It starts, like all these things do, with a bathtub.
When Pepper finally finds him, Tony's at the recently-replaced piano, playing something that sounds like either he or the piano is very drunk. "C'mere," he says, motioning her over. "I finally figured out 'Tango Till They're Sore'."
She sighs in annoyance. "I wish you'd learn some John Cage."
Tony takes his hands away from the piano. "You won't listen to me for four minutes and thirty-three seconds."
"Tony, why is there a loveseat in the bathroom?" she demands.
"Why wouldn't there be a loveseat in the bathroom?" he says, idly picking out a few more notes with a finger.
"Because there was a ten-thousand dollar bathtub in there yesterday," she says.
"Ah," Tony says, closing the lid over the piano keys.
"That's all you have to say?" Pepper says incredulously.
"I put it in storage," Tony says, standing up. "Do you want the bathtub? Because you can have the bathtub. It's just going to sit. Will it fit in your apartment?"
"I went to Italy for that bathtub," Pepper says, a familiar kind of despair coming over her.
"I went to Ikea for that loveseat, so you might want to book another plane ticket," he says, like it's as easy as that; the grand problem with Tony is that it is, in fact, as easy as that. He can send someone to another continent for furniture at a moment's notice and not feel the slightest bit of remorse, not experience the slightest hint of inconvenience.
"That space would be better served with a built-in couch," she says, resigned to her and the bathtub's fate.
"Not white," Tony says. "Maybe green. Gold?"
Pepper doesn't waste her time pointing out the bathroom is mostly chrome. "Black."
Tony suddenly seems intensely relieved, for reasons that Pepper doesn't understand. "Make it happen," he says, walking away. Pepper rubs her forehead, adding a contractor to the list of people she has to call today, in order to keep the rolling ball of catastrophe that is Tony Stark tumbling along for one more day.
The couch is installed and the bathtub nearly forgotten when it gets worse. When she wakes up, she wakes up to screaming; she didn't even realize she'd fallen asleep, stretched out over paperwork in the home office that Tony never uses. She has no idea what's going on, only that it's Tony, and she stands up, fast enough that the chair spins away, and vaults towards Tony's room.
Tony's awake when she gets there, sitting up in bed and gasping for air. He looks terrified, exhausted, absolutely miserable. His hands are clenched in the bedsheets, like he's hanging on for dear life.
"Tony," she says, climbing into the bed without even thinking about it, kneeling in front of him and putting her hands on his shoulders. "Tony, what's wrong, are you okay?"
Tony looks away from her. "I heard a noise," he mutters, breaking away and running his hand through his hair. She usually forgets that he's older than he looks, but he looks every single one of his years at the moment. Somehow she knows he's not lying, not saying something flippant as an excuse.
"It's going to be okay, Tony," she says, putting a hand on the back of his neck to steady him. "Go back to sleep. Everything will be fine."
He shuts his eyes, shaking his head. "I'm gonna go down to the workshop-"
"Left some things unfinished that might eat through the floor-"
"Two feet of solid concrete sounded like a good idea, but it's kind of a bitch to replace-"
"Anthony Stark," she says, in a low, hard voice, and Tony immediately freezes. "You listen to me and you listen to me right now. You haven't slept in days. You are going to lay back down and go to sleep. If you make any attempt to get up, so help me god I will hold you down myself."
"Trying to get in bed with me, I see," he says weakly.
She sighs. "I already am in bed with you, Tony."
"Trying to figuratively get in bed with me, I see." She makes to get up, but he catches her arm. "Don't go," he says, looking heartbreakingly lost.
"I'm only going as far as the couch," she tells him, gently taking her arm away and standing up. "You're going to stay in that bed until I say so."
"Am I allowed to go to the bathroom?" he asks. There's something about the way he says it, like he meant for it to sound sarcastic but it's actually anything but.
"Go," she says; it feels natural and weird at the same time. Tony gets up, walking towards the bathroom and shutting the door behind him.
"JARVIS, lights," Pepper says, and all the lights except the path lighting to the bathroom go down. She sighs, settling in on the couch, not sure how long she needs to stay; leaving is out of the question right now.
"Do I get a bedtime story?" Tony says as he comes out, the lights shutting off behind him one by one. He climbs back into bed, laying back down; he looks worlds better, but that doesn't mean he looks good.
"Go to sleep, Tony," she says firmly. He doesn't respond, other than to make a huffy noise and turn away, mock-offended.
Pepper honestly has no idea what to do in this situation. She's exhausted, more than ready to go to bed herself; at the same time, she desperately wants Tony to get some rest, and if it takes following through on her threats, she'll do it.
She sits there for a long while and watches him, waits for the worst of the tossing and turning to stop, for his breathing to level off. Thank god that it actually does, that she doesn't have to sit there, helpless, while sleep eludes him again.
She wakes up with a crick in her neck, the sun coming in through the windows. "Good morning, Ms. Potts," JARVIS says. "The local time is currently nine-seventeen AM. You have six missed calls. Your next engagement begins at nine-forty-five AM. Under current driving conditions, if you leave presently, you are projected to arrive at approximately ten AM."
"Jesus Christ," Pepper says, sitting up. She tries to piece back together what happened, what she's doing in Tony's bedroom. "When did Tony get up?"
"At approximately nine-oh-six AM," JARVIS tells her. "He is currently in the shower." She rubs her forehead, trying to figure out the right place to start damage control from. She stands up, smoothing her skirt down despite the fact that it is hopelessly wrinkled. "There is a suit which matches your measurements in the east guest bedroom," he says.
She shakes her head, walking out of the bedroom, leaving whatever happened in there, to be dealt with when everything else in Tony's life doesn't need propping up. "Is it my suit?"
"Regrettably, no," he replies, as Pepper half-walks, half-stumbles down the hallway; there had better be coffee. Lots of coffee. All the coffee. "But it has been dry cleaned."
