asks him.

“It's fine,” he says.

“This is my sister, Julia. I think you two are about the same age.”

Ezekiel grunts something while Julia murmurs 'hello' and raises an eyebrow. Mr Stane slaps a hand onto the back of his son's neck and jostles him slightly.

“Be a gentleman,” he warns, his smile not reaching his eyes.

“Pleased to meet you, Julia,” Ezekiel mutters.

“Same to you, I guess,” she replies.

Mr Stane tuts and gives Ezekiel a light shove. “Kids.”

By the time midnight rolls around, Ezekiel has sloped away somewhere while Stane was talking to Tony, and the party moves out onto the deck to watch the fireworks that cost Tony untold thousands for the technicians and for what might be seen by some as bribes to the officials of LA County.

“One minute!” Tony yells, holding several bottles of wine in his hands. “Peppeeeer, come over here!”

“What's up with this 'Pepper' thing?” Julia asks. She accepts a glass of wine from a passerby, and Pepper neatly relieves her of it.

“I don't know, it has something to do with cayenne pepper. Mr Stark likes to test out just how aggravating he can be.” She takes a sip from the glass. “This is good stuff.”

Peppeeeer!” Tony yells again, and she rolls her eyes.

“Yes, Mr Stark?” she says, moving towards him.

He grins stupidly at her and thrusts one of the bottles at her.

“Why are you giving me this?” she asks, taking it from him and reading the label. It's a good vintage: Latour, 1928. It certainly shouldn't be passed around like an unwanted child.

“'Cause I need my hands free. Are the fireworks ready?”

“Of course, Mr Stark.”

“Pepper,” he says again. She's beginning to think that he just likes repeating her name as often as he can get away with.

“Yes, Mr Stark?”

He smiles at her and points up at the sky. She glances up, frowning, before the assembled crowd start counting down from ten.

“Since it's already January 1st on the East Coast,” he says over the crowd, “I guess you've officially survived into the new millennium with me. Welcome to the future, Ms. Potts.”

He takes a couple of steps closer to her until they're practically nose to nose. The crowd is down to 'four' as she reflects on how long his eyelashes are. “Happy New Year,” he says, or at least she thinks he does, but she can't actually hear him over the crowd yelling 'one!' and cheering. He leans in – and up, since she's wearing her three inch heels – and kisses her. She's shocked by how chaste it is, mouth closed, no tongue, no wandering hands, just a press of dry lips to hers.

The fireworks drown everything else out, the explosions replaying behind her eyelids when she closes her eyes, and by the time she regains her equilibrium, Tony's moved back into the centre of the party.

“Well, that was interesting,” Julia says. She's holding a new glass of wine.

-

The party finally, finally, comes to an end at five in the morning when Tony passes out on the couch.

“Is he okay?” Julia asks. She doesn't even look tired.

“The dangers of drinking,” Pepper says, looking down at him as he drools onto his twenty thousand dollar couch. “He's fine. I don't know if I can say the same for the rest of these people, though.”

There are a good sixty or seventy people in various states of consciousness still in the house, and as much as she desperately wants to go home and at least change her clothes before coming back and handling the clean up, she can't in all good conscience leave the house full of strangers while Tony is unconscious.

“We're going to have to stick around until everyone leaves or Tony wakes up, whichever comes first.”

“Not a problem for me, sis,” Julia says. She's sitting on the end of the couch next to Tony's feet (and where are his shoes?), looking inordinately pleased with herself.

“If I may, Ms. Potts,” a clipped voice says from seemingly nowhere. “Fire alarms tend to be a good motivator for clearing people from an area.”

“Jarvis?” she asks, looking up at the ceiling. “You sound different.”

“Yes. Mr Stark undertook major adjustments to my program after you identified me as 'creepy'.”

“Oh. Well, it wasn't personal.”

“Of course not. I do not have a 'person'.”

“Are you having a conversation with the house?” Julia asks.

Pepper shrugs. “I don't even know any more. Jarvis, where did the voice come from?”

“Mr Stark specially synthesised this vocal track to be pleasing to the ear. He is aware of how much BBC America you watch when you are here.”

She feels her cheeks begin to flush. “Please set off the fire alarms now, Jarvis,” she says.

“Very good, Ms. Potts.”

-

2001
She realises ahead of time that she shouldn't let him have the party, not that she really has any power over him, when all is said and done. He tells her it's just a Christmas party, a totally normal, everyday happening for the season, and Stane doesn't seem especially opposed to the idea.

It's not that she's against the idea of a party, per se; Tony's parties are always memorable, at least, and she'll admit to having enjoyed one or two of them. This year is different, though, there's something wild in Tony's eye, more than there normally is at this time of year. Every magazine cover she sees and every news program she watches reminds her of the cause: the ten year anniversary of Howard and Maria Stark's deaths.

Tony doesn't even look at the newspaper when she nudges it into his view, just turns his head to read the display on his computer.

“Would you like Legal to put a stop to this?” she asks. Every year there's an article or two about the anniversary, but this year is an all out assault of ghoulishness. No stone is being left unturned in the media's quest to mourn the great Howard Stark, and compare his playboy son to him.

“They gotta get their fun somewhere,” he says. “Have you ordered the alcohol yet?”

After a couple of weeks, she gives up fighting with him over the timing of the party. It's falling on December 16th, no arguments, and she dreads what the papers will make of him having a Christmas bash on the day of his parents' deaths.

“Just look out for him,” Major Rhodes tells her. She feels like a traitor calling him, somehow, but he's out on manoeuvres and unable to make it back in time. “I know he might say otherwise, but he doesn't have a fucking clue what he's doing.”

There's an air of desperation about him all evening, from when the guests arrive to when Obadiah leaves after an hour (“We all grieve in our own ways,” he says, and hugs Tony), to when, ultimately, Tony throws everyone out at ten to two in the morning.

“Mr Stark,” she says, once he's finished yelling and the last of the stragglers are gone. She catalogues the damage to the place as he stumbles a little on his way to the liquor cabinet. In the tens of thousands, at least. “Please sit down, I think there's been enough excitement for tonight.”

The glass doors on the cabinet have long since been smashed, and he cuts himself as he reaches in for a bottle. It's not deep, not deep enough for her to use her considerable first aid skills, and he brings his hand to his mouth to suck on it for a second before replacing it for the bottle and taking a long draw from it. “I'm fucking grieving here,” he says eventually, “can't you tell?”

“Tony,” she says, stepping forward. She risks resting her hands on his shoulders, feeling how tense and bunched his muscles are, and he slumps under her touch, allows himself to be guided over to a couch.

“This was a bad idea,” he mumbles, and takes another long drink from the bottle.

“Well,” she says, and leaves it there.

“Dad would be so disappointed,” he continues. “He had some real crazy parties when he was young. He was an alcoholic, you know, high-functioning, always ready for the day in a crisp suit and a tidy fucking moustache. None of this sleep till the afternoon and turn up drunk to conferences crap. Never trashed a hotel room, or threw up in the men's restrooms. His hookers were always real classy, didn't kiss and tell. America's golden boy. Everyone loves a warmonger.” He salutes the air with his bottle, spilling some of it on the couch.

“Okay, that's enough,” she says. She pries the bottle from his fingers and sets it down on the floor.

“Pepper.” He stares at her, eyes studying every part of her face like it's going to tell him something. She doesn't have any answers for him. “I don't want to be him.”

He doesn't stop studying her when she speaks, eyes roaming all over. “You're not,” she says.

“Yeah, I am: Howard-lite. Got a little mangled in production, maybe. Not quite as good as the real deal, but still a damn good try.”

She puts her hand on his knee. It's just another of the many mistakes she's already made tonight. “You're not your father,” she repeats.

“Mom tried to help him,” he says. He's leaning in, just a little. “He treated her like shit.”

“Tony,” she says, and it comes out quieter than she expects, quiet enough that it barely seems to register with him. He's slowly drifting closer to her, and when he licks his lips, her eyes are drawn to the action. Something aches in her chest. “Tony,” she says again, more forcefully.

He rocks back. “Right, yeah, sorry. Fuck, I'm not that guy, I don't-- Inappropriate, totally. I'm gonna...” He pulls away from her and stands. Or, tries to stand. He wobbles, stumbling forward and she reacts without thinking. She leans forward, puts her hands on his waist to steady him and draws him back down. He almost falls into her but manages to catch himself. It still leaves him inches from her, though.

“I don't want to be like this,” he whispers.

She moves her hands up to his shoulders, then, after a moment's hesitation, presses one palm to the back of his neck, her fingers brushing over his hair. “You're fine, you're fine.”

She'd like to say that it was Tony; it would make everything so much easier to be able to pin this on him and brush it off as another one of his fruitless passes at her, but her hand is in his hair and then they're kissing and she doesn't think he started it. She knows that this isn't going to make him better but he's pressing against her, mumbling and whining and her fingers just keep tightening in his hair.

“Pepper,” he says, “just...” He traces his fingers along the hem of her shirt, turns towards her and folds his legs underneath him. She goes with him, leaning back as he presses forward, until her head is against the armrest and he has one hand flat against the couch cushion by her shoulder. “I just... Oh, God,” he groans.

She can taste the liquor he's been drinking, can smell smoke on his clothes and in his hair. He's shaking where she touches him, kissing her messily on the mouth before moving down to her throat and chest where the collar of her shirt is unbuttoned. She curls an arm up his back and around his shoulder blade, bends her knees until she's bracketing him, holding him together with her embrace. He's half hard against her hip, rutting shakily against her, his attention back to her face, mouthing her jaw for a minute before kissing her again. She sinks both hands into his hair.

“Is this-- Pepper, I...” he stammers out between kisses. “I love you,” he whispers.

She opens her eyes. Love. She's never heard him say that to anyone, and nobody's said it to her in years, not... not like this. With a supreme amount of effort, she pushes him away. He tries to follow her as she drags herself up into a sitting position.

“I think you should get some sleep, Mr Stark.”

“Pepper,” he says, his voice rough. His eyes are wide and searching and bloodshot; it's painfully obvious how drunk he is. He reaches out and takes her wrist, thumb rubbing against her pulse.

“Mr Stark, please.”

“I'm sorry,” he says quietly.

She pats his hand. “It's fine, come on.”

He comes easily enough, trailing after her up the stairs. He's more pliable than normal, usually when she undresses him after he's been on a tear, he whines and squirms and generally makes everything as difficult as it could possibly be. Tonight she gets him down to his boxers and under the covers of his enormous bed without much of an argument. When she steps away, though, he grabs her hand.

“Pepper,” he says.

“Mr Stark.”

He tugs on her hand. “I don't...” He frowns and drops his gaze to the floor. “I don't want to be alone.”

She almost, almost runs her fingers through his hair. His fingertips knead her skin. “Okay,” she says. “Lie down.”

“Pepper,” he repeats.

“Lie down.”

He nods and flops down. She pries his fingers from her hand, kicks her shoes off, and walks around the other side of the bed to climb on. “On your side,” she says. He rolls over and she lies down behind him, rests her head on her arm, bends her knees to match his.

“I'm sorry,” he says, and she's lost count of how many times he's said those two words tonight. More than he has in his entire life, she wouldn't be surprised.

“Go to sleep,” she says, and, after a moment's hesitation, rests her hand on his arm.

It doesn't take long for him to drift off into a fitful sleep, and once she's sure he isn't going to wake up again, she gets up, closes the bedroom door over behind her and walks downstairs in her bare feet, heels in hand.

She gets home at close to four in the morning, doesn't even try to get any sleep. She washes up, shampoos the smell of smoke out of her hair, rubs moisturiser into the irritated skin around her mouth.

At seven am, she gets a text message from Obadiah. It tells her to take the day off, that he'll look after Tony.

When she sees Tony the next day, he smiles and makes some sarcastic comment that she quickly forgets. He doesn't say anything about the party, and neither does she.

-

Getting Tony to come to the Hammer Gala is like pulling teeth. Worse, even, because at least the pain of that is short lived, while she's sure Tony's going to make this as painful as he can, for as long as he can.

“Get out of bed,” she says as she collects various articles of clothing for him.

“Uh uh,” comes the answer from underneath the covers.

“It's six pm,” she says, “and the car is coming in an hour. Get up.”

“No.”

She drapes a shirt and pair of pants over her arm and sighs. “Yes.”

“Can't make me,” he mumbles.

If he really thinks that... She deposits his clothes over the end of the bed and takes hold of the edge of the cover. “You are getting out of this bed,” she says, and pulls it off to reveal his bare ass.

He rolls onto his side, cradling his head in his hand and stretching out. “If you wanted to see me naked, all you had to do was ask.”

She throws the shirt at him. “Put that on.”

He sits up and pulls the sheets up to cover what might laughingly be called his modesty. “I don't wanna go,” he whines. “I don't like Justin, he's a douchebag.”

“I don't think you're cute, you know.” She grabs a can of deodorant from the bottom drawer of his bedside table and begins to spray him with it. He should really have a shower, but she knows that if he does, it'll just be another way for him to drag this whole thing out even longer.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, you trying to choke me here?” he says, waving his hands in front of him.

“I'm trying to make you smell halfway decent.” She drops the can on the bed and grabs one of his arms to force it through the shirt's sleeve.

“And you totally do think I'm cute,” Tony mutters, struggling against her as she tries to get his other arm in the second sleeve.

“I don't.”

“You do,” he insists and stares hard at her for a second.

She stops fussing with his shirt, leaving the sleeve caught around his elbow. “Tony,” she says softly.

“Because my mom always said I was the most adorable kid in the playground. Hey, give me a pair of boxers, I've gotta hide my thunder. Do I have to wear a tie? I don't wanna wear a tie, it stifles me,” he rambles, covering the awkward moment.

She sighs with relief. It's been a couple of months since the incident, and the more space between her and it, the more she realises what a mistake it was, both professionally and personally. “I'll get the boxers. If you haven't buttoned that shirt up by the time I'm back, I'll be fetching a bucket of ice water next.”

“Yes, ma'am,” he says, saluting.

He does end up wearing a tie. Justin sneers at him as he breezes past with a tiny champagne flute.

“Nice hair,” he says, eyeing Tony's hair that Pepper couldn't quite get under control.

“Nice face,” Tony replies.

“Settle down,” she mutters once Justin has moved on to new prey. “We're here for a reason.”

“We are? I thought I just here to bestow my beauty on these people and get blinding drunk.”

“Later,” she says. She points across the room. “That is General Thaddeus Ross. You need to convince him to give us the Army's weapons contract.”

“Do you mean to say that I'm here to work? Pepper, you tricked me!”

“Hammer wants it,” she says.

He nods once. “Lead the way.”

Ross is, simply put, a windbag. He's holding court with a couple of other army officials, talking about something called the 'bio-force enhancement' project. She and Tony tag onto the end of the group and listen in as he goes on and on. Tony keeps pulling faces and shifting from foot to foot, but she holds him steady, and eventually Ross looks up at them.

“General Ross,” she says, tugging on Tony's arm to get his attention back from the caterer in the tight shirt, “I'm Virginia Potts, and this is Tony Stark. He'd like to talk to you about your weapons development contract.”

“I know who he is,” Ross says. “I knew his father.”

“My condolences,” Tony says.

Ross's face becomes pinched. “Your father was a hero.”

“Yeah, sure,” Tony mutters. “So my beautiful assistant tells me that you need weapons. I make weapons. Seems like we're well suited.”

“We're in negotiations with Hammer,” Ross replies, and Tony pretends to gag.

“Hammer's a dick and a hack. Anything he builds will blow up long before it hits the enemy, guaranteed.”

Ross takes a step towards him. He has at least four inches on Tony, and uses every one of them to force Tony to tilt his head back to look him in the eye. Pepper has a creeping feeling that this is not going to end well.

“Frankly, Mr Stark, you're the one that everyone says is a hack, and with your track record you're probably too much of a liability for the US army. How about you have Stane call me tomorrow and I'll talk to him about it.”

Tony rolls his shoulders. “I've told bigger, richer, and uglier guys than you where to shove it, so I'm gonna tell you something.” He puffs his chest out and sneers. “Fuck off.” He takes a smooth step back and turns to Pepper. “Hey, I bet the Air Force would appreciate my genius, how about we give Rhodey a call tomorrow?”

Ross is already turning away from them, shaking his head.

“Yes, Mr Stark,” she says.

-

2005
In March, Tony goes to the World's Fair in Japan. He's meant to be there for five days. He stays until September.

“I've met someone,” he tells her breathlessly on the phone two days in. “Her name's Rumiko...”

Without Tony around, there's not a lot to do. Once she's cleared his schedule and Obadiah thankfully steps up to shoulder the brunt of Tony's forgotten responsibilities, Pepper is left at a loose end. And she's not the only one.

“I feel like I'm taking advantage,” Happy says, when they're putting her groceries in the trunk of the limo. May as well use it while she can, she thinks.

“Why?”

He shrugs. “Well, I'm being paid, and I'm not even doing any work. Makes me feel kind of itchy.”

“It's hardly your fault that Tony decided to run away, is it?” she says. She slams the trunk shut and turns around to lean against it. “I'm sure you've had enough sleepless nights to warrant a little paid downtime.”

“We still talking about me?”

She laughs. “Yeah, maybe not. I should probably be used to the unexpected with him by now.”

“I don't know if that's possible with the boss. Y'know, I've been working for the company since I was twenty five. Stark Sr wanted someone nearer the boss's age to look out for him. He was eighteen at the time, and man, that kid did everything. Especially... after. I'd been boxing professionally since I was fifteen, but I think some of the scariest times I ever had involved Mr Stark. And he keeps thinking up new and better ways to send me to an early grave.”

She knows exactly what he means. “How about you just keep driving me around? You can earn your keep that way. Say, Friday at eight?”

-

Their dates start off pretty low key. Or, no key, really. They pick up Chinese, the first time, and eat it sitting on the hood of the limo (well, Pepper sits on the hood, heels kicked off; Happy expresses doubt about whether it can take his weight). By Tony's third missed flight home, and her realisation that he very well may stay out there for months, she's been back to Happy's apartment once, and been kissed by him twice.

Obadiah seems to know, or at least suspects. He smiles at her when she comes into the office in the morning, dropped off by the limo, maintaining eye contact for seconds longer than normal. He lets her leave early on Fridays, with a wink and a nod. He doesn't burden her with all the little disasters caused by Tony's running away.

It's really a holiday for her as much as it is for Tony: six months free of him. She enjoys it.

-

In July, Happy (Harry, he says, Call me Harry, okay?. She doesn't tell him to call her Virginia) takes her to visit his mom in Queens. They take advantage of Independence Day falling on a Monday and make a long weekend of it, booking a room at a hotel, one king size bed, breakfast included. They split the bill.

“It's been a while since I've shared a bed with someone,” she tells him. She thinks of lying with her arms bracing Tony's, once, even though she only stayed till he fell asleep. It hardly counts as sharing a bed, and she's certainly had more intimate encounters since then.

“Yeah, me either,” Happy says, thumping their suitcases down on the comforter. “Boss has all the fun for us, huh?”

They have dinner in some little hole in the wall, go for a walk afterwards, holding hands. She almost laughs at the idea, but catches herself. Why shouldn't she go on a date? Not everything has to be an anonymous encounter after Tony's squared away; one night stands have their benefits, but she doesn't have to limit herself to only that.

Happy's mom is nice. She orders in pizza, shows Pepper every photo album and tells her every embarrassing story, until Happy is bright red and makes his excuses to leave the room. In the late afternoon, she sends them on their way with a wink, a smile and an invitation to visit any time. Happy rolls his eyes skywards and apologises for his mother when they're out of earshot.

“Don't apologise,” Pepper says, and takes his hand. “This is nice.”

They have sex for the first time that evening and the next morning, they stay in bed until midday – it's the longest lie-in she's had in years. True to his word, Obadiah doesn't contact her the entire weekend, and when she returns on the Tuesday, he just smiles and nods.

In August, Tony asks her to get him Japanese citizenship. 'Can't be that hard, right? -T', he signs the email. It occurs to her that he used to write 'love', even though she told him how inappropriate it was.

As it turns out, it is that hard, despite him having 'more money than God', and after she's stayed late a couple evenings looking into it, Obadiah tells her to forget it.

“I think we both know his track records with this sort of thing,” he says, and smiles. “How about we just let it simmer for a couple more weeks?”

She agrees, more than a little relieved.

On September 2nd she gets a call from Tony's cell which is almost impossible to understand, and an hour later there's an alert on her computer that says that a Stark Industries plane has taken off from Chūbu Centrair International Airport.

Twelve hours later she stands on tarmac, holding a cup of coffee, and watches the plane touch down on one of their private airfields. There's no sign that anyone's in there besides the pilot for a very long time, until her phone rings and Tony says roughly, “Are you bringing that coffee up here, or what?”

A set of stairs are pushed up to the side of the plane, and she walks up them carefully in her heels, steps through the hatch, and comes face to face with a very washed out looking Tony.

“It's cold,” she says, and hands him the cup.

“Yeah,” he says, looks at it for a while, then puts it down on the floor.

“Do you want to get out of the plane?”

He shakes his head.

“What do you want to do, Mr Stark?”

He shakes his head again. “I don't know.”

She glances out of the hatch, and sees Happy waiting by the car. She raises her hand, and he waves back in return, then opens the driver's side door to settle in for a long wait. She pulls the hatch closed and turns back to Tony.

“What happened?”

“I happened.”

She nods. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“No,” he says, and then, “I missed you.”

“Yes,” she says, “I would too, if I were you.”

-

It's hard to find time to go out, once Tony's back. When Pepper's free, Happy isn't, and when Happy's free, Pepper isn't. Most of the time, though, neither of them are free. She spends a lot of time in the car with him, but Tony's almost always there too. When he's not, it means that they're waiting for him, and neither of them want to get caught in a compromising situation.

It's something of a relief in November when the International Trade Convention in Chicago rolls around and Obi insists that Tony attends it. Pepper cries off it, citing too much work, and Obi tells Tony to stop being such a baby.

She and Happy go to see Doom the evening after Tony leaves for Chicago. She spends most of the movie covertly checking her phone, scrolling through the numerous texts from Tony, most of which amount to 'why do I have to be here?' and 'why don't YOU have to be here?'. Happy probably notices her inattention and the glare of her cell, but he doesn't call her on it.

They go back to hers afterwards, finish off the leftovers in the fridge, and go to bed. She's beginning to get used to sharing a bed again.

At two in the morning, her phone rings shrilly, flashing and skittering across her bedside table.

“Leave it?” Happy mumbles, knowing full well that she won't.

She picks up the phone and answers, “Yes, Tony,” not having even looked at the caller ID. Who else would call her at this hour?

“Pepper, can you, um... Fuck.”

“Can I fuck?” she repeats. The mattress moves as Happy shifts around to look at her, and she waves him off, sitting up. Tony isn't responding, which means he must be either extremely drunk or extremely hungover, because he'd never pass up a line like that if he were in his right mind.

