The idea itself was daunting. A long, uphill climb awaited them both. She had decades of experience with the man that almost guaranteed failure. He was egotistical and arrogant, controlling and manipulative. He had never given her a compelling reason to trust him. How many years had he spent telling her lies?
The chances were very good that this would ruin them. They would hook up, break up and lose the most important relationship in both of their lives.
Pepper had survived the end of the world. She would survive this. The choice was no longer hers. She loved him.
Pepper surprises herself by worrying about him almost immediately. She had always been worried about Tony, but it was usually that he was about to do something needlessly dangerous and get himself killed. Rarer, she worried about the company, that he was going to do something thoughtless, costing millions of people their jobs.
As far as their relationship, she had anticipated an opening salvo of intense sexual preoccupation that would put every other thought out of her mind.
Once she was intimately entrenched in his life, however, she worries that Tony is a deeply unhappy person. Depression is an illness.
They both hate sleep-overs.
That isn’t fair.
They both hate sleep-overs in the other person’s territory.
Tony’s place is cluttered, half apartment, half laboratory. He owns one coffee mug and a coffee machine that he appears to have made by hand.
Pepper, like most of Stark Resilient, lives in a hotel. Her suite is mass-produced and impersonal.
She feels overwhelmed in the mornings, when she wakes up in his bed. There is too much of him everywhere and she is not ready for it yet.
He feels lonely when he wakes up in hers. She isn’t anywhere.
Tony doesn’t understand why her suite is still empty.
“You don’t pay me,” Pepper reminds him. The engineers all take a salary these days, but the CEO is still only pulling stock options.
Tony coughs. “That would make all the sex take on some rather unfortunate connotations, don’t you think?”
She stares at him, sizing him up. She’s hoping he hasn’t been holding out on her monetarily for the express purpose of getting her into bed. It is more likely that he knew she was loyal enough that he didn’t need to bribe her into staying.
“I’ll buy a plant.”
Their lives don’t really change.
This is good -- changing who you are for your partner is a recipe for disaster.
She runs the company. He sells the product using celebrity.
He fights aliens and robots and megalomaniacs. She helps people who can’t save themselves.
She doesn’t hang out with Tim and Pim anymore because she feels uncomfortable smelling like beer when she climbs into bed beside Tony. He still wants to drink, and he still doesn’t.
He’s still unhappy. Not with her. With himself. So Pepper is still looking for ways to make sure Tony knows that he is loved.
Things work out.
The cars sell. The new Asgard -- Tim Cababa’s Asgard, produced in association with Stark Resilient -- is worthy of the gods that live there. Tony’s eyes are off in the distance, setting his sights on something even bigger than cities.
But, Pepper always knew those things would work out. She never wasted a lot of time doubting that. In fact, the amount of time Tony spent stressed over the sabotage and the Hammers and security always seemed a little silly to her. He was Tony Stark. He was going to win.
Things work out between them. Their relationship.
They get married.
It was a spur of the moment thing, really.
Tony has been engaged no less than three times and has developed a very now-or-never idea about marriage.
Pepper has been married twice before, both times to the same man and both times after about five minutes of planning ahead. She has always had a very now-or-never idea about marriage.
She’s afraid of cold feet. He’s afraid of one or both of them being killed by a costumed fool with a grudge before the vows are completed. In the end, they are in agreement.
Tony is shocked to learn that Pepper cannot cook. It isn’t sexism speaking (this time), it is that he on the whole considers her a very capable person. There is not much that she cannot do. Something like cooking -- a practical skill with a daily application -- is something that he estimates Pepper would find value in.
It is the first time in the course of their relationship that she has really surprised him. Every recipe she knows involves opening cans and programming microwaves. It gets the job done, though, which is what is important to her.
Anyway, he can cook.
(He’s known that for years.)
(He suspects this is new and largely his fault.)
Tony’s colorful dating history includes: supermodels, actresses, ingenues, superheroines, supervillainesses, top scientists and hairdressers. The list of picture perfect bodies is long.
Tony believes in being open about one’s past. Pepper usually doesn’t want to hear it. He doesn’t aim to compare her measurements to some other woman’s or talk about techniques. He has done a lot of things. She deserves to know why.
“I thought you didn’t want me,” he whispers in the dark, “I was trying to get over you.”
Pepper’s last item for the morning briefing is, “I’ve tentatively scheduled the Investor’s Gala for the 14th.”
Tony hums, noting her displeased tone. “Since when do you have a problem with fancy parties?”
The past is past and she doesn’t want to dredge up old hurts that he doesn’t remember; the argument or the building that fell on top of her.
“I just don’t see the connection between a think tank and throwing a party for billionaires,” she lies.
“Investors,” he corrects. “The party is to thank them. Also, you don’t let me buy you dresses without a good excuse.”
For a creative genius, Tony’s lack of imagination is staggering. His flirty lines and romantic gestures are very much by-the-book. Pepper likes to make it very clear that it was not his skill at flirtation or seduction that lead to the tremendous good fortune that he currently enjoys. It was his cracked repulsor. It was the reality that she might lose him. It was the realization that nothing in her life was more important than him.
He an eloquent man, but only when saying nothing. His true feelings come out in cliches.
She has enough flowers.
"Why didn't I notice?"
"Everything! Why did I need to be told that you were Iron Man? Why didn't I see that you had a drinking problem? Beth knew. She knew, I didn't. She knew right away! And then there’s me -- I always prided myself so much on knowing you -- the real you --and these huge, completely huge, things went right past me."
"I didn't want you to know.”
"I should have figured it out anyway. When you needed help, I let you down."
"You didn't. Every time I needed you, you were there.”
He is drawing lazy spirals on her bare back when she asks, “When did you know you loved me?”
He’s quiet. Then, “Real answer?”
“Yeah,” she replies, puzzled.
He clears his throat. “The first time I almost died as Iron Man, I thought about you.”
She can’t pin down an exact time frame, but ‘first’ implies long ago enough that she can see why he wouldn’t want to share. They’ve both been through several relationships since then.
“When did you know you loved me?” he parrots.
“I tell you all the time.”
“And I never tire of hearing about it.”
“People still think I’m your sidekick,” Rescue huffs.
Iron Man realizes that he is in deep shit about two seconds after it was too late to agree the notion is absurd. Though they rarely overlap as heroes, he doesn’t think the idea is unfounded, though untrue. He built her suit, they share an aesthetic and Iron Man was the original.