"That's just going to have to be good enough," she says, grabbing it before she goes back to the office and cancels the nine-forty-five. Everyone can just wait their turn today.
She'd like to say that it stops, that everything is fine and that everyone goes back to normal, whatever normal is supposed to mean around Tony Stark, but it doesn't. Pepper finds herself at the house later and later; she has more excuses to stay than she used to, and Tony's not interested in giving her reasons to go, not past his personality in general. Eventually it gets to be two or three or four in the morning, and she collects him and leads him to the bedroom and if everyone is lucky, he goes to sleep.
It's maybe night five of this before Pepper gives up and brings a pillow and a blanket. "Is this your way of saying you want to move in?" Tony says.
She sighs. "Shut up, Tony."
Almost behind Pepper's back, it becomes routine, mundane. He still screams, but it becomes less frequent; Pepper gives up and has a daybed brought to replace the couch. Tony develops an unheard-of sense of decency, taking his random girls elsewhere when he brings them home. It becomes clearer and clearer that it's not going to stop, the final nail in the coffin being when she goes away for a week and comes back to find that he hasn't slept at all.
"I'm fine," he says, crazy-eyed and nodding every few seconds. "I've been fine. I showered. I shaved. I went to meetings."
She doesn't point out that he looks like he shaved with a hatchet, one of the points of his goatee entirely gone. "Right," she says. "Well, since you did all of that, now you're free to go to sleep. So go to sleep."
"Don't wanna," he says as she steers him to the bed and makes him get in.
"That is just too bad," she says. "Because you're going to sleep right now."
"No," Tony mumbles.
"Tony," she says sternly, even though it's hard, even though she just wants to stroke his hair and tell him it's going to be okay.
Tony makes another noise of protest, but then he's out like a light. Pepper stands there wondering; she thinks about how they got here, how it got this far, but mostly she thinks about the legality and ethics of crushing sleeping pills and sprinkling them on his food.
She's in the shop trying to get Tony to pay attention to something very important related to the company that she knows very well he does not care one single bit about; she will continue to try even when all hope is lost, because that's what they pay her for. She looks up when JARVIS announces Rhodey's arrival, and Tony ignores him too, except to wave vaguely over his shoulder with a socket wrench.
"I need to ask you about something," Rhodey says to her, making no move to approach Tony, and Pepper frowns at his serious expression; he's a generally serious person, but he's markedly graver right at the moment.
"Anything," Pepper says, holding out an arm to direct him out of the workshop and into the hallway, out of earshot.
"I'm just going to come right out and say this," he says. "Tony said you guys were sleeping together." Pepper sighs; of course Tony did. He probably said it a whole lot, in increasingly suggestive ways. "I want to make sure you know what you're doing."
Pepper purses her lips. "You think I don't know what I'm doing?"
He holds up his hands. "That's not what I-"
"I'm not sleeping with Tony," she says. "Not exactly." Rhodey raises an eyebrow at her. "I- we're not having sex. I'm just sleeping in his room," she says, quickly adding, "not in the same bed."
Rhodey is still giving her an extremely skeptical look. "Is this the fifties now?"
She hesitates, trying to find the words to explain, wondering if she should. This isn't anybody's business but hers and Tony's, but this is Rhodey; Tony's business is always Rhodey's business. "He doesn't sleep if somebody's not with him."
"I didn't think he slept at all," he says.
"He didn't," she says. "Doesn't. If somebody doesn't put him to bed and force him to stay there, he just-" She shakes her head. "It ends badly."
Rhodey gives her a concerned, disapproving look. "Tony's been through a lot, okay, and if this is some kind of mommy thing-"
"What?" Pepper says, her eyes going wide in alarm. "Rhodey, what are you even talking about?"
"Forcing him to do things, controlling what he does and when he does it," he says. "It's a little kinky, don't you think?"
She never considered that until this moment; she knew it was out of the ordinary and very likely to be misconstrued, but that's life with Tony in general. "It's not kinky," she says, frowning. "It's just-" She stalls out, unable to find the words. "It's just what I need to do."
Rhodey's face softens, but now he just looks like he's sorry for her. "You do what you need to do, but be careful," he tells her. "I know Tony needs all the help he can get, but you need to think about you. All this- this is not what he pays you for."
She loves Rhodey, she really does, respects him probably more than anyone else she knows, but sometimes he doesn't understand her the way he understands Tony. Then again, maybe he can't be expected to understand whatever's going on here, when Pepper herself only sort of gets it. "I know," she says. "This isn't about my job."
"He really looks better," Rhodey says, an apology.
"He slept for eight hours straight last night," she says.
Rhodey looks at her like she's got two heads. "Are you sure we're talking about the same Tony Stark?"
"I have no idea," Pepper says. "I thought I'd fallen into the Twilight Zone."
"You're conspiring," Tony's voice says through the PA. "I can tell when you're conspiring."
"Tony, we're not-" Pepper gets that far before she realizes how stupid it is to talk to his disembodied voice when he's in the next room. "We're not conspiring," she says, stepping back into the workshop.
"It better be a good conspiracy," Tony says. "Less 'Moon landing', more 'Tony's birthday presents'- can I suggest another T-bucket? Saw a great 1922 the other day. Use my card. Now one of you come hold this up for me. Dummy's just going to break it."
It grates on Pepper, sticks in the back of her mind, keeps her up and staring at the ceiling of Tony's room. Rhodey's words bounce around, pinballing off things she already knew, tracing patterns that have been apparent for quite some time. She wonders if she just missed the signs, if she could have been expected to know that there were signs at all. The only thing she knows to do is talk to Tony about it.
Pepper is sure the hardest thing to do in the whole endeavor will be talking to Tony about it.
She approaches him in the lounge, where Tony is, of all things, tuning the piano; it seems like a suitably neutral place, somewhere where there's no pressure. "I did some reading," Pepper says, without prologue.
He frowns, looking at her. "When do I leave you time to do any reading?"
