The actor’s name is Henry and he seems like a nice guy. “Just pretend I’m not even here,” he tells Pepper on his first day in the office. His smile is warm, his handshake pleasantly firm.
“I’m afraid it isn’t that simple,” says Pepper, briskly, handing him a non-disclosure agreement and a security screening form. He looks somewhat chastened and she forces a smile, taut and stiff as parchment.
It’s not his fault that Pepper finds method acting somewhat distasteful.
It’s a mystery how the pitch for the TV mini-series about the Stark family got approved in the first place. No one in Legal recalls hearing anything about it, and certainly it never made its way across Pepper’s desk.
This irritates her for a variety of reasons, not least of all because it means that someone has managed to gain direct access to Tony. And there is a reason she tries to prevent direct access to Tony: if he’s in a puckish humour, or on a self-destructive tear, or simply not paying attention, he’s likely to approve things without considering the repercussions.
It’s a bit perplexing to Pepper that Tony (who, despite his nether regions being featured in multiple YouTube videos, is an intensely private person when it comes to certain subjects) would put his approving signature on a project like this. But it’s not completely out of left field; lately, he’s been displaying an alarming tendency to air his personal or corporate dirty laundry—or secret superhero identity—to the world at large, for no apparent reason whatsoever.
So now there’s this actor, who will be following them around for six weeks; one more person that Pepper has to factor into the vast and intricate web that is Tony’s public life. The agreement Legal has negotiated with the studio indicates that Henry is not to handle any confidential material or attend any high-level briefings, and that he must be escorted at all times when he’s on the property—which means that when Henry isn’t with Tony, Pepper is relegated to babysitting duty.
Over the years, Pepper has developed some excellent stress relief techniques, which help her appear calm when faced with her boss’s various unsavoury predilections. The one she uses most frequently in the office is: she sharpens pencils. She has a well-used and satisfyingly noisy electric pencil sharpener on one corner of her desk, and she keeps a stash of unsharpened pencils in the back of her locked personnel file drawer.
This is the ideal way to blow off steam because Tony is a notorious pencil thief. He snags one almost every time he walks past her desk. She still hasn’t been able to determine exactly what he does with them all, but the fact remains that they disappear at a suspicious rate. So the pencil sharpening isn’t wasteful; it’s productive, falling under the “anything-and-everything” umbrella she trots out whenever people ask her what it is that she does for a living. And the CEO’s stationery budget is never scrutinized, which means Pepper’s two-pack-a-day habit goes unnoticed.
Pepper sharpens a lot of pencils during Henry’s first week in the office.
Henry pulls a lot of focus during that first week. People can’t seem to stop commenting on how remarkable the resemblance is. There are also at least two occasions that support staff from other sections try to pass confidential documents to Henry while Pepper is walking him to the bathroom or to the cafeteria. Pepper neatly intercepts both times, and provides a gentle explanation to the employee involved. But not all of the witnesses are within earshot, which is how the rumour starts: Tony Stark doesn’t like to be handed things.
In Pepper’s opinion, the whole thing is absurd. Henry doesn’t look anything like Tony. He’s eight years younger, for one thing—and Tony did a lot of hard living in those particular eight years. He’s narrower in the shoulders, and at least three inches taller. He’s classically handsome, with smooth, even features and an aquiline nose; his face does seem sort of familiar, but she can’t quite place it. His hair is dark, but his overall colouring is much fairer than Tony’s. His eyes are either hazel or green, Pepper isn’t quite certain.
The majority of the employees of Stark Industries have never actually seen Tony Stark up close. Pepper soon realizes that people think Henry is Tony because they expect him to be Tony: he’s wearing a suit and he’s good-looking and he’s being herded around by Tony’s assistant in the building where Tony’s office is. Context is everything.
And she has to concede that he is like Tony, in that he projects the appearance of being very at ease in his own skin. He’s bright, observant, very aware of his surroundings, and just a little bit cocky. He’s kind of a smartass, though his wit doesn’t quite hit the same notes of weary self-deprecation.
He is not like Tony in that he is always on time for appointments. On Henry’s second day in the office, Tony is forty-five minutes late for a meeting. Henry is there ten minutes early; he even helps Pepper distribute coffee and tea in the conference room. Like most actors, he has serving experience.
“Maybe Tony should shadow you,” says Pepper, trying not to sound as annoyed as she is.
Henry is a gifted mimic.