“That’s ridiculous,” he belatedly drawls, “Everyone knows Rhodey is my sidekick.”
She laughs, but he’s not safe yet. (Worse, he’ll have to beg Jim’s forgiveness if he ever hears wind of this.)
“At least you aren’t carrying me,” she sighs.
Pepper has thus far resisted formal combat training under the guise of being a pacifist. (What kind of pacifist makes her living as an employee of the largest manufacturer of weapons of effective destruction to the United States Armed Forces, Tony’d like to know, but that’s ultimately irrelevant.) She’s not interested in fighting in a physical sense.
Tony, by contrast, has been trained by just about anyone who’ll spare the time for a lesson. It’s important because sometimes he needs to use his bare fists and sometimes, he just wants to.
Stark Resilient, however, regards Pepper as the dangerous one.
Months have passed, but Tony is not used to Rescue. All of his past failures to protect Pepper are etched into the impassive, metal face of the suit. This will be the death of her, no doubt.
She thinks he is frustratingly over-protective and maddeningly hypocritical. He will admit that he can be those things sometimes, but he is not convinced he is here.
She says he would be dead if not for her. This is true, certainly more times over than she thinks.
Still, he would rather be dead and know she’s safe than lead her into death.
Pepper is at the end of her rope.
The object of her frustration: the coffee maker.
The reason: the damned frowny face decal Tony stuck on it God knows when.
She may be more heavily invested in the appliance than it actually warrants, but the unhappy coffee maker has come to symbolize her failure to make a significant positive impact on his life. After unsuccessful attempts to get over it -- it’s silly -- she just covers it up.
The next day, Tony reappears in the bedroom. “The coffee maker is smiling at me.” His voice is cautious.
“It’s a morning person.”
Pepper doesn’t notice the pattern until Steve’s wedding, but marriages between similar-themed superheroes are common among the Avengers. Captain America and Agent 13. Thor and Sif. Hawkeye and Mockingbird. Hank and Jan married as Yellowjacket and the Wasp. It isn’t a perfect correlation. The Scarlet Witch and Vision were very different. Spider-Man isn’t dating Spider Woman or Spider-Girl. However, it does make her wonder. Tony will never remember why he made the Mk 1616 or when he began to build it, so there are no real answers. It is clear he was making himself a female companion...
Pepper learns with some surprise that she does not have to ask Tony to see a professional about his depression because he is already doing so. He has been seeing a doctor, on and off, for years.
It helps to know that Tony is aware that he is sick and is working to get better. Only when he has spare time and feels an inclination, true, but it’s better than nothing. It helps to know that her love cannot reasonably be expected to heal him.
He’s had no breakthroughs yet, but he is still Tony Stark, and he will win.
They have known each other a long time, but they still learn new things nearly every day. Pepper has made more discoveries than Tony -- he started paying attention to the little details years before she did and his memory for things he considers important is near-perfect.
As it turns out, many of her expectations about a relationship with him were simply incorrect. This is mostly a positive, as she anticipated boredom, neglect and infidelity.
Pepper also had expectations that were correct. For example, she anticipated their sex life would be hard on her clothes. This is also a positive.
The Stark Ampere is the highest rated car of the year. Tony has nearly forgotten his green car initiate by the time the awards start pouring in. The engineers, not as accustomed to such large-scale success as Tony, are beside themselves with joy. The company has done so many more amazing things since the cars rolled off the assembly line that the celebration quickly strikes Pepper as excessive.
She is also proud. The Ampere was her first project as CEO of a company that bares her name.
“Your name?” Tony questions with shining eyes. “You borrowed it from me.”
She doesn’t let the name thing go. She didn’t borrow the name. Borrowing implies that she intends to give it back. She took his name, after a long debate with herself over the merits of keeping Potts versus hyphenating versus using Stark alone. It took her nearly a full month to decide.
She wants to want her name, but the truth is she hates the alliteration. And anyway, seeing Virginia Stark, CEO printed on the program at the awards dinner gives her goose bumps.
When she shows it to Tony, he drops a kiss onto her should and purrs, “Pepper.”
Tony, with all of his incredible advances of medical science, may have been able to save her first husband, had she given him the chance. Instead, she asked him to pull the plug. She thought at the time that the plausible deniability would be a kind of closure, saving her from guilt. As long as she didn’t know if Tony did it or not, she couldn’t blame herself.
He has amnesia. Even if she begged him for the truth, Tony doesn’t remember.
As Happy’s widow, she never intended to become Tony’s bride, .
Sometimes, Pepper suspects she is a terrible person.
Caller ID reads Steve Rogers, so Pepper cuts to the chase when she answers, “Tony should have reported in already. Did something happen to him?” She’s almost positive her heart stopped.
“I’m calling for you,” Captain America replies. “Chatter picked up a train derailment in Oregon. The cars were carrying currently unknown toxic chemicals. The Avengers are spread thin all ready,” There is a heavy pause before he say, “I need Rescue on this one.”
Her heart pounds, seemingly having climbed into her throat. “Of course,” she says. Rescue has never been given an assignment before. “I’m on my way.”
Tony greets her with, “What the hell happened to your suit?”
“It’s not as bad as it looks,” Pepper tries, but what convinced Dr. Blake doesn’t work on the man who built it. “Freeform designer corrosive agents,” she adds. “Ate right through the casing. And the wiring. Navigation and communication are shot and most of the replusor nodes are no longer functioning.”
“You --” he begins.
“I’m fine,” she chirps. “And so is upstate Oregon. They appreciate your concern.”
He kisses her, hard.
“I need a new suit,” she says when he’s finished. “And I want to watch.”
Watching him work was incredible. Ideas spread from each other like ripples in a pond. His equations are flawless. His draftsmanship, precise. The new Rescue grows, stronger, brighter, more beautiful than the last.
His face is set in rigid lines. His muscles ripple and flex as he machines parts.
Pepper had wanted to watch because her suits are always presented to her in their final form. Her armor is an intimate part of her, connected to her very life by the battery in her chest. She should be witness to its creation.
Creation turned out to be sexy.
The Smiley Face’d coffee maker is one of those one cup at a time drip deals. Tony built it with only his own use in mind. The one cup in question has YOUR STUPID boldly printed across its face. The first morning Pepper saw Tony drinking from it, she snorted. They both like grammar jokes. What a world.