"I was reading about." She takes a breath. "Dominance and submission."
"Okay," Tony say slowly, leaning back. "Well, this is already the strangest conversation I've had all week."
"Sometimes, one person sort of takes over for the other one," she says. "They take some of their decisions away, and it-" She tries to think of how to put it. "Frees them up. Lets them relax some, knowing not everything has to be in their hands all the time. In exchange, they get taken care of. I mean." She stops, giving him a look. "Doesn't it seem a little familiar?"
Tony raises an eyebrow at her. "If that's dominance and submission, we've been doing it for years."
She sighs. "You know what I'm talking about."
"I know exactly what you're talking about," he says. He stands up, wiggling his fingers at her. "Have you eaten? I'm hungry. Are you hungry? I'm thinking burgers, maybe, with curly-"
"Tony," she says flatly, and he stops.
"Wow, either I'm primed by this conversation, or at some point you got way better at that," he tells her. "Is this a sex thing? Because I'm good to go. I might need a shower, but that's why god invented shower sex."
"It's not a sex thing, Tony, or it already would be a sex thing," Pepper tells him. Tony looks like he has no end of things to say about that, so she presses on before he can. "Sometimes people do it for the emotional fulfillment, because they find it helpful to them."
Tony looks at her for a long time. "I don't see myself calling you ma'am," he says.
"If that's not what you want to do, then I won't make you do it," she tells him; this is all going so much smoother and faster than she thought, which is frankly kind of worrisome.
"Now that's an interesting turn of phrase," he says.
"It's the truth," she says. "I don't- if we're not talking at cross-purposes, if you're actually serious about this, then it stops when you want. It only ever goes as far as you want. It's supposed to make you feel better, not worse."
"Then I'm not calling you ma'am," Tony says, with an air of finality. "Done." He looks at her. "It's done, right? Because I was serious about being hungry."
"There's another thing," she says. "Sometimes people in these kinds of relationships, they do-" She loses her nerve momentarily. "Things."
"I bet they do a whole bunch of things, Pep," he says condescendingly, and she gives him an unamused look.
She tries again. "Sometimes they do the kinds of things that involve handcuffs or ropes, or-"
Tony's face shuts down. "You're not exactly going to do me any favors by beating me with whips and chains."
"That's not what I said," she says quickly. "I'm not proposing to-"
"Haven't exactly had the best luck-"
"I'm sorry, Tony, I didn't mean to say-"
"You could start by paying attention, maybe, if this is the way you want it to go-"
"Tony, I don't know how I could possibly pay more attention to you." Pepper is aware that this has all become a mess very quickly; it's possible she's misread the entire thing, let it sit in her brain so long that she started to believe something that wasn't there, in which case all she really wants to do right now is slap Rhodey. "I want to do every single thing I can to help you. I offered you something that you don't want, and I apologize for that, but I don't know what you do want."
"I know what I want," he says fiercely, and she knows instantly that he's snapped, that this has become a different conversation, but one connected in ways she doesn't understand yet. "I want my life back. I don't know if you've noticed, but a lot of people tend to want to take it."
Pepper frowns. "If you want more security-"
"You're not listening to me," Tony says, exasperated, bordering on angry. "Listen."
"Explain it to me," she says, trying to stay calm.
"People have spent a lot of time in the recent past trying to make sure I die," Tony says, like it's something she doesn't know. "I've been pretty good about stopping them, thank you for your help in that area, but it takes an obscene amount of my time. The major problem I have with that is that I don't get to live. I want to sleep without screaming. I want to take a fucking bath, Pepper," he says, his voice cracking, "or use my fucking swimming pool without thinking about every time they held my head underwater and tried to make me drown. If you want to take something away from me, take that."
She sucks in a breath, his words like a physical thing, a punch in the stomach. Tony makes her want to run sometimes; he makes her want to break down, just lose it entirely. He makes her want to turn away and leave him to sort out his own ridiculous calamity of a life; he makes her want to be strong, stronger than she is, so much stronger than she feels right now.
He's waiting for her, for what she's going to do; he's looking away from her, but he's still challenging her, demanding a reaction.
"Tony, I'm not a therapist," she says gently, walking over. "I can't fix these things for you. I'm not qualified to do anything but stay." She puts her hand on the side of his face. "But I promise you that I will do everything in my power to help."
Tony shuts his eyes, resting his cheek on her hand. "I can't ask for more than that."
"You ask for more than that all the time," she tells him, smiling tentatively.
"I'll try not to," he says. He won't try at all, because that's just not in his nature; she doesn't know if he even has the energy to do it right now, but it seems like an impolitic time to bring that up. He sighs, running his hand through his hair. "Fuck me, I'm tired."
"Let's go lay down for a minute," she says softly, holding out her hand, and he takes it. She leads him into his bedroom, and without prompting he climbs into the bed. Pepper hesitates for a moment, thinking about what she's about to do, wondering if she should, but it's been inevitable for a while.
She slips off her shoes and gets in beside him, turning him on his side so she can wrap him up in her arms. "We're not having sex," she says warningly. She's holding him loosely, carefully, not sure if she's going to find out where the line between comforting and threatening is.
He takes her wrist and pulls her arm tighter around himself. "I know," he says. "I probably can't even get you to make out with me. But if you do feel the need to make out with me, please, be my guest."
He moves around for a second, settling in against her, and there's quiet for a long, long while. She puts her face in his hair, breathing him in; he smells comfortingly like himself, with the metal undercurrent that has become part of him.
"Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if they didn't win," he says, breaking the silence.
"They didn't, Tony," she says gently. "We won."
"They always win in my head," Tony says. "I wonder what if would be like if somebody else did those things. If I didn't get hurt. If it didn't have to be out of my control."
Pepper tries to process this, but it doesn't make any sense to her, doesn't do anything but break her heart. "I don't know what you're asking me for," she says, smoothing his hair back from his forehead. "I want to help, but I need to know."
