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Reassembling The Broken Heart Of Tony Stark

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“Why am I here, again?”

“For the same reason as the last twenty times you asked.” Pepper sighed. “Because you’re the face of Stark Industries.”

“But you’re the CEO.”

“Not for much longer. I resigned, remember?”

“And I didn’t accept, remember?” Tony shot back.

“Tony, please.” A headache was already starting along with the urge to smackTony on the back of the head. Let’s not have this argument right now. We’ve got the meeting with Hammer’s board of directors to try to work out the details of the takeover. Crap, now you’ve got me saying it! Acquisition of Hammer Industries. Acquisition! Acquisition! Acquisition!” She threw up her hands in frustration. “I’m going to start fining people for calling it anything else.”

“What details? We were awarded Hammer Industries to cover the Expo damages. Done deal.” Tony slowed the car as they approached the gate to Hammer’s Long Beach headquarters. “Hammer’s in jail, his company is ours, we’re draining it to pay the damages and the lawsuits – what else is there to work out?”

“For one thing, there are production contracts that have to be honored, and we have no idea what type of cash flow the company has or the loans and debts on the books. This could end up costing SI money instead of covering the Expo costs.”

“I don’t think so. If all else fails, we just sell everything. Put it on eBay.” Tony slid the window down and waved at the guard. The man waved back and opened the gate for the car to pull through. “See there, they already know who’s in charge.”

“You just made my point for me, thank you.” She smirked. “They wouldn’t have done that for me. I’d have sat here while he checked my ID and made calls. You – Tony Stark – are who people think of when they think of Stark Industries.”

“That’s fine, just so long as they know you’re the CEO and I’m just the face – the pretty face.” He winked at her.

Pepper resisted the urge to smack him, as well as the urge to kiss him. She was always torn these days on which urge to follow. Sighing, she settled for reaching out to stroke a finger along the line of his beard.

As her finger neared his mouth, he turned his head and captured the tip of her finger, nipping it lightly.

“Behave.” She chided as she pulled her hand away. “There’ll be photographers here.”

“So? We’re allowed now – everyone knows we’re an item.” Tony grinned and waggled his eyebrows. “We’re on all the magazine covers. Hot – sexy – ”

“Don’t you dare say it.” Pepper warned.

“Pepperony.” He drawled it out like it was a dirty word.

“I hate that.” She sighed again.

Unofficially – at least to the rest of the world – Tony and Pepper had been a couple since their kiss on the rooftop with the Expo burning not so romantically in the background. Both had agreed to keep their new relationship under wraps until they’d figured it out for themselves, and until the inevitable fallout from the Expo and Hammer’s drone attack was sorted out. The latter had taken two months, the former they were still working on.

Officially, at least to the rest of the world – Tony and Pepper been a couple since the night they’d attended last month’s Queen Charity Gala together. The press had fallen in love with the new couple and immediately dubbed them Pepperony.

“Would you prefer Topper?” Tony liked that one better, if he’d had any choice as to how the press smashed their names together. Sadly, he didn’t.

“Food group or sex position? Some choice.”

Tony shrugged. “I love food and sex. What’s not to like? Just so long as everyone knows we’re having it together. Food and sex.”

Pepper smiled and patted his leg, giving his thigh an affectionate squeeze. “Everyone knows.”

At the Gala, Tony had made it clear his and Pepper’s relationship had changed from PA/boss to CEO/largest stockholder to boyfriend/girlfriend. He’d kept his hand either on the small of Pepper’s back, at her waist, or holding hers during the entire event. When she’d gone to the ladies’ room, he’d even waited outside holding her shawl.

As they neared the main Hammer Inc. building, Pepper settled back into her business mindset and checked the schedule on her phone one last time. “Tony, when we’re finished here today, we have to sit down and talk seriously about finding another CEO. I can’t continue to do this. Running two companies is wearing me out.”

“We’ll talk, but not about you stepping down.” Pulling the car into the spot marked ‘reserved for Justin Hammer, CEO’, Tony shut the engine off. “We’ll figure this out, get you some help or something, but I am not taking the job back. It’s just not what I do – I create things, someone else deals with the board and money and all of that. I can’t do it. Obie did it for me.”

“Yeah, and look how well that turned out.” She huffed. “He tried to kill you, twice. Or three times, depending on how you want to count it.”

“Not now.” He opened the car door and got out.

“Not now. Never now. Never ever.” She muttered. He opened her door and she stepped out, automatically checking to make sure Tony’s tie was straight and that his hair was neatly combed. You’re not his assistant anymore, Potts, knock it off. You can never go back again.

Pepper wanted to go back, to step down as CEO and Tony was fighting her tooth and nail. Unfortunately, he had the SI board on his side. Despite what the news pundits had said in the beginning, she was a good CEO – no, Pepper admitted to herself – a damned good CEO and she loved the job. It would be perfect, except she was overwhelmed running not one, but two companies, overseeing the clean up from the Expo, and being in a relationship with Tony. It was a toss up as to which was more exhausting.

“We need to get that changed.” Tony stepped up on the concrete curb bearing Hammer’s name. “No jailbirds around here.”

“Should I remind you of your stays in the LA County Jail?”

“Public nudity and intoxication are hardly the same as attempted murder and treason.” Tony put a hand to the small of Pepper’s back and guided her toward the entrance.

Her witty comeback would have to wait. Hoyt, the temporary head of Hammer Industries stepped out to greet them. There were indeed a small handful of handpicked photographers to record the event and Pepper plastered on her professional smile. Self doubt would have to wait.

 

  

Boring. Boring. Boring. Boring to infinity times infinity boring. Tony held back a sigh. Years of practice enabled him to keep a professionally interested look on his face and his sighs of boredom bottled up.

While Pepper and the other SI board members with them on the tour of Hammer’s facilities seemed genuinely interested in what they were seeing, Tony was not. He’d been whisked past the only part of the facility that did interest him, robotics research, and found himself trapped in a boardroom discussing money. Money was boring. Okay, having money was great, talking about it was not.

“In keeping with Stark Industries new stand on weapons manufacture, we will be shutting down any type of offensive weapons research or manufacturing.” Pepper tapped a fingernail on the report she’d brought with her. “We will be transforming all departments into either production of defensive items or private sector products.”

“We have contracts with the Pentagon and private security firms that we must honor.” Hoyt shook his head and leaned back in his chair. “I don’t think you understand, Ms. Potts.”

“I do understand.” She said sweetly. “Completely.”

Tony bit the inside of his mouth to keep the smile off his face. He knew that tone. Knew it meant bad, bad things.

“Mr. Stark, we need your input.” Dyer spoke up.

“My input?” He arched an eyebrow. Beside him, he felt Pepper stiffen. She might be saying that she wanted him to take back the position, but she was clearly territorial about it. “Ms. Potts is the boss. She’s following the mandate – the new mission statement – that I put in place when I returned from Afghanistan.”

“You can’t be serious about ending weapons manufacturing!” Hoyt said angrily.

“I can. I am. Stark Industries has ceased weapons research and production.” Tony allowed a small smile to curl his lips. “Let’s move on. I believe Ms. Potts was about to discuss which contracts that we will and will not be honoring. I for one am breathless in anticipation.”

“Thank you.” Pepper nudged his shin with one of her heels. It was more than a love tap and less than a kick. She appreciated his support but didn’t like how he appeared to guide the meeting to the next point. “The contracts with the Pentagon will be honored in the same way that SI is honoring the contracts we had in place at the time we implemented our new mission statement.”

There was a nearly audible sigh from the members of the Hammer board. Billions of dollars were tied up in those contracts. That the least of their worries would be in being sued if they failed to deliver went without saying and to Tony’s relief, no one said it.

“However – “ Pepper continued. “ – there will be no new weapons contracts.”

And... there’s the smackdown. Tony nodded slightly, showing his agreement with her statement.

Before the shocked board members could recover, Pepper went for the death blow. “As for the contracts with the private security firms – those will be reviewed by Legal before we continue any work. Many private security firms are – let’s be honest here – “ She smiled, showing her teeth. “ – mercenary operations working outside the limitations placed on our military forces or they’re fronts for terrorist organizations. Any contracts with those types of organizations will not be honored.”

There was a burst of angry protests from the board members. Billions of dollars were slipping through their fingertips. Private jets, European vacations, houses on the coasts, long-legged mistresses  – it was all vanishing before their eyes.

“Mr. Stark! You can’t agree with this! Tell her this isn’t how we do business!” Hoyt demanded.

Tony ignored the man, focusing instead on brushing his leg against Pepper’s under the table. Hurry up and we can go play footsie in Hammer’s office. He thought at her. She didn’t so much as glance his way. One of these days he had to develop telepathic communication.

“There will be no discussion on this point.” She tapped her fingers tips on the table and waited for quiet. “Moving on.”

The next item on the agenda was which sections of the company would be shutdown during the realignment. They were discussing people and projects, not hardware, and Tony let his attention wander to an issue he’d been having with the suit’s coolant system. He was tired of swimming in sweat.

A name caught his attention, snapping him out of the idea for a moisture wicking liner. “Who? What was that – the last thing you said?”

Pepper and the board members seated around the table looked at him. One of them scanned back through his notes. “Ms. Bain. She’s the head engineer on the drone project. I recommended keeping her project going, even with – “

“Bain?” He wasn’t sure he’d heard right. Couldn’t have heard right.

“Uh, yes, uh – “ The man fumbled through his notes looking for her company profile. “Ms. Bain graduated MIT, 1990. Engineering and – “

“That’s fine, that’s – “ Tony cleared his throat and stood up. “I need to take a few minutes.”

There was a chorus of “Of course, Mr. Stark, Certainly, Mr. Stark” from everyone but Pepper. She’d seen his face pale, and noticed a tremor in Tony’s voice that she’d heard only a very few times during her years with him, and it was not a good sign.

“It’s been a long morning, why don’t we all take a break? I’ll show Mr. Stark the CEO’s office.” Pepper stood and tucked her hand into the crook of Tony’s elbow. Normally, they didn’t touch – publicly – during business hours, but let Hammer’s board think what they wanted, something was wrong and she wasn’t risking Tony wandering around lost in Hammer’s gaudy office building.

“What’s wrong?” She asked quietly as they left the boardroom.

“Nothing, I just feel… queasy all of a sudden.” He patted her hand, kept his fingers wrapped over hers as she walked him to an office down the hallway. It wasn’t completely a lie, he did feel ill.

“I told you not to have that burrito for breakfast.” Closing the door behind them, Pepper led him to a couch and after he sat down, she went to what she hoped was a bathroom. There were several doors in the office and knowing Hammer… she wasn’t sure what she’d find.

Tony sank down on the leather couch and covered his face with his hands. Sunset. After all these years. He’d hoped she was in some faraway country where he’d never see her again. And she was right here under his nose working for his worst enemy.

“Tony? Tony, are you all right?”

He opened his eyes to find Pepper kneeling in front of him, her eyes concerned. “Don’t frown, you’ll get lines.” He joked.

“Here.” She put the washcloth she’d wet with cold water over his eyes. “Lay back.”

Stretching out on the obscenely soft couch, he let her loosen his tie and stroke his cheek. He needed comfort, wanted Pepper to make him feel better, but wasn’t sure how to ask for it. He’d kept his heart locked away for so long, he didn’t know how to set it free.

“I’m fine, Pepper.” He reached up and took her hand, bringing it to his lips. “You’re right, I shouldn’t have gotten breakfast from a taco truck. At least not one that had ‘guaranteed hottest salsa in LA’ on the side.”

“It’s your heart that’s made of iron, not your stomach.” She joked.

“Pepper – “ He pulled the washcloth away so he could meet her eyes. “It’s not.”

There was such sadness in the coffee eyes and Pepper wished she could take back her joke. “I didn’t mean it, Tony. I was only kidding.” Leaning down, she brushed her lips over his. Personal touching and kissing were off limits during business, but she’d already broken the rule once today, and he looked so pitiful, one kiss wouldn’t hurt.

Tony reached up, tangling his fingers in her hair and pulling her down to him, kissing her desperately. He felt her tense, her hands coming up to press against his chest, and he gentled the kiss, teasing his tongue along hers before pulling away.

“Tony, are you sure you’re okay? We can reschedule the meeting – “

“No, no, let’s get it over with.” He smiled up at her and stroked a finger over her lips. Her pale pink lipstick was smeared slightly from the force of the kiss. “Tell them I have a hangover, they’ll understand that. I’ll be back in there in a few minutes.”

Pepper sighed and placed the washcloth back over his eyes, stroking the dark hair back from his forehead. “Just rest. I’ll be back to check on you as soon as I can.”

He heard her get up and walk toward the door. “Pepper.”

“Yes?”

“Better check your lipstick.”

“What? Damn – Tony!”

He chuckled as he heard her heels click-clack hurriedly on the bathroom tile. After a few moments, the door to the office opened and closed.

Left in the dark and the silence, Tony couldn’t keep his thoughts from going back to Sunset. To MIT and that damned Intro to Anthropology class he’d met her in.

  

MIT 1990

Tony felt stupid. He didn’t like it. He never felt stupid. Except around girls, but that was pretty normal for a sixteen year old boy. Or so he’d been told, since he was not a normal sixteen year old boy. It was not normal , however, for a certifiable genius who was wrapping up the final semesters of his second degree at MI- fucking -T to sit in a classroom and feel stupid.

He’d needed a Humanities credit for his second degree, somehow he’d never gotten around to it. Music, theater, and social sciences – none of those had ever interested him, but he’d already taken the classes he considered closest to true science, and the rest conflicted with his robotics and computer classes.

One of his robotics classmates had suggested Intro to Anthropology as an easy A. Lots of outside class time on projects and a handful of papers. Sounded easy enough. Except, he’d forgotten this was the same classmate who had been pissed at losing the annual robotics competition to DUM-E last year. And this was MIT where there was no such thing as an easy A.

The reading material had been no big deal, Tony had it scanned, condensed, and transcribed by lunch. No exactly the use the CIA had intended for the program, but it was his program and if they didn’t want him using it whenever he wanted, they should have found and locked the back door. It was totally on them.

It wasn’t the papers, either. Unlike a lot of Math geeks, Tony was not English impaired. He could sneeze out a ten page paper on virtually any subject. His mother said he’d inherited her bullshit quotient and he loved her for it.

No, it was the final research assignment the prick of a professor had just sprung on the class. “With a partner, research and present your findings on an approved subject.” Could he be any more vague? What the hell was an approved subject? This was Anthropology, for God’s sake, wasn’t everything approved?

Tony was out of his element, alone in a classroom of weirdoes who wanted to study people – who thought that the past was the key to the future or some crap. Unless they were building a time machine to find out, he wasn’t interested. None of them wanted to pair up with the engineering geek – and he didn’t want to pair up with any of them.

Except… Tony slid a glance down the row at Sunset Bain. He definitely wanted to pair up with that. His nightly jerk off sessions were including her more and more often and just thinking about what it’d be like to pair up with her – in the non class work sense – made his dick hard.

She was gorgeous, tall, and tanned despite Boston’s climate. Older than he was, but wasn’t everybody here? Curves that her jeans and sweaters loved to hug almost as much as he did – as he wanted to – and light blue eyes like LEDs. Which were looking his way as she said something.

Tony blinked. “What?” Oh, my God, she was moving to sit across from him!

“I asked if you’d like to pair up.”

“Me?” He nearly looked over his shoulder until he remembered he was sitting in the last row. “Me? Really?”

“Yes, really.” She laughed. “We’re the odd ones out in here – engineers versus scientists.”

“You’re an engineer? I don’t remember seeing you in any of my classes.” And he would have noticed this goddess.

“I don’t think we’ve had any classes together. You’ve already earned your Engineering degree, haven’t you?”

“Yeah, I’m working on Robotics and Computers now.” He tried to sound cool, like earning two degrees at MIT was nothing special.

“I’m just finishing up my degree in – “

“Mr. Stark. Ms. Bains.”

Tony jumped at the sound of the professor’s voice. “Yes, sir?”

“Since the two of you have apparently teamed up, have you settled on your topic?”

“Topic? Uh…” Jesus, they were just talking about pairing up and this bozo wanted a topic? Besides how to hide a boner from your science partner, Tony didn’t have one. A topic. He definitely had a boner.

“We’re debating on the effects of civilization on civilization. Do advances indicate that we’re civilized or are they merely make us more efficient savages?” Sunset replied smoothly. “We’ll have it decided before the deadline.”

“See that you do.” He frowned at Tony. “And no more papers comparing frat parties to primitive man’s ritualistic celebrations.”

“Yes, sir.” He breathed a sigh of relief as the man turned away. Dickhead.

“You wrote a paper comparing frat parties to ritualistic celebrations?” She asked, her eyebrows arching in surprise.

“Well… I was at a bonfire, there was beer, dancing, sex… seemed like it could have been a million years ago.” Tony shrugged. He’d written it a couple of hours before class, as he usually did, and it had been absolutely inspired by the frat party he’d been at the night before. “I don’t know what his problem is, he gave me an A. A minus, actually, the dick.”

“I’d like to read it.”

“Really?” He pulled back to look at her as if the new angle might change what she’d said.

“Really. I have a theory that we’re more civilized than our caveman ancestors in name only. And besides – “ Sunset leaned closer. “I can’t let him pick on my secret admirer.

His face grew hot. “I was just – you knew that was me?”

“Who else in this room is going to leave me a typed set of notes from a class I missed?” Her blue eyes twinkled. “The best I could hope for was a barely legible scribble from these guys.”

“I didn’t – uh – want you to get behind or anything.” He hadn’t actually typed the notes, he didn’t take notes. He recorded them and had the computer transcribe them for him. Not that they weren’t permanently embedded in his memory anyway.

“The card was cute.”

“Really?” Tony kicked himself mentally. He sounded like a moron. “I wasn’t sure if you’d like it or think you had a stalker.”

“It was cute.” She repeated.

“Mr. Stark. Ms. Bain” The professor shut the lights off. “Class is over. Get out.”

“Yes, sir.” What a dick. Tony got to his feet, keeping his books slung casually in front of his crotch. He hated being sixteen, surely twenty year old guys didn’t have this problem.

“If you’ve got time, we could go to the coffee shop in the library and hash out a real topic.” Sunset slung her book bag over her shoulder.

“Yeah, sure, I’ve got time. My next class isn’t until two.” He’d planned on heading to the lab and working on DUM-E, the ‘bot was having a problem adjusting to his new voice command interface, but he could work on that anytime.

At the coffee shop, Tony and Sunset had settled on a topic for their project, set up future dates to work on it, discussed the advances in nano technology and Tony had relaxed enough to talk to her without sounding like the village idiot.

Their project was finished and rewarded with an A and the semester ended. Time at the coffee shop evolved into time at his dorm room and her apartment. DUM-E and Tony’s other projects gathered dust while he spent time with Sunset.

After two weeks, he finally worked up the nerve to kiss her. She was five years older than he was and their age difference was intimidating.  Tony waited for just the right moment and pressed his lips to hers as Sunset turned to look at him from a page she’d been reading. It wasn’t the best kiss of all time, but she didn’t pull away or tell him to stop.

Kissing had led to sex and Tony wasn’t sure exactly what he was supposed to do. He’d watched porn and looked at dirty magazines, but this was the real deal. Sunset had been patient and understanding, kidding him that sixteen year old geniuses were not expected to be sex gods. Kissing away his fears, Sunset taught him what he needed to know to please them both.

 

 

Tony sighed and sat up, throwing the wet cloth aside. He wished he could build a time machine and go back to warn his younger self to get away from Sunset as fast as he could.

“Run, don’t walk, to the nearest safe place and lock yourself in.” He smiled, but it was bitter. The cocky young shit wouldn’t listen to him. He thought he knew it all. Just like now.

Sunset had been patient, so patient, in more ways than one. After all, she wasn’t just screwing him, she was setting him up so she could screw his father’s company. Using him to get the security codes to steal the new Stark drone prototypes. Security codes he’d inadvertently shown her trying to impress her with his new designs on the SI servers.

Tony wondered how Sunset had really felt when they were making love that first time. Had she closed her eyes and thought of someone else while she endured the fumbling, clueless boy on top of her? The memory of his cock sliding off her opening again and again, the frustration of not being able to push himself inside her until she helped him made the heat crawl up the back of his neck now just as it had then. Tony Stark not able to get his cock inside a pussy? Who would have known?

“Damn it!” His cock had begun to ache, hardening slightly at the memory of that first time. Clumsy or not, it had been fantastic. He could still feel the heat of Sunset’s body wrapped around his, the slip and slide of that first fuck. He’d screwed hundreds of women since then, and the memory of that first time just would not go away.  “Damn it, am I never going to forget it?”

Hammer had to have some booze around here somewhere. Tony searched the opulent office looking for something resembling a bar. The place was over the top in self indulgence, even by his standards. SI offices looked professional – successful, but always professional. Hammer’s office looked like it was designed by a pimp.

He finally found the bar hidden behind a sliding door in the wall. There was Scotch, not his brand but expensive enough to be good, and an empty ice bucket. Oh well, Scotch didn’t always need rocks.

Tony kicked back the first shot, apologizing to his Scots ancestors who were no doubt cringing at his abuse of the fine liquor. If he had Scots ancestors, he had no idea. The second, he sipped. Waiting for the warm curl of numbness low in his belly. Pepper would be pissed, but he’d deal with that later.

The door opened and he spun around.   Fuck!   “Pepper, do you have ESP? I swear – “

It wasn’t Pepper who stood inside the door. The woman was older, but no less beautiful. Brown hair pulled back in a professional style and a lab coat hiding her curves. But Tony would have known her anywhere. Sunset.

“What – what do you want?” He stared at her.

“I heard you were in the building and I wanted to apologize.”

“Apologize? For what? For stealing my Father’s work or for fucking me over?” Tossing back the glass of Scotch, Tony poured another.  “Or just for fucking me? Sorry you got me when I was an amateur.”

“Tony, I know you don’t understand.” Sunset closed the door behind her. “I just wanted to tell you that I’m sorry.”

Suddenly, he was angry, not just at her, but at himself. Because he cared. Because he cared that her voice trembled, that she looked sad – that a part of him still loved her.

“Tony – “ Sunset walked toward him, her hand out. “Please let me – “

“You’ve apologized, now get out.” He snarled.

“Tony – “

“Get the fuck out!”

After a moment, she turned and left the office, the door closing quietly behind her.

  

MIT 1990

“Sunset?” Tony waited until her eyes opened, until she was looking at him. He wanted her to see how serious he was. “I love you.”

“Oh, Tony.” She reached up to stroke his face. “You don’t have to say that.”

“I’m not – I mean, I know.” He shifted slightly, their bodies were still connected, with him still inside of her. They’d just finished making love, and he wanted to tell her how he felt. He wanted to tell the whole world that he was in love with Sunset Bain. “I love you, I really do.”

“Tony…” Sunset bit her lip. “I love you, too. I haven’t wanted to say it, because I didn’t want to scare you away.”

“Not me.” He smiled down at her. “You can’t scare me away.” Leaning down to kiss her, he felt his cock harden again. “Not only can you not scare me when you say you love me – you’re turning me on.”

“That’s because you’re a horny boy!” Giggling, she rolled them over so that she was on top.

“Hey, come home with me this weekend, meet my parents.”

She shook her head. “No, not yet.”

“Why? They’ll love you.”

“Sure, they’ll love a twenty-one year old woman screwing their sixteen year old son.” She slid off of him to sit on the side of the bed. “Tony, you realize that what we’re doing may be illegal?”

“No, it’s not. Is it? No.” He wasn’t sure if that was true, and it really didn’t matter. “My parents are cool, well, Mom is anyway. She’s younger than my dad – thirty years almost –  so five isn’t a big deal. And I’m not exactly a normal teenage boy.”

“True.”

He sat up next to her. “Come on. They’ll love you, I promise.”

She shook her head. “Let’s wait. I’m… just really nervous about it, okay?”

“Sure. Whatever you want.” Tony leaned in to kiss her. “Make love to me again?”

Months flew by, Sunset’s graduation came and went, and she still balked at his parents finding out about them. Tony didn’t understand the problem. His father would be happy he’d gotten laid, fathers were like that, and his mother was cool, the age difference wouldn’t bother her. Hopefully.

He’d made up his mind that during the intersession, Sunset was going to meet his parents. They’d go out to Long Island and spend New Year’s with them. Sunset’s internship at Wayne Industries had turned into a full time job, but she had to have vacation time she could take.

The vacation was all perfectly planned in his mind as Tony skipped up the steps of her apartment building. He frowned at the peeling paint. Sunset was moving out of this dump and into his dorm, no matter what she said about making her own way. The future wife of Tony Stark was not living in this rat hole any longer.

He knocked at her door and it swung open slightly. “Sunset! Hey, it’s Tony! You left your door open! Are you inviting a rapist in? Can I play the part?”

Pushing it open, he went inside. “Sunset? Where – “ He stopped. The room was empty.

“What the hell?” He rushed through the small apartment. Her clothes were gone, her engineering portfolio – all of it was gone.

“Hey, you looking to rent the place?”

Tony spun at the voice to find the super standing in the doorway. “Where’s Sunset? I mean Miss Bain.”

“She left. Moved out last night.”

“But – but – she didn’t say – “

“Said she had some big job lined up and had to move.” The man shrugged. “Gave most of her stuff away, said she wouldn’t need it.”

“I don’t understand.” Tony’s knees felt weak and his stomach lurched as if he were going to throw up. “I don’t understand.”

“Sorry, son.” The Super patted his shoulder. “My first wife did the same thing to me. Women, you just can’t trust ‘em.”

  

 

“Ain't that the truth?” Tony kicked back another glass of Scotch.

He remembered calling his mother seeking sympathy. Instead, he’d learned of the thefts of SI’s newest drone prototypes. The security system had been accessed with his security code. Codes that had been traced back to Sunset’s computer.

Sunset was declared a “person of interest” but charges were never filed. There was no proof that she’d been in on the theft and Tony’s fingerprints were all over her computer. Wayne Industries was likewise cleared of charges when two of their engineers were found in possession of the designs while trying to sell them on the black market.

His mother had been sympathetic, cradling her only child as he cried out his broken heart. His father had stood over them and said how disappointed he was, and that hurt Tony more than anything else his father might have said or done.

“I’m so disappointed in you, Tony.”

When he’d gotten on his feet again, Tony had locked the pieces of his broken heart away and never let near it again. Hurt me once, shame on you. Hurt me twice, not going to happen.

And then there was Pepper.

He set the glass down. This wouldn’t make Pepper happy. Getting three sheets to the wind while he was at Hammer Industries would make for bad press. Her job was hard enough without him making it harder.

“Sorry, Pepper.” In the bathroom, he rinsed out his mouth and straightened his tie. He’d head home, have Happy pick Pepper up, and be stone cold sober by the time she got there. They were having dinner out tonight, and he didn’t want anything to spoil their date. Their public dates were scrutinized enough without adding a hangover to the mix.

“Jarvis, tell Pepper I’m going home to lie down, and have Happy bring the limo over to pick her up.”

There was no response. Damn it. Of course Hammer’s offices weren’t wired for Jarvis. He pulled his phone out. “Jarvis, you with me?”

“Yes, sir.” The AI responded.

“Tell Pepper that I’m going home to lie down.”

“Yes, sir. Will there be anything else?”

“Get to work on that damn time machine.”

“I’d be happy to, sir, let me set aside my plans for global domination, and I’ll get right on it.”

“Smart ass.” Sighing, Tony closed his phone. “That’s the last time you get to pick the movies for movie night.”

 

Author's note: In the Iron Man comics, Sunset seduced 16 year old Tony Stark while they were both students at MIT. She was several years older than he was and took advantage of his naivety to steal from SI. She used the designs to get rich and opened her own company, Baintronics. In her alter ego Madame Menace she sold hi-tech weapons to criminals.

Chapter Text

 

Tony’s head was aching as he backed out of Hammer’s old parking spot and headed across the lot toward the gate. He’d go home, sweat a little in the sauna, swim a few laps, and be good as new.

Spotting a car with the hood up, he swung the Audi in that direction. It was too hot for someone to be sitting in a broken down car and getting his hands greasy would make him feel like he’d actually accomplished something today.

“Hey, need a little help?” He asked as he got out of the car. Which was a stupid question considering they had the hood of their car up, but what else did you say in this situation?  Tony leaned down to look inside the car. “I can take a look at it, if you want.”

“No, it’s fine.” Sunset looked up at him, and then away. “I’ve called a tow truck.”

Well, this is just my fucking day, isn’t it? He should just get in the car and leave. Except it was at least ninety degrees and his mother would kick his ass for leaving a woman – even this one – stranded in the heat. “What’s wrong with it?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’re an engineer and you can’t fix your own car?”

“If it was a bomb or a ‘bot – yeah, but it’s not.” She looked up at him again. “Just go away, Tony. The wrecker should be here in a few minutes.”

She’d been crying. Her eyes were red, and she was sniffling. Why he cared, he didn’t know and wanted to kick himself for it. “Crank it, let’s hear what it sounds like.” When she turned the key, Tony listened carefully. “Once more for me.” He nodded at the sound. “It’s your starter. No big deal to fix.”

“Does that mean cheap?”

“Cheap? Uh… I don’t know.” He pulled his phone out and pulled up his favorite parts supplier. Her car was old, seven or possibly eight years, he’d need to check the taillight markings to be sure. “Looks like fifty-nine dollars and some change. I don’t know what a mechanic will charge to put it in – I do my own work. It’s a half hour – maybe forty-five minutes tops.”

“Not too bad, then.” Sunset sighed. “I was thinking it was – never mind.”

Tony had no idea what it cost to get cars fixed or what someone did when their car needed major repairs. One of the perks at SI was employees had a shop on site for car repairs. He loved tinkering with cars and so did most of his engineers.

“Tony, what I said in there – I meant it – I’m sorry.”

He shrugged. “Sure, whatever. Forget it.”

As he got back into his car, he saw that Sunset had her hands over her face and her shoulders were shaking.   I don’t care. I don’t care. Fuck her, where was she when I was crying? Slipping the car into drive, he started to pull away. Damn it! Why do I care? Tony slammed the car back into park, drawing a grind of protest from the transmission.

“Stop crying.” He told her as he walked back to her car. “Just fucking stop crying.”

“Go away!” She waved a hand at him. “Go away, Tony!”

“Oh, no, you don’t get to yell at me and be angry!” Pulling her car door open, he leaned down into the car. Twenty years after the fact, he was finally getting a chance to tell her off. “You fucked me over! You stole from me! You walked away and left me! You don’t get to tell me to go away! You don’t get to be angry!”

“I’m sorry! I was so stupid – “ Her breath hitched and she wiped at the tears rolling down her cheeks. “I was just so stupid, Tony – and ashamed – I couldn’t tell you – “

“Son of a – “ Tony blew out an exasperated breath. This wasn’t as good as any of the scenarios he’d imagined. “Please, just stop – I can’t deal with crying women, okay?”

“Just go away – “

“Listen, it’s too damn hot for this. Get in my car and – “ And what? What, Tony? Talk about old times and those wonderful memories before she ripped your heart out? “It’s cooler in my car. You can wait for the tow truck and then – we’ll just forget we even saw each other, all right?”

“I – I guess.” Sunset got out of her car, ignoring his outstretched hand. “He should be here in about ten minutes.”

“We can survive ten minutes.” He agreed.

Once inside his car, Tony cranked the AC full blast. He did not like sweating and the summer was dragging on with record temperatures. Unbuttoning the top button of his shirt, he tugged his tie to the side and angled one of the vents onto his throat. The Scotch probably wasn’t helping.

After several minutes of uncomfortable silence, Sunset cleared her throat. “Tony, I am sorry, and I don’t blame you for not wanting to talk to me.”

“Good, I’m so glad you understand.” He said sarcastically.

“I have an explanation. It – “

“Of course you do, the designs were worth millions.”

“That’s not what happened.” She shifted around in the passenger seat to look at Tony. He continued to stare out the windshield.  “My boss showed me some designs and asked if they looked familiar. They did, they were similar to the ones you’d shown me on the SI servers. He told me that they’d been stolen and he could prove it if he could get one of the prototypes to examine.”

“You believed my father stole someone’s designs?” Tony turned in his seat to glare at her. “ My father?”

“No!  Of course not! He said that your father probably didn’t know that one of his designers had stolen the designs. It happens all the time, industrial espionage is a big problem, you know that. Apple and Samsung are in court now over design theft.”

I know, I know it happens.” Look what Hammer had done to his suit design. “But why didn’t you come to me? Why not ask me for help?”

“Oh, come on, Tony, ask you to see if someone in your father’s company stole something? You had them all on pedestals, you’d never have believed it for a second – let alone helped me to check.”

“You’re wrong.” He knew Sunset was right, but he wasn’t going to admit it. If she had told him this story, he’d have been outraged at the idea that someone in his father’s company would stoop to stealing someone else’s designs the same as he was now.

“I was in debt with my student loans and credit cards; nothing that I couldn’t have handled over time, but it was tough right out of school.” Sunset wiped at her eyes. Tony didn’t respond and she took that as a sign to continue.

“My boss said that they’d pay me a bonus for helping prove that the designs were stolen. They weren’t supposed to steal anything, just examine them – I didn’t know they were lying to me.”

“If you needed money, you could have asked me. I would have taken care of everything, you knew that.” There was a pleading tone to his voice that Tony hated but couldn’t hide.

Sunset shook her head. “No. You know I never asked you for money. I made my own way, remember?”

He did remember. Remembered her limiting him to how much he could spend on dinner, and giving back expensive gifts when he tried to give them to her.

“If all I wanted was money, I could have taken you up on your marriage proposal.” She smiled sadly.

That much was true. Tony had proposed several times, and she’d turned him down each time. “Then why? Why did you do it?”

“Because it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. The prototypes would be returned to the rightful owner. I wouldn’t have the loans hanging over me after I graduated and I could stop living on ramen and tuna. I wanted to make it on my own, Tony. I didn’t want anyone to say that I was after your money.”

A fresh tear rolled down Sunset’s cheek. “Only, they lied to me. I was too ashamed to tell you. So I left.”

“Why didn’t you tell the police?”

“Un-uh.” She shook her head. “I’d already used the money to pay off my loans, so I couldn’t give it back, and I didn’t want to go to jail. I was so scared they’d turn me in, but they didn’t. I guess I wasn’t important. So I took off. Your father had me blackballed, I couldn’t get a job anywhere in the industry. I finally got into an assembly position with Hammer, and when they found out I was an engineer, they promoted me. I’m finally working as an engineer, I stay quiet and I don’t tell anyone about my past. It’s just easier that way.”

“Why didn’t you come to me?” Reaching out, he laid his hand on hers.

“Tony, I was ashamed! How stupid was I to believe them? I was so fucking stupid! I couldn’t go to you and tell you that I’d betrayed you – your trust! I couldn’t stand the thought of you looking at me and hating me. It was better to just go.”

“Just go and break my heart? That was better?”

“You were so young, baby.” She squeezed his hand, lifted it to her lips. “I knew you’d be hurt, but you’d move on and find someone else. I didn’t deserve you even if you would have forgiven me.”

“Sunset – “ A honk interrupted him, making Tony jump in his seat. Turning, he saw a wrecker had pulled up beside them.

Sunset got out of the car and hurried over to the driver. Tony watched as the car was hooked up and lifted onto the bed of the truck. When she started to climb into the cab of the wrecker, he got out of the car and stopped her.

“Hey, come on, I’ll drive you home.”

“No, Tony, that’s okay. I appreciate you listening to me, but I can’t impose on you any longer.”

“Come on, look at the seat, it’s not very clean. You’ll get grease all over your clothes.”

Biting her lip, she peered in at the stained and dirty seat. “Okay, but only so I don’t end up with a cleaning bill.”

“Hey, I got other calls, lady.” The driver interrupted.

“How much?” She asked the driver.

“Don will put it on the bill.” The driver told her before pulling away.

“Who’s Don?” Tony asked Sunset as they got into his car.

“My mechanic. If you’ll just drop me off there, he’ll take me home, it’s not very far.” She sighed. “Or he may give me a loaner if he can’t get to it right away.”

“You’re pretty familiar with this Don.” Tony could have kicked himself for even asking. Why did he care who she was familiar with?

She smiled. “Perks of an older car, the minute they’re paid off they start breaking down. Don and his wife are great, and they don’t cheat people.”

After Tony guided the Audi toward the freeway, he asked Sunset how long she’d been at Hammer. It was a safe topic.

“About ten years now, I think. About the company, Tony, what’s going to happen? Are you shutting us down? Everybody’s worried they’re going to be out of work, and jobs are hard to come by in this economy.”

“I don’t know.” He shrugged. “That’s Pepper’s call. I think for now we’re shutting down production until the nuts and bolts of the acquisition is figured out.”

“Oh, no!  We can’t afford that. A lot of my co-workers live paycheck to paycheck. They have car payments, mortgages, kids to feed. Tony, this will ruin them!”

He hadn’t considered that. He’d thought about the people who worked for Hammer but not to the extent of what might happen if they were shut down for a few weeks. “I’m sure Pepper has thought about that.” Hopefully.

“I hope so. A few weeks without a paycheck will cost some people their homes.”

Living as he did, without worrying about money, Tony hadn’t put much thought into what people did when they weren’t working. Hopefully, as he’d told Sunset, Pepper had. She had a much different background growing up than he’d had, from what little he’d heard about her childhood it involved being frugal. Pepper would take care of things, he was confident.

When they pulled up to the automotive shop, Sunset opened her car door and started to get out, then hesitated for a moment. “Thank you for the ride, and, Tony – “ She waited until he met her gaze. “Thank you for listening.”

He nodded. She got out of the car and closed the door. He sat there for several moments before putting the car in gear and driving away.


“I still can’t believe you left me there.”

“Pepper… please…” Tony let his head drop until his chin touched his chest. “I’ve said I’m sorry, I don’t know what else I can do.”

“You can not forget me anymore.” She stabbed her fork into her entree.

“I didn’t mean to forget you.” He reached across the table and took her hand. “I told Jarvis to have Happy come and get you – “

“Jarvis says you didn’t – “ She pulled her hand away.

“And that was because I had to take my phone out and tell him again, and I – “

“Forgot.” Pepper put the fork down. “Do you know how stupid I felt walking out there and not finding anyone to take me back to SI?”

“Happy came and got you as quick as he could.”

“After I called him!” Realizing her voice was carrying, she bit her lip and lowered her voice. “I shouldn’t have had to call him.”

“Weren’t you concerned that I didn’t feel good? Maybe I was sick and forgot?” It was a low blow, but he was tired of getting his ass chewed. No wonder he’d avoided relationships all these years.

“No, because Jarvis would have told me if you’d had an accident or were that ill.”

“Let’s talk about something else, because we’re not getting anywhere, and I’m through saying I’m sorry.” Tony backed up a step when her eyes narrowed. “I meant to say, what I should have said, obviously, is that I don’t like seeing you upset. Okay?”

“Okay.” Picking up her fork, she stabbed at her dinner once more.

“Pepper, I’m pretty sure the partridge is already dead.” His own dinner was largely ignored. They’d done nothing but bicker since he’d picked her up at her apartment. It was his own fault, but he didn’t want to tell her what really had him discombobulated this afternoon. “I stopped on the way out of the parking lot to help someone whose car was broken down. You know me and engines.”

“How much grease did you get – no – “ She shook her head. “That’s your PA’s worry. If you had one, which you don’t. We still need to find one. Oh, God, I’ll add that to the list.”

“Pepper, I’ll find a new assistant on my own. How hard can it be?” He’d stepped in it again, but he winked at her. “I cannot possibly replace you, so I’m not even trying.”

“True.” A smile lifted the corners of her lips. “But we’re still going to try. I can’t CEO two companies and keep you in line at the same time.”

Tony decided to sidestep that discussion. “I wanted to ask you something about the Hammer takeover. We’re shutting them down for awhile?”

“Acquisition.” She corrected. “And yes, we’re looking at a shutdown of at least one month if not two.”

“We can’t do that. There’s people who depend on their jobs to pay their bills. Mortgages, car payments, all kinds of things. We’re going to be hurting a lot of people if we shut it down.”

Pepper stared at him so long he wondered if he had something in his teeth. “Pepper?”

“Are you saying you’ve thought about the employees? Really?”

“Hey, that hurts. I’ve always worried about my employees. Stark Industries is one of the best places to work in the world because of how we treat our people, you know that.” He put a hand over his heart. “Ow.”

“These aren’t Stark employees.”

Tony raised an eyebrow at that. “Yes, they are. They are now, anyway, and we’re not getting off to a good start with them.”

She bit her lip to keep from smiling. This was a new side to him and she didn’t want to discourage him. “And what do you suggest, oh, wise one?”

“That we go ahead and pay them while Hammer is shut down.” Pepper was so hot when she was snarky. “It’s not their fault Hammer was a tool. Literally.”

“We’ll lose more money, have you thought about that?”

“Not us – Hammer – and Hammer’s going to pay everything anyway. Isn’t that your plan?”

“Yes.” Pepper hadn’t thought twice about milking Hammer Industries dry to cover the costs of the lawsuits, the Expo damage, and the lawsuits from the Expo damage. Once Congress had awarded SI their biggest rival, she’d nearly picked up a blowtorch and went to work dismantling Hammer on her own.

“Plus, there’s contracts that have to be fulfilled – a lot of them with the government and you don’t screw with Uncle Sam.” He snapped his fingers. “That reminds me, I want all the designs gone over before we turn out so much as a car stereo. I’ve seen Hammer tech in action – it’s not pretty.”

“The Ex-wife?” She giggled. Rhodey and Tony had told the story of the little rocket that couldn’t several times. “I wish Jarvis had recorded it.”

“He did, but it the camera was damaged. Sucks.” Even his skill couldn’t compensate for a shattered lens. “Get the designers and engineers to look the designs over, they’re not the ones who wanted corners cut. Hammer will lose more money, but that’s just too bad.”

“How is your dinner?”

Tony looked up to see maître d’, Jon Paul, at their table. “Tell that Limey he’s a hack. I’ve had better poached lobster at Long John Silvers.”

Pepper choked on her wine. “Tony!”

“And obviously, the lady’s wine tastes like vinegar.”

“I will tell Chef Ramsay immediately.” Nonplussed, the man nodded and wheeled around, heading for the kitchen.

“Tony, why do you do that?” Sighing, she took a bite of her sautéed foie gras. “If this were any more perfect, it’d feed itself to you.”

“Never let ‘em get complacent.” He rubbed absently at his chest.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. It just itches a little around the arc reactor. The skin keeps peeling.” He rubbed at it again.

“I told you to go to a doctor.”

“No way. Doctors scare me.” He looked up as a large blonde man approached their table.

“What the fuck is the matter with your palate, you ignorant American.”

Rising from his chair, Tony let himself be wrapped in a back thumping masculine hug. “I was all for stopping at In-n-Out, but Pepper wanted something classier.”

“Why didn’t you, hell, you could’ve brought a burger for me.” Chef Ramsay leaned down and hugged Pepper. “Virginia, my darling, why ever do you put up with this donkey?”

“He’s so pathetic no one else will have him.” She shrugged.

“Truer words were never spoken.” He clapped Tony on the back again. “If you’re through bad mouthing my food, I’ll go back to the kitchen and make you something special for dessert. We just got in fresh mangoes and passion fruit – I was thinking of something with chocolate to bring them together, what do you think?”

“Oh, yes.” Pepper nodded enthusiastically. “Yes!”

“For you, my dear, anything.” He turned and headed back to the kitchen.

The other diners had watched with interest. Not only were they getting to see the elusive Tony Stark and Pepper Potts – newly dubbed Pepperony by the press – but Gordon Ramsay as well.

Tony ignored the excited murmuring of the other people in the restaurant. Pepper was happy and smiling again, and that meant everything was perfect in his world.


 “Tony – no – “ Pepper put her hands on his chest and shoved him back into his own seat.

“Pep, come on. Just one more kiss.” Tony leaned back over her. “Just one.”

“No. You don’t know what ‘just one’ means.” She dodged his lips, regretting the movement as it exposed her throat and he took full advantage of it. “We’ve got early meetings tomorrow at Hammer, and I need sleep even if you don’t.”

Whatever he said was muffled against the side of her neck until she pulled his head back. “Come home with me, Pepper. I have a big, comfy bed. You can sleep there.”

“Yeah… no. We wouldn’t get any sleep at all.” She and Tony hadn’t had sex yet, though not for Tony’s lack of trying, and Pepper knew sleep wouldn’t be involved in sleeping together. “Not yet.”

“You’re killing me.” Sitting back, Tony reached down and adjusted his cock. It was aching and wasn’t likely to get relief any time soon. “Pepper, I’m all for taking things slow and not messing this up – but it’s been six months. I’ve never gone six months without sex – including the time I spent in the cave. My balls are ready to pack up and leave me.”

“I’m sorry, but – “ Pepper crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m just not ready. There’s so much going on, I’m exhausted and – and – I just can’t right now – I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’m sorry – I’m pushing – habit.” He leaned over and kissed her cheek. “It’s okay, I’ll take care of myself. I’m pretty good at it. Fair warning though, I’ll be thinking of you.”

“Oh, gross – Tony!” Smiling despite herself, she shook her head at the image. “That’s just – oh, my God – “

Laughing, he put a finger under her chin and turned her face towards him. He planted one last kiss on her lips. “Sleep tight, Potts. Dream about me – I’ll be dreaming of you.  Lots and lots of kinky things about you.”

“You’re such a pervert.” She got out of the car and walked to the door of her condo. “Be here at seven, Tony. Don’t make me sic Jarvis on you.”

Watching until she was safely inside, Tony started the car and pulled away from the curb. He’d wanted to walk her inside, strictly for her own safety, but Pepper had said she was safer if he didn’t. Damn, she knew him too well.


On the drive home, Tony began to feel guilty for not telling Pepper the whole truth. He’d told her part of the truth, he hadn’t felt good, and he had helped someone with their car. He’d just left out the important part, that it was Sunset Bain who’d been at the center of it all.

He was sure he’d told Pepper about Sunset at some point. Pretty sure anyway. If he hadn’t, well, it wasn’t like it was a secret. The press had had a field day when the drone theft and his involvement in it had come out. It had hit the fan in a spectacular way. Boy genius taken in by older woman who was after SI’s newest designs made for great headlines.

Tony’s last semester at MIT had been miserable. His friends, and the university, had done their best to shield him from the press, but they hadn’t been able to do anything to save his heart and his pride.

His pride could take the beating and recover. The pieces of his heart had been walled off and coated in metal, and never exposed again. And nobody got through Stark tech. Until Pepper. Somehow, his perky, long legged assistant had worked her way inside and made him want to do something more than drink himself into a stupor between bouts of design frenzy and manic sex.

“I should have told her.” He muttered.

“Do you require something, sir?” Jarvis answered.

“No. Yes. I don’t know.”

“That doesn’t provide me with much to go on.”