“I need to get out of here,” he says quietly. “Obi told the pilot not to listen to me, but I blew up the prototype and I don't want to go back out there tomorrow and can you book me a flight out this morning or somethin'? I need to get the hell out of dodge. I just wanna go home.”

“Okay,”she says, and reaches for the lamp. She can't even count the amount of times he'd pulled this stunt when he's wanted to get out of a commitment. His 'plaintive and whiny' act is spot on. “Just sit tight, and I'll text you the details.”

“Thanks, Pepper,” he mumbles. “Don't tell Obi, okay? I just... a lot of people saw that thing blow up. He's pretty angry with me.”

“You have my strictest confidence,” she reassures.

“Good,” he breathes.

-

December is as traumatic as it normally is; Tony gets drunk, gets in the papers, and gets into several fights that only end when she pulls him off. He isn't exactly the best fighter in the world, so it isn't that hard to break these sorts of scuffles up.

“You ever think about quitting?” Happy asks as they pour Tony into the backseat of the car after one such night.

“Frequently,” she replies, and Happy gives her a funny look.

In January, there's a conference in Bern to contend with, and although, incredibly, Tony makes it through his lecture on integrated circuits with only a couple of stumbles, she still has to all but hold him up at the meet-and-greet afterwards. She gives him more leeway than she normally would because she always feels more kindly towards him around the holidays. This time, Obi had held a private memorial on the anniversary of the Stark's deaths, just for close friends and family. The whole thing had hit Tony pretty hard.

All of this leaves very little time for anything that isn't Tony-related, and that includes going home for the holidays, or spending significant amounts of time with Happy outside of the limo.

She starts to lose patience with Tony by the end of January, though. Normally by this time his behaviour has evened out to a steady, low level carelessness, but this year he seems hell bent on being as stupid and reckless as possible. Obi talks to him and talks to him, but nothing seems to help.

Happy plans some kind of surprise for Valentine's Day; she knows this beforehand because she catches him having whispered conversations on his cell, he books time off work, and because he's just not very good at subterfuge.

Tony promises that he'll be good for the night and that she doesn't have to babysit him. He keeps to his word for, oh, ten hours, before he calls her at eleven to inform her that he's been arrested.

“But don't worry about it,” he says.

She snaps her phone shut, sighs, and excuses herself from Happy's apartment. He's been on edge all evening, and he offers to come with her, but she says it's late, she'll see him in the morning. They kiss at his front door, and she feels his eyes on her all the way down the hall.

Tony smells like a liquor store when the guard lets her through to see him. He's been put in the drunk tank, although he has it to himself because the cops around here know that they'll get their asses sued from here to eternity if he's hurt.

“Don't you dare tell me you were drunk driving,” she says through the bars.

“Just soliciting,” he says, resting his chin on a vertical bar. “You look nice. Am I ever going to meet the future Mr Potts, or what?”

“There's no 'future Mr Potts',” she replies, focusing on her phone. Soliciting charges are hardly untrodden ground, but she'd prefer to get ahead of this before the media find out.

“I gave you time off tonight for something,” he says, “and you know that if you switch teams I'm the first person you've gotta tell, that's in your contract.

She shakes her head, already turning away. “No, it isn't. Have you considered that maybe I just don't want to get married?”

The cops say that they'll release Tony in the morning, once he's dried out, no charges. She has to wonder who swung that one but she isn't complaining. She 'donates' a significant lump of money to the police station and they agree to not file any paperwork. Tony gave the name 'James Roads' when arrested, taking special care to specify the spelling of the surname, and they took it on face value, despite his face being one of the most recognisable in California.

She gets back to her apartment at three in the morning, has a shower, and drinks some coffee, knowing that she'll be back in her car in a few hours and that trying to sleep now will probably just make her feel more tired later.

Happy calls at five, and she thinks he probably hasn't got any sleep either. He did seem extremely jumpy all night, long before Tony reared his ugly head. They've been spending less and less time together, but it feels like he's been asking her out even more than usual; he wants her to come with him to Queens in March for his mom's birthday. His entire family is going to be there.

“How's the boss?” he asks.

“In for a killer hangover.”

Happy chuckles softly. “Nothing new, then. Wanna try date night again tonight?”

She begins collecting her things to head back out to the police station; may as well get Tony out of there as soon as possible, even if he could desperately use the punishment. “Oh, I can't, I'm going to have to stick around with Tony all day to make sure he doesn't get himself in any more trouble.”

“Okay. What about... the weekend, we could see a movie or something, go to dinner afterwards. You could stay over.”

“Tony's giving a lecture at MIT on Saturday, I have to be there.”

“Okay,” Happy repeats. “How about any night this week?”

“I don't know.” She grabs her keys and heads out. “I don't know when I'm going to have time. Beginning of the year is a busy time for the company.”

“Sure,” he says. “Just... let me know.”

-

The lecture doesn't exactly go off without a hitch, but it goes okay, and the students certainly find Tony's generally recklessness and air of degeneration charming. He's practically mobbed afterwards.

The engineering faculty arrange a get-together, which mostly has in attendance professors that taught Tony, and professors who were classmates with him. None of them have particularly good memories of their time with him.

“You two are still friends? Man, you were inseparable, back in the day,” one of the assistant professors, Ian, says to Rhodey and Tony. Despite Rhodey's assertion that everyone at university had hated them, Tony managed to convince him to come by pointing out how satisfying it would be to show off how handsome and successful they'd become. He told her earlier that Ian had the room next to him and Rhodey, and that he could never get over the fact that their grades were always better than his, despite the fact that they both partook in some pretty heavy drinking, and Tony was known for being absent for class a lot because he'd broken a limb drag-racing.

“When he's not out saving the world,” Tony replies pleasantly, sipping out his drink. “Rhodey joined the Air Force. Just been made colonel.”

“And you joined the arms race,” another guy says. 'Tree-hugger', Tony had identified him to Pepper earlier.

“Someone had to,” he says.

“Still Rhodes's sidekick, then?” Ian asks with a smile. Rhodey rolls his eyes and mutters something behind his drink that makes Tony laugh.

“Sure,” Tony says, “at least I've got a friend.”

“Yeah, you have one friend.”

Rhodey visibly bristles at this while Tony continues to smile pleasantly. She's never personally seen Rhodey stand up for Tony, but judging by some of the fights she's seen and heard the two of them get into, she imagines that it wouldn't be pretty. Definitely not the kind of thing they want getting in the papers, not after Tony's lecture went so well. She does the first thing she can think of, short of just hauling the two of them away; she puts her arm around Tony's waist and looks at him.

“We need to get back to the hotel,” she says, takes the glass from his hand and gives it to Ian.

He settles an arm around her shoulders and nods. “You heard the lady,” he says, tipping his head at Rhodey. “See you next time you need to get asses in seats,” he calls to the room.

Once they're out of the room, Pepper lets go of him, and after a delay Tony follows suit. “I feel like my honour has been thoroughly defended tonight,” he says, listing slightly to one side.

“Fuckers can't insult you,” Rhodey says, and ruffles his hair, “only I get to do that.”

“Fuck yeah,” Tony responds, grinning.

When they get out into the parking lot, Pepper starts digging around in her bag for the rental car keys, Tony and Rhodey moving ahead of her as she slows down.

“Ginny?” someone calls behind her. Her hand stills in the bag, and she glances up, first at Tony and Rhodey, who have stopped and are now looking at her quizzically, then around, at the source of the voice.

“Brian?” she asks. His hairline is starting to recede, but it's him, same smile, same tall, lean body.

“I didn't think I was going to catch you,” he replies, taking a couple of steps closer. “I asked around inside but they said you'd left.” He looks behind her, and his eyes widen a little. “Christ, that really is Tony Stark.”

“Pep?” Tony calls, “are you gonna introduce us or are we going to have to guess?”

“We... we dated in college,” she says, frowning at Brian. “All through college, actually. Why are you here?”

“Ouch,” Tony mutters loud enough for her to hear.

“I heard about the lecture Mr Stark was giving. I teach at Harvard-” Tony whistles at this, “-and I thought I'd try my luck, I guess. I wanted to catch the lecture, but traffic thought otherwise.”

“Well,” she says, feeling herself flounder. She's used to having a response on her tongue at all times. “It's... been a while.”

“Do you wanna hang out with us?” Tony asks, and shrugs when she whips around to look at him. “I got the whole top floor of the Ritz-Carlton and these two are hardly party animals.”

“Um.” Brian glances at her, and she smiles wanly. “Sure.”

“Shotgun!” Tony shouts.

-

“Still can't believe it. I knew you worked for him, but I guess I didn't know know.” Brian swirls his glass of wine, eyes skimming over the gaudy décor of the room. “I mean, how much did this wine cost?”

“You probably don't want to know,” she says, and sets about topping them both up. Tony spent several hours harassing Brian about what 'baby Potts' was like, to which Brian was as polite and diplomatic as she remembers him to be; boring, a little voice in her head says. Rhodey has since dragged Tony off to 'get you into your jammies', leaving Pepper alone with her first and only serious boyfriend.

“What's it like?” he asks.

“Working for Tony? Like slow torture ninety percent of the time that makes you live for the precious ten percent of the time when he manages to act like an actual adult male.”

Brian laughs. “Well, you've been with him twice as long as we were together.”

“I'm not 'with him',” she mutters, her statement punctuated by a crash and Rhodey shouting 'Tony!'. “What about you, are you seeing anyone?”

“Not recently. Kinda been married and divorced, so I'm taking things easy for a while.”

“You got divorced?” He's the last person she imagined would ever get a divorce; she'd had the very vivid feeling when she was in college that twenty years down the line, they'd still be together. It just seemed... like that was probably what would happen.

“It was a rebound thing,” he says with a shrug. “What about you, anything serious?”

“I--” she starts, still taking in his 'rebound thing'. It probably shouldn't come as that much of a shock to her, a four year relationship is a pretty significant thing. She was never on the rebound. “Not really. Nothing... like, well, like us.”

“That's nice to hear. I thought you'd find someone else straight away, but I should have known that you'd end up marrying your job.”

That conjures up some terrible thoughts of what it would be like to be Tony's wife. “Thanks?”

Brian doesn't stay much beyond his welcome – he always was able to read situations pretty well. She knows that Tony has been spying on them every now and then, while Rhodey is hanging around the edges, coming and going from Tony's suite to his. He's probably been roped into doing recon.

She exchanges numbers and emails addresses and promises to keep in touch with Brian, knowing full well that the likelihood of the latter is very low, at least on her part. He lingers by the door a little longer after they say their goodbyes; she offers to come downstairs and wait with him for his car – it's near three in the morning, it's cold and it's dark – but he says it isn't necessary.

He sighs, looking at her with bright eyes. 'Lightweight', she thinks. “I was going to marry you, you know. At least, I thought I was.”

“Oh,” she says. “Yes, well...”

“But you'd've been miserable.”

“That's not true,” she says by rote. It seems like the thing to say.

“Yeah, it is.” He leans forward and kisses her. She drops her hand to his shoulder and draws him in for a moment, then lets him go.

“Bye, Ginny,” he says.

“Yeah,” she says.

In the morning, she calls Happy and tells him she doesn't think things are going to work out between them. He says very, very little in return.

-

Tony groans from under a pillow when she begins opening the curtains of the hotel room and loudly collecting his things.

“Plane's leaving in two hours,” she says.

“...'ll wait...” she catches from Tony's cocoon.

“No,” she says simply. “Get up.”

“Five minutes,” he bargains.

“Stop fucking around and get out of bed,” she snaps before she's even managed to process what's coming out of her mouth.

Slowly, Tony pulls the pillow away from his head and pushes himself enough to squint at her. “Someone got out of the grumpy side of the bed this morning,” he says, then squints at her some more. “Are you okay?”

She sighs. “If you must know, I broke up with my boyfriend.”

“Wait, which boyfriend is this? I'm starting to lose count.”

She turns away, muttering under her breath, “Why do I bother?”

“Hey, no, I'm sorry.” She hears his feet thump onto the hardwood floor, and turns back around to find him standing in front of her, tangled in a sheet. “Do you want to... talk about it?”

“Are you wearing anything under that?”

He shrugs. “Probably not. Pepper, tell me what's up?”

“I broke up with my boyfriend,” she repeats.

“And?” he prompts.

“That isn't enough?”

“I don't know, is it?” He stares at her with big eyes and twists his mouth in a way that he probably thinks is sympathetic.

“I--” She sighs. “I broke up with my boyfriend because I was pretty sure he was going to propose, okay?”

“Huh,” he says, shifting a little from foot to foot.

“And I basically cheated on him last night, but I guess that's really here nor there, now,” she continues, avoiding his gaze.

“Oh, Pep,” he says, taking shuffling steps closer to her. “I'm sorry.”

“Why? I'm not the one you should feel sorry for.”

“Because you're my friend and I love you.” He smiles easily and puts his hands on her shoulders having cinched the sheet around his waist. “And because you might not be aware of this, but I've fucked some relationships in the past too.”

He kneads his fingertips into her skin, holding her gaze steadily. She can't help but smile: it's times like these that she remembers why she likes him. “I'm not hugging you,” she says.

“Yeah, don't flatter yourself,” he replies, and darts in for a scratchy kiss on her forehead.

-
2009
She allows herself a sharp intake of air, not exactly a gasp, when Tony utters those words, “I am Iron Man.” She watches the television screen and the way Rhodey's eyes widen, then shut, then open again.

“Did you know he was going to do that?” Coulson asks, having rematerialised in the room.

“I don't think he knew he was going to do that,” she replies. But yes, she was pretty sure he was going to do that.

Rhodey yells at him the whole limo ride home while she begins hacking through the mess he's created that's blowing up her inbox. Tony grins throughout.

-

Pepper's rarely been accused of being naïve. She's had other insults levelled at her: stuck up, smartass, try hard, bitch, but never naïve. When it comes to Tony, though, she guesses that she is, because she honestly felt that things were going to change. She honestly felt that he wanted to be a better person, but as she watches him slide back into his old ways just weeks after the press conference, all she honestly feels is like an idiot.

He has his good days and his bad days. On good days, he helps out the military, the LAPD, the emergency services, and keeps an ear out for any big disasters. On his bad days he goes to clubs or invites random people back to the mansion and drowns himself in expensive alcohol. He's always been like this, minus the suit, but his moods are becoming increasingly erratic and difficult to anticipate

She tries to get him to talk to someone about his kidnapping. She'd been worried when he first got back, of course, but it seems so much worse now; he seems so uncaringly reckless all the time. At first she just mentions it off hand: 'Do you want to talk about... it? It doesn't have to be with me', then she starts leaving pamphlets lying around, then she 'accidentally' leaves her laptop open with websites about PTSD in the browser. Nothing makes a dent in his consciousness.

Today he's been drinking steadily for hours, banging around in the workshop, and she just cannot take it any more.

“Tony,” she calls, “Tony, we need to talk.”

“Hm?” He's staring vacantly at a holographic projection when she gets to the glass doors.

“We need to talk,” she repeats.

He sways slightly and lifts a bottle to his mouth. “Hit me.”

She very well might, she thinks. “We need to talk about Afghanistan.”

“Don't think we do,” he says.

“You have to stop pretending that nothing happened, Tony. I know you're in pain, anyone would be.”

He takes another draw from his bottle. “Can't exactly pretend nothin' happened,” he says, words beginning to slur. He looks down at his chest and taps the reactor. “Proof's right there.”

“I know...” The memory of that video on Stane's computer hits her like wave. She's been doing her best to tamp it down for the last few weeks, but God, he comforted her. He told her Tony would be fine. He came over to her apartment and sat with her the first night. She presses her hand to her mouth, feeling suddenly sick. “I know how much it hurts,” she says quietly, “what Obadiah did. He betrayed all of us.”

Tony's attention is finally wrenched away from the hologram. “Shut up,” he snaps, and despite what many might think of their relationship, he has never spoken to her like that before. “Shut the fuck up.”

“Tony,” she says.

“No, I don't want to--” He covers whatever else he was going to say with more alcohol, and waves his hand, collapsing the hologram. “Leave me alone.”

“I've left you alone for too long,” she replies.

His cheek twitches, and his eyes are red rimmed with inebriation. “You don't know anything,” he mutters and turns to leave.

“Then tell me.” He tries to pass by her in the doorway, and she catches him by the shoulders. “Tell me.”

His shoulders draw up to his ears as he cringes away. “Let go of me,” he says. “Pepper, let go of me, let go.” He has never reacted like this to her touch, and she lets go more out of sheer surprise than anything else. He continues out of the workshop, and then up the stairs, taking some of the steps two at a time, although he stumbles on most of them. She watches him go for a moment, then follows.

“You have to deal with this,” she calls, quickening her pace until she catches up to him in the lounge. “You don't have to talk to me if you don't want to, but you have to talk to someone.”

He uncorks a bottle from the liquor cabinet with his teeth and pours himself a glass. His hands are shaking, she notices. “I don't have to do anything,” he says, with more venom in his voice than she's heard in a long, long time. “I can stay right here and drink myself into an early grave if I want to, and maybe I will.”

She holds her hand out. “Give me the bottle.” When he shakes his head, she repeats, “Give me the bottle now, Tony.”

“Make me,” he hisses.

Something just snaps inside her. Four months of constant gnawing fear. Eleven years of making him her number one priority at all times. “This isn't just about you,” she says, not exactly shouting, but not quietly, either. “The things that you do and the things that Stane did have affected everyone.”

He knocks back whatever was in the tumbler and drops it to the floor which, since it's carpet, thankfully doesn't shatter the glass. And she's still worrying about that, even now. “I'm sorry that the man who practically raised me tried to kill me, Pepper!” he shouts. “I'm sorry that I was tricked into thinking that someone actually gave a fuck about me, that someone could actually love me! I'm sorry if that fucking inconvenienced you so much, but I was a bit busy being betrayed at the time!”

He takes another drink from the bottle, and she thinks suddenly that this is the first time he's said anything even close to the truth to her in months.

“Why don't you just get out if I'm such a problem for you?” he continues. “Why are you always hangin' around here, anyway? I don't need you, I'm perfectly capable of looking after myself, I don't need a fucking babysitter!”

“Tony, please stop shouting at me.” How did she not see it? Looking at him now, it's so incredibly obvious how much pain he's in, all the damage that's been done over the years, and every time she thinks back to the things the Stane did and said, she sees it clearly, sees how he was always sowing seeds, chipping and picking away at Tony's wounds. “You need help.”

He shakes his head. “Fuck off,” he says, but most of the anger has drained out of his voice.

“What Stane did... I'm sorry I didn't realise.”

“Stop it,” he mumbles. She takes a step towards him and he backs up. He's one of the most tactile people she knows, he's never acted like this around her before.

“I just think you need to deal with what happened. It doesn't make you weak. Everything you've been through... you're so strong, Tony, but no one comes out of something like this unharmed. What Stane did... it's hard for me to even wrap my head around.”

Tony's shaking his head, taking more and more shots from his bottle. “Stop it,” he whispers.

She doesn't try to get any closer to him, but she doesn't stop. This has been bubbling under the surface for a month now, and she has to say it. “It's been going on for years. That level of emotional abuse... Tony, there's no shame in admitting that it effected you, that was why Stane did it.”

She doesn't know what she expected to happen, she's saying all of this more for her benefit than his, to accept that she didn't notice what was happening, and moreover, didn't care when Stane was openly abusive towards Tony, because he'd deserved it, at the time. She doesn't expect Tony to start crying though. She definitely does not expect that.

He turns tail and flees pretty fast, taking the bottle with him. She feels like she's stuck to the spot, watching him leave, and it's only when she hears his footsteps on the stairs that she starts to move.

“Jarvis, where is Tony?” she asks as she follows.

“He is locking himself in the second floor guest bathroom,” Jarvis replies.

She runs upstairs as quickly as she can, and comes to halt in front of the bathroom door. She puts her ear to the wood, and hears soft sounds, like muffled crying. “Tony, let me in.”

At first she thinks that maybe he hasn't heard her, and she tries the handle but it only turns uselessly. Eventually his reply comes, “Go away.”

“Please,” she says, “I won't-- just please let me in.”

“No.” She can hear him shifting around and she thinks that he's just on the other side of the door. She presses her hand to it.

“I'm sorry,” she says.

“Please, just...” There's a sound like a hiccup and then the sloshing of a bottle. “Please leave me alone,” he says quietly.

She withdraws her hand. “Okay,” she says, “I'll be downstairs.”

She stays up the entire night, sitting on one of the couches in the lounge, hoping that he might come back downstairs, but he doesn't. At four in the morning, she hears the door open, then another door slam shut, and Jarvis informs her that Tony has gone to bed and that he doesn't wish to be disturbed for the next forty eight hours, minimum. At seven in the morning, she goes home, defeated.

-

She does the only thing she can do in a situation like this: she calls Rhodey. Tony's been refusing to let anyone in the house for the last five days. Jarvis says that he is 'okay', and she thinks his choice of words is telling.

Rhodey offers to come over to her apartment, and she has to give him the address, even though they've known each other for eleven years, and she's lived there the entire time.

“I brought wine,” he says when she opens the door, holding up the bottle. “I stole it from the last Stark Gala.”

They sit out on her balcony with a couple of glasses, and Rhodey lets her drink in silence. He doesn't push and she thinks, as always, how lucky Tony is to have him for a best friend.

“Tony's not doing well,” she says at last.

“I know.”

“I tried to talk to him last week, but... he just couldn't. He cried. I've never seen him cry before.”

“Me either. Heard him cry once, though.” Rhodey stops and pours himself some more wine. “When his parents died. I was in Libya at the time, and I didn't hear the news until a week later. So I called him the first chance I got, and he was... totally out of it, God only knows what he'd taken, but he was just... sobbing down the telephone. I didn't even get to see him for another eight months. I was so glad at the time that he had Obadiah.” He laughs humourlessly and shakes his head. “Tony always said I was a bad judge of character. Guess he was right.”

He closes his eyes and takes a drink. Her exhaustion is mirrored in his face, not just physically, but emotionally. “Do you think--” She pauses, considering whether she really even wants to ask this question, but he's the only one she can ask aside from Agent Coulson, and the fact that Coulson might actually be able to give her an answer is more than she can bear. “Do you think that Stane killed Tony's parents?”

Rhodey opens his eyes. “I think Tony thinks so. On balance, I think... that he probably did.”

“Fuck,” she says.

“Yeah,” he agrees.

“I killed him,” she says suddenly. Rhodey sets his glass down and watches her. “Tony says he did it, but he wasn't the one who overloaded the reactor. I knew what was going to happen. I killed a person four weeks ago.”

He reaches over and lays his hand over hers. “You had to, he was going to kill you and Tony. Sometimes there isn't another solution.”

“That's the thing,” she says, “I don't really feel all that bad about it. At first I thought it was shock, but when I saw that video, when I thought about what Tony went through in Afghanistan, what we went through, I was so angry, I wanted him dead.”