Tony throws back half a mug at a time, unconcerned by temperature. Pepper prefers to nurse hers slowly, taking cautious sips.
Every morning includes a series of tugs of war over possession of the mug.
They should probably get a second one.
He arrives to find an empty office and a piece of paper taped to his computer. His phone is in his hand promptly.
“What,” he asks, “is on my desk?”
“A note,” Pepper sighs.
“I was in a hurry. It’s steno.”
“Shorthand. I took notation for you for years and you don’t know steno?”
“I didn’t know you had a whole other language.”
“It’s just as much English as text shorthand.”
“Not doing a whole lot to convince me here, Pep.” He pauses, waiting for her to roll her eyes. “Next time, just send an e-mail.”
Stark Resilient quickly outgrew the home for it provided by Wyche. For some reason, Tony regarded the opening of a sprawling, billion dollar industrial complex as an occasion that warranted holing up in his lab to create functional duplicates of past armors, Rhodey’s and Pepper’s included.
“Reinstating the old Stark International Hall of Armors a PR move,” Tony explained. “It helps link us with the parts of our past we want people to remember.”
“Do not,” Pepper warned, “do anything obscene with my armors. The Hall of Armors is popular with children.”
“I wasn’t planning anything obscene. They’re in love.”
Lying on his back, Tony says to the ceiling, “It’s about time we stopped living in hotels.”
Pepper’s cheek hits the pillow as she shifts to look at him. She’s eye to eye with his shoulder. “Do you have a mansion hidden somewhere?”
“Okay, seriously,” Pepper declares, pulling herself up on her elbows, “You say ‘broke.’ What does that word mean to Tony Stark?”
“It doesn’t mean ‘without resources.’”
“Then why hotels and stock options?”
“Build camaraderie among a group of downtrodden strangers. Also, it’s more fun.”
“It has been fun,” she sighs, lips curling into a smile.
“You’re kidding,” Rescue breathes, staring at the manse they hover above.
“It was my parents’,” Iron Man says as he lands softly. “I haven’t been here in years.”
His companion hits the ground beside him. When she removes her helmet, Pepper’s eyes are wide. Iron Man’s helmet recedes and he smirks, pleased with her stupefaction.
“I am going to get lost in there,” Pepper declares.
“It’s not that bad,” Tony replies.
“I’ll need the suit’s GPS just to find the bathroom.”
“Second door on the left,” he says, grinning. Pepper isn’t amused.
“I mean it. Draw me a map. Something.”
032. Ice Cream
She has always been aware of the class differences between herself and Tony. He is from Money. He has gone without, he’s been destitute, but he’s never blinked at luxury. To him, wealth is default.
Stark Industries was Pepper’s first job out of high school. She worked full time to afford night classes. She spent many uncertain years as Happy tried his hand at business and failed. She lost her foster children because she could not support them.
Tony has not been here in years, yet there are healthy horses in the pasture and ice cream is in the freezer.
Tony has been staring at her for a long time when a look on his face that she recognizes as ‘problem-solving.’ Pepper quirks an eyebrow. “Can I help you?” she asks.
“How old were you when we met?”
“I had already worked at Stark Industries for a couple years so, twenty-ish.”
Tony pauses. “How old was I?”
Pepper stares at him. “Please, please tell me you remember how we met.”
“Vaguely,” he shrugs. “I feel confidant that I was drunk at the time.”
“Well...” she sighs, “that explains how it took you so long to remember my name.”
They sleep the same way. The very first time (to his memory) that she drifted to sleep beside him, Tony noticed the way Pepper folded her arms against her chest, huddled over her breastbone. He wakes up in that position, or in a variation of the theme, every morning.
Tonight, she’s pressed herself against his ribcage. She’s on her side, he’s on his back and they fit together like repulsor light-blocking puzzle pieces. Her hand is splayed open on his chest, only a few rays slip between her fingers.
He could watch her breathe all night.
Tonight, he will.
Up until this point, their relationship has continued more or less like it had previously, with the additions of cohabitation, discovery of various bits of personal history and frequent sexual congress. They knew how to handle one another. Even their marriage, which they both knew happened much too early and was roughly half-mistake, went off without a hitch.
Eventually, it occurs to Tony that it is about time he actually took Pepper out on a date, one that is not their usual formal-work-function-that-requires-black-tie pseudo-date.
The dress is green. The ballet is Russian.
Though they lurk in the back of her brain, Pepper refuses to willingly consider any direct comparisons. Happy did this in a situation where Tony did that.Who made a better cup of coffee, who helped her unwind faster, who made her feel smart and valued and desirable more often. Length, girth and application.
It could have been otherwise had she came to Tony a divorcee instead of a widow. As it is, Happy’s memory is sacred. She will not tarnish it with petty contests. Neither man came in second. They are both her great love, just in different circumstances.
Pepper is the kind of person who constantly seeks new challenges. She finds her intellect means she bores easily, so she has taken on many roles.
Tony, by contrast, is very single-minded. He has dedicated his considerable genius in the pursuit of a significantly more narrow skill set.
That in mind, and considering his lifestyle, Pepper can’t quite wrap her brain around the when’s and how’s of Tony’s culinary skill. His offered explanation is Jarvis, which leads to more questions.
The answer, as with most mysteries surrounding Stark, is Iron Man.
Jarvis recruits Avengers to help with the housework.
Pepper isn’t sure about the goatee. Visually, it's appealing.
There are prickly drawbacks to a man with facial hair. The tickle is maddening when his lips are on her body.
Truthfully, Pepper isn’t sure about oral sex. Tony clearly thinks no one has ever performed well for her. Admittedly, he may be right, but he plays along.
“It’s soft,” he whispers reassuringly, brushing her fingers over his chin. Frustrated -- hungry -- he declares, “I will shave if you don’t like it.”
His offer is strangely comforting.
Pepper pushes his head down.
It's her favorite act.
He buys her flowers. Jewelry. Dresses. They make regular appearances at the theater and restaurants known for extravagance and selectivity. It all makes her feel beautiful and valuable, but also silly and wasteful.
There are better uses of wealth than this. Even accounting for their charitable foundations and shelters or battling the energy crisis and world hunger, the display is too much.
He’s trying to impress her, because that is what he does. She’s not sure what he is afraid will happen should she cease to be amazed. Really -- she’s impressed if he comes home when he says he will.