Tony shifts, and she knows very suddenly that she's done the wrong thing; it's just that she has no idea what the right thing is. "I wanted to get some more done in the workshop."
She lets him up. "Don't work too late, okay? I don't want to have to come get you."
"Roger," he says, rolling out of bed. He doesn't come back until after Pepper has already fallen asleep, but he's there in the morning, so she doesn't push it. She thought she knew instinctively what to push and what not to push, but apparently she doesn't. Maybe that's the whole problem; maybe she's not listening to her instincts anymore.
She gets up. Either way, she's got to push on.
The subject doesn't come up again for another week or so; she knows they're being careful around each other, trying to negotiate the boundaries of this thing, whatever it is, without actually talking about it.
"I have these handcuffs," Tony says, putting a pair down on the table in front of her, right next to her cereal.
Pepper gives him an unamused look. "Yes, Tony, I see your handcuffs," she says. They're not really like handcuffs at all; they are, in fact, immobilizing devices for someone's wrists, but they're made of blue leather and buckle on. They're linked together by a copper thing that's maybe six inches long, a chain covered by a barrel, and Pepper can't imagine any scenario involving these cuffs that doesn't involve frightening people in leather.
"Put me in these handcuffs," Tony says; he sounds like he's trying to be firm, authoritative, certain about what he wants, but there's a little note of begging in there that she's sure they both hear. Suddenly everything twists to the side and a whole world of things clicks for Pepper, what Tony was trying to say the other night, what Tony can't say. She still doesn't know what to do, but she's got a much better idea now.
"Not at the breakfast table," Pepper tells him.
"Right," Tony says, vaguely startled, looking around. "Guess that's a bad place."
"I didn't say no," she says carefully.
"Okay," he says. "Okay. Guest bedroom? It's the only one with a headboard with slats. I mean, I don't know where else to do it but a bed. The gym? I don't think they need to get put on anything that'll turn over-"
"The guest bedroom is probably fine." She gives him a look. "We're still not having sex."
"Please appreciate that this is the-" Tony thinks for a moment- "sixth time in my life that I have said this," he says. "I don't want to have sex. At least, not casual sex with you at this particular time, in this particular situation. Get with me later for an update."
"Noted," Pepper says dryly, though she actually is a little amazed. "When does this happen?"
Tony takes a deep breath, lets it out. "No idea," he says. "I just needed to, y'know, float the proposition, make sure I didn't need to make alternate arrangements."
She doesn't ask what alternate arrangements might be made, because she's pretty sure the answer would make her want to yell at him. "Then come to me when you're ready, and we'll do what we can."
"Will do," Tony says. "Will try to do."
"Do or do not," Pepper says. "There is no try."
Tony just looks at her for a moment. "Marry me."
"No," she says, standing up and taking her bowl to the sink.
Tony's sitting crosslegged on the bed, wearing a tanktop and jeans, which might as well be his uniform at the house; better that than something unfamiliar, something that makes this feel even more like An Event. Pepper kneels in front of him, watching as he psyches himself up, saying nothing. "So," he says, letting out a breath. "I'm going to sit here with these handcuffs on, and you're going to feel me up a little-"
"I am not going to feel you up," Pepper says, indignant.
Tony rolls his eyes. "Then you're going to touch me in a soothing manner as a comfort and distraction while remaining distinctly nonsexual, does that sound better?"
"Much," she says. "And when you're done I'll take them off, and then that's it."
"That sounds far easier than it actually is," he says.
"It's going to be hard, but it won't be bad," she says. "If it's bad we'll stop."
"Alright," Tony says, rolling his neck. He thrusts out his wrists. "Let's light this candle."
Pepper picks up the cuffs, pulling one of them open and wrapping it around Tony's wrist, putting the end through the buckle and pulling it tight, trying not to make it too loose or too restrictive. "Okay?" He nods, and she buckles it, moving on and strapping the second one onto his other wrist. She puts her hands on his arms. "Stop when you're ready."
Tony doesn't say anything for a while, long enough that Pepper wonders if everything has gone wrong, if he's frozen up and can't figure out how to stop. She puts her hands on his shoulders, rubbing his neck muscles with her fingertips, trying to work out the tension there. For some reason, it feels totally normal to have her hands on him, like this isn't at all wildly inappropriate to be doing to someone who is at least nominally her boss.
"Are you okay?" she asks quietly.
"I am wearing handcuffs," he says, determinedly not looking at his wrists. "I'm wearing handcuffs and it's okay, I hope it's okay, because I'm still wearing handcuffs no matter whether it's okay or not."
"It's okay, Tony," she says, running her hands down the sides of his chest, gentling him. "I've got you. You're safe."
"Okay," he says. "Okay. How long has it been? I can't see the clock from here."
"You're doing great," she says, because the real answer is less than three minutes, and she can't decide if he'll be proud of himself for doing it for this long or dismayed that it hasn't been longer. "Can you give me five more minutes? Just five."
He breathes in through his nose, letting it out slowly through his mouth. "Five minutes," he says. "Okay. Five minutes. Five minutes is nothing at all. We can do five minutes." He drums his fingers against his leg, but he suddenly stops, settling again. "Can I take my clothes off next time? Not in a sexy way."
"Why do you want to take your clothes off?" Pepper asks, frowning, skipping over, for the moment, everything that 'next time' means.
"I want to-" He stops, looking like he's searching for the right word. "I want to be closer. Your hands don't feel-" He grimaces. "'I want to feel you' sounds like a line from a nineties pop song."
"Yes, it does," she says, running her hand up his arm. "You can take your clothes off. Boxers stay on."
"Fair trade," he says. "Is it five minutes yet?"
"Not quite," she says. "You can hang on for me Tony, I know you can."
"Five minutes," he says, shutting his eyes. "Five minutes is okay. Everything is okay."