“Can't say that I spilled any tears, myself.” He leans over and refills her glass, then nudges it toward her. She takes it.

“Why didn't I see it? All those years of abuse, and I thought it was just tough love. How the hell was I so stupid? I've spent practically everyday of the last eleven years with him.” She takes a drink to stop herself before the tears prickling in her eyes make good on their threat to fall.

Rhodey's hand is still over hers, and he turns them over so that they're palm to palm. “Pepper, I've known Tony for over half his life, and I didn't see it. I used to think that Obadiah was the only one who could get him under control. I was glad that Tony had him, because Tony was always such a mess. I didn't think about why he was a mess.”

“Me neither.” She looks out over the traffic below and drinks more of Tony's insanely expensive wine.

Rhodey squeezes her hand.

-

It happens slowly, and all at once. She starts calling Rhodey every few days, and he calls her too, and although they always talk about Tony first and foremost, other stuff slips in as well. She talks about her sister and her parents, he tells her about his first tour in Kuwait, sometimes they go out for drinks and he really is a lightweight. He'd always been 'Tony's best friend, Rhodey' to her, but slowly he becomes just 'Rhodey', and then 'Jim'.

“Okay, but don't call me Virginia,” she says over her cocktail.

“Why not? If we're going to take a step forward in our relationship, I feel like we should be on a first name basis.”

“Because my name is Virginia, and I was named after my grandmother who was, in fact, named after the state. Do you know how often kids at school called me 'vagina'? Vagina Potts. A pot of vagina.” She swirls her stirrer in her drink; it's actually kind of awful, she only got it because it was on the house. She pushes it over to Jim.

“Children can be so cruel,” he says, taking a sip. “This isn't bad.”

She shakes her head in disgust, biting back a 'you would like it' because it sounds all too much like something Tony would say. “What do you mean 'a step forward'?”

Jim shrugs. “I've known you for longer than most marriages last, and I didn't even know where you went to college until last week.”

“Well, I knew where you went,” she says, smiling.

“Well, yeah,” he replies. He smiles back at her. “Do you wanna... have sex sometime? With me?” He pulls a face like he's not really sure why he said it, but he doesn't drop her gaze.

She shrugs. “Sure.”

-

It never goes much further than that, drinking, talking, and having sex in her apartment. It's a welcome relief to just be able to vent and know that he knows exactly what she means when she says that Tony hacked into her computer and cancelled the appointment she made with a therapist, or that she found him throwing up at four in the afternoon the other day.

“I feel like we're a little hypocritical,” Jim says, waving vaguely at the half empty bottle on her coffee table.

“Yeah,” she agrees. “Refill?”

-
2010
Somewhere between the car with its sheared off doors, and the plane ride home, she goes into her hotel room and just lets herself cry for ten minutes. Happy and Natalie both tried to talk to her once the paramedics were done checking her over, while Tony ignored everyone and jumped in a car to follow the police that had taken that lunatic away.

She almost died; another inch and she'd have been cut in half. She almost died, and Tony didn't even stop to ask her if she was okay.

“Ms. Potts,” Natalie calls through the door. “We have to go, the plane is waiting.”

“Yes, I'm aware of that,” Pepper snaps back. She knows the schedule, she knows it down to the last minute.

“Do you want to... talk about?” Natalie's voice comes again, hushed, like she's leaning into the door. “I could get Hogan or... Mr Stark.”

Pepper looks at her one suitcase, not even unpacked. Two changes of clothes and her laptop, that's what she travels with. “No,” she says. “No, it's fine. I'm fine.” It's hardly Natalie's fault that Tony is more interested in grandstanding and frittering his money and belongings away for God only knows what reason than running his company and maintaining his public – or private – image. “Thanks.”

“My pleasure, Ms. Potts,” Natalie replies.

-

Rhodey manages to get Tony to come up from his workshop while she and Natalie are still fielding phonecalls. She has one eye on the television until Tony turns it off with a word to Jarvis.

“Why don't you talk to the senator?” she says, trapping her phone between her ear and shoulder.

“Which one?”

She indicates to her phone, then Jim on his and Natalie's departing form as she paces the room a little distance from them, talking quietly into her own phone. “Any of them.”

“No, thanks.” Tony sniffs and rubs his face. She wonders if he's caught her cold. “Maybe I should call Christiane, set the record straight.”

“Do not do that,” she says as the senator's aide takes her off hold. “Make yourself useful somewhere-- no, sorry, not you.”

For a little while, he does. He talks to some reporters under the watchful eye of Jim, and agrees to some interviews that he's going to need some major coaching for. A couple of hours later, though, and he drifts off... somewhere.

“He went to bed,” Natalie says.

Pepper checks the clock. It's a little after eleven. “He went to bed?” she repeats.

Natalie shrugs.

“Well...” It's hardly the first time he's walked away from an important commitment, but the flippancy of it rankles. The company is falling apart around their ears and he's sleeping. “I suppose there's not a lot else we can do tonight.” Save face, she thinks. Always save face. “Go home, Ms. Rushman.”

“Are you sure?” Natalie asks, but she's already reaching over to pick up her bag.

“Of course. See you tomorrow.”

Natalie clears out swiftly, as if worried that Pepper might call her back at the last moment. She remembers, distantly, what it was like to feel that once you left work, work left you.

“We may as well all call it a night,” she says to Jim.

“Actually...” Jim presses his knuckles to his eyelids briefly then stretches. “We need to talk. Not here.”

“There's something really wrong with him,” he says once they're in her car. He's left his in Tony's garage, and she honestly can't guarantee that it'll still be there, undamaged, when he comes back to pick it up, the way Tony's acting right now.

“Isn't there always?”

He lets out a long sigh. “I don't know. Have you seen the reactor lately? That thing is disgusting.”

“It's keeping him alive.”

“The thing – element? – was smoking when he took it out.”

She takes her eyes off the road and the endless line of street lamps to glance at him. “He let you see it?”

“Yeah, he was having trouble walking.” She sees his Adam's apple bob up and down when he swallows. “Monaco took it out of him.”

“Took it out of all of us.”

“He's got this rash, too, on his neck.”

Her first uncharitable thought is syphilis. “I'll pick up some more Benadryl.”

“Right.” He watches the road for a few minutes, hands worrying the material of his pants. “Pepper,” he says at last. “I don't think I can do this any more.”

“This?” she asks. She knows what he means.

“You and me. I thought it would be okay, because you and Tony were never gonna happen, but...” He sighs and looks down at his lap.

“But what?” she prompts.

“But he's my best friend and he's falling apart. Something's been different with him recently, and I feel like a complete shit for going behind his back. And let's be honest, I think half the time you're doing this to spite him.”

“That's...” She wastes a couple of seconds adjusting the A/C. “Maybe.”

“Maybe,” Jim repeats, a good-natured lilt to his voice. “Look, as the ideology of Tony goes: do it until it stops being fun. It stops being fun when you know your partner is thinking about someone else who they've never even dated, despite the fact that you are way more of a badass.”

“You are more of a badass,” she agrees.

“That's what I'm saying,” he says.

Chapter Text

Somehow they make it home. That's the most detail she can go into: she's on a roof, then she's in Tony's foyer, the in-between is a blur. There was flying, in his arms, then in a jet. There was Vanko, Hammer, and Natalie, and then they were here.

She remembers... kissing. Quitting. Yelling. Thinking, 'if I let you out of my sight again you're going to die', and letting him scoop her up into his arms and take off.

Perhaps she's going into shock. It really would be the only reasonable response to this day, this whole life.

“...Ms. Potts. Ms. Potts. Ms. Potts-- Pepper.” She startles, finally, at Jarvis's calls. He has never referred to her by her first name, and certainly not that name. “You need to go into the workshop,” he says gently.

She turns on her heel and traces the path without thinking. It's only when she reaches the top of the staircase that it occurs to her to ask, “Why?”

“Mr Stark's vitals are dangerously low.”

There's another few minutes that pass her by, and then she's kneeling on the cold floor of Tony's workshop – his completely destroyed workshop, what the hell? – with two fingers pressed to his clammy neck. It seems as if he lasted just long enough to make it out of the suit before collapsing to the ground. His eyelids flutter open a second, and she thinks that she sees the corner of his mouth twitch before his eyes roll back and he's out cold, no matter how hard she shakes him. She drags his head onto her lap and watches him breathe, shallow and unsteady, for a moment.

“Ms. Potts,” Jarvis says into the unnaturally quiet room, “he needs medical attention.”

Right. Right. She pulls one of his limp arms around her shoulders, wraps her arm around his back, and struggles to her feet. It is far, far too easy to lift him. “Christ,” she mutters, “how much weight have you lost?”

“He is approximately ten pounds lighter than his normal weight,” Jarvis supplies.

She shakes her head. She didn't notice. She didn't notice Obadiah, and she didn't notice this.

Somehow, she manages to get him over and into one of the cars, one of the few that has more than two seats. Jarvis rolls the garage door up and she starts the engine. There's not enough room to turn the car around amongst the debris, so she has to back up the ramp, crossing her fingers that Tony's not going to roll off the back seat.

It's dark out, almost eleven, but the driveway is lit up and for a moment she can't work out why. When the shock of the bright lights subsides and her eyes adjust, she's able to make out several black SUVs blocking the way. She leans on the horn, and bashes at the window down button.

“Get out of the way!” she yells, hanging out of the window. “Get out of the way before I run you down!”

The door of the lead car opens and a figure steps out. Pepper can't quite make out who it is against the glare of the headlights, not that it matters. She smashes the horn a couple of times and revs the engine; she'll drive straight over them if she has to. The figure strides towards the car, and in the wing mirror the image of Natalie, or whoever she is, coalesces. She opens the driver's side door and says, “Get in the back” in a tone that brooks no arguments. Pepper lets go of the horn, stares at Natalie for a second, then twists around and climbs between the front seats.

Natalie opens the driver's side door, and flicks her wrist towards the other cars, all of which begin to pull back, leaving the path unobstructed.

Pepper's barely moved Tony out of the way enough to sit down when Natalie slides the clutch forward. “Seatbelt,” she says, then, “Hold on to him.” She gives Pepper seconds to strap in and arrange Tony on her lap before she backs up, looking over her shoulder, and spins the wheel as far as it'll go. The tires screech on the asphalt as the car turns in an arc, bounces and shudders, and then they're out onto the road.

“How fast does this thing go?” she asks.

“It's Tony's,” Pepper says. She digs her fingers into Tony's shoulders, hard enough to leave bruises. That's going to be the least of his problems, she thinks distantly. “So, fast.”

Natalie grins. “Good.”

-

The hospital... isn't a hospital. It's a vast warehouse in the middle of nowhere – even if it had been light out, Pepper doubts she'd have been able to work out where they were going, what with all the short cuts and sharp turns they took to get there.

A man with dark hair greying at the temples, who looks like he hasn't had enough sleep, whisks Tony away the moment they arrive, leaving Pepper surrounded by men who could honestly be clones of Coulson. In her head, she can hear Tony saying 'oh god, is this the Matrix?', and she laughs, drawing strange looks from all sides.

Jim arrives a little while later, escorted by another clone to the corner that someone directed Pepper to sit and wait in with a cup of truly disgusting coffee. The only thing separating her from Tony is a cloth screen; she can see the shadows of the doctor and nurses moving around the solitary bed. By next week, she imagines, this facility will be long gone.

Jim sits down next to her. “Are you okay?” he asks.

She laughs again, and it's a high-pitched, ugly sound. “Not even slightly,” she says.

He nods. His hands are shaking, she notes. “How is he?”

“Collapsed, I don't know.”

“So, that rash was something,” Jim murmurs, almost to himself. Then, “So, you and Tony...”

“I don't know,” she says. “I don't know that I can... with him. Is it... are you all right with this?”

“Of course I am,” he says. “This was what I thought was gonna happen. I mean, not this, but... he loves you. I think he always has. And I think the same is true for you.”

“Maybe,” she says. She risks another look at him; his face doesn't betray any kind of emotion except concern. “But I wasn't kidding about this being too much. He's too much.”

Jim shrugs. “I guess, but eleven years, Pep. You obviously liked something about him.”

She imagines her younger self pointing to the adventure and the glamour; the tornado of personality that Tony's always been. That's what attracted her to him and this world in the beginning. There is nothing glamorous about sitting in a plastic chair in a draughty converted warehouse, though.

“Ms. Potts? Colonel Rhodes?” The dark-haired man from before stands in front of them, clasping his hands behind his back and tracking the movements of the agents out of the corner of his eye. “Mr Stark's going to be fine, do you want to see him?”

Pepper is already up, empty coffee cup rolling away somewhere, forgotten. The doctor starts at how close she is, then vaguely indicates toward the curtained off area. “He's unconscious, he will be for a while. He's suffering from the after effects of palladium poisoning, dehydration, and extreme exhaustion. Honestly, it's a miracle that he stayed up right for as long as he did.”

“That's Tony,” Pepper hears Jim say as she pushes the screen back. “Our little miracle.”

Tony looks all at once very young and very old, his face pale, dark smudges under his eyes, totally vulnerable and exposed. There's a drip snaking its way up his arm, and a heart monitor beeping softly. “How long,” she says, then turns back to look at the doctor. “How long does he have to stay here for?”

“He needs to stay on the drip for at least ten hours, then...” He looks around the warehouse. “He'd be better off at home.”

“Okay,” she says, and draws a chair to his bedside. She can do ten hours. She waited three months for him, once.

-

Tony wakes up once, on the ride back home, looks at Pepper, and promptly passes out again.

“Classy as ever,” she mutters, pushing his hair back from his face.

Jim offers to stay for a couple of days, to help out with Tony. It's probably a good idea because she would never have been able to get him upstairs on her own, but once she's back in the house, clutching the bag of medication that the doctor gave her and listening to the robots beginning repairs to the basement under Jarvis's omniscient eye, all she wants is for everyone to leave. Just... everyone has to get out, right at this very moment, or she is going to scream. Jim takes her hushed 'please leave' as his cue to haul ass, and perhaps she threatens an agent with bodily harm if he doesn't vacate the premises immediately, but she hasn't slept in days, it seems, and she feels she's owed this much of a breakdown.

“Be assured that no one will get into this house without your permission,” Jarvis says as she climbs the stairs.

She sighs. “What would I do without you?”

“I ask myself that daily, Ms. Potts,” he replies, and lowers the lights as she passes by.

It's nine am and brilliantly sunny outside, but when she gets to the spare room that's serving as Tony's bedroom until the gaping hole in his actual bedroom's floor is fixed, the giant windows are darkened. She stands for a moment in the doorway, watching the unsteady rise and fall of his chest. At least he's not so pale any more.

She considers going to one of the other spare bedrooms, but the idea that he might wake up alone, or that she might, is too much to bear. She slips her shoes off and pads quietly into the room, sheds her jacket and climbs onto the bed in her shirt, skirt, and stockings, the doctor's bag still in her hand. Tony makes a quiet noise as she collapses on top of the covers, and she just barely has time to check that he's okay before the pull of sleep is too much.

-

She wakes up to something nudging her in the arm. She tries to roll away from it, face pressed into blanket beneath her, and something rustles. Tony, she thinks, then again, Tony. She pulls herself up and rescues the squashed paper bag from between them.

“Is this all I had to do to get you into bed with me?” he asks, words slurring a little. He frowns. “I feel weird.”

“I'm not surprised,” she says. The clock says it's almost ten in the evening. She rubs her face and gets off the bed, heading for the bathroom.

“Pepper...?” he calls, and he sounds so pathetic that she has to stop herself from running back over to him. In the bathroom she grabs a cup and fills it with water from the faucet, then quickly returns to the bed. Tony looks relieved. She sets the cup down on the bedside table and starts to rearrange the pillows underneath his head, propping him up enough to drink the water.

“What...? Pepper, what's...” He watches as she empties the bag out on top of him and grabs a couple of the bottles. Three times a day, the doctor said, pills with some incomprehensible name that would help neutralise the lingering effects of the palladium, painkillers to make it hurt less. She shakes out the doses into her hand and lifts them to his mouth.

“Open your mouth.”

“What're those?” he asks, eyeing them suspiciously.

“Things that are going to make you feel better,” she says. “Open.”

Thankfully he does, because it wouldn't have been the first time that she's had to force feed him medication, and she drops them onto his tongue, then brings the cup to his lips. He quickly takes over holding it, draining the entire thing in seconds.

“I probably shouldn't be taking strange white pills without knowing what they are first,” he observes, and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “I saw that on an after school special once.”

“They're from the doctor,” she says.

“What doctor?”

“The doctor that put you on a drip and made sure you didn't die. Tony, you've been unconscious for a day.”

“Ohhh,” he says, looking around. “That explains a lot.”

She can't help but laugh, sitting down heavily on the edge of the bed next to him. She hunches forward and cradles her head in her hands, trying to quell the hysterical knot of nervous energy in her chest. It's getting harder and harder to breathe, and she thinks that maybe only now is the shock wearing off, leaving her laughing and gasping and hiccuping.

She can feel Tony shift behind her, twisting around awkwardly until he gets his arms around her. His grip feels unnaturally weak and it only makes her gasp more. God, sometimes she wishes she could go back to the days when she thought nothing could touch him.

“I'm sorry,” he says against her ear, his beard tickling her neck. “I'm a fucking asshole, please don't get upset over me.”

“Too late,” she says, and lets him try to comfort her for a couple of minutes, though she knows that Tony has little concept of how to comfort someone if it doesn't involve throwing money at the source of the problem. Eventually she shakes him off and turns around to look at him. “Do you want something to eat?”

“Um. Yeah?” he says, and looks at the way that she's twisting her fingers together.

She forces her hands apart. “Okay, I'll make you something. Stay in bed. If you need something, get Jarvis to call me.”

“Pepper...”

She gets up and puts some space between them. “Stay here,” she says firmly.

“Scout's honour,” he says, and makes a lewd hand gesture.

-

He sleeps a lot for the first couple of days, a combination of the drugs and sheer exhaustion. While he's out, she fields calls, delegates tasks, and goes through every single thing Tony owns. She wants to know how and why, but she doesn't think she can bear to just come out and ask him, so she goes through the pockets of every item of his clothing, checks the browser histories on all his computers, and scours his destroyed workshop.

She doesn't find anything that really explains what happened, and it doesn't help her, it only makes her more angry. At him and at herself, at Jim, Vanko, Obadiah, Natalie-whatever-her-name-is, Coulson, Fury, and that weaselly little rat bastard Hammer. She stops answering the phone, leaving it for Jarvis to deal with, and watches over Tony with a kind of intensity and anxiety that scares her a little. At night she crawls into his bed and it only takes her two days to graduate from sleeping on the furthest edge from him to curling herself against his chest and memorising every part of the new arc reactor.

“Pepper?” he says into the dark on the fourth day. “Is this, like, a relationship now?”

“I don't know,” she mumbles, tracing the new triangular lines of the reactor with her fingers.

She really doesn't. Happy came over today, tried to get her to let him in or her to go outside, and he sounded hurt at her one word replies over the speaker system. She didn't betray any emotion other than tense irritation at being disrupted and when she spoke she could practically hear Tony saying the words for her. It leaves her wondering how she can be so attuned to him and yet have missed these warning signs again and again.

“But...” Tony continues, sinking one hand into her hair. “Could it be?”

She sighs. “I don't know, Tony. Maybe.”

“I can work with 'maybe',” he murmurs, and it doesn't sound nearly as much of a joke as she thinks he means it to sound.

-

He wakes up the next afternoon while she's going through his walk-in closet. It's a mess, littered with shirts and pants and five thousand dollar Armani jackets that were worn once, then discarded. She thinks that maybe she'll collect some of this stuff up and donate it, but that's not why she's in there. She's in there looking through the random boxes that she's known for years he has squirrelled away. They're just bland shoe boxes, but for the fact that they're for shoes from Prada and Testoni, and when she opens them, they're filled with what she can only describe as junk. Scraps of paper, miniature wheels off old toys, batteries, and broken pieces of metal and plastic. There are about a dozen similar boxes, with the same sort of things inside, though she starts to discern a theme: everything appears to be from his childhood, leftover things that most wouldn't keep, like shopping lists written in delicate cursive that include 'milk, eggs, animal crackers for Tony (important)'.

The last box, right at the back on the highest shelf, is filled with photos. They range from faded pictures of people wearing hideous clothes from the seventies, right up to a few years ago, Tony and Jim, Tony and her, her and Jim. Some of them are torn down one side, some crumpled and then flattened out again, most with fingerprint marks around the corners. It's only when she gets to a photograph torn down the middle and taped back together, her and Tony with a phantom arm around each of their shoulders, that she gets it. He's ripped Stane out of every picture, even the ones where Stane was in the middle. She wonders when Tony did it, if it was that day that she made him cry.

When she steps back out of the closet and closes the door, Tony's sitting on the bed with the covers bunched up around his waist, tapping at a tablet that he must have had hidden in the bedside table, because she did her level best to remove anything that he could use to obsess over things.

He doesn't notice her until she's made it over to the bed; he puts the tablet to one side and smiles up at her.

“Hey,” he says.

She climbs onto the bed and reaches out to press the back of her hand against his forehead. “How are you feeling?”

“Like a five year old with a poorly tummy,” he says, raising his eyes to look at her hand. “If you bust out a thermometer, I'm just going to run it under hot water.”

His skin isn't clammy any more, and it doesn't feel like he has a fever, but then he's so cool to the touch anyway that she wonders if she'd even be able to tell. The dark smudges under his eyes are mostly gone, though, and his colour has returned to its usual faint tan. She runs her hand into his hair as she sits down next to him.

“You need a bath,” she says.

“Sponge bath?” he asks, eyebrows climbing to his hairline hopefully.

“I'll hold the shower head.”

He sighs deeply and slumps a little. “I'm sick, you know,” he says, then blinks a couple of times, his expression growing serious. She tries not to react, but she feels her lips thin anyway, and she knows he notices it. She removes her hand from his hair.

“I saw online that SI stock isn't doing so well,” he says, filling in the momentary silence.

“That always happens when there's an incident,” she replies. Her assistant has been keeping her as up to date as he can manage while dealing with her absence. She feels guilty, because she knows exactly what it's like to be left in that position, but at the same time she can't really get herself to a point where she really, truly cares.

“But those incidents were normally me being found in an alley with a prostitute and stuff, right? This is uncharted territory.”

“You've never been caught in an alley with a prostitute,” she says.

“Yeah, well, alley sex is gross, ladies have higher standards, even I know that.”

“Such a gentleman.”

“I can be gentlemanly as fuck when I want to be.” He smiles softly. “Pep, are you going to go back to work?”

She feels for his leg underneath the cover, and starts running her hand up and down it idly. “Where else would I go?” she asks

“Anywhere you want? Do you think I don't know how many job offers you get every week? I'm not stupid, despite my best efforts to make people think so.” He covers her hand with his, stilling it on his leg.

