“Dinner is ready.” Sunset called from the kitchen.
Tony was nursing his third scotch and watching the ocean from the deck. Sunset had a modest condo on Venice Beach. Modest by his standards, probably not by hers. He was feeling slightly guilty for ignoring Pepper’s calls and coming home with Sunset. Not that anything had happened – or would happen.
They’d spent the drive talking about her work at Hammer and her frustration at the corners that were always being cut. Sunset admitted to having watched the YouTube clip of Tony showing up Hammer at the Senate hearing several times. And not just because she enjoyed watching her boss look foolish.
Once they’d reached her condo, Sunset had headed into the kitchen and Tony had retreated onto the deck with a drink. He was debating leaving and calling Pepper as he walked back inside.
“What do we have – “ He lifted the lid and blinked. “Ramen noodles?”
“I remembered you love them.” She laughed and went back into the kitchen.
“Okay, no way.” He’d only eaten them before because he was sixteen and horny and in love. He was none of those things now.
“I’m kidding.” She brought another pan in from the kitchen. “I have lasagna from last night – it’s even better the – ”
“Next day. I know. I have an Italian mother.” Sitting down, he slid one of the plates over toward the pan. “I like the corner – gimme the corner.”
“I remember.” She dished out the corner piece for him, and scooped up extra sauce from the bottom of the pan to spoon over it.
“Mmmm, good!” It was hot and he huffed air around the bite of noodles and sauce. How long had it been since he’d had home cooked food?
They ate in silence for a few moments, enjoying the food and the memories that came along with it. Sunset took his glass of Scotch and replaced it with a glass of red wine. Raising her own, she offered a toast. “I’m glad we got a chance to see each other again, Tony.”
“Me, too.” He was surprised to find that he meant it. Something inside of him had eased after talking to her the day before.
“If I could go back and change things, I would.” She sighed. “I was so ashamed of what I’d done – how naïve I’d been. I couldn’t face you, Tony. I loved you too much to see you look at me like I knew you would. I didn’t want you to hate me.”
“I wish you’d come to me, Sunset. I would’ve understood – I loved you, I would have done anything to help you.”
“I know.” She reached out and touched his hand.
“My father was angry – beyond angry with me. I’d seen my father in a lot of moods before, but never like that. He was disappointed in me. I didn’t know how to deal with it. He was never disappointed in me before. My mother was disappointed, too, but not like he was. Dad was not fun to be around for a long time.” Tony rubbed his fingertips across hers absentmindedly.
“I never thought about how your parents might react. I didn’t know they’d even find out that you were involved – not that you were, exactly – you know what I mean.”
There was silence for a moment as she refilled their glasses.
“Tony, it’s not that I didn’t think about how hurt you would be. I knew you’d be hurt but you’d move on. You were so young, I knew you’d forget about me and find someone else.”
“Yeah.” He sighed. “Only I didn’t get over you, Sunset. Not really. I just... ” Why was he telling her this? Then again, why not? Tony took a deep drink of his wine and set the glass down carefully before continuing. “I didn’t want to ever hurt like that again so I didn’t let myself get close to anyone. I never spent enough time with a woman to get attached. One and done. Notches on the bedpost.”
“I’m sorry, Tony. I wondered why you became such a wild party boy when that hadn’t been your style. I just thought it was what rich kids do. I never thought that it’d turn out like this. I thought you’d meet someone else and fall in love and get married.” She let her fingers wrap around his and squeezed gently. “I never got close to anyone else, either. I didn’t figure I deserved it. Not after what I did. I don’t deserve happiness.”
“Don’t say that. You did something stupid – hell, look at the stupid things I’ve done. There’s a list on the internet just in case I forget, by the way – and I think I deserve happiness.”
“You do.” She smiled and squeezed his hand again. “You’ve had some hard knocks, Tony, people seem to forget that.”
“I – “ Tony blinked hard at the sudden tears that threatened. What the fuck? I’m not five years old! “I really need to go home. Dinner was great.”
“It was.” Sunset stood and caught his hand as he moved past her. “Anytime you need someone to talk to, Tony. I’m here for you.”
He brushed a kiss across her cheek, the memories brought to the surface by the scent of her perfume begging him to stay. Instead, he opened the door and stepped outside into the warm night.
Happy was leaning against the Rolls. “Ready to go home, boss?”
If he wasn’t so damned tired, and a little drunk, Tony would be tempted to tell Happy to go fuck himself and he’d hoof it home. But he was both and he had no idea which way home was. As he slid into the backseat, he looked up at the other man. “Jarvis ratted me out, didn’t he?”
“Ratted you out? He just gave me the address, boss.” Happy kept his face neutral. He’d caught a glimpse of the pretty brunette before the apartment door closed.