"Of course it's okay," Pepper says, lacing her fingers into his; he squeezes her hand tightly enough that it hurts, but she doesn't move away. "It's going to be fine." His breath is coming faster, despite the fact that he's still trying to do what are probably supposed to be breathing exercises. Time has slowed down to a grinding halt, and at this point, Pepper's not even sure that she'll make it.
But then it's over, the clock flipping finally; it's all over, and Pepper lets out a breath. "Time's up," she says, and Tony wordlessly holds his wrists out. She unbuckles the cuffs quickly, setting them on the bed beside them, out of Tony's line of sight.
"How long was that?" Tony says, rubbing his wrist.
"Do you really want to know?" she asks.
"Not really," he says, "but it'll drive me crazy if I don't."
"About eight minutes," Pepper says, trying to sound neutral.
"We have to do better than that," Tony says fiercely.
"We're not going zero-to-sixty on this, Tony," she tells him.
"Couldn't if I wanted to," he says. "But it has to be better."
"Then we'll do it," she says. "We'll make it better."
It's far from easy, steps forward and steps back, but soon he's wearing them for ten minutes, fifteen, twenty-five, a half-hour. It's no small thing when they actually get to the point where he can handle having the cuffs actually anchored to the headboard; they more or less have to start over, a little and a little more each time, building slowly.
But then suddenly they're in bed, and Tony has been cuffed to the headboard for going on forty-five minutes now. Pepper is lying next to him, tucked against his side, her hand rubbing his bare chest, his stomach. She avoids the reactor, the skin around it; sometimes it annoys him when she touches it, makes him uncomfortable in ways she can't understand herself, ones she's pretty sure aren't solely physical.
This isn't the first time they've done this, but it might be the longest; Pepper wonders if she should call it, how long too long is, but he still seems perfectly fine, calm, quiet, even though he's not totally relaxed. She keeps holding onto him instead, soothing, grounding.
"I miss Obadiah," he says, out of absolutely nowhere. "I miss him all the time. I know he tried to kill me. He tried to kill you. But he raised me, Pepper. Dad didn't care and Mom- she only had so much time for me. Obie's the one who taught me to tie a tie, he taught me to shave, he taught me-" He frowns. "I think one of my teachers taught me to tie my shoes, actually, but the point is that I miss him. I don't want him gone."
She holds him closer. "I know, Tony," she says, even though she doesn't, even though just hearing Obadiah's name makes her want to punch something.
"I know he's not going to come back," he says, and he sounds grief-stricken, lost. "He's not coming back because I killed him. I don't think I regret it, not most of the time. But sometimes I know that I do."
"No one blames you, Tony," she tells him. "You did it to save your life. You did it to save my life. I haven't given you enough thanks for that."
"It's okay," he says unconvincingly. "But you're always welcome to give me all the thanks that you want." He looks at her. "You have no idea how hard this is to say, but I like these handcuffs. Other ones, not so much. But-" He stops. "I feel like I can think."
"You don't have to give them up," she tells him. "They're for what you want them to be for."
He turns towards her, as best as he can with the handcuffs still attached. "Thank you. For everything. For putting up with me. For-"
She squeezes him tightly. "You're welcome," she says, before he tires himself out with gratitude, which is entirely possible. "How do you feel?"
"Not quite done yet," Tony tells her, moving around a little so that the cuffs twist on his wrists, a reminder. "How do you feel?"
"I'm fine," she says.
He frowns contemplatively at her. "That's not really what I asked."
She looks at him in confusion. "How is it not?"
"You are fine," he says. "You feel- and this is where you fill in the blank. How do you feel when-" He stops, contemplating. "This."
"You're in a rare mood," she says.
"I think I have permission, under the circumstances," he replies.
She thinks about it; her first response is a simple 'good' or something like that, but Tony's asking a question here that's bigger than that, and he deserves a real answer. "I feel like I'm helping. Like I have everything under control, and at least for now, god willing, everything's not going to come apart in my hands." There's more to it than that, but that's the part that's easy to articulate, the part that feels the safest, the surest. "I feel satisfied."
"Huh," Tony says, settling onto his back, looking up at the ceiling. Pepper's not sure what the hell that's supposed to mean, but she doesn't ask. "Ten more minutes?"
"Sounds good to me," she says, smoothing her hand over his stomach. It's more like fifteen, but neither of them complain.
Little by little there are more things to add, more adjustments to make, barriers to break down and things not to be touched. Some of it works, and some of it doesn't. Ropes aren't as good, but ropes are okay, once Tony gets used to them. Pepper learns to do this thing on the internet where she strategically punches the crap out of him, mostly his back, and Tony actually seems to enjoy that. He and the knife don't actually make it into the same room; he texts Pepper from across the house to say that it's off, and she doesn't bring it up again. She's the one who can't slap him, getting as far as raising her arm before she calls it, unable to go one inch farther.
This should be an easy one, though; he wears the suit all the time, is perfectly accustomed to having something a lot harder and darker around his head for long periods, so blindfolds should be nothing. He'll be even more mobile this way, able to turn easier, probably even see through the thin sleep mask.
"Do you want the cuffs too?" Pepper asks.
"Let's go for broke," Tony says, taking off his jeans and laying them aside. He lays down, putting his hands above his head, and she cuffs one wrist and then the other. She runs her hands down his arms, tracking over his collarbones and down, back up again, slowly tracing his body until he settles in, tense but not overly so, under control.
"Ready?" she asks, holding up the blindfold; it's a little flimsy thing that she's had in her bathroom forever, came with some bath set or something. Maybe something else would be more fitting, but this is the easiest, ready to be pulled off at a moment's notice.
"Do it," Tony says, raising up his head so she can slip the blindfold over his eyes.
"Feeling okay?" Pepper asks. "Remember the safeword?"
He nods. "Yup. Everything's fine so far."
It stays fine for a couple of minutes, though Tony's quieter than usual. Pepper runs her hands all over him, trying to comfort him, keep him from going away somewhere. His breathing is quick, quicker than it usually is, but this is the first time they've tried this; maybe it's not as easy as she thought it was, and he's allowed to take a little time to adjust.