“I'm not--” She stops to think about what she's saying. She's avoided thinking about any of this for the last few days, preferring to fall into the old standard of 'must look after Tony', but the words feel true when she says them: “I'm not going anywhere.”

The look of relief on his face almost takes her breath away. He squeezes her hand. “That's, that's good to hear, but what about what you said? You said you quit. Do you... is that still happening?”

She shakes her head. “I don't know, but I'll be around no matter what.”

“But Pepper.” He takes her other hand and settles it on his leg too. “The company's yours.”

“Tony...”

“No, I mean, I've never done anything to expand it, that was always...” He shakes his head and looks at her with bright eyes. “And you, you did everything for the company. If my name wasn't on the door then I'd just be another creepy basement dweller building weapons. It's yours.”

“It was your father's, Tony. You love the company.”

He chuckles. “I really don't. I love what it can do for me, the money and resources and fame. I love Iron Man. But I don't love the company itself. I kind of... hate it, sometimes. You love it, though. You believe in all the good things that it can do for the world. Yeah, I read your résumé, don't look so surprised.”

It's not a shock that he feels this way, she supposes: the company essentially moved from the hands of his father into the hands of Stane and stayed there until six months ago. And she does believe in the company, though it's always been more about believing in him, even when there was absolutely no reason to. Stark Industries is Tony, he defines it in every way for her.

“And anyway,” he says, shaking out of her thoughts, “you can't be my PA any more because you can't date your boss, that's totally cliché. Won't have it.”

She studies his face; his smile is just a touch desperate, begging for her to agree with him. “If I stayed on as CEO,” she says and he grins, “and if we were dating, wouldn't that make me your boss instead?”

“Female boss, male employee is totally hot, though. Stuff of school boy fantasies, for sure.”

She sighs. “Of course. How about I think about it?”

“Will you think about the sponge bath too?”

She leans up and kisses him on the forehead. “No.”

-

By the end of the week, Tony's up and around despite her 'best efforts to keep me in the boudoir, Potts, really', surveying the damage done to the house.

“I am going to have so much fun with this,” he says, giving the particle accelerator a loving stroke.

She sweeps a pile of debris off his work bench and into a trash bag. “It's not staying here,” she says.

“What? Why not?”

“Because I don't want you to open up a black hole in the basement.”

“It's not like we'd ever know,” he mumbles. “Time slows way down around a black hole.”

“No.”

He sighs loudly and goes back to salvaging stray designs buried under rubble. Jarvis, Dummy, and the rest of the bots have done most of the heavy lifting, and Pepper's getting a contractor in for what's left of the repairs, despite Tony's insistence that he's perfectly well enough to do it himself. Passing out on the couch for two hours after breakfast suggests otherwise.

“Ms. Potts,” Jarvis says, “you have a call. I told him you were not accepting calls presently, but he insisted quite vehemently.”

“Thanks, Jarvis,” she says. “Could you route it through to the workshop phone?”

“Already done.”

She drops the trash bag and takes the phone from its cradle. “Hello?”

“Ms. Potts, you haven't been returning any of our calls,” Coulson says in his usual monotone.

“Agent Coulson,” she says, and Tony looks up from what he's doing. “We've been a little busy here.”

“I understand. How is Mr Stark?”

“Better,” she says, and doesn't elaborate. Tony watches her but doesn't say anything.

“That's good to hear. Colonel Fury would like to speak with him. We're sending a car around to pick him up.”

“No,” she says. Tony raises his eyebrows. “Give me the address and I'll drive him.”

“That isn't necessary, Ms. Potts--”

“Give me the address,” she repeats, “or he isn't leaving this house.”

There's silence on the line, and Tony mouths 'what's going on?' before Coulson speaks again. “Fine. Do you have a pen?”

She grabs a pen off one of the work benches and shakes dust off a piece of paper. “Go ahead.”

Tony peers over her shoulder as she takes the address down, then hangs up without saying goodbye to Coulson. She folds the paper and tucks it into her pocket. “Fury wants to speak to you,” she says.

He nods. “Just so you know, you're like, one third Kathy Bates from Misery, two thirds smoking hot right now.”

“Put your shoes on,” she says.

-

It's not a long drive to the address Coulson gave her, an abandoned lot just outside of Santa Monica. When she pulls up, there's a ripple of movement that she might have missed a couple of years ago, before she started to expect bad guys around every corner. The door of the lone building, a dilapidated old warehouse that she's pretty sure was Tony's hospital six days ago, opens and Coulson steps out. He stands by the door, hands clasped behind his back, face as blank as ever. She stops the car and stares back at him, hands still resting on the wheel.

“Pepper?” Tony says, after they've sat there for a couple of minutes. He looks at her and frowns. “I think if I don't get out of the car soon, they're going to shoot me.”

She grips the steering wheel tighter, still staring ahead. Coulson hasn't moved an inch. “If you...” she says and stops. She turns to him. “If you ever keep something like this from me again, you won't have to worry about the palladium killing you.”

He squirms under her gaze. “I know,” he says quietly. “I won't, I promise.”

She loosens her grip on the wheel. “Okay,” she says.

“Okay?”

“Okay,” she repeats and puts her hand on the back of his neck, drawing him towards her. It's their first kiss since the roof, and it occurs to her that now she's going to have to get used to kissing someone with facial hair.

He grins. “So, that's a definite maybe, then?”

“Go talk to Fury.”

He grimaces. “Ugh, total boner killer, man.” He glances back at the building. “If I'm not out in five minutes, call the police. Or the Air Force... Navy, coast guard; something.”

“If you're not back in five minutes, I'm going to drive this car through the front of that building and drag you out.”

He groans. “Stop being so hot, Pepper, God. I gotta have a little dignity when I go in there.”

-

Two days later she stands behind the stage with Fury as Tony and Jim receive their medals from Senator Stern.

“How on Earth did you manage to get him to agree to this?” she asks him, keeping her gaze forward, because she's not sure if she's actually allowed to look at him square in the face, or if she might get shot for it. There's a general air about him that says, 'he might shoot me'.

“You aren't the only one who knows how to threaten figures of authority, Ms. Potts,” he says. “Nicely done, by the way.”

She tips her head slightly. “Life with Tony prepares you for almost anything, Colonel.”

He grins. “I don't doubt it.”

-

Ten days later S.H.I.E.L.D. call again, only this time it comes in the form of an unexpected visit at seven on a Sunday morning.

Pepper ignores the first couple of chimes of the bell, content to stay pinned underneath Tony, who has, sometime in the night, rolled mostly on top of her, a pleasingly solid pressure. She can feel his steady heartbeat against her chest, his steady breath against her ear, the reassuring hum of the arc reactor between them. Occasionally he mumbles something, twitches and tenses, but for the most part he's blessedly calm.

“They do not appear to be leaving,” Jarvis says quietly. “I did tell them that we are not accepting visitors at this hour.”

“Damn,” she mutters. Tony shifts, wrapping one of his legs around hers.

“Shall I ready the cannons?”

She runs her fingers through Tony's hair and he rubs his face into her neck; it does funny things to her toes. “The scary thing is, I'm not sure if you're joking or not.”

“I am programmed to follow two basic laws: first, do no harm, second, 'get off my lawn, you damn kids'.”

She sighs and starts to work at dislodging Tony. If anything, his weight seems to become even deader. “Noooo,” he whines as she manages to roll him onto his back.

“S.H.I.E.L.D. is here,” she says, sitting up. “Again.”

“Tell them we moved,” he suggests, pulling the covers over his head.

“Excellent plan, sir,” Jarvis comments. “They will never suspect a thing.”

“Smartass,” he mumbles.

“Need I remind you that the original basis for my program was a scan of your brainwaves, sir?”

Boys,” Pepper says, and swings her legs out of bed. “I guess I'll deal with the secret agents at the door, shall I?”

“Super Pepper to the rescue!” she hears Tony call as she leaves the room.

“Indeed,” Jarvis replies.

-

S.H.I.E.L.D. wants Tony to go to New York. More accurately, they insist on it and have a plane on the tarmac at a private airfield for him. At first, at Coulson's, 'he needs to come with us', Jarvis locks the entire house down, trapping the still dozing Tony in the bedroom. She sees the security panel flash red once to indicate that the house is armed, and she's sure that Coulson sees it too. He seems completely unfazed by the turn of events. Pepper, on the other hand, feels a knot of dread in her gut; she viscerally objects to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s intrusion, and wants nothing more than to direct Jarvis to eject Coulson from the house. But this isn't normal. This desire to protect Tony is starting to get out of hand: S.H.I.E.L.D. has never actually caused any harm to come to him or, indeed, her and Jim. Coulson's even saved her life a couple of times, Fury and Natalie have saved Tony's life once, maybe twice. She knows her anger is misplaced.

They go to New York. Coulson doesn't even blink at her coming along, and she busies herself on the plane with Tony's stock options while he flicks through a report given to him by Coulson on the incidents at Culver University and in downtown New York that have been all over the news in the past week. Tony's been following the speculation online with interest: conspiracy theories abound about secret government projects and genetically engineered monsters, and apparently they aren't far off.

“The Abomination,” Tony mutters. “This is awesome.”

“What is it?” She closes her laptop and peers over at the photograph in his hands. 'Monster' is really the word that comes to mind.

“It's a person. Was a person? Name's blacked out, but he was a soldier. Got treated with some amped up version of the super soldier serum and turned into 'roid rage boy here.”

“'Super soldier serum'? Like Captain America? I thought that was just media propaganda; that's what they told us in History 101.”

“Apparently not. Rhodey's going to shit himself when he finds out,” Tony says, and passes her a page of the document. Every name is redacted, along with any identifying information: 'Subject [blank], [blank] years old, from [blank], presented with several serious ailments that prevented him from enlisting in the army. Once Dr. [blank] administered the serum to subject [blank], considerable physical changes were seen'. She skips down to the last paragraph, where it simply says: 'Subject [blank]'s plane went down over the [blank] on May 1st 1945. Subject [blank] was declared dead in 1952'.

“Well,” she says, handing the paper back. “What about the other guy? The green one.”

“The 'Hulk',” Tony supplies. He hands her another page of the report. This one is almost entirely blacked out, save for the occasional 'is' and 'the'. “He escaped.”

“He escaped?” she repeats.

“And doesn't that just make you feel so warm and safe inside?”

“I'm not worried, I already have my machine man to protect me.” At Tony's grin, she adds, “I meant Jarvis.”

He leans over and kisses her on the cheek. “Mean, Potts. You're very mean to me.”

“Just toughening you up for General Ross. Thunderbolt doesn't like you, you know.”

“No one likes me,” he says. “Even I don't like me. You really have terrible taste in men.”

She lays her hand over his and laces their fingers together. “Just don't say the Air Force could beat up the Army again. You almost lost us a multi-million dollar contract last time.”

“But it's true,” he says innocently, rubbing his thumb across the back of her hand.

“Of course it's true, Jim could lay him out in a hot minute, but that doesn't mean you have to tell him that. I'm the only one you have to tell the truth to.”

His thumb stills. “I do,” he says, and glances sideways at her. The openness of his expression hits her hard for the split second that it's there, before Coulson walks in and Tony's defences slide shut again.

“We're landing in twenty minutes,” Coulson says, then lingers, eyes flickering briefly to their entwined hands. “I understand that you and General Ross already know each other.”

“I've had my run-ins with the US Army before, yeah,” Tony says. “I guess I should probably tell you that there's no love lost between me and Thunderbolt.”

“I've heard,” Coulson replies, and Pepper and Tony both look at the wall mounted speakers, then at each other. She makes a mental note to get the house and all the cars swept for bugs once they get back. “Just be yourself, Mr Stark.”

-

She waits with Coulson for Tony in a car with one way blacked out windows. They're parked outside a bar in Harlem, having driven through what looked like a war zone, post the Hulk/Abomination fight.

“How is Mr Stark?” Coulson asks, not even moving his head towards where she now sits in the passenger seat. His eyes are hidden behind his sunglasses, but she feels sure that he's monitoring and tracking the movements of every single person on the street.

“He's fine,” she says, focusing on her laptop. S.H.I.E.L.D. has amazing wireless.

“Good.” There's a pause that stretches long enough that Pepper thinks that Coulson has gone back to his meditation, then he adds, “How are you?”

“I'm--” Honestly, the question stumps her. How is she? She tells everyone else that she's just busy, thank you for your concern, and Tony that she's happy, she's okay, he's okay. “--fine,” she settles on.

Coulson nods once. “Colonel Fury was pleased to hear that you and Mr Stark had got together.” He still doesn't look at her, though she turns in her seat and stares at him.

“Thanks?”

“He's hopeful that Mr Stark will be able to maintain a long term stable relationship.”

“I would... prefer not to talk about this.” With you, or with anyone else, she thinks.

“Of course,” he says, and then he does turn his head, watching passively as Tony strides quickly from the bar. The locks of the car click open.

“We should go, let's go, can we go?” Tony says as he opens the car door, having already started talking before they had a hope of hearing him. He jumps in and slams the door shut. “This is bulletproof glass, right?”

If Pepper didn't know better, she'd swear that she catches the faintest curve of a smile on Coulson's mouth as he starts the car. As they begin to pull away, the door to the bar opens again, and Ross steps out, holding an empty beer bottle, raised to his chest. He looks momentarily undecided.

“Oh,” she says, when he hurls the bottle at the car and it smashes across the rear windshield. Tony looks positively ecstatic.

“Remind me to have that place demolished,” he says.

“You'd need to own it first,” she replies, already writing a note on her laptop to contact a property lawyer.

-
Things go back to normal. Or at least, the immediate crises are all financial rather than mortal. She still finds it hard to leave Tony alone, and outside of work she spends her days in his mansion, and her nights in his bed. When she goes to pick stuff up from her apartment, he tags along, citing that he's never been to her place before 'and since I've shown you such hospitality over the years, I think I'm owed'.

Her mother calls because she hasn't heard from her in so long, and the text message Pepper sent after Tony was hospitalised, 'i'm fine, will call later', didn't exactly soothe her.

“Everything's fine, Mom,” she says, as she sits in the kitchen, going over Stark Industries's latest financial reports. Tony is, as he has been for the last three weeks, close by, trying to get a jar of something open and failing miserably. He starts banging it against the edge of the counter. She cover the phone with her hand, and says, “Stop that, you'll cut your hand open.”

Tony smiles sheepishly – he's been doing that more and more of late, it's quite an adjustment for her to get used to – and puts the jar down before leaving the room.

“Hm,” her mother hums. “And how is... Mr Stark?” She always pauses like that when they talk about Tony, like she has to brace herself before getting onto the subject of Pepper's warmongering, manwhore former boss.

“He's fine,” she says, writing a note for herself in red pen in the margin of the page she's looking at. Tony says she looks like a sexy high school teacher when she does her work.

“I saw the... fight on the news, it seemed like he was beaten quite badly,” her mother says. “It must have taken him at least a little time to recover.”

“Nothing a good night's rest didn't fix,” she replies breezily.

“I see. You haven't been answering your home phone, are you... staying with him?”

“Well,” she starts, as Tony comes back in with an Iron Man glove on and loudly announces, 'I am going to make this jar of pickles my bitch'. “I have had to stay over a little.”

She watches without comment as Tony sets to work on the jar again, easily twisting the lid off, as well as crushing it and smashing the top of the jar. He pauses, looking down at it, then shrugs to himself and reaches his other hand in.

“Tony!” she snaps, interrupting her mother saying something about whether it's really wise to spend so much time with him. She gets up, shoos him away, and get a bowl and strainer from the cupboard before wedging her phone between her shoulder and her ear.

“How's Julia?” she asks. Her sister is a constant source of irritation for their mother; it's always a good bet for a subject change. She puts the strainer on top of the bowl and carefully tips the shattered jar into it, then starts picking out the shards of glass while her mother details Julia's latest dead end job.

“Can I--?” Tony says, taking the phone carefully from her. “Hey, Mrs Potts? You did an awesome job raising your daughter, but she has to go now, she'll call you later.” He snaps the phone shut and she frowns at him.

“T-”

He cuts her off with a kiss, one hand on her shoulder, the gloved hand safely out of the way. He pulls back long enough to mumble, 'I love you, Pep' before covering her mouth again, and she lets him pull her in, presses her palms to his hips then slides them up around his back. It's almost beginning to feel routine.

Eventually he comes up for air. “You're the only girl who'd pick glass out of my pickles.”

“Yours are the only pickles that I'd pick glass out of, period,” she says, and he grins, leaning in for another kiss.

-

There's a gala at the end of the month, a fact which comes to her attention eight hours before it starts, and three hours before her assistant tells her to turn the news on and she discovers that Iron Man is in the middle of battling someone who appears to be dressed up as a giant bug. Jim sends her a text message saying that he's flying in to help, and between them they take the unfortunate guy down while she's on a conference call, one eye on the muted television.

In the late afternoon Tony sends her a text message that reads: 'help me pepper D:' along with an address in South West LA, which she breaks the speed limit somewhat to get to. As it turns out, S.H.I.E.L.D. won't let him leave their new facility before he's been debriefed and they're taking their sweet time about it. She almost hits him for worrying her like that, but he looks so exhausted that even a tap on the chest might lay him out.

“You can talk to him tomorrow,” she says over Coulson's objections.

“And I want my suit back!” Tony adds, gripping her arm a little harder than necessary. “I could sue you for copyright infringement for even having a disassembly unit, you know.”

“Get him his suit,” she says, and, miraculously, they comply.

Tony falls asleep minutes after she peels back out of the parking lot, twisted towards her in the passenger seat. He has dark circles under his eyes, contrasting sharply with his pale face, and she indulges the urge to check his pulse. It's steady enough and he squirms under her touch, pushing his face into her hand. She rubs her thumb against his cheek, feeling the resistance of his stubble; he hasn't shaved for a couple of days, hasn't really been out at all.

She withdraws her hand to an irritated sound of protest from Tony, and calls through to the mansion.

“Jarvis?”

“Yes, Ms. Potts?”

“Is Tony okay?”

Jarvis pauses a moment before answering, “I cannot presently scan him, but he was not injured in the fight.”

“Okay,” she mutters, casting another look at him. He doesn't look uninjured.

“However, he was complaining of a headache earlier and his blood panel this morning showed low blood sugar.”

“His blood panel?”

“Mr Stark has had me test his blood every other day for the last three weeks.”

“Oh,” she says.

“He did not want you to have to worry about him any more.”

She takes a deep breath, trying to dispel the sudden tight feeling in her chest. “Thank you, Jarvis.”

“You are welcome, Ms. Potts.”

-

It takes two hours to get back to the mansion with traffic, and Tony sleeps the entire way, barely stirring when Pepper's phone starts to ring, her assistant worrying about where Pepper is; by the time she pulls up at home she has an hour to get to the gala. She shakes him awake, and he jumps, banging his head against the door.

“Fuck! Who... put that there? Jesus.”

“Come on, let's get you into bed.”

He grins stupidly at her, then frowns. “No.”

“No?”

“Mm, no,” he says vaguely, fumbling with the door handle. “There's a thing.”

She reaches across and releases it for him. “A thing?”

“Thank you, Ms. Potts,” he says, and stumbles out of the car. “There is...” He shakes his finger for a second before pointing at her. “A gala. Yes.”

“How on Earth do you know about that?” she asks, getting out of the car and following him out of the garage.

“Got Jarvis to set up an alert system for things. Jarvis! Code red coffee, chop chop.”

“I am not certain that we have enough coffee beans on the premises, sir,” Jarvis replies. Tony pulls a face at one of the sensors and jabs at the elevator buttons. He holds the door until Pepper catches up with him.

“Since when do you have an alert system?” She's suggested such a thing several times over the years and he'd always shot it down as 'too suffocating to his creativity'.

“Three weeks ago, give or take.”

“Oh,” she says, and looks at him. He looks absolutely wrecked. “Well, don't worry about it.”

“I'm not worried. It takes, what, forty minutes to get to Beverly Hills? I've got a whole twenty minutes to make myself lovely.” He strides out of the elevator when the doors open and heads for the kitchen, picking up Jarvis's waiting cup of coffee when he gets there. He takes a sip and gags. “Ah, that's the stuff.”

“We're not going.”

“Of course we're going, it's called a 'Stark Industries' gala for a reason, you know.”

Tony.”

Pepper.” He dodges past her as she tries to block him on his way out of the kitchen. “It'll look bad to the investors if we aren't there, especially with... the Expo going the way it did.”

She resists reminding him that he's never cared about that sort of thing before, and swings around to pursue him up the stairs. “Fine. I'll go, then, but you need to stay here and rest.”

“Nonsense,” he says. “I have coffee now, I'm good. And you know every CEO needs a little arm candy. You got relegated to that position enough times while I fucked around with anyone and everyone, I think it's high time you got some revenge.” He makes it to the bedroom, turning around to smile too brightly at her.

“I'm not going to 'get revenge' on you, Tony.”

He shrugs, smile frozen on his face. “You'd be well within your rights too, is all I'm saying.”

She has never been on this side of the argument. The look on Tony's face is vaguely desperate; it's a look that she's been seeing far too often recently. She shakes her head. “You've got fifteen minutes,” she says.

-

Happy looks concerned when they meet him out by the limo.

“You sure you're up to it, boss?” he asks, eyeing Tony's wet hair and iron grip on a new cup of coffee that smells strong enough to resurrect the dead. Nevertheless, he opens the door for them.

“Course I am,” Tony says, just barely avoiding hitting his head on the edge of the open door.

She has to put concealer under his eyes to make him look halfway well, and thankfully there's an outlet for the hair dryer that she snagged on the way out of the house. By the time they pull up outside the hotel, ten fashionable minutes late, he looks just about presentable enough.

“We good?” he asks. She can already hear the photographers and journalists clamouring outside the limo.

“We can still go home, you know,” she says, and then, at his huff, kisses him quickly on the lips and nods. “We're as good as we'll ever be. Don't touch your face.”

“Strong words, Potts, strong words,” he says, and slips his sunglasses on before getting out.

-

They barely leave each other's sides for most of the evening, which does afford them some strange glances, and with Tony's occasionally spaced out expression, she can already hear whisperings about him being stoned and her covering it up coming from the edges of the room. She shuts it out as best she can: years past, they'd probably be right and she'd be worried about blind items on gossip websites. Now she wants to tell them not to injure this delicate thing, this goodness in him that's fighting to see the light of day, that could easily disappear if challenged too harshly. The vehemence of this feeling takes her quite by surprise.
They spend the first couple of hours fielding questions about Flushing: most of the site has been cleared, with the help of S.H.I.E.L.D. for the leftover drones (they were clamouring to get at them, and if it meant less for SI's clean up crew to do, then so be it), and compensation for the surrounding residents is under way. Though she tells Tony otherwise, the attack on the Expo, and the Expo in general, may have delivered a crippling blow to the company, one that she hardly feels capable of dealing with.