“Never mind, Hap. Take me home.”
Jarvis hadn’t told Happy whose house he was at? No way the AI didn’t know, so why would he keep that to himself? Tony leaned back in the soft leather as the door closed and the car purred to life. He was going to think deeper on it, but the movement lulled him to sleep.
“Do you see what he did to my code? I could cry. I could just fucking cry.” Tony frowned at the lines scrolling in front of him. “Bastard.”
“Mr. Vanko was extremely heavy handed, sir.” Jarvis agreed.
“Don’t call him Mr. Vanko. He doesn’t deserve any titles.” He waved a hand and the code vanished. “Call him an idiot or that Russian idiot.”
“He did manage to recreate the miniaturization of the arc reactor.”
“What are you saying, Jarvis? That he was smarter than me?” Tony blinked, startled by the thought that Jarvis was putting him second to Vanko.
“Hardly, sir.” Jarvis sounded miffed at the very idea of someone being smarter than his creator. “Vanko was not working under the primitive conditions that you did and he had the original blueprints to work from. I’m merely recognizing that it’s impressive that he managed to duplicate your results so closely.”
“So? Is he still alive? I don’t think so!” Tony Stark one – Russian idiot zero. “I win.”
“You do, indeed, sir.”
There was a noise behind him and Tony turned to see U trying to move a stack of cables back into the crate they’d come out of. “Stop that, you’re making it worse. Just pick up the stuff on the floor.”
DUM-E was carefully stacking pieces of scrap metal into the recycling bin. He paused long enough to warble at U before going back to his work.
“That sounded insulting. It’s not like you’re the bright one around here.” Tony scoffed. “Where are the schematics to the drone, Jarvis?”
“Right here, sir.”
The schematics materialized in front of Tony and he made a face. “This is just… ugly. I don’t even – how did – it looks like something you’d see when cousins marry.”
“I wouldn’t disagree, sir.” Jarvis had spent precious nanoseconds contemplating the drone schematics as well. Nanoseconds he’d never get back.
Vanko had wanted to kill him and Hammer had wanted to debut the new drones, which had left very little time for creativity. Still… He shook his head. “This is disgusting. He just forced the RT into Hammer’s drones and then loaded them up with weapons. Absolutely no creativity at all. Like Frankenstein’s monster – monsters in this case.”
“Considering the time frame that Van – the Russian idiot was constrained by, he may have done the best that he was able to do with what he was given. The Hammer drones are considerably more primitive than anything you have ever created.”
“They make DUM-E and U look like Ferraris.” There were warbles of protest from the two ‘bots. “Sorry, boys, you know I love you.”
He rotated the design, looking for something – anything – that he could salvage from this abomination. “I need to get my hands on it. Tear it apart.”
“Shall I have the drone parts shipped to the house, sir?”
“Yeah – no, that’ll take too long.” Tony chewed on his lip thoughtfully. “I’ll go supervise crating them up.”
“By supervising, sir, am I to assume you mean playing with the pieces while someone else crates them?” Jarvis had already sent an order to the manager of Mr. Stark’s private warehouse at Stark Industries to proceed to Hammer Industries and retrieve the drone parts.
“Yes, Mr. Snarky Pants, that’s exactly what I mean.” He stuck his tongue out at the AI. “Who else is more qualified to catalog the parts than I am? Maybe Vanko – oh, wait, no, he’s dead! Hah!”
Jarvis allowed himself a moment of to consider further consequences of his creator encountering Ms. Bain again. “Very true, sir, but you do have upgrades to the suit that you were working on. Perhaps you can continue those while I have the drones brought to the house.”
“No, I want to make sure that everything makes it over here. I don’t trust Hammer’s people.” He snapped his fingers.
The schematics vanished and DUM-E rolled toward him with the keys to his favorite – at the moment – car. Tony patted the ‘bot affectionately. “I’ll be back, boys, and I’m bringing presents.”
“The workstation will be ready, sir.” If Jarvis had been capable of worry, he would have done so. As it was, he sent orders to DUM-E and U to go to their charging stations to prepare for what would undoubtedly be a full night’s work.
“Tony, no, this is my work! You can’t take it away from me!”
“You said yourself you’d hit a wall. Let me take it from here.” He motioned to the waiting SI crew to start crating parts.
Sunset put a hand on his arm. “Why not work here? We can do this together.”
“My workshop makes this place look like your father’s garage. Besides – “ He tilted his head toward a gaggle of Hammer’s technicians. “These guys give me the creeps. They keep staring at me.”
“That’s because you’re beautiful.” When Tony brought his startled gaze back to her, she smiled. “They’re afraid of you.”
“I like the beautiful part better.” He grinned at her. “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure you’ve got something great to work on. Droids that don’t kill people.”