“I haven’t been fair to you and I want to apologize.”
“You have been a bit...suspicious,” Bethany Cabe admits.
“I’ve been jealous,” Pepper corrects. “And I’ve come to call for a truce.”
“I haven’t been fighting,” Beth’s eyes glint. “You’d know if I was fighting.”
Pepper frowns. “Tony thinks highly of you. I know there’s a reason for that other than... I didn’t want to give you a chance, so I didn’t. And I’m sorry, because it honestly had nothing to do with you, personally. What you represent to him...that person should be me.”
Beth smiles. “Apology accepted.”
Pepper had significantly more freckles years ago compared to now. Freckles, Tony has learned, may fade with age, use of citric acid or even from a lack of continued sun exposure.
When the summer sun returns to shine down upon her, the freckles blossom. He marvels at the resurgence of tiny red dots on her cheeks and shoulders. Scientifically, the phenomenon is quite fascinating.
“You look like someone coated you in cinnamon,” he says, caressing her spotted arm.
“Pepper,” Pepper corrects irritably. She has experienced a lifetime of comments on her freckles. “I look like someone coated me with pepper.”
Whether it is a red carpet event or photo shoot to accompany an article featuring Stark Resilient (or less commonly, their personal lives), the ritual is always the same. They pose side-by-side, arms looped around one another. Pepper’s hand lays flat against his upper back, while Tony slings his arm around her waist. They smile.
At the exact moment that the camera captures the image -- it is much easier for him to judge on a digital camera than one of those film-using relics photographers still favor -- Tony’s hand has drifted down far enough to squeeze her ass.
Tony’s number one detractor is himself. In some ways, it’s a good thing. Some people go easy on themselves to their own detriment. Tony isn’t like that. Being a harsh critic of your own work will help you improve in the future. He also keeps a healthy sense of humor about his own short comings. (Or maybe it’s unhealthy. Hard to say, sometimes.) He can laugh at comedians who base their act around slandering him.
He’s charismatic. Pepper enjoys simply listening to him speak. So, she’d like to be able to watch a televised interview without him yelling at himself.
He craves physical contact. It is another need, like oxygen. He is long used to being the most physically demonstrative among his social circle. Tony had always been especially demonstrative with Pepper. In the past, it was with some shame, as feelings of friendship were rarely the source of his hugs.
He is now free to surround her with himself, to kiss her anywhere and mold her breasts. She gasps, then whispers encouragement as he pushes against her. Her hips buckle, seeking him of their own accord. He loves her mind, her soul, her strength, but he needs her skin.
The buzz about Baintronics in industry circles makes Pepper grind her teeth. “I hate that woman,” she hisses.
Tony glances over her shoulder to see what she is looking at. Ah, Sunset... “You hate them all.”
“Most of them mistreated you,” Pepper replies. “She used you, stole from you and you still get weak kneed around her.”
“None of that,” he protests, “is remotely true.”
She raises a skeptical eyebrow.
“I was not exactly the perfect boyfriend myself,” he adds.
“There’s no justifying what she did. Do not even try,” Pepper warns.
He knows he shares some of the guilt.
“I think,” Tony says, surveying the main living room, “it’s time to get rid of the portraits of my parents.”
The larger than life paintings of Howard and Maria Stark that adorn the walls have made Pepper uncomfortable since they moved in. She never met Tony’s parents, yet she feels as though she has their perpetual disapproval. Tony has a complex relationship with their memory, caught between awareness of their shortcomings and saintly canonization. She’s surprised he would suggest this.
“Pack away. Move to another room.” He shrugs. “This is our home now. It needs to start looking like us.”
“I think the guys are insulted you never hang out with them anymore.”
“Really? Because you get along fine at the office.”
“The thing is, they drink. And no, I know what you’re thinking, no, we just have a couple of beers. And I just thought that it might be easier -- for you -- if I didn’t do that sort of thing.”
“Pep, you don’t have to be a teetotaler for my sake.”
“I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”
“What if I came on to you drunk?”
“Then I’d be the bastard that couldn’t resist you.”
The tabloids have a field day with the fact they don’t wear wedding rings. Completely false reports of ‘trouble in paradise’ (it was never paradise) or imminent divorces occur roughly every two weeks.
Jewelry is more trouble than its worth if they need to suit up in a hurry. Leaving it on opens them up to damaging the ring during a repulsor fight or an ill-fitting gauntlet. Taking a ring off first requires someplace safe to put it, which they don’t always have.
As a symbol, the rings in their chests work well enough.
Suspiciously, her widow’s ring stays.
One thing Tony knows beyond a shadow of a doubt is that he was personally responsible for the death of Happy Hogan. He does not remember his life between plugging himself into the Extremis serum and waking up in Oklahoma, but he remembers the dreamworld that he lingered in when his brain had destroyed itself. He knows Happy was there, standing with the people he had killed.
Tony doesn’t believe in the afterlife or immortality of the soul, so he isn’t concerned about anyone watching him, judging. He has, however, convinced himself that Happy would have chosen him for Pepper.
She has too much champagne at one of their fundraisers. It’s no where near the amount Tony would have had in her shoes -- the shoes of someone who can drink without destroying themselves. But her tolerance is lower.
He enjoys it too much. This is the first time he has seen her a little drunk since she gave him explicit, sober permission to acquiesce to any advances she might make while intoxicated. Tipsy, she is giggly and more demanding than he is used to.
He gorges himself on the smell and the taste of her.
Afterwards, he lies awake, wanting.
The diagnosis is a concussion, but it could have been a lot worse. All that saved him was the timely intervention of War Machine.
“You’re lucky I was there,” Rhodey says.
“I make my own luck,” Tony quips, from his Quincarrier Medical Bay cot. “And your suit, case in point.”
“Laugh it off all you like,” Rhodey says, “but you need to keep your head in the game. One of these days, someone’s going to surprise you.”
“Life’s full of surprises.”
“Don’t think I don’t know what’s going on with you.”
Tony raises his eyebrows.
“Get yourself to a meeting.”
“We’re going to flip a coin.”
“Heads, I choose. Tails, you do.”
“I think I should call it in the air.”
“My way is fine.”
“If you’re flipping, I should call. Otherwise, you can cheat.”
“You cannot cheat at coin toss.”
“We have magnet powers and we definitely can.”