Around ten she gets cornered by an investor with thinning, greying hair and the most monotonous voice she has ever heard. He's talking about the deal he's making with the company (and try as she might, she cannot remember who he or his company is), but she's merely a vessel at which he can speak, and the only reason she's still allowing herself to be talked at is because he makes a little aside about also being interested in Hammer Industries.

Tony's a few feet away, swaying slightly by the bar, talking to a woman that Pepper quickly identifies as Christine Everhart. Everhart appears to have a tape recorder in her hand. Damn.

Pepper touches the investor's arm lightly. “Why don't you come in to the office tomorrow, and we can discuss this further. If you'll excuse me,” she says, and breaks away without another word, walking as quickly as she can towards Tony without drawing undue attention. She finds that everyone watches her these days, though, no matter how hard she tries to avoid it.

When she reaches them she holds her hand out to him and he takes it without missing a beat. “I'm sorry, Ms. Everhart, but I insist on having this dance.”

“Of course,” Everhart says gracefully. “We were just shooting the shit.” Pepper doesn't miss her carefully pocketing the recorder.

“Yes, well, Tony is full of that,” Pepper replies and tugs him away. Half of the concealer she applied not three hours ago has been rubbed away, leaving his face unevenly pale and sallow.

She pulls him onto the onto the dance floor and arranges his hands on her waist. “Have you been rubbing your face?”

“No,” he says, then squints. “...yes.”

“You look like death. One dance and we're going home.” She wraps her arms loosely around his neck and tries her best to lead without making it obvious that she is.

His 'okay' comes out in a rush of air as he presses, almost slumps, against her. She counts off in her head, shuffling her feet and trying to get him to follow without tripping: when she gets to fifty she pulls away and wraps an arm around his waist, leading him out of the room.

“People are gonna talk, you know,” he mumbles as she attempts to carefully weave around the guests without engaging them in conversation. “You manhandling me like this.”

“I manhandle you all the time,” she says, and steers him out into the hallway, towards the exit where the drivers are waiting.

“No, right, but I'm not normally so, um... sober when you do.”

She elbows the door open and waves to Happy, who starts when he sees them and drops his magazine. “There is not a single person in there save you and me who thought you were sober tonight.”

“I didn't even touch a glass!”

“At this point, your liver probably produces alcohol all by itself,” she says. He laughs and nuzzles his face into her hair. Happy looks away as he opens the door for them.

“I wasn't expecting you for... well, till light, boss,” he says.

Tony tumbles gracelessly into the back seat. “Pep couldn't wait any longer to ravish me,” he calls.

She closes her eyes for second, then straightens up and curls her fingers around the edge of car door. “Thank you, Happy,” she says.

“Yeah,” he says, not meeting her gaze.

She slips into the back and slams the door closed, then leans across and starts fiddling with Tony's seatbelt.

“I can do that myself,” Tony grumbles. She slides a knee into his lap to reach the buckle. “On second thoughts, go right ahead.”

When she settles back into her seat and Happy pulls out of the garage, Tony starts talking, semi-coherent rambling that makes her cringe at the thought of what Everhart has got on her tape recorder, and exactly how the woman might spin such delirious drivel. She lets Tony continue for a few minutes, as they clear the journalists and paparazzi and are back on the road, before she lays a hand on his knee.

“Just...” she says, and he looks at her with that bizarrely guileless way he has about him sometimes. “It's okay. Stop.”

“Right,” he says, and all the tension seems to leave his body at once. “Okay.” He leans his head back and closes his eyes.

-

Of course, just to continue the night's trend of being extremely difficult, when they get home, Tony won't wake up. The most she can get out of him is a huff and being lightly flailed at.

“Don't worry about it,” Happy says, pushing his sleeves up. “Not the first time I've had to put Mr Stark to bed.

“I recall,” she says, and gets out of the away so that Happy can reach in, loop his arms around Tony's waist, and drag him out of the limo.

“He's lighter than I remember,” Happy comments, arranging Tony over his shoulder. She shrugs and closes the car door behind them. Tony's put back on a lot of weight and muscle mass in the last month, and he's been working out everyday, but the only people who even know that this is an issue are her, Rhodey, and, she supposes, everyone at S.H.I.E.L.D. Tony's mostly been hiding it by the clever use of oversized hoodies and not going out.

Following Happy inside, first in the elevator from the garage, then up the stairs is, to say the least, awkward, made even more so when they get to the bedroom. It only occurs to her when they get to the door that she hadn't made the bed that morning, that her work clothes and sensible bra are discarded on top of the rumpled sheets, that all her little touches are present amongst his things: her battered make-up case, her stack of paperback novels, her teddy bear that Tony only laughed at for a few minutes. They're all things that Happy's going to recognise; she cringes inwardly.

He puts Tony down on the bed carefully, judiciously avoiding looking at her clothes. Tony immediately rolls onto his stomach, burying his face in the covers.

“So,” Happy says, and shuffles his feet a little. “I didn't expect to be off until at least four... Is he okay?”

“He's fine,” she says shortly, and doesn't miss Happy's hurt look. She used to tell him things, used to open up to him but that was a long time ago and she knows she's lost that connection now. Ironically enough, one of the things that she's learnt from long years with Tony is how to prioritise, what she can go without, and what she simply can't. “I think there's a bug going around.” She doesn't even bother to make it sound believable.

“Sure,” Happy replies. “I'll just be...” He points to the door.

She steps out of his way, already thinking about much she's going to be able to strip Tony. He can be difficult enough to undress when he's conscious.

Happy stops at the door. “I... I'm glad that Tony's making an effort for you, now.” He flashes her a quick smile. “Night, Pepper.”

She nods. “So am I,” she mutters once he's out of hearing range.

-

The article that appears in Vanity Fair at the end of the week, byline Christine Everhart, alludes to the questionable fitness and value of Tony in his dual positions as superhero and figurehead of Stark Industries. Everhart suggests that he is neither physically nor mentally capable of filling either role and that, indeed, he's only barely filling one as of right now. She doesn't go in for any of the easy jabs about substance abuse, either, preferring instead to drag up the old questions of PTSD and Tony's stability post-Afghanistan and Vanko.

“Haters,” Tony says with a shrug, over breakfast.

“She thinks you're trying to withdraw from the public life entirely.” Everhart presents a convincing argument: giving up the company, going off the deep end at his birthday party, trailing around after Pepper at the gala, never being seen at nightclubs or parties. Is it all too much for Tony Stark? Everhart asks.

“Opinions are like assholes,” he says around a spoonful of cereal. “Everyone is one.”

“Has one,” she corrects.

“One what?”

“Tony.” She closes the magazine and slides it over to him. He slides it back. “Don't you want to read it?”

“You'll tell me if there's something important,” he says with absolute certainty.

“Yeah, but aren't you interested?”

“You'll tell me if there's something I need to know,” he repeats, fixing wide eyes on her before tipping his bowl back and draining it. Most of the milk gets in his beard.

She sighs, and reaches for the paper towels.

-

What they need, she decides, is to go on a date. A real out of the house, get dressed up, kiss on the door step at the end of night date. In two short months, they've fallen into a routine, which is: she gets up ridiculously early, gets dressed, gets coffee, and leaves for work while Tony follows her around until she's out the door, then holes up in the workshop. When she gets back after dark, he's wearing exactly what she left him in, a t-shirt and sweatpants, with maybe some added oil stains and sweat. Then she heats something up in microwave, they watch TV for a little while, make out for a little while longer, go to bed, and rinse and repeat the next day. And the thing that's starting to scare her is that Tony seems perfectly content this way, like he has no real desire to go out, or talk to people, or do anything that doesn't take place inside their little bubble.

“A 'date'?” Tony repeats suspiciously. He's barefoot, one leg tucked under him on the chair as he works on some incredibly intricate and fiddly circuit board for the suit. She's always amazed at how delicate he can be, feather light touches and the shallow, controlled breathing.

“You've heard of them, haven't you?” She leans her hip against the edge of the worktop; he follows the line up to her face.

“Heard of 'em, yeah,” he says, and glances back down at circuit board.

“You've been on a date,” she says, not making it a question.

He hums non-committally.

“Rumiko? Joanna? You were engaged to her!”

“For five minutes,” he says. “I'm more of a wham, bam, thank you, ma'am kind of guy, you know that, Pep.”

“High school,” she says.

“I graduated when I was fifteen; either they weren't interested in a precocious little freak, or my mom wouldn't let me go out with eighteen year old cheerleaders with huge--”

“University,” she tries again, cutting him off. “Don't even pretend that you didn't spread it around back at MIT, Rhodey was there.”

He snorts. “The only person that I ever really wanted to... date, whatever, kind of fucked me over. And not in the fun way.” He smiles up at her, but she catches that split second wobble in his expression.

She can't remember the last time she saw him wear shoes, she thinks it might have been the gala. They have got to get out of here.

“Well, it's your lucky day, because I am going to take you out on a long overdue first date.”

“Should I wear a corsage?”

“That's prom,” she says.

“Oh.”

She rubs a hand over the back of his neck. “Tomorrow. Dress pretty for me.”

-

“Are you ready?” she calls from outside the bedroom door, because apparently Tony has taken this date to heart and is therefore refusing to let her in until he's ready.

(“It's bad luck,” he said through the door.

“We aren't getting married, Tony.”

There's a beat, and then a quiet, “Yeah, I know that.”)

“Uh,” he says, and there's a thump, and a muttered 'where the fuck are they?'.

“Under the bed, sir,” she hears Jarvis say.

“Tony?” she says after another minute.

“Yep! Yeah, yeah, yes, here I am!”he says, and flings the door open. She looks him over: hair's a bit wild (she makes a note to book him a hair appointment), no tie, open collar, dark wash jeans that are new and she knows are going to rub blue dye on everything, and sneakers that--

She tilts her head, and he lifts his foot up a bit to give her a closer look. “Like them? Came in the mail yesterday.”

“Are those Iron Man Nikes?”

He grins. “The arc reactors light up and everything!”

“They don't go with your jeans.”

“Are you saying I'm not pretty enough?”

“You're plenty pretty,” she says, and he leans in close to kiss her.

“Can't we just stay in?” he asks against her ear, “I'm sure we could find lots of fun things to do with those fuck-me boots you're wearing.”

Her breath stutters in her throat as he runs his lips along her jaw, nose brushing her cheek. “Th-these aren't fuck-me boots.”

“Totally fuck-me boots,” he rumbles against her neck.

“You'd say that about my bunny slippers.”

She feels his laughter warm her skin before he slides an arm under her legs and lifts her against him, turning her round and pressing her gently into the wall. “Bunnies are a total aphrodisiac.”

She wraps her legs around him, the tips of her boots – which, perhaps, she chose for their less than wholesome qualities – knocking together, and uses his shoulders to anchor herself between him and the wall as he sets to work unbuttoning her shirt with his teeth and tongue. It's really quite impressive.

“T-Tony. Oh,” she gasps as he gets the top four buttons undone and starts the same treatment on her collarbone, sucking along the sharp edge, just the barest hint of teeth. She winds a hand in his hair, unsure for a second of what she wants to do. Whatever it is, it only serves to make Tony groan and redouble his efforts. “Tony. Tony.”

He stills, and she can feel his chest heaving against hers. “Tony,” she repeats again. “Making out comes after the date.”

“I'm a grown-up, I can have dessert before starters, too, you know,” he mumbles.

“Yes,” she agrees, intimately aware of Tony's diet; more aware of it than he is, probably. “And yet...”

He huffs, and after a couple of seconds lets her back down with a heavy sigh.

“You might want to change into a t-shirt,” she says, tapping his cheek. “Your shirt's going to get dirty where we're going.”

That gets his attention.

-

The problem with going out with Tony is you aren't just going out with Tony, you're going with Tony, dozens of Hollywood paparazzos, hundreds of swooning fans, and a bodyguard or ten. There are very few places that he can go where he won't immediately cause iPhones to come out of bags and start snapping away, and Pepper would prefer that their first date not hit Twitter before they get to dessert.

Tony looks out of the window suspiciously when they finally reach their destination, after a couple of hours driving and many off key renditions by him of the greatest hits of Black Sabbath. He does it for her benefit, because she's heard him sing and he's actually really good; a little too good, and she vastly prefers spending the two hours laughing to being hopelessly aroused.

“It's... a park,” he says.

She pulls onto the side of the dirt track and hits the brakes. “Good eye.”

He glances around. They're the only ones there, which is exactly what she was hoping for. “I feel like we're here to bury a body,” he says.

“Don't be silly, the ground is far too hard here to dig a grave. Not that I've ever thought about this, in long... long shareholders' meetings.”

He looks at her out of the corner of his eye and slowly reaches for the door handle. “Rhodey knows that I'm here, you know.”

“No, he doesn't. Nobody does, that's the point.” She manages to keep her face straight until the corner of Tony's mouth starts to twitch. She leans over and gives him a peck on the cheek. “Come on.”

“What are we doing?” he asks, following her out of the car. “Like, hand-gliding? Dirt bike racing? Rock climbing?”

She pops the trunk and reaches in, Tony pressing against her, peering over her shoulder. She pulls out a basket and a blanket. “Picnic,” she says.

“Picnic?” he repeats, backing up just enough to let her close the trunk. She turns around and pushes the basket into his hands.

“Think of it as extreme picnicking, if you want.”

“What's extreme about it?”

“You'll just have to find out, won't you.” She contemplates the tall grass, then her three inch heel boots. She probably should have planned this better, but she only decided on where they were going to go this morning, and she was already dressed by then. She kneels down to unlace the boots, and then pulls them and her socks off.

The grass is wet and cool under her bare feet, and it's such a relief that she takes a minute to absorb it. When she opens her eyes, Tony is standing next to her, holding the basket to his chest, staring at her feet.

“Tony,” she says.

“Mm,” he hums, distracted.

“Come on.”

She settles on somewhere with a view of the ocean. Tony comments that they can see it just as well from his bed.

“But this way you're actually experiencing nature, not just what Jarvis filters in.”

Tony arches an eyebrow. “Are you saying that you want to commune with nature? Should I take my pants off?”

“Maybe later.” She gives the hem of his jeans a tug. “Sit down.”

He flops down next to her. “So, what does one do at a picnic?” He leans over and flicks a bug off her leg. “Except get eaten alive by bugs, obviously, because that's always fun.”

“You've never been on a picnic?” He shakes his head. “Camping?”

“My dad took me to Colorado and tried to teach me how to fish, once. We stayed in his state-of-the-art RV. Probably the only time it ever got used.”

She tuts and hopes that the dog sniffing around by the bushes doesn't come over and bring his owner with him. “That doesn't count.”

“Well, there was that time that I roughed it for three months,” he says, then winces. “Uh. Sorry.”

“It's fine,” she says, because he looks like he's worried that she might slap him. “So, did you learn how to fish?”

He shakes his head. “No, we, uh, we both sucked at it. Couple of days later some urgent thing came up and he dropped me back off with my mom at the Hamptons. That's where we went, in the summer,” he clarifies. “Just me and her.”

Pepper knows almost nothing about his mother beyond the Maria Stark Foundation, and that's only because she's on the board of it. In fact, Pepper knows very little about Tony's childhood that wasn't gleaned from speeches he's given, which could hardly be relied on, comments made by Obadiah, which she's continually realising said more about him than they ever did about Tony, and Tony's own drunken ramblings.

Pepper knows Tony's shoe size, chest size, and height (5'8'', but he says he's 5'9''). She knows that he prefers McDonalds to Burger King, and Taco Bell over both for nostalgia reasons. She knows that he'll start itching if he eats too many peanuts, but that it won't stop him and so she has to invest in boxes of antihistamine pills every month. She knows that he hasn't been to a dentist in eight years, and he's only been to the doctor twice in the last ten, both times because of Iron Man-related injuries. She knows where his porn stash is, and how most of it focuses on red-headed dominatrices.

But she doesn't know about his mother.

“Tell me about her,” she says.

He shrugs. “Nothing much to tell.”

“She was your mother,” she says, “Of course there is.”

He shrugs again. “I don't know. She wasn't expecting to ever be a mom – I was the least planned baby ever – but she did okay. She worked with a lot of charities and she used to take me along when I was little. She made me eat my vegetables, taught me how to swim. Just... normal stuff, I guess.”

“How did she meet your father?”

Tony shifts uncomfortably. “She was his secretary. He... was engaged to someone else at the time.”

“Huh,” she says. “I thought Howard was a consummate bachelor up until he married your mom.”

“Yeah, it got covered up. The media loved the whole boss/secretary romance, it was like a fairytale: poor Italian girl tames the heart of millionaire bachelor. The other woman was totally forgotten.” He shrugs, not quite meeting her eyes.

She thinks about Joanna and how she'd never even heard of her until she came across her in Tony's kitchen that day. “You know it's a myth that people grow up to be their parents, right? Otherwise I'd be a shrill, bossy, red-headed... well...”

She smiles, and Tony laughs, but when he says, “You're perfect,” it sounds totally sincere.

“And you're not your father.”

“No, he wasn't battery-operated.”

“He wasn't a superhero.”

“Just a national hero.”

“But not a superhero,” she repeats.

Fine,” he finally agrees. “My father was not a superhero.”

“And with respect, I'm not your mother,” she says, more for her benefit than his. She is not his mother, she does not need to parent him.

“Ew,” he says, wrinkling his nose. “Bad, bad images there, Pep.”

She smacks him lightly on the arm. “So stop drawing parallels where there are none and eat your sandwich.”

He leans over and peers into the basket. “Can I have pudding first? What kind did you bring? Hey, cupcakes!”

-

They've been sharing a bed every night for a month. It seems like longer, but then in a way, she supposes, they've been in this relationship for ten years. Which makes it even stranger that he hasn't tried anything yet. Sure, he flirts and touches and kisses, and he clings like a limpet when he's asleep, but he's never pushed it any further than that. The situation is starting to get a little... frustrating, honestly.

They get home just as it's beginning to get dark, and if he noticed how distracted she was on the drive back, he doesn't mention it.

“I think I like this whole 'date' thing,” he says as she pulls her boots off.

“You can take off your pants now,” she says. He chuckles. “No, really.”

“Huh?”

She huffs and grabs him by the belt buckle. “Upstairs,” she says, hauling him along.

He lets her pull him all the way upstairs, stumbling occasionally, before he drops his hands to her shoulders. “Are you okay, Pep?”

“Yes,” she hisses as she works her fingers underneath his belt buckle and starts to pry it loose. She's got two fingers hooked around the elastic of his boxers before it occurs to her to ask, “Are you-- don't you... want to?”

“Christ,” he growls, somehow shedding his shoes and pants in one smooth movement before hurrying her into the bedroom. “I want, I want.”

“Good,” she breathes. She unceremoniously strips him of his t-shirt, barely giving him time to even raise his arms first, then curls an arm around his waist, spins them round, and shoves him down onto the bed.

“Been practising that, I see,” he says, but is swiftly quieted when she climbs on after him, knees planted on either side of his hips. He makes a sound low in his throat when she ducks down and kisses him, with too much teeth, like a frantic teenager. He shifts under her, groans, skims his hands all over her body, the backs of her legs, her ass, the curve of her back, before he gets hold of the bottom of her shirt and gives it an experimental tug. A button pops off.

“Fuck, sorry,” he mutters, ducking his head to squint at it. “Way smoother earlier on.”

She sighs and sits back to pull it over her head and discard it. A couple more buttons rain down on them.

Damn,” he says quietly. She expects more of a smartass comment, but he leaves it there, sliding his hands over her waist, callused thumbs kneading the skin above her hipbones. It's different to what she's used to: his hands aren't that big, his fingertips are rough in places but smooth in others from the repeated burns and scaldings of his work, his fingernails are short and ragged where he gnaws on them when he's bored or distracted. His palms are noticeably cooler than her skin – he's been running cold since he came back from Afghanistan, and, honestly, that terrifies her. The evidence of Afghanistan is wrought on his body just as much as it is in his head; in the raised skin around the reactor, the faint spidery lines radiating out from it, the white scars dotted over his chest. She doesn't really understand how a body could take that much pain and keep going.

The reactor flares brighter as he surges up and kisses her.

“Can your heart take this?” she asks. She hadn't considered it before, but the way the reactor is glowing, it worries her.

“Just don't go breaking it,” he says. She stares down at the reactor. “Now you're supposed to say 'I couldn't if I t-tri--'.” He stutters to a stop when she lowers her mouth to the curved edge and runs her tongue along where it meets his chest. “Or, or you could do that,” he says and gasps, rolling his head back against the mattress. “Fuck, I did not-- did not think about new erogenous zones. Oh God, Pepper.”

She abandons her work to look at him again. She can feel his erection grinding into her thigh, his eyes are impossibly dark, his mouth is half open: it's just as pornographic as sex with Tony Stark should be, but his reactions seem somehow disproportionate to the situation. She's had the dubious pleasure of witnessing him having sex with a lot of people, on video feeds, on the internet, and, a few memorable times, in person. It normally takes a bit more than this to get him going.

She unzips her jeans and pushes them down. He immediately rolls his hips up, seeking the lost pressure, and makes a strangled noise of relief when she pushes back down to meet him.

“Tony,” she says. He's arched up against her, and she can't help but run her hand along his spine. He moans, hands scrabbling to grip the blanket beneath them. “Tony,” she repeats. “When was the last time you had sex?”

“Ngh,” he says.

She leans down and kisses his jaw. “When was the last time?”

“I don't-- don't,” he pants, trying to reposition himself, but she has him soundly pinned down.

“You know,” she says, fighting to keep her voice level. She's not sure why she's pushing it, with him writhing under her and an increasingly hard to ignore pressure between her legs, but she is, and she needs to know.

He balls the blanket up in his fist and lifts his head. “Everhart,” he says, eyes widening.

“Almost a year ago?” she asks. She supposes she knows that, but she thought he must have sneaked off at some point and found someone.

“Came... close, if you will, since then,” he says, punctuating it with a groan. “But no... no cigar.”

“Wow,” she says. She rocks her hips forward and he collapses back against the bed.

“Not like I haven't... jerked off and shit. Oh, God,” he gasps as she continues to rock into him. “You're enjoying this!”

She cocks her head. Maybe she is. “Who do you think about?”

“You,” he gasps. He's flushed pink all the way down to his chest; she likes it, he's been so pale recently. “For years.”

“Who else?”

Pepper.” He spreads his legs wider, pushing one up, searching for some kind of relief. She's never had this kind of control over someone in bed, it's kind of thrilling.

“Tony,” she whispers. “Tell me.”

He grabs her hips and stills her. His brow is furrowed as he says, “Everhart, occasionally. Hate sex is hot. Natasha, her-- her hair. Used to, used to think about Rhodey a lot, when I was younger. He never let me... let me do anything 'cause I was too young, and that just made it better, in my head. Sunset, way too much. Jarvis, once or twice, but that got a little weird, even for me. But you, all the time, your fucking red shoes, fuck.”

Her red shoes? “From the day I was hired?”

“Yeah,” he says roughly.

“Fourteen years ago?”

Yeah,” he says, and looks away.