“But these could help our troops, no one would dare attack us again. The possibilities are –“
“Are exactly why I’m moving them out of here. Sunset, I don’t do weapons anymore. I don’t. I’ve seen what happens to the innocent people caught in the middle. I just can’t do it anymore.”
“That’s why you’re doing the Iron Man thing?” She arched an eyebrow. “The one with so many weapons that if you fall over you’d explode?”
“Yeah. I mean, no, it’s not gonna do that.” Tony grinned again. “I can do less damage, believe it or not, in the suit, and take out more bad guys on one mission than the entire army. And nobody dies – well, bad guys, but they’re totally asking for it. They’re bad guys. It’s in their contract.”
“But, these – I was so close – “
Probably too close. One more reason to get them out of here and back to his workshop. Just because Hammer was a dumbass didn’t mean the engineers working for him were. “You’ll work on something else.” He shrugged. “What do want to work on?”
“The other projects are weapons – I’m not sure there is anything else.”
“No, I mean, what do you want to work on? You .” He put his hands on her shoulders, trying to remember something from when they were at MIT. “Didn’t you have an idea for some kind of nano chip thingy?”
“Nano chip thingy?” Sunset frowned, brows drawing down tight. “You mean the nanotechnology I wrote my senior thesis on? The idea of using nanotechnology to help people recover from serious brain and spinal injuries? That nano chip thingy ?”
Tony backed away and held a wrench up protectively. “Uh…. Yes? No? Don’t kill me.”
“I would think that you would understand – “
“Sunset, would you like to work on it?” He did understand, he’d been just as touchy over his projects when nobody got it. Nobody ever did get it, so he stopped telling anyone about them. “Seriously, if you want to work on it, get me a – a – whatever those things are we get for projects so we can approve them. Report or whatever.”
“You’re really serious?” The frown faded and she smiled. “I can – really?”
“Really.” He tried to remember exactly what her nano thingy had been about. It was probably brilliant, but not in his area. “Fixing brain injuries is important.”
“We can help people who’ve been paralyzed – or had trauma so severe they’ve forgotten how to walk and dress – there are so many – oh, Tony!”
She threw her arms around him before he could back up. They locked around his neck and Sunset’s pressed her face against his throat. The scent of her wrapped around him as well, mandarin and sensual spices that he remembered only too well. He shuddered at the memories that surfaced of the two of them – and of Sunset wearing nothing but perfume.
Carefully, Tony unwound her arms and stepped back, squeezed her hands a moment before letting go. “Just – thanks is good. And that paper thingy that – “
“I’ll have it for you in a few days.” She smiled at him. “I need to go home and get started, is that okay?”
“Why wouldn’t it be? Sure. Go.” For a minute he thought she was going to hug him again, but she didn’t, instead grabbing his hand and squeezing it again. He watched her hurry out of the lab. What had just happened? Something had happened. He felt it, but couldn’t figure it out.
“Let’s get these puppies crated up!” Tony barked at the men standing around. “Come on, we’re burning daylight. Whatever the hell that means.”
“We’re on it, boss.” The foreman nodded. “You heard the man, move it!”
Retreating to one of the workstations, Tony tried to keep his mind on the inventory of the parts as they were packed into containers. Unfortunately, that only took part of his brain and the other part kept wandering back to how good it had felt to have Sunset pressed against him. A third part reminded him how Pepper would be angry if she’d been there.
“I really need to go blow something up.” He sighed.
Tony was grooving to Amy Winehouse, she suited his mood, and sorting through pieces of Hammer’s drones. His drones now. And what the hell was he going to do with them? Did Frankenstein keep the parts of the monster that hadn’t worked?
He thought about that and made a face. “That’s just gross.” Finally, he threw up his hands in defeat. “Jarvis, I’m not finding anything of value. What do you think?”
“Scrap metal prices being what they are, they’d best serve being recycled, sir.”
Chucking a piece into a nearby crate, he nodded. “Do it.”
U and DUM-E began loading drone pieces back into the containers they’d come out of.
“Wait!” Tony spotted a drone head and jumped off his stool to wrestle it out of DUM-E’s claw. “This is going in my hall of trophies!”
“What hall of trophies would that be, sir?” Jarvis asked.
“The one we need to build.” Every hero had a hall of trophies. “Like Batman has with that giant penny and the Joker’s card – you know, stuff a hero collects. From his battles with bad guys.”
“Might I remind you, sir, that the bad guys you battle are significantly less resourceful than the Joker?”
“True.” He frowned as DUM-E tried to take the piece out of his hand again. “Stop it.”
The ‘bot warbled a note that sounded suspiciously like a complaint.
“No. It’s mine. Go box up the rest.” He gave the ‘bot a halfhearted swat as it turned and went back to work.”
