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Less Is More, and Other Lessons in Healthy Adult Relationships

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The Chitauri fleet is the most beautiful thing Tony has ever seen, and he is going to destroy it. All that beautiful technology, marvels of engineering, things he knows he could invent if he just had a little more --

But Cap is going to have to eat his words. Tony Stark is the kind of man who can lay down and let the next guy crawl over him. Hell, he can let the entire fucking population of New York crawl over him, maybe even the whole planet. Yeah, Iron Man is going to die to save the world.

Pepper's image is still flickering at the edge of his visor, never mind that the chance for a call is long gone. And fuck, had he just said a fleet of alien fish things was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen? Obviously, it's not. Obviously it's Pepper, when she smiles. Especially when she smiles because of him.

That's not ever going to happen again.

Wait. Bad thought. Try again. Find a silver lining. It's good that she didn't answer the phone. What would he have said anyway?

But he knows the answer. He would have said, I'm sorry and I should have done more.

Then he's falling, and then the world is black.

***

"Please say nobody kissed me," he says, and everybody laughs. Probably because it's funny. It's a thing he does -- sound funny, even when he's serious. But really, if someone's going to kiss him and wake him up, it should be Pepper. It has to be Pepper. Not the fucking Hulk.

He almost left Pepper. He's talking about shawarma, and everyone's laughing, but on the inside he's thinking about the terrible, no-good, very bad thing he almost did -- he almost died without telling Pepper how much he loves her. Does she know? She might not; he left her on a roof top once after all, and there was that one time he tried to buy her strawberries... And that time he forgot her birthday. Make that six birthdays. Okay, eleven. Almost every birthday for as long as he's known her.

Fuck, he thinks. He's got to do more for Pepper.

***

Apparently, a giant replica of the Velveteen Rabbit is the wrong kind of more.

***

He fills her closet with shoes.

He fills her office with roses.

He sends her one of everything in the Tiffany's catalogue.

One of those things has to be right, right?

Wrong.

It's interesting -- no, stimulating -- to have a thing he's not good at, a problem he can't solve. By stimulating, he means terrifying because Pepper is the one thing in his life he absolutely, positively has to be good at. But interesting and terrifying is a thing he can do, right? It pretty much sums up the whole of his existence as Iron Man.

"We were good," Pepper says.

"Were?" Tony asks. Past tense is bad. Past tense is very bad.

"And then I moved in, and you panicked."

"I panicked?" he asks. He's Iron Man. He doesn't fucking panic. Does he? Maybe once or twice, where Pepper is concerned. "Okay," he says, "I panicked. Have you considered being right less often?"

Pepper rolls her eyes, which Tony loves maybe even more than when she smiles. That's going to get him in trouble some day. Has gotten him in trouble, actually, but it's worth it.

"Now say, 'Pepper, what do you want?'" she says. She's wearing some of the shoes he sent her, so he hadn't been totally wrong about that gift, but he's not going to say that right now. How Not to Start an Argument: that had been boyfriend training 101.

"Pepper, what do you want?" he says obediently.

Pepper leans back in her chair. "The next thing you buy me cannot cost more than five dollars."

Fuck. Five dollars? What does that even buy? A bouquet of roses? Maybe? Probably not. Probably not even one of his shitty concert t-shirts. He can't remember the last time he'd even seen a five dollar bill, actually. These days he doesn't bother with cash, but when he had, he'd only traded in hundreds. Somehow he senses this would not be a good thing to share with Pepper.

"Why?" he tries instead.

"Actually, I changed my mind," Pepper says, and Tony is relieved for a few blissful seconds until she finishes, "The next gift you give me shouldn't cost any money at all."

"Okay," he says. "Easy."

Pepper sees through the front. "Tony, money is armor. It's a cocoon, just like the suit. I didn't fall in love with a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist. I fell in love with you."

She kisses him on the forehead and clip-clops upstairs to their newly-redecorated bedroom. Tony sits alone on the sofa, trying to figure out if he actually is anything besides a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist with a fancy suit.

***

Then the house burns down and Pepper gets kidnapped, almost burns up in a fire, and saves his life. After that, Tony figures he owes her all kinds of presents -- Ferraris, Lear jets, chateaus in the Swiss Alps -- but he has a feeling that the best gift of all would be to respect their agreement.

So he makes her a ring. Not the ring, of course. That would scare the shit out of both of them. This is just a simple, shining circle of palladium that is hopefully the right size for her finger. Actually measuring Pepper's fingers while she's asleep is more difficult than he thought it might be.

"First thing I made in the new workshop," he says. He hadn't actually known what to do down there if he wasn't making suits. "All scraps I had on hand, not a dollar spent."