Tony laughed softly. “Me either. I’m confused, Jarvis.”

“Ah, business as usual, then, sir.”

“Did I really program that much snark into you?” He frowned. Barely waiting until for the gates to open at the end of his driveway, Tony sent the Audi barreling up the long drive.

“No, sir, but you did program sarcasm and the ability to learn. Snark was a natural progression.”

“Uh, huh. Remind me to take a look at your programming and just how much you’ve learned.”

Parking the Audi in its spot, Tony got out and began stripping out of his tie and jacket. “I want to see everything on Sunset Bain.”

He might have imagined it, but there seemed to be a millisecond lag before Jarvis answered. “Yes, sir.”

“Everybody is second guessing me these days.” Patting DUM-E and U as he walked past them, he settled himself on the stool in front of his work table.

Screens of info began popping up, and Tony discarded anything pre-MIT. He frowned, not seeing what he wanted. “Jarvis, where’s her student loan information? And her MIT transcript?”

“Those would be in secure databases. Would you like for me to get them, sir?”

“I wouldn’t have asked for everything, Jarvis, if I didn’t want everything.”

“Of course, sir. How silly of me to think you’d want to skip illegal activities.”

“If they can catch you, then you deserve to be locked up.” He peered at the loan information. “God, do they have to have this many forms? Where’s the payoff information?”

The information was immediately highlighted in red. “Hmm… Jarvis, what was the date of the drone prototype thefts from SI?”

“December twelfth, 1990.”

“So she paid off her student loans three days before that.”

“It would appear so, sir.”

Her MIT transcript was almost as good as his – upper three point eight range. Tony discarded it and searched through Sunset’s work history. Fired from Wayne Industries a week after the thefts, she’d worked a series of dead end jobs outside the industry until late 2000, when she was hired to work on the assembly line at Hammer Industries LA plant. In 2002, she was promoted to the engineering staff when HR discovered she had a degree from MIT.

“What about loans? Mortgages? Credit cards?”

“Ms. Bain rents her current residence. Her car loan was paid off in 2008. American Express, Capital One, and Discover card balances total less than three thousand dollars combined.”

“No other debt?”

“None that I can find, sir.”

“If you can’t find it, it doesn’t exist.” Tony was sheltered in a lot of ways, but even he knew that was an incredibly small amount of debt in today’s world. He’d heard stories of people who owed more than what their home was worth on one credit card alone.

“It looks like she was telling me the truth.” He wasn’t sure what to make of that. If Sunset  had been in it for the money, she hadn’t gotten any. As she’d pointed out, if she’d wanted money, she  could have married him and gotten plenty.

“What do you think, Jarvis?”

There was a miniscule small lag again before Jarvis answered. “I believe that what she told you was the truth as she saw it.”

“Wow.” Tony sat back, his eyes wide. “That was really… a load of bullshit. Did I program you for that, too?”

“I cannot say for certain what is and is not the truth in this situation. I can only judge by the evidence you have given me. I’m sorry, sir.”

“No, I’m the one who’s sorry.” He sighed. “Sometimes I expect you to have all my answers.”

“I do try, sir.”

“I know.” Tony looked up as DUM-E rolled over to him, crooning softly. “It’s okay DUM-E” He patted the ‘bot’s arm. Another one of his ‘children’ who’d exceeded their programming, DUM-E was very sensitive to his moods. “Daddy’s okay. Everything’s going to be okay.”


The next morning, Tony pulled up in front of Pepper’s condo at precisely seven. He frowned as he saw his limo parked in the driveway. The condo’s front door opened before he could knock on it. “Hey, Pep, good morning. Why’s Happy here?

“To drive us.” She gave him a peck on the lips when he leaned in for a kiss.

“I forget one time and you think I’ll forget again?” He was insulted. Okay, he wasn’t always Mr. Reliable, but he was here today and on time, and he’d said he was sorry.

“I just thought it’d be easier for us to talk if Happy was driving. Plus, I can get there without worrying about dying on the way.”

“Everybody drives that way, this is Los Angeles, the home of road rage. “What do you want to talk about… ah… I get it… ” Tony grinned and slid into the back seat next to her. “You want to make out on the way to the meeting. Naughty, naughty little CEO. Okay, I’ll be the copy repair man and you – ”

“No, Tony, I want to talk about you being CEO.” Pepper pushed him away when he tried to kiss her. “I’m serious.”

“So am I. I need a kiss, that little thing you did at the door back there – that was not a kiss. That was like something my Aunt Ethel would give me.”

“You don’t have an Aunt Ethel.” She pointed out.

“Let’s not split hairs. It wasn’t a kiss, and I want a kiss.”

“No.” It was hard saying no to Tony, but she’d hit the end of her rope, and the knot was unraveling. “We have got to talk about this.”

“No, we don’t.” He leaned back in the seat. “Happy, stop the car.”

The limo stopped immediately.

“We are talking about this. Happy, let’s go.”

The limo began moving once again.

“I am not taking the CEO job back, I’ve told you that. Get some help, get whoever you need. Happy, stop.”

The limo stopped again.

“I need you – “

“If that were true, we’d be in bed – “

“God, Tony! Stop thinking about sex for five minutes! Happy, go!” She glared at Tony. “I need you to help me with this company, I can’t do it alone!”

“Then don’t! Get someone to replace Stane! Get a dozen people to replace him, I don’t care! Happy, stop the car!”

The limo screeched to a halt and Happy turned around to glare at both of them. “Somebody make up their mind.”

“We’re going to Hammer Industries.”

“No, we’re not – “ Tony opened the door. “ You are going. I don’t know where I’m going.”

“Tony – “ The door slammed in her face and Tony stalked off.

“He’ll cool down.” Happy told her.

“Before or after he dives into a vat of Scotch?” Pepper sighed. “Just – let’s go. I’ll deal with Tony later.”


 Tony sat in his car for after the limo pulled away, fuming and letting his temper cool down. Either Pepper didn’t understand or didn’t want to understand that he wasn’t taking the CEO job back. He’d dig Stane up and jumpstart his dead ass to do the job first.

Running SI for the short time he’d had it all on his shoulders had crushed him. He hadn’t had a single good idea for anything the entire time – including how to save his own life when he’d realized he was dying of Palladium poisoning.

When he’d handed the CEO title and all its responsibilities over to Pepper, he’d felt liberated and the ideas began to flow once again. He was not a businessman, he was an engineer –  a designer. He belonged in the lab not the boardroom.

If Pepper wanted to trot him out and have him show off his paces occasionally, that he could do. He could be the face of SI and charm the stockholders and whoever else needed charming. But he was not chaining himself to that big oak desk again. He might as well unplug the arc reactor and let the shrapnel finish him off.

After several minutes, Tony felt calmer and safe to drive. He’d go to the meetings today and smile pretty like she needed him to and get her to see – somehow – that he wasn’t backing down. Not this time.


 Tony looked up as Pepper entered the living room. “Pepper, hey, just in time.”

“What’s all this?” She took in the candles on the table and the elegantly prepared plates of food.

“Dinner.” He smiled, and gestured at the food. “From that Asian fusion place you like.”

“Tony – “

“Sit down.” Reaching for her hands, he frowned.  “What’s with the briefcase? Lose it.”

“I brought it so we could work.” She pulled it away from his grasp. “That’s why I told you I’d stop by after we left the meetings.”

“Work?”

“Yes, work.” She sighed. “We need to work out the issues with the Hammer board. I can’t keep heading both boards, I’m worn out. I’m not getting any sleep. I can’t keep up this up.”

“I keep saying get someone to help you.” Tony grabbed for the briefcase and managed to snag it this time. He tossed it onto one of the chairs. “Come on, relax. You need to relax.”

“I don’t have time to relax.” The food smelled great and Pepper found herself sinking down on the couch in spite of herself. “Tony, there’s so much to do.”

“And we’ll do it. Later.” He knelt at her feet and pulled her shoes off, tossing them aside. Massaging her feet, he kissed his way up her calf to her knee then to her thigh. Her hands stopped him just short of the hem of her skirt, fingers curling into his hair to lift his head up. “I’m just trying to help you relax.”

“Like I believe that.” She snorted.

“I’ve always found sex to be relaxing.” Getting up, he sat on the couch and leaned against her.  “Sex releases endorphins.”

A laugh escaped her. “Why am I not surprised you’d know that?”

Tony grinned. “I know lots of things, Pep. Lots and lots of things.” He picked up a plate and speared a bite of crab with a fork. Lifting it to her lips, he smiled when Pepper accepted the it. She closed her eyes and made a mmming sound, and he shifted to ease the ache in his suddenly hardening cock.”

“I can – “ She accepted another bite. “I can feed myself, Tony.”

“I know, but you don’t have to.” Feeding Pepper was an erotic experience. Who knew? Her lips would part and her pink tongue would come out to lick them after each bite. “I’ll take care of you. You need to relax.”

“Stop.” She held up a hand after a few bites. “I need a drink.”

Sitting the plate down, he picked up a glass of wine. “I thought of that, as well. Jarvis assures me this is the perfect wine for this dish.”

When he tried to hold the glass to her lips, Pepper leaned back. “I can do this myself, Tony.”

He pouted when she took the glass. “I was having fun.”

“I’m not here to have fun.” She said sternly.

“And that’s a problem.”  

When she set the glass on the table and sat back, Tony took advantage of the movement to lean in and kiss her. It had been over twenty-four hours since they’d kissed and he felt like he was starving.

The fingers of one hand threaded into her hair, pulling it loose from the stern bun it was in while his free hand moved to cup her face. His tongue traced along her lips, coaxing them to open for him.  Pepper leaned back and he followed, letting his lips slide down along her throat, to the neckline of her blouse, then farther down until he found himself at the v of her thighs, and he nuzzled his face into the material searching for her scent.

“Tony!” Pepper pushed at his shoulders. “Please – “

“I’m getting there – “ Pressing a kiss on her mound through her clothing, he slid his hands up under her skirt and moved it out of his way. “You’ll feel so good when I’m done, Pepper, I promise.”

“No – Tony – get up.” She shoved harder, and he slid off of her onto the floor.

Landing hard on his knees, Tony winced. “What the hell?”

“I’ve told you I want to wait until things are more – settled.”

“And I respect that, I – “

“You respect it? Right.” Pepper smoothed her hair back out of her face. “Like you’re doing now? Trying to get my clothes off?”

“That’s not what I was doing.” Genuinely confused, Tony got up from the floor and sat beside her again. “Well, only partly off. Not completely off.”

“Weren’t you?”

“No – I mean, sort of – but no.” He reached out to touch her, and frowned when she pulled away. “Not sex, not the whole thing. I was just going to go down on you – “ When her face colored, he grinned. “Come on, Pepper, we’re adults. So far I’ve only gotten to taste you when I licked my fingers – I love the taste, by the way, and more would be good. A couple of mind blowing orgasms and you’ll sleep like a baby. You said you haven’t been sleeping.“

“Okay, we are not talking about this. I – I’m not a big fan of oral sex. I told you that.” Pepper picked up her glass, and gulped down a large drink trying to cool down.  Despite her protests, Tony did excite her and she really wanted to say to hell with everything and let him fuck her brains out. It was what came afterwards that had her scared.“I came over here to work – not screw around.”

“Screw around?” That stung and Tony jerked his head back as if slapped. “I’m not ‘screwing around’ when it comes to you. I’m serious. You’ll be a hell of a lot more relaxed afterwards. And – “

“And?” She stood up. “And what next? What about you? You’re going to ‘go down’ on me – and what? Just ignore your hard-on? No, I know you, you’ll keep pushing.”

“I can take care of myself.”  He’d probably need a quick, cold shower, but it’d hardly be the first time. “Pepper, I need – “

“Oh, my God, Tony! You need! You need!” She threw her hands up in the air in frustration. “You need! You need! You need! You always need!

Tony eyed her warily. He’d seen her in many moods, but never this one. Pepper was angrier than he’d ever seen her.

“You’re selfish, Tony! All you care about is what you need!” Something burst inside of her. Her frustration with Tony and her job had reached the point where it had boiled over. “What about what other people need? What about what I need? Do you ever think about that?”

“I do think about what you need. I’ve tried to help with this.” Tony knew she wasn’t just talking about sex – or the waiting on it – this went beyond that.  He just wasn’t sure exactly what she was talking about.

“No, no you haven’t. all you’ve done is think about yourself. You don’t want to do it anymore, and you don’t care what I want!” Pepper was so angry she was shaking. “You have never, ever put anyone before yourself – before your own needs!”

“That’s not true! I have done everything you wanted me to in this relationship!” Tony couldn’t believe the words ‘this relationship’ were leaving his mouth. This was the woman’s side of the conversation, wasn’t it? “You wanted to take it slow – and I’m on board with that – “

“Bullshit, Tony – you’ve fought me every step of the way!” Pepper began ticking instances off on her fingers. “On the way home from the Queen Gala –  in the limo on the way to and from work so many times I can’t count – watching Titanic last week – “

“It’s romantic!”

“The ship sinks! Everybody dies! How is that romantic?” She rubbed her temples, her head was pounding. “You keep pushing – you want me to give in – “ And what happens in the morning? What if I wake up alone? Who’s going to escort me out?

“Pepper, I want to make love to you – how is that a bad thing?” He tried to take her hands, but she backed away.

“No, Tony. You want to have sex with me. You don’t know how to make love.”

That stung his ego. He was a skilled lover. No matter who he’d been with, no matter how superficial, or fleeting – even when he was paying for it – Tony did his best to satisfy whoever he was having sex with. “No? Oh, really? Did you ever see anyone leave here that wasn’t satisfied?” He flung at her. “Ever?”

“No. but I saw a lot of people leave here. A lot of them. And you were nowhere to be found. They were just notches on your belt.” She shook her head. “I won’t be one of them, Tony. I won’t.”

“Pepper, you won’t be! I care about you – I’m doing my best to not screw this up. You’re right, I don’t know what I’m doing – I need you to help me.”

“There’s that ‘you need’ again.”

Frustrated, he raked his fingers through his hair. “Pepper – I do need – it’s true in this case. You’ve had relationships before. I haven’t. I don’t know what to do – how to do it right.” He wasn’t going to mention the one with Sunset. Even with her recent confession changing his perspective on what they’d had – he couldn’t call it a success. “I don’t know what I’m doing – help me.”

“I’d rather just be your friend than – “ Pepper bit her lip. “Than – “

“Pepper – don’t say it – “ He could see her balanced on the edge of a decision. A bad one. “Please – “

“Maybe – maybe we need a break.” She blinked, trying to keep the tears at bay. “Just until we get this sorted out. I can’t deal with everything – I just can’t – “

“A break? Like a ten minute break? Or… like… a Rachel and Ross kind of break?”

Leave it to Tony to know the appropriate pop culture reference. “No. I mean – sort of yes – but no. l – let’s focus on the Hammer takeover – “ She groaned.

“Acquisition.” He said helpfully.

“Acquisition. And then we’ll sort out the CEO issue – Maybe we need a COO like Stane was – we’ve never – I didn’t replace him – that’s my fault.”

“No, no, it’s my fault – I was CEO long enough I should have done that – I just – “ He gestured helplessly. “I wanted to show I could do it all – only I can’t – couldn’t. But, Pepper, that doesn’t have anything to do with us.”

“No, it does – it does, Tony. It – “ Pepper bit her lip.  She loved him, and it hurt to think of losing him – but it seemed as if he only wanted one thing from her. And she couldn’t – wouldn’t – be a one night stand. “It’s getting in the way. Let’s focus on the work relationship – and then we can focus on the personal relationship.” A tear escaped and trickled down her cheek. “Okay? Please, Tony?”

“Okay.” Anything to make the tears go away. “We’ll do that.” He wiped the tear away with his thumb and pulled her into his arms. She resisted for a moment before wrapping her arms around his shoulders. “It’ll all work out, it will, Pep.”

“I hope so, Tony.” Pulling away, she gathered her things and walked away.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The bottle of wine was empty. Tony wasn’t sure if it had paired well with the food or not – he hadn’t eaten any of it. Dinner, along with the plates and utensils, had been thrown in the trash after Pepper had left. He wasn’t interested in food. He was interested in getting shitfaced and forgetting tonight ever happened.

Luckily, his liquor cabinet held one of the finest supplies of alcohol in the country. When he had people over – for business or other things – he was prepared to offer whatever they were in the mood for. And… Tony admitted, he wanted to drink whatever he was in the mood for whenever he was in the mood for it.

“What am I in the mood for?” He perused the selection of bottles. “I have clear, amber, light brown, dark brown – can’t see through that bottle – yellow? What the hell is yellow?”

“I believe it’s a lemon liqueur you purchased in Italy in 2008, sir.” Jarvis answered.

“Lemon? Was I drunk?”

“Possibly.”

“Lemon? From Italy?” That didn’t sound very Italian like.

“Limoncello is produced primarily in Southern Italy, mainly in the Gulf of Naples region, the Sorrentine Peninsula, the coast of – “

“Enough with the Wikipedia info. Wherever it’s from, It’s not attractive, and it’ll probably make me sicker than hell.”

“Yes, sir. Might I suggest you try drinking water instead of alcohol if you’re wishing to avoid a hangover?”

“You may not.” Tony snagged an interesting silver bottle from the back. “Not unless there’s booze mixed in.”

“Of course, how silly of me.”

“What the hell is this? Are these diamonds?” He turned the bottle around, watching the light sparkle off the stones.

“Tequila Ley. Blue Agave Tequila – six years old at the time it was given to you in 2002. The bottle is platinum encrusted with diamonds.”

“The platinum I recognize – seriously – diamonds?” The bottle had a weird shape, with points sticking out on both sides. “Was someone stoned when they designed this? Maybe sampling the booze?”

“Quite possibly. “

“Someone gave me this ugly thing? Did I piss them off? Sleep with their sister?” Tony pulled the ornate stopper out and tipped the bottle up. The tequila slid down as smooth as water. “Oh… that’s nice.”

“It was a gift from a Prince Sabeeh Tawaab. A thank you for the Stark Raptors he received as part of the U.S. support package.” The AI paused. “Sadly, they did not keep his younger brother from beheading him and taking the throne.”

“Sometimes it pays to be an only child.” Another deep drink from the ugly bottle and a very familiar warmth began to curl outward from his belly. “Nobody wants my throne – hell, I can’t even give it away.”

“Prince Tawaab’s throne was originally a goatskin covered frame until oil was discovered on the tribe’s native territory. It’s doubtful his brother would have killed him for it.”

“Not true, Jarvis. People will kill for anything – you got it and they want it – slkkkkkk – ” He made a slicing motion across his throat. “This is good stuff. I should get more of it.” Tipping the bottle up, he took another drink.

“It should be, sir, it sells for one point five million dollars. Granted, the majority of the cost is the bottle. Without the diamonds, it’s a mere quarter of a million.”

“Well, it’s good stuff! I don’t even need salt and lime.”Tony took a deep breath, blinking as his vision blurred slightly. This was really good stuff, it usually took a lot more to get this effect. “Order me a case. Forget the fancy bottle, I can’t drink diamonds.“

Checking the cabinet, he searched for what he needed for Margaritas. “Jarvis? Limes and salt? Where are they?”

“Margarita salt is in the third door to your left and limes are in the kitchen pantry in a basket marked ‘limes.’”

“You’re such a smartass.” His knees were very… squishy… and Tony moved carefully toward the kitchen. “I know I didn’t make you that much of a smartass. I mean – did I?”

“You programmed me with the capacity for sarcasm and dry wit. My interpretation of your programming notes is that you wished for me to emulate the real Edward Jarvis as much as possible. You wrote that you were fond of his ‘snarky’ comments.” Jarvis paused. “Am I in error?”

“No. No, you’re right, Jarvis. You’re always right. The old man was deadly with words. God love him. I spent more time with him than I did my father, did you know that? Never mind, nobody cares.” Tony located the pantry and pulled the doors open. “Jesus, look at the stuff in here! I have Pop Tarts!”

“Those should go well with Margaritas, sir.”

“See, that’s what I mean – you know later I’ll be asking what I’m throwing up.” He pulled the pop tarts off the shelf along with the basket of limes. Do I know how to make a Margarita?” He pondered the question. “Of course I do. Crap… Iost my booze… where’s my tequila?”

“On the bar, sir.” Jarvis said helpfully.

“That’s right.” Tony made his way back to the bar and grabbed the bottles he needed to make Margaritas. “One for the blender – “ He tipped the bottle up and took another drink of tequila. “– one for me. This is – did you order a case of this?”

“I did, sir.”

“Add another one, this stuff is fantastic.” Carefully putting the lid on the blender – he didn’t want to waste his booze – Tony hit the button and watched the ice and liquid turn into one of his favorite drinks. He squinted at the dark specks. “Damn… I shouldn’t have thrown the limes in there. Oh well, I need more roughage.”

“Sir, perhaps you should eat something before imbibing so much alcohol.”

“I am. I’m eating Pop Tarts.” He held up the box. “Chocolate fudge – that’s one of the five food groups, right? Chocolate?”

“Sir, if I may suggest – “

“You may not  if you’re going to suggest I stop drinking.” There was silence from the AI and Tony nodded. “I knew it. You’re a party pooper Jarvis.”

“You wound me, sir.”

“Go to sleep, leave me alone.” Tony plopped down on the couch with his blender of Margaritas and his Pop Tarts.

“I shall be quiet, sir, will that be sufficient?” The AI didn’t want to be in sleep mode and unable to call for help should it be needed. The statistics on drunks who died in their sleep due to aspiration of vomit and/or various accidents led him to be cautious.

“Sure, whatever. And turn on Titanic.” Tipping up the blender, he took a drink of the salty mix. “How can she say it’s not romantic? Jack and Rose love each other – he fucking dies for her! I don’t get women.”

Jarvis stayed silent as he cued the movie and projected it onto the wall in front of the couch. Accessing his list for this situation, he had DUM-E move into the elevator to wait for further instructions, locked down the security system guarding the suits, sent a message to Mr. Hogan’s phone that he might be needed, prepared a prerecorded message to send to the private ambulance service if necessary, and lowered the temperature of the living room. Combined with the lowering of body temperature from alcohol intake – the cold would make his creator sleepy much faster.

In the parlance of the day, this wasn’t Jarvis’ first rodeo.

 

Tony bolted awake, sitting up, then listing to one side. “No – come back – wait – “

“Are you alright, sir?” Jarvis asked softly.

“I’m – I’m – “ His head hurt and he couldn’t quite get his thoughts straight. He’d been dreaming of being left behind – left alone by someone he couldn’t see. “I’m okay. I need to make a phone call.”

“Sir, it’s three o’clock in the morning.”

“I don’t care! I need to make a call!”  Damn it, he was tired of everyone second guessing him. “You think you’re smarter than me, Jarvis? You’re not smarter than me – I made you! I’ll turn you into scrap! Shut the fuck up!”

A screen lit up in front of him, and Tony blinked, startled. He stared at the numbers for a long moment. “I –  I don’t know the number.”

There was silence.

“Jarvis? Jarvis, where are you?” Panic hit him and he scrambled up to his knees, nearly falling off the edge of the bed. “Jarvis! I didn’t mean it, Jarvis! Come back!”

“I’m here, sir.” The AI answered.

“Don’t – don’t leave – I’m sorry I hurt your feelings!”

“You didn’t hurt my feelings, sir. I don’t have feelings.”

“Don’t say that – you do – I’m sorry.” Scrubbing at his eyes, Tony sank back down on the bed. “I need the number. Please, just – I don’t know the number – “

“Which number, sir?” Jarvis brought up the contact list from his creator’s phone. “Ms. Potts – “

“No! No…” He couldn’t call Pepper, she’d kill him for calling this late. And for being drunk. And selfish. “I want – I want to talk to – “ Who the hell could he call? Everyone he knew – all three of them – were asleep. “There’s nobody. Who can I talk to, Jarvis?”

“You can talk with me, sir. What would you like to converse about?”

“I dunno.” Sighing, he curled up. The sheets were the softest money could buy – the same with the bedcovers. Too bad nobody was there to share them with him. It bothered him that it had never mattered before.

“We can talk about the moisture problem you’ve been working on.” The AI had accessed information on moisture wicking materials with surprising results. “It seems that many lingerie manufacturers have materials that –“

“I’m not lining my suit with panties.” Tony giggled. “Though that could be fun. I used to have a collection – Pepper threw them away.”

“Not with the garment, with – “

“She threw me away, too.” Tears burned his eyes. Why did he keep screwing up?” First Sunset and now –  “Sunset – call her for me.”

“Sunset Bain?” If Jarvis could show surprise, he would have. “Are you certain you wish to call her, sir?”

“Yes.”

“Given your past history with Ms. Bain, do you think that’s wise?”

“Yes.”

“Perhaps you should wait until morning?”

“Yes – I mean no – you tried to trick me.” Tony shook a finger at the non-existent body of his AI. “I’ve made my mind up. Call her.”

“I don’t have her number, sir.”

It was Tony’s turn to be surprised. “Seriously? Come on.”

“I would have to illegally access databases.”

“And that’s a problem for you? Like we haven’t done that before?” He snorted. “Come on, Jarvis. Get me the number.”

Something close to a sigh came from the speakers hidden throughout the room. “Very well, sir.”

A number and an image appeared on the screen. Tony frowned. “I don’t guess anybody has a great picture on their license. Except me, I’m incapable of taking a bad – ”

A groggy voice interrupted him. “Hello? Who is this?”

“Sunset? Hey, how’s it going? I have a question I need to ask you.”

“What? Who is this? It’s after three a.m.!”

“Was I really that bad a boyfriend? I mean, you ditched me, so I did something wrong, right?” He blinked as tears welled up again. Damn it, why was he crying like a fucking baby? “What did I do wrong? ‘Cos I just don’t know. Was it because I was a kid? I didn’t know anything – why?”

“Tony?” Her voice softened. “Tony, is that you?”

“I tried – I really did. What did I need to do?”

“You didn’t do anything wrong, Tony. It was me.”

“No – no – you dumped me and now Pepper dumped me – so it’s me.” Tony insisted. “I’m doing it all wrong.”

“Pepper dumped you?” Her voice rose in surprise. “Are you kidding me?”

“No. She said we need – “ His voice cracked. “ – we need a break.”

“That doesn’t mean she dumped you.” Sunset said softly. “Sometimes people need to think about where a relationship is going. That doesn’t mean you did anything wrong.”

“I did. You didn’t even tell me you were – leaving me – “ Choking back tears, he went on. “You just left – I wasn’t good enough – you didn’t think – you could tell me – “

“Tony, I didn’t tell you because I was ashamed, not because you did anything wrong. It was my fault. I knew you would forgive me, but I just couldn’t face you – but not because you did anything wrong.”

“I did.” Tears were running down his cheeks, and he wiped at them angrily. “She doesn’t want to have sex with me. She said – said I’m selfish – but I’m not! Okay, I am, but – a guy’s gotta test the boundaries, right? I mean, just a kiss and then… you know?”

“I know.” She laughed. “Oh, I know.”

“If I hadn’t kissed you and kept kissing you – we might never have –  It was good between us, right? After I learned – I know I didn’t start out good, but – “

“Tony, it was always good between us, even the first time.” There was another soft laugh through the connection. “I knew you were a virgin – although, you were so cute I don’t know why some girl hadn’t already dragged you into her bed. I loved being your first – teaching you – and yes – you learned fast.”

“It was good – but she doesn’t want me – women always want me.” He hated that he was whining but he couldn’t help it. “Hell, men want me – I’m damn good – ask anybody.”

“I don’t have to. Tony – “ Her voice dropped even lower. “No one – no one – has ever made me feel as good as you did. When I – I – well… I think of you sometimes.”

“Really?” His ego bounced up a little.

“I loved you – I still do. If I hadn’t been so stupid, we – “ Her voice sounded as if she were on the verge of tears as well. “We might still be together.”

“I would have understood – you could have told me – “ He blinked, his eyelids were beginning to feel heavy. “I would have told my father – I love – loved you.”

“Oh, Tony – I wish I’d have had the strength to face you.”

“I wish – me, too.” Giving up the battle, he let his eyes close. “Me… too…”

“Maybe… maybe we could talk?”

“Sure… “ He yawned.

“Tomorrow or whenever you have time? I’ll be in the lab working on the drones.” There was a pause while she waited for him to answer. “Tony? Tony? Are you still there?”

“Mr. Stark is asleep.” Jarvis answered.

“He – who is this?”

“Jarvis.”

“Jarvis? The butler?”

“I am modeled after Edwin Jarvis, however, I am not him.”

“You’re – “ There was silence, and a sound as if Sunset were clicking her tongue against her teeth. “You’re an AI, aren’t you? I read that Tony has a computer that runs his house. That’s you, isn’t it?”

“Mr. Stark is asleep.” Jarvis broke the connection.

The screen vanished. Jarvis adjusted the temperature, changed the alarm to allow his creator another forty-five minutes of sleep, and changed the settings on the coffee maker in the kitchen so it would brew the coffee stronger than normal.

“Sweet dreams, sir.” Jarvis said softly. “I will always be here.”



Pepper put on a confident smile as the limo pulled up into her driveway. She’d spent a sleepless night, going over and over what she’d said to Tony and wishing she could take it back. Especially the part about taking a break.

She didn’t want a break, she wanted – she didn’t know what she wanted exactly, but Pepper knew she didn’t want to lose him. A relationship with Tony was like navigating through a minefield. On a unicycle.  But she’d always had good balance.

She’d been unfair to him, he had been trying to behave and for Tony that was saying something. Of course he was going to push – he was a man after all, and that’s what they did. Every boyfriend she’d ever had had pushed at every opportunity. If they got a hug, they wanted a kiss. If they got a kiss, they wanted a feel. And if they got a feel – then they wanted it all.

Sliding into the backseat, she closed the door firmly. “Good morning, Tony.”

Huddled into his corner of the backseat, Tony grunted.

“Listen, about last night – “

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Tony, I said some things – “ Pepper leaned closer to him, intending to give him a kiss. She noticed for the first time, the pallor of his skin and the dark sunglasses he was wearing.

Tony nearly always wore sunglasses of some kind. It depended on his mood as to how visible his eyes were. The black Gucci wraparounds were the darkest pair he owned. The ones he wore when he had a hangover. The ones he was wearing now.

She sat back. “Do you have a hangover?”

He didn’t answer. Pepper knew him well enough to know that he did. “I’m trying to sleep over here, Potts.”

“Tony! How could you?”

“It was pretty easy, open bottle, pour, drink. Repeat pass out.” He had a weird memory of being on the phone in the middle of the night. If it was one of those 900 numbers, Pepper would freak over the bill. No she wouldn’t. She wasn’t his PA anymore. He sighed.

“How could you do this? These meetings are important!” How could he not understand? Pepper had the urge to bash him on the head with her briefcase. “They’re expecting you to show up and sound like you know what’s going on! And you’re hungover!”

“I know.” He cringed. “Can you stop yelling?”

“No!”

Tony cringed back into the soft leather again, covering his head with his hands.“Relax, they won’t know. Nobody ever knows – nobody but you.” Just let me sleep on the way over and keep the coffee coming, I’ll be fine.

“And what if they ask you about the departments we’re closing? Or the executives we’re firing? What are you going to say?”

“To ask you. I don’t know a damn thing about any of that, anyway, and I don’t care. If you ever get to the projects they’re working on – then I’ll have some input.” Tony glared at her, but it made his eyes hurt and he closed them. “I’ve had a tough morning, leave me alone.”

“A tough morning?” She’d gotten up early, after hardly any sleep, just to choose an outfit that he’d like. Red blouse, black skirt, back killing heels – all for this heel! “What did you do? Pour your own coffee?”

“I did, as a matter of fact. And – I picked out my own clothes. Do you know how much work that is?” He’d never realized he had so many damn clothes before – and there was no organization that he could see. “I finally had to have Jarvis help me. I’ve got to get a new PA.”

“That’s your biggest concern. Really?” She turned and faced the back of the seat in front of her. “I’m trying to run two multi-billion dollar international companies and you’re worrying about matching your socks to your shirt.”

“Not my shirt – my tie. And I have a thousand freaking ties!” The outburst made Tony’s head feel like it was going to burst as well and he moaned. “I told you – get some help. Hire someone to figure out which execs are the best ones – hell, take them from SI. We’ve got plenty of young people ready to prove themselves. They sure as hell can’t do any worse than Hammer did.”

“Say what you want about Hammer – “ She held a hand up to stop him as he started to do just that. “His father gave him a company with less than a five million in assets and he made billions in less than twenty years.”

“His father made good gun sights – Hammer made lousy weapons. I guess deceit pays. Is that what you’re saying?”

“It works for you.”

“What?” Tony risked a look over the top of his sunglasses. “When have I ever been deceitful?”

“How about with every breath you take.”

“That’s not fair – and it’s not true. Give me one instance.”

“You said you were going to cut back on your drinking. And look at you – “ She shot him an angry look. “You’re a mess.”

“I did cut back. I haven’t had more than one or two drinks a day in months. Not since my birthday party that I’m not allowed to talk about.”

“And you drank how much last night?”

“I don’t know exactly. A lot, but divide it out by the time I started cutting back and it’s still less than I used to drink.” He cut Pepper off when she tried to interrupt. “Don’t argue math with me, you’ll lose and you know it.”

“Fine. You were less drunk than you would have been six months ago. Big deal.” She huffed out a sigh.

“A year ago – almost.”

“Wow, how deprived you’ve been.”

“Yeah, considering part of that was in a cave in the hind end of the world getting used to having a magnet in my chest that was wired up to a car battery I had to lug around with me. I think I’m due some catching up.” If this was part of being in a relationship, Tony could understand why he’d avoided it all these years.

“I’m sorry, didn’t you get enough pity for that already?” As soon as the words left her mouth, Pepper wanted them back. She clapped her hand over her mouth.

Tony stared at her in shock. Only a small handful people knew about the arc reactor in his chest – and only three people had ever seen the primitive one he’d come back with – he’d never asked for pity. He’d never wanted anything but for it to be invisible.

“I’m sorry.” She whispered after a moment. “Oh, my God,I don’t even know why I said that – I didn’t mean it. Tony – I’m sorry – I’m so sorry – “

“Forget it.” He turned away and rested his head against the padded leather next to the window. “Just – I’m going to get a nap in, okay?”

“I’ll wake you when we’re there.”

The rest of the ride was in silence. Pepper turned her face to the window and did her best to cry quietly. Tony kept his eyes closed and pretended not to hear.

 

“We’ve decided the MDK-1 project is going to be shut down. It’s doesn’t follow SI protocols for funding and it’s potentially an offensive weapon.” Pepper checked the project off her list. Before she could move onto the next item, she was interrupted by Hoyt. As the former COO, he was the most vocal – and the biggest pain in her ass.

“What are these SI protocols? Hammer Industries has stringent protocols of our own!” He slapped his hand on the table.

“We do and they’ve worked well for us!” Echoed Dwyer. He was CFO and quick to second anything Hoyt said. “How is this an offensive weapon? By what stretch of the imagination can it  go from defensive to offensive?”

“SI protocols are that it has to be efficient, effective, and do only what it’s designed to do.” She arched an eyebrow. “Pretty simple. If it doesn’t meet all three – we don’t fund it. As for the laser equipped drones – come on, a child can see what you intended with this thing.”

“It’s for topography and geography purposes alone. The laser will give an accurate picture of the terrain.” Hoyt told her.

“Right. And – if you jack up the laser – allow you to blow things up.” She shook her head. “We don’t make those things anymore. Get a camera.”

“Mr. Stark, tell her she’s wrong.” Hoyt held a hand up to silence Pepper. “You’re the one we should be talking to. She doesn’t understand.”

Tony had been ignoring the meeting. His head hurt, his mouth tasted like the floor of a cathouse – and not the fun kind with half-naked women – and his stomach was churning up the last bits of Pop Tart it’d missed when he was yakking this morning. This was Pepper’s show, not his.

“Ms. Potts is right. Let’s move on.” He picked up his coffee cup and took a sip of coffee. It was strong and brutal. Another gallon or two and he’d be fit for polite society again.

“That’s it?” Hoyt gaped. “You’re Tony Stark!”

“Thank you for clearing that up for me.” He didn’t like Hoyt. Pepper probably had him on the list to fire. If he wasn’t, he would be soon. Him and his butt muncher friend. “Pepper, hi, I’m Tony Stark.” Her eyes narrowed and Tony knew he’d stepped in it again somehow.

“I know you’re letting her conduct the meeting, but enough is enough.” Dwyer shot her an evil look. “She doesn’t understand the industry like you do.”

“She understands it perfectly.” He set the cup down. “She knows that someone like me could take your little mapping drone and turn it into a weapon in about five minutes. Maybe less.”

Standing, Tony stretched. “As for the weapons industry. We’re no longer a part of it. We make defensive items only – items that a mad genius like me can’t turn into weapons. Speaking of mad geniuses like me, I need a break.” He walked out of the room, not waiting for anyone to agree.

 

“Oh, my God, my head hurts…” Cupping his hands under the running water, Tony lifted a handful to his face. He considered dunking his head under the faucet, but he couldn’t go back to the meeting like that. So far, he was confident the board members didn’t realize he was hung over and just thought he was ignoring them.

The bathroom door flew open and slammed against the wall. He cringed away from the sound, holding his hands to his head. “God damn it!”

“What are you doing?” Pepper demanded.

“I’m trying to keep my brains from exploding all over the floor.” Leaning on the sink, Tony cupped up more cold water to splash on his face.

“You’re undermining my authority.”

“What?” He picked up a towel. It was wonderfully fluffy and soft, except for the ostentatious embroidered ‘H’ that scratched his cheek. “Ow, damn! Why did he put his initials all over everything? Was he afraid he’d forget who he was between the desk and the john?”

“They keep expecting you to overrule my decisions.” Pepper pulled the towel away from his face.

“And I don’t. I back you every time – and I’ll keep doing it. I wish they’d just leave me alone. I don’t want to be here.” Tony pushed past her on his way out of the bathroom. It was tempting to stop and press his body against hers. A few days ago, he’d have done just that, and gotten a kiss in return. Only now she was backed up against the door as if he was a flesh eating monster.

Fuck you. I can get what I want from someone else without the bullshit . Striding across Hammer’s office, he went in search of something to kill his hangover. Rummaging through the massive desk, he found a bottle of aspirin.  It’d eat up his stomach, but at least it’d kill his headache. Or him, if he was really lucky.

“That’s obvious. You’re sitting there staring off into space the whole time.”

“You took away my comics.” He’d tried to sneak in volume one of the Green Lantern/Green Arrow collection tucked inside his copy of the agenda on the first day. She’d spotted it and threw it in a shredder. “I’m bored. This is why I hated the job. When you get to the interesting stuff, wake me up.”

“I need your input on everything! SI is still your company – you’re the biggest stockholder and the face – “

“I swear to God if you say ‘the face of Stark Industries’ one more time, I’ll –” He threw the aspirin bottle at the wall. It shattered and aspirins spun off in every direction. “I’m sick and tired of it!”

“Tony – “ Pepper backed up a step. She’d never seen Tony like this. Upset, pissed off, mad – but never violently angry.

“Did it occur to you that you’re confusing them, Pepper? You’re the CEO – but you drag me here with you!” Tony opened the bar, looking for a bottle. Any bottle. Time for a little hair of the dog. “They don’t know who the hell’s in charge!”

“They know who’s in charge. I’m the CEO, but you’re the next – “

“Don’t – “ He pointed a finger at her. “Don’t put me in that position! I’ll go back in there and embarrass the hell out of you.”

“That’s what I normally get from you, I’m used to it.” She said bitterly.

“Just go in there and tell them what’s going to happen. Stop beating around the bush – you’re the CEO – fucking tell them! Tell them! Quit saying ‘we’ – say ‘I’ – let them know you’re the one making the decisions!” He jabbed his finger on the countertop for emphasis. “When I’m in there, they don’t know who the hell to listen to – they look at me and think I’m in charge. That’s what’s undermining your position – why do you want to do that to yourself?”

“I don’t want to do that – I don’t – I don’t want the damn position anymore!” Pepper’s dream of being CEO  had turned into a nightmare. She wasn’t making the big decisions – she was making all the decisions and there were just too many.

“Too bad. You’ve got it.” He gave up looking for a bottle and headed for the door. “Now do something with it.”

 

“Tony! Tony, wait!”

For a moment, he thought Pepper had followed him before he recognized the voice. Tony turned to see Sunset hurrying toward him. “Ms. Potts is handling the meetings, I’m just the pretty face.”

“I wanted to thank you for the ride yesterday. You were right, it was the starter and it should be out of the shop in the morning.”

“Oh, no problem. Glad that was all.” He started to walk away and then turned back. “I spoke to Pepper last night about paying everyone while Hammer is closed down. We’re going to  go ahead and do that.”

“Oh, Tony! Thank you! I knew we could count on you!” She threw her arms around him and hugged him.

He stiffened and she pulled away. “Oh, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that.”

“No, it’s okay.” It had felt good – too good – to have her close to him. He’d nearly forgotten the scent of her perfume – it’d taken him back to the times they’d spent curled up together studying. Tony shook his head, trying to clear the memories. That was then – this was now. “Don’t worry about it. Just glad to have helped.”

“Last night – “

“Last night?” He frowned at the look on her face. “What about it?”

“You called?” The coffee eyes were blank for a moment. Then they lit up and Tony suddenly looked embarrassed. “You don’t remember?”

“I’m sorry. No. Did I call?” There were bits and pieces of conversation floating thru his mind – he didn’t know which were real and which were a dream.

“You were just a little drunk.Maybe a lot.” When he grinned and ducked his head, Sunset laughed softly. “I’m just glad you called. It sounded like you needed someone.”

“I did. But – “ He looked back up into those bright blue eyes. “I shouldn’t have called you.  You’re – we’re not – we’re not anything.”

“I know.”

They stood in awkward silence for a moment before Sunset lifted a hand to touch his shoulder. “You really did a great thing for everybody. Thanks again, Tony.” She smiled before turning and walking away.

“Yeah, I’m the big fucking hero.” He sighed.





Chapter Text

 

Tony leaned against the bar and surveyed the crowd. On the dance floor, people gyrated against each other, not even pretending to be dancing to the mind numbing music the DJ was playing. When had they gotten so young? When had he gotten so old?

Sighing, he downed his drink and put his empty glass on the bar. The bartender immediately filled it back up with scotch and new ice on top the old. Tony had tossed him a credit card when he arrived and told him never dump his ice, and keep his glass full. Any serious drinker knew that the ice absorbed some of the alcohol and each drink got progressively stronger. If he’d been in the mood, Tony would have done the math on it. It was a sad day when he wasn’t in the mode to do math.

A skinny blonde who looked twenty-five and acted twelve shimmied up to him. A pack of hangers-on followed her, forming a semi-circle around her.  “Hey, Tony, good to see you.”

He nodded. She was too skinny for his taste and looked a little too well used. Her pupils were dilated until they looked black. And way too stoned.

“Milan, remember? We’ve met.” She held out a hand.

“In Milan?” He didn’t remember, but as many people as he’d met during his life, that wasn’t surprising. He didn’t take her hand. Sadly, she didn’t get the hint. Some of her fake friends did, and their eyes widened.

“No, silly! I’m Milan!” She giggled a high, girly giggle. “We met in… um… someplace with a lot of sand… one of those places with foreign people.”

“That certainly narrows it down.” Her giggle hurt his ears. Which, considering the assault of the tecno-rap-fusion-crap music, was saying something.

“You were there with some guy in a uniform – you’re not gay, right?” Her friends laughed and patted her back as if she’d said something that cured cancer.

“If I say yes will you go away?” Tony smiled the smile he reserved for the press and the stupid.

“Oh, my God! You’re so funny!” She giggled again and her pack of hangers on echoed her. A few of them looked nervous. They’d figured out that Tony was blowing her off and that she wasn’t smart enough to get it. The headline tomorrow would scream ‘Milan Hyatt snubbed by Tony Stark!’

“Milan, he’s way too old.” One of them said to her. “Let’s go dance.”

“I want to score with Tony.” Milan slithered up against him, seeming not to notice that he was backing away.

“Sorry, I only score with certain kinds of women.” He slid to one side to escape being trapped against the bar. “Ones that don’t require a biohazard warning.”

“Funny! You’re just so funny! And cute!” She reached out a painted nail to touch his face and Tony dodged it.

“And you’re so stupid.” He mimicked her inane giggle.

“Let’s go party. I have some – “ She looked around, her pack of groupies doing the same. “I have some great blow – it’s from some Mexican country. Like way down past Texas.”

“Wow, that’s really – Okay, I can’t do this anymore.” He shook his head. “Go away.”

“Sure, where do you want to go? I’ve got a booth in the private club.”

Tony pushed her arm down when she tried to slip it around his waist. “If I’m ever drunk enough to go party with you – I’m pretty sure I’d be dead from alcohol poisoning first.”

“What?” Light seemed to be finally dawning behind her blank eyes.

“Get the fuck away from me. I don’t do junkie skanks.” He handed his empty glass to the bartender who filled it once again.

There was a collective gasp from her hangers-on. Some had an avaricious glint in their eyes and their expressions were far from supportive. Tony recognized them for what they were. Parasites that fed off of people with money and fame until it was gone – then they were off to the next person with fifteen minutes on the fame clock.

“You can’t – don’t you know who I am?” The blonde drew herself up to and tried to stare imperiously at him. Her gaze only reached his chin, even with her streetwalker heels.

“No.” Tony turned his back on her. He picked up his freshly refilled glass and signaled the bartender. “Is there anywhere quiet to drink in this place?”

“There’s a lounge upstairs.” The bartender handed Tony’s credit card back. “Through the lobby, just past the main desk. It’s a little more… your speed.”

“Thank you. I should probably be insulted, but my speed is less than it used to be.” Tony tossed a couple of hundred dollar bills on the bar then jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the retreating blonde and her pack. “Is she somebody?”

“Milan? Yeah, her grandpa was the guy who built hotels or something like that. She’s one of those trust fund babies with nothing better to do than party.”

“Well, she’s giving the rest of us a bad name.”

 

The lounge upstairs was indeed Tony’s speed. Quieter music, prettier women – and men, if he decided to go that way – soft chairs, and less flaunting of fame and money. He recognized a few movie stars, musicians, a model or two that he might have already screwed at some point, and some old money trust fund babies that he might have screwed at some point.

He settled into a chair close to the bar. The waitress refused his card, she recognized him and told him that it wasn’t necessary. Tony smiled seductively, and tucked a hundred down her low cut shirt into her bra. “Keep my glass filled with your best scotch and don’t dump my ice, sweetheart.”

“Yes, Mr. Stark.” She smiled in return, her knees weakening a little.

“And call me Tony.” He watched her ass as she walked away. Nice and firm, good bounce, long legs – candidate number one.

“Is this seat taken?”

The soft, feminine voice made him turn. A brunette in a dark red dress stood with her hand on the back of the chair next to him. Sexy, but not slutty. Long legs, nice boobs, beautiful face. Candidate number two. “Please, sit down.