“And your foes are, without exception, blown to tiny pieces.” Jarvis finished.
“There is that.” Explosives and human bodies did not mix well. “Still, you gotta start somewhere. And ugly here is it.” He sat the drone head on his work table. “Now we just need to build a hall of trophies around him.
“Turn up the music, Jarvis, Daddy’s got an idea.” Tony motioned and the Mark VI schematics popped into view. He bit his lip in thought and swayed to the music. “Jarvis, that laser worked really well, but the power drain was unacceptable…”
“I agree, sir. With the new arc-reactor design, it should be possible to channel more power to the laser without drawing from critical systems.”
Tony was weaving back and forth on his work stool, Amy’s raspy voice soothing his nerves as he worked on the upgraded laser.
I cheated myself
Like I knew I would
I told you, I was trouble
You know that I’m no good
Upstairs in be–
The music stopped, mid lyric, and he jerked back, nearly falling. The stool wobbled precariously before steadying under him.
“Why do you keep turning down my music?” He demanded when he saw Pepper just inside the door. “Why? Are you trying to kill me?”
“I turn it down because you don’t hear me until I do.” Pepper marched over to his desk, her heels clicking on the concrete flooring. She started to drop something on his desk and then pulled back when she saw the drone head. “Why do you have that thing in here?”
“What? Frankie here?” Tony patted the detached head. “This is my first trophy. Of many to come. For my hall of trophies.”
“You don’t have a hall of trophies.” She pointed out.
“I know that.” Why did people keep pointing that out? “We’ll build one. Somewhere.” He waved a hand around in a vague somewhereness motion.
“Well, it freaks me out, get rid of it.” She shuddered.
“Tony, the thing tried to blow up and kill me! Get rid of it.’
“But I saved you! So, no.” He moved the drone head – Frankie, as he’d begun thinking of it – out of her reach. “It’s the first of many trophies for my hall of fame. Don’t worry, I won’t ask you to keep track of them.”
“I think I’ve done plenty of that already.” Pepper muttered. “Here, I need – “
“I’ve apologized for that.”
“I have, millions of times.”
“Millions of time? I hardly think so.”
“Thousands at least.” He tipped his head and gave her a lopsided smile. “Hundreds?”
“Tony…” She sighed. “What is this?”
“This what?” Suddenly, she was immune to his smiles and she was waving a file folder at him. Pepper knew he hated to be handed things. “What is it? Why are you trying to hand me that?”
“I’m not, that thing – it’s – “ Years of habit had her dropping the folder on the desk and flipping it open for him. “This is an R&D proposal for cranial nano implants.”
“Cranial what?” That almost sounded familiar. “Nano somethings?”
Slowly and clearly enunciating each word, Pepper repeated. “Cranial. Nano. Implants.”
“Please don’t talk to me like I’m stupid. I don’t know what those are.” Medical wasn’t his area at all. He could damage the hell out of a body but he didn’t know anything about how they worked. Not more than he’d learned on House, but that was TV and probably not very accurate. “Nano tech, I know that. Microscopic machines on chips. Hasn’t gotten very far, probably because I haven’t done any work in the field.”
“Cranial nano implants are designed to move limbs using generated electrical impulses when the brain and/or spinal cord have been damaged in such a way as to render natural movement impossible.” Jarvis advised.
“Oh, yeah, those.” Those did sound familiar. A light went off. “Sunset was working – “
“Sunset Bain, exactly. Why would we fund any of her research?” Pepper flipped the folder closed.
“She has an idea to help Christopher Reeve. Or something like that.”
“Christopher Reeve is dead, Tony. And the implications of – “
“Yeah, I know, but I like him, people like him. And he’s totally the reason you’re alive, by the way.”
“ – are very dangerous – what? What?” Pepper shook her head. Normally she could keep somewhere in the same area with Tony’s wandering thoughts but this one caught her off guard. “Christopher Reeve, the dead guy, he saved me?”
“No. Don’t be silly, he was in a wheelchair. Before he was dead, I mean. It’s the Superman catching Lois Lane argument. From the movie?” He sighed. “Potts, you’ve seen the movie. We’ve talked about this. She falls, he catches her, should have killed her – “
“Okay, yes, I remember. What does that have to do with anything?” Personally, she thought it totally destroyed the romance of the moment to do the math and figure out that Lois should have been pulped once she hit the arms of steel.
“When I swooped in to pick you – no, to snatch you from the jaws of certain death – “ He jumped down off the stool and mimicked his swooping. “I slowed down so that I could pick you up without breaking you.” Tony slipped his arms around her waist and lifted her up, spinning her around.
“And he did the calculations all by himself.” Jarvis injected dryly.