"Pepper," he says after several minutes, sounding nervous. "I don't know if I can do this."
"Just a couple more minutes," she says. "You can do it."
He takes a deep breath, forcing his shoulders to relax. "I can do this. I have minutes."
"Nothing to it," she tells him, but he's already tensed up again; she gets the clear sense that something is about to go very wrong. "Tony?"
"Pepper," he says urgently. "Pepper, I don't, I can't-" He twists against the cuffs. "Pepper, I can't, no minutes get it off me I forgot what to say please just take it off-"
She pulls the blindfold off, flinging it away before starting on the cuffs; Tony still has his eyes screwed shut, his hands clenching and unclenching. She keeps her panic on the inside, biting her lips so her fear doesn't spill out of them, the litany of profanity and self-recriminations that's going on in her head.
The cuffs come off; they slip and fall off the bed, but Pepper barely notices. She takes Tony into her arms, gathering him up and holding him tightly. "Talk to me," he says, clutching her. "Please talk to me."
"I'm here," she says. "I'm here, Tony, I'm right here, everything is fine, everything is going to be fine. We'll never do that again, I swear to you, I swear it's going to be okay. You're okay, I promise you're okay."
She can't stop talking now, words flooding out for him. The one thing she doesn't say is that she's sorry, even if she is. Somehow she knows that's not what he needs to hear right now, that this is something he's doing for her, something she's doing to him. This is something that they do, something they're struggling through together, good or bad, up or down. There's no other way she knows to do it, not a way that doesn't involve killing them both.
She finally runs down, lost for anything else to say, tears on her cheeks. "So we're throwing away the blindfold," Tony says, still wide-eyed, messed up.
She nods fervently. "I'll burn it if you want me to."
"Just as long as I don't have to see it again, from either side," he says. He puts his face in her shoulder. "Don't let me go for a minute. Just- just don't leave."
"Of course, Tony," she says, rubbing circles on his back. "I just didn't expect- I thought, because of the suit-"
Tony shakes his head. "JARVIS is in there," he says. "I'm not alone." Her expression must say everything about the hurt she's feeling, because he shuts his eyes. "That's not what I meant. I can see in there. If I open my eyes I don't see nothing. I see JARVIS. I see the suit. I see out. Everything is okay. I put on the blindfold, and you go away. Not okay."
"No more blindfold," she says firmly. "It stops when you need it to stop. Everything can stop if you need it to."
"Please don't tell me that," he says. "I need you not to tell me that." He looks at her, pain written all over his face. "I need you to tell me that I'm not allowed to stop."
"Then you're not," she says firmly, like it's just that easy, like it's not a lie. "You're going to keep doing this, because I'm not going to let you quit. You don't have a choice in the matter, so drop it."
Tony relaxes against her. "Thank you."
They're still clinging to each other, and she has no idea how to pull away from him, no desire to. Eventually they just fall asleep that way; Pepper is content to figure it out in the morning.
It's three days later, and they haven't spoken about it. She has no idea what to say, how to say it, how to bring it back around to being okay. It's Tony who manages to do it, to break the stalemate, and it's not all that surprising how he does it.
"Handcuffs," Tony says, holding them out to her as she sits on the couch, totally ignoring the fact that she's on the phone, working for him.
"I'm sorry, can I put you on hold?" she says, pursing her lips, doing it before waiting for an answer. "I'm leaving in twenty minutes," she argues; she really, really wants to drop that and focus on this, but right now she's on Stark time, not Tony time.
He bounces on his feet a little. "I know."
"You want to walk around alone in handcuffs?" she says, frowning in confusion. "Isn't that a little impractical?"
"They have a clippy thing," he says, fiddling with them; she didn't realize it, but the connector between them isn't entirely solid, a latch hiding underneath the barrel. She's about to scold him for not telling her, given the fact that it could make them more easy to break, but then she realizes she's talking to Tony Stark, who probably knows their load-bearing capacity to the last ounce. He manages to separate them, putting them in Pepper's hands.
"Give me your wrists," she says, because apparently this is a thing that's happening now; she buckles them on, holding his hands for a moment. "Don't take them off unless you have to. If you take them off, you need to call me afterwards."
"Sir, yes, sir," Tony says, taking his hands away.
She leaves on time, somehow, going off to put out fires all day long. When she staggers back in, Rhodey's car is in the driveway; she finds him and Tony in the theater, playing whatever Stark Entertainment's latest way to outdo Valve is. Neither of them notice her at first, but after a particularly loud explosion, Tony happens to look up and see her, registering her briefly before he looks away again. Rhodey looks up to see what he's looking at; when he sees Pepper, he raises an eyebrow, glancing briefly at Tony and back, and Pepper shrugs. He shakes his head, making the 'your ways are mysterious unto me' face, but he doesn't say anything, just goes back to the game.
"Think a little less loudly, please," Tony says, not looking away from the screen. "I need your undivided attention, Rhodes. I almost got fragged by a twelve-year-old with seven X's in his handle."
"They're going to keep gunning for you until you change your name," Rhodey tells him as the round ends, sitting back.
"I am not giving up T0NY_STARK," he says fiercely.
"Yeah, explain to me again how a zero instead of an O makes you look cool," Rhodey says. "Assuming you can hear me back there in 1999."
"Just for that, you're playing green team this time," Tony says, "and I am going to make you wish you'd never picked up a controller."
"Bring it, Stark," Rhodey tells him. She watches as they go back to the game, taking them in; Tony looks good, happy, like there's nothing on his mind. It's so satisfying, that feeling she thought she was going to lose, the knowledge that everything is once again okay, that they didn't screw everything up entirely, that they can keep moving on.
He comes to her that night and holds out his hands; she unbuckles the cuffs, running her fingers through his hair and kissing his cheek. He doesn't say anything, but she doesn't really think they need to.