“Oh, Tony.” She reaches between them and tugs her underwear down, then his. “That's by far the hottest thing anyone's ever said to me.” She sinks down onto him without further warning, and he sobs with relief this time, and so does she, almost. She presses against him, kissing his mouth, cheek, neck, which he stretches out invitingly as he rocks against her. She runs her teeth along his pulse point, swirling her tongue there for a moment.

He tangles his fingers in her hair. “Harder.”

“What?”

“The-- the neck thing. Teeth. Harder.”

“It'll leave a mark,” she says. The hand in her hair tightens.

“Fuck,” he hisses. “Yes.”

She starts again, redoubles her efforts, and he just... moans as she sucks round marks into his neck, making sounds that are bringing her perilously close to the edge. It's been years since she's given someone a hickey, and they never enjoyed it this much.

“Pepper,” he says. “Pepper, Pepper, Pepper, oh God, I love you, I love you so much.” He arches up against her, his other arm coming up to cling tightly around her back as he gasps and gasps until his breath finally stutters and he mumbles her name one last time, pulling her over the edge with him.

She rests her forehead against his chest as his hand in her hair loosens and falls away, and his arm relaxes. She stays like that for a few minutes before sitting up, and smiles when he tries to pull her back in.

“You want some post-coital cuddling?” she teases, raising an eyebrow.

He shifts, blinking rapidly as he looks up at her. “Yeah,” he says.

Oh. There's no hint of his usual hard exterior, just Tony, half-asleep, still lying between her thighs. “I'm just going to clean up,” she assures him. “I'll be back in a minute.”

“'kay,” he mumbles, and looks at her like-- like he trusts her. It's such a small thing, and there's no reason why he shouldn't trust that she's going to come back from the bathroom, but it knocks her for six anyway.

She hurries as much as she can in the bathroom, uses the toilet, works the worst of knots out of her hair, takes her make up off, brushes her teeth. When she gets back to the bedroom, the only movement Tony has made is to roll over onto his side, the red marks on his neck visible in the half light. He's still in the place where she pushed him down, diagonally across the bed, feet jutting over the edge. She pulls the blanket free from where it's tucked under the mattress and pulls it over them as she climbs over him and settles with her back against his chest, the reactor a warm, solid pressure between her shoulder blades. He sighs into her hair and wraps his arms around her waist.

-

“Don't go out until those have faded,” she says, waving her slice of toast at the bruises on his neck the next morning. “We don't want your sexcapades in the news again.”

“'Sexcapades'?” Tony repeats with a laugh. “Sure, I'll just... putter around the house.”

“You do that,” she says, and swallows the last of her toast. “I'll go out and earn more money for you to spend.”

He keeps his promise for three days before her Tony Google Alert spits out such masterpieces as: 'What Has Tony Stark Been Up To While He's Been Away?', 'Has Iron Man Found His Iron Maiden?', and the brilliantly succinct: 'Absentee Billionaire Sexed Up!', which comes with a picture of him in low riding jeans, a sweatshirt with a ridiculously stretched out neck, and his hair messy and beginning to curl (he still needs that haircut). On a scale of things he shouldn't wear while sporting three perfectly round bruises on his neck, the ensemble ranks pretty high.

She drops her tablet in front of him on the coffee table, covering the open book he has there.

“Oops,” he says.

“And exactly what were you doing at a Whole Foods?”

He squints. “Buying... food?”

“We have a delivery due tomorrow. If you'd wanted something else, I could have picked it up on my way home. Now PR is being bombarded with phonecalls about your 'new girlfriend'.”

“I wanted to buy stuff... that I didn't want you to know I was buying.” He sighs. “You've ruined the surprise now.”

“Oh, Tony. Is that why the kitchen door is closed?”

“Jarvis's got it covered.”

His creation isn't as bad as she'd feared it might be; it's not that he can't cook, so much as it is he can't, or won't, concentrate long enough on a simple task to complete it successfully. That's why he can build the Iron Man Suit in a cave, but can't do his laundry. That, or he's just lazy. The fillet of chicken marinaded in something that tastes suspiciously like he made it out of various ingredients found in the kitchen is actually pretty good, as is the bottle of wine he brought up from the cellar to go along with it.

“So what brought this on?” she asks once Tony has flicked through every channel they have and settled on Cake Boss (“This is totally mechanical engineering,” he says, “and anyway, I am half Italian, it reminds me of my mom's family.” Pepper's considering cancelling their subscription to TLC).

“I can't do something nice once in a while? Jeez, what is the world coming to?”

“For you 'doing something nice' usually involves installing quantum chips in my laptops. The last time you made me food...” she says, but the rest of it gets stuck in her throat.

Tony smiles wanly and refills her glass. “Yeah. It's... not that. You just, you know, work really hard, you always have and I just... want you to know that I know that. And that I'm... really happy. With this. With you.” He downs half his glass in one go and refocuses on the TV. “I bet I could make a lifesize Iron Man cake.”

They get through most of the bottle in under an hour, by which time she's leaning against Tony's chest while he absently braids her hair, twisting the strands together then combing them free and starting over again. She's lost her stockings and skirt, and changed into a pair of leggings that one of Tony's robots kindly fetched for her. There's a mostly empty tub of cookie dough ice cream on the cushion next to them, the two spoons stuck in it tilting it at a worrying angle.

“So, how's the company? I hope I'm still really rich, because the new upgrades to the suit are going to be bitchin'.”

She shifts, scooting down until she can feel the hard edge of the reactor against the back of her head. She rests her bare feet on the coffee table and reaches over to dig her spoon in the melting ice cream. “We've got some new investors, and S.H.I.E.L.D. has been giving us money for all sorts of confidential projects, but our stocks are all over the place – every time there's a new picture or article about you, the NYSE goes nuts. Finance are having an ongoing mass heart attack.” For some reason, the thought make her laugh, a rather unbecoming giggle. She lifts the tub over her head and offers it to Tony.

“As long as I can still make my toys,” he says, and takes it. He rests it on top of her head for a moment before she squirms away from it. “You know, if it would help our stocks, we could just... say that you're my girlfriend. Instead of everyone thinking I'm some kind of Howard Hughes manwhore asshole.”

“It wouldn't stop them thinking that,” she says. “Anyway, I already get enough shit about going from PA to CEO, being your girlfriend would not help.”

Tony goes very still. She frowns, and thinks over what she said. Oh. She normally has much more tact than this.

“Tony,” she begins, and twists around to look at him. He smiles softly at her and ducks his head to kiss her on the cheek.

“Whatever's best, Pep, I live to serve.”

-

She's in a meeting with investors from Germany when the floor begins to shake. Her assistant gives her a wide-eyed look from the door.

“Ein Moment,” Pepper says, holding up a hand. She gets up and walks as calmly to the window as she can. Behind her, she can hear the men saying 'Erdbeben?' to each other. Earthquake? She catches the metallic arm of a... of something rounding the building across the street. Definitely not an earthquake.

“Entschuldigung,” she says, then points at her assistant. “Jonathan, come with me.”

“Emergency protocol ten,” she says when she's happy that they're out of hearing range of the investors. “Nobody in or out of the building, shields up, windows darkened. Do not tell our guests anything.”

“Um,” Jonathan says. The ground shudders under their feet again.

“Now,” she says as she turns away from him, headed to her office. She pulls her phone out of her pocket, and it rings before she even manages to thumb it unlocked.

“Pepper,” Tony says when she answers. It sounds like he's been running. “Pepper, I'm on my way.”

“Okay,” she says. She closes the office door, switching the lights on as the windows begin to turn a dark brown. There's a safe in the corner, hidden behind lacquered wood. On the line, Tony is still breathing heavily, alternately yelling at Jarvis and swearing under his breath. She presses the phone between her ear and shoulder, and keys in the combination.

“I'm gonna, gonna – goddamn it, Dummy, get your head in the game! – come get you, okay?” he says.

She reaches into the safe and pulls out a gun. “I think you mean you're going to come fight the giant robot thing that's on the rampage outside,” she corrects.

“Yeah, sure, that too. Hang on, I'm switching to the suit comm.”

She tucks the gun into the waistband of her skirt, smooths her jacket over it, and slams the safe shut. “Tony, priorities.”

“Fucking priorities,” he mutters. His voice sounds strained and just a little shaky. “Just... don't hang up?”

“I won't, I won't,” she reassures. Back in the foyer, everyone is out of their offices, standing around in confusion. “Keep everyone away from the windows,” she tells Jonathan.

“How close are you?” she asks into the phone.

“Mile out, about three minutes away. Shit, hang on, I'm getting another call.” The line goes silent for a minute. There are phones ringing all over in the office, joining the general cacophony of voices.

“Ms. Potts, there are people trying to get in downstairs,” Jonathan says. He turns his computer monitor towards her, where there's a video feed of the first floor CCTV. “They look scared.”

She drops her phone to her shoulder. The people are hammering on the doors while the guards are looking on uncertainly. “Let them in, but I don't want anyone making it past the first floor. Lock all the doors, shut down the elevators.”

She lifts the phone back to her ear in time to hear Tony say, “-rently there's a guy – oh, there he is – there's a guy on our roof, but it's okay, he's 'one of ours'.”

“What?” she asks, cupping her hand over her other ear and retreating to furthest corner from the noise.

“You remember Agent Romanoff, don't you?” he asks. “Jarvis, patch her in.”

“Ms. Potts,” Romanoff says shortly.

“Hi?”

“We should have this cleared up soon,” she says. Then her line goes dead.

“Lovely woman,” Tony comments.

It doesn't exactly get cleared up 'soon'. In fact, it's only when Jim and his friends turn up several hours and millions of dollars worth of damage later that they manage to bring the robot down. Pepper's long since used up all the German she knows, and retreats to her office to watch the news feed in private, Tony on speaker phone. It starts to get rather dull once the thrill of fear wears off, and even the shock waves from blow after blow to the robot become routine, every fifteen minutes or so. Things become a little less boring when Tony gets flung into a building and doesn't respond to her for a good ten minutes. Pepper locks her office door and stares at the television until she spots the tell tale streak of red and gold in the sky.

When the thing is finally on the ground, leaving a twenty foot long indent in the road, Pepper's the first in the elevator, going up to the roof to meet Tony.

“Holy shit, that was a workout,” he says.

“Are you okay?” It's dark now, with a chill in the air, but he practically glows in the roof's floodlights. She checks his face, touches the back of his head and comes away with a red hand.

“Suit took most of the blow,” he says. “Liiiittle bit dizzy now, though.”

“Head wounds bleed a lot,” she says, reassuring herself. “It's fine.” She wipes as much of the blood as she can on his armour, then wraps her arms around the cool metal of his chest.

“This seems like a good hug, wish I could feel it,” he mutters. He pats her back carefully with his gloves, then pauses. “Pepper, is that a gun in your waistband or are you just pleased to see me?”

She smiles and steps back. “It's a gun.”

“Oh.” He frowns. “Well, that's hot, too.”

“Stark.”

“Jesus!” he barks, spinning around. “Where the hell did you come from?”

Natasha stares blankly at him. Her hair's shorter, Pepper notes. It looks good. “You'll be debriefed in a couple of days.” She turns to leave – exactly where, Pepper's not sure, because they are thirty floors above street level, but clearly such things aren't a problem for Romanoff. Out of the corner of her eye Pepper notices a figure on the corner of the roof. He's in shadow, and all she can make out is an outline of cropped hair and some kind of cylinder protruding from his back.

“Hey,” Tony shouts. “Aren't you gonna tell what the hell that thing was?”

“It's confidential,” Natasha says.

“Fuck 'confidential'. It's a robot, and I am the robot guy,” Tony reasons.

“It's beyond your understanding,” she says, moving to the edge of the roof.

“Excuse me?” Tony says, taking a couple of steps forward. “Wanna run that by me again?”

Natasha's in shadow too, now. “We'll contact you if we need you,” she says. She makes a gesture to her companion, and then they just... disappear off the edge of the roof.

“Fucking hate S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Tony grouses.

“Yeah,” she agrees. “Let's go home.”

-

“Seriously, fuck S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Tony says, a couple of days later, as he walks into the lounge. He drops a gutted laptop on the coffee table, sits down on the couch, and starts poking at it with a screwdriver.

Pepper looks up from her StarkPad. “What did they do?”

“Blocked me from their system,” he mutters.

“You had access to their system?”

He keeps his eyes trained on the laptop. “Well. In the strictest sense of the word... no.” He gives the computer another tap, it makes a fzzzt noise in response. He drops the screwdriver like he's been burnt and the ensuing mini explosion does, indeed, burn the top of the table.

“Was that my laptop?” she says.

He wrinkles his nose and scoots closer to her. “I'll make you a new one. What are you doing?”

“Guess,” she says.

He takes hold of one of her arms and loops it around his neck. “You are working,” he says, and presses a kiss to her neck, “to make sure,” another kiss, “that I'm looked after,” and his fingers tug gently at the elastic of her underwear, “like always.”

She slides the pad off her lap before it becomes a casualty, and runs a hand over his hair. He makes a sound of victory and continues his nuzzling efforts, half climbing on top of her to press in. She trails her fingers down further to the bump at the base of his skull from the fight and he breathes in sharply but otherwise doesn't stop what he's doing. Of course, he wouldn't go to a doctor, so she had to wash the blood out of his hair with a sponge, dose him with Advil and Tylenol, and then stay up all that night to make sure he wasn't concussed.

“Does it still hurt?” she asks.

“Kiss it better?” he suggests into her hair.

“Kisses won't make it hurt less,” she says.

“Mm, beg to differ,” he mumbles. “Orrr, we could test out some more erogenous zones. Endorphins make everything hurt less. That's science.”

“Well, if it's science...” she says.

-

Tony only gets more agitated about S.H.I.E.L.D. in the following days. He even goes as far as to call Coulson and offer his professional services, but is politely turned down. There have been stories coming out of New Mexico for the last few weeks, about some kind of weapons testing gone wrong. Pepper was happy to ignore it – because honestly, when don't people have conspiracy theories about New Mexico? – but Tony's all over it. Apparently there was a remote drone versus man showdown in Puente Antiguo that the government is covering up.

The sad thing is, Pepper's starting to believe it, just a little. Coulson is being even more evasive than normal.

Mostly it means that Tony has a new thing to rant about and obsess over, and he does both admirably. His staggering genius and their unfathomable stupidity are topics of discussion on the agenda every night, and sometimes on the phone in the middle of important meetings.

In the end, the only thing to do is call in reinforcements.

“Thanks for this,” she says, glancing back at Jim as she lets them into the house. “I know you've been busy with whatever being the Air Force liaison to S.H.I.E.L.D. entails.”

“I'd tell you, but then I'd have to kill you,” he says, catching the door and pushing it all the way open.

“You know, Tony's said that before, but he always caves and ends up telling me everything.”

“That's because he's still an excitable little kid at heart.”

“And you are, of course, a very manly man.” She kicks her shoes off and nudges them so that they line up against the wall. Jim follows suit.

“Very manly,” he agrees.

“Pepper!” she hears Tony call before she sees him. His footsteps slap against the polished floors, and it sounds like he's not wearing any shoes. She's told him so many times that that's dangerous, considering the sorts of things he gets up to. “You're home early, I thought we could maybe watch--”

He comes to a stop in the foyer, looking at Jim, frowning. “Oh. Hey, Rhodey.”

“Please, Tony, I'm gonna blush.”

“Jim wanted to come by and see how you are.”

“Yeah. I haven't really seen you since... in a while,” he says.

“Sorry, man, yeah, it's good to see you.” He grins, and it looks genuine enough. Jim returns it, and they hug, in that back-slapping, holding-on-too-long way that they have. She eyes his worn sweatpants and t-shirt.

“Maybe you should change in something... less comfortable,” she says.

“Nope,” he says breezily, throwing an arm around Jim and dragging him towards the lounge. “My house, my rules.”

She leaves them to trade mostly good natured insults, and heads upstairs to change out of her work clothes. Tony's clothes are strewn all over the floor, hanging off the backs of chairs, hanging off the end of the bed. She steps around them as best she can and sits down on the edge of the bed, bending to roll her stockings down. She's down to her underwear when the door creaks open.

“Hey, let me do that,” Tony says, and has her bra undone before she's even turned around to look at him. He knows far more about bras than she does. “Yikes,” he says, running his fingers along where it dug in on her sides and left angry red welts. “This looks painful.”

“It was hot today,” she says. She had a potential client who she had to take out to one of their manufacturing plants; he wanted to see every part of the operation before he agreed to invest, and while she approved of his business plan, she found it tested the limits of her patience more than a little. SI plants are uniformly hot and loud, and she was hardly dressed for the trip.

He ducks his head and presses his lips to one of the welts, tongue running along the raised skin gently. He leans around, nose pressing against her breast as he follows the line.

“That feels nice,” she says, allowing herself to shiver a little.

“And you said kisses don't make things hurt less,” he murmurs, throws one leg over hers and tries to nudge her on to her back.

“Tony, we have a guest,” she says.

“'s only Rhodey,” he mumbles, moving around to nuzzle between her breasts.

“Who took time out of his day especially to see you,” she says, sighing, “since you haven't been keeping in touch.”

“Been busy.”

“You have not, you've barely left the house in two months.” She pushes her fingers into his hair and tilts his head back to look at her. “Tony.”

He presses his forehead against her chest, then sits back. “Fine. I'll go play with my friend, seeing as how you went to the trouble of setting up a play date for me.”

She shakes her head at him, but from the look in his eyes, she knows that he realises this was her doing. He lets it go anyway, shuffles out of the room, grumbling all the way.

When she joins them downstairs five minutes later, Jim is suggesting that they go to a club.

“It's just opened, and...” he says, glancing up at her. She nods for him to continue. “...there's no way I'll get in without you.”

“You, at a club?” Tony rolls his eyes. “I do have a level of coolness to maintain, you know.”

Jim raises an eyebrow. “While you're a shut-in? Sure.”

Tony mutters something and grabs Pepper by the waist as she passes, pulling her down on the couch next to him. “I have better things to do with my time,” he says, and leans very pointedly against her side.

“You should go,” she says. He looks at her in surprise, and she has to steel herself against his bush baby eyes. “It's been a while since you've gone out and had fun, and I've got a lot of work to do that I could get done a lot faster without you hanging around.”

“Oh. Well.” His hand on her waist loosens. “If I'm so captivating that you can't focus on anything else when I'm around, I guess I'll have to go.”

She gives him a kiss on the cheek. “That's the spirit.”

She isn't lying about the amount of work she has to do. It's not really more than normal, it just so happens that she always has mountains of contracts and emails and letters to read and write every evening, and Tony has an extremely distracting presence. Whether he's there or not, apparently, because once he leaves, she gets in even less work done than she usually would.

It's hypocritical to say the least, because she was the one who suggested the club to Jim, but she spends the whole evening checking her phone, checking news sites, and checking Twitter, despite Jarvis's promise that he has a thorough search algorithm in place for any mention of Tony on the internet, and that he'll let her know the moment anything happens. She gives up trying to get anything done around midnight, and opts instead to get into bed and stare at the ceiling.

This is what she wants. She doesn't want Tony to stay in the house all day, waiting for her to come home, she doesn't want him to sit in his workshop and obsess over S.H.I.E.L.D. She wants him to spend time with people other than her.

She also wants him at home where she can keep an eye on him.

She gets her wish at just after one, when Jarvis quietly informs her that Tony's arrived back without incident. Tony's upstairs a couple of minutes later, stripping his t-shirt and jeans off, and crawling into bed. He rests his head on her stomach and sighs.

“I didn't expect you home for a while,” she says, double checking the clock. 1.16am. He was out for just over five hours, and she knows that the drive into LA would have taken at least forty minutes each way.

“Boring,” he says. He draws his legs up toward his chest and hooks one of them around hers. “Girls were all over Rhodey.” He lifts his head and looks at her. “Pepper,” he says gravely, “I think I've become the friend.” His smile belies his tone, though, and he lowers his head again, pressing a kiss near her belly button.

“I've always said that Jim was the sexy one,” she says quietly, hoping that she's measured her tone correctly and that he won't notice that she's hardly in the mood to joke.

“But I was the pretty one,” he says in a whiny voice. “Tell me I'm still pretty, even though I'm old and I've let myself go.”

She manages a chuckle at this. “You're still pretty,” she says, and pats him on the head.

“Good,” he says, wrapping himself more tightly around her.

-

She meets Jim for lunch the next day in between meetings, and they go to the same café that they used to go to when they were... doing whatever they used to do, where the staff snarl at the customers and only ever look at money and never faces.

“So,” she says, and takes a sip of her lemonade.

“So,” Jim echoes. “Tony was acting kind of strangely yesterday.”

“Mm. I didn't even smell any alcohol on him, did he drink anything?” Her 'fresh' lemonade tastes like it came straight out of a plastic bottle, but the relative anonymity of the place is worth it.

“He ordered something, but I don't think he touched it.” Jim taps his fingers against the table top and smiles ruefully. “Are we honestly worried about the fact that he isn't drinking excessively?”

“It's not just that. He barely goes out any more, and his interest in the company has all but disappeared. He wants me to be CEO permanently; he doesn't even care about it any more.”

Jim shrugs. “I don't know, he's never cared that much about the company. His dad never made much of an effort to get him involved, and Stane... pretty much destroyed any remaining confidence he had about his ability to run it.”

“That's... what I'm afraid of. This last year has been--” She can feel herself beginning to cry and takes a steadying breath to rein it in. From the way Jim is looking at her, he can tell. “It's been awful. I'm only barely getting through it, and I can't even imagine what it's like for Tony, because he won't tell me.”

“I know.” He scrubs his hand over his face. “He won't talk to me either, but that's what he's like, always has been.”

“Well, I don't know that I can deal with it any more.” She fiddles with her napkin as she talks, folding it in half, then half again. “I can't be his entire support system all the time. I need him to... function.”

“I don't think that's... likely right now.” Jim shrugs again, sympathetically. “As far as I can, this is what he does when he's in a relationship. I mean, it's all new territory, really, but he does have a tendency to... obsess. Maybe it'll... maybe it'll get better.”

“'Maybe'? That isn't filling me with confidence.” She plucks at one corner of the napkin and sets it down on the table between their plates. “It's a swan,” she says. “I used to work as a caterer.”

“You're a woman of many talents.” He presses his lips together and sighs. “You know how Tony latches on to people.”

“When does he latch off?”

“Three to six months, that's how long it normally takes for either him to turn on them or them to turn on him. So, you're already ahead. Look--” He pushes his uneaten sandwich away, tipping the napkin swan over. “He had you and me and Stane. And when Stane...” He waves his hands vaguely before resting them on the edge of the table. “His first relationship ended because she tried to steal secrets from the company. She was almost twenty and he was sixteen, and I should have stopped it. After that and his parent's death, he relied on Stane for everything. And then... And that's it, we're all he has now, and he's been in love with you for, like, ten years. I think he heaps all this crap on you because he'd go crazy if he didn't have someone he could trust.”