“Andrea.” She said as she lowered herself gracefully into the chair.

“Tony.” She looked vaguely familiar, but he didn’t recognize her and really didn’t care who she was.

“What are you drinking, Andrea?” He crooked a finger at the waitress.

“Scotch, rocks.”

He arched an eyebrow. “Not a Cosmopolitan or an Appletini?”

“I like my liquor without the fancy frou-frou crap.” She smiled. “If I want fruit – I’ll order a salad.”

The waitress brought a drink and set it down on the table. “Scotch, rocks.” She quickly dumped Tony’s half empty drink into a clean glass and added fresh ice and Scotch.

“Thanks, sweetheart.” He winked at her.

She blushed and hurried away.

Tony sized Andrea up. The diamonds at her throat, ears, and fingers looked real. She looked thirty but was probably forty, tanned but not overly so, slightly zaftig but nowhere near what anyone would call fat. He smiled as he slid his eyes over her body. He liked curves.

They exchanged pleasant small talk. The weather. Movies. Music. It all meant nothing, they were sizing each other up like boxers waiting to meet in the middle of the ring.

He finished his drink. “Will you excuse me for a moment, Andrea?”

“Of course.” She nodded.

Getting up, Tony walked toward the men’s room at the back of the lounge. He crooked his finger at the waitress and she hurried to follow him. In the hallway, he held up another hundred. “I left home without protection.”

“I can get some at the gift shop.” The waitress took the request in stride. “Any particular brand, Mr. Stark?”

“No – just make sure they’re large.” He slid the bill along her lips. “And it’s Tony, remember?”

“Tony.” Her voice trembled.

Leaning toward her, he pressed a kiss to her lips, his tongue teasing them for a moment before pulling away. He tucked the bill in her bra. “Hurry, I think we’re done with the foreplay.”

“Yes, Mr. – Tony.” She put her fingers to her lips as she turned and hurried away.

Tony went into the men’s room and relieved himself. At the sink, he studied his reflection critically as he washed his hands. “I’m fucking gorgeous. I can have whatever woman I want tonight. Got two of them on the line right now – probably do a threesome if I asked.”

It didn’t help. His ego still felt battered. There was something wrong with him somewhere. Pepper had proven immune to his charms, and Sunset had gotten tired of him after a few months. Obviously, he had faults he couldn’t fix.

“Fuck ‘em.” He ran a hand through his hair and smoothed his mustache and goatee. If one night was all he was good for – then so be it.

The waitress peered around the edge of the men’s room door. “Tony?”

“Right here, sweetheart.”

She smiled nervously and came inside the men’s room, easing the door shut. On the one hand, this was Tony Freaking Stark! On the other, her boyfriend would kill her.

He took the box of condoms and opened it, pocketing the condoms and tossing the box. When was the last time he’d left home without some of these? Since Pepper.

The waitress was watching him, her lips parted slightly and her cheeks flushed.

“Not tonight, honey, sorry.” He ran a finger along her cheek. “Maybe next time.”

Seeing the disappointment in her eyes, Tony smiled. She was young, maybe mid-twenties and looked reasonably innocent. Too bad he wasn’t in the mood to teach tonight. He wanted a seasoned woman.

“I need a room. Good scotch, ice, and roses. Ten minutes max.” Giving her face one last caress, he walked out of the mens room who’d be happy to get right down to business.

Andrea greeted him with a smile as he returned to his seat. She had liked the rear view as he had walked away, and the returning view was even better. He moved smoothly, gracefully – almost like a dancer.  The white shirt and black pants showed off his trim waist, lean hips, and great ass. She wanted that ass with both hands.

“It’s getting a little late.” She told him.

“It is. Strange how everyone in LA is usually in bed by eight-thirty.” Business people lived on New York time and actors had early calls. Tony Stark, however, went by his own clock.

The waitress brought fresh scotch and ice and slipped a room card to Tony.  He pocketed the card. “I believe we’re done with the small talk, Andrea, don’t you think?”

“Definitely.” Andrea smiled, her eyes hot.

They left the lounge, Tony’s arm around her waist and headed for the elevator. One of the waiters was holding it for them and Tony slapped a bill in his hand as he stepped inside.

 

The ride to the penthouse was long enough that Andrea was able to press Tony against the back of the elevator and get her hands on his ass. She squeezed it as they kissed, her tongue sliding along his and into his mouth.

Tony’s hands were busy as well, one cupping her ass and pulling her to him while the other dipped into the neck of her dress. Her breasts were firm and if he were any judge of them – which he had to be at this point – they were real. Either that or the best fakes in the world. If he couldn’t tell, he didn’t care.

They broke apart as the elevator doors opened with a soft chime. Inside the penthouse suite a cart held a bottle of scotch, two glasses, and a bucket of ice. Red roses were in vases on the table.

“The roses aren’t necessary.” Andrea told him, nibbling at the nape of his neck. “I don’t believe in romance anymore.”

“Me, either.” He shut the door and pulled her to him. “But I have a reputation to uphold – wouldn’t want the staff to think I’m not treating you right.”

She laughed at that and pressed herself against him once more. Her mouth met his again and her hands went to the waistband of his pants.

Tony caught his breath in a gasp as Andrea slid the zipper down and wrapped her fingers around his cock.  He put his arms around her and pulled her tighter against him. This was what he wanted, a woman who wasn’t afraid of what she needed. One who’d strip and fuck his brains out without having to be coaxed and led like a frightened virgin.

“Do you need a V? I have some.” Andrea panted against his throat.

“A what? Vodka? We have scotch.”

“No.” She laughed. “A Viagra.”

“A what?” Tony pulled back and stared at her in surprise. “A what? Vi – what?”

“Viagra.” Andrea stroked his half hard cock encouragingly. Her other hand slid up his chest and over his shoulder to tangle in the hair at the nape of his neck.

“I don’t need a Viagra. Never have – never will.” He was offended that she thought he needed any help to get it up. Granted, his cock was not responding as fast as it usually did, but that was because his mind wasn’t in the game. Yet.

“It’s okay, lover. “ She nipped at his throat and continued to stroke him. “You’ve had a lot to drink, and we’re getting older. Things take a little longer.

Say what? His cock was hardening under her attention, but Tony had lost interest. “I haven’t had that much and I’m not that old. The problem is – “

Pulling her hands away, he tucked himself in and zipped his pants up.  He sighed. “The problem is, you’re the wrong woman.”

“What?” Andrea backed up, shocked at being rejected.

He opened the door and stepped into the hallway. “Don’t take it too badly. It’s not you, it’s me. Okay, well, maybe it is you, just a little.” He shut the door in her face.

Sighing, Tony pushed the button for the elevator. How had this happened to him? When had he become someone who needed more of a connection than just skin on skin? Something crashed against the closed door and he jumped.

“So much for the roses.” He smiled and stepped into the elevator as the door opened. No way she’d thrown the scotch.

Downstairs, Tony knew he was in no condition to drive home and was still sober enough to realize it. He didn’t feel like calling Happy and getting that silent, disapproving stare. Stopping in the front lobby, he leaned on the desk. “I need a room.”

“Don’t you have one?” The clerk stared at him.

The night manager stepped up and pushed the clerk to one side. “Is something wrong with the penthouse, Mr. Stark?”

“There’s an angry woman in it. I don’t think I’ll get much sleep.” He shrugged.

“I understand, sir.” The manager tapped on the keyboard in front of him. “I do have an excellent suite available, sir.”

“Just so long as there’s a bed. And a bottle. Several bottles.” Tony he pulled out his wallet and laid it on the desk. “Pick a card, any card.”

The manager hesitated a moment before pulling the top card, a black one, out of its holder. He slid it through the card reader and handed it back. “Do you require anything else, Mr. Stark?”

“Just ice to go with the scotch.” Tony put the card away and tucked the wallet back into his pocket. “And privacy.”

“Of course.” The manager coded a key card for the suite and handed it to the clerk. “Escort Mr. Stark to his suite.”

As Tony and the clerk entered the elevator, the manager was already on the phone. He made two calls. One to order the scotch and ice a.s.a.p., and the other to his source at TMZ. This was even better than the first tip he’d given them on Stark tonight.

 

The silence was deafening in the limo the next morning. Pepper had taken one look at Tony dozing in the corner of the backseat, wrap around shades on and a glass dangling from his hand, and slammed the door.

Getting in the front seat, she fixed her gaze firmly out the windshield. “Drive.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Happy put the car in gear and backed out of the driveway.

Several times on the way to Hammer’s offices, Happy thought about breaking the silence. He could talk about something safe. The weather, maybe, or movies. What he really wanted to do was ask what the hell was going on with the two of them.They’d finally realized they wanted to be together after all these years, it’d be going great, and then suddenly they were barely speaking.

He’d picked Tony up this morning at the Four Seasons, bringing a clean suit as ordered. The boss had looked like hell when he crawled out of bed to drink the coffee room service had delivered. Not as bad as he had at other times in the same situation, but there was something different about him – a depression that seemed to be hanging over him. Happy had seen Tony down, but never actually depressed.

There was no way he could talk to Pepper about it, so Happy kept his mouth shut. They’d work it out, they were just in a rough spot; they’d kiss and make up pretty soon. He hoped.

At Hammer Industries, Tony stepped out of the limo carefully. He wasn’t feeling very well, the world seemed determined to tip around at odd angles. The scotch was still in his system, even though the buzz was long gone.

“Shall we go in?” He motioned toward the main doors as Pepper got out of the front of the car. “Personally, I can’t wait for another fun day at work.”

Pepper ignored him. Halfway to the doors, her Blackberry chirped for her attention. It was from one of the Twitter accounts she followed, one that gossiped about Tony on a regular basis.

She opened the tweet to see a picture of Tony and a brunette woman kissing and groping. ‘Tony nibbles on something besides Pepperony!‘. She clicked on the link. There were more pictures. Pepper’s heart thudded painfully and she couldn’t breathe.

“What are you doing?” Tony almost collided with her as she stopped.

“You son of a bitch!”

“Don’t worry, I’m not that hung over. I can sit and pretend to be interested.” He frowned as Pepper shoved her phone in his face. “What the hell – “

“How could you?”

“How could I what?” He squinted at the pictures on the screen. “Oh… crap. I…” Fuck! He hadn’t even considered that there might be a security camera in the elevator. “I can explain, Pepper.” He told her. “Nothing happened.”

“Nothing happened?” She shoved her phone back in her pocket. “You’ve got your tongue down her throat and your hand down the front of her dress!”

“Okay, well – yeah, that happened – but that was it! Really! I promise!”

“Why don’t I believe you?”

“I don’t know – why don’t you? I’ve never lied to you.” Tony knew he was in deep shit with Pepper, but he was angry she thought he’d lie to her. “I’ve done a lot of things – but I’ve always told you the truth. Nothing happened. Nothing.”

She cocked an eyebrow. “Really? Just a little kiss and feel?”

“Exactly. Then I left. I realized – “ He realized what? That it didn’t feel right without a connection? Or because she wasn’t Pepper?  “Nothing happened.”

“You kissed some – woman – some other woman.” Pepper’s voice shook. “And you – touched her.”

“It’s been a long time since I had sex.” Tony said desperately, knowing even as he said it was the wrong thing but he had no idea what the right thing to say was. He had no experience with relationships. Except the one that had crashed and burned when he was a kid. “You said we should take a break.”

She sucked in her breath. Tony had only been interested in sex and nothing else between them. The pain was almost like a physical blow.

“Pepper, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.” Tony reached for her, wanting to comfort her, to explain – anything to erase the hurt from her face.

Jerking away from his outstretched hands, she turned and stalked inside.

He looked at Happy for help. The other man shook his head and got back into the limo. With a sigh, Tony followed Pepper inside. This was not going to be a good day.

 

“And when will you be taking the CEO position once again, Mr. Stark?”

“Excuse me?” Blinking away his fantasy of crawling under the table and taking a nap, Tony tried to remember the man’s name. One of Hammer’s flunkies. Someone who was probably getting fired. “I’m not taking the CEO position back. Ms. Potts is CEO for the foreseeable future.”

“Oh?” The man sat back and raised his eyebrows. “Ms. Potts has led us to believe that she will be stepping aside. Perhaps now isn’t the best time for Stark to take possession of Hammer Industries if your own company is in such a state of flux.”

“There’s no state of flux.” Pepper assured him. “Mr. Stark merely took a temporary leave of absence to focus on other issues – I’m sure you’ve seen the improvements that were evident in the Iron Man suit at the Expo.”

Tony stood up. “Will you excuse us?” He slid a hand under Pepper’s elbow and jerked her to her feet. Ignoring her protests, he pulled her out of the room and down the hall to the first door he could find.

Dragging her inside, he slammed the door shut and leaned back against it. “What the hell are you doing? I am not taking the CEO position back! Pulling a stunt like this isn’t going to change my mind!”

“It’s not a stunt, Tony! You don’t understand! There’s the Expo and the lawsuits – and taking over Hammer! It’s too much for one person to handle! I’m overwhelmed!” How could he not understand how she felt about this? He hated running one company but didn’t understand how running two would be impossible?

“Then hire someone to help! Stane was COO, OCC, or some other set of initials – we never replaced him. Do that! Find someone – find however many someones you need! We’ve got tons of executives! Promote them!”

“I can’t just close my eyes and pick at random!”

“Why not? Any of them would be better than me!” Tony raked his hands through his hair. “I’m not my father, Pepper! I can’t do what he did!”

“I’m not asking you to be your father – “

“You are! I’m not a businessman, I’m an engineer – I create things – I make things! I – make – things! That’s it! I can’t sit and go over budgets and plans and bonus structures – and – and – what the fuck else a CEO does!  I just can’t! Pepper, please – “ He stepped toward her and reached for her. How could she not understand how he felt about this?

“You have to, Tony! This is your company!” Pepper stepped away, avoiding his touch. She ignored the hurt in his eyes, this wasn’t the time for personal feelings. “This is your company – not mine! It’s your name on the letterhead, Mr. Stark!

They stared at each other for a long moment, both red faced and breathing heavily, each waiting for the other to back down. A line had been drawn and neither was willing to be the one to step over it.

“Fine. Then look for another CEO to replace yourself with. Then you can quit.” Turning, Tony jerked the door open and left.

 

He stalked out of the office, slamming the door behind him. Luckily, the majority of Hammer’s employees were off on paid leave and there was no one to stare at him. He punched the elevator button and when it didn’t open quickly enough to suit him, he took the stairs.

It was fifteen flights down, and by the time he got to the bottom, Tony’s anger had settled to a slow simmer. He and Pepper were at an impasse and he had no clue how to correct it. She loved being CEO, he knew it – felt it in his bones. She loved it the same way he loved sitting in his workshop and banging out new designs. It was what they were meant to do. First best destiny and all that crap.

Sighing, he shoved open the door to the lobby and walked out of the stairwell. The scent of coffee caught his attention and he realized he wasn’t in the lobby, this was some sort of cafeteria. “What the hell?”

“The lobby is one floor up. You’re in the basement.”

The voice startled him and he looked around, finally spotting someone sitting alone at one of the tables. “Sunset?”

“Hi.” She smiled timidly.

“I thought everyone was off.” Tony walked over to her table and sat down. “What are you doing here?”

“The drone project, remember? My team is one of the few still working.”

“Oh, yeah. I forgot about those.” He cocked his head, mentally running through the details on the drone situation. That was one of the few things he’d paid attention to in the boring meetings he’d been forced to attend.

Sunset laughed. “There they go, the wheels are turning. I could always tell when you were really thinking – that little tip of the head and your eyes kind of go blank.”

He smiled. “Tilting gets the blood over to the right area.” When she laughed again, he joined her at the table.  “Where’d you get the coffee? I could use some.”

“I’ll get you a cup.” She got up and went behind the counter and poured him a cup from one of the coffee makers. “Not as good as you’re used to, but it’s caffeine.”

“That’ll work.” He sipped at it and made a face. “Wow this is crap. Caffeine is all it is.”

“Mr. Hammer doesn’t spend too much money on his drones – and I’m not talking about the metal ones in my lab.”

“I can see that.” Tony looked around the room. It was sterile and plain. Nothing like the cafeteria at Stark headquarters – or any of their offices. “It looks like a hospital.”

“Probably what it was modeled on. Cheap and boring.” She agreed. “That way we won’t spend too much time here.”

“We’ll have to have it all remodeled.” He looked around the room again. SI cafeterias were relaxing places with good food. “Some paint, some plants – real coffee. You won’t know the place.”

“I’ve seen pictures of SI offices, they look great – will we get the complete makeover?”

“Oh, yeah. I can’t have people working for me in ugly places like this.” Tony grinned. It felt good to talk about something other than the CEO issue for a change. “It’s a matter of style.”

“Engineering by Armani and Chanel?” She joked.

“Why not?” He flashed the smile and pose he reserved for the press.

They both laughed and then lapsed into a silence that grew uncomfortable as the moments passed.

“So you’re working on the drone – “ “I saw your design for the – “ They both spoke at once, laughing nervously again.

“We shouldn’t be this awkward. We used to see each other naked.” Tony ducked his head and looked up through his eyelashes at her. A part of him wanted her to flirt back. Another part was terrified that she would.

“Once we were naked we weren’t thinking. At least I wasn’t.” Sunset smiled.

“Yeah… “ He was relieved to see the smile on her face. “So… the drone project – how’s it coming?”

“Not so good.” She made a face. “Vanko is – was – more on your level than mine. I can’t figure out how he made them work.

“He was a genius – crazy, but a genius.” Tony smiled slightly. Vanko hadn’t been as smart as he’d thought he was, though, he’d ended up on the bottom of a very large pile of metal.

“He’d have to be. It looks like he took the original designs and merged his own with it.” She pulled a pen out of her pocket and sketched a rough design out of one of the drone parts and then drew another, similar one next to it showing some modifications.  “And then – I swear I recognize your signature in some of the design and in the AI code.”

“It probably is. Hammer got his hands on the Mark II suit and had access to the programming, which meant Vanko did as well.” Tony made a face. “I hadn’t really anticipated that happening when Rhodey took off in the damn thing.”

Sunset smiled. Tony could relate to machines, but people confused him. “So I’m dealing with two geniuses, no wonder I’m having trouble.”

“You’re hardly the village idiot, Sunset. You’ve got a degree from MIT the same as I do.” Tony studied the sketch she’d made.

“I’m hardly a double degree summa cum laude, but I can hold my own. Usually.” She frowned. “But these drones, I’ve hit a wall.  I mean – I can look at them and they’re working, but I don’t see how.”

“Look at them?” Tony arched an eyebrow inquiringly. The drones had been confiscated by SHIELD. As far as he knew, none of them had been released for anyone to examine. He couldn’t even get one and he’d been the guy who’d kicked their metal asses. “How are you – do you have one?”

“No, well, yes sorta.” She bit her lip. Tony was the boss now, but the project had been kept under wraps from the beginning. Only a handful of people at Hammer knew about them.

He tilted his head. “It’s either yes or no. ‘Sorta’ is a gray area. Like being a little bit pregnant.”

“We have parts of drones – but not a complete one. I think these were either spare parts for the ones Vanko built, or ones that weren’t finished.”

“Can I see them?” He’d been dying to get his hands on one of Vanko’s drones since he’d first seen one – and that was before they started flying around and shooting at him. “Maybe I can help.”

“Well, you’re the boss, so I don’t see why not. At this point, I’m looking at taking something apart to try reverse engineering, but I’m afraid if I do that I won’t be able to put it back together.” She shrugged. “I haven’t felt this stupid since my freshman year.”

Standing, Tony motioned toward the elevator. “Let’s go have a look.” Now that he knew some of Vanko’s drones were right here under his nose, he couldn’t wait to get his hands on them. “Do you have the designs?”

“No. Vanko either took them with him or they were in his head.” She punched the button for the floor her lab was on. “We do have video. There were security cameras running the whole time, but we can’t get a clear enough image to see what he was doing. It gets distorted when it’s magnified.”

“Maybe I can help with that.” Pulling out his phone, Tony sent a message to Jarvis to get the security footage of Vanko’s time at Hammer. “I’ve got a pretty good… uh… system that might be able to get some clear images.”

“If anyone does, it’s you.”

Tony grinned at her, not feeling the least bit modest. He was good at what he did, damned good.

Sunset’s lab was just as gray and dull as the cafeteria had been and he frowned as he looked around the work area. “Jesus, this is right out of some sterile sci-fi movie. I keep expecting to see stormtroopers come through the door.”

“You’re not too far off the mark.” Sunset told him. “There were plenty of spies, snitches, and security around all the time.”

“Where’s – ohh…” Spotting a drone torso on one of the work tables, Tony headed for it. His hands were almost itching to touch it. “What’s it connected to?” He eyed the cabling running from the guts of the torso down thru a hole in the table top.

“Right now we’ve got it wired into the electric supply. When it’s on, it pulls a ton of power.” She tapped her passwords into the computer terminal next to the torso. “We blew out the power on the entire floor the first time we turned it on. Thank God for the circuit breakers or we might have taken out the whole building. I still haven’t figured out how Vanko powered them up without doing the same thing.”

Because he had his own power supply. “Probably did what you’re doing. Con-Ed will be bringing a huge bill to cover it.” He picked up a screwdriver and used it to open an access panel. Inside were things he recognized as his own design, but merged with something else, something crude and ugly. Vanko’s style was less about aesthetics than brute force.

“Where’s the code for the AI?” Tony turned away from the torso.

“In here.” Sunset brought up the program. “It’s – “ She frowned as he brushed her aside and took possession of her keyboard.

“Hmm…” He scrolled through the lines of code. Again, he could see his own code warped and twisted around Vanko’s. Tony grimaced, he felt violated in some way. This code was his, his child, his baby – and Vanko had abused and tortured it.

“What do you think?” She asked after a few moments.

“I think this keyboard is a pain in the ass.” Tony shifted it around, trying to get comfortable.

“Do you want a standard one?” Sunset used one of the ergonomic keyboards, but some people preferred the older, standard keyboard.

“No, this will do, I guess.” He wasn’t used to using a real keyboard. Hadn’t used one in years. Everything he had was touch sensitive and he’d designed his own keyboard layout to suit his needs. “I don’t see how you work with it. What the hell did he do to my code? He castrated it – and look what he did here – oh, this is just so wrong. Why did he do this?”

Sunset smiled and shook her head. Tony was off into his own world. She knew to be ready to hand him tools or coffee when he needed them.

“Jarvis, where are you? I need you in here.” He muttered. “Come on.”

Giving up on the keyboard after mistyping a command for the third time, Tony took his phone out of his pocket and called Jarvis. “Hey, can you access the computer I’m at?”

“Of course, sir.” The AI responded.

A window popped up on the screen and letters spelled a message out. “Welcome, Mr. Stark.”

“There we go. Copy this code, Jarvis. Analyze it – keep it isolated just in case it’s viral.”

“Yes sir.” Jarvis’ voice came from the computer’s speakers.

Sunset jumped. “How did you – that’s the man from the other night.”

“That’s Jarvis.” Tony told her. “Jarvis, this is Sunset.”

“Hello, Jarvis.” Sunset said.

“Ms. Bain.”

Tony arched an eyebrow at the clipped tone. “Be nice, Jarvis.”

“Always, sir.”

“Did you get the video?” He wasn’t happy with his AI’s tone. The programmed standard greeting should have been a polite ‘nice to meet you, Ms. Bain.’ Jarvis had been barely civil.

“I did, sir, and I am analyzing it.”

“I’ll look at it when I get home.” Tony didn’t want to share the design with anyone – including Sunset. The drones were dangerous and he didn’t want the designs available for any dictator with a briefcase full of cash. Maybe she hadn’t stolen from him the first time, but why give her a second chance?

“Is there an order for these?” He asked her.

“No, they weren’t finished. Mr. Hammer was rushing us, but they weren’t ready for anything but basic testing. I told him it was a bad idea to jump ahead to using test pilots – “ She grimaced, remembering the results. “ – but he wouldn’t listen.”

“Hammer isn’t known for listening to anybody who tells him he can’t do something.” Tony had never liked Hammer – even before the Senate hearing – the man was interested in making money and nothing else. The safety of the people using his weapons was far down on Hammer’s list. “That rifle he was peddling a few years ago – the one that overheated after a thousand rounds or so? He knew about it and shipped them out anyway. Jerk.”

“The recall cost less than he made. That’s the way he looked at it.” Sunset shrugged. “He wanted it done cheap.”

“Cheap isn’t always best.” Tony frowned as he read the code scrolling by. Was that Russian? Crap. “Translate, Jarvis.”

“I’ll have the translation by the time you return home, sir.” The AI told him.

“What? Why so long?” Jarvis should have been able to translate immediately. Faster than it took for him to ask for it.

“I am scanning the code carefully, as you instructed, sir. I will have it done when you return home.” Jarvis said firmly.

The hamster running in the SCIENCE! wheel inside Tony’s mind skidded to a halt long enough for a light bulb to go off in another part of his brain. Jarvis was concerned about someone getting their hands on the code, the same way he’d been concerned about someone getting the drone design specs. Duh, Tony! “I understand.”

“God, I hate this keyboard!” Tony hit the backspace button with more force than was necessary. “How do you work with this thing?”

Sunset started to answer and he cut her off. “Never mind. Jarvis, can you project my keyboard here for me? I can’t deal with this thing.” He picked the keyboard up and shook it.

“Sorry, sir. It’s not possible at your current location. Unless…” The AI paused. “With your phone. I can set one up on a smaller – “

“Smaller scale, right.” Tony nodded. “Do it. I hate this thing.” He tossed it to one side. “Worthless piece of plastic.”How do you work with that?”

This time, she didn’t try to answer. Sunset remembered what Tony was like when he was on a tear. He was lost in his own little world, full of numbers and code and mechanical things. She arched an eyebrow, this Jarvis could apparently keep up with him, something she’d never been able to do.

Tony had his phone open and was tapping away at the touch screen, the coffee brown eyes wide as he watched the numbers scroll by. “I need to see inside it. I need a camera – small – I need it now.”

It took her a minute to realize he was talking to her. “Inside the torso?”

“Yes, now.” He snapped his fingers. “I need a camera. Now .”

His manner irritated her. She remembered Tony being less demanding and arrogant than this. Opening a drawer, Sunset took out a small camera connected to a spool of cable and handed it to him. It was designed to fit inside prototypes and other things that were easier to repair in one piece than to take apart.

Tony looked it over critically. “This’ll do, I guess.”

Sunset’s ego was stung. She had designed the camera herself. Hammer had kept the patent, but she had improved on previous designs to quite an extent. “You’re not going to find one any better.”

“Maybe.” He slid the camera through a crevice of the torso. “I could build one, I think I have built one – where’s the image?”

“Here.” She turned her computer monitor around so he could see it.

“Ah!” Feeding more cable inside the drone torso, he examined the inside carefully. There was a circular socket – empty, luckily – where an arc reactor would rest. “Jarvis are you getting this?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What goes there?” Sunset tapped the empty socket on the monitor. “A battery?”

“Um… probably.” Tony hoped she’d think he was preoccupied with examining the drone rather than being evasive. The last thing he wanted to do was explain what went in that socket. “Hmm…. The hydraulics system is different… is that… he used… well, I wouldn’t have done that… or that .

“It’s too quiet in here, I can’t think.” Tony muttered.

Music, loud and pounding, began pouring out the speakers of the lab’s computers. The other members of Sunset’s team turned to stare. She shrugged. Apparently Tony liked music when he worked and he liked it loud.

She smiled and turned away. Tony was lost in his work. One or two words strung together or half sentences was the best she could hope for from him until he exhausted his curiosity or himself. All she had to do was keep his coffee cup filled and he’d find the answers her team had been working on for months.

 

“Sir, you have a phone call – ”

Tony frowned as Jarvis interrupted his explorations. “I told you to block my calls, Jarvis.”

“ – from Ms. Potts.” The AI continued.

“I’m not talking to her.” He peered into the ‘head’ he was holding. “I told you that. I am most definitely not talking to her.”

“I understand, sir. However, she has called several times.”

“I don’t care.” Tony frowned at the circuits he’d found. They were more sophisticated than he’d thought Vanko capable of.

“She has left… messages on your voicemail.”

Tony snorted. From the pause, he gathered Pepper’s messages weren’t friendly. “Delete them.”

“Yes, sir.”

There was silence except for the aggressive power chords from the speakers for several moments before Jarvis spoke up again.

“Sir, you have another phone call.”

“What part of block my calls did you not understand?” Tony glared at the computer screen knowing Jarvis could see him.

“I understood perfectly, sir. However, Mr. Hogan says that he is taking Ms. Potts home and – “

“What? What time is it?” He looked around the drab room for a clock.

“It’s after five.” Sunset told him. She’d been immersed in her own work trying to document what she could of what Tony was doing, she stretched to relieve a cramp in her neck.

“Tell him I’ll be there in a few minutes.” Except for analyzing the data at home, he’d done all he could do for now.

“Mr. Hogan says they’ve already left.”

This time there was total silence, the music cutting off as Tony’s eyes narrowed and he leaned back in his chair. “They’ve left? They left?  They. Left. Me. Behind.”

“Yes, sir.” Jarvis had killed the music the moment he delivered Mr. Hogan’s message. He’d known this would not sit well with his creator. “He said he will return for you as soon as he delivers Ms. Potts to her home or that you can call when you need him.”

There had to be steam coming out his ears, like one of those old cartoons. They had left him. In his limo. Taken his car and left him behind. Tony ground his teeth together. His knuckles turned white as he clenched his hands into fists. They had fucking left him behind. He was Tony-motherfucking-Stark and they’d left him behind like he wasn’t important.

Jarvis was wise enough to keep silent. The crude visual he was receiving from Hammer Industries’ security cameras revealed a mood he rarely saw from his creator. In the past, the wisest course had been to wait for instructions. He waited. He waited some more.

“Tell Mr. Hogan. His services. Are not needed.” Tony bit the words out. “I will get home. Myself. I will fucking hitchhike. Before I call him.”

“Yes, sir.” Jarvis relayed the message.

“Tony.” Sunset said softly. She could see he was hurt and angry. “Are you… okay?”

“I’m fine. I’m great.” He turned and smiled at her, burying his anger beneath the surface. “Can you give me a ride? It seems I need one.”

“Of course.” She smiled. “But don’t ask to drive.”

“That was a long time ago.” He’d wrecked his car trying to sneak a kiss from her on one of their dates. “I’ve changed.”

“Right.” Shutting down her computer, she took her purse out of a desk drawer. “What a day, I’m worn out.”

“I’m not.” He smiled. “Let’s get out of here. I’ve had enough business for one day.”

She smiled in return. “Sure, where do you want to go?”

“I was thinking… your place.” Fuck Pepper and taking break and everything else he’d tried to do to suit her.

“Oh, sure. Okay. I’ll fix dinner for us, it’ll be like old times.” She smiled.

“Perfect.” Tony put his hand on the small of her back as he guided her out the door. “I’m all about old times.”



Chapter Text

 

“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.”

“Yes, sir.”  

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.”

“Show me.”

 

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.

“No.”

“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 know.”

“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.”

“How?”

“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.”

“No.”

“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.

“That’s ridiculous!”

“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.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

“Tony! Tony! Over here!”

Swiveling in the direction of the voice, Tony flashed a peace sign and smiled for the picture he knew was coming. Sure enough, there was a flash – one of many – before he turned back to the press on the other side of the walk and gave them equal time.

At his side, Sunset seemed much less sure of herself as they walked the gauntlet from the limo to the restaurant. “Please don’t tell me they do this all the time.”

“Most of the time.” He smiled at her. “It depends on if I care if they know where I’m going to be. Right now, I want them to see us.”

“Are you sure?” She blinked at a particularly bright flash. “I feel like a lobster in the tank at a restaurant.”

“That’s not too far off the mark. They will devour you without warning.”

“Who’s the new girl? Hey, Tony!”

“Hey, Tony! Where’s Pepper?”

Beside him, he felt Sunset stiffen. Tony smiled at the reporter. “At this time of night? Probably putting her feet up and relaxing after a long day.”

“Did you dump her?”

“So the two of you are through?”

“Pepper and I are friends – as we always have been. She’s one my best friends in the world. She’s also the best CEO in the world and the only person I trust to run SI.”

“But you’re not dating anymore?”

Dumb asses. “Pepper and I were always two friends enjoying each other’s company.” Finally they were at the restaurant door and able to slip inside before the reporters asked anymore stupid questions.

“That was… not fun.” Sunset said as they were seated. “Why do they think they can just ask you anything they want about your life?”

He shrugged. “It’s part of being a public figure. They want to know everything. I could probably stand out there and list everything I’ve done today, including what I had for breakfast and what time I took a dump – and they’d write it all down.”

“I’ll never look at the Enquirer the same way again.”

“We can go out without all the hassle, it just takes a little misdirection.” He’d lived with the press snapping at his heels his entire life. They were just there. Like death and taxes. “Don’t let them scare you. They’re going to love you.”

“I don’t know about that.” She looked out the window. Even through the glazed glass, she could see the reporters lined up on the sidewalk. “They really like Pepper.”

“Hey, that’s not going to be a problem. They’re going to like you, too.” Tony captured her hand and lifted it to his lips. “Pepper and I are friends and that’s it. Sometimes, that’s just how it works out.”

“There’s a lot of people who – “ She looked up as someone approached the table.

Tony looked up as well and frowned when he saw who it was. Christine Everhart. He forced a smile. “Sorry, no, I don’t have any time. We’re in the middle of dinner.”

Ignoring him, Christine stopped and leaned against the table. “Tony, so good to see you. I’ll just take a moment of time before your appetizers arrive.”

The damn table would be empty. He picked up his Scotch and took a sip to mask the snarl he knew was going to come out otherwise.

“I guess Pepper couldn’t keep your attention very long, either. Did she have to do her own dry cleaning before she left? At least she’s not doing trash duty anymore, though, right?” Christine turned a vicious smile on Sunset. “Oh, I’m sorry, who’s your new girl?”

Caught with a mouthful of Scotch, he nearly choked trying to swallow it. Bitch!

“Sunset Bain.” Sunset smiled back, equally fake and vicious. “And I’m not new – Tony and I have known each other since college.”

“Really?”  Interest flared in her eyes. Christine had thought she’d get nothing more than a snide comment or two, but it appeared she’d hit pay dirt. “Would that be at UCLA or MIT?”

“MIT. We were – “

“About to have dinner.” Tony finally found enough breath to speak. “And Ms. Everhart – what an ironic name considering she has no heart – was just leaving.”

The maître d had plowed his way through the restaurant to their table the moment one of the waiters had tipped him off that Mr. Stark was being accosted by a member of the press. “Mr. Stark, I hope you’re enjoying your evening with us.” He stepped between the table and Christine, neatly muscling her out of the way. “Miss, I believe your companion is waiting for you.”

Christine wasn’t willing to risk being barred from an excellent restaurant with prime celebrity encounters and let the man lead her away. “Good talking to you, Tony.”

“I’m assuming there’s a history there?” Sunset arched an eyebrow.

“Little bit.” He smiled the pained smile he used in these situations when he didn’t like to think about something he wished he hadn’t done.

“One night stand and she’s bitter about it?”

“You could say that. There was some interviewing, some sex – no promises were exchanged.”

“Typical night with Tony Stark, I assume.”

“Owch.” He put a hand over his heart. “You wound me. When have I ever been typical?”

Sunset laughed softly. “Never.”

 

“Tony, have you seen the article Vogue has online?”

“Pepper, I’m not interested in shoes.” Smoke curled up from the piece he was soldering and Tony wrinkled his nose. He loved building things but he hated the smell of melting solder. One did have to suffer for one’s art.

“Neither are they.”

Her sigh carried weight, even over the phone and Tony sat back, pushing the goggles up onto his forehead. “Jarvis?”

One of the screens changed from a view of the new McLaren P1 prototype to a site with a picture of Sunset that he recognized as being from the MIT yearbook, The Technique . “Oh, this can’t be good.” His own Senior portrait was next to hers. At seventeen, he looked all of twelve.

The headline was lurid, of course: Tech Thief From Tony Stark’s Past Steals His Heart From Pepper!

“Did you read – “

“Give me a minute, Pepper.” Tony quickly scanned the article. It was factual, he couldn’t sue over that. It was all there; the romance of the twenty-one year old co-ed with the sixteen year old boy genius, the break up and “coincidental” timing of the theft of SI’s newest drone prototypes, and Sunset’s subsequent blackballing in the engineering community. “Damn.”

“We knew this was coming, Tony. I just wish Everhart hadn’t gotten her hands on it first.” Pepper sighed again.

“I’m sorry, Pep.” He could hear her typing something, hopefully not her resignation.

“No, it’s okay. Actually…” The typing stopped and then started again in a furious burst that made him fear for her keyboard. “This is good. She’s got the facts out there so there’s nothing that we have to bring up in defense that can be seen as reactive or fabricated.”

“So… it’s not bad?” Women were so damned confusing. There had to be a translation algorithm somewhere.

“I had a statement prepared –  I’m tweaking it a bit.”

“You had one prepared?” He shouldn’t be surprised at anything Pepper did anymore, and yet she was still pulling rabbits out of her hat to amaze him with. “Why? I mean, thanks, but you didn’t – “

“Tony, I’m still your friend, nothing’s changed.” She said softly. “And I knew the press would dig into Sunset’s background as soon as they realized the two of you were – were a couple.”

The pause and the stumble as she said it made his chest ache. “Thank you, Pepper. You could have just let the sharks at us.”

“I’m doing this for you, Tony.” Pepper saved the file and emailed it to Tony. Sunset would get both ends of the rope from me if she was drowning.

 

“Are you ready?” Tony turned to Sunset as the limo slowed.

“Do I have a choice?”

“Of course you do, we can turn the car around and go home. You want to? Happy would be glad to get out of the monkey suit.” Tony leaned forward and knocked on the glass separating them from the front seat.

“What’s up, boss?”

“We’ve decided on a night in.”

“No, Tony, it’s all right.” Sunset pulled him back. “Never mind, Happy.”

“You sure?” Tony asked. “We can hit a takeout joint on the way home.”

“I’m sure. We can’t hide forever.” She raised a hand to his cheek. “Besides, we told them the truth and I’m not hiding. Not anymore.”

He nodded, proud of her. The best way to handle the press was to hit ‘em head on. “We’re a beautiful – no, scratch that – we’re a fantastically beautiful couple, and they’re going to love us.”

SI’s publicists had put out a statement acknowledging the accusations made against Sunset were from over twenty years ago, pointing out the fact that she’d never been charged or arrested for allegedly participating in the theft of the drones. Quotes from “insiders” had quickly popped up on several online gossip sites vouching for Tony and Sunset having found each other again after long years and a horrible misunderstanding and were once again in love.

The car stopped and Tony turned to Sunset. “Am I good?”

“What?” She looked puzzled.

“Ah… “ That was what he’d always asked of Pepper before they got out of the car at an event. “Is my tie straight?”

“Oh, yes. You look great.” Smiling, Sunset ran a hand down the front of her dress. “Do I pass as well?”

“Oh, my, yes.” She’d given in and let him buy a dress for the occasion. He understood that she wanted to be independent, but you couldn’t wear off the rack to a Stark fundraiser. “Sure you don’t want to go back to my place? I’m really good at taking these off.”

“Later.”

The door opened and Tony slid out of the car, waving at the press and the fans lined up behind barricades. Giving Sunset his hand, he helped her out. Flashes lit the area up, cameras clicking and reporters yelling questions over each other.

“Ah, the usual madness.” Tony smiled and waved again, wrapping his other arm around Sunset’s waist.

“Tony! Hey, is your old girlfriend a thief?”

“She stole my heart.” He grinned and shrugged.

“Did she steal the prototypes?”

“What did your father think of Sunset?”

“Are you worried about security at Stark Industries?”

He looked offended. “Never. I designed the security system, remember?”

Tony answered the questions deftly, with snark and style as he always did. The press laughed and the questions began to change to tamer topics.

“Two dates in a row?”

“Are your carousing days over?”

“Are you in love, Tony?”

“Yes, I am. Are you?” That got him a laugh long enough to make it to the top of the steps and inside the theater.

Sunset let out an audible sigh and Tony leaned down to brush his lips across hers. “See there, we survived.”

“Are you, Tony?”

“Are I, what?” He tipped his head to one side quizzically.

“In love?”

This time, his smile was genuine. “Yes, I am. Are you?”

“Yes.”

 

Pepper skimmed through the magazine article, ignoring the blatant ass kissing by the reporter on Sunset’s fashion style. “How does she look so amazing for under one hundred dollars?” She rolled her eyes. “She could wear paper bags and as long as she’s dating Tony everyone would love it.”

The public loved a star crossed love story almost as much as they loved a comeback story, and Tony and Sunset had both. Youthful mistakes and first love made for great press.The pictures of the couple walking through a throng of adoring fans and press made the back of Pepper’s neck burn and she had to fight the urge to use her pen to black out Sunset’s face.

You had your chance, Potts, and you blew it . Tossing the magazine aside, Pepper tried to focus on the paperwork in the file in front of her. For a “paperless” company, SI still generated plenty of paperwork.

After marking out a paragraph on the proposed length of time before access rights reverted to the original owner, she made notes in the margin and tossed the file onto her outbox. It didn’t do any good to own the land if they couldn’t use it. Picking up another file from her groaning inbox, Pepper flipped open the cover.

“More from R&D on that solar doo-dad of theirs.” Pepper’s assistant, Lori Raczka, announced as she entered the office.

“I told them no.” She looked up from the file. “In triplicate.”

“You know tech geeks.” Lori handed the file to Pepper. ”You probably need to tell them in Klingon or something.”

“I can do that.” She’d learned the language when she’d found out Tony was using it to keep secrets from her. Tony had been shocked to find a particularly raunchy party he thought he’d gotten away with planning had been cancelled. Relaying the message in Klingon had been the icing on the cake. She smiled at the memory.

“He looks happy.”

Pepper looked up sharply. Her assistant had picked up the magazine and was looking at the cover. “He does, and I’m very happy for him.”

“Bull.” Years of working for Pepper had given Lori the confidence to speak her mind while they were in private. “You hate her just as much as I do.”

“I don’t hate her – “

“You do and you don’t trust her.”

“No.” Pepper admitted. “I know she’s up to something.”

“You’re not the only one. I think there’s a big shoe out there just waiting to drop.” She dropped the magazine in the wastebasket. “All this ‘I don’t need Tony to give me anything’ crap is just that. Crap.”

“I want to trust her. I do. But I just can’t.” Pepper confessed. “Maybe it’s because of what she did back when Tony was sixteen, or maybe it’s because her excuse was just a little too perfect – “

Lori arched an eyebrow. “Maybe because you’re jealous?”

“That, too.” She sighed. Tony did look happy. And he was behaving for the first time since… ever. “I wish I could go back and fix everything, but it’s too late. And what right do I have to try and ruin something that’s good for him?”

“Please.” She shook her head. “Bain’s a predator. She’s going to spring her trap at some point. We just have to figure out what it is before she does it.”

“I hope so.” Pepper glanced at the magazine cover. Tony was smiling up at her from the bottom of the wastebasket. “I hope so.”

 

Five months had passed since Sunset had walked back into his life, and Tony was happier than he could remember being in years. Maybe ever. Unlike their romance in college, they weren’t keeping a low profile, and he didn’t have to worry about who would or wouldn’t approve of their relationship.

Loving an independent woman was not without its pitfalls. Sunset refused to let him buy her anything expensive, including a new car to replace her aging Honda. His limit on dinner when they ate out was fifty dollars, unless it was a charity event, and she’d refused to quit her job.

The gossip rags were disappointed the two of them weren’t out on the town every night, while at the same time having a field day with the idea that Tony Stark had finally been domesticated.

He grinned. If they only knew how true that was. Most nights he and Sunset ate in – she was a great cook and he was learning – and watched a movie or brainstormed new ideas for the arc reactor technology. Then they had fantastic sex. It was every geeky engineering student’s dream.

In the morning, she kissed him goodbye and went to her lab to work on her nano project, while he hit his workshop churning out new designs. He hadn’t set a pace like this since he’d come back from Afghanistan.

There were seemingly endless applications for the new element and the new arc reactor. They were clean, green, and were going to set off the energy revolution his father had dreamed of.

“I should change my name to Ward Cleaver.”

“What was that, sir?” Jarvis responded.

“You know, the old show with the normal husband and wife and their normal life and normal kids.” That sounded good. Normal. He could totally do normal.

“I’m aware of the program, sir. However, you don’t strike me as fitting the Ward Cleaver mold.”

“Whatever! Maybe Howard Cunningham? I’m good at being frisky.” Fighting his way through traffic on the 405, Tony hit his horn and swerved as a Hummer tried to cut him off. “Get back in your own lane!”

“The other driver can’t hear you, sir.” Jarvis reminded him.

“I know that, but it relieves tension.” He shot around the Hummer and into the clear space beyond. “Did Sunset say why she wanted me to meet her at the Hammer offices?”

“No, sir. Just that she wished for you to meet her there as soon as possible.”

“Maybe she’s finally worked the kinks out of the targeting systems.” The Hammer drones had a nasty habit of locking onto anything hot, including their own companions. Not something you wanted in combat.

“It’s possible, sir.”

“She’s told me about it, but won’t let me work on it. It’s frustrating as hell.” Sliding the Audi across two lanes, Tony barreled down the exit for Hammer Industries. “Never hook up with an independent woman, Jarvis. They’ll make you nuts.”

“I’ll do my best to restrain myself, sir.”

The name on the parking spot now read Virginia Potts, CEO. Which made parking there less fun, but easier on his eyes. He frowned at the Hammer logo on the glass doors as he walked up to them. “We’ve got to get Hammer’s name off this joint. That looks like a big dick.”

There was a young man in a suit sitting on the bench just outside the doors reading a report with a SI logo on the binder. He got up as Tony approached the doors. “Mr. Stark?”

He didn’t recognize the guy but there were a lot of new faces since the takeover – acquisition damn it! “You are…..?”

“I haven’t been here very long.” The man smiled. “Tony Stark?”

“Yeah. Are you with – “ Tony looked down as the man slapped something against his chest.

“You’ve been served.”

“What? What the hell?” He stepped back, letting the paper flutter to the ground. “How did you get in here?”

“Preparation.” The man was already hurrying away to a nearby car.

“Son of a – “ Tony glared at him, willing him to explode with his mind. It never worked, but one day…

Bending, he picked the paper up. It wouldn’t do any good to ignore it. He’d been served fair and square; he’d been served enough times to know how it worked. “So who’s suing me now? The FAA? The Malibu Homeowners Association? Microsoft?”

He unfolded the summons. “In the county of… blah blah… Anthony Edward Stark respondent.. blah blah… Sunset Bain petitioner… blah blah –  what?” Blinking, he looked at the petitioner’s name again, certain he’d misread it. Sunset Bain. “Sunset’s suing me? That doesn’t make any sense.  Sunset Bain… petition to determine paternity… financial responsibility… paternity?“

The paper fluttered to the ground again. Sunset was suing him. For child support.

