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if you're afraid to say, but you'd like to try

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"I want to make sure we are all completely clear on this," Tony says carefully. "You are proposing to let Phil set me on fire."

"It's not that simple-" Pepper argues.

"He will be applying fire to my body."

"He'll be applying fire to alcohol."

"Which will be on my body."

There's a pause. "Yes," she admits.

"I have been on fire before," Tony points out.

"The suit has been on fire before," she counters.

"I was in the suit while it was on fire before."

"We have excellent fire suppression capabilities-"

"Oh god, are we having a four-way with Dummy and Phil?" Tony says, aghast.

"I know it's unusual, but it hardly even counts as edgeplay."

"You want to set me on fire," he says. "That is the definition of edgeplay."

"I realize it's scary, but it feels good-"

Tony narrows his eyes. "Did you let Phil set you on fire?"

"You'll like it if you try it," she tells him. "I want to try it, and I want you to try it with me." She gives him a hard look. "If you want, I can also force you to do it."

Tony raises an eyebrow, looking at her with interest, and Pepper knows she's hit it right, that all Tony really needed was the push. "Oh, well, when you put it like that-"

She grabs a handful of his hair, tugging hard. "Then you're doing it whether you like it or not."

"Yes, ma'am," he says quickly.

"Tomorrow night," she tells him.

He blinks. "That was fast. What were you going to do if I'd said no?"

She kisses his cheek. "Cancel it."

But Tony doesn't say no, so there they are, all set up. She picked the lounge for a couple of reasons, mostly the tile floors and lack of intimacy that somewhere like their bedroom would have; Phil's a dear friend, but this is decidedly not that kind of thing.

It's maybe fifteen minutes before Phil is supposed to show up, but already Tony is stripping out of his shirt. "You're not going to wait for Phil to get here?" Pepper asks, though she's not all that surprised; making him strip in front of someone else, even someone who's going to see him naked, might be a little too much humiliation for Tony.

Tony hangs his pants over the back of the couch, slipping out of his socks and boxer briefs. "I'd like to avoid having Phil see my dick again, Pepper."

Pepper frowns. "'Again'?"

"There was this thing with a decontamination shower and-" Tony waves his hand. "Look, I'm laying down now."

He climbs onto the padded table, arranging himself to his liking. Pepper strokes his hair as they wait for Phil to arrive; Tony's definitely nervous, but he's settling little by little, calming under her touch.

"Ms. Potts, Agent Coulson is requesting access to the elevator," JARVIS says, some minutes later.

"Bring him up," she tells him; she feels Tony tense again, but he loses some of it when she runs her fingernails gently over his scalp, just how he likes. It's a minute or two before Phil steps out of the elevator, carrying a small duffel bag. He's wearing a pair of black slacks and a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up; he has this habit of being inappropriately normal at times.

"Phil," she says, stepping away from Tony to give him a hug. "Good to see you."

"Likewise," he says, smiling. He looks over at Tony. "I guess we're jumping right in, aren't we."

Tony raises his head up. "Did you ever honestly think it would be different, considering who you're working with here?"

"Not really," Phil says, setting down his bag. "You followed the instructions?"

"He's clean," she says. "No lotion or anything."

"I am so undermoisturized right now," Tony says. "She even took away my hair gel. I might hate her a little." She grabs the back of his hair in warning. "Except the part where I really don't. Please, continue."

The first thing that comes out of Phil's bag is a safety razor, which is kind of anticlimactic. "What are you doing with that?" Tony says, offended, as Phil hands it to Pepper. "I am aware I have many faults, but back hair is not one of them."

"We're about to put alcohol on your back and set it on fire," Phil reminds him. "Do you want your imaginary hair singed, or do you want to hold still?"

"Fine," Tony huffs, laying back down. There's really isn't much to speak of, but Pepper cleans him off anyway. While she takes care of that, Phil gets set up. There's a table next to the one Tony's lying on, and Pepper watches as Phil sets out his supplies on it: a lighter; a bottle of alcohol; a narrow cup; a pair of sticks with cloth heads on them, almost like timpani mallets.

"I need a glass of water, and then we're ready," Phil says. "I assume the fire extinguisher is taken care of."

"Dummy's on it," Tony says. "So when you get sprayed in the face, don't come crying to me."

"If I had a nickel for every time I've heard that," Pepper says as she walks towards the bar, just to hear Tony sputter. She comes back with the glass, handing it to Phil before taking up a position on the other side of the table, out of Phil's way but right where she can keep her hands on Tony, be right there for him if something goes wrong.