“And why can't he trust you?”

“Because I'm not a five foot nine redhead, and I think we've established that I'm not anyone's second best. Except for the whole cut price Iron Man thing, of course.” He braces his hands on his chair's armrests and pushes it back. “Look, I'm sorry, I've gotta get back to the base.”

“Of course.” She looks at her mostly uneaten lunch and pushes her own chair back. “I'll walk with you.”

They walk in companionable silence back to their cars while she keeps an eye out for the press. She doesn't see any tell tale flashes or rustling of bushes, but every other person sitting outside the many cafés has a laptop, and she's beginning to become as recognisable as Tony. When she gets to her car, she turns to Jim and touches his arm.

“Maybe you could come by again soon. Or call, get Tony to do something for the Air Force. Fix a plane. Blow something up.”

“My commanding officer doesn't really care for Tony, but I'll see what I can do.” He takes a step closer and hugs her, just a quick squeeze, but she's already scanning the area for how many people are looking, wondering what the press would make of this. She sort of hates herself for that.

“Hey,” he says, pulling back and cupping his hands over her shoulders. “Just try not to break his heart. And please don't let him break yours.”

Her smile feels tight on her face. “I'll try.”

-

She starts waking up alone by the beginning of July. Jarvis tells her almost the moment she wakes up, the first time, that Tony is fine, he's down in the workshop, making adjustments to the suit.

“He was feeling 'itchy',” Jarvis relays to her.

She lets it be, for the first couple of days. Tony always comes up to say goodbye to her in the morning, and he's always hanging around the front door in the evening when she comes home. They still sit in the kitchen, or the lounge, or sometimes in bed, eat dinner, and watch TV. He still falls asleep first, cheek mashed against her shoulder, and in the morning Jarvis calmly informs her of his exact whereabouts.

He also tells her that Tony is only sleeping an average of four hours a night, a considerable drop from the ten hours of just a few weeks ago, and the frankly coma-like states he used to be able to achieve.

The first day that he doesn't meet her by the door, she rushes down to the workshop to find him half encased in the suit.

“Tony,” she sighs, relieved.

“Hey,” he says, and tries to tug his arm free. “Shit, Dummy, come on.”

“It is not his fault,” Jarvis says primly. “You rewired the arm incorrectly.”

“Like shit I did.”

“You did.” A holographic diagram fills the air in front of him. “I told you to pay closer attention to what you were doing.”

“Well, fuck you too,” he mutters. “Just take the whole thing apart, then, sheesh, do I have to think of everything?”

He smiles at her as Dummy and Butterfingers move around him to disassemble the armour. She found him unconscious on this spot, two months ago, she thinks, amid rubble and debris, and although he's better now, he still looks completely exhausted. She walks up to him as sections of the armour begin coming away and rests her hands on his chest; she can feel hard muscle underneath his thin shirt.

“Hey,” he says, eyelids half-lidded.

“I'm putting you to bed after this,” she says.

“Sounds good to me,” he replies.

She still wakes up alone the next morning.

-

On the following Monday, there's an article on the sixth page of the Wall Street Journal with the headline: Business World Commemorates One Year Anniversary of Obadiah Stane's Death.

“Oh, fuck,” she mutters, and shoves her e-reader into her bag before Tony wanders into the kitchen.

Tony kisses her goodbye at the door, and neither of them mention it, even though she can practically feel him vibrating with tension, and she probably isn't much better.

She can't imagine how she forgot, except that perhaps she really didn't want to remember. Curiously, she hasn't got any invites or calls from Stane's friends in the past few weeks, although today she gets calls all morning from the media, and after the fifth one she tells Jonathan to just hang up on them.

Rhodey calls her in the early afternoon and reports that Tony's answering his phone and at least sounds sober. She decides not to call him herself, but rather get through as many of her commitments as quickly as possible and get home. She manages to get everything that is absolutely necessary by six and bails from the office without saying goodbye to Jonathan. Once in the car, Jarvis remotely filters out all the calls to her phone that aren't from pre-approved numbers and she's able to make her way home in relative peace. Until, with about ten minutes to go before she hits the private road of the house, she notices that she's being tailed, and she's made absolutely sure of this fact when the car follows her past the 'trespassers will be prosecuted' sign that heralds the beginning of Tony's private property.

“Should I call Mr Stark?” Jarvis asks.

“No,” she says, because God, she doesn't even want to imagine what he'd do in the state he's in at the moment, “not yet. I can handle it.”

“Of that, I am sure,” Jarvis replies.

She continues driving as if nothing's the matter, doesn't slow down or speed up; the only thing concession she makes is to tell Jarvis not to open the garage door for her. She rolls to a stop in front of it instead and parks, then calmly collects up her things and gets out. Her unwelcome companion pulls up and smoothly parks alongside.

“Ms. Potts,” the driver says. She doesn't seem to make much effort to raise her voice, but it carries anyway.

Pepper turns her head to the side. “Miss Romanoff,” she acknowledges, then continues on her way to the front door.

“May I come in, or will the house kill me?” Romanoff asks, almost lazily.

“You'd have to ask Jarvis that,” she replies, but shuffles over a couple of steps to allow Romanoff to pass by her when she unlocks the door. “What do you want?”

“Director Fury wants to know how Mr Stark is handling things today. He felt that he might not get an honest answer from either you or him.”

“Clever man,” Pepper mutters. She takes her shoes off, lines them up against the wall, as always, and moves further into the house. “Well, he's fine.”

“May I speak to him?”

“You can do what you like, I'm not his keeper.”

Romanoff raises an eyebrow at that.

“Awesome timing,” Tony yells, and she's surprised to find that his voice is coming from upstairs, “I'm almost ready!”

“Ready?” she repeats, turning to watch as he thumps downstairs in clean socks, pants, and a white shirt. “Ready for what?”

“Ready to paint the town red, my beautiful CEO.” He skids to a halt in front of her and slings an arm around her shoulders, then frowns at Romanoff. “Am I dying again? Why are you here?”

“Tony,” Pepper mutters, and he grins with all his teeth at the two of them. She wonders for a second if he's taken something, but then the memory of him this morning comes back to her, and she decides that this is probably all him. “Agent Romanoff is here to check up on you.”

“Oh. Well, drink it in, then get out.” At Romanoff's expressionless face, he makes a flicking gesture with his hand. “Get out of my house, Agent Scary.”

“Mmhm,” she murmurs, and pulls her phone out to tap at it.

“Telling daddy on me?” Tony spits. His arm around Pepper's shoulders grips tight and hard. She slips her hand under the waistband of his pants and rubs circles into his hipbone with her thumb. Romanoff merely lifts her eyes, then neatly turns around and strides back out of the house. “And stay out,” he mutters.

“Why don't we move this upstairs?” Pepper says softly, thumb still pressed against his hip, once Romanoff has closed the door behind her.

“Would that we could, Pep, but we have reservations.” He presses a kiss on the side of her head, then pulls away and starts poking around in the hall closet.

“Reservations?” she repeats. “For what?”

“For dinner, of course.” He tosses her green coat to her and starts pulling on his leather jacket. “That's what people do when it's time to celebrate, don't they?”

He drops down to his knees and starts picking through piles of shoes that never remain neat no matter how many times she goes back to arrange them. When it becomes obvious that he's going to take his time over this task, she begins to slip her coat on.

“Sure, Tony,” she says.

-

She agrees to the dinner because it would be hypocritical to do otherwise, when Tony is suddenly so eager to leave the house, and because she doesn't know what else to do with him other than let him wear himself out like a child having a tantrum, though for once the comparison is hardly apt

He takes her to Cicada, smiles and waves for the paparazzi that are ready and waiting for them, gets them a little table in the corner, which only serves to draw more attention to them, and orders all the most expensive things on the menu.

“I'm not going to be able to eat even half of that,” she says quietly after the waiter has departed. Though not before giving them a bottle of wine, on the house, of course.

“I'll donate it to the poor, then,” he replies, indicating vaguely to the people around them. He drains his first glass and reaches over for the bottle to refill it. “This stuff is terrible. Do you want some?”

“No, thanks, someone has to drive us home.” She purses her lips as he knocks back another half a glass in one go. There are people looking at them out of the corners of their eyes, conversations being carried on behind napkins and hands. “Try not to get stinking drunk before the appetisers arrive,” she says stiffly.

“Aye, aye,” he mutters, going back for a second refill.

The place is very romantic; she's been here before a couple of times, for private functions, and coming here on a date is certainly something she would normally enjoy, having developed a taste for the finer things in life, or so Tony says. Tonight is not exactly how she would have liked it to go, yet is probably exactly what she expected.

Tony eats his appetiser quickly but picks at the main course, preferring to go back to the 'terrible' wine again and again.

“So,” he says loudly, after some time brooding over his meal, “how's the company doing? That asshole Iron Man isn't causing you too much trouble?”

“Tony,” she warns, “keep your voice down.”

“Or is it the other asshole?” he continues in a fake conspiratorial tone, “I hear the guy in the suit is a real fucker.”

She kicks him under the table, and he grins, his tongue caught between his teeth. “Didn't know you were into that sort of stuff.”

“Keep your voice down,” she repeats evenly.

“Or what?” he says, locking his gaze on her. His eyes look a little watery and there's colour high on his cheeks; she's seen him like this before, usually when he's about to spin out in spectacular fashion. She stares back at him, unblinking, and incredibly he breaks first, glancing down at the table. “Um,” he starts, before being interrupted.

“Mr Stark, you don't know me,” the young man begins, shifting comfortably when Tony's confused gaze turns to him, “but I worked with Mr Stane a couple of years ago, and I just wanted to tell you how sorry I am for your loss.”

Tony continues to stare at him blankly for a second, before a smile snaps into place, and he straightens up in his chair. “That's very kind of you, Mr...?”

“Garfield, Nicholas Garfield,” the man says, “I worked as outside legal council for Stark Industries.”

“My fault, no doubt,” Tony jokes, and holds out his hand. “Thank you for thinking of me, Nick.”

Garfield takes his hand shyly and shakes it, then stays an awkward moment longer before returning to his table. Tony turns back to Pepper, and she sees the exact moment that his resolve crumbles.

“I have to get out of here,” he mumbles, and she's already half out of her seat, waving for the waiter to fetch their coats. She takes him by the arm as calmly as she can, careful not to make it into even more of a scene than it already is.

“It's fine,” she says, “you're fine, you're fine.”

“Pepper,” he whispers back, a hitch in his voice. She grabs the coats out of the waiter's hands as she passes him, and tells him to put the bill on their tab. Whether they even have one, she's not sure, but they don't argue with her.

“The car's just out there,” she reassures, and nods politely as the doorman opens the door for them. The valet outside jumps to attention and rushes off to get the car. She drapes Tony's jacket over his shoulders as he takes short gasps of air and turns his face towards her, hunching away from the camera flashes. “You're fine,” she repeats, “and look, here's the car.”

She tips the valet and settles Tony as best she can in the passenger seat, before getting in the other side and starting the car. Tony hunches over and laces his fingers together behind his neck. She reaches over, eyes on the road, and rubs his back.

“Feeling any better?”

He barks with laughter and lifts his head. For a couple of minutes he stares out of the window, breathing shakily and rarely blinking. Then he slams his palm down on the dashboard, again and again and again. “Fuck!” he yells, “fuck, fuck, fuck!”, kicking at the well of the car for good measure.

“Tony,” she says, and then louder over his shouting, “Tony! Stop it, you're going to make me crash.”

He falls back against the seat, going limp. “'m sorry,” he mumbles, “I thought it'd be good to get out, and prove that, that... fuck, I don't even know. I shouldn't be allowed do anything on my own.”

“You wanted to prove that you're okay,” she says, glancing at him for a second, then back at the road, “and you are. You don't even know how good you are.”

“Yeah, okay,” he says, the corner of his mouth tilting up in a half-hearted smirk.

“You're a good person, Tony, I wish you'd believe that,” she says softly as he sinks further into his seat. He grunts something and looks out the window. “When we get home, do you want to blow something up?”

He rolls his head back to her and smiles.” Yeah,” he says, “thanks.”

-

She's not sure what's woken her up, at first, a few hours after Tony has blown up everything blow-up-able. Tony's not in bed any more, but she's starting to get used to that, and it's four in the morning, which is about a normal amount of sleep for him now. She flattens out the bunched up sheets and looks up at the ceiling, cataloguing the things she has to do when she gets up in a little over two hours.

Then she hears that sound that she's well acquainted with. That retching and rattled inhale. She's out of bed before she even fully processes it, skids into the bathroom, switches on the light, and is confronted with the sight of Tony picking himself up off the floor and moving to the sink.

“Something really disagreed with me,” he says, and turns the faucet on. She lets him wash his face and gargle some water before she grabs him and turns him round. She pushes his t-shirt up roughly and runs her fingers along the arc reactor. No signs of what happened before, but then, palladium isn't powering the thing any more, who knows how poisoning from this new element would manifest.

“Turn around,” she says quietly. He bites his lip but complies without a word. She checks his back for bruises or marks or rashes and comes up empty. Clutching at his waist, she rests her forehead between his shoulder blades. “God, are you...”

“Just bad dreams,” he says, and turns around again, gently freeing himself from her grip for a moment before gathering her up against his chest. He's pale and clammy against her skin.

She squeezes his arms and steps back. “Why didn't you wake me up?”

“Kinda busy puking,” he says flippantly, but his eyes tell a different story. “Look, I just had...” He takes a breath and swallows. “...a nightmare, and I guess it.... took me by surprise.”

He smiles thinly and shrugs. His t-shirt is still rucked up under his armpits, so she tugs it back down and smooths it out, fussing with it to get it straight. She's hardly even aware that she's still pulling at it till his hands wrap around her wrists loosely.

“Jarvis,” he says softly, pushing her hands between them and folding them over her chest. “Tell Pepper I'm okay.”

“Mr Stark's latest blood results all came back clean. As of this morning his blood pressure was one hundred and twenty one over eighty. His heart rate is presently elevated, but that is probably understandable, given the circumstances.”

“See?” he says, and lifts her hands to his mouth. His beard tickles her fingers when he kisses them. “And you can ask him anything you want, whenever you want. You have global permissions over the entire system, there's nothing he won't tell you.”

She frowns. “Tony...”

“And in case I ever get really stupid again,” he interrupts, “it can't be reversed.”

“That's... too much,” she says. Tony has always kept an extremely tight control on who has access to Jarvis, even Stane couldn't take him over.

“I don't want to hurt you like I have in the past,” he continues, as if he hadn't heard her. “I don't want to be that guy any more. This is just an insurance plan. Which, uh, you're also on. And sole beneficiary of my life insurance policy.”

He folds his fingers around hers and stares at her until she meets his eyes. She was the one who got him that policy, she knows how much it's worth. “Let's, uh,” she says, trying to ignore his wide-eyed stare as much as she can. “Let's go back bed, okay?”

He smiles. “Good idea,” he says.

-

She locks herself in her office, that afternoon, and gets Jonathan to hold all her calls. She's been on edge all day, since she and Tony went back to bed, and he slept, and she didn't.

She dials the extension for Jarvis. “Yes, Ms. Potts?” he says, the phone call answered after the first ring.

“I have to ask you some questions,” she asks.

“Anything,” he replies, and that's precisely what she's afraid of.

“Can I ask you about the contents of Tony's will?”

There's a pause, and then, “Yes.”

Damn. “Who has he... left his money and property to?”

“His suits, prototypes, and related effects are bequeathed to Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes under the proviso that Air Force engineers 'keep their dirty paws off them'.”

“Good,” she breathes.

“Mr Stark's properties, and accumulated wealth and possessions – paying particular mind to Butterfingers and Dummy so as not to 'break up the family' – are left to you, Ms. Potts.”

She presses the back of her hand against her mouth and closes her eyes. His 'accumulated wealth' is... He's already given her his company, now he wants to give her everything else? She doesn't even want to think about the deeds to his houses and cars. What is he thinking? What does he think is going happen?

It's pointless to wonder, because she already knows, she knows how easily, how desperately he'll give over control of his life to someone else. She's known it since a couple of months in, really, that he doesn't trust himself with anything more important than a party and a quick fuck, and even those have a history of ending badly for him. Had, when Stane was around, and after, when he was dying, again, because of Stane.

“Jarvis,” she says, and she sees from the clock that five minutes have passed in silence. The AI is a constant, though, and answers her immediately. “Could you... please tell Mr Stark that some urgent business has come up and that--” She cringes before the words are even out. “--I won't be home tonight.”

“Yes, Ms. Potts,” he says, and she hopes she's just projecting that note of judgement onto his flat voice.

-

She spends her first night back in her apartment in weeks cleaning and listening out for her phone. The place is covered in a thin layer of dust, and most of her comforts – her books, her good underwear, her favourite slippers – are at the mansion, but she can make do. It seems bizarrely small now, in a way that it never did before, despite her having spent much more time in the mansion than she ever had here. Her bed seems tiny, and she only manages a couple of hours sleep, the first night, unimpeded by a clingy warm body.

Her phone doesn't ring.

-

She works and she comes back to her apartment, and her phone doesn't ring. Well, it rings, but it's never Tony on the other end of the line. Jim texts her after a couple of days: Have you two killed each other? Why is everyone ignoring my calls?

No, she texts back, to which he simply responds with, ?.

Later, she replies, with very little intention of following up on that.

Tony hasn't got himself into the papers yet, which is a good thing-- or maybe it's not, but she's fairly certain now that Jarvis would contact her if anything major were to happen to him.

He just needs time, she thinks, or she does. Or they both do. She needs to separate herself from the situation just long enough to regroup, something that is damn near impossible with Tony around, force of nature that he is. And he definitely needs some perspective, needs to remember that there's a world outside and that he had a life before her, once.

I should have stopped it, she remembers Jim saying. Parents dead at twenty. Stane dominating his every move. Maybe it isn't such a surprise that he isn't anxious to go back to his life.

Still, she's never given into his most self-destructive tendencies before, and this is surely self-destruction; slower and less threatening, but as unhealthy as anything else he's done, nonetheless. She isn't going to start enabling him now.

A week passes, and she begins to feel less anxious. More guilty, but less anxious, and she's used to that guilt, by now. She can live with that.

She can't live with Romanoff striding into her office unannounced and uninvited, though.

“Get out before I call security,” she says mildly.

“Did you know,” Romanoff says, closing the door softly behind her, “that Mr Stark hasn't been answering any of our calls, and that, when Agent Coulson was dispatched to investigate, he directed the house to fire on our vehicles?”

Pepper closes her laptop over. “Is Tony okay?”

Romanoff huffs in disgust. “The two of you are as bad as each other. Maybe it's time you went home, Ms. Potts.”

“This is none of your business, Agent.”

“It becomes my business when your boyfriend has a meltdown and severely inconveniences my bosses.” She pulls out the chair in front of Pepper's desk and drops down in it. Pepper scowls at her.

“You still have no right to pry into my personal life.”

Romanoff regards her for a moment, then says, “Would you like have a drink with me? Tonight?”

“I-- What?” Pepper snaps her laptop completely shut and leans back. “Are you asking me out, because me and Tony are still--”

“Ms. Potts,” Romanoff interrupts, “if I was asking you on a date, you would know it, and Anthony Stark would not be an issue.” Pepper can't help but silently accept this as the truth. Romanoff continues, “I was just thinking that you might want to... talk about these problems that you are having, get a perspective other than that of Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes.”

Pepper opens her mouth to ask how she knows about her conversations with Jim, but decides that that line of questioning will lead nowhere fast. Instead, she says, “Well... I suppose there aren't a lot of people I can talk to openly these days, and I don't have a lot of female friends...”

“I don't have any friends,” Romanoff adds, and smiles.

Pepper shrugs. “I get off work in a couple of hours.”

-

Romanoff lives in a penthouse in North Hollywood – or she has possession of a penthouse in North Hollywood, it might be more accurate to say, because the place is still showroom fresh.

“I didn't realise that S.H.I.E.L.D. paid so well,” Pepper comments, tallying up in her head how much the contents are worth. There's ten grand worth of artwork, alone.

“I didn't always work for S.H.I.E.L.D., you know.” Romanoff hands her a glass and fills it with something out of an unmarked bottle. That's poison, the voice in Pepper's head that sounds like Tony says.

“No,” Pepper agrees, “you used to work for me, Ms. Rushman.”

Romanoff waves her to a couch. “It was a job, Pepper, I'm not going to apologise for it. Do you apologise when you steal contracts from other companies?”

“Are we on a first name basis now?”

Romanoff sits down beside her and clinks their glasses together. “Yes,” she says. “I'm Natasha, pleased to meet you.” She takes a long drink from her glass, and Pepper decides that it's probably not poison, unless Natasha has some sort of antidote that she's going to inject herself with later, and, frankly, Pepper can't find the energy to be that suspicious. She takes a sip, and almost spits it back out again.

“That is... awful.”

Natasha smiles and takes the glass from Pepper, tipping the liquid into her own. “This was given to me by the grateful head of a rebel army, from his private collection. Should have realised you were a lightweight.”

“I don't think we're at the stage in this relationship where you can insult me yet.”

Natasha shrugs, and sets the two glasses down on the table. “I think I have some good old-fashioned American wine in the kitchen.”

Apparently Natasha doesn't get drunk, and Pepper watches her carefully enough to know that she isn't just pouring the wine into a flowerpot or something. Frankly it's a little scary, and more than a little depressing, because Natasha is tiny and really has no right to hold her own like this.

She simply says, “I'm Russian.”

“So, what has Stark done?” she asks some time, and half a bottle, later. “Did he cheat on you? Because, frankly, I saw that coming.”

“What? No!” Pepper puts her glass down before she spills it everywhere. “No, he didn't do anything like that.”

“Drinking too much?” Natasha guesses again. “He made a bit of a scene at Cicada last week.”

“No, he... he's just a little...” She shakes her head. Why is she even telling Natasha this? Isn't she still angry at her, for the betrayal, and all? “He's a little suffocating sometimes.”

“Ah.” Natasha nods wisely. “I can see that.”

“But...” Pepper sighs. She has a really high tolerance for betrayal. “That's not the problem, really. It's that he's so... co-dependent, and I'm finding myself drawn into it with him. I mean, I've always worried about him, and now he's so willing to let me run every part of his life, and there's a part of me that's thinking, 'good, I'll never let him go outside and then nothing will happen to him'. And it's really, really... fucked up.” She slumps into the couch cushion in defeat. There, that's it, she's said it: she's just as crazy as he is.

Natasha continues nodding, then rouses. “Well, some relationships just don't work out.”

“But I love him,” Pepper blurts out, then frowns. There's another thing she's never said out loud.

“Love isn't everything.” Natasha runs a hand through her hair. “There have been people, in the past, who I've loved. Some I've never seen again, because they're the enemy now, others I keep crashing back into, but either way, you can't make a thing fit if it just doesn't.”