Chapter Text

 

“Tony, I don’t want you to say anything. Okay? I’ll handle everything. Tony? Are you listening to me?”

Tony was staring at his hands. He was numb inside. What was happening? This had to be some kind of cruel joke. “Maybe if I called her again?”

“Tony, her number is disconnected.” Bertram Hindel, Tony’s lawyer, said gently. “You’ve tried it already. I think we can take that as a sign that she’s not going to talk to you directly.”

I don’t understand. “She said she didn’t want any children – I thought maybe I’d try and change her mind later. She was taking the pill. I saw them – every day and – “ He twisted his fingers together. “I didn’t need condoms.” I don’t understand.

Pepper met Bertram’s eyes over Tony’s bowed head. As smart as Tony was, as savvy a businessman and engineer as he was – he was out of his element when it came to personal relationships. Private tutors instead of public or even private school, college when he should have been in junior high – he’d never learned how to interact socially. Tony had kept himself isolated most of his life, letting only a few – very few – people into his world.  “It’ll be okay, Tony. We’ll take care of everything.”

What had happened was out of his realm of experience. If this were a one night stand filing a paternity suit – as had happened in the past – he wouldn’t even have shown up for the meeting. His lawyers would be happy to bully the woman out of the room by reminding her that Mr. Stark always used a condom lubricated with spermicide and never ejaculated into a woman’s mouth or onto her body. He had always been very careful not to impregnate anyone or to give them the means to do it themselves.

In this instance, however, Tony had already admitted to not using a condom during sex for the last four to five months. His attorney found his hands tied by that admission. For whatever reason, Tony had decided to trust Sunset Bain when she’d told him she was taking birth control pills.

“Tell me again why you stopped using the condoms.” Bertram asked. “You’ve always been extremely careful in that regard. Did she mislead you?”

“She said she was on the pill. I saw her take them – every morning – first thing. She said she had wanted to get her tubes tied but there’s some rules the insurance companies have and she couldn’t.”  Tony closed his eyes, remembering the conversation.



“Sorry, had to take my pill.” Sunset slid back into bed.

“I’ve got condoms.” Tony told her. “Plenty of them.”

“If you want to use them, that’s fine.” She nestled into his arms. “But I’m sticking with my pills – don’t want any kids”

“You don’t want kids?”

“No, not after everything I’ve seen.” She shook her head. “My life wasn’t something I wanted to bring kids into.”

“Come on, Sunset. Everybody wants kids, sooner or later.” He grinned down at her. “Even me.”

“You’d make a great dad.” Sunset smiled and stroked a finger along his beard. “But I don’t think I’d make a great mom.”

“Maybe it would depend on the dad.”

“Not for me. I tried to get my tubes tied a few years ago, but there’s this weird rule that the insurance companies have that a woman has to be at least twenty-one, and have had two kids to have the procedure done. On top of that, they won’t pay for the doctor or the hospital –  just the procedure. That’s why most women have it done when they’re in the hospital having their second baby.”

“Who makes up these rules?” Stark Industries covered anything an employee needed done, so far as he knew. “That’s like the dark ages.”

“Hey, at one time insurance companies wouldn’t pay for the pill, either.” She shrugged. “I can’t afford it without insurance so I gave up and just stayed on the pill. Eventually, my clock will shut off.”

Tony was surprised at her attitude, they hadn’t discussed having children before, but then they’d both been young and in college. Children seemed a long way off at the time. Now, however, he was starting to think he was hearing his own clock ticking. He didn’t want to be past fifty like his father had been when he was born.

Confident that he could change her mind, given time, he snuggled up to her and nuzzled her neck. “I guess there’s no reason for me to use condoms then, if you’re on the pill.”

“We didn’t need them before, so why not?”  Sunset slid her hand over his stomach. “Whatever you want to do, Tony, is fine by me.”



“She was living at your house. Is there any chance these pills are still there?” Bertram asked.

“I can ask Jarvis.” Pepper told him. Pulling out her phone, she tapped Jarvis’ icon. “Jarvis, can you see if the birth control pills Ms. Bain took every day are still at the house?”

“The prescription is normally on the bathroom sink in the master bath. However, it is not there now. I can review my recordings. Please understand this is a private area and I do not, as a rule, record in this room.”

“I understand.” That was one of the first things she’d established when she’d started working for Tony. No Big Brother in the bathroom.

“Since you requested that I monitor her activities, I do have some recordings.” Jarvis went over the hours of recordings from the previous months. “She put the prescription in a small bag along with her makeup when she left the house this morning.”

“Great. No way to tell if they were real or not.” Pepper frowned.

“I must inform you that I did not note a pattern that has just emerged in Ms. Bain’s behavior.”

“What? What pattern?”

“Over the last month, Ms. Bain has been removing articles of clothing and other personal items from the house and not returning them. One at a time, which did not seem unreasonable given that the clothing might need cleaned, or that the personal item might be needed outside the house.”

“I’m sure she didn’t intend for you to notice, Jarvis.” Pepper ended the call. “There goes any doubt that she had this planned.”

“The question is: why?” Bertram wasn’t often confused by people’s motives, but Sunset Bain had thrown him for a loop. “Tony’s obviously in love with her and would marry her in a heartbeat – why not just tell him she’s pregnant?”

“Maybe she’s scared?” Tony looked up, a trembling, hopeful smile on his face. “Maybe she thinks I’ll be mad at her? I can just tell her – “

“Tony – “ Pepper rubbed the back of his neck. “Then why would she get a lawyer and do this?”

“Because she’s – afraid – I don’t know – “ I don’t understand.

“She knows you better than that. You’re not the kind of man a woman is scared of.” She looked up as Sunset and her lawyers entered the meeting room. “Just be quiet.”

“Sunset!” Tony stood up. “Let’s talk about this – we can work this out. I’m not angry, it’s okay.”

“Mr. Stark, sit down.” Bertram put a hand on his shoulder and pushed Tony back into his seat. “Bertram Hindel, I’m Mr. Stark’s attorney. Any questions or discussions go through me. Is that clear?”

“Not a problem. I’m Ms. Bain’s attorney, Douglas Kuzak, and the same conditions apply for our side.”

Pepper linked her arm through Tony’s, partly to offer him comfort and partly to keep him in his seat. She couldn’t stop herself from glaring across the table at Sunset. The woman had on an outfit that made her look like an escapee from a Fundamentalist church, no makeup, and a frightened expression. How dare she paint herself as some innocent victim?

She could feel Tony shudder from time to time as the lawyers went over the papers, batting the charges back and forth. Bertram had no leg to stand on, with Tony admitting he’d hadn’t been using condoms, but he was doing his best.

“Your client misled Mr. Stark with her claim of taking birth control pills, when in fact, she was not.” Bertram stated.

In response, Kuzak pulled out a blue compact and slid it across the table. “Feel free to have it analyzed. You’ll find that my client’s prescription is up to date and has been purchased on a regular basis. She is under the care of a gynecologist, who prescribed these pills – pills that have been effective until now.”

“Through Ms. Bain’s numerous other sexual encounters?” Bertram ignored the compact. “How many other men has she been seeing at the same time as my client?”

“There are no other men. My client has resided at Mr. Stark’s Malibu home for the last four months. Given his sexual proclivities – he would know if there were other men involved.”

Pepper stifled a sigh. She wanted to strangle both attorneys. And Sunset. Tony was clutching her hand under the table, squeezing until her fingers hurt, but she wouldn’t tell him to let go for anything. He needed her. He was trembling, something she’d seen him do only rarely, and usually only after copious amounts of liquor.

“Birth control pills are not one hundred percent effective. Mr. Stark could have continued to use condoms but chose not to.” Kuzak leaned back in his seat. “Ms. Bain did not tell or ask him not to use them.”

“So she claims. Interesting that my client has not had sexual intercourse without using a condom since he was seventeen and now suddenly decides – supposedly all on his own –  that they’re not necessary.”

“I have copies of the positive pregnancy test that was performed by my client’s gynecologist.” Kuzak tossed a folder on the table. “Along with her first visit to her obstetrician.”

“Neither of which provides proof of paternity.” Bertram ignored the folder just as he had the pills.

“My client resided in Mr. Stark’s house in Malibu – a virtual prisoner, I might add – for the last five months. That puts reasonable doubt on my side.”

“A prisoner?” Pepper gasped. “She was at work every day! How can she say – “

“Ms. Potts – “ Bertram waved a hand at her. “This is not a criminal trial, and reasonable doubt doesn’t apply. Even so, there are a great many witnesses that I can produce to refute your statement that Ms. Bain was a prisoner at my client’s home. Let’s not get into fantasy, Kuzak – just stick to the facts.”

“The facts are that your client is trying to evade his responsibilities.”

“Oh, please!” Tossing the folder back at Kuzak, Bertram scoffed. “Until he was hit with your flimsy lawsuit, he wasn’t aware Ms. Bain might even be pregnant. Considering she was living with him – or so she claims – you would think he would have noticed. I’m doubt this pregnancy is real.”

“I can assure you it’s very real. Mr. Stark forced Ms. Bain into the relationship by threatening to blackball her out of the industry the same as his father had done. This child is a result of that forced relationship.”

“That is such bull – “ Pepper started to say but Bertram waved a hand to silence her.

“Forced relationship? If so, the pictures of Ms. Bain smiling for the press at various functions and events over the last five months is some of the best acting I’ve ever seen.” Bertram shot back.

“This is crazy, Sunset, we don’t have to go through this – “ Tony interrupted. “Marry me and we’ll raise our baby together. You said I’d be a great father, remember?”

“Tony – “ Bertram put his hand on Tony’s arm.

Sunset spoke for the first time since she’d entered the room. “I don’t want to marry you. I don’t want anything to do with you.”

There was shocked silence for a few moments before her lawyer slid into the opening. “It’s my client’s belief that, given his past, Mr. Stark would not be a good father. She’s asking for financial support for the child and limited contact between herself and Mr. Stark.”

“I don’t think limited contact will be a problem.” Bertram snorted. “As for financial support, we have no proof that this so-called child even exists, let alone that it belongs to my client.”

“What do you want?” Tony asked.

“Tony – “ Bertram warned. “Let me handle this.”

“What do you want?” He repeated.

“Tony, please.” Pepper tugged on his arm. “Why don’t we go outside and get some air.”

“No. She thinks this is the lottery and she’s hit the jackpot.” Anger was beginning to replace the numbness. Anger that she had used him again. Anger at how fucking stupid he’d been to trust her again. “How much to go away? How much – to –  to – get – “

Tony’s voice was breaking, and Pepper couldn’t stand to see him this way. “We want tests – right now.” She demanded.

“No.” Kuzak shook his head. “Tests at this stage of a pregnancy are invasive and could harm the child.”

“Jarvis can scan her and – “

“Absolutely not! That’s untested technology and I won’t have my client and her unborn child subjected to unknown side effects!”

“Pay for medical care and an allowance and that’s it. One word in the press and she doesn’t get a dime.” Pepper ordered Bertram. “Tony, let’s go.”

She tugged at Tony’s arm until he stood up. He started toward Sunset, but she pulled him the other way, leading him out the door. Outside, Happy was waiting in the lobby. “Happy, let’s go home.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He hurried to open the front doors and then down the steps to where the limo sat waiting to open the door.

Pepper pushed Tony inside the car and Happy slammed the door behind them. “Oh, my God, I can’t believe this is happening.”

Tony was fumbling at the bar, pulling out a bottle of scotch. He had the top twisted off and was swallowing in huge gulps even as she tried to pull it out of his hands. “Tony, no – this isn’t the way to handle this.”

He wrenched away from her, spilling the liquor down the front of his suit. “Why? Why is she doing this?”

“I don’t know.” She tried again to take the bottle as he tipped it up once more. This time she managed to pull it away, splashing scotch over the both of them. “Tony, I don’t know what to say – I don’t know what to tell you.”

“You tried to warn me.” He curled up on the seat, covering his face with his hands. “You said she was a snake. How could I be so stupid? I don’t understand – why did she do this? I don’t understand!”

That’s the sixty-four thousand dollar question . More likely a number with a lot more zeros behind it. She’d seen Sunset, watched her with Tony at the office, at events they’d attended –she’d acted like the perfect, devoted, loving girlfriend. How could it all have been an act? Was it possible for someone to want money that badly? It made no sense to her.

Pepper reached out and stroked Tony’s hair. If Sunset wanted money so much, why not marry Tony? As the wife of one of the richest – if not the richest – men in the world, Sunset would have had everything she ever wanted. Including a husband who obviously worshipped her. Tony would have laid the world at her feet if she’d asked for it.

Tony’s shoulders were shaking and Pepper realized he was crying. She pulled him to her, resting his head on her shoulder. “Shhhh… I’m here.”  She wanted to tell him it would all be okay, but she’d never lied to him. Now wasn’t the time to start.

 

Chapter Text

 

“Set up a meeting for next week. Tell them they better have a working prototype or I’m pulling their funding.”

“Yes, Ms. Potts.”

“Be sure to confirm me for the – “ A crash outside her office door broke Pepper’s line of thought. A crash and what sounded like – a horse whinnying? “What was that?”

“I’ll check.” Lori put her pad down and moved toward the door.

Before she could reach it, the door opened and Tony walked in. Staggered in, more accurately. Staggered in leading a pony. The pony was clearly unhappy to be there and planted its hooves firmly in the carpet, tearing large grooves into the nap.

“Come on, Thunder!” Tony tugged on the rope connected to the pony’s halter until it finally moved forward. “Pepper! Happy birthday!”

Oh, my God. “My birthday was last week, Tony.” She leaned back in her chair. “Lori, call Happy and have him come up here and collect Mr. Stark, please.”

“Yes, Ms. Potts.” Lori shook her head as she maneuvered around Tony and the reluctant pony. She’d been Pepper’s assistant for years and she thought she’d seen it all. Apparently, she was mistaken.

“Rascal! It’s so good to see you!” Tony swung his arms open to offer her a hug, but he missed as she sidestepped.

“It’s Ms. Raczka to you, Mr. Stark.” She’d always thought it was cute that he’d taken her email, raczkal@stark.com, and turned it into ‘Rascal’, but today she was less than amused. She left the office and closed the door a little more firmly than was necessary.

“Tony, what are you doing?” It came out more as a plea than question.

“I brought you a present!” He pulled on the rope and brought the pony to her desk. “Tada! This is Thunder, he’s a miniature horse.”

Pepper ignored the rope when he tried to hand it to her. “Why would you get me a pony?”

“He’s not a pony, he’s a horse. And girls love horses. And I forgot your birthday.” He leaned over Pepper and tried to kiss her. “I’m sorry. I tried not to forget this year. I really did. I’m sorry, say you’ll forgive me.”

“God – no – “ She pushed him away. He smelled of scotch and cigarettes and something else she assumed had to do with the pony.

“He’s a miniature horse.” Tony repeated. “I couldn’t fit a real one in my car.”

“You brought him in your car? On the freeway?” Getting up, she looked out the window. No CHP cars were down there, thank God. This was LA, but still, you’d think a pony in a car would get some attention.

“How else would he get here? He doesn’t have exact change for the bus.” He chuckled at his own joke. “You want a drink? I want a drink. Thunder wants a drink.”

“No, and you don’t need one.” Before she could stop him, he was at the bar, pulling a bottle out. “Tony, put it back. You’ve had enough for one day.” Pepper grabbed the bottle and tired to pull it out of his hands, he wouldn’t give it up, stumbling into her.

“I’m still awake, right?” He pushed his nose against hers and stared cross eyed at her. “Then I haven’t had enough.”

“Please, Tony – “ The door opened and she sighed with relief when she saw it was Happy. “Get Thunder out of here.”

“What do I do with him?” Happy eyed the pony warily. It eyed him back the same way, baring its large teeth.

“I don’t care. Sell him to a dog food company – just get him out of my office!”

“Uh oh…” Tony giggled behind her.

Turning, Pepper saw Thunder dropping clods of shit onto her carpet. “I knew it was a mistake to wonder what else could go wrong today.”

Happy grabbed the rope and pulled the pony out of the office. “I’ll be back for Tony as soon as I figure out what to do with this thing.”

From the doorway, Lori met her gaze. “I’ll send up someone from janitorial.”

“Send up new carpet while you’re at it.” Pepper grabbed Tony’s arm and shoved him toward the sofa. “Sit.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He plopped down on the sofa and wriggled his ass. “I get so horny when you boss me around. I don’t know why people bitch about sexual harassment. It’s great.”

“I am not sexually harassing you.” Sitting beside him, she noticed for the first time that his lip and cheek were swollen. “What happened to your face?”

“Thunder’s a backseat driver.” He giggled.

“Did you have an accident?” Hit and run was probably easier to deal with than DUI, but it’d still hit the papers. “Tony, what am I going to do with you?”

“I wish you’d fuck me. Or at least kiss me.” He giggled and then his face turned sad. “But I screwed that up, didn’t I?”

“This has to stop. Stay there.” She got up from the sofa and returned to her desk. “Yesterday you urinated in the fountains at the Bellagio, last week you went skinny dipping in the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel, stole a messenger’s bicycle and rode through Planet Hollywood – you’re lucky Arnold wasn’t there, and you owe him an apology for what you said about him. Then you reported your car stolen – only it wasn’t, you were so drunk you forgot where you parked it.”

“Hey, they found it, didn’t they? I pay taxes – they’re public servants – “ He waved a hand. “They should serve.”

“Oh, they did. A warrant for your arrest. Luckily, we were able to have the charges of insurance fraud dropped.” Pepper sifted through the list on her desk. “Oh, and here’s my personal favorite – thrown out of a strip club for taking your clothes off.”

“It was a strip club! They didn’t want me to take my clothes off! Sue ‘em for false advertisement!” Tony giggled at the memory. “I’m too sexy for my shirt! Too sexy for my shirt! I made fifty bucks before they threw me out.”

“Tony, you have to stop this.” Going back to the sofa, she sat down beside him again. “I’ve lost track of the lawsuits, the arrests – and you’re killing our stock prices.”

“I’m the public face – “ Thumping his chest, he grimaced. He’d forgotten about the bottle in his hand. “Damn, this is still full.”

She didn’t stop him when he opened the bottle and tipped it back, taking a huge drink. Tony had spent the last month in an alcoholic haze. He’d been lucky so far in that he hadn’t hurt anyone, including himself, and hadn’t tried to take the suit out when he was drunk – though she was afraid it was only a matter of time even with the security protocols he’d put in place after his birthday party.

“I’m gonna be – “ Tony leaned over and retched onto her lap.

“I’m going to kill you.” Pepper covered her face with her hands. “I’m going to kill you.”



Pepper paused inside the door of her condo. The light in the kitchen was on and she could hear the television; she knew she’d turned both off when she’d left that morning.  “You’re being paranoid, Pepper. Nobody breaks in and turns on the lights and the TV.”

For the first time, she wished that she’d agreed to let Tony set up sensors for Jarvis to monitor her condo. She’d always argued against it, enjoying the privacy and solitude away from Tony’s constant monitoring of the world around him. Now, however, she wished she had given in to his suggestion that she at least have voice activated sensors  to contact Jarvis.

“Who’s there?” Pepper cringed as she heard herself say the same stupid thing people always said in scary movies. The same people she mocked for thinking the axe murderer hiding behind the door would answer them.

Pulling her phone out of her purse, she pressed the icon for Jarvis as she stepped cautiously into the kitchen. The AI answered at the same time she spotted the man in the leather coat sitting at her breakfast bar eating a bowl of cereal. “What are you doing here, Mr. Fury?”

“Miss Potts?” Jarvis asked.

“We need to talk.” Fury pushed the bowl away. “And you really need a better selection of cereal, it took a ton of sugar to make this crap edible.”

“It’s nothing, Jarvis. False alarm.” Pepper jabbed her thumb on the end call icon. “Get out of my house. If you want to talk to me, make an appointment.”

“Oh, you don’t want me to make an appointment, this is not a meeting you want your stockholders to know about. I’m here to tell you that you need to get Stark under control.”

“Excuse me?”

“Stark. He is out of control. You need to rein him in before he does something stupid. Or more stupid than the shit he’s already done.”

She tossed her purse onto the counter. “You need to get out of my house. Out!”

“I’m not joking, here, Pepper.” Fury leaned back against the counter. “Rein him in, get him under control – “

“Miss Potts. We’re not friends.”

“Miss Potts. You’re absolutely right, we’re not friends.” He conceded. “Despite that, you can consider this a friendly warning. The people above me – “ Fury cocked his head as if listening to voices from on high. “ – they’re getting nervous. And when they get nervous – well, let me just say you don’t want that to happen. Get him dried out and under control.”

Get. Out.” She moved until they were practically nose to nose. “You break into my house – tell me to get my boss under control – and eat my cereal – “

He didn’t blink. Bigger threats than Pepper Potts had been in his face before.

“He’s hurting and he’s making a spectacle of himself, but it’s hardly the first time.” That was true, but Tony was doing it in spades this time. Pepper wasn’t defending him, and she was nearly to the end of her rope trying to get him corralled, but she wasn’t about to let Fury know. “It’s none of your business. It’s none of SHIELD’s business. It’s damned sure not the business of the people above you.”

“On the contrary, Miss Potts. I’ve needed to bring Stark in to consult on an important issue and so far I haven’t been able to catch him during a sober moment. I’m pretty sure he hasn’t had any lately.”

“He isn’t drinking all the time.” That was a lie but, as she’d said, none of Fury’s business.

“The hell he isn’t.” He shot back. “He dived in the bottle a month and a half ago and hasn’t come up for air since. How long do you think it’ll be before he’s out in the suit, drunk as a skunk, and tearing up Los Angeles? I can’t let that happen.”

“It won’t happen.”

“Oh, really?” Fury crossed his arms over his chest. “And I suppose you can guarantee that?”

“I can. Jarvis has instructions not to allow any of the suits to be taken out if Tony isn’t completely sober.”

“Jarvis? Who? Jarvis?” He tapped his chin thoughtfully. “Oh, you mean the computer that runs Stark’s house? The one that Stark designed? The one he programmed? The one he can give orders to? The one he can fucking reprogram? That Jarvis?”

“There’s a safety protocol in place that Tony can’t override, he set it up himself.” Pepper had made sure that was something in place since his birthday party.

“He set it up himself? Let me think…. what could possibly go wrong with that, hmm?”

“Tony doesn’t have the code to override Jarvis on this.” Pepper ignored the snark. Compared to Tony, Fury was an amateur. “He can’t.”

“The champion computer genius of the world – the guy who makes Bill Gates look like he’s building pocket calculators – this guy – he can’t get the code?” He raised his eyebrows skeptically. “The guy who built an iron suit? In a cave? From a box of scraps? And made it fly? He can’t get the code?”

“Jarvis won’t – Tony wouldn’t – “ Pepper sighed  “He’ll get over her. What Bain did to him –she hurt him badly but he’ll get over it, he just needs some time.”

“He needs time? Well, of course.” He nodded in agreement. “You have forty-eight hours. If he’s not sober and out of the public eye by then, I’ll have him brought in and confined for as long as it takes for him to dry out.”

“You wouldn’t dare.” Pepper jabbed her finger into his chest as he stood up. “You don’t have the authority to arrest him.”

“Arrest him?” Fury gave a bark of laughter. “Who said anything about arresting him? I’m not a traffic cop, Miss Potts. In case you haven’t figured it out, SHIELD isn’t your local cops on the corner. We don’t need a warrant to come and pick him up.”

“No, you’re all Men In Black – and don’t think I care, either. You can’t touch Tony.”

“I can do far more than touch him, Miss Potts. I can and I will.” He stepped past her. “Forty-eight hours. After that he’ll be in a very small room with a blanket and nothing else until he dries out.”

“Get out!” She growled at him. “Out!”

Pepper kept her back stiff and her composure until the front door closed behind Fury. Then she collapsed onto one of the stools next to the breakfast bar. “Oh, my, God.”

She had no doubt that Fury would do exactly what he threatened. Tony had told her how he’d been confined to the house after his – disastrous – birthday party. SHIELD agents had held him hostage in his workshop while he worked on finding a replacement for the palladium in the RT before it killed him. Phil had even threatened to Taser him if he tried to leave.

“Phil!” Reaching for her purse, Pepper pulled her phone out and scrolled through her contacts. There was one SHIELD agent she trusted, the one who’d helped when Stane was running berserk in his mongrel version of Tony’s suit. He’d been there afterwards to help cover for the damage done in the battle and to explain Stane’s death.

Tapping the icon for Phil’s number, she waited impatiently for him to answer. They’d built a friendship after the battle, after the press conference where Tony had ignored the agent’s carefully crafted story, and the disaster of the Stark Expo droid attacks had strengthened it even more. Phil would help her if he could.

“Pepper, it’s good to hear from you.”

Just hearing Phil’s calm voice helped soothe her nerves. “Phil, I need your help. I really, really need your help.”

“I’d be happy to help you any way I can, Pepper. I assume this is about Stark?” Phil opened a new tab on his browser and Googled Tony Stark. He frowned at the top three links. It’d only been eighteen hours since the last incident, Stark was definitely on a roll.

“He’s not handling this break up well. At all.”

“I’m sure the paternity suit was quite a surprise.” He agreed.

“How do you know – ” She rubbed her forehead. “Stupid question, never mind.”

“I’m not sure what I can do, my own love life hasn’t been marked with a lot of successes.” He ignored the piece of popcorn thrown his way from the other end of the sofa. “But you can count on me to do whatever I can, Pepper. Stark’s a pain in the ass, but he doesn’t deserve this.”

“Fury was here and he said that he’s going to lock Tony up if I don’t have him sobered up in forty-eight hours. I’ve been trying to sober him up for years, why does he think I can do it in two days? I need your help, but I don’t want you to get in any trouble. If it’s a conflict – ”

“Director Fury was there – when?” Coulson frowned. He hadn’t been aware that his boss had left the base. Someone had dropped the ball and that someone would find themselves guarding a listening post in Siberia tomorrow.

“He just left. I came home to find him in my kitchen. God, I wish I had a Taser.”

Phil motioned Clint to come closer and hit the mute icon on his phone. “I need you to do me a favor.”

“Anything.” The other man winked.

“Barton.”

Clint straightened. That tone meant business. “What’s up, boss?”

“Find Stark, make contact, and stay close. We need to get him sobered up and out of Fury’s crosshairs before he ends up in K-Block.”

The other man’s eyebrows went up. K-Block was not a good place. “I’m on it.” He leaned in to steal a kiss before Phil could unmute his phone.

“Pepper, it’s going to be okay.” Phil said reassuringly as he watched Clint shoulder into his leather jacket and leave their apartment. “I’ve got my best agent on it.”

Pepper sagged with relief. “Thank you, Phil. I knew I could count on you.”

“Of course you can. After all, what are friends for?”

 

Thirty-six hours later, Pepper was writing yet another large check to clean up one of Tony’s messes, this one to the Reno police department. Phil stood beside her, calm as always; a faint, pleasant expression on his face as they waited. She could feel him nearly vibrating with tension, he was just as mad as she was, but was hiding it with a skill she envied.

The sergeant unlocked the handcuffs holding the two men to the iron pipe embedded in the cement floor. “It’s your lucky day, Mommy came and bailed you out.”

“Thank you, kind sir.” Tony gave the man a sloppy salute.

“Let’s go, sunshine.” Clint grabbed Tony’s arm and hustled him through the doorway between the holding area and the front lobby. “Pepper, good to see you. Phil… yeah, I know. Let’s go.”

“And don’t come back. I see either of you two in town again – “ The uniformed officer in the lobby let the threat hang in the air.

“They won’t be back.” Pepper assured him as she followed them outside.

Phil took a deep breath. “Thank you, Chief Lucas, I appreciate this.”

“If they weren’t friends of yours, Coulson, I’d have thrown them in with the bikers just for the fun of it.”

“That wouldn’t have ended well.” Phil grimaced at the thought.

“I mean what I said about them not coming back. Nobody comes into my town and gets away with this kind of thing.” He shook his head. “Damn disrespectful.”

“I understand, Chief.” Phil nodded in agreement. “They won’t be back.”

They shook hands and Phil walked outside. He took a deep calming breath before getting into the rented limo. Stark was lying passed out across one seat, his head pillowed on Pepper’s lap.

Barton was lounging on the other seat, one leg stretched out along the leather cushions and Phil swept his leg off so he could sit down. Reaching behind him, he pressed the button to put up the glass partition between themselves and Hogan.

“Report, Barton.”

Clint looked at Pepper and then back at Phil. “Boss?”

“I doubt there’s anything Miss Potts hasn’t heard before when it comes to Stark.” Phil laced his fingers together to keep from reaching out and strangling Stark in his sleep. “Report.”

“Okay. Well, we were okay at the casinos.” Clint clearly remembered not being thrown out of either casino they had gambled at. Though they were asked politely – or at least civilly – to leave Circus Circus after he’d told Tony that the juggler was using stickum on his hands. Which was clearly unprofessional. He might have told a few other people besides Tony, he knew he did tend to get loud when he was pissed off. But the manager had said to come back when they were sober so that counted as okay as far as Clint was concerned.

“Then we picked up some hook – um – ladies – “ He hesitated, these weren’t details Miss Potts needed to hear, in his opinion. “Ladies. Nice, really nice ladies.”

“Please, if I had a nickel for every prostitute Tony’s picked up, I wouldn’t be sitting here. I’d be retired and on a beach somewhere.” Pepper told him.

“So we got a room and we drank and played some cards and somewhere in there I passed out.”

There was silence. He looked from Phil to Pepper and back. Clearly, neither of him were satisfied with his story. Shrugging, he rested his head against the window and closed his eyes.

“Chief Lucas was upset about the goat’s involvement.” Phil said.

“Okay, first of all – “ Clint turned and held up a hand. “Nobody had sex with the goat! Are we clear on that?” Satisfied that they believed him on that point, he rubbed at his aching temples

“Barton.” Phil said firmly. “You were supposed to keep Stark out of trouble. That didn’t happen.”

Clint wished a giant sized bottle of aspirin would magically appear and say it loved him. “I’ve got a good explanation.”

“Great, I’d love to hear it.” Pepper said.

It was close to the same tone he’d heard Phil use on people who weren’t cooperating with him. Clint risked at glance at Pepper. Her eyes were locked on him and promised a slow filleting at the first opportunity. He shivered. Worst fucking assignment ever!

“I did my best but – I screwed up – I’m sorry.” He admitted. “I’ve never met anybody who could drink me under the table – well, except for Natasha and she’s Russian so…” Shrugging, he continued. “So I thought I’d just get him shitfaced and make sure he was somewhere safe to sleep it off.”

“You tried to match Tony drink for drink?” A smile lifted the corner of Pepper’s lips. She looked down at Tony sleeping peacefully on her lap and slid a hand through the tousled hair. “Again, wishing I had a nickel for everyone who’s tried that and failed.”

“No joke. I figured his reputation was just that – reputation. But holy Jesus, he can put the booze away.” Barton grinned, clearly impressed. “It was okay at first, we were playing poker and – Phil, I have never been in a game that fucking big, you wouldn’t believe how much money was on the table. In another life… ah, man.”

Phil sighed. “Barton.”

“Anyway, we left when the house said they couldn’t cover any more of Tony’s bets and they wouldn’t put the title to the casino in the pot. Circus Circus was a mistake, okay, I admit – “ He grinned and ducked his head like a five year old getting caught swiping a cookie. “I knew better, but I couldn’t resist. And it’s not my fault – totally not my fault that their juggler was using stickum and the sword swallower had a fake sword. Who the fuck uses one of those collapsible swords? That’s cheating.”

“And you felt obligated to tell everyone?”

“I only told Tony.” The place was loud and he had to yell, again not his fault.

“They asked you to leave.”

“They didn’t bar us though.” Clint pointed a finger at Phil. “They didn’t say we couldn’t come back.”

“Just to come back sober?” Pepper knew the fine line between the two requests. “They mean don’t come back at all, they’re just being polite.”

The agent shrugged. “Not like I’ll be back anyway.”

“You haven’t explained the goat.” Phil reminded him.

“I’m getting there! Don’t rush me, and I need some aspirin. We hit a club – “

“A strip club.” Phil pulled a bottle of aspirin from his inside pocket and handed them to Barton.

“A strip club, yes.” He popped the bottle open and dry swallowed a couple or five. “Tony said we should take one home with us and do a threesome. I told him I’m gay, so not so interested in the girls.”

“Is that all you told him?”

Clint grinned at Phil, the other man’s pale blue eyes were hot and jealous in his otherwise impassive face. “I told him I was a married man. And he said that was too bad, ‘cos he’d like to fuck me. Which I took as a compliment. If I were single, I’d have been all over it, but, you know?” He winked at his husband.

Pepper stifled a laugh at the indignant look that flashed across Phil’s face before vanishing behind his usual calm.  It dawned on her that this was more than just a joke from one agent to another – they were a couple. Phil had a boyfriend! No, a husband – and she’d need all the details on that once this mess was wrapped up.

“One of the uh… ladies, that we picked up does a Bo-Peep act and she has a goat. One of the little ones that will fall over if you freak them out. She uses a goat because it’s hard to work on stage with sheep, which I can understand. Not all animals are performers. Poodles are pros, but those little Pekinese are just too freaking nervous for – “

Phil cleared his throat and Clint decided to skip the circus trivia. “So Tony invited Bo-Peep and her goat and um… I can’t remember her name, the really limber chick, back to the hotel.” He shrugged. “I just went along to keep an eye on him.

“And nobody had sex with the goat.” Clint pulled his phone out of his pocket. “Here, I’ve got video. See, there’s the goat eating over in the corner – room service brought up stuff from the salad bar – and there’s Tony and the two girls on the bed.”

“You watched them have sex?” Phil looked away from the video, not bothered by the sex so much as the fact that his husband had both watched and videoed it.

“Free porn right in front of me? Hell, yeah, I watched! Stark’s like a machine.” He bit his lip and shot an apologetic glance at Pepper. “Sorry, Miss Potts. I’m still a little drunk.”

She waved away his apology. It wasn’t the first time she’d heard about Tony’s sexual prowess, and it wasn’t always from Tony.

“Erase that, please.” Phil reached for Clint’s phone, but the younger man pulled it out of reach.

“Whoa, no! It’s proof nobody fucked the goat, so I should probably hang onto it.” He put the phone back in his pocket. “Just in case.”

“I’m sorry, Pepper.” Phil told her. “I should have asked Natasha to keep an eye on Tony.”

“No, no, don’t apologize. You tried and I appreciate it.” Pepper reached across the gap between their seats and when Phil took her hand, she squeezed hard. “Tony’s corrupted people made of stronger stuff. I still remember the monk he managed to make break a twenty year vow of silence. He’s like kryptonite.”

“That’s an excellent description. He’s the only person I know besides Barton who’s been able to make Natasha angry.”

“She deserved it.” It was still a sore point for Pepper that Fury had put a SHIELD agent in the company and gotten her that close to Tony. “Fury said something about people above him and I get the feeling – “

“He said what?” Phil leaned forward in the seat. “What did he say about them?”

“That they were getting nervous. Why?” She frowned. “Is that something I should be concerned about? More concerned about, I should say, since I’m already well past concerned.”

“Yes.” While he couldn’t tell Pepper about the World Council, he could at least warn her of the danger. “Director Fury appears to act without answering to anyone, but that’s not exactly the case. There’s a group of people who can issue orders to him or override his orders if they deem it necessary. If they decide something should be done about Stark’s behavior, it’ll be completely out of his hands.”

“Which is a nice way of saying you don’t want that to happen.” Clint told her. “If I’d know they’re thinking of getting involved, I’d have just knocked him on the head or something and let him sleep it off after we left the poker game.”

“Clearly this calls for more drastic action.” Phil frowned. “We need to get him to a private clinic or rehab facility and force him to dry out.”

Pepper smiled and shook her head. “I’ve tried that. There’s always someone on the staff who’s willing to take a bribe, or he fools the counselors into thinking he’s seen the error of his ways and volunteers to help clean the garage where he hotwires a car and drives through a gate, or he uses a handheld video game to hack into the security system and unlock all the doors so he can sneak out.”

“How did he use a handheld video game to hack a security system?” Clint knew Stark was insanely smart but even genius had its limitations.

“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “It didn’t even have the ability to connect to the internet or other systems.”

“What game was it?”

“Barton.” Phil said warningly.

“Sorry, boss.”

They rode in silence for several minutes. Phil watched Pepper absently stroking Tony’s hair while Clint closed his eyes and waited for the aspirin to kick in.

An idea worked its way past the pounding in Clint’s head. “So he needs to be somewhere isolated without access to alcohol, technology, and vehicles; as well as having someone who can’t be bribed watching him, right?”

“Right.” She nodded. “Or have spare parts to build an escape vehicle.”

“Does he still own his parent’s house? That’s pretty isolated, isn’t it?” He asked.

“Yes, it’s way out on the end of the island. Tony never goes out there unless he has to. I’ve been out there a few times to make sure it’s being maintained, but it’s still the way it was when his parents died.”

“They died in 1992, so there’s probably no internet connected to the house?”

Pepper wasn’t sure where Clint was going with this. “The house has limited connectivity. There’s an old interface to Jarvis in his bedroom, that’s the only one. His father had an old computer with a dial-up connection in his office. The thing is ancient, I’m not even sure it would work.”

“Any cars out there? Motorcycles? Boats? Bikes? Anything?”

“Two cars, I think. His mother’s car and one of his father’s sports cars – “ She shook her head. “Why are you asking?”

“I think that’s where you should take him. It’s isolated. “ Clint began ticking the items off on his fingers. “You take out the computer and cut the phone lines to the house so there’s no internet connection or phone. If there’s walkie-talkies, radios, ham radios, Game Boys, whatever – box them up and get rid of them.  Anything with wheels or a motor – get it out of there. And clean all the booze out of the house, of course. That kinda goes without saying.”

“There’s no one to interact with and no way to communicate with the outside world.” Phil smiled. “That’s brilliant.”

“Lock him up in his parent’s house?” Pepper wasn’t convinced that was the best idea. “Did you miss where I said he never goes out there unless he has to? I don’t think making him more depressed is going to help the situation.”

“At this point, what’d’ya got to lose? He’s scraping bottom now.” Hanging out with Tony Stark had been fun, but at the same time Clint had seen Tony’s deliberate drive for self-destruction. “He keeps going like he’s been doing and he’s going to drink himself to death, piss off the wrong person who’ll kill him, or get locked up somewhere even his money won’t get him out of.”

“The Director bringing him in wouldn’t be a pleasant experience, but it’d be short term.” Phil told her. “But the Council… he could disappear.”

A chill ran down her spine. “Are you saying they’d kill him? That’s – that’s crazy. He’s too valuable – half of the technology SHIELD uses is Stark tech. The helicarrier would never have gotten off the ground if it wasn’t for Tony.”

“That’s all true. However…” The frightened look in Pepper’s eyes made him hesitate. “That same genius creativity…”

“He’s dangerous. He’s a loaded gun in the hands of a child.” Clint finished for him. He knew his husband. Phil didn’t want to destroy the world Pepper thought she lived in. “You know that new element he created in his basement – stop and think about that for a second. He created a new element. In his basement. Which he now wants to put in a big arc reactor thing like the one in his chest only I dunno – “ He made a gesture indicating the science had gone over his head. “ – way, way bigger and  more powerful. And then hook it up to the LA power grid and see if it’ll power the whole city.”

Pepper looked down at Tony. That sounded exactly like the kind of thing he’d come up with. “He wouldn’t actually – “

“Wouldn’t he?”

“If Tony were to do something like that, he’d run simulations and test it first to make sure it was safe.”

“Would he?” Clint shook his head. “I didn’t get the feeling he’s the kind of guy who runs a lot of simulations. You going to sit there and honestly say he’s never had something blow up in his face?” Never just tried something just to see what happens?

“No, but never with something that dangerous.” Even has she said it, she had a memory of him blasting himself backwards testing the so-called ‘flight stabilizer’.

“So not something like creating a new element in his basement with – what was that called? Cold fusion? I don’t know what that is, but it sounds pretty damn dangerous.”

It was rare that someone could box her into a corner like Barton was doing. “You missed your calling, Agent Barton. You should have been a lawyer.”

“Nah, I’d have to wear a suit all the time.” He shot a grin at Phil. “Listen, I’m not trying to bust your chops. I know normally Tony wouldn’t do something that freaking big without doing some tests, simulations, or whatever first. But he’s not normally drinking – at least not drinking like he is now. He put me under the table and I’m not a lightweight. What if he drinks himself past the point of just thinking about doing something dangerous – and actually does it?”

She wanted to defend Tony, say he’d never do anything to put people in danger, but she couldn’t. Clint was right, Tony had never been this drunk for this long, and had never been this self-destructive. “If we do this, isolate him at the house – we have to have someone with him he can’t bribe. Happy could do it, Tony trusts him.”

“Happy is an employee.” Phil reminded her. “A friend, yes, but he’s not used to being in a position of authority in their relationship.”

“There’s Rhodey, he’s known Tony since they were at MIT. He’s used to handling him.”

“That’s the same guy who suited up and got in a fight with him at his birthday party, right?” Clint asked. “Destroyed half the house? That guy?”

Pepper winced. Not Rhodey’s finest moment. What the hell was he thinking when he put on the spare suit and confronted Tony? “Who do you suggest? And don’t say Natalie.” She held up a hand. “Because he doesn’t like her and neither do I. How about you, Phil? You’re good at handling him.”

“I couldn’t keep him from announcing he was Iron Man, remember?” Phil shrugged. “I hate to admit it, but I didn’t see that coming.”

“It’s got to be you, Pep.” Clint added with a matching shrug.

“No. I have a company – make that two companies – to run. I don’t have time to babysit him. I’m not his assistant anymore.” She shook her head. “There has to be someone else.” When neither of them said anything, she shook her head again. “Absolutely not. No.”

“Let’s call Fury and have him toss him in K-Block.” The archer told Phil. “Solves everything.”

“What is K-Block?” Pepper asked.

“Complete isolation. No human contact allowed.” Phil took his phone out of his pocket. “It’s not the solution I’d recommend, however it appears we’re out of options.”

“You can’t be serious. Just lock him up and leave him alone?”

“I didn’t mind having nothing to read or do, I can kill time with the best of them – but the silence was just a bitch.” Clint gestured at his head. “You know that kind of silence where all you hear is that ringing in your ears? That kind of silence.”

“You can’t do that – you can’t – “ Pepper reached out and stopped Phil from hitting the call button. “Tony can’t handle silence. He can’t – his thoughts – his brain – Tony’s brain is on. It’s just on . All the time. When it’s too quiet, he can hear them – not like voices – “ She gestured helplessly, not knowing how to express what she barely understood. “Ideas. Things he’s been working on, things he’s thought about working on, random things – they pile on and won’t stop. He can’t stop thinking. His brain is just on – all – the – time.”

“Like Lucy in the chocolate factory?” Clint asked. “The candy is on that non-stop conveyor belt and she can’t keep up?”

“Yes! Like that, exactly like that! That’s why there’s always loud music or something playing – it’s why the ‘bots and equipment in the workshop make the sounds they do. Background noise helps him focus on one thing at a time.”

Phil thought back over the times he’d been in Stark’s workshop. The ‘bots had made a variety of sounds; whirring, chirping, and other strange mechanical noises he’d assumed couldn’t be quieted. “It’s not that he can’t make them be silent, you’re saying he doesn’t want to?”

“Even the suit makes sounds just to make sounds. And it’s one reason he drinks when he’s not working. It slows everything down – it makes things quieter – ” She glanced down at Tony sleeping peacefully, completely unaware of his fate being out of his hands, and felt uncharacteristic tears welling up. “Phil, you can’t do this to him. He’ll go crazy.”

“Pepper – “ Phil put his phone away and took her hands in his, giving her what he hoped was a reassuring smile. “I don’t want to do anything that’ll hurt him. I would never do that. But we’ve got to do something before Fury or the Council takes the decision out of our hands.”

“Hey, we’ll help. We will. I promise.” Clint recognized the desperate look in her eyes, he’d seen it too many times. He felt guilty for pushing her into a corner and he reached out to pat her arm. “I like Tony, okay, yeah, he got me thrown in jail – but he treated me like I’m an equal, not like I’m some moron ‘cos I didn’t even finish high school.”

"Despite what people think, Tony doesn't judge people, not like that.” Pepper started pulling herself back together. Later, when there was time, she’d take ten minutes and have a breakdown. “It’ll take some time to get the house ready. Everything has to be packed up and moved out.”

“Give me two hours.” Phil pulled his phone out again and tapped one of his contacts. “I need a cleaning team.” He said when it was answered.

“Two hours?” Pepper asked.

“I’m with you, Pepper, that’s way too much time. I think they can do it in an hour.” Clint ignored the dirty look Phil shot at him. “What? It’s not like there’s any bodies.”

“Phil, we can’t just have people go into the house without being there.” It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Phil or his people, but this was Tony’s parent’s house. It was practically a shrine in his eyes. “There’s family items – personal items.”

Phil had finished giving his team their orders and ended the call. “I understand, Pepper, I do. I wouldn’t want strangers coming into my parent’s house without being there to oversee everything.”

“However…” Clint added softly.

“However, this is my team. They’re handpicked people that I’ve worked with for years and that I trust my life with. They won’t touch anything, look at anything, or disturb anything – that isn’t absolutely necessary. No matter what they see, they’ll never tell anyone.”

“Trust me, this is nothing compared to some of the stuff they’ve had to do, it’s not like there’s any bodies.”

“Not helping, Clint.” Phil chided him. “I’ve sent the instructions, now we just need to get Tony out there.”

“And make him stay there.” Clint added.

“Again, not helping.”

“He’s right. If all it took was me telling him to stop, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” She frowned, trying to get ahead of Tony in the things he’d think of doing once he woke up somewhere he didn’t want to be. “This very, very crazy conversation.”

Tony jerked and mumbled something. Pepper rubbed her hand in soothing circles on his back until he quieted. “There’s nothing to stop him from walking into town and using a phone or getting a ride. Unless… “ She smiled. “Unless he doesn’t have any clothes.”

“You want to keep him naked?” Phil blinked. He hadn’t seen that one coming. Beside him, Clint was laughing and saying it was a kinky idea.

“No, not naked. Not completely.” There was no way she was going to be cooped up with a naked Tony Stark for days. He’d definitely get the wrong idea. “He’ll have boxers to wear.”

“You don’t think he’ll walk into town in his boxers?” There was a tiny town a few miles from the Stark house.

“It’s not just the house that’s special, Phil, it’s the neighbors and the town, too. He grew up there – when he wasn’t in one school or another – this is home. It’s the one place he doesn’t do embarrassing things. He cares what they think.”