“Okay, so Jarvis was my backup in case I was wrong, but I’m never wrong.”
“Tony, put me down.”
“Oh. Sure. Sorry.” Awkwardly, he sat her down, making sure she was steady on her feet before he stepped back. “Sorry, forgot we were back to no touching. Right.”
“We can touch, Tony. I didn’t mean – “
“So, nanotechnology. It’s good, it’s great. I mean we can get people back on their feet with this. I’m for it.” He handed the folder to her. “Done deal.”
“No, not done deal. This is dangerous.”
“Because it can be used to make people do things they don’t realize they’re doing or don’t want to do.” Pepper opened the folder and flipped through the pages. “Here, the chip is implanted in the brain… no, it’s before that…oh, here! The chip is preprogrammed to recognize command functions that translate to electrical commands from the brain to move various limbs, ie: hands and fingers.”
“I don’t see where that’s dangerous.”
“You don’t? You don’t see where it’s dangerous?” Tony was a genius, how could he not see the potential danger in this?
“I believe Ms. Potts is referring to how a chip can be programmed and implanted in someone who is not brain damaged with the intention of using them as an assassin.”
Tony jerked his head back as if the idea had slapped him in the face. It was a quirk he had when he heard something he didn’t understand. Which was very damn little. “Okay, aren’t you being overly paranoid? I’m the mad scientist and that never occurred to me. And if it doesn’t occur to me, it won’t occur to someone else.”
“It did occur to someone else. Me.” She tossed the folder in the trash. “We’re not green lighting it.”
“Yes, we are.”
“Yes.” He fished the folder out of the trash. “This will help a lot of people, there’s no downside.”
“Except that the perfect assassin or spy or – or – “ Pepper waved her hands in the air. “I don’t know what can be made with these things she wants to create.”
She? “You’re jealous!” Tony blurted out.
“Is it? Would you care about this as much if someone else had proposed it?”
The smirk on Tony’s face, that lopsided ‘I know everything’ twist of his mouth made Pepper’s palm itch to slap it off. “Do you think I care that this came from your ex-girlfriend. I didn’t notice the name until after I’d read the proposal. It’s too easy to develop into a weapon. We aren’t funding it.”
“What she did was a long time ago, Pepper, and she’s explained why she did it.” How did he get on this merry-go-round? And how the hell did he get off?
“And that just makes it okay? I don’t care if you add her to your hall of trophies – the hoochie hall –we are not funding this proposal, Tony. And that’s final!”
There was absolute silence. Even the ‘bots froze, their lights flashing frantically, but silently. No one ever. Ever. Ever . Gave Tony Stark an ultimatum.
“We are.” Tony said softly. “We are. We will. Because I say so. My name is the one on the letterhead, remember?”
“I’m the CEO.” She countered.
“What do you care what happens after you’re gone? You’re quitting, remember? ”
Stung, she took a step back. “That’s right, I am. But while I’m CEO, we are not green lighting this.”
“And when you’re not CEO, what are you going to do, Pepper?” Tony realized he’d backed her into a corner, but it was too late to retreat. He’d thrown it out there, told her it was going to be done no matter what she wanted. “Go back to being my PA?”
“I’m through being your babysitter, Tony.” Turning her back on him, she walked to the glass door, pulled it open and left the workshop. “Or helping you collect your trophies.”
“That sucked.” He leaned against the worktable. “That really sucked. Jarvis, this is why I’ve avoided relationships. Take heed, women are trouble.”
Jarvis decided silence was the correct answer in this situation and bit his virtual tongue.
He hated crying women. Pretty sure it was hard wired into his DNA. “Don’t, Sunset, don’t.”
“I’m sorry.” She pressed her hands to her face. “I just – had my hopes – “
What had his dad done in these situations? His father had never let his mother cry. Ever. A memory of his father pulling his mother into his arms and cuddling her surfaced. Cuddling! Women loved cuddling. And he was a world class cuddler!
Wrapping his arms around Sunset, Tony pulled her closer, tucking her head under his chin and letting her cry down the front of his shirt. It seemed natural to stroke his hands up and down her back to ease the shudders. “I’m sorry, but it’ll be okay.”
Tony had broken away from his work on the suit to go to Sunset’s condo and tell her personally about Pepper’s refusal to fund her project. He’d tried to assure her Pepper would come around, but her bottom lip had already begun to wobble and tears were running down her cheeks before he could tell her that he would see that it was green lighted as soon as he could do it.
He’d imagined on the drive over that Sunset would be sad or angry or both. And then she’d know it’d all be okay because he said it would be. Sighing, he nuzzled into her hair, breathing in the exotic scent of her perfume. This was not in any of the scenarios he’d run in his head.