“You just admitted your plan to cheat. I win by default.”
“You have my original RT. They both have magnets. I’m not the only one with the potential to cheat. Tony, there’s got to be a better way to pick pizza toppings.”
“So, you wanna go half-and-half?”
There’s no actual ...etiquette for these things. No one can tell anyone else the right way to do it and no one can decide when someone else is doing it wrong. The only purpose is to bring as much comfort as can be derived to the person who needs it. Whether it is done for days, weeks, months, years, or even a lifetime? That decision is up to each individual. Some people choose not to do it at all.
Pepper takes the ring off her right hand. It is time to put it away, because she feels that it is.
“This was so much easier when I had a secret identity,” Tony remarks.
“You had to lie all the time -- which you’re terrible at, you had a staff of people covering for you and robot duplicates so that you could appear in two places at once, but they went evil half the time,” Pepper counters. “What part of that is easy?”
Easy was the wrong word. As Iron Man, he used to be able to escape being Tony Stark. Iron Man was a force for justice, seemingly independent from Tony’s mistakes.
“I had you to cover for me,” he shrugs.
The idea of constructing a tower to carry payloads into space is not a new one, Tony explains. They are, however, in the exciting position of being the first company that could actually built one.
“The major disadvantage to the space fountain concept is the required power input. The structure is supported by the trajectory of moving pellets, so it needs to be sucking power at all times to remain upright. Stark Resilient's repulsor technology resolves that issue.”
“So, first cars, then cities, now space?” Pepper muses. His ideas continue to expand in scope.
Tony grins. “It’s the final frontier.”
DATE: 6/27 2:34 PM EST
The Beetle attacked HQ. Keep your appointments, but regroup with the boys in Flushings later.
SUBJ: RE: FYI...
DATE: 6/27 2:37 PM EST
Thanks for the head’s up. Need a hand or should I be expecting celebratory victory cowgirl rides tonight..?
SUBJ: RE: RE: FYI...
DATE: 6/27 2:48 PM EST
Please concentrate on securing the permits.
As for later...
She yelps, “What are you doing?”
Tony lowers his smartphone, assesses the snapshot and says, “Upgrading my armor’s communications systems. It’s the perfect time to update the base image I use for the hologram matrix tied to your phone line.”
“And you thought,” she sputters, “‘I’ll snap a photo when she gets out of the shower?’”
“Yeah,” Tony answers. “Thought that would be perfect.”
“It’s not perfect,” Pepper protests, “In fact, it’s wildly inappropriate.”
He pockets the phone. “It’s completely private. I’m not talking about a wallpaper.”
“I’m wearing a towel.”
He frowns. “I don’t want to be distracted.”
“What do you want for Christmas?”
Tony balks at the question. Furtively, he checks his internal calender app. The calendar, for once, appears to be on his side. “It’s July.”
“I know. You’re that hard to shop for.”
“I thought you had a very special way of getting around that little problem.”
“I don’t think the tradition of getting you useless trinkets you hate should continue now that we’re together.”
“They can be surprisingly useful with a little imagination. Anyway, I have everything I want.”
“Does that line ever work?”
“Wouldn’t know. This is the first time I’ve used it.”
“This won’t go on forever.”
Tony tosses his head, rolls his shoulders. His muscles are knotted up, Avenger extracurriculars have him sore all over and the amount of red-tape preventing the creation of a space elevator qualifies as a catastrophe itself. “No,” he agrees. “I know it won’t. The bureaucracy is part of any construction project.”
Pepper laughs. “Not what I meant.”
“Oh?” he asks, lowering himself so that they are pressed torso to torso.
“The sex-crazed newlywed phase. Hard to believe, I know.”
“It is your entire personality,” she teases.
“It’s good for stress relief.”
Tony had always been supportive. Anything she needed from him, he gave. It was his most endearing quality. However, his support generally required no particular effort or sacrifice. He was a friend, standing by another friend.
Things change. Their relationship changed. Their relationship changed quickly. Somethings, they just never talked about.
Somethings, after all, were impossible.
Pepper made her choice long ago. She didn’t know how Tony felt, but she was willing to leave him if he didn’t support her.
“I don’t know how this happened.” She inhales. “Tony, I’m pregnant.”
“God, Pepper,” he whispers. “I didn’t let myself hope.”
When questions arise in Tony’s mind, his usual approach is to find the answer through the application of science. The moments immediately following Pepper’s revelation isn’t one of those times.
How? When? How long have you known? Is he capable of being a father? He hasn’t counted procreation among his goals in years. The opportunity passed him time and again. Pepper told him once that she could not conceive. She had been with Happy then, and an already futile dream died.
Somehow, in the jumbled tangle of his thoughts, the question that comes out is, “Lamaze?”
Pepper laughs. “Not yet.”
“What do you think about ‘Stark Fountain?’ Too on the nose?”
“Tony,” Pepper inhales, “we are building a giant tower that remains upright thanks to a system that is essentially hydraulics. The technical term is ‘fountain,’ which we can’t do anything about, but it lends itself to imagery of shooting liquid. Add your name and... you’ve just named the technology that will forever change the human space travel paradigm after your penis.”
Tony regards her carefully. “Is that a yay or nay on the name?”
“Tony, sweetie,” Pepper murmurs, “you don’t have anything to compensate for. You’re virile. We know.”
“I don’t think I’m really comfortable with this,” Pepper mutters, tapping the external repulsor unit of Rescue, version IV.
Tony shrugs. “It’s temporary.”
“But she’s me. My identity. You don’t understand.”
“Remind me how you met Rhodey,” Tony prompts her.
Pepper sulks. “He was Iron Man.”
“Pep, could you live with yourself if Rescue wasn’t there when someone needed her?”
“No. I just...I don’t want you to give her away.”
“I’m not. We’re looking at a temporary pregnancy leave substitute.”
“That you choose.”
“There aren’t a lot of people I can trust with this technology, Pepper. Beth is one.”
“What do you think of the armor?” Tony asks absently, clicking away at one of his computers. He’s preoccupied when Beth thunders in after her first session with JARVIS.
Pepper folds her arms, assessing her replacement. They’d compromised on the identity by tinting the color scheme to orange. Still, she has to remind herself that she is not in a competition with Bethany.
“It’s more comfortable than being Iron Man with the Legion.”
“Don’t let it be said I don’t listen to feedback,” he mutters.