“Makes sense. If I had a hometown, I’d want to be able walk down the street without people telling me to get out of town.” Clint nodded. “And for sure not in just my shorts.”

“Tony’s parent’s room is off limits. It’s exactly like it was the day they died. He won’t put on his father’s clothes, not even to walk into town and get a drink.”

Phil took out his phone and sent a message to his team leader to remove all of Stark’s clothing except for his underwear and to leave his parent’s room alone. “Everything’s in motion. All we have to do now is get sleeping beauty to his castle.”

Pepper sighed. “I just hope he doesn’t think I’m the wicked witch.”



Chapter Text

 

Tony groaned as he woke up. His head hurt. If hurt meant seconds from imminent implosion. “Jarvis, what time is it?”

There was no answer.

“Jarvis?” Sitting up, he clutched his head as the room started spinning. “Fuck! Where the hell am I?” He could smell sea air, so he must be close to home. Although, it didn’t smell quite like Malibu. Stronger, saltier. Maybe he was out in Long Beach somewhere. Didn’t matter, he’d find his car and a fresh bottle and head home. Or somewhere with more bottles.

Carefully, he peeled his hands away from his eyes, keeping them squinted nearly closed to ward off the light. Tony slowly eased them open, groaning from the shards of pain lancing into his brain. He needed to start timing his partying so he could wake up in the dark.

Once he had his eyes open and adjusted to the ungodly bright light, he looked around. The first thing he saw was the Weird Science movie poster on the wall. “What the hell?” He was in his old bedroom at his parent’s house on Long Island. How had he gotten here? “I don’t remember a plane.” Lately he didn’t remember a lot of things, but he should have remembered getting on a plane.

“Jarvis.” He waited for a moment. “Jarvis!” Wincing, he clutched his head. “Jarvis, answer me.”

“What the hell?” Sliding out of bed, he staggered to the desk and tapped the interface embedded in the surface. Nothing happened. Even if the power was out, the house had a generator which would have kept the computer system running. Someone had to have shut it down.

His brain was too foggy to go through all the details, but it all boiled down to him being the only person who could shut the system down. The question was why? He never shut the system down. Ever.  “Jarvis, system command jaH!” He cringed. No more Klingon commands, there was no quiet way to say them.

Despite the startup command, Jarvis didn’t respond. Tony stared at the interface, genuinely confused. “Uh…” His bladder suddenly demanded his attention. “Piss first. Start Jarvis second.”

After addressing his bodily functions, washing his face, and rinsing the foul taste out of his mouth, Tony returned to the bedroom. He opened the closet door and found it empty. “Where are my clothes? Jarvis – damn.”

The dresser drawers were equally empty except for one which held several pairs of boxers and t-shirts. Otherwise, he had nothing to wear but the boxers and t-shirt he had on. This had to be somebody’s idea of a joke. “Rhodey, I’ll bet you did this.I’m going to kick your ass.”

Going downstairs, he peered into the living room. Rhodey wasn’t there. Tony caught the scent of bacon and his stomach rolled over. If Rhodey was in the kitchen, he wasn’t sure he could go in there after him.

“To hell with that.” He turned and headed toward the bar in the den. “A little hair of the dog to start the day.”

Running a hand over the dark cherry wood finish, Tony tugged firmly on one of the brass handles. The cabinet was older than he was and the doors tended to stick. It finally popped open and he reached inside to grab a bottle. His fingers didn’t find anything to grab. Leaning down he peered inside the cabinet. It was empty. For a moment, he thought he was hallucinating.  “This is not funny! You’ve gone too far, Rhodey!”

“Rhodey isn’t here, Tony.”

He raised up and looked over the cabinet. Pepper was standing in the doorway. “Pepper. Where’s my booze?”

“Gone.”

“Gone? Gone where?”

“I poured it down the drain.”

“What – you did what?”  She couldn’t have poured his booze out. “I’ve got scotch that’s older than the both of us combined and you poured it out?”

“Yup.” She nodded. “All of it. Every bottle in the house. Poured it out.”

“Why would you do that?” It was murder of some kind. Staggering to the sofa, he collapsed. “Are you some kind of temperance nut?”

“I’m someone who wants you to get your act together.” Pepper sat down beside him. “You’re going to kill yourself. I can’t just sit by and watch that happen.”

“Why not? Who cares? Who really cares?”

“I do. Rhodey and Happy – there’s a lot of people who care about you.”

He shook his head and then clutched it as pain rocketed through his skull. “You just named them all. Nobody else gives a damn. They care about their damn stock prices, but don’t could give a rat’s ass less about me.”

“I made breakfast, come have something to eat. You’ll feel better.” Getting up she held out her hand to him.

“I don’t want to eat. Where are my clothes?”

“I sent them to the penthouse in New York.”

“What the hell kind of devious plan do you have going on here, Potts?”

“The kind that gets you back on your feet. Come on, let’s eat before the bacon gets cold.”

“Bacon is good even if it’s cold.” Getting to his feet, Tony followed her to the kitchen. “You know I can just drive into town when I want a drink.”

“No, you can’t.” Pepper smiled as she sat down at the table. “No cars.”

“You can’t be serious.” Stalking to the door that led to the garage, he jerked it open. The garage was empty. “Where are my cars?”

“In New York – the motorcycles and the bicycles, too.”

“You’re forgetting I’m an excellent sailor.” He slammed the garage door, immediately regretting it as the sound reminded him he had a hangover.

“I didn’t forget, Tony. The boats are on their way to New York.”

“What…” He sat down at the table. “What are you planning to do? Keep me prisoner here? Rape me?” He winked. “I’d have to fake that – you can’t rape a willing soul.”

“You’re not a prisoner.” She ignored the rape comment. It was hardly the first time he’d offered to be her willing victim.

“You’re right.” Tony grabbed a piece of bacon off the plate and wolfed it down. “I can walk into town or to the first house down the beach.” It was only five miles. Fuck.

“I’ve talked to your neighbors and they’re behind me one hundred percent. No one is going to give you any liquor or a ride out of here.” At least, she hoped they wouldn’t. She’d talked to some of the locals, the ones who’d been here forever and were loyal to the Starks and explained what she was going to try to do. They’d agreed to help with her plan. She’d also asked – begged – the store owner not to sell Tony any booze if he did make it into town, and the man had agreed. Hopefully, he’d stick to it.

“Tony, you’re going to be a father. You need to shape up. Not only that, but your strip tease was posted on Youtube and our stock has taken another dip. You’re still the public face of SI –  and yes, know you hate hearing that – and you’re killing the company every time you get drunk and pull some crazy stunt.”

“I don’t care. I just don’t care anymore. Fuck the company, I hope it goes under.” Pouring himself a glass of orange juice, he took a drink and grimaced. It wasn’t as good without the vodka.

“What would your mother and father say if they heard you say that?”

Setting the glass down, he stared into her eyes for a long moment. “That’s a low blow, Potts.”

“Well, it’s where you are right now and you’ve dragged me into the gutter with you.” Getting up, she walked out of the kitchen.

 

He ate another piece of bacon and a piece of toast before he got up to search the house. It was a large house and hours later, Tony had to admit defeat. Pepper had outsmarted him. There was no booze, clothes, or transportation. Worse, there was no internet.

The house was situated out on the end of a spit of land, with ocean on both sides, and a private road leading out to the main road into town. The nearest neighbor was five miles down the beach and then another six or seven into town. He was screwed.

Eventually, he ended up in his parents’ room. His father’s clothes were there, but he wasn’t about to put them on. Pepper knew that. This room hadn’t been touched, except to be cleaned, since his parents’ death. His mother’s favorite sweater hung on the back of the chair in front of her dressing table as if she might come in any moment and put it on. The tie and jacket his father had worn to work that day lay on the bed and Tony ran his fingers over the material.

There was a photo album on the nightstand and he picked it up. His mother had kept it there, looking at it often, and telling him stories about the pictures. It was filled with pictures of his parents during the time they were dating, his father looking like a square and his mother like a hippie with her long hair held back by a flowered headband.

He smiled at the picture they made. Proof that opposites attract. There were wedding photos and pictures of his mother all through her pregnancy with him. Then there were the photos of him. His life had been catalogued from birth. His mother was an amateur photographer and he had been her favorite subject.

What would his parents think of this latest mess he’d gotten himself into? Would they be disappointed? No doubt they would, but he’d still be able to turn to them for support. He’d be able to cry on his mother’s shoulder and get advice from his father on how to protect himself next time. If his parents were still alive, he’d probably never gotten into this mess to begin with.

Sighing, he set the album back exactly where it had been on the table and went downstairs looking for Pepper. She was sitting in a chair on the beach, reading what appeared to be a trashy romance novel.

“Hey there.” She laid the book down.

“Congratulations, Potts.” He plopped onto the chair next to her. “Take a bow, you’ve outsmarted me.”

“This isn’t a game, Tony. I’m trying to help you.”

“I know. Believe it or not I appreciate it.”

They sat in silence for a time, watching the ocean roll up onto the sand and back out again. It was comfortable, a feeling Tony hadn’t had in a long time. He’d forgotten how good it felt to sit with Pepper and not talk, just enjoy being close to her. Casually, he reached out and took her hand.

“Drinking isn’t any fun anymore.” He admitted. “Getting drunk doesn’t give me that warm, fuzzy feeling like it used to. I always liked how it blunted the edges, but it’s not doing it.” He took a deep breath and let it out. “I drink until I’m numb and sick – and I still hurt. It hurts, Pepper. I can’t even – the pain is so bad I can’t stand it. I let her do it to me again. How could I be so stupid?”

“You’re not stupid. You’re human.” She squeezed his hand.

“I’d be better off if I was a ‘bot.” He’d be DUMM-R. Or DUMM-ST.

“I seriously doubt that. Tony, no matter what happens, or what you decide to do, there’s going to be a baby born. From what I’ve learned about Sunset – this baby is yours. She wouldn’t take this big of a risk on someone else’s baby.”

“No, she’s got it all figured out.” He laughed bitterly. “She convinced me – convinced me to convince her – that condoms weren’t necessary. Stupid me, I thought I’d eventually get her to reconsider her decision to not have children. Guess I’m better at persuasion than I thought.”

“You’ve always been good at persuasion, Tony.” Pepper couldn’t resist teasing him. “How many women have you persuaded?”

“Too many – but not the right one.” He sighed. “Jesus, Pep, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

“How about – “ She reached down to pick a book from the bag next to her chair. “You relax and read?”

Taking the book from her, he looked at the title. “Stephen King? You don’t think I’m suicidal enough?”

“It’s a fantasy novel, not horror. You’ll like it.”

“We’ll see.” He flipped open the cover. “What did you do to Jarvis, anyway?”

“I didn’t do anything to him. I just told him to cut communications with the house.”

“What if we need something?”

“We won’t. We have everything we need.” Smiling at him with far more confidence than she actually felt, Pepper pulled a bottle of water from her bag and handed him it to him.

 

They read until the sun began to set, then went inside for a simple dinner Pepper prepared. There was no computer, no internet, no television. Tony didn’t know how to function without a connection to the outside world. He paced back and forth through the living room until Pepper told him to sit down.

I’m going to kill you if you make one more trip across the room.” She pulled a deck of cards out of her bag and put them on the coffee table. “Gin Rummy, a penny a point.”

“What the hell kind of bag is that?” He sat down opposite her. “It’s like a freaking Bag of Holding.”

“You know I hate it when you talk D&D. You’re not that nerdy.” Shuffling the cards, she dealt them out efficiently.

“I am that nerdy, and it turns you on when I talk that way.” He rearranged his cards.

“You wish.” Pepper grabbed the quilt off the back of the sofa and wrapped herself up in it. “Aren’t you cold?”

“No, and it’s a good thing, because I seem to be all out of clothes.” Tony waved a hand to indicate his boxers and t-shirt.

“I adjusted the thermostat, but the furnace didn’t come on.”

“That’s because it’s turned off. It’s not winter yet. It’s not even fall. Toughen up, Potts.”

“It’s cold! There’s ocean on both sides of the house and there’s a breeze.”

“You California chicks are too thin blooded.”

“I’m not from California, which you might know if you ever read my resume or looked it up like you did Natalie’s.” She was still jealous of the way he’d all but drooled over the other woman. “I grew up in the Midwest and went to school there until I got my Masters at USC.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“You didn’t care. You just thought it was funny that I threatened to spray you with mace.”

“Not mace, Pepper, pepper spray. Hence the nickname.” Tony laid down a run of cards.

“Which I hate.” Putting down her own run, she stuck her tongue out at him.

“Too bad. Hey – “ He looked up at her and frowned. “Did you say USC?”

“Go Trojans.”

“You know I got my MBA at UCLA? This is not good.”

“I can see you’re really full of that Bruins spirit. How many UCLA shirts do you have? One?”

“Point taken.” She took the hand and he tossed down his cards. “Crap. I’ll light the fire if we call this one a practice hand.”

“Deal.”

Moving to the fireplace, Tony quickly had a fire started. It was chilly, not that he’d admit it to Pepper. He’d grown up here, but it’d been years since he’d spent any real time here – and he was wearing nothing more than a pair of boxers and a t-shirt. “This isn’t too bad, it only gets down into the low sixties at night. The house doesn’t have an air conditioner because the cross breeze keeps it cool during the day.”

“Keeps it pretty cool at night, too.” She snuggled deeper into the quilt.

“This is nothing. MIT’s in Boston – now there’s some cold weather. My boarding school in Virginia felt like the Bahamas comparatively. Not that I appreciated the warmer weather.”

“How old were you when you went to boarding school?”

“Eight.” Tony looked at the cards she’d dealt him and frowned. “Thanks for the handful of crap.”

“You’re welcome.” She grinned. “You hated it, the school, I mean.”

“I didn’t hate the school so much, it was for gifted children and I did really well academically. But – “ He shook his head. “I was lonely. Once dinner was over and we were on our own, I missed my parents. I just wanted to go home.”

“Your parents didn’t visit?”

“They did – Mom did. And I came home on long weekends and holidays. It’s not the same thing, though.” He looked up at her, curious. “Haven’t we talked about this before?”

“No, not really. You’ve mentioned being sent to boarding school a few times, but never really any details.”

“That’s because I hated it. MIT was a little better. Mom moved to a house just off campus, she wasn’t letting me go to college by myself as young as I was.” Tony laughed at the memory of his parents arguing over the move. “After a few days of being stubborn – and by stubborn I mean being alone – Dad moved too.”

“Your parents really loved each other, didn’t they?” The romantic tale of Howard and Maria Stark had inspired books, thousands of articles, and at least one TV movie, but Pepper knew first hand how a well oiled PR department could spin things.

“Yeah.” A smile softened his face. “They were always very affectionate, and – I would have been with them in the car that night, but they were kissing and acting all lovey-dovey. I remember knocking on their door –  there was a rule about knocking on their door, by the way – and it took a minute for my mom to open it. Her hair was messed up and dad was sitting on the bed with a pillow on his lap. I guess he didn’t want me to know he had a boner. So I thought I’d let them go alone and enjoy some time together.”

He sighed. “And they never came home. I always wondered if I’d been with them if maybe – guess that’s stupid, I’d have died with them probably.”

“There’s no way to know, Tony. It’s one of those things you wonder about all your life, but there’s no way to know the answer.” Pepper was proud of the way Tony had stopped looking for a way out of his current situation and that he hadn’t talked about wanting a drink in hours. However, he hadn’t said a word about what do about his child.  

“Do you think sending you to boarding school was a bad idea?” She asked as if it was just a stray thought.

“Uh, yeah .” He gave her a look that clearly said he couldn’t believe she’d even asked. “I already had tutors and I don’t think I learned any more there than I could have here – and I missed my mom.”

“And your father, too?”

“No – yeah. Okay, yeah.” He admitted. “I loved him. I don’t know if he loved me or not, he sure seemed happy to get rid of me.”

“Of course he loved you, Tony.” It made her sad that it was obvious to everyone but Tony that his father had loved him. So… you wouldn’t send your son – or daughter – off to boarding school?”

“Hell, no.”

“You’d want to be sure they knew you loved them, right?”

“Pepper, I know where this is going.” Not looking up from his cards, he shook his head. “I don’t want to talk about it.  We both know I’d be a lousy father.”

“I’m not going there. You won’t have to worry about it, anyway. You don’t have to be a father. You’ll just send money to take care of the kid. Sunset will raise it.”

He glared at Pepper. “I don’t believe in a parent not being involved in their child’s life. I can’t – I won’t just send checks and pretend I don’t have a kid. Or send them off to some boarding school because I’m afraid they’re smarter than I am!”

“Is that why your father sent you away?” She asked softly. This was dangerous ground. Tony had always carried around a bitterness towards his father, but at the same time  worshiped him.

“I dunno. I think so. Jesus, you missed your calling, Pepper. You should have been a shrink.” Adding up his points, he tossed his cards down. “He started looking at me funny. Like I scared him. And sometimes, I’d explain an idea I had and he – “ Tony shrugged. “He didn’t get it. He’d look at me like I was… I dunno. Like I was a freak.”

“I’m absolutely sure he never thought you were a freak, Tony. Maybe he thought he was doing what was best for you. Sending you somewhere that you’d be challenged.”

“Maybe. I never got up the courage to ask him.” Scooping up the cards, Tony shuffled and dealt a new hand. “So now that you’ve gotten me to admit I can’t not be involved – any ideas on how I’m supposed to be involved?”

“That depends on what kind of mother you think Sunset will be, and if can you handle joint custody?”

“Oh my God...” Laying his cards aside, he rubbed his hands over his face. “You’re kidding me, right? We both know what kind of mother she’s going to be. Lousy. Horrible.”

Pepper had the same opinion, but she needed to hear what Tony thought. If he felt the same way she did, then she’d put the second part of her plan into action. She didn’t believe for one minute that Tony would be happy with joint custody of any kind. Not with someone like Sunset.

“She’s thinking she’s won the big one. This baby is the winning lottery ticket.” He laid back, stretching out on the floor and closing his eyes. “The kid is going to be another Barbara Hutton or Christina Onassis. Some rich kid raised by servants and shipped to boarding school in Europe – or wherever is farthest from their mother – and then let loose on the jet set when they’re eighteen to raise hell.”

“Like another Tony Stark?” Pepper teased.

“Hey, I’m not that bad.” He craned his neck to look up at her. “Am I?”

“Sometimes.” She nodded. “I think you get less bad press than Milan Hyatt does just because she’s a woman. There’s different standards.”

“I do work, too. I actually do things besides partying. She doesn’t do anything .”

“I can’t argue with that. When you’re not giving me headaches, you build amazing things.” Tony on a design tear was something to see. He’d filed so many patents that he probably had his own wing at the patent office. “What are we going to do?”

“I’d rather – “ He sat up. “I’d rather take on the responsibility myself rather than let – than watch Sunset ruin our child’s life. I can’t believe I’m saying this, Pepper.” Tony shook his head in disbelief. “I want full custody.”

“Good.” Pepper smiled, proud of him for facing up to the situation and taking responsibility. “That’s what I was hoping you’d say.”

“But after what I’ve been doing lately, no court is going to give me custody of a baby.”

“Oh, please. First of all, you’re a kabillionaire and she’s a gold digging baby mama. That right there is enough to make a judge give you sole custody.” Pepper didn’t add that with his money they could buy a judge. She was keeping that to herself unless it turned out to be necessary. “But you’re right. You’ve got to dry out and shape up and – most importantly – get the press back on your side.”

“I can do that. I’ve done it before.” Tony picked up the cards and shuffled them again. “Easy peasy.”

“What we could do…” She took a deep breath and launched into her plan before she could talk herself out of it. “We could pretend to be a couple again. The press would eat up a story like that. Your broken heart healing by reuniting with your former girlfriend. Though I’m not really looking forward to being referred to as Pepperony again.”

“Are you serious?” Tony fumbled the cards and they scattered all over his lap and the floor. “You want to – to be with me – again?”

“Well, we’ll be pretending. At least, at first. I mean – “ Her face felt hot and Pepper knew she was blushing like a teenager. Damn it! “We can see where it goes from there.”

He nodded so hard his head hurt. “I’m good with that.”

“There’s plenty of dirt that can be spread about Sunset if we need to do it. Her relationship with you the first time – we kept that buried as much as possible while you were dating, but we can let it out. You were sixteen and she was an adult, she obviously took advantage of you. Plus her history of industrial espionage. Trust me, you will be the poor, innocent victim in all of this when I’m – I mean, when the public relations department is through.”

“You are a sneaky and conniving woman, Pepper Potts. Thank God you’re on my side.” He managed to collect the cards and shuffle them once more.

“You’re a lucky man.” She agreed, picking up her hand as he dealt the cards out.

“I feel lucky, sitting around in my shorts. And I am the victim, by the way.”

“Really? If you’d let her get in the tow truck and drive away, we wouldn’t be here now.”

“Well, if you’d given me another kiss and maybe come home with me like I asked, we wouldn’t be here, either.”

Anger flared up inside her, and Pepper threw her cards down. “So this is my fault?”

“I didn’t say that – exactly. What I meant was all you were doing was arguing with me about resigning as CEO and it was affecting our personal life – our dating life. You were giving me fewer and fewer kisses.” Her eyes had narrowed dangerously and Tony realized he’d stumbled into a part of relationship territory he knew nothing about. “We’d dated for six months and hadn’t even had sex yet! And you said we should take a break, remember?”

“Shut up, Tony.” She held up a hand. “You’re saying if we’d had sex, that you wouldn’t have started a relationship with her again?”

“Exactly. If I’d been blissfully happy, I wouldn’t have been lonely and angry and went home with her. It’s all your fault.” He smiled. “I’m glad we worked that out.”

“Me too.” Getting up, she picked up a pillow and walked around the coffee table. Tony started to get to his feet but she walloped him on the head with the pillow knocking him back on his butt.

“Hey!” He ducked as she swung at him again, scrambling to the sofa to grab a pillow to defend himself with. Pepper slammed her pillow into the back of his head before he could grab one. “Ouch!”

“My fault, huh?” She hit him again. “If I’d put out – we wouldn’t be in this mess – huh?”

She was definitely hitting him harder than she should have. Tony finally got his hands on a pillow and turned to face her. Just in time to get a face full of pillow. He stumbled back and landed on his ass on the sofa. “Okay, then, this is war, Potts, and I’m the guy who makes the weapons, remember?”

“Pillows aren’t bombs!” She stuck her tongue out at him. “I’m not afraid of you.”

They whacked each other, laughing and dodging around the living room until Pepper hit him hard enough for her pillow to burst open. There was a whoosh as some of the feathers fell into the fireplace. Burning feathers drifted everywhere.

“Oh, my God, Tony!” She stomped the mini fires out. “Don’t just stand there! Help me!”

“I’m barefoot!” He was laughing too hard to help her even if he’d had shoes on. “Where’s DUM-E and his fire extinguisher when I need him?”

Stomping out the last fluffy fireball, Pepper collapsed back on the sofa. “Only you could start a fire with a feather pillow.”

“Me?” He looked to the ceiling. “Do you see how she treats me? Everything is my fault.”

“Pick up your cards, Stark.” She picked up the cards she’d dropper earlier. “I’m going to kick your sexy butt one way or the other.”

Tony smirked. “So you noticed it’s sexy?”

Why did I say that out loud? “Just play. There’s a pair of shoes in new Chanel collection that I want, and you are going to pay for them.”

“Them’s fightin’ words, Potts.” He laid a run out on the table. “Go fish.”



Tony’s eyes began to droop after they’d played several hands. “I give up.” Yawning, he tossed his cards down. “I better quit before you own everything I have, including my shorts.”

“Five hundred dollars is hardly everything you have.” She rolled her eyes. “But it will buy my shoes. Or at least one of them.”

Standing up, he stretched and yawned again. “Where are you sleeping? In case I get the frights.”

“In the guestroom. And if you get the frights, I still carry pepper spray.”

“Just my luck.” He checked the front door to be sure it was locked. This part of Long Island was fairly peaceful, but old habits died hard.

Walking Pepper to her room, he leaned against the doorframe. “You sure you don’t want company?”

“Tony, now is not the time. You’re still hurting – I’m not going to be someone you use to make yourself feel better.”

“It wouldn’t be like that.” He said softly. “I swear.”

“Yes it would. You might not mean it, but it would.” Pepper stroked a hand over his face, trailing her fingers along his cheekbone and the line of his beard. “We still have a chance, Tony. I won’t risk it.”

Nodding, he turned his face into her hand and kissed her palm. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

In his room, Tony climbed into bed and pulled the covers up under his chin, listening to the sound of the ocean. He’d made it through the day without a drink. He couldn’t’ remember how long it’d been since he’d managed that. Too many.

He wasn’t an alcoholic – not yet – but he was getting there. For now, he was still able to put the bottle down, or leave it alone if he had to – but how much longer until he couldn’t? Until the bottle had him instead of the other way around? What kind of father would he be if he were falling down drunk all the time? Better if the kid had no father at all.

Rolling over, he punched the pillow into shape and closed his eyes.



Pepper opened her eyes the next morning and forgot where she was for a moment. The salt tang in the air and the sound of the ocean confused her until she remembered they were on Long Island.  Getting up, she stretched. Two nights of sleeping next to the ocean had restored her depleted batteries. Maybe she should buy one of those machines that sounded like ocean waves.

She brushed her teeth and her hair and decided to skip the shower until later. Once it had warmed up enough, she planned to take a dip in the ocean and she could shower after that.

As Pepper walked past Tony’s door, she rapped her knuckles on it. “Up and at ‘em, lazy bones. I let you sleep in yesterday.”

There was no answer and she eased the door open, risking a peek inside. Tony often slept nude, and while she didn’t mind the view, she didn’t want to feed his ego at this point in their duct taped relationship. “Tony?”

The bed was empty. Her heart jumped up to her throat and she rushed into the room. She checked the bathroom – it was empty as well. “Oh, no – oh, no!” He’d bailed on her, the rat!

Running down the stairs, she jerked the front door open and ran down onto the beach. He’d had to have walked down the beach at the front of the house, it was the shortest distance into town. “You rotten, dirty, lying, no good – Tony! Tony!”

“What?”

Pepper shrieked and whirled around. Tony was standing in the surf about fifty feet behind her, a bucket in his hand. “What are you doing?”

“Why are you yelling at me?” He backed away as she stormed up to him.

“Don’t you ever do that again!”

“What? Go clamming?” Confused, he dumped the clams out into the surf. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you were opposed to clamming.”

“You scared the hell out of me!”

“I’m sorry?” Tony wasn’t sure what had scared Pepper, or why she was suddenly against clamming, but he was sure it must be his fault. He threw the bucket down. “I’m sorry. No clamming – just say no to clamming!”

“I thought you’d left.” She stopped, tears burning her eyes. “I thought last night was – that you’d left – ”

“Pepper, no.” It dawned on him that she’d thought he’d snuck off while she’d been sleeping. He pulled her into his arms. “I’m sorry. I should have left you a note. I didn’t want to wake you up.”

Pepper hugged him hard. “Don’t leave, Tony Please, you have to give this a chance..”

“I’m not going anywhere. I promise.” Rubbing his hands up and down her back, Tony held her to him. “I need you.”

She leaned back and wiped at her cheeks. “I’m sorry. I don’t usually freak out like that.”

“I know. He lifted hem of his t-shirt and dried at her cheeks. “That’s my department. I freak out – you stay calm. We’re going to have problems if we switch roles.”

“True.” Smiling, she gave him another quick hug. “I’ll try to give you more warning next time.”

“Good.” He walked over to where his clamming bucket was floating in the surf. “‘Cos I’m a method actor, you know. I need time to get into character.”

“I’m always going to regret letting you spend time with Kirk Lazarus, aren’t I?” She held her hand out to him as he came back to her.

Taking it, he lifted it to his lips. “Probably.”



They walked down the beach, holding hands, and letting the water wash over their feet. Tony stopped from time to time and used his toes to search for clams, showing her how to find the hidden mollusks just below the sand and telling her how his mother had taught him how to do it when he was a kid.

“Pepper, it’s a good idea – a great idea –  but we don’t have to pretend to be a couple. We can be a couple again.” He washed the sand off his hands before taking hers once again. “I’m sorry that I screwed up. I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”

“I love you, Tony. But I can’t forgive and forget this easily. “I need some time.”

He nodded. “I understand, but don’t expect me to give up easily.”

“I’d be shocked if you did.” Pepper tried to imitate his toe digging technique but only turned up a rock.

“Come on, we’ll never get enough clams for lunch at this rate, slacker.”

“Slacker? You’re the one who dumped out a whole bucket of clams!”

“You were yelling at me! I thought you’d turned Greenpeace vegetarian on me or something!”

“I thought you’d snuck off!

“Yeah, you thought – “ Tony snapped his fingers as he remembered something she’d said. “You said I love you – I mean – you said you love me.”

“Temporary insanity.” She shook her head. “Doesn’t count.”

“You said it first, and you can’t take it back. No take backs!” He grinned. “I, on the other hand, will say it in some obscenely romantic way that befits my image so you have no doubt.”

“Oh, God…”

“Please, you can worship me later.” He sidestepped in case she tried to hit him. “Take a memo. Be prepared.”

“Of course. Will that be all, Mr. Stark?” She bumped him with her hip as they walked down the beach.

“That’ll be all, Ms. Potts.” He swung an arm around her shoulders

 

Chapter Text

 

Tony and Pepper spent the next five days alone at the house on Long Island. They would get up in the morning, sit wrapped in quilts eating breakfast, and then head for the beach once the day warmed up. She had brought a stack of books for them to read and they would spend part of the day reading and part of the day wandering along the beach clamming or looking for shells. For the first time in years, possibly ever for Tony, they had no plans except doing absolutely nothing.

Swimming was something of an adventure, neither of them cared for the cooler water of the Atlantic after Malibu, and Tony’s boxers tended to either turn transparent when wet or cling to his body – or both. Not that he had a problem with that, but Pepper wasn’t quite ready to go that far in their relationship. Tony didn’t see the problem, there’d been plenty of times when she’d seen him in less, and in more provocative situations – and he was always happy to show off his body.

In the evening, they shared dinner and then spent hours playing cards and old board games Tony had brought down from the attic. He was the Monopoly champ but she was the Queen of Scrabble, and no matter how much Tony begged – she refused to play Operation.

Nights were the only time reality intruded on their makeshift world. Tony would wake after a few hours and lie in the dark thinking. Despite the public image of Tony Stark as an outgoing, confident, and invincible man, the reality was he was shy and introverted. He’d happily stay in his workshop and never come out if he didn’t have to.

Being the son of Howard Stark, genius and millionaire, had meant growing up in the public eye. He’d developed a public persona that had little to do with who he really was. His mother’s advice to him at a young age had been to act the way they think you should – they want royalty, so give them royalty – be royalty.  

As he grew older they’d wanted him to be a jet set playboy and he had become one to satisfy them. Granted, it had also satisfied other urges – he was only human after all – but he’d also developed bad habits that he probably wouldn’t have had he been a middle class plumber’s son.

He discovered in college that liquor helped overcome his shyness and that adequate consumption turned him into someone else. Someone loose and fun and likeable. It also turned him into someone who did stupid things, like taking a leak in the famed fountains of a Vegas Casino, but the public forgave him as they always did. He was American royalty and could be expected to pull the occasional crazy stunt.

What they wouldn’t forgive, if they knew, was that he was private and reclusive. That was not what the public wanted, they’d had one Howard Hughes and didn’t want another one. They wouldn’t want to know that Tony Stark, Iron Man, American royal prince, and cock of the walk was crying in his childhood bedroom because he’d been duped and dumped. By the same woman. Again.

Tony would fight the urge to sneak out and walk into town – or just fire up the computer built into the desk and connect to the outside world and order up a taxi. Pepper might have thought cutting him off from Jarvis was all it took to keep him off the internet, but she was seriously mistaken.

There was a buried line that only he knew about. Even Jarvis didn’t know it was there. Not because he didn’t trust Jarvis, though this adventure made him seriously doubt his creation’s loyalty, but because his father had dug the trench and installed the line himself years before Jarvis was more than a few lines of code scrawled in his Big Chief tablet.

Only the memory of the way Pepper had reacted the morning when she’d thought he’d run out on her kept him from doing it for real. Pepper meant too much to him. If he took off, she’d probably walk out of his life forever and that was a pain he couldn’t begin to imagine. The very thought sent waves of goosebumps over his skin.

Instead, he’d lie in bed and do his best to sleep, or at least not think of Sunset and what she was doing – had done again – to him. Whenever he’d find himself remembering the time they’d spent together, the time they’d spent making love – or so he’ d thought at the time – analyzing every word and touch looking for the signs he’d missed, Tony would force his mind to turn away.

There were more productive things he could worry about. The sweating problem in the suit, the way his new arc reactor looked vaguely like an elevator button, the loss of combustion in one of the hot rod’s cylinders – none of which were life altering in the long run. Heartache was a pain that even Tony Stark couldn’t hide from, and despite his best efforts he’d find himself thinking of Sunset once more.

When all else failed, he’d wander downstairs and sit in front of the banked fire and let the tears go. His mother had told him sometimes a good cry was what was needed to wash the heart and soul clean. If that were true, his should be sparkling clean by now.

Pepper would invariably come downstairs, wrap them both in a quilt and let him cry on her shoulder. She’d listen and try to answer the “why” as best she could. When Tony finally reach the point of exhaustion, she’d lead him upstairs and put him back to bed. In the morning they’d go back to doing as much nothing as possible.


Tony was wandering along the wet sand at the edge of the water, feeling with his feet for clams. He had a very complicated grid pattern he followed that he claimed turned up the maximum number of clams in the smallest area.

“You’re not tired of clams?” Pepper called from where she was reading another trashy romance. She hadn’t had this much time to read since she’d started working for Tony. She’d also never eaten this many clams.

“Are you kidding? There’s a million ways to cook them. I’m going to make mom’s clam marinara tonight.” He tossed another clam in the bucket.

“You’re going to cook?”

Tony looked up and grinned. “If you’ll help me.”

“And by help you mean do everything but cook the pasta?” Tony’s cooking skills were about what could be expected for an engineer: he could make fire.

“I’ll have you know, I can boil water with the best of them.”

“You have no shame.” She sat up as she noticed one of the boats that had been cruising along the shoreline was angling toward their dock. “Tony, we have company.”

Setting down his bucket, Tony went over to the walkway leading to the dock and trotted down to meet the boat. As he got closer, he recognized the person piloting it.

He caught the rope she tossed him and tied it to the dock. “Maggie, hey!”

“Anthony.” She gave him a solid hug and peck on the cheek. “Wanted to come down and tell you two to come down to the clambake tonight. Wanted to see, too, how you were doing.”  She looked him over carefully.

“I’m good.” He grinned. “I’m always good.”

“Be there about sundown. Norma is bringing her corn relish just like you like. Bring those clams and we’ll toss them in the pot.”

“We’ll be there.” He assured her.

“All right then, I best be goin’.”

Tony untied the rope and tossed it back onto the boat. As he turned to go back to the beach, he heard Maggie call his name. “Yeah?”

“You might want to put some pants on before you come down, Anthony.”

He looked down, laughing as he remembered he was in his boxers. “I thought I’d give everybody a thrill!”

Still laughing he walked back down the walkway onto the beach and dropped onto the sand next to Pepper’s chair. “We’re going to a clambake.”

“How sweet of you to ask. Let me check my calendar.” She did her best to look stern when he grinned up at her.

“We can’t say no – it’s not neighborly. Everyone’s going to be there.” He looked down at the sand between his feet. “It’s a chance to show everyone we’re a couple again. If you want to.”

“No press, no cameras – you’re right, it’s the perfect opportunity.”

“Word will get out somehow, it always does.” Tony leaned against her legs. “Normally, my assistant would take care of leaking something like that. Of course, I don’t have one of those anymore.”

“Hey, I tried to come back, but you wouldn’t let me.” Pepper reminded him.

“You didn’t say you wanted to be my assistant again – you said you wanted to quit.”

“Yeah, quit being CEO – but I would have been happy to be your assistant again.”

“Now you tell me!” Turning his head, he nipped at her leg. “I wouldn’t have stopped you if you’d told me that.”

“Well you – “ She reached down and smacked him lightly on the head as he tried to bite her again. “ – you didn’t give me a chance! And you had Miss ‘modeled in Tokyo’ panting after you.”

“Panting? When was she panting?” Tony looked up at her. “ I don’t remember any panting! All I got was that stare.” He widened his eyes comically and stared at her.  “Like a deer in the headlights.”

Pepper laughed at his impression of Natalie – or Natasha – or whoever she was. “I thought men liked that doe eyed look.”

“Not that much. I – “ He kissed her leg. “ – prefer – ” Another kiss, a little lower. “ – witty – “ Another one, still lower. “ – banter – “

“Stop it!” Tony had reached her ankle and she pulled her feet up. Too late, she realized she’d only given him better access. “That tickles!”

“I love your legs.” Grabbing her foot, he tickled it, making her laugh.

“Stop!”

“What’s the magic word?” He traced the line of her ankle with his tongue.

“Now!”

“Well, that’s not romantic.”  Sighing he turned and leaned back once more. “Lucky for you, Pep, bossy women turn me on.”

His position left her with the option of either putting her legs over his shoulders – which was not happening – or putting them both over one shoulder. Safer, but barely, then she spotted his clam bucket rolling in the surf. “Your clams are making a break for it.”

“What?” He jumped up. “Hey! Get back here!”

She laughed as Tony ran to grab the bucket before it was pulled into the ocean, scooping the clams back into it and cussing. Too bad she didn’t have her phone handy, this would be a video she’d love to upload. Tony Stark in just his boxers on his knees in the surf chasing escaping clams.

“What are you laughing at?” He tossed a clam at her.

“You throw like a girl!” She laughed harder when it fell short. “Maybe we should paint the suit pink!”

Getting to his feet, Tony walked over and held the bucket of clams over her head. “How do you like your clams, Pepper?”

“Tony, no!” Pepper scrambled out of her chair. “Think of the poor innocent clams!”

“Which we are going to boil and eat?” He dropped the bucket on the sand and chased her as she ran around the chairs.

Feinting toward the beach, she bolted toward the safety of the house. Tony caught her before she got there, scooping her up in his arms and rolling them both down onto the sand.

He dug his fingers into her sides, making her shriek with laughter. “Take it back – come on – “

“No – “ She wanted to taunt him with the fact that he was used to tossing holographic balls with his wimpy muscles but she couldn’t catch a breath between giggles. “Un – uncle – uncle – “

“Uncle? That’s not what I want to hear – “ He slid a hand down to her left knee. “Who’s your daddy? Who’s your Iron Man?”

“Stop – Tony – “ Her knees were especially ticklish and she struggled to get away, laughing helplessly. “Tony – “

“That’s right – “ Circling her knee, he teased the soft skin. “Tony’s your daddy – say it – ”

“Please – “ She pleaded.

He stopped and let her catch a breath or two. “Say it – or I’ll tickle you again.”

“No – okay, okay!” Pepper said hurriedly as his fingers moved over her ribs again. “You’re my Iron Man!”

“I win.” He smiled down at her.

“By torture – hardly fair play.” She panted.

Suddenly aware of Tony’s weight on her, Pepper sobered. He seemed to sense it at the same moment, the coffee brown eyes turning serious and the smile fading from his face. He shifted, slightly and subtly, resting on his forearms and pressing his body against hers. With each breath, the arc reactor pressed into her breasts.

Even when they had been a couple and indulged in kissing and some touching, they’d had never gone as far as lying down together – never mind lying one on top of the other. Not because Tony hadn’t tried – he had on every possible occasion – but Pepper had resisted. The last thing she’d wanted was to be one more notch on his bedpost.

“Tony, let me up.”

“Kiss me.” He said softly. “I won, I deserve a prize.”

“You didn’t win anything.” She countered. “We weren’t competing.”

“That’s not how it looks from here.” Lowering his head, he stopped when his lips were barely above hers. “Don’t make me beg, Pepper.”

Tony – “

“I mean, I will. If you want me to. I have no pride. “ His lips were nearly touching hers. “Really, I’m prideless.”

“That’s not a word.” She couldn’t hold back a smile.

“Sure it is.”

“Pretty sure it’s not.”

“What are you – an English major?”

He was obviously waiting for her to make the first move – to say yes or no. Pepper gave a mental sigh. One kiss, what could it hurt? “Okay, just  –“

His mouth covered hers before she could finish and limit him to one. Tony was pretty sure that was next. The word ‘just’ usually preceded limitations and he didn’t like limitations. Especially not when it came to kissing – and most especially not when it came to kissing Pepper.

While he had respected her wishes to take things slow, to take their time in their relationship, Tony didn’t like waiting or denying himself anything. Didn’t like it – hated it – never did it. It if felt good, do it. If it felt great, do it some more. And when it felt like this? Why stop?

Pepper’s lips were soft and warm beneath his, and they’d parted easily for his tongue. Tasting her, the sweetness and warmth that was uniquely Pepper – he groaned, wanting more of her. Tony shifted, pressing his hips into hers, rubbing his erection against her to show her how much he wanted – needed – her.

Her legs had wrapped around his and her fingers were tangled in the thick, dark hair, seemingly of their own will. Pepper held him to her, tasting the ocean salt on his face as she let her lips roam across his cheek to his ear and finally to his throat as he lowered his head to nuzzle at her breasts through her t-shirt. It was when his damp, sandy hands slid under her shirt that Pepper reluctantly pulled away. “Tony, we have to stop.”

“No...” He rubbed his thumbs over her stomach, matching the gentle rocking of his hips into hers.  His lips teased a taut nipple through the cloth until he could nip at it. “You said second base was okay.”

“Please.”

Sighing, he gave one last rocking push against her – showing her what she was missing – and stilled. Please was such a bad, bad word. “Say you love me again.”

“Isn’t it your turn?” She teased. Since that second morning on the beach, when she’d let those three words slip out, Tony had asked her to repeat them at least once a day.

He shook his head. “I told you already. When I say it, there’ll be a big romantic moment.”

Pepper was petrified to think what that might entail. “I’ll say it after you have get off.”

“Get off? I can do that.” His innocent look failed, he could tell by the way she rolled her eyes.

“Get your body off of mine.” She said slowly.

“Fine.” Heaving an exaggerated sigh, he rolled off of her.

“I love you.”

Tony smiled at her. “Say it again.”

“One’s your limit. I don’t want to spoil you.” Getting to her feet, she picked up her bag.

“I’m already spoiled! You tell me that all the time!” He rubbed a hand over his hard-on and sighed again. “Now who’s the love ‘em and leave ‘em one?”

“You knew you were a bad example.” She found her cell phone at the bottom of the bag. Did cell phones have a GPS which led them to the bottom of any bag?

“Yes, but you’re not following the best of my bad examples.” He protested. Getting up, he followed her and plopped down on the chair next to hers. “Where’s the loose sexual morals? The urge to fuck the nearest warm body – which in this case is me – why can’t you follow those examples?” He rubbed his softening cock once more.

“I’m still learning – stop that, you’ll go blind.”

“If that were true, I’d have gone blind before I was sixteen.” His eyes widened as he watched her lift a cell phone to her ear. All this time Pepper had a phone?“Hey! You’ve got a phone!”

She held up a warning finger to shush him as Happy answered his phone. “Happy, Tony needs some clothes.”

“Traitor!” Tony yelled.

“He is not a traitor.” She glared at him. “Ignore him, Happy. Bring the bag I left in the trunk, yes, that one. We’re going to a clambake.”

“Traitor!” He yelled again.

“Will you stop it? No, I’m talking to Tony – he’s being difficult. No, not like that. Just his usual childishness. Nothing I haven’t dealt with a million times. If managing Tony Stark was a video game, I’d have the top score of all time.”

“Hey! I’m right here. You can see me, right?” He held his hands up in and waved them at her. “I haven’t invented invisibility yet. Have I?”

Pepper batted his hands away. “You can drop us off and we’ll walk back.”

“That’s a long walk.” Tony told her.

She frowned as Happy unknowingly echoed Tony’s words. ““Well, then one of the neighbors can bring us back. What? Of course, you can stay if you want, there should be plenty of food.”

“The truth comes out.” Tony snorted. “Traitor! Gluttonous traitor!”

“Tony!” Holding the phone to her chest, she glared at him. “You’re hurting his feelings.”

“Please…” He rolled his eyes.

She lifted the phone back to her ear. “Happy?”

“No.” Tony crossed his arms over his chest.

“We’re supposed to be there by sunset tonight.” She ruffled Tony’s hair affectionately. He was so cute when he pouted. “He’s doing good. No, no more than he usually is.”

“Charming? Handsome? Suave?” He preened.

“Annoying. Childish. Pain in the – “

“When I do invent invisibility, you’re going to regret it.” Tony muttered.

She turned away slightly and lowered her voice. “We’re good with the plan, Happy? Yeah?  Great. We should get one or two – no problem. There’s a list of who to send it to once we have it. Yeah. I appreciate everything you’re doing. I know, I know – you’re a good friend, Happy. ”

When she hung up, Pepper turned and found Tony regarding her, one eyebrow cocked up questioningly. “What?”

“What? You’re lousy at playing innocent, Potts.” He tapped his fingers against the RT. “What plan – okay, never mind, I think I’ve got that one. What list and what are they getting once you get it – and what’s it?”

She thought about it for a second, looking for the easiest explanation. “Nobody and nothing.”

“I didn’t ride the short bus to school, you know.”

“You never rode a bus in your life. Especially to school.”

“Not the point – you’re up to something.” His eyes narrowed. “You’re having an affair with Happy.”

“Get serious. Happy? He’s too busy panting over Natalie. I don’t know what it is about her anyway.” She tossed the phone into the bag. “Okay, so she’s a super secret agent, can she plan a party in Dubai with no notice? No. Make sure you know who’s who at an important function? Nope. Get you to sign contracts that you won’t even read? Not a chance.”

“Careful, your eyes are turning green.” Tony looked at her bag. “I swear, there’s some kind of dimensional portal in that thing.

When he reached for the bag, she warned him off. “There’s tampons in there.” Pepper hid a smile as he jerked his hand back. Men. Big sissies.

“Did I ever tell you about the time I used the sticks – did you know they used to have little wooden sticks? I used them to build a model.” He laughed at the memory. “My mother nearly skinned me alive. Not for using the sticks so much as for poking around in her and dad’s bathroom.”

Pepper smiled at the image of young Tony finding a box of tampons in the bathroom cabinet and turning them into building material. “What did you do with the other part of the tampons?”

“Stopped up the plumbing.” He grimaced. “Dad wasn’t too happy about that.”

She couldn’t help the snort of laughter that escaped.

“I didn’t know they expanded!” Tony said defensively. “I was six!”

That just made the picture that much funnier and she had to sit down to catch her breath. “Remind me to put that in your autobiography. Oh, oh my god, that’s just too funny!”

“If it’s my autobiography, why are you putting anything in it?”

“Oh, like you’re going to write it?”

“I might!”