He'd scoured the wreckage of their old home for scrap metal, though he's not sure he should tell her that. Maybe Pepper does not actually want a souvenir of the time he told a terrorist their address on national TV. But he likes the idea of it -- some bit of an older, stupider time of his life transformed into something better and brighter.

"Thank you. It's beautiful," Pepper says with the little catch in her voice that means he's done something good.

Later, Pepper is on top of him, wearing nothing but the ring, her hair a cathedral around his face. He wants to relax into the sensation of her open thighs, he really does, but he can't still the panic that's bubbling up inside him. He wants this night -- needs this night -- over and over again, doesn't know what he'll do without it, but he knows he doesn't know how to get it.

"Pepper, what do you want?" he asks. "I mean, what next? Because I need instruction, I really do."

"Ssssh," Pepper breathes, her finger against his lips. She leans close to his ear, her breasts pressing against his chest, her hair leaving little trails of goosebumps on his bare skin. "I don't want a present," she whispers. "I want you."

***

Lots of women have uttered that exact phrase to Tony. Strangely enough, those women were also on top of him. He has a feeling Pepper means something different than they did. Now would be a good time to have a mother. Then he could ask exactly what a woman means when she says I want you but does not actually want your penis.

Tony doesn't have a mom at the moment, so he'll have to make do with the resources available to him, namely one War Machine/Iron Patriot/James Rhodes.

Rhodey's eyes go wide when Tony explains his dilemma. "Listen, man, a woman tells you she doesn't want a present on her birthday, it's a trap. You better get out the Tiffany's catalogue fast."

Tony nods, for once not bothering to argue even though he knows that Rhodey's wrong. Pepper doesn't play games or set traps; Tony's pretty sure he'd be dead -- or at least single -- if she did.

Bruce falls asleep before Tony can even finish explaining the situation. That's why Tony finds himself sitting across a table from the very last person he'd like to ask for help: Natasha Romanov. She'd lied to him, fought an alien invasion with a couple pistols, and she could kill him with her pinky. While he's wearing the suit, most likely. Fuck that. She could probably kill him with her mind. She scares the shit out of him. Luckily, Tony has a reliable weapon to fall back on: bravado and bluster.

"Hey, Tasha," he says, feigning what he thinks is nonchalance. "You know what women like, right?"

"I suppose I am a suitable representative of my species," she says, so blandly he can't tell if she's being sarcastic or sincere. Or just Russian.

He decides to believe in sincere, or at least willing to hear him out. "If a woman tells you that she, quote, 'doesn't want anything for her birthday, just you' what exactly do you think she wants?"

Natasha cocks her head. "Pepper?"

Tony feigns indignity to hide the fact that he's actually a little hurt that she had to ask, even though basically everything he's ever done gives her good reason to be suspicious. "Of course it's Pepper. Would I ever -- wait, no, don't answer that. But, yes, I am asking for Pepper."

"I think you should give her a story," Natasha says. "A piece of truth is always a gift."

"A story? Truth? Does this relationship thing just keep getting harder and more confusing?" Tony asks, but when he looks up, Natasha's already gone.

Fuck. He really should just ask JARVIS to book them tickets to Bora Bora. Or just give up. But that would mean admitting that this relationship thing is a puzzle he can't solve, and his ego really can't take that. Tony Stark can do anything. Including give non-monetary gifts of truth to women he loves.

***

When the morning of Pepper's birthday arrives, Tony takes a deep breath and cancels their dinner reservations. He has a niggling feeling that blowing a thousand dollars on champagne and caviar was not exactly what Pepper had in mind when she'd said I want you -- though, to be fair, if she really wanted him just as he was, she ought to just let him express emotion by spending money.

Sighing grimly, he trudges down to the kitchen, where he stares at the at the gleaming expanse of chrome and steel.

"I can cook," he announces to no one in particular. "Cooking is just chemistry, right? I like science. I can do science."

"Are you addressing me, sir?" JARVIS asks.

"Nope. Just enjoy the sound of my own voice."

"Indeed, sir," JARVIS replies. "But if you are intending to cook, do consider asking me for assistance."

In the cupboard underneath the stove, Tony finds an array of pots, pans, and utensils. Few of them seem to have been used, and Tony couldn't even say how they'd gotten into the house, though he does have a hazy memory of telling an assistant to order everything one needs for a functioning household.

A small box with a picture of an even smaller blow torch catches Tony's eye.

"Creme brûlée kit," he reads. "Jarvis, why didn't you tell me I could cook with fire?"