She can't pinpoint the time when everything changes. Things are slowly getting better, things are slowly disintegrating. He's not looking as good as he did; he looks tired, a little worn, but the Expo prep is wearing everyone down. He's like a kid in a candy store, but give a kid access to unlimited sugar and it's bound to crash now and again. He doesn't come to her and she doesn't say anything, unsure what to say, unsure if there even is anything to be said. It's never been her place to initiate these things; Tony needs what he needs, and anything she gets out of it is secondary, unimportant, almost inappropriate.
It keeps falling down, and she lets it fall out of her hands, watching it go and helpless to stop it. By the time he hands over the company to her, it's gone, it's dead, he's done. Either he got everything that he needed or he didn't, but it's apparently not her business anymore.
And then he gives her the most hellish week of her entire life, and she's done, ready to have him out of her life for good, ready to hand back all this ridiculously disproportionate responsibility, the wreck that she never thought could get bigger and always, always does, one car at a time, the pile of complete breakdown that Tony represents. It feels good and horrible to finally push him away, tell him to go to hell, to admit that this is in no way okay anymore.
It takes her about five minutes to take him back, to finally end up in his arms, where she's been meant to be for what seems like a really long time. It feels better, it feels right; it also feels a little terrifying, incredibly overwhelming, but that's life with Tony Stark.
It's a solid week before they're actually alone together for any length of time. Pepper doesn't bother with the pretense of going back to her apartment; Pepper's not even sure where her apartment is anymore. Tony is in the half-destroyed lounge, slumped on the couch eating ice cream out of the carton. He hurriedly puts it aside, standing up and walking over. "Hey," he says softly, putting her hands on her hips.
"Hey," she says back, and then she does what exactly what she's been waiting to do ever since the rooftop, since before it, what she couldn't do then and has been desperately longing for ever since.
She grabs him by the scruff of the neck, shaking him hard. "Don't you ever do anything like that ever again."
"Which part?" he says, wincing.
"You can save people," she tells him. "You're not allowed to be a drunken idiot while you're wearing the suit. You're not allowed to not tell me if you are actively dying."
He looks sheepish. "I am never going to live either of those things down, am I?"
"I will make sure that you live to regret them," she says.
"I don't know if that's a promise or a threat," he tells her.
"Yes, it is," she says. "You're not allowed to give up the way you did. It's not my job to force you to get better. It's your job to ask for help. I can't do that for you."
He sighs, taking her hand. "I'm sorry."
"Good," she says, still angry, though she softens at his contrition.
"So, us," Tony says, turning directly to the elephant in the room. "The two of us."
"The two of us," she says. "We need to talk about that."
"That was good, with the kissing?" he asks, making a little hand motion that he probably thinks means something. "You liked the kissing. You said you liked the kissing. You're not allowed to take it back."
"The kissing was good," she tells him.
"Sex?" Tony says hopefully, grinning in that way he does when he's trying to get something out of her that he thinks she doesn't want to give him. "We can have sex now, right? You have no idea the sheer volume and quality of the sex we can have."
She wants to be surprised that Tony is jumping directly ahead to the sex portion of the program, but honestly, they've been together in every other way for so long that it seems like a done thing already. "Do you mean volume as in amount, volume as in space, or volume as in noise?" Pepper asks.
"All of them," he says. "Definitely all. You'll be glad the neighbors are so far away."
"We'll talk about it," she tells him. Her face turns grave. "I need to know if you ever-" She lets it hang there, because they both know what the question is.
"Of all my long and storied past," Tony says, and he actually sounds proud of himself, which is deeply messed up, "the one thing I can say is that no one ever bad-touched me."
She relaxes. "That certainly makes things simpler."
"It does from this end," he says. "So, sex. Think about it. Think about it a lot. Inappropriately. Alone. Preferably alone with a glass of wine and your biggest-"
"I get the picture, Tony."
"I really hope you do," he says, kissing her. "If not, I am more than happy to show you." He pulls away from her a moment, looking at her pensively.
"Tony?" she says, unsure what that look means.
"I'm going to regret saying this," Tony says, and Pepper frowns. "Or maybe I won't, but I'm going to say it anyway. You said that about not forcing me." He looks down. "You could stand to force me a little bit more."
Pepper frowns. "What?"
"I think it's obvious that I stopped doing this- all this, us this, handcuffs this- for my health a while ago," Tony says. "I mean, it helps my health, but there are other reasons." He looks up at her. "You. You're a reason."
"Oh," Pepper says, startled; it wasn't really obvious to her, not as much as Tony thinks.
"I like the idea that you like it," he says. "I want to do it for you. You take good care of me. I want-" He frowns, looking a little frustrated. "It's not a fair trade, because I think it's been obvious for a long time that you are an overachiever when it comes to keeping my life in check, but I want to be good for you." He rubs his forehead, in that way he does when he's having a hard time saying something. "If it makes you happy, I could give you more. You don't have to wait until I ask to tie me up or something, because if it makes you feel satisfied or powerful or whatever, then do it to me."
"You're sure?" she asks. "Tony, you're not offering me a small thing."
"I'm offering you what you should have been taking already," Tony says impatiently.
She stands there for a long moment, thinking, long enough that Tony starts to squirm. "If you're serious, then get the handcuffs and get in the bed," she orders.
"On it," he says, already pulling off his shirt and heading out.
Pepper sighs; she shuts her eyes, feeling a weight in her heart lift, something deep inside of her coming to the fore that she'd never let herself acknowledge, not entirely.
By the time she gets to the bedroom, Tony has already stripped down and is sitting on the bed, the cuffs in his hands. He looks at her with interest as she unzips her skirt and steps out of it, kicking her heels away.
"It is still not that kind of a party," Pepper warns him, unbuttoning her shirt and laying it over the back of the couch.
"It's whatever kind of a party you want it to be," he says, as she advances on him; he scuttles back, obediently laying down and waiting.