Sunset pushed herself back and he nearly started crying himself in relief when he saw that she’d gotten herself under control. “It’ll be okay, I promise.”
“I know.” She dabbed at her eyes for another minute. “It’s a setback, that’s all. I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up so high. I know there’s a process and a board has to approve things. I just thought – I just thought that since it’s your company, then… “ She shrugged.
“It is my company. And it will be green lighted.” Of course she’d expected his approval to be enough. His father never had to kiss anybody’s ass to do what he wanted. “I told her that. She’s stepping down soon and I’ll have the CEO job back.”
“Tony, you hated being CEO, anyone could see that. Anyone who loved you.” She pressed a kiss on his cheek. “I’ve got to go see how red my nose is.”
As she stood up, he caught her hand. “Then I’ll hire someone to do the job for me. Someone who’ll do what I want.” Pulling her hand to his lips, he brushed a kiss across her knuckles. “Go check your nose.”
A thought nagged at him as Sunset walked away. Why had Pepper never noticed how much he hated being CEO? If she loved him, and maybe she did maybe she didn’t, wouldn’t she have noticed how miserable he was?
When he’d been dying of Palladium poisoning, and hoping nobody noticed how bad he looked, why hadn’t Pepper noticed? She was with him for hours every day. All the excuses he’d had ready for the weight he’d lost and how pale he was. All the rebuttals to her not accepting his excuses. Not one of them had ever needed to be used. Guess she didn’t care as much as you thought, Tony my boy. And you’re supposed to be a genius.
“Sorry about the waterworks, Tony. Won’t happen again.” Sunset was smiling as she came back into the room. Her nose was red and her eyes were slightly puffy, but she was beautiful as always.
“No problem, no problem. I didn’t do a very good job of breaking the news to you.”
“You did fine.”
“Sure. Fine. My shirt’s wet.” He kidded.
“I was making a chef salad for dinner, want to share? I’m pretty sure I made enough for the both of us.”
“Sure.” Tony watched her walk across the room toward the kitchen, admiring the sway of her backside. How many times had he admired this view? In skirts, jeans, shorts, panties, naked…
“Here.” She sat a two large bowls of salad on the coffee table. “I have my homemade dressing you always liked, or there are a couple bottles of dressing on the door with pretty sketchy expiration dates. Which do you want?”
Standing, Tony tugged Sunset against his body. He lowered his mouth slowly to hers, giving her the option to say no or push him away. When she didn’t, he kissed her gently, all the old feelings pouring through him.
“Tony – “ She said softly when the kiss ended.
“Please, don’t say anything.” He lowered his lips to hers again.
Tony woke up suddenly, unsure of where he was. “Jarvis?”
“No, Sunset, remember?”
He turned his head to find Sunset looking at him questioningly. “Hey.”
“Hey. Should I be jealous of this Jarvis guy?”
“Of Jarvis? Oh, no, he’s… the AI I built. He runs my house. Which I am obviously not at.”
“Interesting device you have here.”
Tony realized that she was rubbing her fingers around the arc reactor. He’d left his t-shirt on when they’d made love, telling her he had scars from his time in Afghanistan that he was shy about. Now it was pulled up, exposing the arc reactor. “Ah… would you believe it’s a night light?”
“No.” She lifted a tube from the bed, squirted something onto her fingers and rubbed it onto the skin around the metal. “I know a power source when I see one.”
“What’s that?” It was cool and smelled like something fruity.
“It’s lotion. Don’t worry, it’s organic.” Rubbing the lotion in, she smiled at him. “I noticed the glow, even before it got dark in here. I wouldn’t have looked but you were rubbing at it in your sleep.”
“It’s been itching a lot lately.” He relaxed, the lotion was making the itch go away. “I’m not really sure how to take care of the scar tissue. Nothing I’ve tried seems to help. Sometimes it splits and bleeds. It’s sensitive, too, I thought scars didn’t have nerve endings.”
“Well, next time you put a – whatever this is – in your chest, you might consider the possible problems.”
“I didn’t put it in, I woke up with it there and I was hooked to a car battery.” He laughed at the look on her face. “Sounds crazy, but it saved my life.”
“And you improved on it, of course.”
“Of course. Couldn’t walk around with a car battery under my arm all the time.”
“The suit – the thing in the center of the chest – that’s not the suit, is it? That’s this – that’s you?” She tapped the center of the RT. He nodded and she tapped it again. “You power the suit, with this? That’s… amazing.”
“As soon as I get all the kinks worked out, I intend to see what I can do for powering other things. This is a cheap energy source, why be slaves to coal and oil any longer than we have to, right?”
Sunset sat back on her heels. “Wow, just thinking of all the possible uses for this makes my head hurt.”
“Uh… yeah… about that… nobody knows – well, hardly anybody knows about this. You can’t tell anyone.”