“I won’t.” To Pepper, she adds, “Wearing his armor hurt. Squashed my chest something fierce.”
“Were you flirting with her?”
Tony turns to watch their waitress saunter away. He can’t remember a thing he said to her besides presumably placing a lunch order.
Pepper props her chin on the heel of her hand. “She thinks you’re cute, too. The pregnant wife might be a turn-off.”
He’s learned through trial and error -- mostly error, entirely error -- not to say anything about her pregnancy hormones. And while he’s positive any flirting he’s doing exists solely in her imagination, he does like waitresses...
“I can’t help it. It’s wired into my personality.”
“Your personality needs an upgrade.”
His garbled exclamations sounded like a panicked excuse to his own hears, so Tony can only imagine what Pepper must be thinking. When she entered the workshop, he’d shut down his computers in a knee-jerk reaction. He never heard why she came down; rather, she stuttered out that she didn’t care if he looked at porn. It was clearly a lie, but that didn’t matter. He had been truthful. He was doing research. He was searching.
Tony sighs, unable to meet her eyes. “I’m looking for my son.” Reflexively, Pepper’s hand covers her stomach. “The one I gave up.”
“We found him,” Pepper announces some weeks later. “Timothy. Tim. Seven years old, mother’s name was Gretl Anders.” She grins incredulously, “Delivered in a blizzard by one Anthony Stark?”
“Yeah,” he whispers, awed. “That’s him. When Gretl died, she left Tim to me, but I had hit rock-bottom by then.”
“He was adopted, family lives upstate. A mom, a dad, two older sisters. If you wanted to try contacting them, maybe the parents would --”
“-- No. This wasn’t about making him a target for our enemies. I just couldn’t have another kid without knowing what happened to him. Thank you.”
The larger her belly grows, the more Pepper finds herself thinking about Timothy. Circumstances are different now -- Tony had been homeless when Tim was born. Tim was Tony’s son not by blood, but by choice; Grelt was already pregnant when he met her.
However, she finds herself wondering if this baby will be so different. Tony had walked away once and seemingly had no second thoughts for seven years. While Pepper is willing to shoulder the responsibility herself, if need be, Tony has been interested. Excited. She isn’t sure how she’ll fair if that changes after the baby is born.
“You’re throwing yourself a parade?” Pepper asks, dumbfounded.
“No. The city of New York is throwing the Avengers a parade.”
“But we’re footing the bill.”
Tony shrugs. “I volunteered. The city shouldn’t be wasting tax payer money on our PR.”
“So, you’re throwing yourself a parade.”
“Yeah.” He smirks. “You know, you could stand to be a little more grateful.”
“What?” she sputters.
“You know, swooning, batting your eyelashes, calling me your hero.”
“Between running your company and carrying your child,” Pepper replies, “there’s no time left for swooning.”
“Don’t sell yourself short,” he advises, “You’re great at multi-tasking.”
Pepper rubs her bump often. “I keep making sure he’s still in there,” she admits. “We -- I tried to get pregnant for so long. It’s hard to believe this is really happening. That it’s even possible. I don’t understand how.”
Initially, Tony hadn’t understood either. His scientific curiosity peaked, he dug deeper. "Don't underestimate the regenerative powers of your RT rig."
"A little. Maybe. Yeah."
"When -- How -- Why did you --?"
"I don't remember the exact reasoning," Tony reminds her, "but the replusor is designed to stimulate the growth of healthy cells. You always wanted kids, hence healthy reproductive cells.”
"What do you think about 'Howard?'"
"Who?" Pepper wonders, trying to determine what associate of theirs had slipped passed her normally impeccable memory for faces.
"As a name," Tony clarifies. "For our kid."
His father's name, Howard Anthony. Pepper doesn't consider Tony's father someone worth honoring. Tony never says much about him, but she's gleaned enough. The man had been a distant, abusive drunk. While Tony is aware there was something deeply wrong with his childhood, his memories are tinged by a certain hero worship for the man who sired him.
Unable to reject the notion outright, she says, "Maybe."
The demure cross of her legs, ankle over ankle, has a somewhat less so effect when her heels are propped just above his shoulder. He stares down the line of her legs until she disappears beneath the water and bubbles, his wet hands rubbing and dripping on her calves all the while, causing the gooseflesh to rise and ebb. Though Pepper seems content to relax in the tub for now, sharing a bubble bath is making a particular portion of his body rise as well. He is not adverse to waiting when he knows the reward will be worth it.
"I heard so much about all the odd foods pregnant women eat that I never realized how many things I couldn't eat."
Tony raises his eyebrows. "No alcohol, no caffeine? Everyone knows there are restrictions."
Pepper sighs, fondly. "You would never survive being pregnant."
"A lack of caffeine in my system would cause my entire infrastructure to collapse."
"Closer to a cup of coffee a day. Wouldn't want a baby with a heart that races all the time, like yours."
"Caffeine isn't doing that, you are."
"No lines, please."
"So you can't eat sushi. Don't take it out on me."
"Well, kiddo," Pepper says to her stomach, "Looks like it's just you and me."
Tony had been called by the Avengers to run off on some mission with sketchy details. Beth was assisting the Spokane fire department and Rhodey was working with the military again. Tim and Pimacher had left early - date night. Wyche was out of town visiting his mother; Macken was overseeing some inspections in Asgard. Bambi had been recruited by the Iron Man Foundation, to help out with the yearly charity Christmas party.
And Pepper's car broke down. "Now would be a fantastic time to have armor."
Looking back, she had been brought to this point entirely by impulse. Pepper had never considered herself an impulsive person, but upon reflection, that assessment was objectively wrong.
Running off to Reno the moment she realized a future with him was possible.
Kissing him after his replusor cracked. He'd sobered up, but his breath tasted like stale Asgardian mead. Following him as Rescue, just because Norman Osborn pissed her off and told her she couldn't fly.
She was just an accountant, once - forever ago - with the gall to walk up to Tony Stark and tell him his math was wrong.
“Tony? You there?”
He squints, sweat stinging his eyes. His chest burns. “Yeah?” he wheezes.
“It’s, uh, Tim Cababa?”
Tony grits his teeth and prepares to tell the engineer to get off his line when Tim continues --
“Pepper’s having contractions. Bethany and Mrs. A took her to the hospital. Whatever you’re doing, hurry up.”