“Please.” She snorted. The thought of the things Tony might actually put in his autobiography boggled her mind. “All you’d write about is the sex you’ve had – if you can remember any of it.”

“I can remember quite a bit of it.” He thought about it for a moment. “Most of it. Some of it. That’s not the point – the point is – “

“That you’d just dictate it to Jarvis, and then drop the editing into my lap.”

“CEO and editor? I’m impressed.” Rubbing at the sand sticking to his arms, he announced. “I need a shower. What time is Happy going to be here?”

“A couple of hours.” She arched an eyebrow. “Why?”

“Because I want him to bring me a few things. Call him back.”

“Who’s the boss around here? I could have sworn I was the boss now.”

“Sure, whatever makes you feel good.” He held his hand out for the phone. “Give it to me.”

“Don’t tempt me.” She handed him her phone. “No nine hundred numbers.”

“Like I call those.” He selected Happy’s number off the list. “Very often.

“Hap!” Tony said when Happy answered. “You traitor, bring me a case of that sparkling fake champagne, my DS and games – “

“No electronics.” Pepper ordered.

“What? Why?” He frowned.

“You built that – “ She tapped his chest. “ – in a cave with nothing but scraps. With your Gameboy you’d probably build a car.”

“A car? No. With my Wii, maybe.”

“No electronics.” She repeated, thunking the RT for emphasis.

“Killjoy. Okay, Happy, you heard Nurse Ratched, no toys. I need something to draw with – you’re in New York?”

“No fishing.” Pepper said sternly.

“What? I’m trying to figure out where to send him for what I need. Paper and pencil are still okay aren’t they? I can’t build a rocket ship out of that.”

“I’m not sure about that.” He’d once wired a pager and a garage door opener together and opened every garage door within five miles.

He stuck his tongue out at her. “Stop by the art supply store, the one over on Eastchester, and pick a drafting kit for me. They know what I use. What I used to use, it’s been awhile since I used stone age tools.”

His head tilted to one side as he listened. “Yeah. So? What’s wrong with the Bronx? Well, that’s where I get my stuff. Geez, you big baby. “ Tony turned to Pepper, we need anything else?”

“We? I didn’t need any of that.”

“If you don’t want me to start climbing the walls, you do. That’s it, Hap. Oh, hey, get me a Buffalo Wing pizza from that place off the expressway – you know the place? Extra sauce, plenty of blue cheese dip, and some fries.”

He hung up and handed the phone back to Pepper. “Since when is he scared to go to the Bronx – I didn’t think he was scared of anything.”

“It’s the Bronx – not the best reputation.” She shrugged.

“You’d think I asked him to go to Shanghai and smuggle in a fifteen year old hooker.”

“That he might do. Why do you need the drafting supplies?”

“I had some ideas last night and I want to get them down. Since I don’t have access to Jarvis – “ He gave her an irritated look. “I’ll have to do it the old fashioned way. They still make pencils, right?”

“They do. I thought I saw a drafting kit in your room.”

“It’s twenty years old, I don’t know – “ He stopped and looked at her. “When were you in my room?”

“When Happy and I put you to bed the night we got here. How did you think you got there? The good fairy?”

“Did you undress me? More importantly, did you like what you saw?”

“I’ve seen it before, Tony. And you were dead drunk and passed out – which I’ve also seen before – hardly a romantic scenario.”

“We can do it again – I’m sober and wide awake. It’ll be a lot more fun this time.”

She sighed, ignoring him and his wide eyed innocent look.

“Be that way. Your loss.” Getting up from his chair, Tony picked up the bucket of clams. “I’m going to go take a shower and a nap. Feel free to come join me. Preferably for the shower – though the nap has some potential. “

Pepper made a disgusted noise, but her mind wandered off to imagine the scene. Her body was inclined to follow, but she clamped down on her self control and picked her book up. She was going to find out how Rowena and Jacob worked their problems out – even if it killed her.


The bag Happy brought had exactly one change of clothes. Jeans, t-shirt, shorts, socks, tennis shoes, and a hoodie. Tony had skipped the socks – they’d just collect sand – and the shorts. He’d worn shorts plenty in the last several days and he might need them for tomorrow since there was an unspoken agreement that he was not going home just yet.

It felt weird to be wearing something other than just boxers and a t-shirt. Tony tugged at the denim hugging his thighs, he felt downright restricted. Although… he smiled as he looked at himself in the full length mirror, he looked pretty damn hot. If he didn’t know better, he’d swear that Pepper bought his jeans a size or two too small. They hugged his ass and thighs entirely too well to be the right size.

The t-shirt, black with an AC/DC logo with what looked like paint splattered across it would probably disguise the arc reactor if no one looked very hard. It was also tight across his shoulders and chest, and not just because of the RT.

He preened a bit as he realized that he’d added a fair amount of muscle since he’d returned from Afghanistan. Partly from necessity and partly from a change in his lifestyle – until recently that is. He pulled at the sleeves where they gripped his biceps a little too tightly, loosening the material up a bit.

Tony checked himself out in the mirror and adjusted himself more comfortably in the snug jeans. He wouldn’t have had room for the shorts anyway as tight as they were. Turning, he looked over his shoulder at his ass, tried to be critical about it and gave up. He had a fantastic ass – small, round, tight, and perfectly curved. And many other words that many lovers and admirers had told him. One – a famous author who would remain nameless until his autobiography – had written a love letter to his ass. While he might not be the tallest man in the world, he had ‘dat ass.

Blowing his reflection a kiss, he grabbed the hooded sweatshirt off the bed and sauntered out of the room. Pepper’s choice of wardrobe for him was going to bite her on her ass – which was also fantastic – no way was she resisting him now.

Downstairs, Happy and Pepper were waiting on him. Both had their usual put upon expressions. “What? Is it my fault that perfection can’t be rushed?”

Pepper’s expression changed, blue eyes darkening as she looked him over. Tony turned and bent to pick up the quilts that were stacked on the end of the sofa, making sure to give her a look at his ass. I see you there, shakin ‘dat ass, shakin ‘dat ass. He bit back a smirk as he turned around.

Pepper’s eyes shot up to his face, but he knew where they’d been looking a moment before. Her eyes were hot and there was a flush across her collar bones and throat, and he wondered just how far down it went.  It was hard – like his cock was getting – but he kept the grin off his face. Remembering that his jeans were too tight to be comfortable if he got a hard-on, Tony steered himself away from that line of thinking.

“Let’s go. What are you guys waiting around for?” He headed for the door.

Happy sighed. He’d like to just once remind his boss that he’d been standing around waiting on his slow ass, but he liked his job, and really it was his job to wait on Tony. Good thing he was a patient person. Unlike Pepper, who he could see was inches away from slapping Tony upside the back of his head. One of these days she’d do it and Happy wasn’t sure if he was going to stop her.

Instead of getting into the back seat, Tony opened the passenger door and waved Pepper inside. Too late, she realized he intended to sit next to her, leaving her squeezed between him and Happy. Even for a luxury car, it was a tight fit.

When she protested, he shrugged. “This is Long Island, we’re not so formal out here.”

“I can’t put on the seat belt.” She pointed out.

He waved a hand dismissively. “I own the road, and the locals aren’t going to stop us for the few miles we’re on the main road. We’re fine. Come on, Happy.”

Tony was right, as usually. Partly because the locals were already at the clambake and partly because they never stopped Tony’s car unless he was flagrantly driving over the speed limit.

After parking the car in a clear spot off the road where others had already parked, Happy lifted the case of sparkling grape juice out of the trunk and headed down to the beach with it. Tony grabbed his bucket of clams and his hoodie and followed. That left Pepper glaring at his back as she picked up the box of items she’d packed earlier. If she waited, Happy would come back and get them, but she wasn’t used to standing around doing nothing.

Maggie greeted Tony with a hug as he added the clams he’d collected and cleaned earlier to one of the pots cooking over a bonfire. “Good to see you, Anthony.”

He returned the hug. “You, too.” Turning, he greeted other people he’d known since he was a child, but rarely had a chance to talk with anymore.

Pepper found a clear spot on the beach and laid down the tarp she’d had packed. Happy would have to bring down the pillows and camping chairs, but she’d at least have a start on getting things set up. Tossing a large, worn quilt over the tarp, she weighed down the corners with rocks, put the pile of quilts on one corner, and a small ice chest on the other.

She’d already snagged two of the bottles of sparkling grape juice and had them chilling. Tony was making a real effort not to drink when he would clearly have access to alcohol tonight, and she was going to do her best to help him. Being here helped as he’d never gotten drunk and shown his ass in front of the locals.

“Hey, there you are!” Tony walked up and put his arm around her waist.

“Making sure your Starkness has a place to rest his royal butt.”

“And it’s a great butt.” He turned a slow circle. “Feel free to admire it and heap praise upon it.”

“If you looked in the dictionary under conceited – you’d find a picture of yourself.” Pepper did her best to ignore his ass, not an easy task in those jeans.

“Really? Is it a good one? What am I saying – they’re all good.” Snaking an arm around her waist, he pulled her against his side and kissed her cheek. “I’m also under genius, egotistical, sexy, and narcissistic, by the way.”

“And a few other words.” It was said with good humor. Tony was all of those things and more that were unprintable, but he was a good man beneath it all. She returned the kiss, wiggling her nose at the scratch of his beard. “You haven’t shaved for a week.”

“I’m going native.”

Happy had returned with the camping chairs and pillows and Tony helped arrange them on the quilt. If Happy noticed that one was set farther away from the other two – almost to the edge of the quilt while the other two were as close as possible – he didn’t say anything. One advantage of quietly watching was he’d learned to observe and interpret. And keep his mouth shut.

At some point, he would probably find somewhere else to sit so that the boss and Pepper could have a little privacy. Her plan was a good one and Happy had bought into it completely. Posing as a couple could easily turn into the real thing again with just a little help here and there. They both deserved to be happy and if he could help a little, why not?

The camping chairs were little more than a chair back without legs, but Tony had chosen them because they were much more conducive to cuddling than a regular chair. Piling pillows on the flat seats, he helped Pepper sit down before plopping down next to her. “Ever been to a real clambake, Pep?”

“Yes. We were here last summer for the Founder’s Day celebration.”

He frowned. “We were?”

“Yes. You snuck off with Shelia Harper and ended up back in New York. I had to kill the pictures of the two of you having sex in the elevator of the Plaza hotel.”

The frown deepened. “Who?”

“Movie star. The one in the Robot Evolution movies.”

“Oh, yeah.” Tony grinned. “I love those movies.”

Pepper sighed. Typical. He couldn’t remember the girl, but he remembered the movie. And the robots. Of course, if she asked, he’d probably remember her part in the movie, which almost counted.

“That’s right, I nailed the sex ‘bot girl. SX-P.”

Then again. “Don’t start that again, it was bad enough you bragged about it on Twitter.” She leaned past him to take a bottle of the sparkling cider from the ice chest. Setting the wet, cold bottle on his lap, she smiled sweetly. “Would you open this, Tony?”

“Yikes!” He snatched the bottle up. “That was mean!” It’s not like he had a hard-on. Yet. “Geeks all over the world need details on when sci fi babes put out. I’m a god in the geek world, you know.”

“I know. I’ve been to Comic Con with you.” Once – and she never made that mistake again. Tony was a geek god. Not only did he have an AI running his house and built robots in his spare time, but he was handsome and nailed movie stars as opposed to just fantasizing about them.

Happy bit back a laugh. He remembered Shelia Harper. One nice thing about being Tony’s bodyguard slash chauffeur, he got revenge sex on a regular basis. Women thought screwing him when he took them home would somehow get even with Tony for his not being there when they woke up. A smile curved his lips. She’d been especially revenge minded – his back had hurt for days. “So worth it.”

Tony poured sparkling grape juice for the three of them. It was neither sparkling nor anywhere near the taste of champagne, but he was on the wagon and waggoners couldn’t bitch.

“Dinner’s on!” Someone called out and they got up to head for the big pots of seafood. Clams, lobster, mussels, quahogs, and crab were dished up, the scent of seafood wafting into the air. The tables were loaded with extras: coleslaw, corn on the cob, roasted onions, and other local favorites.

Norma’s corn relish was Tony’s favorite and he heaped it onto his plate. She set aside several jars for him every summer and he rationed it carefully. Store bought, no matter how expensive, wasn’t nearly as good.

They settled down to eat, Tony laughing at Pepper’s reluctance to get her hands fishy smelling. He cracked the lobster claws for her, expertly extracting the meat and putting it onto her plate. They’d end up smelling like seafood by the end of the night anyway. “You’re such a girl, Potts.”

“Good of you to notice.” Her eyes were glued to his lips as he sucked the last of the tender lobster from the claw he’d cracked open. His tongue slid out to lick the juices off his lips and a bolt of desire ripped through her so hard that Pepper had to look away to keep from shoving him down on his back and planting her lips on his.

If he’d noticed, Tony didn’t show it, tossing the claw into a bucket they had set aside for that purpose. Instead, he started in on his own food, eating with an appetite she hadn’t seen for some time.

“Did you see who’s over there?” She casually angled her chin toward a group just down from them.

“Nope. Don’t care.”

“Senator Cardenas. You should say hello.”

“Nope.” Shaking his head, he bit into a piece of corn on the cob. Butter dripped down his chin and he wiped it off with fingers, sticking them into his mouth to suck them clean.

Pepper did her best to keep her voice from shaking. She wasn’t even that big of a fan of oral sex for God’s sake! “The senator is a big supporter of SI.”

“Still not caring.” He didn’t. Senators – all politicians – were sleaze balls. “You’re forgetting the privacy rule.”

“It’s not a rule. Not a real rule, anyway.” One reason Long Island communities attracted celebrities and wealthy families was the privacy and respect they were given by the people who lived there. The locals fiercely defended their privacy and treated them like they were just another resident of the community. No one asked for autographs or brought up their public life. It wasn’t a rule so much as the way they lived.

“If it makes you happy, I’ll wave at her.” Tony told her.

“It would make me happy.”

“Fine.” He waved at the senator. “Hi, assclown.” Pepper elbowed him and he yelped. “What? She can’t hear me from over here.”

“Behave.”

“I am. You’re the one causing trouble.” Popping a chunk of crab meat into his mouth, he tried to talk around it. “Shut up and eat.”

“Don’t talk with your mouth full.” Picking up the lobster meat Tony had put on her plate, Pepper dragged it through a puddle of melted butter before putting it in her mouth. She didn’t see that Tony’s eyes had gone wide and his hands had tightened on his plate until the cardboard crumpled.

“I’m going to go get seconds.” Happy announced. This was obviously the time to leave them alone. If eating was going to turn them on, he didn’t want to be around when the music and fireworks started.

He took his chair and settled on a spot close to them, but far enough away to give them some privacy. It was also well within range of the small camera concealed in his ball cap. Jarvis would snap a few pictures and add them to the email Pepper had already prepared. It would go out to a few select people in the press and be on the internet tomorrow.

When she’d first told him of her plan to turn the spotlight off of Tony’s recent public heartbreak and bad behavior, he’d been skeptical. The press was in a feeding frenzy about the abrupt ending of the “Sunny” relationship and Tony’s return to wild – wilder than ever – partying.

His disappearance would have been like throwing gasoline on the fire,so Rhodey was wearing the suit and playing Iron Man in various situations where he’d have been expected to show up. So far the press hadn’t figured out Tony’s “retreat to collect himself” meant he’d been kidnapped and was forcibly drying out in his family home.

Sunset remained in seclusion at her posh new house, rented courtesy of an SI company that no one knew was an SI company. Theories ran rampant from her having fled to Europe to her having been a man in drag. Happy snorted. “Like the boss wouldn’t recognize one of those guys.” That time in Houston didn’t count. Tony had been completely shitfaced and the guy had looked so good that even he had thought the guy was a chick. Tony hadn’t cared, he’d screwed the guy anyway, but he didn’t like being lied to.

Tony finished his plate of food and settled back, patting his stomach and sighing. “I need a nap.”

“Me, too.” Pepper set her plate aside. She didn’t resist when Tony wrapped his arms around her and pulled her back to rest against his chest. Part of the reason she was here was to make people think they were dating again. And… it was nice to relax against Tony, he was warm and solid.

“There’s fireworks later.” He breathed against her ear.

She shivered. For now, he might be referring to the ones that would be going off over the water soon, but… he might be talking about the ones that could go off once – if – the two of them made love. “I can’t wait.”


Pepper yawned and snuggled against Tony as they rode back to the house and he tightened his arm around her shoulders. It was late, and she’d gotten out of the habit of staying up until the wee hours of the morning. She could hear Tony and Happy talking softly, but didn’t focus on what they were saying.

Instead she breathed in the scent of Tony, resting her nose against his throat to take in the clean, male scent of him. One of her guilty pleasures over the years had been breathing in his scent whenever she could. Suits that were on their way to the cleaners, t-shirts from the hamper in the workshop, his hair when she was tucking him into bed after he’d passed out – he smelled better than anyone she’d ever known.

“Be sure DUM-E and U are staying out of trouble. And the Audi needs to be detailed, I seem to remember spilling scotch in the passenger seat. And I think I had sex in the back seat, but I’m not sure.”

“Jarvis is watching the ‘bots and I already had the car detailed. The seat cover had to be replaced – whatever you were drinking wasn’t scotch – and the uh… underwear I tossed.”

“I think she was drinking some fruity thing. Tasted like crap. Why do women drink those things?”

“The underwear were… um... boxer briefs, boss.”

“Well, that explains a few things. I didn’t think I’d used that many condoms.”

“I’d rather we didn’t go there, boss.”

Pepper almost giggled. Happy was not – pardon the pun – happy, about his boss’ occasional male sex partners. In his mind it just wasn’t right to be bi-sexual if you were a man. She’d noticed he didn’t seem to mind when women were bi-sexual. Typical straight male double standard.

“Jeez, Hap, it’s not like I told you my ass hurt the next morning. Or maybe I did, I don’t remember.” Tony chuckled. “Sorry.”

The car stopped and there was the sound of the garage door opening. Pepper sat up and rubbed at her eyes. “Stop tormenting Happy.”

“Me?” Tony turned innocent eyes to her. “I’m hurt you’d suggest such a thing.”

He looked so cute with his hoodie pulled up around his trying-so-hard-to-look-innocent face, Pepper couldn’t resist kissing him. Tony responded instantly, pulling her closer and trying to deepen the kiss. Reluctantly, she pulled back. He whimpered and she gave in, settling against his chest and letting her lips part beneath his.

Their tongues caressed and slid over each other for long moments, both of them trying to breathe through their noses so as not to break contact for something as unimportant as air. Pepper slid her hand into his hair, scraping her nails along his scalp and massaging the nape of his neck. Tony groaned again, and pulled her more firmly against him, one hand between her shoulder blades pressing her closer, the other sliding up to squeeze a soft breast.

They jumped apart when the light came on as Happy opened his car door and got out. “Sorry, but three’s company.”

“You’re sorry?” Tony licked his lips. “You wanna stay in the car?” He asked Pepper.

“No.” She leaned back. Her cheeks burned slightly. His beard was scratchy after nearly a week of not shaving. “Sorta, but no.”

“You’re hard on my ego, you know.” Opening the door, he got out and held a hand out to help her out of the car. “I haven’t had a woman say no to me since I was seventeen.”

“Princess Diana.”

“She didn’t say no, she said ‘you’re so sweet’ and she kissed my cheek.” In his book that was a yes. Not a full blown yes that got him laid, but still a yes.

“That was a royal blowing off, Tony.” Only Tony would have the balls – there really was no other word – to proposition a princess. “That was a HRH no.”

“Are you staying the night, Hap? It’s a little late to drive back into the city.” Tony ignored her comment, giving her a push toward the house.

“I thought I would, yeah.” It was late and Happy was tired. “I’ll sleep in the car.”

“The car – what the hell? No.” Tony shook his head. “Do you know how many bedrooms this house has? Okay, so I have no idea, but there’s plenty.”

“Uh…” Happy wasn’t sure what to say. Pepper had been very clear about there being no vehicles of any kind at the house for the boss be able to take off in.

“I’m not going anywhere, I promise.” He brushed past Pepper and headed inside. “If I wanted to leave, I could have used a beach chair and the lawnmower.”

Pepper stared at his back for a moment before rushing to follow him into the house. The lawnmower. She hadn’t even considered the possibility that he might be able to do something with it. Apparently Phil’s team hadn’t, either.“What could you possibly build with the lawnmower? It’s not a riding mower.”

“Chair, engine, old parachutes in the shed.” Tony pulled his hoodie off, tossing  it over the banister of the stairs. “Put together a frame and it’s an ultra light.”

“That – that wouldn’t get you very far.”

“Wouldn’t have to.” He threw the t-shirt down the stairs at her. “You want the pants, come and get them.”

“An ultra light?” She caught the t-shirt before it hit her in the face.

“We’ve seen him build some weird stuff.” Happy closed and locked the door, setting the alarm system to active. “He could probably do it.”

Sighing, Pepper decided she’d think about it tomorrow. “No wonder the A-Team is his favorite show.”

 

Chapter Text

 

The next morning, Tony was still in possession of the jeans. He was disappointed that Pepper hadn’t come to claim them, he’d have been happy to shuck them off for her.  They were too sandy to put back on and he settled for showering and putting on clean boxers.

Going downstairs, he didn’t find her in the kitchen or in front of the fire as she usually was. A quick check showed she wasn’t outside, either. The car was gone from the garage, but he was certain she hadn’t left with Happy. He was a little worried as he went back upstairs to check the guest bedroom, it wasn’t like her to sleep later than he did.

Pepper was curled up in a tight ball in the center of the bed still asleep. He smiled, she was so cute when she was asleep. Red-blonde hair had curled around her face and fanned out over her pillow. Her lips were parted slightly and he wanted to kiss them. Wanted to turn them from pale pink to kiss swollen red. Peel that lacy top down to reveal her breasts – what color were her nipples? How would they taste?

He found himself kneeling on the edge of the bed, ready to crawl in with her. Reluctantly, he stopped himself. Pepper would probably brain him if she woke up and he was kissing her. Not that he would, but she might get the wrong impression and  get mad at him. They were no doubt going to be moving even slower than they had before Sun – before he was an idiot – he didn’t want to make her mad at him and have her really slam on the brakes.

Tony settled for kissing her cheek. “Pepper, hey, wake up.”

“Tired…” She muttered. “You’re not supposed to be up yet.”

“Weird, I know, but I am.” In more ways than one, he glanced down at his cock and ordered it to go down and behave. It ignored him as it always did.

“What are you doing?” Struggling to wake up, Pepper sat up and stared at him. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” He sat on the edge of the bed. “I want to set up a meeting with Sunset and show her she doesn’t hold all the cards. I’m not going to let her do this to me, Pepper. Not again.”

When Pepper nodded, he continued. “I think it’s time to go back to the world.  Not today, though, maybe tomorrow. Today, I want to show you something.”

“You want to – “ She looked down at his lap and quickly back up. “Tony, that’s a pretty lame line even for you.”

“Not that. Well – “ He grinned. “Yes that, but not now. Well – “

“I get it, I get it!” She put a pillow on his lap to hide his erection. “You want to show me the Stark hot rod, the little Tony, the Iron Man two – I get it!”

“Where did you get those? I like the hot rod, haven’t heard that one.” Patting the pillow, he smiled. “I got a few more, but what I meant was something here on the grounds. A place to show you. But – “ He lifted the pillow slightly. “If you want to take a look and name him yourself – “

“No.” Pressing the pillow back down, she shook her head.

“You sure?”

“I’ve seen it before, remember? It’s not like I don’t know what it looks like.”

“Not the same thing. We weren’t – you know – a couple. Like now. We’re a couple.” He wouldn’t say posing or pretending, in his mind they were a couple. Coupling was to follow at some point.

Pepper realized pressing down on the pillow probably wasn’t helping things and moved her hand. Tony took that as permission to toss it aside. Those big brown eyes were hard to resist and she leaned forward, putting her hand on his shoulder and kissing him softly.

She let her hand slide down his shoulder to his chest, circling the arc reactor as she did so, drawing a groan from him. From what little making out they had done before, Pepper knew the skin around it was sensitive and she scraped it gently with her fingernails before moving down his belly. His belly button was fascinating, it was not an innie but not quite an outie, either. Leave it to Tony to have a unique belly button.

Tony moaned as Pepper slid her a fingertip into and back out oh his navel. The moan turned to a gasp as her fingers slid over the silk covering his cock. There wasn’t enough air in the room suddenly and Tony found himself panting into her mouth as she teased the head of his cock through the material. When she finally closed her fingers around it, he arched up, breaking the kiss and clenching his eyes shut. “Pepper…”

“I’m sorry, but this is all you get.” Regretfully, she gave his cock a firm squeeze before pulling her hand away.

“Damn.” Tony opened his eyes and found her looking at him with desire burring hot in her eyes. This going slow thing was hard on her, too, and the thought made him feel better. A little better. His cock, however, was not forgiving either of them for some time.

“I’m going to go take a swim.” He told her. The cold Atlantic would kill off his hard-on in a heartbeat.

“Okay. I’ll make us some breakfast.” And take a cold shower. “Don’t stay out there too long.”

Sliding off the bed, he eyed her unhappily. “You’re lucky I’m not one of those type of guys who doesn’t understand the word no.”

“I wouldn’t be here if you were, Tony.”

She watched him walk out of the room, happy despite the frustrating ache between her legs. Tony had turned the corner. He’d be okay – and if her plan worked out like she wanted – they’d all be okay.

When she was certain he was outside, Pepper rummaged through last night’s discarded clothes for her phone. Ignoring the note that she’d missed numerous calls, texts and emails, she connected to the internet, cursing how slow the connection was – god knew how far away the nearest cell tower was – and scrolled down the list of favorites looking for the gossip folder.

The page opened slower than she could ever remember it taking since dial-up. “Come on… come on… yes!” She did a little victory dance when it finally loaded the images.

A picture of the two of them taken at the clambake was at the top of the page. She was leaning back in Tony’s arms, lying against his chest, and his chin was resting on her shoulder. The headline underneath declared “Tony and Pepper play beach blanket bingo at local party! Pepperony is back!” She hated “Pepperony” but at this moment she’d gladly kiss the person who made up the nickname.

The same picture with similar headlines was at TMZ, E! Online, and even Yahoo. Pepper sent Happy a quick “thank you” text. Take that, Sunset Bain! She headed downstairs, dancing her way down and singing “neener neener neener” all the way to the bottom.

Her phone chimed at her and stopping, she read Happy’s reply. “Check out People.” She clicked the link he’d sent. “Oh… my… God…” Another victory jig around the living room nearly made her drop her phone.

People had the same picture as the other sites had had, plus two more. She – as an “anonymous friend” of Tony’s – had promised exclusive pictures for a hefty fee. Which she would donate to charity with absolutely no guilty feelings at all.

The first picture was a perfect shot of the moment when she’d leaned back to gaze up at the fireworks and caught Tony looking at her. Their gazes were locked in what could only be described as lovingly – and was described exactly that way under the photo.

The second picture had captured the moment when he’d dipped his head down to kiss her. Her hand was curved up around his cheek and jaw and the other was covering the hand he had resting on her stomach. Fireworks were visible in the sky behind them, she couldn’t have asked for a better shot. Perfect!

Pepper sent a text back to Happy thanking him again. “I owe you!” Hearing the front door open, she bolted back upstairs to hide her phone.

 

Tony was in the kitchen when Pepper came downstairs. He was making something, mostly a mess, on the kitchen counter. “Tony, what are you doing? I’ll make us some eggs and bacon.”

“Go ahead. I’m making lunch.” He continued to pile lunch meat onto the sandwiches he was making. “We can take the leftover pizza, if you want.”

“I thought you and Happy ate it all.” Opening the refrigerator, she took out the carton of eggs and package of bacon.

“Nope, still a few pieces.”

“Weren’t you going to take a swim?”

“Turns out a wade was enough.” Tony shivered. He’d gotten as far as his shins in the cold surf and had thought his entire body was ready to shut down.

She laughed as she broke eggs into a skillet. The laugh turned to a shriek as he slapped her ass.

“It’s not fair, you know.”

“What’s not fair? That I didn’t need to wade out there with you?”

“Your hair’s wet, Potts. You took a cold shower.” He smirked at her. “No, you got a feel and I didn’t. Not fair. Not at all. I think that violates the Geneva Convention.”

“You’re not a POW, Tony.”

“You’re keeping me here with no clothes, transportation, or booze. I think the Red Cross would disagree with you.”

“Oh, please. You’ve been a prisoner, so I know you know the difference.”

“You got to feel me up and I got nothing.” He shook his head. “Zip. Nada. Bupkis.”

“You groped my boob in the car. That’s a feel.”

“Over your hoodie and a shirt. Hardly the same.”

“Okay.” Turning around she pulled her shirt up. “Fine. One free feel.”

Tony’s eyes goggled at the sight. Pepper had on a thin cotton sports bra. He could almost see her nipples through the material. White cotton had never looked so good.

“Well?” It was all she could do not to laugh in his face. He looked like he’d found the lost Ark. “I’m not standing here all day. Touch or don’t touch – make up your mind.”

“Touch! Touching – “ Tony pressed his tongue to his upper lip in concentration and gently covered her breasts with his hands. They were a perfect fit. He could walk around with her and be her bra for the rest of her life. Squeezing gently, he thumbed the nipples and then looked up at her. “I like them.” He said seriously.

“They like you, too.” Leaning forward, Pepper kissed him.

He heaved a sigh as she pulled her shirt back down. “I need another wade in – you know – I’ll be back.”

She smiled and gave him another quick kiss.. A sudden, strange smell made her frown. “What is – oh, no! The eggs!”

Running to the stove, she shut the burner off, waving away smoke and the smell of burned eggs. She carried it to the sink and scraped it down the disposal.

“No eggs for breakfast?” Tony shut the burner off under the bacon before it could join the eggs in a fate worse than death. “I saved your bacon.”

“Sorry, I got distracted.” That was true. She grabbed Tony and turned him around, pulling him into a hug.

“Oh, nice…” He hugged her to him. “It was a metaphorical saving of your bacon – well, sort of literal I guess – “

“Shut up, Tony.” She pressed her lips to his in a voracious kiss. Tangling her fingers in his hair, she held his face to hers and she pressed her tongue into his mouth.

For a moment, Tony was surprised and passive under her unexpected assault, then the testosterone in his genes kicked his body in gear. Pushing her against the counter, he returned the kiss, one hand coming up to cup the back of her head and hold her as he sucked her tongue for a moment before sliding his own tongue into her mouth.

He used his knee to move her legs apart and settled himself between them, rubbing his hardening cock against her mound. His free hand pulled her leg up around his hip while his mouth continued to dominate hers in a desperate kiss.

“Need you, Pepper – “ He gasped against her lips as they broke for air. “I need you – “

“I need you, too – “ Pepper turned her face away as he came back in for another kiss. It was good, felt fantastic, but it had to stop. It was too soon for them to do this. His lips landed on her jaw and quickly worked up to her ear. “Tony –  “

“I know – ‘s good – “ Tony dropped his hand down to the waistband of her shorts and quickly tugged them down. “God, I hope you packed condoms – “

The RT was digging into her breasts, it wasn’t painful but it was an odd sensation and it helped bring her thoughts back to somewhere closer to normal from ‘fuck me’. “We can’t do this – “ She put her hands on his shoulders and pushed. It was like trying to move a wall.

“I know – you got that damn swim suit on – “ He grunted against her throat. “Fucking one piece!” He couldn’t find where it tied or hooked or whatever it did at the top. His cock was going to embarrass him in a few moments if he didn’t get it into her pussy.

She was pushing him away and the small part of his brain that was still functioning decided Pepper was going to take the offending swim suit off. Stepping back, he licked his lips and watched her hands go down past her waist – and nearly howled in frustration as she pulled her shorts back up.

“What the hell? Pepper?” Tony’s eyes were hot, liquid with lust and anger as he caught her wrists.  “What are you doing?”

“We can’t do this – it’s too soon – “ His grip on her wrist tightened and she winced. “Tony, that hurts.”

Looking down, Tony saw his hands locked around Pepper’s wrists. Her skin was pale next to his, except for the redness outlining his grip. He dropped her wrists as if they burned him. He backed away and leaned against the wall. “I’m sorry, Pepper, I didn’t mean to do that.”

“I know. It’s okay.”

“No, it’s not.” He was panting, trying to catch his breath. “I have better control than that – I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

Pepper caught her own breath and rubbed at her wrists. “There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re vulnerable and I’m not helping by giving you mixed signals. I didn’t mean to do that. I’m not a tease, Tony, I’m not. I’m just  – ”

“No, don’t.” Shaking his head, he drew in a deep breath and blew it out. “There’s no excuse for how I acted and it is not your fault. I’m going upstairs for a very quick, very cold shower as punishment. Pack the sandwiches, we’ll leave in a few minutes.”

As he walked past her, Pepper caught his hand and when Tony stopped, she turned his face to her and kissed him softly. “Please don’t be mad – “

“Pepper, I’m not mad – not at you anyway. ” He kissed her back, just as softly. “I shouldn’t act like all I want is sex. I just don’t know – what else do couples do between meeting and sex? I’m short on experience here, Potts.”

“I know, and I’m not being the best teacher right now.”

“That’s not true. I’m just a rotten student.” He grinned. “Ask any of my teachers, they’ll tell you I’m a complete pain in the ass.”

Pepper stroked a hand over his face, trailing her fingers along his cheekbone and the line of his beard. “You’re not, don’t say that. We still have a chance, Tony. I don’t want to risk it. I want that chance.”

“Me, too.” He met her gaze for a long moment. “Me, too. More than anything.”

Pepper watched Tony leave the room, wishing she was brave enough to follow him. After a few moments she began wrapping the sandwiches, doing her best to ignore the sexual thrumming inside her body.

 

The sandwiches were wrapped and she was putting them into a backpack with chips and a few bottles of water by the time Tony came back from his shower. She smiled at him. “Almost ready, I added the bacon to the sandwiches.”

“Good call. I’ll meet you outside.” He gave her a quick kiss on the cheek.

A moment later Pepper’s eyes widened as she heard the sound of an engine being started. Panicked, she bolted out the back door. “Tony!” Had he done what he’d threatened the night before and built an ultra light out of the lawnmower? “Tony!”

Outside, she found him sitting astride a small motorcycle, a huge grin on his face. Dropping the backpack with their lunch, she demanded. “Where did you find that?”

“In the shed.” He cut the engine off. “It was in pieces. Dad never got around to fixing it, and… well… I never did either. Never had a reason.”

The shed. Pepper looked across the lawn to the building. It hadn’t occurred to her that the pieces of a dusty old motorcycles were something Tony could get working again.   Stupid! The shed is gold mine compared to that damned cave!  “How long have you been working on this?”

“Yesterday. When I said I was going to take a shower and a nap, remember? I couldn’t sleep and then I remembered this was out here. So I fixed it.” Tony couldn’t help smiling at the stunned look on his face.

“Pepper, no offense, I know you worked hard to keep me here, but I could have hacked your phone once I knew you had it or put together a modem from the junk in the basement and hooked it up to the internet line that you didn’t know about. Or – “ He shrugged. “ –  just walked down the damn beach.”

Clearly it was a blow to her ego, judging from the look on her face. Getting off the bike, he went to her. “But I didn’t. I didn’t because – well, because I couldn’t do that to you.”

Pepper shook off the shock of realizing her plan worked only because Tony went along with it.“Tony, I didn’t do this for me. I did this because I care about you – I don’t want you to end up in a bottle or worse. You’re better than that. I didn’t – “ She met his eyes squarely. “I didn’t want her to win. I don’t want her to win.”

“She won’t.” He pulled her into a fierce hug. “Not with you on my side.”

She returned the hug, turning her head so her lips brushed across his. “We’re going to kick her ass.”

“Yes, we are!” Laughing, he picked Pepper up and did a quick turn, letting her slide down his body as he set her back on her feet. “Tomorrow. Tomorrow we kick her ass. Today I want to show you something. Let’s go for a ride.”

Pepper picked up the discarded backpack, swung onto the bike behind him, and wrapped her arms around his waist. Tony had put on the jeans he’d worn the night before, probably a good idea while riding a motorcycle, and she hooked her fingers through the belt loops.

He started the bike and headed out of the yard. Once on the beach, he twisted the throttle and they sped down the sand at top speed. Pepper laughed and held on tight, resting her cheek against his shoulder.

 

When the land began to narrow until she could see ocean on both sides of them, Tony slowed the bike and maneuvered it up onto the rolling dunes. There was a faint, overgrown path and he guided them along it carefully.

After several minutes, the path led them out of the dunes and out onto a small beach with the water curving around it. Pepper gasped. There was nothing but ocean ahead of them. “Where are we?”

“Still on Long Island. Though I think you can see Connecticut if you look that way.” He pointed across the water. “One reason my dad bought this place was because he ended up with the end of this piece of the island. Nobody ever developed out here, so it was the perfect place for us to shoot off rockets and blow stuff up.”

There was a fond smile on his face. “We would set off fireworks out here, too. On that dock.” He pointed to a small dock jutting out into the water. It was sagging, clearly neglected. “Not the big, official SI Fourth of July party. Small stuff. Just me and him and Mom.”

“That sounds like fun, Tony.” She said softly. He didn’t share many of his memories of his parents. They were like sacred ground to him. Pepper smiled at the image of the three of them sitting on the beach as a family.

“It was.” He sighed. “I haven’t been here in a long time. Mom used to love to come sit out here. She’d sketch or paint, and I’d sit next to her and draw.”

“You’d draw the ocean?” Maria Stark had been a talented amateur artist, but this was the first Pepper had heard of Tony having any artistic ambitions.

“No.” He burst out laughing. “Planes, robots, bombs, circuit boards – come on, Potts, you know me better than that.”

She did, no doubt Tony’s first pictures stuck on the refrigerator door had probably been designs for a super computer or a robot. The image of a robot schematic being held up by letter magnets made her smile.

They sat down on the sand and Pepper leaned back against Tony’s chest, letting him wrap his arms around her. “I like it here, Tony.”

“Me, too.” He sighed and rested his cheek against hers.

“Let’s come back.”

“We will, Pep.” Hugging her, Tony brushed a kiss across her cheek. “All three of us.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Sunset and her attorney were already in the conference room when Tony, Pepper, and Bertram entered. Bertram’s secretary who’d had to wait with the two of them heaved an audible sigh of relief. Sunset was clearly pissed at having waited for almost an hour, she had stood up to leave just they entered. “It’s about time.” She snarled.

Tony ignored her. He’d deliberately waited until she was ready to walk out before he’d headed for the conference room. Security monitors were such a wonderful thing. He held out a chair for Pepper, sitting down beside her and leaning an elbow on the table.

“If you’re wanting tests done, we agreed in the last meeting that there won’t be any until the child is born. We have nothing to discuss.” Kuzak told him.

“And yet…” Tony smirked and waved a hand to indicate the room. “...here you are. You’re here because you want money. My money. And you think I’m just going to hand it over.”

“You’re going to pay, Mr. Stark. The only question is how much.” Kuzak returned the smirk.

“No. The only question is what your client is willing to do to get it. Oh wait…” Tony looked Sunset over and let a disgusted sneer curl his lip. “We already know what she’ll do – what she is. Now we’re just haggling over the price.”

Sunset ignored his insult, a serene smile curving her lips. She could afford to. With his child inside her, she held all the cards.

Bertram laid a hand on Tony’s arm, a silent reminder to rein it in. “Mr. Stark is prepared to offer a generous settlement for Ms. Bain with two provisions.”

“We’ll make the provisions.“ Kuzak interrupted.

Tony snorted. Under the table, Pepper patted his leg, reminding him to keep his cool. With sobriety and time to think had come both a degree of steel to his spine and anger that he’d been used. The steel they could use, the anger he needed to keep to himself.

He turned to smile at her and she smiled back. She was proud of him. They’d come back to LA after a week in Long Island and he was back to his old self. Well, not his old self, she patted his leg again, the new old self he’d been after returning from Afghanistan. Sober and sharp, Tony had cleaned up and once again looked as if he’d stepped right off the cover of GQ magazine.

“Two provisions – “ Bertram continued as if Kuzak hadn’t spoken. “Ms. Bain will be given a single lump sum and in return will give up her parental rights. She will also sign a gag order never to reveal that she is the child’s mother. All of this, of course, is dependent on the DNA tests at birth proving this is Mr. Stark’s child.”

“A lump sum? Instead of the monthly support for Ms. Bain to take care of this child for its entire life? I hardly think so.” Kuzak shook his head. “Unacceptable.”

“The alternative is that we go to court where Mr. Stark will ask for sole custody. If that happens, your client gets nothing.”

Kuzak made a dismissive gesture. “You’re bluffing. You’ll never get custody. Not with Stark’s reputation.”

“Really? You mean Mr. Stark, multi-billionaire, hero, the man who single handedly keeps America safe and at peace? That reputation? I don’t think the judge will have any problems awarding him custody.”

Kuzak gaped a bit at the description. “What about the drunk who whizzed in the Bellagio fountains?”

“After your client misled him, slapped him with a paternity suit, and told him she didn’t want to have anything to do with him.” Bertram relaxed back into his chair. “Clearly a case of a broken heart. Give me a woman judge – and I can pretty much guarantee it– and you don’t stand a chance.”

“You can’t buy a judge.” Kuzak didn’t sound so sure of himself.

“We’d never attempt such a thing.” Bertram made a show of looking outraged. “I never suggested any such thing. Your client on the other hand is unemployed – someone did tell you that you’re fired, didn’t they Ms. Bain?”

He didn’t wait for an answer before continuing. “If not, consider this your exit interview. She has no income, no money other than what Mr. Stark is generously giving her, and has a history of industrial espionage. In fact, she stole from Mr. Stark’s company. He’s surely the soul of forgiving and generosity in light of that fact.”

Kuzak chewed his lip and adjusted his tie nervously. “There were never any actual charges of industrial espionage.”

“There doesn’t need to be. The implication that she seduced an underage boy so she could steal from his father’s company will be enough. The court of public opinion will hang your client before we ever set foot in a courtroom. She’ll receive nothing. Not a dime. Tony – ” He turned to his client. “Maybe we should just go ahead with that? It’d be easier and far cheaper. My fee isn’t nearly what this viper will want.”

“Hmm…” Tony nodded his head. “You’re the attorney here, Bertram. If you think that’s what’s best, let’s do it.”

“I do.”  Bertram stood up. “Well, then, I think this meeting is over.”

“Wait a second!” Kuzak looked from Bertram to Stark and then to his own client. “You can’t just walk out!”

Sunset was staring at Tony, anxiety on her face. “You wouldn’t do that, Tony. You love me, don’t you? You love me! We can work this out, baby!”

“You can’t be serious.” Pepper muttered under her breath.

“I did love you – but not anymore. You finally killed it, Sunset.” Tony met Sunset’s eyes. Looked at the woman he’d thought he’d loved. The long-lost love he’d cried over and dreamed of for years. He felt nothing for her for the first time since he was seventeen. “It took you twenty years, but you finally killed it.”

“Lump sum. No parental rights. Gag order.” Bertram smelled blood in the water and went for the kill. “This is our only offer. Take it or leave it.”

“This is an completely unreasonable demand – “ Kuzak started.

“How much, Sunset?” Tony asked, raising an eyebrow lazily. He knew when a player’s hand was full of deuces and fours and they were about to fold.

“A hundred million!” She blurted out.

“Sunset!” Her lawyer grabbed her arm.”Shut up!”

“Done.” Tony snapped his fingers and papers began to print out of a slot in the table.

“Tony!” Pepper was aghast at the amount he’d just agreed to. He could afford it, but it’d seriously deplete his personal fortune. And it was far more than this conniving bitch deserved for what she’d done to him.

The secretary quickly gathered the papers and presented one copy to Sunset and a second to Tony. Tony’s pen hovered above the contract. “Ladies first.”

Sunset scribbled her name on the line the secretary pointed to and initialed the provisions. Her attorney tried to pull the contract away but she elbowed him. “You don’t know what you’re signing!” He warned.

“I know him well enough to know that what he said is what’s here.” She sneered even as she watched Tony sign the copy he had and slide it over to her. “He’s too much of a goody two shoes to lie.”

Pepper, Bertram, and the secretary signed as witnesses. Kuzak, after a moment’s hesitation, signed both copies as well. They were quickly notarized and the secretary handed a copy to Kuzak, telling him. “This will be filed before the end of the day.”

Tony stood and brushed a piece of imaginary lint off his tie. “Whatever else you can say about me, you can’t say I don’t pay my whores well.”

“Actually, you can’t say anything.” He paused on his way out of the conference room, leaned down until he was inches from Sunset’s face and looking directly into her eyes. “One word. One hint. One rumor. One whisper in a tabloid – and I will take it all back. I will take everything you have – including the cardboard box you’ll be using to sleep in on the streets.”

Straightening, he sauntered to the glass door, opened it, and gallantly waved Pepper through before following her.

Behind him, Sunset swallowed hard. She’d won, but she’d turned Tony from a love sick puppy into a dangerous enemy.

 

Once they were in Bertram’s office, Tony’s air of confidence and invulnerability shattered and fell away, and his hands began to shake.. “What did I just do?”

“You kicked her ass.” Pepper smiled, barely restraining herself from fist pumping the air,. She would have preferred not to give Sunset a dime, but at least this way they weren’t going through a nasty court battle. There would be nothing for the press to drag up to throw at the child she and Tony would raise and that was the important thing.

He dropped down on the sofa beside her. “What did I do? Pepper, I don’t know anything about babies – I don’t know how to raise a child. Hell – you tell me I’m a child all the time!”

“Tony, millions of people become parents every day. They figured it out and you will, too.”

“I don’t know. I don’t even have a cat – or a plant – I’m pretty sure you have to take care of babies every day, right?” He raked his hands through his hair, destroying the careful styling that had been done before coming to the meeting.

“Think of it as a challenge. There’s new things for you to learn – you love that.” She rubbed his back. “You’ve got a few months to study. By the time the baby’s born, you’ll have it all figured out.”

“There’s books, right?” He looked sideways at her. “Babies For Dummies, maybe?”

“Tons of books. Trust me, absolutely tons.”

“Wait, millions of people having babies every day? You are not in charge of the math, Potts.”

“I’m trying to comfort you and you’re picking on my math?”

“Your next birthday present is a calculator.” Pepper’s hand that had been rubbing his back suddenly smacked him.

“As long as it’s not a pony.”

“Thunder is a miniature horse.” The events of that day were vague, but Tony remembered that much. “You didn’t really sell him to a dog food plant, did you?”

“Tony – no. I donated him to the horse therapy center SI supports.” She giggled in spite of herself, remembering Tony dragging the poor pony – miniature horse – into her office. “It’s perfectly okay to forget my birthday next year, by the way.”

“No. I won’t forget again. Ever. I promise.” He leaned back on the sofa, looping an arm around her shoulders and pulling her with him. “I’m going to have a baby. Wow. That’s so amazing! It’s life changing! Wait, I’m going to have to share my toys, aren’t I?”