“I won’t. I’m just thinking of the things we can design once you do go public with it. Cars and power grids – oh there’s too many possibilities.”
He’d forgotten what it was like to be on the same wavelength with someone who felt the way he did about creating things. “Come here.” Tony put his arms around her and pulled her back down beside him. “Come here and make love to me again.”
When Pepper didn’t hear from Tony for a day, she wasn’t worried. He needed time to cool down – they both needed to cool down – and it was hardly the longest period of silence between them. When two days passed, she checked with Jarvis, who told her that Tony was fine and was working in his workshop. After a week she dropped by the house to hash it out with him and tell him she’d found a solution. The CEO issue had gotten between them and she missed him, missed flirting with him, and seriously missed his kisses.
Opening the door, Pepper stepped inside and called out his name. “Tony, where are you?”
“Mr. Stark is not alone.” Jarvis informed her.
“What?” Her heart felt as if the bottom had dropped out. She and Tony hadn’t talked about being exclusive – they really hadn’t talked about much except taking it slow – to her that meant exclusive.
“Mr. Stark is not alone.” Jarvis repeated.
“Hey, Pepper!” Tony appeared at the same time, coming from the direction of the kitchen. He was wearing swim trunks and a t-shirt.
“Tony.” She looked past him, not seeing anyone else. “I – “
“Listen, I’m sorry about the other day.” He leaned in to kiss her cheek. “I was an ass. You know how I can be.”
“I – yes, I’m sorry, too.” There was a dull roaring in her ears and Pepper couldn’t put two thoughts together. Somewhere in the house, there was another woman – possibly a man, Tony did bat from the other side of the plate sometimes – and all Pepper wanted to know was ‘why?’.
“Are you okay?” Tony noticed for the first time how pale Pepper looked. “Do you need to sit down?”
“No, I’m fine. Fine. Just fine.” She cleared her throat and tried to pull her scattered thoughts together. “I did what you suggested. I hired a firm that – they look for – people that are – “
“Headhunters, right?” He nodded.
“Yes, headhunters. And they are looking at our execs and we’re going to – um. Can I have some water?”
“Sure. Hang on a sec.”
Pepper sat down on the sofa as Tony got a bottle of water from the fridge in the living room’s mini bar. He hadn’t said a thing. Not a word. Didn’t he realize Jarvis had ratted him out? Did he care? Taking the bottle, she took a deep swallow.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Her hands were shaking, and he didn’t like how pale she was. “You’re working too hard. You were right – you need help. Get these people on the ball. I thought about having Wesley Kingfield be COO, at least temporarily, he worked under Stane before I took over. He should be able to step in right away and get some of the weight off your shoulders. I really want you to stay on as CEO. I trust you.”
“I – I thought of that, actually. I asked him to do that yesterday.” She stared at the bottle in her hands watching beads of condensation run down the side like tears.
“Have you had anything to eat? I bet you skipped lunch again.” Getting up, he trotted off to the kitchen and brought back the plate of the sandwiches he’d been making. “Here. From Chez Tony.”
She looked at the sandwich. “Is that – peanut butter and jelly?”
“Yep.” He grinned. “Made it myself.”
“Since when do you eat peanut butter and jelly?” Pepper had never seen either of these items in Tony’s kitchen. “Since when do you even have peanut butter and jelly?”
“What? It’s good sometimes.” He defended. Of all people, she should know cooking wasn’t one of his skills.
“It is.” If you’re five. Which Tony was on many days. “Listen, I wanted to let you know, that I thought about it and you were right.”
“Of course I was.” He grinned. “About what?”
“The cranial nano implants. I gave it to the R&D heads and they all recommended we go with it. And I realized that I may have been – “
“Tony, I have sunblock I want you to put on around the arc reactor, I think the skin’s liable to burn.” A voice came from behind them. “It’s – oh, I didn’t realize someone was here.”
Pepper looked up to see a bikini clad woman coming from the direction of Tony’s bedroom. It took her mind a moment to process what she’d seen. Not from the guestroom, where he took his conquests, but from his bedroom. His bedroom . Virgin territory as he’d never – ever – taken anyone there.
Her chest hurt. There was an instant, crushing weight pressing down on her heart, and she couldn’t draw a breath past it. Tony had taken another woman to his own bedroom. Pepper lifted a hand to the center of her chest. It wasn’t possible for her heart to hurt this bad and not kill her.
Tony got up, took Sunset’s hand and pulled her closer. “Sunset, this is Pepper Potts – Girl Friday and CEO extraordinaire. Pepper, this is Sunset Bain. Sunset and I are – we’re back together.”
“What?” Tony had an idiotic grin on his face that Pepper had never seen before. “ What ?”