“On my way,” he says, hanging up.
He’s so close to his own death he can taste it.
He had thought -- incorrectly -- his old enemy, the anti-corporation conspiracy theorist the Ghost, had turned over a new leaf with the Thunderbolts.
“You’re not killing me today!”
“Where is he?” Pepper hisses, pacing back and forth.
Beth tries not to betray her concern, but her last three calls to the Iron Man armor have gone unanswered. “Maybe you should sit down,” she suggests.
“This will help my water break,” Pepper informs her, continuing to stride across her hospital room and back.
“Oh. Right.” Beth has to admit -- she’s far out of her element. “Look, I’m sure he’ll be here soon. You know how Tony is. He likes a dramatic entrance.”
Whatever retort Pepper intended to make is usurped by the sudden trickle of fluid down her leg.
“He’s going to resent me.”
“He is not.”
“This is what his life is going to be, Pepper.” Tony grimaces. “Today was the preview. I missed him being born. I’m going to miss everything. He’ll grow up wondering why I don’t care.”
“He loves you,” Pepper insists.
Tony looks down at his son in the hospital basinet, frighteningly small and helpless. “I resented my father,” Tony says, sounding mystified at his own confession. The father in his mind is a distant figure, imposing and disapproving. His father was the monster in his dreams, not the savior.
“You’ll be his hero.”
She’s so, so tired.
“Tony, if you don’t want this, just tell me. If you don’t succeed at something, it’s because you didn’t want to.”
He looks utterly, utterly lost.
“The three of us are a family. I want this -- with you. Keeping him safe, making sure he understands what I have to do -- that will be hard. But, he’s what this has all been about -- the cars, Asgard, everything -- making the Stark legacy worth passing on.”
Pepper squints, licks her lips. “Do you still want to call him Howard?”
“We decided on --”
“-- you really want Howard.”
Tony smiles. “Yeah.”
Pepper happily drapes a garishly multicolored wool abomination unto fashion over his shoulders and announces, “My mother knitted you a scarf.”
As she knots the gift around his neck, Tony frowns. “I thought your mother didn’t like me.” The offenses he had allotted against the matriarch Potts are numerous and varied, ranging from war profiteering and nearly getting her daughter killed to minor infractions such as neglecting to properly introduce her to his cousin Morgan.
“Now she has a grandson,” Pepper explains, “so she forgives you.”
“She expresses such sentiments sartorially.”
“It’s a gesture,” she pronounces. “I think it’s sweet.”
“Howard is a lucky boy,” Pepper coos, swaying slightly to rock the baby in her arms. Initial misgivings aside, Tony is inclined to agree. Yes, there will be an unavoidable element of danger in his life, no matter how many steps they take to protect him. But the opportunities the boy will have along the course of his life are unprecedented. He’s also got Pepper in his corner, a sure sign of future success if Tony ever saw one.
Pepper tears her eyes away from her son’s face to make eye contact with his father. “He looks just like Daddy.”
Afterwards, when his brain has cleared, Tony revels, “I am a genius.”
Pepper mumbles, “So you’ve mentioned from time to time.”
“My list of accomplishments includes experimental medical technology capable of being implanted within a person’s body to exponentially accelerate their healing.”
“I’ve done a little research,” he adds conversationally. “It can take weeks, sometimes months, for women to be interested in sex after giving birth.”
“There’s more to it than the physical healing. Nothing about having a baby makes a person feel sexy.”
“You know you’re sexy.”
“I think you want to devour me.”
“Oh, I do.”
“Is he finally asleep?”
“Yeah,” Tony answers as he eases himself into bed beside her.
Pepper rolls over. “You don’t have to answer him every time. I can take turns, too.” When Tony shrugs, she continues: “You have about a million things that need to get done tomorrow. We both have to get a chance to sleep sometimes.”
“I don’t,” Tony says slowly, “ever want him to see me drunk.”
“Okay,” Pepper replies, confused. “That’s good, but --”
“-- But now, when it’s quiet and there’s nothing to distract me is when I need him to remind me why I’m not drinking.
It takes a few weeks for Pepper to work breast feeding and pumping into her schedule with an acceptable degree of efficiency. She’s tempted to switch Howard to a formula based diet at first, but she can’t bring herself to go through with it. Howard’s health and well-being is her top priority and the nutritional benefits of her own milk are undeniable.
However, she is not about to sacrifice her own well-being -- that would benefit no one. She’s just not the martyr type. The business is who she is and being a working mom is just another challenge.
Had Beth been looking for a long-term hero gig, she had more than enough opportunities. Before donning the identity of Rescue, she had been both an Iron Man and a War Machine. She found these roles profoundly uncomfortable. Dependency on a shell of someone else’s design countered everything Beth needed her life to be. She had built her identity around someone else once before.
She wonders if she is choosing not to love it, focusing on the headaches instead of the pride because she expects it to be taken away.
Weeks pass, and Beth is still Rescue.
Honestly, Pepper is still irked by how quickly Beth can read anyone, including herself. It’s senseless to even try to hide any private discomfort.
“Do you ever think you really know someone only to learn that they can still surprise you?” Pepper wonders. “In a bad way?”
“What did Tony do now?” Beth asks.
“Did you know my darling husband designs doomsday devices? As a hobby? As in, devices capable of destroying mankind as we know it? As in, he designs them for fun?”
Beth’s expression makes it clear that she didn’t.
It’s hard to feel triumphant.
But Pepper manages.
He tries not to jostle the mattress too much when he climbs into bed, but Tony is often unsuccessful. He hates waking Pepper -- with so many responsibilities, making the brain shut down enough to relax is no easy task. Howard learned to sleep through the night; he’s used up all his excuses.
Pepper gets angry if he spends too many nights in his garage. He’s made promises to her regarding the little duties inherent in being part of a pair. He wants to keep them. It’s just hard. Tony doesn’t see how the things she wants are fair to her.
His body is perfect.
He’s proud of that. (Maybe too much.)
His form captivates Pepper. He enjoys her obvious lust nearly as much as he does the near reverent kisses she places on his chest, his abdomen, his groin.
But sometimes -- only sometimes, because he’s pretty good at rolling with the punches -- Tony looks in the mirror and expects to see scars that aren’t there. He got his chest punctured by his own land mine, been shot pointblank. There have been innumerable hazy mornings after surgeries and benders.