As she watches, running her hands over Tony's back, Phil pours some of the alcohol into the cup and dips each of the mallets in, one at a time, shaking them a little to get the excess off. He holds one of them up and flicks the lighter. "I heard fire," Tony says, sounding nervous. "There's fire now."

"Shh," she says, running her fingers through his hair, her other hand resting on his thigh. There's no good in telling him to relax, but touch is something he understands, something he can ground himself with.

Phil carefully lights the mallet, setting down his lighter. He gives Pepper a look, a silent request for confirmation and permission, and she nods. He takes the wet mallet and runs a line of alcohol across Tony's back, and Tony shivers. "This is the time to back out," Phil says.

"Do it," Tony says firmly, in his now-or-never voice, and Phil touches the other mallet to the alcohol. A matching line of flame runs across Tony's back, and Phil chases it with his hand, smoothly catching it and putting his hand over it to snuff it. "That," Tony says, "feels really weird."

"Good weird or bad weird?" Pepper asks.

"I don't know," Tony says. "Hit me again and let's find out."

Phil draws a bigger line this time, a V shape; when he lights it, the fire follows it again, just like the zig-zag after it, the figure eight that splits into two little flames. It's a little hypnotic, watching the flames dance over Tony's back like that, the smooth sweep of Phil's hands. The tension is seeping out of Tony's muscles as he relaxes into it, but he's gotten very, very quiet. "Still green?" Pepper asks, bending down to make eye contact, and Phil waits, holding his sticks well away until Tony replies.

"Green," Tony says, and he sounds a little lost, like he's going away. She kisses the back of his neck, rubbing his shoulders.

"You can tell me if you want to stop," Pepper reminds him.

"No, no," Tony says, and he sounds a little bit more like himself. "Go on. Give me more."

Pepper gives Phil a nod, and he dips his mallet again, drawing another shape onto Tony's back, flaming it off and catching it. He looks up at her, tossing his head to beckon her over; Pepper is terrified for a moment at the prospect of what they're about to do, and she honestly wonders if she's going to run screaming.

That's not what happens. Instead she walks over, standing beside him; he hands her the wet mallet, and before she can talk herself out of it, she traces a curvy line. Phil doesn't offer her the fire, which is good, because she wouldn't take it. Instead he flames it himself, catching it at the end. Two or three more times, and she might actually be ready to do this thing.

Phil seems to know when she's ready, because he switches mallets with her. This time he puts down the design, tracing a P shape just so she'll roll her eyes a little; she realizes very clearly that he's trying to distract her, calm her down, but as long as it works, she doesn't care.

She touches the flame to the alcohol, and there it goes, right across his skin, singing down the line and right into Phil's hand. She's struck by the enormity of what she's just done, of what Tony's let her do, of the trust he's showing. She knows very well that she's been, well, his everything for a long time, that he's trusted her when he wouldn't trust anyone else in the world, but it's something different entirely when he proves it.

She tries it twice more, but that's all she has to give. "Tony," she says, putting her hand on the back of his neck. "Tony, how are you feeling?"

"I feel-" His voice already sounds floaty, like he's elsewhere. "You know when you've just had a nice long massage? I feel massaged. I don't get enough massages. Maybe I should just get set on fire more. It seems more cost-effective. But I can't just call for a getting-set-on-fire appointment. I'd have to wait for you to have time to set me on fire, and there are only so many places you should be setting me on fire-"

"Does he always do this?" Phil asks quietly.

"You have no idea," Pepper says. "He's done."

"I'll clean up," Phil says, dousing the flame.

Pepper picks up the blanket that's waiting on the couch, laying it out over Tony's back and legs, smoothing it out, running her hands all over him. He turns towards her, moving over and hanging onto her as best he can at that angle. He looks down at himself, mostly obscured by Pepper's arms where she's holding him tight. "Phil can't see my dick, can he?"

"No, sweetheart," she says. "You're covered up, and Phil's halfway across the room."

"Good," Tony says, squeezing her tighter. Phil is moving around, but he's completely silent; when they trained him as a super secret agent badass, they probably never expected this kind of application for stealth training. He doesn't make a sound until he pulls the zipper on his duffel, picking it up and waving a hand at Pepper before he goes to the elevator.

"JARVIS, mute," she says quietly. "Show Agent Coulson out."

The elevator opens and closes again, taking him away, leaving the two of them alone together. There will be a time later to unpack it, to figure out how it worked and how it didn't, whether it worked at all, but this isn't that time. Right now is the time to let Tony cling to her, to cling to him, to take the time to let nothing else matter.

"I think I might be about to fall off the table," Tony says. "This is really uncomfortable."

"I know," Pepper says, but neither of them move.