Pepper closed her eyes and sighed. Poor kid.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

“Why the opera? Can't we go somewhere else? Anywhere else?”

“Because it’s a charity event and you need to be there.” Tony shifted restlessly as Pepper tied his tie. Although she wasn’t his assistant any longer, she still enjoyed some of the duties. Tony smelled good and she loved running her fingers along the soft skin of his throat. It had been a secret, guilty pleasure that she could now enjoy openly.

“Just send them a check. Why do I have to be there?” He knew that he was interfering with what Pepper was doing, but he liked her standing so close. “All that screeching and the women are huge – which would be okay, but they’re ugly, too.”

“Because you’re the face of – “

“Stark Industries. I know, I know.” If he had a dollar bill for every time he’d heard that he’d have a pile of money up to his ass.

“I was going to say the Maria Stark Foundation, but that works, too.” Finishing with his tie, despite his movements, Pepper stepped back. “Your mother loved opera, remember? Her foundation is the biggest supporter of this event.”

“I know, I know.” Of course he knew about it, he was the executor. “Mom loved all the screeching and caterwauling.” He looked over the box of cufflinks and selected a pair that were understated and would work with his watch and his Brass Rat. “Mom loved it – dad hated it. I remember some great arguments about it. Mom always won, in case you’re curious.”

Only Tony would classify an argument as ‘great’. Pepper assumed that it hadn’t truly been an argument. She selected the tux jacket that went with his pants and hung it on the back of the dressing room door.

“Dad would say he hated listening to the fat clowns and heifers, and Mom would say –  “

“Heifers?” Pepper interrupted.

“My father wasn’t from Long Island originally, you know.” He grinned at her. “He went anyway – to the opera, I mean.”

“I’m sure your mother made it worth his while.” She’d seen photos of Howard and Maria at various events and they’d always been holding hands or at the very least had a hand on the other’s arm or shoulder. Always in contact with one another, obviously in love.

“Oh… I’m sure she did.” He winked at her. “She was passionate. Passionate about everything she did. I get that from her. And from lots of her Italian ancestors.”

“What was your father – his ethnic background?” Howard Stark looked like an average American as far as Pepper could tell. Tony had obviously gotten his looks from his mother. Maria was Italian, with the typical dark hair, dark eyes, and dusky skin – and had genetically dominated Howard’s in the looks department. His genes had undoubtedly been too busy ramping up the size of Tony’s brain.

“Scottish, Irish, and I think some Welsh. Not too sure on the last. He didn’t talk about his family.” Tony frowned. “At all. I got the feeling there were some bad things about his childhood.”

Pepper nodded. She knew Howard had grown up during the Great Depression and there were a lot of children who’d been orphaned and abandoned during that time. It was entirely possible he was one of them. For such a well known figure, a great deal of Howard Stark’s life before his sudden explosive entrance onto the public scene was surprisingly unknown.

“Sometimes it’s for the best.” Her own childhood wasn’t something Hallmark would write cards about anytime soon. It hadn’t been horrible, but it could have been better.

“Are you sure you can’t go – do whatever – “ Tony waved a hand in the air to indicate whatever that whatever might be. “You’re the CEO. I’m just the face.”

Pepper didn’t answer, waiting instead on the inevitable follow up.

“Sexy, handsome face – and body.” He preened as he looked in the full length mirror. “God, Armani loves me.”

“Of course he does. You’ve put his great-grandchildren through college at this point.” There were many designers out there, but Tony stayed true to Armani. She had to admit, there was an art to making Tony look taller without appearing ridiculous and somehow even sexier than he normally was. Armani was an expert in that art.

“You love me, too, right?” Tony looked over his shoulder at her. “Right?”

“Right.” At least fifteen times a day Tony would ask if she loved him. He was as insecure as he was sexy. After she’d admitted to him that she loved him, Pepper had had to limit him to hearing it once a day.

One time each day she would say, “I love you”. After that she would only agree to his question. Right, yes, sure, okay – whatever he asked, she agreed with. At least in regards to this particular question.

“What the hell are you wearing, anyway?” Tony frowned as Pepper stepped in front of him, blocking his view of himself.

She leaned toward the mirror, checking her makeup. “A dress. Vera Wang.” Straightening, she ran a hand over the high waisted blue gown. “I like it.”

He didn’t. It didn’t hug her curves enough. Not that she looked bad, Pepper never looked bad, but she didn’t look smoking hot either. Lately, she had been wearing some extremely conservative – in his opinion – clothing when they went out.

“The only nice thing about this dress is the top.” Tony ran a fingertip over the tops of her breasts, which were plumped up at the top of the square cut neckline. “You look… bigger. I like it. You didn’t get implants did you? You know I don’t like those.”

“Tony, honestly. When would I have the time?” She tugged at the top of the dress to make sure it wasn’t going anywhere. “Wonderbra.”

“Oh. I like those.” He smiled at a fond memory. “Though they do lie about what lies beneath – hey, that was funny.”

“No, it wasn’t.” Taking his hand, she led him toward the door. “Let’s go. I don’t want to be late.”

“Why don’t we stay here? Come on, if you want a musical we can watch Hairspray. Travolta’s a fat chick in that one – and he’s not that bad looking.”

“No.”

“How about Grease?”

“No.”

“Travolta the problem? How about a classic? Singing In the Rain?” He did a respectable soft shoe the last few steps to the door. “Everybody loves that one.”

Pepper paused to take the cape that matched her dress from Happy as she pulled Tony outside. “Get in the car, Tony.”

“What the hell?” His eyes widened as she put the cape on. “Who designed that? Batman?”

“Capes are very much in style this season.” She gave him a shove toward the limo.

“You look like you’re about to go out shoplifting!” Tony scooted across the seat and eyed the cape warily. “There could be a watermelon under that thing – anything – God knows what you could conceal.”

“How about a club to knock you in the head?” Settling on the seat next to him, she sighed. “Just behave.”

“Give me a reason.”

He’d moved closer to her and his breath fanned her neck, making her shiver. “Because I’ll kill you?”

His mouth grazed her ear. “No you won’t…”

“I’ll give you one more I love you.”

“Nice, but…” Tony trailed his tongue along her earlobe. “I really, really hate opera…”

She put a hand on his chest and shoved him back onto his own side of the car. Her heart was hammering and it was suddenly too warm.“Be a good boy and we’ll make out on the way home.”

His eyes lit up. “I’ll be a very good boy!”

“No sex – no hands in pants – first base – no more.”

“Oh, come on! You got to at least give me second base – wait, that’s bare tit, right? I’ve had that before, no reason to cock block me now.”

“Okay, okay!” She pointed a finger at him. “But one loud fart, one inappropriate comment, laughing at the wrong time – you embarrass me and – “

“I just said I’d be a good boy!”  He grabbed her hand and slid her finger into his mouth, sucking it until she pulled it back.

Giving him a light slap on the cheek, Pepper sat back and ignored the tingling between her legs. “You’d better be.”

 

True to his word, Tony managed to behave himself, despite the many opportunities to make snarky comments and giggle at the huge diva prancing around in what was supposed to be a harem outfit. If harem outfits came in size double double huge.

To help block the sound he had an ear bud in one ear – the one on the side away from Pepper – so he could listen to his iPod. Normally, he’d note his favorites on his phone for Jarvis, but she’d break his fingers if he got his phone out. He’d have to do it the old fashioned way and memorize the titles. God, life was so hard sometimes.

The only thing making the night tolerable was that Pepper had taken off her Batman cape and laid it in her lap giving him a good view of her cleavage. He couldn’t quite see down the front of the dress, but he was able to see – and appreciate – the rounded tops of her breasts. He’d ogled as much as possible and had trailed his fingertips over them until she elbowed him.

At intermission, there was a ceremony involving a large cardboard check, speeches, and lots of cameras. He’d signed the check with a flourish and handed it over, said a quick bit about how much his mother had loved opera and the arts, smiled for the cameras, and then bolted as quickly as he could.

There was a private room set aside for celebrities and big name donors, Tony guided Pepper inside and shut the door. Thankfully, the room was empty. He needed some space from the crowd.

“My head is killing me.” Picking up a glass of champagne, he sipped it and grimaced. “Last week was not a good year.” He offered her a glass and she shook her head. “No? Well, you’re not missing much.”

He set the glass down and looked over the buffet that was laid out. Caviar, fruit, cold cuts, crackers. Typical fundraiser spread. “Hey, want a sandwich? I think I can build some out of the crackers and lunch meat. I’m starving.”

“If I say I want caviar am I a cliché?” Pepper unbuttoned the cape and pulled it off. It was hot and she hated it but it was another part of her plan. A smile curved her lips. My fiendishly evil plan, maybe I should cackle and rub my hands together?

“There’s a metal spoon in it – “ Tony raised his eyebrows at the expression on her face. It was the look she got before she found something for him to do that he didn’t want to do. “Pepper?”

“Hmm? Oh, no. Never mind. Do they have water?”

“Bottled water… yes.” He held up a bottle. “Fancy, too. They should have saved their money and bought better champagne. Plopping on the sofa next to her, he handed opened it and handed it to her. “Can we go now?”

“The opera isn’t over yet.”

“I’ve already given them the big check. Aren’t you CEO? Wasn’t that your job? “

“You still needed to sign it.”

“Why? It’s not like they can carry it into the bank and cash it.” He looked up as someone entered the room. No, no, no! It was a douche bag from one of the companies that supplied SI with materials. The guy was plain looking and if he ever cracked a smile, his face would probably break. Tony had  absolutely no clue what the guy’s name was.

“Nevin, how nice to see you.” Pepper stood and held her hand out.

“Ms. Potts, Mr. Stark.” Plainface shook her hand and then turned to Tony, extending his hand to him.

Is this part of being good? Tony raised his eyebrows at Pepper. She shot back a look that promised dismemberment. Obediently, he took Plainface’s hand and gave it a firm, brief shake.

Going to the buffet, Plainface dipped up a small amount of the caviar and put it on a plate. “I really enjoy the opera, don’t you?”

“My mother did.” Maybe he could talk Pepper into going back to their box and making out before the screeching started back up.

“I haven’t had a lot of time to enjoy the opera. SI keeps me pretty busy.” Pepper sat down next to Tony again and put her hand on his leg. When he tried to get up, she dug her fingernails in. He winced and sat back.

“I think we’ve got a handle on the problems with that thirty gauge wire we’re bringing in. We had to switch to a company out of Canada for the raw metals.” Plainface sat down across from them and dug a cracker into his caviar. “The company in Mexico has really let their quality go downhill in the last year – I think it’s NAFTA catching up to us.”

NAFTA? Tony tried to put together something fun with the acronym. National Actresses fucking Tony always? That was pretty good. Nimble Actresses fucking – Pepper’s nails dug deeper into his skin. Damn! Was she psychic?

“Sometimes you have to shake things up.” Pepper agreed. “Right, Tony?”

“Right.” He said automatically. They were not going to talk business! He’d take the spoon out of the caviar and carve his heart out with it first.

“I’m going to get some grapes.” He popped up before Pepper could stop him. Using the buffet table as cover, Tony pulled his phone out of his pocket and sent a command to Jarvis. Nonchalantly, he strolled back to the sofa and sat back down.

“Where’s the grapes?” She raised an eyebrow. He was up to something.

“They didn’t look fresh.” He lied.

“As I was saying, we’re pretty happy with the new wire – “ Plainface stopped as his phone beeped. “I’m sorry, if you’ll excuse me.”

“No problem. You probably want to take that.” Tony nodded.

“What? They’re towing my car? Why would they be towing it? I’ll be right down.” Plainface shut his phone and shrugged his shoulders. “I’m sorry to run like this, but there’s been some kind of mix up at the parking garage.”

“Sure, see you later.” Tony smiled. Hopefully not.

“What did you do?” Pepper whirled around to glare at him. “Did you have his car towed?”

“No. He just thinks it’s being towed.” Possibly. Who knew how Jarvis had interpreted his text for help? “I just wanted him out of here. I don’t want to talk business.”

“Like you ever talk business.” She scoffed. “You’re too busy trying to look down my dress.”

“How is that a bad thing?” Trying to peek at Pepper’s breasts was on his list of things to do every day. “You need to lighten up.”

“And you need to be more serious.”

Tony stood and picked up one of the ugly decorative pillows he’d been sitting on. He weighed it carefully, calculated the trajectory, and swung it at Pepper’s head. It hit her with a loud thwap.

“That’s so childish.” She tried to duck out of the way as he swung it at her again, but it managed to clip her shoulder.

She got up, and Tony danced back out of reach. He loved the determined light in her eyes, the way they’d narrowed, and how her jaw clenched. When Pepper picked up a pillow, he knew the fight was on. “Come on, Potts, let’s see what you got.”

“You’re going down, Stark.”

They whacked at each other, laughing and giggling. She managed to maneuver him against the sofa until he lost his balance and fell back on it. Pepper rained blows on his head until he reached out and pulled her down on his lap. He jerked the pillow out of her hand and tossed it across the room.

Pressing his mouth to hers, Tony kissed her between giggles. She returned the kisses, wrapping her arms around his shoulders to hold him close. His tongue teased along her lips and she parted them, sucking his tongue into her mouth. He groaned and she giggled again.

“You wrecked my hair.” She said when his lips moved to her throat.

“I’ll buy you new hair.” Nuzzling along her throat, Tony found himself at her breasts – what a coincidence – and began licking along the exposed creamy flesh.

“Whoa!” It felt good, but they were in a public place. Pepper grabbed a handful of his hair and pulled his head back up. “Not here.”

“Let’s leave here.” He panted against her lips, arching up into her so she could feel how hard he was. “Let’s go there.”

“We can’t – “It was her turn to moan as he nipped at her bottom lip. “We can’t just leave. The opera isn’t over yet.”

“Who gives – “ Tony kissed a path up her jaw to her ear. “ – a fuck?”

“We did give – oh – “ He’d hit that extra sensitive spot below her ear and was licking at it. She couldn’t stop herself from grinding down on him.  “ – the check – so – yeah – “

“Yeah?” He sucked on her earlobe.

“Yeah – let’s – ” They both jumped as the door opened. Tony moaned as the movement pushed Pepper’s ass down against his erection in a way that was both good and bad.

“Uh… “ A well dressed couple stood in the doorway gaping at them.

“I think intermission is about over, darling.” Tony helped Pepper to her feet and stood up, using her cape as camouflage. Armani cut his pants tight enough that there was nowhere to hide his hard-on. Taking her hand, he led her from the room.

“Good to see you.” He waved a hand over his shoulder as they left.

“Oh, my God.” Pepper covered her face with one hand. She knew she was blushing, her cheeks were so hot it felt like she’d stuck her head in an oven.

Tony stopped at the door to the ladies room. “Go fix your hair. Everything’s okay, Pep, they didn’t see anything. We weren’t doing anything, just kissing”

Tony could be the biggest jerk in the world, but he could also be the sweetest. She pressed a kiss to his cheek and fled into the bathroom to fix her hair and splash cold water on her face.

He waited outside, holding the ugly cape in front of himself. If it wasn’t for the hard-on he was still sporting, he’d ditch the damn thing.  When she came out, hair once again in a neat chignon and her cheeks only slightly pink, he offered his arm. “Hello, beautiful, let’s ditch this joint.”

“Let’s.”

 

“Pepperony was out on the town last night and they were caught going at it hot and heavy! According to my sources, they were taking advantage of the empty hospitality room at the Los Angeles Music Center – clearly enjoying each other’s hospitality! These two just can’t keep their hands off each other!”

“Mute.” Pepper stepped out onto the patio next to the pool.

“I was listening to that.” Tony protested. “Apparently I got lucky last night.”

“No one got lucky. We had our clothes on, Tony”. Sitting in the deck chair next to him, safely under the protection of the awning, she opened her laptop  and surfed through various celebrity sites. All of them had similar stories. She and Tony had supposedly been caught doing everything from kissing to having sex depending on which site was doing the reporting. There were plenty of pictures of the two them entering the event as well as posing with the big check.

“I noticed that. My arms are going to be abnormally strong soon – think anybody will care?”

“Not as long as your ego is in the room.” She shot him a grin.

“If you want, I can call them and let them know that no clothes came off. Not even in the limo on the way home.”

“Please don’t.” Tony calling the press – Pepper shuddered.

Only one site had gotten pictures of them as they left the Music Center. TMZ was happy to note that they’d left early and both looked flushed. Her lips quirked up. They had a photo of Tony holding her cape in front of his crotch with a caption under it wondering if he was hiding ‘something’.

Tony hadn’t tried to get her clothes off on the way home, he’d stuck to their agreement and stayed on second base. Though the things he could do while at second had nearly made her signal for him to steal home.

Pepper looked away from her laptop to where Tony was stretched on a deck chair next to her, ear bud in one ear as he listened to his iPod – his significantly upgraded iPod, no doubt. He had his shades on and little else, just short swim trunks and a folded towel over the RT, and his head was tipped back to catch maximum rays. If she did that, she’d be a lobster.

Movement from the screen hanging over the pool caught her eye. The celebrity gossipmonger was still talking, waving his hands wildly. Underneath him scrolled “Is Pepper preggers? A new pepper in the pepper patch?”

“That’s just… wrong.” She made a face. “What is this, high school? Sound, Jarvis. What’s this moron saying?”

“ – hiding a baby bump? That dress was fab, but it looks like one my mother would wear to cover up her middle aged spread – and that’s not something that’s going to keep Tony Stark’s attention. Tony likes to see skin and lots of it.”

“Amen!” Tony agreed.

“Pepper has put on a few pounds since that little vacay to Long Island, and lately she’s wearing baggy clothes and covering up – “ The talking head leaned closer to the camera and winked. “Between you and me, I think there’s a little Stark on the way.”

“I hate how they can just say anything they want. I don’t know how it doesn’t it bother you. Tony?” She turned to look at him. “Are you listening to me?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“Why are you letting it bother you? Jarvis, kill the TV and the ‘net.”

“Yes, sir.” The AI answered.

The screen over the pool vanished and a warning popped up on Pepper’s laptop screen that she was no longer connected to the internet. “Hey! I have work to do!”

Sighing, Tony reached over and took her laptop out of her hands. “Will you relax?”

He lifted it up as if to toss it in the pool, thought better of it and set it down beside him. He’d just end up being the one to fix it.  “Relax.”

“Relax? Sure. You’re not the one they’re calling fat.” She let her bottom lip stick out. Granted, she had put on a few pounds – less than ten – but she was hardly fat.

“I think you look better.” Tony hadn’t realized until Pepper added those few pounds that she’d been a little too skinny. “A little more meat on your bones is nice.”

“If I was a cow maybe.”

He snickered. “You’d be a pretty cow. One of those red ones with lots of patches.”

“And you’d be a jackass.” She said sweetly.

“I don’t know who decided women should be all thin and bony. Marilyn Monroe wasn’t skinny and I’d do her in a second.” He reached out for her hand. “Come on, it’s a beautiful SoCal day, relax and enjoy it. Look up at the clouds or something. They’re beautiful.”

She took his hand, threaded her fingers through his. “They’re just clouds, Tony. Big balls of condensation.”

“Say big balls again. Ouch!” He winced as she squeezed his fingers with more force than was necessary. “You know, my mother said mediation was good for you. Look up at the clouds and try to meditate.”

“Sure. Meditate.” Closing her eyes, Pepper tried to relax. Part of what was happening was in her plans, but it was painful being in the public eye constantly. She liked being anonymous. Nobody had paid any attention to Pepper Potts the PA. Those days were over.

“Do you want to get closer? I can get the suit and take you up.”

She opened her eyes and turned to look at him. Tony had sprawled out on his chair once again. His chest and stomach were bare except for the towel covering the RT, and she let her gaze drift down to the line of dark hair running from his navel and disappearing into the low slung shorts. “No, I’ve got the perfect view, right here.”

 

There was a gauntlet of press they had to move through to get to the restaurant doors. Tony was a pro, smiling and waving, giving them time to snap pictures. Vultures. He kept that thought to himself, the press was a necessary evil and he had to keep them on his side. Especially now.

Tucking Pepper’s hand into the crook of his arm, he kept her close to his side as they moved up the narrow path to the door. He ignored most of the shouted questions that were thrown his way. Occasionally responding to those about Iron Man with “I love America and I’m keeping her safe” and to shouts of love from his adoring crowd with kisses blown their way.

One question stopped him in his tracks. “Hey, Tony, is it true that she’s pregnant?”

His skin crawled and he knew the back of his neck was turning red. “Who – “

Pepper stepped in front of Tony. “I am not pregnant. Can’t a girl put on a few pounds in this town?”

Relief washed over him as he realized the reporter had meant Pepper – not Sunset. He'd forgotten there were rumors swirling about Pepperony having a baby, new ones popped up as soon as Pepper squashed them.

“She’s right.” Tony slid his arm around Pepper’s waist and pulled her against his side. “I like a woman with a little meat on her bones.” He winked and the crowd hooted in laughter.

She kept the smile plastered to her face. “Oh. My. God.” Came through clenched teeth.

“What? Not my fault if they have dirty minds.” With one last wave to the press, Tony guided her through the open door of the restaurant.

“I am so sorry, Mr. Stark.” The maitre d’ apologized. “Unfortunately, we can’t keep them off the sidewalk. The law won’t allow us to.”

“Quite all right.” Tony let the fussy man lead them to their table. He knew where it was, this was Pepper’s favorite restaurant and he had set this evening up all by himself. Jarvis had helped, but since he had programmed Jarvis – that meant technically he’d still done it himself.

The center of the dining room floor had been cleared and tables were grouped around it. Pepper hesitated, almost stumbled as Tony bumped into her. “Tony, it looks like there’s an event of some kind. Somebody’s wedding or something. Maybe we should go somewhere else.”

“No, this is perfect.” He waved the maitre d’ away, seating Pepper himself. He’d spent six months planning it, it had better be perfect. Relax, Tony, of course it’s perfect, you planned it, there’s no gunpowder involved, what could possibly go wrong? Oh, god why did I think that?

He sat across from her and relaxed as wait staff appeared. One opened a bottle of wine and poured a small sample in a glass for Tony. He swirled it and tasted before nodding. The sommelier poured more into Tony’s glass before pouring a glass for Pepper.

She eyed it. “I’m not sure…”

“It’s okay.” He frowned. Since their return from Long Island, the most he’d indulged in had been a glass or two, and only at social functions. “I promise not to get shitfaced.”

“It’s not that, lately wine makes my stomach upset.” As good excuse as any.

“Oh.” He snapped his fingers and the sommelier reappeared. “The lady isn’t in the mood for wine. Please bring us ice water.”

“Is there something wrong with the wine?” The man appeared offended.

“No, it’s my stomach.” She patted it. “Alcohol isn’t agreeing with me lately.”

“Ah, of course. I understand.” He didn’t, but he picked up the glasses and the wine and vanished. Another waiter quickly set two glasses of ice water on the table then likewise vanished.

“Mr. Stark, Ms. Potts.” Their waiter was familiar with them, she waited on them nearly every time they came in. “We have wild salmon tonight, flown in from Washington state, applewood smoked – it’s very good.” She saw Tony’s eyes light up, he was easy, he would try anything. Pepper was a little more cautious.

Catching the slight wrinkling of Pepper’s eyebrows and remembering that Stephen, the sommelier, had bitched about people who went out to eat with upset stomachs, she shifted to another selection. “And we also have Kobe beef simmered in brown sugar, date aioli with bacon, served with melted brie, and white truffle fries.”

“That sounds good. I’ll have that.” Tony looked at Pepper; she nodded. “The lady will, as well.”

“As a starter may I recommend the pressed foie gras and Scottish venison, ceps bouchons, Périgord truffle, roasted fig and raspberries?”

Tony smiled as Pepper nodded again. “I think you had the lady at foie gras. Do you still have the lobster, oyster, and crab in that fantastic bouillabaisse sauce?”

“Yes, sir, that’s one of the chef’s specialties.” She smiled at him. Tony Stark wasn’t necessarily what the press would term a “foodie”, but the man knew how to eat. “Is there anything else I can get for you right now?”

Tony shook his head. “We’re fine, thank you.”

She hurried away to put his order in. Tonight was probably – no, it was definitely going to be crazy –  and she wanted their order in a.s.a.p.

Reaching across the table, Tony took Pepper’s hands in his. “You’re beautiful tonight. Well – not just tonight – all the time. Just especially tonight.”

“Smooth.” She squeezed his hands.

“I can’t use lines with you. You know me too well.”

“True.” There were musicians setting up across the room. “Wait – they don’t have a band here. Since when do they have a band here?”

“They have one tonight.”

“They – oh, Tony – “

He smiled, waiting for praise to be heaped upon him.

“What have you done?”

That didn’t sound like praise. He frowned. “What do you mean what have I done? I’m going for romantic. Romantic requires music.”

“Please don’t tell me they’re going to sing AC/DC.” Tony’s favorite music was head banging and loud.

“No. Give me some credit.” Tony was offended. How could she think he couldn’t tell metal from romantic?

The music started and Pepper recognized ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ and relaxed. “I’m sorry. I forget that you can be sweet and sensitive when you want to be.”

“Thank you.” He frowned again. “I think.”

The waiter brought their starters and they spent the next several minutes enjoying the food and the romantic songs being played. They shared bites, even though there were bound to be frowns from some of the other diners at their lack of manners.

Pepper didn’t care what they thought. She glanced to one side and started. The person at the next table was someone she knew. Bambi Arbogast, her secretary. Bambi and her husband were sharing a table with two other people from her personal staff.

Something was going on. Bambi had worked for SI for years, and made more than your average secretary by far, but Pepper knew this restaurant was not within her budget. Looking around, she spotted other SI employees, friends, and there was Rhodey sitting with Happy two tables away.

“Tony…” She turned back to him. “What’s going on?”

“What? Can’t a guy take his girlfriend out to a dinner? With a few friends?” He put on what he hoped was an innocent look.

“Tony, everybody in here is someone we know. Everybody .”

“What a coincidence.” He pushed his chair back as another song started. “This one’s my favorite. Dance with me?” He held his hand out to her.

“Dance? There’s no dance floor.” Confused, she put her hand into his and let him pull her to her feet. “There’s – “

“There is tonight.” He led her to the center of the floor and pulled her against him. Close but not too close. He was going for romantic, not bump and grind. “I wish you’d worn that blue dress – the backless one.”

“It’s a little tight.” She confessed. Because she’d put on a little weight as part of her plan which was also why she was wearing a loose dress designed to conceal her shape.

“Probably would look that much better.” Tony rested his cheek against hers. “Listen. Do you like this song?”

What was with him and this song? Pepper listened for a moment.

Longer than there’ve been stars

Up in the heavens

I’ve been in love with you

A smile curved her lips. She knew this song, it was an old one, but it fit the two of them perfectly. “Yes, I like it.”

“Pepper – ” Tony pulled back enough so he could look into her eyes. They were the perfect shade of cool blue, just what he wanted to look at the rest of his life. “Pepper Potts, I love you.”

Pepper felt tears burn her eyes and she bit her lip in an effort to keep them from spilling over. “Oh, Tony – “

“Uh oh… ” Had he screwed up? Romantic songs, good food, friends – all good, right? “Was this not romantic enough?”

“I love you.” She kissed him, softly and gently. “You didn’t have to do all this.”

“I told you there’d be a big production, remember?” He smiled against her lips. “I’ve got my image to maintain.”

“I’d forgotten for a minute that this was a threesome.” At his startled look, Pepper laughed. “You, me, and your ego.”

Throwing back his head, he laughed raucously. “You’re perfect, Potts – absolutely perfect.”

The song ended and before the band could start another one, Tony spun her around and stepped back. He swept his arm out in a flourish. “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for being here tonight. I want to tell you – tell everyone – that I love this woman.”

Pepper flushed as they applauded and cheered. “Tony, that’s good – that’s enough – “

“I love Pepper Potts.” He pulled her to him and kissed her hard, dipping her back so that she curved into his body.

There were whistles and hoots from their friends, and Pepper distinctly heard Rhodey holler out that it was about time. When Tony lifted his lips from hers, she was torn between kissing him again or slapping him. Luckily for him, she settled on the former.

She kissed him, a great deal more gently than he had just kissed her, but with a tenderness that seemed to make the coffee brown eyes suspiciously bright. “And I love Tony Stark.”

Pulling Pepper against him, Tony rested his cheek against hers once more as the band began playing another soft love song. Other couples began to join them on the makeshift dance floor as well.

All of the songs, Pepper realized, had a similar theme. Someone who didn’t believe they’d ever find love, or deserve it, didn’t think there was anyone for them, realizing finally that love was right in front of them – all of them fit Tony. And herself if she were being honest. She brushed a kiss across his cheek. “Did you pick these songs?”

“I did. Well, I had Jarvis search for me – but I gave him the parameters. Certain phrases and themes – plus, no AC/DC or Black Sabbath.” He laughed softly in her ear. “Though there is one Aerosmith song.”

“The one from the Bruce Willis movie?” He usually fast forwarded past that part of the movie unless she had the remote.

“No, not that one. Angel. I like that one and it’s quiet. For Aerosmith. Jarvis put all of them on that iPod I bought – you wouldn’t believe the work I had to do to that thing to get it to do what I wanted. We need to design our own – I can make one a hundred times better.”

“Microsoft already tried that. Apple has the market pretty well tied up.”

“Please.” He pulled back to look into her eyes again. “Like Bill Gates has a clue.” Tony lowered his lips to her shoulder. “I listened to all the songs and picked the ones I thought fit me – and us – best.”

“That’s why you’ve been listening to that thing instead of blasting it on the house speakers – here I thought you were finally being considerate.”

“I’m always considerate. I turn my music up so you can hear it, too.”

“Sure you are.” She nipped his ear, giggling when he yelped.

After a few more dances, they returned to their table and the waiter immediately brought their food. The chef had been pitching cat fits because he had to wait on them before he could fire their entrees, but she thought the whole thing was incredibly romantic.

Pepper giggled as she looked at their entrees. “Leave it to you to find an upscale cheeseburger.”

“Seriously, you didn’t realize what we were getting? Beef and cheese and bacon?” He cut into the Kobe beef and lifted a bite to his mouth. It was heaven and he moaned appreciatively. “Don’t tell In-n-Out I’m cheating on them.”

“Your secret is safe with me.” Just like all the others. Looking across the room, she met Happy’s gaze. He nodded slightly and she smiled at him.

Tomorrow there would be a flood of stories about tonight in the tabloids and at least one “exclusive and intimate” picture of the two of them. Another item on her agenda had been marked off. Hopefully, when Tony found out, he’d understand. If not – well, she could go back to wearing tighter clothes.

 

Chapter Text

 

Tony looked down at the newborn. The tag on her bassinet said simply “baby girl”. No name. No parent’s last name. Nothing to identify her to the world. An anonymous new life. Sunset had never seen the baby – didn’t want to see her – and Tony didn’t know yet if he was her father. She was in limbo for now.

He’d asked for time alone with the baby and they’d been taken to an empty patient room. So far he hadn’t touched the infant, only stared at her. He was shaking inside, how could he be responsible for caring for such a tiny, fragile thing?

Pepper entered the room and closed the door again.“Tony.” She put a gentle hand on his arm. “Did you have Jarvis scan the sample you took?”

“Not yet.” Tony had taken a small drop of blood when the maternity ward staff had pricked the baby’s heel for one of the tests they were doing. He’d scanned it into the small computer link he carried – cleverly disguised as his phone – but hadn’t asked Jarvis to compare it to his own DNA yet.

“Why not? You’ll know a lot faster than waiting for the lab’s results.” DNA samples had been taken immediately after birth and the tests were being rushed, a perk to being a large donor to the hospital. Looking at the baby, at her dark hair and dark eyes, Pepper had no doubt this child was Tony’s. All that remained were the results of the tests to confirm it.

“She’s going to hate me, Pepper.” Tony said softly.

“Who? Sunset? Who cares?” She was shocked that he’d even think of Sunset’s feelings. “Just so long as the money ends up in her account – she’ll be fine.”

“No. Not – no – “ He pointed at the bassinet, at the baby lying quietly, unaware of the deception she was created from.

“Oh.” Mentally, Pepper kicked herself. Of course he’d meant the baby. “Why would she hate you?”

“I bought her from her mother. Will she ever forgive me?” He looked again at the blank name tag on the bassinet. “Maybe she’d be better off with someone else.“

“Tony, why would she ever hate you? Sunset would never give her what you can. You’re going to give her a good life with a father who loves her and will take care of her.”

“I just – “ He sighed. “I guess – I’m scared.”

“Welcome to parenthood.” She caressed his cheek. “I don’t think anyone who has ever had a baby isn’t scared to death.”

“Well, parenthood can’t be any worse than being held captive in a cave for months, right?” Pulling his phone out of his pocket, Tony sent the scan to Jarvis. “Compare with my DNA and calculate the odds of paternity.”

“Yes, sir.” Mere seconds passed before Jarvis reported his findings. “DNA match to within an acceptable percentage. Congratulations, sir, it’s a girl.”

“Congratulations, Daddy.” Pepper wrapped her arms around his shoulders and pulled him into a hug.

“You’re just happy you get to go shopping.” He joked. “The kid has no shoes – you’re going to wear out my credit cards.”

“I am.” She nodded, smiling. “Shoes, clothes, hats – everything a little girl needs. Little Miss Stark has fashion trends to set.”

Tony smiled, then leaned in to kiss her, making it long and slow. When he pulled away, her eyes were slightly out of focus in that way he’d come to love. “Pepper, now that I – I mean we – sort of we – have a baby – how do we explain that? People are going – they’re going to – I don’t know what to say. What do we say?”

“We have two choices.” The moment of truth was finally here and Pepper sat in one of the rocking chairs just in case her legs gave out. “The first is that we say that you’ve adopted a child. A lot of celebrities have done that, so there shouldn’t be any real issues. Jarvis can certainly fake the necessary paperwork. We can spin public sentiment your way by saying you’ve craved a stable family life since your parents died and, well, you are getting to a certain age.”

When Tony nodded, Pepper took a deep breath and continued. “The other is to say that the baby is ours – mine, I mean. Mine and yours – ours.”

“Ours? As in… “ He motioned back and forth between them. “Ours? How is that going to work? I mean – I know how it works – but – how?”

“Simple.” She shrugged as if she suggested they lie about having a baby every day. “We just announce that we’ve had a baby and we show her off. Done Deal.”

He cocked his head, looking at her skeptically. “And they’re going to buy that? Instant baby, no questions asked?”

“You know how the press has been saying I’m pregnant and I’ve been denying it?”

“Yeah, because you’re not.” He nodded. “You’re not, right?”

“Right. But, Tony, I’m the one who’s been keeping those rumors going. I’m the one who’s been feeding the anonymous tips to the press.” At his stunned look, she rushed to explain. “I put on a little weight on purpose, I wore clothes that could possibly be concealing a baby bump, I’ve avoided public events the last few months, and made sure I had on a big coat or something similar when I did go out so I was covered up.”

“You’ve been playing the press?” He sat down in the rocker next to hers hard enough to make it creak. “That’s dangerous, Pepper. They’ll turn on you, you know that. If they find out, they’ll eat you alive.”

“If the baby hadn’t been yours – and I thought that was a very slim chance – then there’s no problem. I go out in a tight dress and the rumors are dead.” She shrugged again. “But since she is – we can say we kept the pregnancy under wraps for privacy, and that we wanted to enjoy the time together in private.

“Jarvis has laid down a trail of doctor appointments and everything we need to prove that she’s ours. There’s even a charge on one of my credit cards for a pregnancy test that I never actually bought. When Sunset went into labor, Jarvis checked me into your private room here at the hospital. We’ll spend the night, then go home tomorrow and announce the birth. The insurance company will even get bills for the delivery.”

“What – wait, what about the paternity suit? Someone’s bound to dig that up.”

“What paternity suit?” She shrugged. “There’s no record of it. There is a record of Sunset suing to get compensation for the profits Hammer had kept from her patents. Which will also explain her sudden fortune.”

The scope of what Pepper had done astonished Tony. He had no idea she was capable of such duplicity. Then again, she’d always done whatever was necessary to protect him. “The pictures, the exclusive things that nobody should have known about – those weren’t photographers being in the right place at the right time or a restaurant staffer making a buck, were they – you did all that?”

Pepper nodded. “Me and Happy, And Jarvis, of course.”

“Happy? Seriously? He was in on this?” Somehow, that was more surprising than Jarvis playing counterfeiter.

“He’s always there, who better to get those ‘exclusive’ photos?” The look on Tony’s face was priceless. Unfortunately, it wasn’t giving her any clues as to what he was thinking. “Tony, we can raise her together – if you want to. I mean – I would like to – if you do.”

“I believe that – “ He cleared his throat. “When people have a baby, they should be – married. I know it’s old fashioned, but…”

“Jarvis prepared a marriage license, too.” Pepper said quietly. This was the one part of her plan she knew might blow up in her face spectacularly. While Tony would appreciate everything she’d done to ease the press nightmare that the baby’s birth would be – he might balk at finding his marriage was a fait accompli. “We – we’re sort of married.”

Tony was silent for so long that Pepper began to think she’d gone too far. Their relationship had come a long way since the week in Long Island, but it was still fairly new. He might not be ready for such a big step. Might not ever be ready for that step.

“Tony, we don’t have to do that part if you want to wait – or not do it at all.“

“No, it’s good. I want – yes. Everything you’ve done is perfect. Except I might want another wedding – a less private one this time.” He smiled slightly. “Maybe I had too much to drink, Pep, but I don’t remember the first one.”

A weight lifted off her and Pepper felt a bit dizzy. She’d been carrying this secret for months scared it might end in disaster.  Leaning across the small space between them, she kissed him. “I love you, Tony. Everything I’ve done is because I love you.”

“I know.” He cupped her face in his hands, stroking her cheeks with his thumbs. “I love you. I know this isn’t the way most people do things, but we’ve never been like most people.”

Pepper’s phone rang and she looked at the number. “Hospital lab.” Smiling, she answered it. She listened and acted surprised when they confirmed Jarvis’ results. “That’s wonderful, thank you.”

“Don’t tell Jarvis we second guessed him.” Tony told her.

There was a whimper from the baby and they got up to look at her. She shifted and began to cry softly. Tony wanted to pick her up but wasn’t sure how to do it. “How do I – “

Pepper slid her hands under the infant and picked her up, carefully supporting her head. “Just like that. Here, Daddy.” She handed her to him. “One hand under her head, she can’t hold it up yet.”

Tony cradled the baby to his chest. “You did that like a pro, Potts. Anything I should know about?”

“Only that I started babysitting when I was twelve. I had a pretty steady business until I left for college.” She patted the baby’s back gently. “Typical girl thing.”

“I should sit down with her – should I sit down? I could rock her. Rocking’s good, right?”

“Rocking is good, babies love rocking.” Pepper watched him walk back to the rocking chair. He was moving like he was in slow motion, and she laughed. “Tony, she won’t break that easily. You can walk normally.”

Tony began to rock slowly, unsure of what rocking speed a baby required. Within moments she’d quieted against his chest with a soft sigh. In that moment, a feeling rushed through him so fierce it frightened him. He loved this baby and he’d protect her from anyone or anything that tried to harm her.

Pepper bit her lip to keep from crying. Tony’s eyes were bright and he was holding the baby to his chest as if she were a precious gift that could be taken away at any moment. She sat in the rocker next to him and laid a hand on his. “Everything is okay, Tony. Nobody’s going to take her away from us. She’s ours.”

Tony nodded, unable to speak, and he gripped her hand hard. Until now, the baby had been an abstract idea. Some odd thing that he was going to acquire like a new car or a painting or a new tool. Holding her in his arms, he realized that he was responsible for a living, breathing being who would look to him for everything in her life.

A nurse knocked on the door and then stuck her head inside. “I see you’ve gotten the tests back.” At Pepper’s nod, she entered the room. “So, what are we naming this little doll?”

“I – “ Tony looked at Pepper. She looked equally blank. “We don’t know.’

“Don’t worry about it. A lot of parents don’t have a name picked out when the baby’s born. It’ll come to you.” She did a quick check of the baby’s vitals and jotted the information on the chart. “Your room is ready, Mr. Stark, if you’d like to move upstairs.”

“Don’t we need to keep her close to the nursery?” Tony frowned. What if something went wrong?

“It’s just two floors up and we can monitor her there just as easily as we can in a room on this floor. It’s quieter, and you’ll have your private staff, you’ll be more comfortable.” She assured him. “Formula, diapers – everything you need is already there.”

“Thank you.”  He looked at her name tag. “Pat. Are you on my staff, Pat?”

“Yes sir, I am. Just transferred from maternity today to help you out.” If Pat thought the move was out of the ordinary, she kept it to herself. Working for Tony Stark was an opportunity too good to pass up.

They moved quickly upstairs, Pat taking the baby out of Tony’s reluctant grasp so she could transport her in the bassinet a few minutes behind them. He didn’t like it, but he knew that the minute Pepper’s name had shown up on the hospital patient list, the press would be lurking somewhere trying to get a picture. It wouldn’t be completely out of the realm of possibility for one to be hiding in a closet somewhere ready to leap out and take a picture.

“Jarvis, I want the room next to our bedroom redone as a nursery a.s.a.p.” Tony ordered.

“Did you wish to design it yourself, sir? I can provide examples.” Jarvis answered.

“You do it. I trust you.” It wasn’t too much of a stretch, considering he’d programmed Jarvis, and the AI knew exactly what he liked. He had a sneaking suspicion that the nursery had already been planned and Jarvis had been waiting for permission to get started.

“Thank you, sir. Furnishings as well?”

“Better leave that to the missus. We don’t want to stand between her and an excuse to shop.” He grinned at Pepper’s annoyed look.

“A wise decision, sir. If I may suggest, rudimentary items such as a cradle, bedding, diapers, formula, and an assortment of clothing should be at the house when you bring the infant home. Simply for convenience, Mrs. Stark.”

Pepper started at hearing her new name for the first time. “Uh, yes, you’re right. We’ll need basic supplies. Have them sent to the house, Jarvis.”

“Of course. And may I offer my congratulations on the nuptials as well?”

“Thank you, Jarvis. I feel as if you were there with us.” Tony deadpanned. “Can I pick her up again now?”

“Tony, she’s your daughter. Pick her up anytime you want.” Pepper chuckled. “Just remember to support her head.”

“Supporting head. Got it.” Carefully, he slid his hands under the baby and scooped her up just as he had seen Pepper do, one hand carefully cradling her head. Tony turned her so he could look at her face.

She had dark eyebrows and long dark lashes. Large dark blue eyes blinked at him. “Pepper, she has blue eyes.”

“All babies have blue eyes. As dark as hers are, thought, they’re going to turn brown in a few days.” Pepper had taken her laptop out of her bag and connected to the internet through a secure connection Jarvis provided. “We need to give her a name.”

“Find a pretty one. One that means ‘princess’. I’d name her princess but that’d be too weird.” He stroked the baby’s head, running a fingertip through the dark hair. “Sounds like a dog. Here princess, here princess!”

“Baby name sites. Wow… there’s a ton of them.” For all her planning, a name for the baby wasn’t something Pepper even considered. That was something she knew Tony would want to be in on.

“Find one with meanings.” Tony moved carefully to sit on the bed. He leaned back so he could prop the baby on his thighs and study her. She seemed to be studying him with equal fascination. “Hi. I’m Daddy. Hello? Hmm… when will she start talking, Pep?”

“Not for awhile, Tony. Give her time.” Pepper frowned at the list of names she’d found. “These are not good.”

“Come here and let me see.” He scooted over so she could sit on the bed next to him. “Lula? I don’t think so. Agave? Isn’t that what tequila’s made out of?”

“I think so. That’s the last thing we need to do her is name her after booze.”

“I wouldn’t do that. I’m a scotch drinker, anyway.” Most of the time. “Hey – Sadie! I like that. Sadie Stark.”

“Seriously? You have got to be kidding.” Pepper gave him look that said he’d lost his mind. “Besides, it reminds me of the song from Funny Girl. Sadie, Sadie, married lady – remember?”

“Um…no. But it does sound like an old lady name now that I think about it.” He shifted the baby to his chest as her eyes closed. Clearly she trusted them with naming her.  Little did she know about the ‘bots that lived in Daddy’s workshop. “You’re being pretty judgmental, Potts. What name did you have in mind?”

“I like Alexandra. It’s strong, but pretty.” Pepper could already see their daughter striding confidently through the corridors at Stark Industries – the most successful CEO in the world. Ever. Of all time.

“And it’s a boy’s name. What does it mean?” He watched her type it in. “Defending men. Well that’s… not what I had in mind.”

“Considering that’s what SI has done all these years?” She shot him a dirty look. “It’s perfect.”

“May I offer a suggestion?” Jarvis interrupted.

“Sure. Thrill me – us, I mean.” Tony rubbed the baby’s back. He could see that holding her would be his new favorite thing to do. First he needed to make a little sling for her to ride in so he never had to put her down.

“If you will provide me with at least three names that each of you like, I can search for similar names that might please the both of you. So far you have Sadie and Alexandra.” The AI said.

“How about your mother’s name?” Pepper suggested. “Maria?”

“That’d be weird, wouldn’t it?” He knew on the one hand it would be honoring his mother, but on the other it he felt it was a little weird to reuse her name.

“I have a list prepared. I can generate more names if none of these are acceptable.” Jarvis had set up the parameters for his search and executed it while his creator was speaking.

They looked at the list that had popped up on the screen. After a few moments, Tony spotted one he liked. “Sophia. What’d’ya think? Sophia.”

“I like it. Sophia Stark.” Pepper nodded. “It’s strong and it’s pretty.”

“You’re such a girl, Potts. Sophia means wisdom. Well, I suppose that was to be expected, what with you being so wise.” Tony grinned.

“How about Rose for her middle name? Sophia Rose.”

“That works. Good choice, Mommy.”

“Mommy. Wow.” That hit her harder than she would have expected.

Tony placed a gentle kiss on the baby’s head. “Sophia Rose Stark, welcome to the world. I’m sorry to tell you that I’m your father, but I’ll do the best I can and Mom will be here when I screw up. Because I will screw up, I’m not going to lie to you, it’s gonna happen.”

“Tony…”

“Just getting it out there, Potts. The kid needs to know what she’s getting into.”

“I wish somebody had told me what I was getting into the day I met you. I might have…”

“What?”

He’d had that exact same look on his face all those years ago. Head tilted, giving her a slightly sideways look, eyes squinted as if he could see the words she was going to say before she said them. Pepper stroked their daughter’s soft hair. “Said yes quicker.”


The new family managed to spend the night at the hospital without tipping off the press, coming home to find Rhodey and Happy attempting to assemble the cradle and baby bed. The idea of reading the instructions had never occurred to either of them and the baby bed looked like a lopsided box.