These things left their mark on him.
Just not, evidently, on him.
“I still can’t believe someone procreated with him.”
“It’s not that surprising. He’s not as cute as you, but he’s not as intense, either.”
“Wait -- not as cute? You think he is cute?”
“That’s not what I said.”
“Oh, God, you do. See, this is why we can’t do this.”
“Your side of the family tree is pretty sparse. Howard deserves to have relationships with what family he does have. I know Morgan’s a little ...slimy, but you can’t hold that against his son.”
“Rhodey, Steve and Thor are my side of the family. And what do you mean, ‘intense?’”
Arriving at the office with the kid in tow, Tony raises a few eyebrows. Pepper’s out doing the meet-and-greet with potential clients today, meaning Daddy is on duty. But Daddy also has a job to do. Anyway, it’s not like Stark and son are a hugely disruptive duo. In fact, Tony suits up in this building regularly. The liquid armor contained in his bones is more distracting to engineers than any human being can be.
Still... “His name’s on the side of the building,” Tony warns before any ...inquiries are voiced. “He can be here if he wants.”
“I don’t know about this,” Pepper says, face to the sky. She squints. “Howard’s still so tiny. I can’t leave him yet. He needs me.”
Tony watches her with agitation. She’s wavered quite a bit in recent weeks and he’s losing patience with her indecisiveness. He doesn’t understand the guilt. Her child is an infant.
She knows that ultimately, he would be more satisfied if she declined entirely. But she wouldn’t be, so he pushes.
Pepper’s trepidation stays through the launch. The new armor is a gleaming red and silver, poised. Invincible. JARVIS says, “Welcome back,” and suddenly, Rescue is.
092. Mini Golf
The plastic prototype of the Stark Resilient Space Fountain sits proudly in the lobby. (Pepper thinks two extra words keeps it from sounding dirty. Tony’s positive the typical nomenclature will be Stark Fountain anyway.)
Admiring the model, Pepper wonders, “How can the company top privatizing space travel?”
It’s a good question -- space has been his goal for so long that Tony’s not sure yet.
“By doing the unexpected,” Pepper answers herself. “By taking something we didn’t know was broken and making it better. Imagine: the future of miniature golf -- today!”
“Exciting,” Tony deadpans, “but the model was delegated grunt work.”
Surprisingly, Pepper downloaded Tony’s Science Friday guest spot. “You’re listening to the interview?”
She hits ‘pause.’ “Yeah. Of course.”
“You’ve been involved in every step of the project. I didn’t say a thing you don’t know.”
“That’s not the point,” Pepper shrugs. “As CEO, I need to know what the face of my company said about our services. You’re so alive when you talk about your breakthroughs. I like to hear you.”
Tony hates interviews. He tries to be charming when shilling the product, but to his own ears, he overshoots the mark and comes off sounding like an ass.
When ground is broken on the construction site, Tony has a rare moment of honesty. “You know, I never could have done this without you.”
Wryly, Pepper asks, “What makes you say that?” By now, she’s seen enough to know -- Tony Stark can do anything. It isn’t just his genius that separates him from the rest of the world It’s his drive, too. He never accepts what he has, never considers his accomplishments enough for one life. He’s given her everything she never thought she’d have.
“I didn’t do it without you,” he answers. “You’re instrumental. Results speak for themselves.”
It might be cheating but,
Pepper doesn't need the fountain to get to space.
Her armor is fully space flight capable.
(And she will never admit to Tony that she learned this entirely by accident.)
(JARVIS might tattle if it ever came up, but he’s been pretty loyal to her so far, so she’s not too worried.)
Pepper isn’t surprised that the armor can fly her out into space. There’s probably a reason for it beyond Tony’s whimsy, but the things he loves tend to manifest themselves in the Iron Man.
Roller skates, the vastness of the universe and her.
“What do families do?”
Pepper looks at Tony oddly. She had been watching him fondly -- Howard made an impressive spit-up on his shoulder and the man barely looked grossed out.
“Together,” he clarifies. “For bonding purposes.”
She’s about to ask if he really just asked that, but lucky, she remembers the basic configuration of Tony’s childhood before she does. Being ignored by drunk, workaholic parents. Locking himself in his room to build things. Being raised by the butler. Finding positive attention from his peers only by providing booze.
“Well,” she starts, “when he gets older, we can look into...”
Tony means it when he says that his side of the family is the Avengers. He doesn’t always see eye to eye with his varied teammates, but they all have something to offer a child and make for neat holiday stories, besides. Tony knows he’s not a textbook example of discipline, faith or principles. He considers these things nice in theory, but unrealistic when feeling charitable towards them. (Unnecessary would be the term otherwise.)
So in an odd way, he’s glad that Howard has Uncle Rhodey, Uncle Thor and Uncle Steve to be the example his father can never be.
Pepper lies dozing on the couch, suit jacket abandoned, pantyhose removed and skirt rumpled.
“Mommy’s a ginger,” Tony whispers to Howard, “so this might be a little Oedipal later on, but lusting after redheads is one of life’s great pleasures. If I’ve ruined that for you, I’m sorry, but Daddy couldn’t let that one get away again.” He bounces the baby in his arms. “You understand.”
Keeping his voice down as to not rouse her from her late afternoon nap did not quite work as Tony intended. With one eye cracked open, Pepper intones, “Stop teaching him to objectify women.”
Pepper joined the team for Jessica Jones.
There were a lot of things about the squad that appealed to her. Their values, for one. They went into the street to take care of the people. It wasn’t about space monsters and magic -- though they did take care of those problems when they arose. It was about making sure people had safe neighborhoods and could send their children to school. Being part of the team meant Howard had a nanny who could protect him, Squirrel Girl.
But the deciding factor was finding camaraderie with Jessica, as teammates, moms and now, Avengers.
Using Tony’s leg for support, Howard stands. There’s a look of stern concentration on his pudgy face. Howard’s not quite ready to take the risk of his first steps, though for a few weeks he has been teetering, almost trying. Tony likes to watch that little mind make the tough decision. After a long moment, it is apparent once again, he has opted not to try.
“Dada,” he says plaintively.
Tony boggles. “Pepper!” he calls, “He said ‘Dada!’”
“Don’t get excited,” Pepper cautions. “He doesn’t know it means anything.”
Howard tugs on Tony’s pant leg. “Dada,” he repeats.