Pepper mulls this over. She sounds sincere enough that Pepper believes her, despite her wondering exactly how many times can Natasha have experienced that sort of epic love; she's only twenty-six, isn't she?

“I think,” she says finally, with great precision, “that that's bullshit.”

“Oh?”

“You can make anything work if you try hard enough.”

Natasha blinks slowly. “Maybe you can,” she says, and takes another sip.

“Yes, I can,” Pepper says, and punctuates it with a nod. She's always been able to make things work, that was one of the reasons that Tony hired her. That's what they both always fell back on, that she could cope with anything.

“You couldn't this time,” Natasha points out. “And there's nothing wrong with that. Sometimes things just fail.”

Pepper's first instinct is to argue over Natasha's definition of 'failure' but the alcohol has dulled her senses enough to let it go. “It sounds like you're speaking from experience.”

Natasha simply says, “Yes.”

“And? Would you like to elaborate on that?”

“Not especially,” Natasha replies. She stares at Pepper as if they're in a staring contest that Pepper hasn't been informed of. After a couple of seemingly unblinking minutes, she takes a deep breath and shakes her head. “He's older than me. We met on the job. In Russia. We didn't... fit.”

“You seem a little hung up on it, if you don't mind me saying.”

Natasha's look suggests that she does mind Pepper saying. “I don't think we're at the stage in this relationship where you can give me unsolicited advice yet,” she says, recalling Pepper's words from before.

“You're extremely difficult to get on with, Ms. Rushmanoff. Romanoff... man.” She frowns. “Why've you got so many names, anyway?”

“You're a cute drunk,” Natasha says, and pats her on the knee.

Pepper blows out a scornful breath. “Stop flirting with me.”

“Wow.” Natasha stands up, turns and plucks the glass of wine from Pepper's hand. “You really are perfect for Stark. I think I'm going to have to cut you off now.” She breezes out of the room, shaking her head, leaving Pepper on her expensive leather couch.

She misses him, she realises. God, she really misses him. Natasha said she hadn't 'fit' with her ex, but Pepper, she fits. Or rather, Tony fits her, clicked into her life despite appearances to the contrary. There's a very good reason why she's been with him for so long.

She wanted to be.

“Shit,” she says.

“I'll call for a car,” Natasha calls from the kitchen.

It's a good thing that S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are bred to be discreet, because the state she's in when she gets into the car, the tabloids would be overjoyed. The agent drives in blessed silence back to Malibu while she tries to sober up and fix her wilting make up. She considers calling ahead, but she honestly doesn't know what she'd say, and she doesn't want to have this conversation within hearing range of an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., no matter how unassuming he may be.

When he drops her off an hour later, she makes damn sure that he's cleared the outer reaches of the property before she makes her way inside. The house looks the same, in such a way that it seems like it hasn't been touched at all since she left. Tony's shoes are exactly where he left them when they got back from the restaurant, along with his jacket, and a stack of unopened mail.

From deeper in the house, she can hear the muffled base line of AC/DC. That is rarely a good sign. Jarvis obliges her by turning the lights on as she moves through the house, though he doesn't address her, and she has the distinct feeling that he's angry with her. If any computer could get angry, it'd be Tony's.

Her access code still works for the workshop, though, and she stands in the doorway for a moment and watches Tony fight with Dummy.

“Give that back,” he says as Dummy whisks away a soldering iron.

“He will not give it back,” Jarvis says over the music, “and I have turned the power off to all the heavy machinery to prevent further injury.”

“You're not my real mom,” Tony replies sulkily and turns enough to the side that she can see poorly applied gauze wrapped around his left hand.

“Tony,” she says, and the music dies away in the same moment.

He starts and looks around at her. “I-” he says, and focuses at somewhere around her knees. He takes an unsteady step back. “Are you gonna quit, too? 'Cause I'll, I'll do more work for the company-- or less, if you never want to see me again, then I'll get out of your face, but don't-- don't leave, because the company, it would never... and you're... you should have it, you're the one who knows... and I can't--”

“Tony,” she repeats, and then again as he continues to talk, “Tony, Tony, I'm not quitting.”

>His gaze remains fixed on her knees. “You're not?”

“No. Did you think...?” She takes a few steps forward, until she's standing right in front of him. The smell of alcohol is quite overpowering. She slides her palms against his unshaven cheeks and tilts his face up. “Did you think that we broke up?”

He nods between her hands.

“Oh, Tony, we didn't break up.”

He narrows his eyes.

“I didn't, and I'm not, breaking up with you,” she clarifies.

His face goes slack for a minute, then crinkles in a frown. “But...” He sways slightly on the spot, gaze growing vague for a minute before snapping back to her face. “You said you needed space.”

“Yeah, and I got some space.”

“When people say they want space... that means they're leaving,” he says with great effort, as if finding the words is a struggle. She wonders how much he's been drinking. She wonders, as always, how he's managed to keep going for so long.

She jostles him gently, sliding her hands towards his hair, thumbs resting on his jaw. “I'm not 'people'.”

“No...” he agrees, and stares at her, expression completely open, “but...”

“Tony,” she says, cutting him off. “If I ever want to break up with you, I will tell you that, okay? I won't leave you hanging. I'm sorry if...” She stops to collect her thoughts; she isn't exactly sober herself, and she really doesn't feel any more capable of dealing with this than he does. “I'm just sorry,” she settles on, though it hardly communicates everything that she means to say.

“You're not leaving me?” he asks, bottom lip caught between his teeth.

She pulls him against her into a hug. “God, Tony,” she mutters into his greasy hair. “No. Let's get you showered and sobered up, and then we can talk.”

-

After being hosed down, caffeinated, and fed, Tony's considerably more functional and less clingy and sniffly.

“Have you eaten at all while I've been away?” she asks as he demolishes his second sandwich.

“You've been gone for over a week,” he says, spraying crumbs all over the kitchen table. She's not sure whether that's supposed to be confirmation or denial.

“Okay,” she says, “we really need to talk.”

“Please don't leave me,” he says, so quickly that the words run together.

Tony.

>He swallows the last of the sandwich and nods. “Right, sorry.” He goes quiet and watches her; he's listening to her, she belatedly realises, just when she'd maybe like him to run his mouth off for a little while longer.

“Well,” she says, “this relationship. We just sort of fell into it without any discussion, even though I really needed to talk things out with you.”

“Sorry,” he says again, completely sincere. This new found sincerity scares her, she thinks. He's far, far too vulnerable like this.

“No, it's not... It's me. I needed to talk to you, but I kept putting it off.”

He frowns. “Why? I can maintain an adult conversation for a few minutes, Pep.”

“I know you can, and I suppose that was part of the problem.”

His frowns deepens. “I don't get it.”

She thinks about it – it's difficult to explain because she doesn't really get it either. “You scare me,” she settles on, and his frown immediately smooths out as his eyebrow climb and his eyes widen.

“Pepper, I would never-- I'd never hurt you, I'd never cheat on you, I'd, I'd--” He chokes on the rest of the words, and she reaches across the table to take his hand.

“I'm scared for you,” she says, “not of you.”

He shakes his head wordlessly. She rubs his hand between hers; too cold, she thinks, always too cold.

“It scares me,” she says, picking her words carefully, “that you seem to have such little concern for yourself. You've been giving so much to me, and getting nothing back.”

“First time anyone's accused me of not getting any,” he replies, a hint of a smile on his face. “And I'm pretty sure I get stuff back from you, like... love and sex and... everything.”

There's that vulnerability again. He's been more open with her in the last two months than he has in twelve years, and it seems like he's just leaving himself open to getting so badly hurt with this new fumbling honesty.

“What scares me,” she continues, still not quite able to address this head on, “is that you seem so happy to let me control everything...”

“Nothing new there,” he interrupts.

“Not like this. You want me to sign off on every little thing you do and the thing is, sometimes I like it. And it's not healthy. You have to stop... being scared of yourself. You can't leave everything to me in your will and give me full access to Jarvis and name me on your life insurance plan. Not all at once, not after dating for eight weeks.”

“But I trust you. Pep, it's not like I met you in a club a couple of months ago or something. I've known you for over a decade. I've... been in love with you for at least a decade.” He shrugs helplessly and smiles.

She lets go of his hand and stands up, taking care not to focus to long on his face and the way it seems to crumble. “See, this is... this is what I mean.”

“What?” he says, his voice going high-pitched. “What, Pepper, what do you want me to do? I'm trying really fucking hard here and-- and I don't know what to do. You know full well that I don't know what to do, and I'm trying to work it out and I'm trying to not put it all on you but you have to give me something!” His voice grows steadily in pitch until he's shouting at her, having pushed back from the table to stand as well, hands braced against the tabletop.

“Exactly!” she shouts back. “I do have to give something back!”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

“I don't-- I've never even told you I love you!”

He rocks back a little, mouth opening and closing wordlessly, expression confused. “You don't have to,” he says, dialling back down to normal volume.

“Why don't I have to?” she asks, still shouting.

He looks even more confused. “Because... you show it? I mean, you put up with me, so you must love me.”

She presses her knuckles against her eyelids and shakes her head. “That's the problem. You should care whether I say it back or not. 'Putting up with you' shouldn't be enough. You shouldn't... be okay with me avoiding saying it. Are you so scared that I don't love you back, or do you just not think anyone will ever say it to you?

“Bit of both, I guess?” He tilts his head. “I mean, I love you and this is like, everything that I've ever wanted. I don't want to lose you. If you wanted to leave me, I wouldn't... stop you, but I like things the way they are right now. I guess that's pretty selfish of me, but I am selfish. I'm sorry.”

She sighs and walks around the table to him. “I do love you,” she says, and places her hands on his shoulders.

“Cool,” he replies, and grins.

“And it's not okay that I didn't say it back.”

He shrugs in response, and wraps his hands around her hips.

“It's not,” she repeats, “and it's not okay for you to depend on me for everything, and it's not okay for you to live like a shut-in in this house. You're a good person-- shut up,” she adds quickly before he says anything to go with the growing sneer on his face, “and we are going to work on your self-esteem issues.”

“Can we work on it sexily?”

Whatever's been keeping her going for the last week and a half leaves her all at once; she leans against him, forehead to his collarbone. He wraps his arms around her and holds her firm, pressing kisses into her hair.

“Yeah,” she says in answer to his question. “Sure,”

“Thank the Lord that you two have finally settled this,” Jarvis comments.

-

They manage to keep their relationship secret for another month before a group of neo-Nazis see fit to attack Stark Industries's head office. She's miles away, giving a demonstration of SI's new aircraft to the Air Force, as part of their tentative new contract post-Hammer. Tony's meant to be doing it, and just when she's about to call and find out where the hell he is, radios begin crackling all over the base, and then she's in a B-52 on its way to LA.

The attack doesn't last long, the group aren't very well organised and most of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s agents are currently stationed in California, so they get hit from all sides. By the time she makes it there with the Air Force, though, they've still succeeded in collapsing half a building on Tony. It's the same building that he was thrown into a couple of months before, its structure weakened enough from the first time that it comes down with ease.

Digging him out takes the best part of two hours, while Coulson tells her the situation in his normal detached manner. The group – A.I.M., an off shoot of HYDRA, and none of these words mean anything to her – have all been successfully caught, but before they were, they set off an electromagnetic pulse that took down all communication systems in a ten mile radius, including the suit's. He doesn't know what effect it has had on the suit's life support system, or the arc reactor, if any, and Jarvis has been completely cut off from Tony, isn't able to access anything to do with the suit.

It's still light, just, when they get him out and help him down to street level. He's moving mostly on his own, which makes her feel better, even if Natasha does have to use some kind of chainsaw to get his helmet off.

“Hey, air, nice,” he says.

“Are you okay? Is the reactor okay?” She wipes caked on dust off it with her fingers. It glows reassuringly bright.

He clicks his tongue. “Gonna take more than a little EMP to take me down.”

He grins and then she does what would be one of the stupidest things she's ever done if it weren't for the fact that doing stupid things seems to be a trend with her of late. She leans up, uses his metal shoulders as leverage, and kisses him, right there in the middle of downtown LA with helicopters circling overhead.

Footage of it hits CNN within five minutes. A day later Stark Industries issues a press release stating that Tony Stark and Virginia Potts have been in a relationship for a little over three months. Every media outlet is clamouring after an exclusive interview, but after careful thought, there's really only one option that makes sense to her, despite Tony's vehement disagreement.

“But why?” he asks, following her around the lounge as she collects his scattered projects. “That woman is the devil. And she does not say nice things about me.”

“Which is exactly why Ms. Everhart is the perfect choice. Any ET reporter can write a puff piece about the new it couple--”

“They're calling us 'Pepperony',” he interrupts.

She stops and looks at him. “...but if Christine Everhart writes a positive story about you, that's going to hold some weight.”

“I had sex with her, Pepper. Now I have sex with you. It's going to be really, really awkward.”

“How sympathetic do you think I am about that problem?” she asks, and hands him the screwdrivers and pieces of motherboard that she's collected up.

He puts them into the front pocket of his hoodie, and sighs. “Not very,” he says.

“Bingo,” she says, and taps him on the nose. “Clear the rest of this crap up before she gets here, okay?”

Ten minutes later, at precisely two o'clock, Jarvis announces, “Your guest has arrived.”

“Let her in,” she says, and glances at Tony. “Why aren't you wearing socks?”

He wiggles his toes at her. “I was going to paint my toenails but I got distracted.”

“Great,” she says, and goes to fetch Everhart from the vast foyer. “Ms. Everhart,” she calls. Everhart glances up from where she was surreptitiously reading a stack of mail. As if Pepper would leave anything more incriminating than a Victoria's Secret catalogue lying around. “We're in here,” she says, and points towards the lounge.

“Of course,” Everhart replies, without even the pretence of embarrassment. She follows Pepper into the room, drops her bag on the coffee table and starts digging through it.

“Hi,” Tony says, shuffling up the couch away from her.

“Mr Stark,” she says without looking up. She rummages for a moment longer in her bag before pulling out a tape recorder. “Ah, there it is. I have to say, I was surprised to get your call, Ms. Potts. I thought I was 'trash'.”

Tony's eyebrows jump up towards his hairline and he tilts his head in question. Pepper clears her throat.

“I was... having a bad day, I'm sorry.”

Everhart shrugs as she turns the recorder on and sets it down carefully on the table. “I've been called worse.”

Pepper resists the I'm sure that's dying to be said and sits down beside Tony.

He leans against her side. “This is going to be apocalyptically bad,” he whispers to her, beard tickling against her ear. Before she can reply, there's a loud click and a flash and, when she looks up, Everhart's incredibly fake apologetic face.

“Need a photo to go with the interview,” she says, and smiles. “Shall we get to it?”

-

Vanity Fair comes out two weeks later. The picture of them that graces the cover is years old, one taken when she started as his PA. They're both ridiculously baby-faced, and she remembers being terrified and awed and giddy all at once when the photo was taken, with Tony's arm around her shoulders, leaning in like he's about to kiss her. He didn't, of course, and he was gone in his convertible minutes after the shoot was over.

All in all, the article, The Courting of Tony Stark, isn't that bad. Everhart opens with the observation that Tony didn't bother to shave or put on clean clothes for her visit, and the leading quote is: 'we share the frilly underwear', which, of course, is completely out of context. What he'd really said was, in answer to Everhart's question of who wears the pants in the relationship, that they shared the pants, and the frilly underwear too.

Despite this assertion, Everhart notes that Tony deferred to Pepper on most of the questions, especially the ones to do with the transfer of power from him to her.

“I was bored with it,” he had said in answer, as Pepper said over the top, “He wanted to focus on the hands-on side of the business, not the petty administrative stuff.”

Stark seemed unconcerned with this interruption, Everhart writes, and let Potts practice her business pitch on me for several minutes without saying a word.

Every other sentence is a pointed comment of some kind at Tony, Pepper, or the company as a whole, but despite this, something almost... delicate comes out. Everhart caught every look, every touch, every second of body language between them. As she admits herself, I don't think Tony Stark is now, or will ever be, the man we need in the Iron Man suit, but he sure as hell is smitten with his new CEO.

Chapter Text

2012
She can see why Tony likes Steve. His hip to shoulder ratio is, in fact, ridiculous. She's seen a lot of photos of him recently, mostly from the reactivated file on S.H.I.E.L.D.'s server that she has not, officially, seen, but they don't do him any sort of justice. In the pictures from the war, he looked like a movie star, like he'd stepped straight out of her grandmother's tiny old black and white TV set, and in the handful of new photographs S.H.I.E.L.D. has taken he looks like he's, in the words of Tony, built like a brick shithouse. And he is, but what really strikes her about him the first time she sees him in person is how uncomfortable he looks.

Fury has moved all the Avengers save Tony into a building in Manhattan, and today is move-in day. According to Tony, this means that they need to have a house-warming party, and she has to come over from LA to attend it, because if he's left with these people for much longer, he's going to 'set himself on fire'. She doesn't really mind, because truthfully she wants the chance to see Steve up close.

Up close he looks like he wants to hide behind the couch every time the dark-haired S.H.I.E.L.D. agent passes by him.

“The niece of his lost love,” Natasha says, appearing at her elbow with a glass of punch that Pepper is not going let Tony drink in her hand (she saw Natasha and Clint spend an unusually long amount of time loitering by the bowl, and she wouldn't put it past the two of them to perform some kind of hazing ritual on new members).

“What?”

She tilts her glass towards Steve. “That woman that he looks terrified of whenever she passes is the niece of Margaret Carter, the captain's sweetheart in the war. Carter died a few years ago.”

“Poor guy,” Pepper says.

“Yeah, he's been moping around the helicarrier for the last couple of months, we can barely get a smile out of him. He seems to have hit it off with Tony, though.”

“Tony's likeable guy,” she replies.

Natasha keeps her face studiously blank and takes a sip of her punch.

Pepper knows that she's getting at: Tony has been talking about Steve non-stop since he found out that not only was Captain America real, but that he was alive and twenty-seven and blond and gorgeous. Steve, for his part, has apparently talked to Tony more in the three weeks that they've known each other than he's talked everyone else combined in the four months that he's been out of the ice. By Tony's own admission, they've talked to each other everyday since they've met, either on the phone, or in person. This probably isn't making the best impression on the group of Tony's trustworthiness and fidelity.

“So, how are you feeling about living in close quarters with your ex?” Pepper says, well aware that Natasha's hardly likely to miss such an obvious change of subject.

Natasha knows which battles to pick, though, so she turns her gaze from Steve to Clint, who looks like he's seconds away from marking his territory with Thor, and shrugs. “I think it'll be okay. We aren't exactly... exes any more.”

“What? When did this happen?”

“A while ago,” Natasha equivocates. “I thought, if you and Tony have been together for two years without killing each other – and, no offence, but Clint is at least ten times more functional than Tony is – then maybe we could work it out. Love conquerors all and shit.”

“Nicely put,” Pepper says.

At the opposite end of the room, Tony walks in, pursued by Coulson, who's holding a piece of paper and a pen. Tony got collared by Fury and Coulson earlier in the afternoon, leaving his little get-together to start without him, and two hours later it looks like whatever it was still hasn't been settled.

“Steve!” he barks, and Steve's eyes go wide with relief. “Having fun?” Tony asks, loud enough for everyone to hear. Coulson's head dips slightly, and he neatly folds the piece of paper and turns away.

Steve says something quietly in response, and Tony claps him on the shoulder, then wraps his arm around him and hustles him towards Pepper and Natasha. The way that Steve's looking at him... oh, they might be in trouble, Pepper thinks.

“Have you met Captain America?” Tony says, pushing him at her slightly. “This is Captain America.”

She holds out her hand. “Pleased to meet you, Captain,” she says.

Steve looks at her shoes first, then her hand, then takes it carefully. “Ma'am,” he says.

“This is Pepper,” Tony says. He moves around to throw an arm around her shoulders, but keeps his body angled towards Steve. Definite trouble, she thinks.

“Oh, you're... she's...?” Steve stammers, cheeks growing pink.

“She's my dame,” Tony says, which only seems to makes Steve flush even more.

Tony,” she says.

“Gal?” he tries again, and she shakes her head. “Lady? Equal partner in all things?”

She pats him on the chest. “Stop,” she says.

“Love you,” he sing-songs.

“Love you too,” she replies, and leans in to kiss him on the cheek. Steve stares resolutely at the floor. That is an impressive amount jealousy in such an upright citizen as Captain America.

-

“So, Steve's nice,” she says later, once they're in bed, Tony lying with his head resting on her chest, tapping away at his tablet while she reads a precious few pages of her book.

He puts the tablet down and tilts his head back to look at her. “Yeah, he's a nice guy.”

“He seems to like you.”

“Yeah,” he says, and rolls over to press his face into her collarbone. “I don't think he's very intelligent.”

“And you like him too.”

“He's Captain America, I think it's one's patriotic duty to like him.” He shifts around until he has one arm resting between her breasts and the other under her pillow. “He's pretty easy to get on with. Easy on the eyes, at least.”

“I'm glad you're getting on with team better.”

“Hey, let's not get crazy now.” He squints at her book and starts reading the page she's on.

“I don't think he likes me that much, though,” she comments once Tony has got to the end of the page and is trying to make her turn over to a new one. “He looked a little scandalised by my shoes.”

“Nah, he's not like that. Natasha walks around in that skin tight catsuit half the time and he doesn't mind. I mean, he acts like he's about to choke on his own tongue, but I don't think he's being judgemental about it.”

“Well, maybe it's because he has a crush on you, then.”

Tony's head comes up so fast that he almost cracks her chin. “Huh?”

“Steve has a pretty obvious major crush on you,” she repeats.

He lies back down against her. “Really? I guessed that maybe he was a little attracted to me, but I thought I was mostly just scaring him with my new-fangled ways.”

“From what I saw, he's got it pretty bad.”

“Huh,” he repeats, and then says nothing more. She can feel his breath against her neck as he hooks his chin in the hollow of her collarbone and gets himself good and wrapped around her. She turns over a couple of more pages of her book, hardly taking the words in, waiting for Tony to pull himself together.

“I wouldn't,” he says at last, very quietly. She retrieves her bookmark from where it lies next to her and closes the book. “I flirt with him sometimes, but it's not...”

“We've talked about this,” she says softly. “I know what your flirting is.” It's something as intrinsic to his personality now as the nasty side of him that lashes out blindly when hurt, as every superhero ideal he believes in but doesn't believe he is, as the blank look he gets when Stane is mentioned or the nightmares that leave him in a cold sweat sometimes. She's found that she isn't threatened by it in the slightest, that when he eased off it altogether, she was just left thoroughly weirded out.

“But I just... I would never cheat on you.”

She sighs. She's pretty sure he'll work this thing with Captain Rogers out at some point, but clearly he's going to need some coaching along the way. “Tony. I don't say this a lot, because God knows your ego doesn't need any help, but I have complete faith in you. About everything.”

He nuzzles against her neck, soft laughter coming out as little puffs of air against her skin. “You're crazy.”

“Well, that's hardly news.”