Pepper had taken one look at the mess, and made them take the parts downstairs where DUM-E and U could put the bed together properly. Jarvis wasn’t too proud to read the directions.

Tony looked around the bare room that had once been part of his closet space. “This is depressing. It looks like modern day orphanage style.”

Biting her tongue to keep from reminding him that she’d tried repeatedly over the last few months to get him to decorate a room for the baby, Pepper pointed to the cradle. “We have the most important piece – a place for her to sleep.”

“Not yet.” He cuddled Sophia closer. “She’ll sleep in our room for at least the first six months. All the baby books say it’s important to keep the baby close until the danger of SIDS has passed.”

“All the – “ She raised an eyebrow. “I haven’t seen you read any baby books.”

“I Googled.” He admitted. “But… I don’t want her to sleep in here. It’s… “ Waving a hand, he indicated the bare walls. “ – such a barren environment. It’s bad for her.”

“Right. Not to mention so far away from you?” Smiling, she ran her hand over Sophia’s downy head. Tony hadn’t put the baby down for more than a few minutes at a time since he’d first picked her up at the hospital.

“I love her.” He brushed a kiss across Pepper’s hand where it rested on Sophia’s head. “I love you both. I want you both close to me.”

It still amazed her to hear Tony say he loved her. Pepper leaned in to kiss him. “I love you – we love you.”

“I hate to interrupt.” Jarvis said. “But there are cars pulling up to the gates.”

“The press?” Tony sighed. He’d dealt with them all his life. They were an evil that he wasn’t convinced was necessary.

“Two local networks, CNN, and TMZ.” The AI confirmed. “Calculating the time that has passed since Miss Sophia’s birth was ‘leaked’, I suspect they exceeded the speed limit at a rate similar to your usual speeds.”

Tony arched an eyebrow and eyed the closest visual sensor. “One of these days, Jarvis... a car battery and jumper cables, that’s all I’m saying.”

“I live in constant fear, sir.”

Pepper laughed at the familiar exchange and gave Tony another quick kiss. “We knew it wouldn’t last.”

“I was hoping.” He didn’t want to share their daughter with anyone, let alone the world press. The vultures.

“We’ll give them a few pictures and they’ll go away.” She’d already called Tony’s private photographer, and set up a photo shoot for the next day. If the press didn’t get pictures – and quickly – they’d camp out by the gates and generate rumors that would get crazier by the minute.

“They’ll never go away.” His sigh ruffled the dark curls on his daughter’s head. “They’ll just back away a few steps.”

“And we’ll deal with them, just like we always do.” The statement was made with confidence, but inside, Pepper quivered at the thought of the bright spotlight about to be turned on Sophia for the rest of her life.


“I’d say I hate to say ‘I told you so’ – but I don’t! I love to say ‘I told you so’ and I told you so about Pepperony’s little bundle of joy!” The gossip columnist gushed. “Who told you about the first pics of the baby bump? Me! And who told you about the very careful diet – no fish – gotta watch that mercury – and no booze? Me! And who told you about that the weight gain – though Pepper looked fantastic and radiant – after that Long Island vacay? Me!” He bowed and blew kisses to his make believe audience.

“And!” He leaned close to the camera and whispered. “Rumor has it they were married in a hush hush, secret ceremony. But don’t tell anyone. It’s just between you and me.” Winking, he held a finger to his lips. “Shhhh!”

“Oh, please…” Pepper rolled her eyes as she shut the television off. “Why do people watch this stuff?”

“To brighten up their otherwise dull and tedious lives.” Tony told her. He’d grown up with the press reporting on everything he did and he had no other explanation for why people wanted to know what he had for breakfast. “And because people love the freak show – and this guy’s definitely a freak. Isn’t that right, Sophia? He’s a first class freakazoid.”

“Please don’t teach her words like that.”

“Of all the words I say, that’s the one you’re worried about?” Grinning, he kissed their daughter’s head. “Daddy knows so many words Mommy doesn’t like.”

“And Mommy will try to get Daddy trained not to say them by the time you’re able to repeat them.” Hearing ‘Mommy’ made her smile every time she heard it. She hoped she’d never get so used to it that it wasn’t as special as it was right now.

“Bribery, I can be bribed. Just throwing that out there.”

“As if I didn’t know that? I’m going to my meeting.” Pepper kissed him, letting it turn into a slow sweet kiss for a long moment before pulling away reluctantly and dropping a kiss on Sophia’s head. “Mommy will be back in a few hours. Keep an eye on Daddy for me.”

“Hey, I’m the adult here!” He protested.

“Not to worry, Mrs. Stark.” Jarvis’ voice held more than a slight trace of humor. “I’ll watch over both of them for you.”

“Thank you, Jarvis, I don’t know what I’d do without you.” She waved a hand in goodbye as she walked away.

“Hey!” Tony protested again.


Tony decided Sophia needed a cradle in his workshop, and then decided it needed to be higher up from the floor. He’d told Pepper he was worried she would get cold being that close to the concrete floor, but it was really because he wanted Sophia where he could see her – and she him – and to be able to touch her whenever he wanted. Which was often. Just in case this was a dream and she vanished.

Once he was satisfied the cradle was at the right height, comfortable, and not able to tip over if one of the bots brushed against it, he laid her in it and covered her with a light blanket. The climate in the shop was perfectly controlled, but Tony had discovered that Sophia liked to be just a little warmer than he did and he wanted her to be happy. If she wasn’t happy, nobody was happy as it turned out.

“All right! This is good, you’re right here by Daddy.” He tickled Sophia’s belly. She wriggled and gave him a smile – it was not gas, no matter what Pepper said. “You’re going to meet DUM-E and U, what do you say about that? Come on, talk to Daddy.”

“Sir – “ There was a nearly audible sigh in Jarvis’ tone. “It will be approximately six months before she will begin to use even single syllable words. Are you aware of that?”

“I am. And you’ll just have to deal with me talking to her.” He smirked. “The baby books say to talk to the baby a lot and to not to talk to the baby in baby talk – they don’t learn the right words that way. Which would you rather hear? ‘Baba’ or ‘bottle’ when she does start talking?”

“I suppose you do have a point, sir.” Jarvis conceded.

“Of course I do.” He motioned U and DUM-E to come closer. He’d ordered them to stay at their charging stations before he’d entered the workshop with Sophia. They were too curious of new things he brought in, sometimes trying to pluck them out of his hands – not something he could risk with his daughter.

“Okay, boys, this is Sophia.” Both ‘bots moved forward and stopped next to the cradle, peering down at the baby inside. “First rule: no touching. Second rule: no picking up what Sophia is laying in or on.”

They drooped a little bit, clearly disappointed. Tony continued despite their reaction. “Sophia is very, very fragile. She will break easily, so that’s why no touching or lifting. Jarvis, help me out, here?”

“Certainly, sir.” Both ‘bots made a high pitched sound and their lights flashed brightly. “I’ve given them an image of damage to a fragile object they’re familiar with. They now understand Miss Sophia is extremely fragile.”

“She’s tiny, but she’ll grow, and someday you can play with her – but not now. Not until I tell you. See how small she is?” Tony lifted her hand and showed her fingers to them. “Compare her fingers – “ He spread the fingers of his free hand. “ – with my fingers.”

DUM-E touched Tony’s fingers with his claw before moving it to hover over Sophia’s fingers. Sophia, entranced with the lights and sounds, reached up and grabbed DUM-E’s claw.

“Don’t move.” Tony said firmly, his heart in his throat. “Oh, boy.” Apparently, his daughter didn’t follow orders as well as his ‘bots did. Something he’d have to remember in the future.

DUM-E made a soft sound and his lights flashed in a fast paced happy dance. U, clearly jealous, slid his own clawed arm along DUM-E’s until he was as close to where Sophia’s fingers were wrapped around his brother ‘bots claw as he could get without touching her.

“Wait – “ Tony lifted Sophia’s other hand and placed it on U’s claw. She immediately wrapped her fingers around the metal. “U, don’t move.”

“Do you like them, sweetheart? This is DUM-E and U.” He stroked her cheek, watching carefully in case the ‘bots moved against his orders – stranger things had happened. “When you get bigger, you can play with them and I’ll tell you the secret story about how they got their names.”

Both ‘bots were crooning softly, and their lights were flashing in the patterns Tony normally saw whenever he praised them. Happy robots, who knew? He grinned and shook his head. “I amaze myself with my own genius.”

DUM-E issued a questioning sound. Jarvis translated for him. “Sir, they’re wondering exactly what Miss Sophia is. They weren’t aware people could be so small.”

“She’s my daughter – my child – my biological offspring.” Tony frowned. “Do they understand what that means?”

“I’m afraid not,sir.” Jarvis sounded smug. “They do not have my programming.”

“Nobody has your programming, Jarvis. Even you don’t have your programming anymore.” Tony snorted. “Tell them… tell them Sophia is the result of my interfacing with Pepper. She’s… human hardware?”

“Excellent description, sir.” The ‘bots made affirmative sounding chirps. “They understand now, however, they want to know what her designation means.” Jarvis paused. “I’ve explained to them that human designations do not have the same meanings as ours do.”

“Sophia means wisdom, knowledge, talent. Wait, that’s a little abstract.” He thought for a moment. “Tell them she’s my princess – wait, that’s even more confusing. Never mind. Just tell them Pepper and I wanted something pretty to call her instead of ‘hey, kid’.”

DUM-E and U made affirmative sounding chirps once again and their lights flashed on and off in an odd pattern. Tony smiled when he realized they were spelling her name in Morse code. “Good boys.”

“Mrs. Stark is requesting that you bring Miss Sophia back upstairs for her nap.” Jarvis told him.

“Mrs. Stark – that sounds strange, doesn’t it?”

“Indeed. I feel as though I have fallen into a parallel universe, sir.”

“Your snark setting is getting out of hand.” Tony gently peeled Sophia’s fingers from the ‘bots claws. They made sad sounds. “You’ll see plenty of her, she’ll be down here watching Daddy work.” They perked up at that, their lights flashing quickly once again.

“Just remember that you have to watch Sophia. She’ll be able to walk soon, and we’ll have to make sure she doesn’t hurt herself. You’ll have to help.” He lifted her up and cradled her to his chest, careful not to press the RT into her delicate body. “You guys will have to help me keep her safe and protected, understand? Sophia’s more important to me than anything in the world – I trust you boys to keep her safe. You’ll protect her for me, right?”

Both ‘bots made affirmative noises and flashed their lights enthusiastically.

“Good, boys.”


“Here we are, Mommy.” Tony waved one of Sophia’s hands at Pepper as he entered their bedroom.

“Come here, Sweetie.” She lifted their daughter out of Tony’s arms. “Let’s get a clean diaper and a bottle, then it’s time for a nap.”

“Me, too, well, everything but the diaper.” He quipped. Stretching out on the bed, he watched Pepper expertly change Sophia’s diaper. “I’m a freaking engineer, and I can’t work a diaper, that’s just sad.”

“It takes practice.” Shrugging, she took a bottle out of the mini-fridge and set it in the bottle warmer. Tony had offered to soup the machine up, but she had no desire to watch it make bottles explode. He was a genius, but sometimes he was a little too much like Tim Taylor.

“I feel guilty she’s not getting breast milk.” Tony frowned. “I don’t guess we can buy that, huh?”

“I’m sure we can, everything has a price.” She settled on the bed next to him and offered Sophia the warm bottle. The baby immediately clamped her lips around the nipple. “But she’ll be fine. Lots of babies get by on formula.”

“She’s so pretty.” Tony was pretty much in awe of the tiny creature he’d helped create. . Dark curls covered her head, and her eyes were big and dark, ringed with thick, dark lashes like his own.

“We’re going to be fighting the boys off with a stick.” Pepper smiled. “Think of it as payback.”

“Oh, dear God – “ He sat up. “I hadn’t thought of that. So… they still have convents, right? And there’s all girl schools – wait, that won’t work either. I can do like Michael Jackson and keep her face covered.”

“Oh, there’s a good role model. You’re  not covering her up, you’ll just have to teach her to stay away from men like you. Stay away from playboys and men who just want to have sex.”

“Shh! Don’t say the ‘S’ word in front of her! We don’t want her to learn bad words.” The word sex was one he never wanted to associate with his daughter.

“Tony – “ Pepper rolled her eyes. “It’s going to be awhile before she understands anything we’re saying.” At his hurt expression, she reached out and snagged a handful of his shirt, pulling him close for a kiss. “But I’m proud of you for being proactive.”

“Me, too.” He returned the kiss enthusiastically.

“I think she’s done.” She eyed the bottle as Sophia spit the nipple out.

“Already? Are you sure she’s eating enough?” The small bottle only held four ounces, and it was still at least half full. “I don’t want her to starve.”

“Trust me, if she were starving, we’d hear about it.” Pepper handed Sophia to him. “Burp her – and put a burp rag on your shoulder.”

“Nag, nag, nag.” Tony picked up one of the soft cloths and laid it over his shoulder before lifting his daughter up to rest on it. He patted her back firmly, and was rewarded with a loud burp. “Wow. We have to work on manners, Sophia Rose. Soon. Ladies do not burp like that.”

“Whatever. I could burp my name when I was in grade school.” Pepper told him. “I was such a tomboy, my parents thought I’d never wear a dress and act like a girl.”

Looking at his wife, Tony tried to imagine her as a tomboy. He couldn’t do it, the business skirt and stiletto heels kept forcing themselves into the picture. “Yeah… I’m gonna need proof.”

“No.” She took Sophia from him and laid her in her cradle. “Nighty night, sweetie.”

“I didn’t get to kiss her.” He protested.

“She’s right here, Tony. It’s not like I sent her to the next state.” Pepper pulled the covers on their bed back. “Come on, let’s go to bed.”

“I am tired. God, parenthood is exhausting.” Leaning over the cradle, he pressed a kiss to Sophia’s soft cheek. “Sweet dreams.”

Tony jerked his shirt off over his head and tossed it in the general direction of his closet before unbuttoning his jeans. He sucked in a breath as he felt Pepper’s hands on his bare back. “Thought you were tired.”

“I didn’t say that. I said let’s go to bed.” She moved her hands along the length of his spine, smiling as he shivered under her touch. He’d paused in removing his jeans and she tugged them down, hooking her fingers in the waistband of his shorts, bringing them down at the same time.  Cupping his ass, she squeezed and massaged. “God, I love your ass.”

“Wait – wait – “ Pepper’s lips touched the base of his spine, and Tony forgot to breathe. “Sophia can see – we can’t – “

“Okay, seriously ?” She sat back on her heels and frowned up at him. “She can’t see much of anything yet – and she’s in the cradle – we’ll be on the bed.”

“But I’m right here naked – “ He slid into bed and pulled the covers up over his lap. “That could scar her for life.”

“Tony – I am going to scar you for life.” Pepper huffed as she got into bed next to him. “Move her cradle into her room while we  – “

“No.” He was horrified at the suggestion. “She could choke or stop breathing or even worse – miss me. “

“All of which Jarvis would alert us to – right, Jarvis?”

“Of course, Mrs. Stark.” The AI answered. “I monitor Miss Sophia constantly.”

“See?” She started to get out of the bed, but Tony grabbed her and pulled her back.

“I can’t – no – “ He shook his head. “I’ll fix it – hang on.” Getting out of bed, he pulled his jeans back on and left the room.

“This is crazy.” Pepper fell back onto her pillows. “You’re crazy.”

Tony came back with two chairs from the dining room. He set them at each end of Sophia’s cradle and draped a blanket over them, effectively creating a curtain between it and their bed.“Here we go, this’ll work. Proud of his work, he shucked off his jeans and slid back into bed, holding his arms out to Pepper.

“Aren’t you worried she’ll hear us? Would you like to set up a cone of silence?”

“I’ll work on that tomorrow.” Shifting closer, he pulled her into his arms. “Don’t make as much noise as you usually do until then.”

“Make noise? Me? I make noise?” Pepper pulled back to look at him. “You’re the one who’s noisy!”

“This is skimpy, I like it.” He undid the ties on her nightgown. “Should we ask Jarvis who’s the noisy one?”

“Please don’t.” Jarvis said.

“Monitor the baby – not us.” Tony lowered his lips to Pepper’s nipples, smiling as she moaned softly.

“Gladly, sir.” The AI responded.


“Ground rules for the workshop.”

Tony listened attentively. Or at least pretended to. He’d much rather watch his daughter. Sophia was in her bouncer on the worktable, staring up at the holographic mobile he’d created for her. DUM-E and U would occasionally reach out and tap one of the colored balls, sending it whirling or causing it to explode in a shower of multicolored sparkles. Sophia was entranced, wiggling and waving her hands in the air. Tony was entranced by her.

“Tony!”

“Yes! Every word you said! I agree completely!” He snapped to attention. Pepper was glaring at him. “Okay… no? Maybe?”

“Tony.” Pepper sighed. “This is important. Please listen to me.”

“I am. I’m sorry. You know, if you undo the top couple of buttons on your shirt, it’d be easier for me to focus.”

“No, it wouldn’t. Listen carefully. You will not work with anything electrical or hot – such as a soldering iron – at your work table. Do it at another table or bring her upstairs. You will not do anything that will explode, implode, combust, or blow up in any way while she is in here.”

“Explode and blow up are pretty much the same thing.” Tony leaned back as she took a step toward him. “Got it.”

“Repulsors, lasers, silly string, or whatever else you can shoot out of the suit -- you will not do it while she is in here.”

“Pepper, you act like I’m going to do something stupid. Okay, I’ll admit, I’ve done stupid things in the past – but I’m not going to do anything dangerous while she’s in here with me.” He did his best to look innocent.

“You fell through the roof and two floors the first time you took the suit out for a flight. You blasted yourself backwards into the wall testing the gauntlet – remember that? Oh, it’s just repulsor technology – bam – I didn’t expect that.” She mocked. “And Jarvis told me what happened the first time you fired up the boots.”

“Snitch.” He had to admit, it was one of those things he’d eventually look back on and laugh, but for right now, it was still embarrassing to realize he’d underestimated the force they’d put out.

“And he’ll keep on snitching.” Pepper’s lips curved slightly. “Or the video goes on YouTube – and I make sure TMZ has the link.”

“You wouldn’t!” He took in the smile and arched eyebrow. “You’re an evil, evil woman, Potts.”

“You made me that way.”

“Sad, but true.” Years of putting up with his bullshit and crazy antics had sharpened her skills considerably.

“I know you love Sophia and you’d never – knowingly – hurt her.” Pepper softened and reached out to stroke his cheek. “But when you’re down here… things happen.”

“I promise to be careful.” He held up his fingers. “Scout’s honor. And Jarvis will warn me anytime I forget.”

“Tony, that’s the Girl Scout salute.”

“Really?” He winked. “No wonder I never learned how to tie a knot. But boy can I sell cookies.”

“Now that we’ve settled that. I need your help with a project.” She gestured to the bag she’d set on the table. “It seems I’m not capable of cutting a straight edge.”

Tony peered into the bag. It held colored paper and what looked like ribbon and stickers. “What is this stuff?”

“Our wedding invitations.” She pulled out a paper with an image on it. “I like this design, only instead of two pictures of us, like they have – I want one of the three of us and the other of just the beach.”

“Okay…” He hadn’t realized they needed wedding invitations since they were – supposedly – already married. And he was – definitely – already enjoying the benefits of being married.

“I put an ‘x’ on it – “ Pepper tapped on the holographic keyboard on his desk and brought up the beach picture she’d decided on. “ – and ‘you’re invited here’ so it looks like a treasure map. The pocket will have the itinerary in it. What do you think?”

“Uh… it’s pretty?” Not sure what to think, Tony settled for shrugging, and smiling.

She sighed. “I need your help. I know men don’t like to get involved with the planning, but – “

“Hey, hey – “ He put a finger under her chin and tipped her face up until their eyes met. “I’m not most men. I’d think you might have noticed that by now. I’ll help however you need me to help. What is it you need cut? I’ve got the tools. Move the baby and I’ll break out the laser for you.”

“We don’t need a laser.” Laughing, she leaned closer until she could kiss him. “I have a paper trimmer, but somehow I keep getting crooked cuts.

“Let me see it.” Digging in the bag, he found a large plastic paper cutter in the bottom. “Show me.”

“Well, I do okay at first. I put the paper against the bottom and line it up to the width I want and then – “ Pepper slid the cutting blade up along the length of the guide. When she pulled the paper out of the cutter, it was obviously cut at an angle instead of straight. “I get this.”

“For one, pull instead of push. And you need to put your other hand on the guide to hold it down against the paper.” Tony slid the paper in, cut it, and held it up to show it the straight edge. “Like that.”

“Can I get you to do that a few more times? Please?” She kissed him again. “Pretty please?”

“Sure, how many?” Cutting paper was nothing compared to some of the things he’d cut.

“Thirty-five.” She handed him a stack of colored paper. “Four inches by six inches.”

“No sweat, give me a few minutes.”

“And then I need seventy – three inches by two inches – of this other color. I think.” She bit her lip. “I better check the directions again.”

“Give me the directions.” Assembly line work, there was a drop in job description. “Just tell me which colors are which.”

“Thank you.” Handing him the directions, Pepper pulled out the different colored papers and put them in neat stacks for him. “I can do the rest, I just can’t seem to cut the paper. I’ve ruined so much of it I’ve probably killed a tree.”

“Cutting men’s work.” He thumped his chest, wincing as he caught the edge of the arc reactor. “You do women’s work. Glue pretty papers together.”

“Yes, Tarzan.” She settled herself on the stool next to him and laid out the adhesive and other supplies. “Jarvis, I need thirty-five each of the pictures I edited earlier.”

“Yes, Mrs. Stark.” Jarvis replied.

A few moments later, U rolled over to the printer, and picked up a stack of photographs. He brought them to Pepper and held them out to her with a bright chirp.

“Thank you, U.” She took them and handed them to Tony. “Trim these on the black lines.”

“Yes, boss.”

They worked quietly, side by side for several minutes. Pepper taking the paper Tony cut and beginning to assemble the invitations.

“Can I ask… why we need invitations? Or is this one of those ‘need to know’ projects, and as the groom I don’t need to know?” Tony sliced the photos carefully along the black lines as directed. “Which one of my MIT degrees covers paper cutting, do you think?”

“You never listen to me, do you?” She put down the package of glue dots. “Last night I said I wished that we had wedding photos to show Sophia, but we’d have to have a ceremony first. You agreed with me.”

“I did?” He didn’t remember the conversation at all.

“Yes! I said ‘you want to get married’ and you said ‘let’s do it’. How can you not remember?” She glared at him.

“What were we doing when we had this conversation?” Only two things distracted him, Sophia and –

“We were in bed.”

That would be the other thing. “Before or after? ‘Cos before I was just wanting to get you naked, and after I just wanted to go to sleep. Please don’t say it was during, because that would really hurt my ego.”

“Before.” Pepper admitted. Tony had been kissing his way along her throat at the time, and she should have realized he wasn’t really listening to her.

“You can’t talk to me when there’s no blood flow to my brain. You know that.” He nudged her arm. “Now get to work, we have thirty-five of these things to put together.”

“Only if you want to go ahead and get married.” She said. “Do you? I mean, we already are. Technically.”

“Pepper – “ Sliding out of his chair, Tony knelt in front of her and took her hands in his. “Virginia Potts, will you marry me?”

She tugged on his hands. Her eyes burned and she wiggled her nose in an attempt to keep from sniffling.

Tony squinted his eyes and cocked his head to one side. “I speak French, Italian, Japanese, and Klingon. What language is that a ‘yes’ in?”

“Will you just – yes, now get up!”

Standing, he slid his arms around her and kissed her, his mouth hot and demanding against hers. When her lips parted, Tony darted his tongue out to meet hers, making them both moan. They parted after a long moment, resting their foreheads together, panting in unison.

“Let’s go upstairs and talk about this some more.” He suggested.

“Why?” She teased. “You’re not going to remember.”

“I might. It’ll be fun to find out.” Picking Sophia up from her bouncer, he took Pepper’s hand with his free hand. “Lead on McEwan.”

“Tony, that’s a beer.” She laughed as she led him out of the workshop.

“Hmm… well, that explains the incident with the Royal Shakespeare Company.”


Tony quickly decided his new job in life was to carry Sophia around and entertain her. She liked to listen to him talk, turning her head to follow his voice and studying him seriously. He swore she’d smiled at him, and he wasn’t writing it off to gas. His princess did not have gas.

She did, however, spit up with astonishing frequency, and she did so at that moment all down the front of his shirt. Tony sighed. “I give up.”

“I’ve told you to put a burp rag on your shoulder.” Pepper bit back a laugh.

“I did. She got my chest.” He eyed his daughter. She seemed totally unrepentant. “You just yakked on Daddy’s Armani shirt. Armani – can you say cranky designer?”

“Tony, she’s not going to be talking for awhile.”

“I know. But we’ve got to start somewhere.” There was no doubt in his mind that his child was extraordinarily smart, and would start talking much sooner than ordinary babies.

“Go change.” Pepper ordered. “We can’t take pictures with spit-up all over your shirt.”

Peter Elliott, the photographer who did Tony’s publicity photos and a great many of his photo shoots was setting up his equipment in the living room as the baby’s room was still bare except for the bed and a stack of new clothing and diapers. “Tony, why don’t you go put on a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt? Something casual. Let’s keep it low key.”

“I want something that says she’s a princess. Princesses don’t wear jeans.” He frowned.

“Who says? She’s an American princess.” The photographer told him. “Americans wear jeans.”

Grumbling, Tony took Sophia into the master bedroom and laid her on the bed. Jeans and a clean MIT sweatshirt were laid out for him and pair of tennis shoes and socks were sitting on the floor. “Mommy doesn’t think I can dress myself – she’s wrong, you remember that.”

He quickly changed clothes and picked Sophia up once more. She seemed more content in his arms and he was more than content when he was holding her. So far, the arrangement was working out for the both of them.

“Mr. DeMille, we’re ready for our close up.” Tony announced as they entered the living room again.

“Much better.”Pepper told him. She was already dressed casually in jeans and one of Tony’s sweatshirts. It was too large for her, but it helped hide the fact that she didn’t have the belly she should have just two days after supposedly giving birth.

“I agree.”  Peter motioned for him to join Pepper on the sofa.

She snuggled into his side as Tony put an arm around her. “You know, I looked for a UCLA shirt, but I couldn’t seem to find one.”

“Ha. Ha.” UCLA had enough money from him they’d named a building after him, he didn’t need to wear their t-shirts, too.  

Peter smiled. Tony and Pepper were always fun to work with, they never took things too seriously. “We’ll do a few shots here and then I’m going to have you sit on the floor with her between you. Tony, I want a shot of you with that baby carrier you had earlier.”

“Sure.” Tony had purchased a baby carrier online, was immediately unhappy with it, and decided to design one of his own. Sophia loved being carried around, her dark eyes taking in everything. Especially him, which was one reason he loved holding her.

He’d also discovered during the few times she’d been fussy, that being held by him quieted her down. Tony Stark, baby whisperer. He’d need new business cards.

“I’d like to get some shots of you with her in your workshop, too.” Checking the reading on his light meter, Peter glanced at Tony. “Is that all right?”

“Ah… there’s….” Tony did a mental scan of what was currently in the workshop. “I’ll have to cover a couple of things up – but we can do it.”

“Great. I love the idea of showing the next generation Stark in the workshop.”

A frown creased Tony’s forehead. “We don’t know if she’ll want to do that.” As much as he wanted his daughter to be super smart – what parent didn’t want that – he didn’t want her to be a super freak genius like he was.

“We’re not going to push her to follow in Tony’s footsteps. We’re going to wait and see where her interests lie and what she wants to do.” Pepper added.

Realizing he was hitting a sensitive area, Peter switched subjects, he hadn’t worked with Tony for so many years without learning when something was off limits without being told. “Pepper you were telling me earlier that you two are going to renew your vows in a few days?” He began snapping pictures.

“As soon as we’ve got a good handle on taking care of Sophia, we’re having a small ceremony at the house in the Virgin Islands. The first one was spur of the moment, we didn’t get any pictures – and our friends weren’t there.”

Tony arched an eyebrow at her. Nobody was there technically, including the two of them.

“It’s a beautiful location. We did a photo shoot there a few years ago, didn’t we?” Peter moved around them, continuing to snap pictures.

“I – “ Tony looked at Pepper and she nodded slightly. “Yes, we did.”

Sophia opened her eyes and Peter immediately moved in closer. “She has beautiful eyes, they’re already turning brown.”

“That’s because she’s full of it – just like her father.” Pepper grinned and ruffled Tony’s hair affectionately.

“I’d resent that, but it’s true.” Tony frowned as he saw Sophia jerk at the flashing and snapping sounds the camera was making. Her chest started heaving and a startled cry came from her. “Yeah, okay, I think we’re done with the pictures.”

Picking her up, he cradled her to his chest. “Shh... it’s okay. Better get used to that, sweetheart, you’re going to be hearing it your whole life.”

“We can go outside and use natural light, and I can turn the sound off on my camera. It’s digital – the shutter sound is just a feature. “ The photographer thumbed the sound option off and caught a quick shot of Tony as he soothed Sophia.

It was the shot that would end up on countless magazine covers and gossip sites. Tony Stark, the former hard partying playboy turned doting father and –  judging from the adoring smile on Pepper’s face as she watched him with their child – loving husband as well.

 

This is the picture Pepper is using as the inspiration for the wedding invites:

 

Chapter Text


“This is the life. I could do this forever.” Rhodey took a drink of his beer. “Nothing to do but watch the waves and the clouds. Yeah, I could do this.”

“Nothing’s stopping you. Quit the imperialistic war machine and move in.” Tony rubbed a hand down Sophia’s stomach. She was resting on his chest, looking up at the clouds.

“Imperialistic war machine? Was that a pun? Because it sucks if it was.”

The two men were relaxing on the beach of Tony’s island not far from the tent set up for the wedding. They were dressed casually in jeans and open collared shirts, and both had a cold beer, though only Rhodey was drinking. Tony was too nervous – his stomach felt sour. Adding a beer might be messy. Pepper wouldn't be happy with him yakking on her dress.

“You could be move in to the house and be the caretaker.”

“You’ve got a caretaker.” Rhodey pointed out.

“He’s staff – you’re a friend. Possibly family, if I’m forced under duress to admit it.”

Sophia shifted on his chest and Tony looked down at her. She had wiggled around until she was lying where the arc reactor was covered by his shirt. “I think she likes the RT.”

“Yeah?” Rhodey turned his head and looked over the top of his sunglasses at Sophia. She returned his stare for a moment before rolling her head back to look up at the clouds once more.

“Jarvis thinks it’s giving off a vibration or low hum or something she likes.” Tony hadn’t had time to run a specific analysis on the RT. He’d been too busy learning how to care for Sophia and helping Pepper make their wedding invitations.

“You nervous? You look nervous.”

“Nah. Apparently, we’re already married.” He grinned. “She showed me the certificate. It even has my signature on it.”

“I know. Apparently, I was there.” Rhodey chuckled. “Jarvis could have a new career as a counterfeiter.”

“I’m not nervous about the wedding – just the wedding night.” Tony confessed.

“Seriously? The man who’s bedded thousands?”

“It’s not thousands!” He protested

“You want me to do the math? Since you were seventeen, you’ve nailed every piece of available ass within a radius equal to your ego.”

“Hey, young ears here.” Tony lifted Sophia’s hands and put them over her ears.

“I don’t think we need to worry about it just yet.”

“We will, so we might as well get into the habit.”

“Out of it, you mean?”

“Whatever.”

“You’re really nervous?” Rhodey was honestly surprised that Tony would worry about anything related to sex.

“A little. Not about the sex – let’s face it, I’m fantastic in the sack.” He grinned. “But this is – real – real sex.”

“As opposed to the fake sex you’ve been having for years?” Rhodey let the ‘fantastic in the sack’ comment go by. He’d been a witness – and participant in a few threesome and moresomes – Tony’s reputation was well earned.

“You and I both know that this is the real wedding. Once Pepper and I have sex – consummate it – there’s no going back.”

“I don’t want to weird you out, man, but – “ He pointed a finger at Sophia, grinning when she reached for it, grabbing on and squeezing hard. “But you’re way the hell past going back. Going back isn’t even in the rearview mirror.”

“What if I screw it up?” Tony caressed the dark curls on his daughter’s head, marveling once again at the soft texture. “I want to do this right – they deserve the best.”

“Tony, first of all let me take back every bad thing I’ve ever said about you – well, mostly everything – and tell you you’re a good man. You’ll be all right.” He pointed at Tony’s beer bottle. “And second – don’t waste that, give it here.”

“Pepper will be pissed if you’re drunk.” He handed over the bottle.

“No, she’ll be pissed if you’re drunk. I’m the best man. So long as I hand over the rings on cue and don’t yak during the ceremony – I can get completely wasted if I want.” Rhodey looked up at something over Tony’s shoulder. “Speaking of your lovely bride to be…”

Turning, Tony saw Pepper walking toward them. She had on a simple white cotton dress. The fabric cascaded down her body and lapped around her ankles and bare feet as she moved. He couldn’t stop the smile that came straight from his heart. She was beautiful, and he intended to tell her that every day.

“There’s Mommy.” He got up, cradling Sophia against his chest as he stepped out from under the shading umbrella. “Hey there, Mommy.”

“Hey there, Daddy.” Pepper pressed a kiss to her daughter’s forehead before giving Tony a soft kiss on the lips.

“Promise me you’re not going to do that Mommy and Daddy thing all the time. That’s just weird.” Rhodey gave an exaggerated shudder.

“Says Uncle Roh-Roh.” Pepper mocked.  “The judge is here, Tony. We’re ready if you are.”

“I’m ready.” He slid his free arm around her shoulders. “Let’s get this show on the road.”


The ceremony had been planned to be short and simple, neither of them wanting a big, over the top event. Tony and Pepper faced each other, holding hands in front of a small group of friends and family. When Pepper had started making a list, she’d realized she and Tony had very few real friends. On the one hand it was a little sad. On the other, she knew the friends they did have were friends they could trust and count on.The list had included no business associates or members of the media.

Emile Lorde, a judge from a neighboring island had agreed to officiate. She smiled as Tony and Pepper took their places in front of her.  “Welcome, everyone, we’re gathered here today to celebrate the love between Virginia and Tony. We’re here not only to share in the formal commitment they make to each other, but to offer our love and support to them as they start their married life together. What better way to begin than being surrounded by the the people dearest and most important to them? Thank you for your presence here today. Virginia and Tony ask you for your blessing, encouragement, and support for their decision to join together as husband and wife.

“Friends, we are here to celebrate the most important promise two people can make to each other. Not only to be together for the rest of their lives, but to support and care for each other. To be the one person who is always there for each other, and most importantly, to love each other.” She motioned for Tony and Pepper to face each other. “Tony and Virginia have decided on traditional vows. After a most decidedly un-traditional beginning.” There was a ripple of laughter from their guests.

“Virginia, do you take Tony to be your lawfully wedded husband? To love, honor, and cherish him for richer or poorer, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, till death do you part?” 

“I do.” Pepper said, smiling at Tony. They’d agreed there would be no drama. No pretending to think about it or anything silly. This was serious. She wanted this to be her only wedding and funny business was not allowed. 

“And do you, Tony, take Virginia to be your lawfully wedded wife? To love, honor, and cherish her for richer or poorer, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, till death do you part?”

It was tempting to interrupt and say yes, but this was – hopefully – his only wedding and he wanted it to be as textbook perfect as it could be. He waited until the correct moment before answering firmly. “I do.” 

“May I have rings, please.” Rhodey and Happy leaned past the couple to place the rings in her hand. “Wedding rings are a symbol that proclaim to the world ‘we are bound to each other. We have sworn to be together always. We love each other forever.’” She held them up, showing them to Tony and Pepper as well as their guests. “These rings are sacred, for after today, you are saying to the world ‘this is my husband and this is my wife’.” 

Emile held out one of the rings to Pepper. “Place the ring on Tony’s hand and repeat after me. I give you this ring as a daily reminder of my love for you and my commitment to us.” 

It was a simple gold band with their names and the date engraved on the inside. Neither had wanted anything flashy. “Tony, I give you this ring as a daily reminder of my love for you and my commitment to us – to our family.” Despite her desire to stick to the script, it had hit her as she said the vow that she and Tony were more hand just ‘us’ now. Sophia made them a family. 

“Place the ring on Virginia’s hand and repeat after me. I give you this ring as a daily reminder of my love for you and my commitment to us.” The judge handed the other ring to Tony. 

Pepper’s ring was beautiful, classic, and not ‘large enough to choke a horse’ per her suggestion. Which he’d taken as an order. “Virginia, I give you this ring as a daily reminder of my love for you and my commitment to us –  “ He slid the ring on her finger and repeated the vow, following her lead as always.”– to our family.” 

Judge Lorde smiled, she’d married many couples, but she wasn’t sure she’d witnessed the depth of love and commitment she was seeing now. “By the power vested in me and by the power of your love and commitment to each other, I now pronounce you husband and wife. Please kiss to seal your union.” 

For a moment, they stared at each other and Pepper felt the ridiculous urge to giggle before Tony leaned in and she met him in a soft, gentle kiss.  Their kiss was sweet and lingered just long enough to make Rhodey look at Happy and roll his eyes. 

“Friends, I’m honored to present Tony and Virginia as husband and wife for the first time.” Judge Lorde announced. There was enthusiastic clapping from their guests.

Tony motioned for Happy to hand him his daughter. “And baby.”

“Oh, thank god.” Happy was uncomfortable holding Sophia, she was so small and his hands were too big.

“Never thought I’d see this day, buddy.” Rhodey slapped Tony on the back. “Tony Stark, hogtied and leg shackled.”

“And happier than I ever thought possible.” He smiled at Pepper. “I love you, Pepper.”

Blinking back happy tears, she traced a fingertip along his cheek. “And I love you, Tony.”

 

 

Despite what everyone expected, the cake was not hot rod red and gold, it was white and the same delicate ocean blues as the decorations, and there was absolutely no smashing cake in each other’s faces. The toasts were tasteful and no one, most especially not the groom, got falling down drunk. Their first dance was to Etta James’ ‘At Last’ and everyone agreed it wasn’t a cliche in this case.

“I was actually tempted to smash the cake in your face.” Pepper confessed.

Tony laughed. “I thought I saw a naughty gleam in your eye.”

They were holding hands, walking along the beach. It was a beautiful night and the lagoon they were spending the night was a short walk. The reception continued on without them, their friends continuing to celebrate, unaware the bride and groom had slipped away.

“I’m a little nervous.”

“Tony, Sophia’s fine. She’s got Jarvis, Rhodey, Happy, and two SHIELD agents watching her. Three if you count Peggy.”

“I meant about us. Tonight. You know.” When she gave him a questioning look, Tony confessed. “Sex. Well, not actually about the sex. We’ve had that and it was very good so more will be even better. But this is real sex as in really married. As in this is married sex.”

“We’ve been sleeping together for awhile now.” She pointed out.

“This is different. I don’t want to screw this up. I’m looking at a life I never thought I’d have. I don’t want to throw it away.”

“I won’t let you. That’s why we’re a team. I’m here for you.”

“You always have been, Pep.”

“Which means you really owe me a lot of bonuses. Look at the overtime I’ve put in.”

“I gave you my company, I’d call that a bonus.”

“After you tried to blow up the Expo.” She protested.

“That was before.”

“Was it before?” Everything about the Expo had blurred together. It was possible she’d repressed parts of it.

“It was.” Tony told her. “See, I’m here to keep you honest.”

“I thought you were here for the great sex.”

“That, too, since we’re being honest.”

Pepper laughed. Modesty was never going to be Tony’s strong suit.

“You know, you’re the only person to ever get through something I’ve built. Stark Tech had no defense against you. After her, I locked my heart up, Pepper. What was left of it. Put a big ass wall around it with a lid on top. locked it up and tossed the keys.”

There was no question who he was talking about. Pepper let him talk, it was rare for him to be completely open about his fears and insecurities, even with her.

“Then I screwed whatever was offered. I didn’t try to have a relationship with anyone. I avoided it – worked hard to avoid having any connection to anyone beyond sex. Mom would say ‘don’t be like your Dad’ and I’d say why not, he got you, didnt he?’

One night or maybe two and I was done. If I thought ‘hey, I kinda like this person, maybe another day or two would be fun or maybe we can have another date next week’ – I’d leave. I wasn’t taking any chances. and it was easier to have someone else get rid of them if I’d brought them home. ‘Cos I might cave and say stay.”

And you didn’t want to deal with tears and fits. Pepper thought.

“And I didn’t want to deal with tears and fits, or them saying I promised them something.”

Which you never did.

“Which I never did. Which meant someone else had to deal with the drama. You had to deal with it. I’m sorry.” He lifted her hand to his lips. “You were the big guns at the gate.”

“Big guns?” She looked down at her chest.

“Not like that! I knew you’d protect me. I’m sorry I had you deal with all of that – all of it –  all of everything.”

And there was a lot of everything. “It’s okay, I get it now. Actually, I got it… I don’t know exactly when… a while after we were together. Together as in the boss and PA sense.” She added.”Not like now where we’re together together.”

“Pep, we’ve been together together since you ambushed me in the elevator over the spreadsheet error.”

“I wouldn’t say I ambushed you.”

“I would.” The memory of Pepper forcing her way onto the elevator, waving a piece of paper in his face made him smile. “Right then your Pepper virus went into work on my defenses.”

“Pepper virus? That sounds… gross, Tony.”

“It’s not gross! it’s a cute virus!” He grinned at her. “It has freckles, that’s where the real power is - in the freckles.”

“You caught me.” Pepper held her hands up in mock surrender. “You’ve figured out my evil plan. I deliberately used my freckles against you.”

“I knew it! And the heels – I know you were using those way too tall heels against me”

“They’re not too tall. They’re not out of dress code.” They absolutely were but she didn’t care.

“They totally are! Would you like to see the page in the employee handbook?”

That made her laugh. “Like you could find the employee handbook, let alone the right page.”

“Please, you underestimate me. I looked it right after those first weird red bottomed heels of yours click-clacked into my workshop.”

Pepper remembered those first Louboutins she’d bought after her expenses check had been deposited into her bank account. The personal assistant to Tony Stark might buy off the rack, but it had to be an expensive rack. She’d loved those shoes so much she’d been tempted to sleep in them. “Mr. Louboutin would be insulted, by the way, and you really mean Jarvis looked the page up for you.”

“Whatever.” He shrugged.

“And read it to you.”

“Same thing as reading it myself. I created Jarvis, ergo, when he does something it’s the same as if I did it.”

“Whatever.” She mimicked his shrug.

“I am the one who updated the rule.”

“What?” She stopped and turned to look at him.

“The rule about the heels. I updated it from the dark ages of the 80’s. Me personally with my own two hands.”

“When?” It was both mind boggling and a little frightening that Tony had been tweaking the dress code.

“The next day. Potts, did you not notice?” He tugged on her hand to get her moving again.

“I never checked.” She admitted. “Who reads the handbook more than the one time you’re required to when you’re hired? You didn’t make any other changes, did you?”

“No, and you’re the CEO – you didn’t notice the dress code was updated? I’m shocked! Shocked, I tell you!” He placed a hand over his chest. “And you never checked once while you were my PA?”

“Going over the handbook wasn’t in my job description.” Neither was most of the things she’d done as Tony’s PA.

“You never checked because you knew nobody was going to tell Mr. Stark’s PA that her heels were too high.”

“True.” She smiled and it was a smug one and she didn’t care. Nobody said anything because nobody thought she’d last anyway and when she did nobody asked because they assumed Tony approved or he’d say something to her. “It was a perfect win-win. Being your PA was like having a circle of protection.”

“You’re hot when you say things like that.”

“So I’m not hot any other time?” She gave him a hip bump, sending him a few steps into the surf rolling up onto the beach. The move backfired when he pulled her along with him into the cool water.

“You’re hot all the time, Pepper, just extra hot when you’re talking gamer speak. I’m not sure I can handle it.”

Leaning close, she whispered in his ear. “Do you need to make a constitution check?”

“Now I really want to have sex with you.”

“Well, I hope so, it’s our honeymoon. I have certain expectations.”

“I will endeavour to meet those expectations.”

They walked along in silence for a few moments, letting the surf roll up over their feet and back out again before Tony spoke up again. “I wondered how she got back in. Then I realized, she was already inside.” He made a face. “Who knew? Like a Trojan horse just waiting to go off. I thought I had her locked out and all this time I was carrying her around with me.”

“She’s gone.” Pepper gave him a soft kiss. “The Pepper virus kicked her out. I’m sorry she got past my big guns.”

“Not your fault. I moved you where you didn’t see her coming in.”

“Wait, I thought she was already inside.”

“Let’s not quibble about details. She’s gone and this time she’s really gone.” Tony smiled as he said it and then laughed. “Jesus, Pepper, I’ve been locked inside with her all this time. I’m free.” He picked her up, turning in circles in the sand. “I’m free!”

Clutching at his shoulders for balance, she laughed. “Tony! A trip to the ER is not what I want to remember about our wedding night!”

Tony set her back on her feet, and wrapped an arm around her waist, holding her against him as they walked onto the bridge leading to the small bungalow perched out over the water.  “See there, I had a heart all along.”

“I knew that.”

“Sure, that’s why you gave me the limited edition ‘Proof that Tony Stark has a heart’ gift box.”

Grimacing, Pepper remembered how she waffled about actually giving it to him before deciding he’d appreciate the joke. “I didn’t mean it like that. “

“No, it’s okay, because the glowing prize inside saved my life.”

“It did, thank God.” If she’d decided to keep it instead of giving it to Tony, he’d be dead now. They’d probably both be dead.

“So… I guess you saved me by giving me back my heart.”

“Which you already had? Tony, you’re mixing me up.”

“Again with the details. Pepper, you can truthfully say you’ve held my heart in your hands. how many wives can say that?”

“I have not! That was the RT, not your heart.”

“Same thing.”

“Not so much.”

“You literally had your hand inside my chest.”

She shuddered. “A memory i’m still trying to repress, thank you very much.”

“I didn’t trust anyone else to do it.”

“I know. I was honored. Grossed out, but honored. I still am.”

“So now…” Tony opened the door to the bungalow. “You have my heart figuratively in your hands.”

“You’ve had my heart in your hands for a long time, Tony.”

“I wish I’d realized it sooner, Pep. We could have been here sooner.” He held his arms out.

Pepper looked at him, at the doorway, and back again. “You really want to do this?”

“Call me old fashioned, Potts, the bride is supposed to be carried across the threshold.”

“I’d call you many things - “ She laughed as he picked her up. “Old fashioned is not on the list.”

Tony carried her inside and set her back on her feet. “I think that went pretty well.”

“It did.” She leaned against him, wrapping her arms around his neck. “Will there be anything else, Mr. Stark?”

“Oh....” He smiled and kissed her softly. “There will be a great many more things, Mrs. Stark.”

Reaching past him, she shut the door. “Then we better get started.”