"Yes," she says, putting one of the cuffs around his wrist and pulling it tight, fast enough that Tony gasps in surprise. "It is."
It's weeks later when she gets a text from Tony, predictably during a meeting she knows he knew she was in.
Tomorrow. Midnight. Bring swimsuit.
She frowns at her phone, but she doesn't respond until the meeting is over.
tmw mid = thurs or = fri?
The reply doesn't come for another hour and a half.
Fine, 11:59 PM PDT Thursday. Gave you a phone with a full keyboard for a reason.
Pepper shakes her head.
The answer is within thirty seconds this time.
I AM GOING TO TAKE YOUR PHONE AWAY. Going for a swim, what else?
She stares for a moment, unsure what to say, unsure if she's seeing it right, unsure if Tony is really ready for this, unsure whether she should kick his ass for telling her in a goddamn text message.
k b there
she sends back, unwilling to break it, unwilling to hold him back; this is fragile and she knows it.
What else is she supposed to say?
There's not much in the way of a moon that night; the ground lights around the pool are on, the lights under the water, but otherwise it's dark as she steps out onto the pool deck, into the warm night air. There's one of those foam pool noodles floating aimlessly in the water, and it sort of ruins the atmosphere of the place; then again, maybe there could stand to be a little less atmosphere, a little less still, quiet darkness.
Tony's already in his swim trunks, standing sort of awkwardly by the lounge chairs, waiting for her. He blends in, taken over by the scenery, the light from the reactor the same shade as the lights on the ground.
"Get in when you want," she says, because it looks like he's at a loss right now; she unwinds the towel she's wearing and sets it down on a chair near the ladder. It's a little hard to do it, because she is wearing the tiniest, most frivolous, most naked bathing suit she could find that didn't involve wearing an actual thong. If there's anything Tony needs right now, it's a distraction, something to ease him in, something to focus on that's not the sheer bigness of what he's about to do.
It is very obviously working, because Tony's eyes get wide. He just blinks at her for a second. "Uh," he says, unable to stop looking at her. "Well."
"If you get in the pool, you can take it off me," she offers, walking to the ladder and lowering herself into the water, pushing off and treading water.
"What if I don't get in the pool?" he asks.
"You can take it off me after I finish swimming," she replies, doing a slow backstroke towards the shallow end, until she's sitting at the bottom, the water at her waist. "It feels good."
"I am completely certain that it does," he says. He looks down at himself. "Fuck it," Tony says, shucking off his trunks and putting them on the chair. "If we're having a sexy midnight swim, I'm doing it naked. Naked is sexy."
As he's talking, he very carefully steps into the pool; Pepper tries not to hold her breath, tries not to make it look like she still has no idea what's going to happen, like she isn't very aware that it could fall apart in a split-second.
But Tony keeps walking, wading in until the water's at his waist, his chest; Pepper pushes off, following him, careful not to splash him. He's trembling slightly, but he's not leaving, not making an attempt to get out.
"This is good," he says; he still has his feet flat on the bottom of the pool, the water up to his shoulders, and Pepper's not going to push him past that, not until he wants, not unless he wants. "This is nice." He gives her a look. "I heard something about a bathing suit and you not wearing one."
She grins at him. "Come here and we'll talk all about it."
He goes to her, moving through the water seemingly without thinking, sliding her arms around her waist and kissing her. He doesn't hesitate for a single instant to take her up on her very generous offer, quickly untying the knots keeping her barely-there top on. This is, in general, a strategic bathing suit, because everything ties together; Tony doesn't have to lower himself any further into the water to help her pull the bottoms off.
"I had to do it fast," he says, somewhere between defensive and apologetic, as he unties the bottoms, pulling them out from between her legs and letting them float away somewhere. "The knots, they get waterlogged and it takes forever."
"You sound like you know this from experience," she says, gasping as he reaches down, brushing his fingers over her.
"Keep that bathing suit, and we'll move past experience," he tells her, turning them so he can back her up against the wall for support. "We'll collect all kinds of empirical data. You can be co-author on the paper."
She smiles at him. "And they say romance is dead."
They don't talk after that, too busy with kissing, whispers that are only parts of words. They haven't, not really, not like this; Tony has his knee in between hers, rubbing his hard cock against her thigh. She clings to him, her head on his shoulder as he fucks her with his fingers, his thumb rubbing her clit, just exactly how she needs it. She reaches down, taking hold of his cock; she wants him inside her so badly she could die, but it's not that time, not yet. She settles for stroking him quickly, trying to make him feel as desperate as she does.
"Jesus," he says, "oh fuck, Pepper, don't stop-"
"Come for me, Tony," she says, in a low, commanding voice, and he groans, going off in her hand. He loses concentration, rhythm, pushing his fingers in and leaving them there, but it doesn't matter; she rolls her hips and comes, half from the sensation and half from the headrush. She did that, she made him come, she took care of him, took care of everything. It's not an unforeseen reaction to the sheer magnitude of it; it's just that she never knew it was that strong, that intoxicating.
It's a long moment before they part. "Well, I definitely got everything I came here for," Tony says, panting a little. He sounds fine, pleased, but Pepper doesn't know how long that'll last.
"Come on," she says. "Let's get out."
Tony doesn't wait to be told twice, wading back out and stepping onto the deck, wrapping himself up in a towel. Pepper swims over, retrieving the tiny bathing suit from the deep end. "You're not putting that back on, are you?" Tony asks, dismayed.
"You won't like it as much when it's stuck in the filter," she says, tossing it onto the deck before she climbs up the ladder and out of the pool.
He pulls her over, opening up his towel and putting it around her. "You're freezing," he says, pretending to be aghast. "You have to come to bed so I can warm you up."
"Shower first," she says, "and then you can warm me up all you want."
"I really do love you for your mind," he says, kissing her neck.
She raises an eyebrow at him. "Just my mind?"
"I lust after you for all the other things," he says.
"I think I can live with that," she tells him, kissing him.