"I thought it best you didn't know, sir," Jarvis replies. "You may be interested to note that the torch is already calibrated for dessert applications and need not be enhanced."

"Uh-huh," Tony says, his mind already wandering down to the lab.

***

By the end of the day, Tony has learned several important lessons, each of which he has recorded in Jarvis' memory banks.

Butter can burn.
If the pan is too hot, meat will burn on the outside while remaining stubbornly raw on the inside. The microwave is not a good solution to this problem.
Creme brûlée torches are perfectly calibrated for dessert applications and should not be enhanced.
The fire control system in the new house work admirably.

And also, he is fucked when Pepper comes home.

***

"Why does the kitchen smell like burning?" Pepper asks. She's holding her high heels in her hand, and an errant strand of hair is curling around her jaw. She looks at him and frowns. "You're missing half an eyebrow, and there are six pizzas on the counter."

To be fair, this is not remotely the weirdest scene Pepper has encountered in the house, but it's probably better not to talk about the other things.

"I tried to make you creme brûlée, but it's more like creme burnt. Wait. Don't say anything." He holds up a finger. "I am aware joke is not up to my usual wit. Anyway, it turns out I can't cook, so we have pizza. I called six delivery places and promised a hundred dollar tip to anyone who could get it here before 6:45. So there you are, lots of pepperonis for Pepper, happy birthday."

Tony closes his eyes, bows his head, and waits for The Wrath of Pepper. Nothing. The silence in the kitchen is deafening, and fuck, quiet Pepper wrath is worse than any other kind of Pepper wrath. A silent Pepper is contemplating packing up her office and writing a letter of resignation, except shit, she lives here now, and she wouldn't be quitting her job, she'd be quitting him. Still, no sense in weakness. He's come back from worse before, right?

Tony cracks open an eye.

Pepper is smiling.

"I downloaded Roman Holiday," he hazards. It had always been on top of Pepper's annoying, obsolete pile of DVDs before the house burned down. He guesses it's her favorite movie. Really, he should know her favorite movie, but paying attention to other people is still new, and sometimes he doesn't get the details right.

"I'll go upstairs and change," she says. Tony doesn't think change is a euphemism for pack my bags, so he gets out a bottle of wine and puts some candles on the table -- in holders, even. Because Pepper doesn't like it when he treats the furniture as disposable, and tonight is her night.

She comes downstairs wearing a tank top, Captain America boxers, and a small, silver pendant he'd bought her in Milan.

"I thought I threw those away," Tony says, gesturing at the boxers. "I got them out of the laundry."

"You did," Pepper says. "I bought more. But I'm impressed you know where the laundry is."

She's smiling -- which Tony doesn't understand -- and she curls up on the couch, looking contented, which Tony doesn't also understand. But he does know that Pepper doesn't set traps for him, so he settles on the couch next to her and passes her a box of pizza. Pepper pulls off the pepperonis carefully, rolls them up, and puts them in her mouth. Then she passes the rest of the pizza slices to Tony, who eats them in spite of the bald patches.

When Tony turns on the movie, Pepper sighs happily and exclaims, "This is my favorite!" At least, that's what Tony thinks she says; it's hard to know for sure when her mouth is full of pepperoni. She curls against Tony and doesn't move until the movie is finished.

"I don't get it," Tony says when the credits roll.

"The movie?" Pepper asks. "Why she didn't stay with the man who made her happy?"

"No," Tony says. He wouldn't have understood before the Battle of New York, but now, yeah, he knows exactly what it feels like to put duties over love. He never had worked up the courage to ask Pepper if she had been angry about the whole dying to save the world thing, and tonight doesn't seem like the night for that, so instead he says, "I fucked up. On your birthday. On the scale of boyfriend badness, that's like the nuclear apocalypse. Or at least like sleeping on the couch for a week. But you don't even seem mad."

"Do you know I've dated a lot of rich men, Tony?" Pepper asks, and yeah, he does. He had never not been able to notice who Pepper was dating, rich or not. "A lot of men can buy me expensive dinners and take me on whirlwind vacations to Bora Bora. I can buy myself expensive dinners and whirlwind vacations. But there is only one person in the entire world I want to watch movies on the couch with. You didn't fuck up, Tony. You gave me exactly what I wanted."

She leans her head against Tony's shoulder, and the top of her ponytail tickles his nose, which is annoying, but he figures he ought to allow it -- she'd forgiven him for worse that night, after all.

"You still don't get it, do you?" Pepper asks, and Tony shakes his head.

Pepper laces her fingers through his. The ring he'd made for her is cool against his skin when she squeezes his hand.

"I never lacked people to go out with," she says. "What I needed was someone to come home to."