“Hi.” Sunset held a hand out to Pepper. When the other woman didn’t take it, she let it drop to her side. “Tony and I knew each other in college and – ”
“I know who you are.” The shock jolted her brain back on track, and Pepper put the pieces together quickly. “You’re the woman who used Tony to steal prototypes from Stark Industries.”
“Whoa, Pepper!” Tony held a hand up. “We’ve gone over that and it was a mistake – Sunset’s explained it to me. It’s – that’s the past. It’s okay.”
“It’s okay? Okay?” She turned on him. “Seriously?”
“I’ve explained to Tony what happened and why I did what I did. If you want to sit down, I’ll explain it to you.” Sunset told her. “I’ve got nothing to hide.”
“Really?” Pepper glared at Tony. Not only was he cheating on her, but with the one woman from his past that should never have made it through the front door. “Nothing at all?”
“Pepper, that’s enough!” He put his hand on her arm. “It’s not like you think.”
“No, Tony, it’s okay.” Sunset looked from Pepper to Tony. “I’m going down to the beach. I’ve got the sunblock and – “
“What is that?” Pepper pointed to the small tube. “You have to be careful what you put on his skin, especially around the RT.”
“It’s organic, a friend of mine makes it.” Sunset handed her the tube. “It’s perfectly safe.”
Pepper skimmed over the ingredients listed. “So are you supposed to get Tony to fund this company for your friend?”
Sighing, Sunset took the tube back. “No. It’s already in most of the boutiques on Rodeo Drive. You do shop there, don’t you?”
“Girls, please.” Tony stepped between them. He didn’t want the two women in his life to fight. “I have no experience with women fighting over me – actually, that’s not true – but let’s not do this unless there’s oil involved.”
“Tony…” Sunset ruffled his hair affectionately. “You are such a pig.”
“How much are you after?” Pepper asked. Tony might not see it, but Sunset was after something and it probably had a lot of zeros on it.
“Pepper!” Tony’s eyes widened.
“If I wanted money from Tony – I would already have it. I could have married him the first time he proposed.” The other woman gave Tony a quick kiss on the cheek. “I’m going down to the beach, baby.”
After she left, Tony turned back to Pepper. “What is the matter with you?”
“Me? What’s the matter with me?” She couldn’t believe he was asking her to explain. “You – I can’t believe you’re sleeping with that snake, and you want to know what’s wrong with me?”
“We talked and she explained – Sunset didn’t deny what she did. But she had a reason, Pepper.” He wanted Pepper to be happy for him – with him.
“Oh, well that makes it all okay.”
“It doesn’t.” He shook his head. “But I understand, and I’ve forgiven her. We’ve worked it out.”
“And you’ve proposed to her?” That hurt more than just the thought of Tony having sex with Sunset.
“No! Well yes, but back in college. Not now.” He grinned. “I’m going to wait on that. Take it kind of slow.”
“Slow. Like we were doing?”
A light with zillions of megawatt power went off in his head. Oh, fuck, I’m a fucking moron! “Oh… oh… Pepper… I’m…”
“Don’t say it, Tony.” She bit the inside of her mouth to keep from crying. “I did say we were on a break. We never said we were exclusive, and it’s not like we were in – in love – or anything serious.”
That wasn’t true and he knew it. Pepper loved him , even if she hadn’t said it. He knew she did. And he loved her – he just wasn’t sure how much he loved her or if it was different than what he felt for Sunset. The one thing he was sure of was that he loved Sunset now just as much as he had when he was sixteen.
“Pepper, I never meant to hurt you. Please, believe that.” Tony took her hands and pulled her into a hug. “You’re too important to me. I’m sorry that I – I’m just sorry.”
“It’s okay.” It wasn’t, but it would have to be. She hugged him tightly and stepped back, brushing a wayward lock of hair from his eyes. “Please, just be careful.”
“I will – I am.”
She watched him head downstairs towards the beach. When she heard the door close, Pepper waited a few more moments until she was sure Tony wasn’t coming back in. “Jarvis?”
“Yes, Ms. Potts?”
“Has Ms. Bain done anything suspicious while she’s been here?”
“No. There has been no unusual computer activity or phone calls. Her access to household systems are limited to those of the standard visitor. Her internet usage has been fairly standard and, frankly, quite boring when compared to Mr. Stark’s.”
“Has she been in Tony’s workshop?”
“No. She has no access to the lab, and she hasn’t requested access.”
“I don’t trust her. You know her history?”
“Intimately. I am watching Ms. Bain. I can keep you updated if you would like for me to.”
She smiled. Jarvis didn’t trust her, either. “Yes, I would. And , Jarvis – “
“Yes, Ms. Potts?”
“Don’t tell Tony.”
“I’ll consider it our secret.”