It takes him only a day to perfect Tony’s swagger—chin up, chest out, loose-hipped and sure-footed. Lord and master of all he surveys. Watching them walk down the hall together is nothing short of uncanny.
The smirk comes next, and then a few of the more prevalent hand gestures: the way he does the thumbs-up or finger-guns when he’s being a little patronizing. The way he fiddles or fidgets when he feels he isn’t being heard or can’t express what he wants to say. The way he can’t stop touching his mouth or his forehead when he’s working out a tough problem. The way he shields his eyes (with hands, with sunglasses) when he’s uncomfortable or bored. The way he invariably drinks out of a highball glass with his pinky in the air, like he’s having tea with the queen. Pepper never realized how uniquely Tony all these movements were, until she sees them performed by someone else.
The voice takes a little longer, but Henry eventually nails it, and that’s when things are in danger of going off the rails. There’s a very brief period where Henry and Tony think it’s funny to call her desk phone from two different lines and have her guess which one of them is which. Pepper soon disabuses both of them of the notion that this is in any way amusing.
Henry takes to calling Pepper “Miss Moneypenny.” His Sean Connery is flawless.
Pepper’s sharpened pencil collection is growing.
In addition to the office, Henry follows Tony around at public appearances and parties. Tony treats him as part accessory, part sideshow attraction. He finds it entertaining to invent origin stories for Henry: he tells Happy that the actor is his long-lost, illegitimate brother. For Rhodey, he weaves an elaborate story about a scheme to fake his own death.
“He’s my double,” Pepper overhears Tony telling a girl at a party, his voice low and confidential. “All the celebrities have them nowadays, didn’t you know? He does all the everyday, pedestrian stuff while I make the magic happen.”
The girl giggles. “Which one of you gets the blow jobs?”
Henry asks Pepper a question that prevents her from hearing Tony’s reply.
Henry patiently goes along with Tony’s shenanigans, but only up to a point. He never deliberately tries to pass himself off as Tony; he never gets drunk with Tony; and he never (as far as Pepper is aware) goes home with any of the girls Tony tries to field for him. At the end of the day, he’s there to do a job, and he does it with more professionalism and tact than Pepper would have given him credit for at the outset.
When he’s not with Tony, Henry spends most of his time at Pepper’s workstation. Pepper assigns him small tasks, such as checking Tony’s receipts against the corporate expense reports—it isn’t why he’s there, obviously, but Pepper is nothing if not efficient in her use of the available resources. He offers to sharpen her pencils, but Pepper politely declines.
Their work is punctuated by endless rounds of questions: has Tony ever been seriously injured? Does he talk a lot about his childhood? What’s his mood like before a board meeting? After a failed mission? What’s his sleep schedule like? What’s the angriest she’s ever seen him, and how did he react? How does he unwind at the end of a tough day? Pepper invariably has the answer, and she shares as much as her sense of propriety and her non-disclosure agreement will permit. Henry diligently jots it all down, his cardboard-covered composition notebook bristling with sticky notes and odd ends of newspaper clippings.
More than once, he leaves the notebook on Pepper’s desk. She’s tempted to look—especially when she notices that there’s a sticky tab marked Pepper. But she never does.
Part of the deal that Legal has negotiated with the studio is that Tony gets final approval of the script.
Pepper is dying to have a look at it, even though she dreads to think what she might find. She assumes that, as with any other undertaking that involves a lot of close reading, he will eventually tire of the effort and fling it onto her desk at the last minute.
But the studio couriers the pages to Tony directly—Pepper isn’t allowed to sign for them, much to her chagrin—and he won’t let her anywhere near them. He barricades himself in his office for hours at a time, and when she slips in to bring him coffee or to remind him of the day’s obligations, he shoos her away.
“Go bug someone else, Potts,” he says absently, licking his finger to turn one of the robin’s-egg-blue pages. “I don’t have time for this, I’m busy. Go…” he gestures vaguely towards the door with one hand, shielding the exposed page with the other. “Go play with Henry.”
Back at her desk, Pepper grinds an entire box of yellow HBs into ten perfect pickets before she calms down.
Henry has been plying his trade all over town, as it turns out. He’s done dinner theatre, musical theatre, and installation theatre; he’s been in an Outback Steakhouse commercial, two beer commercials, and a whole host of late-night infomercials. He’s excited about the miniseries role; he thinks it might be his big break.
His biggest role to date has been as a vampire bite victim on True Blood—which (though she knows better than to admit it) is where Pepper recognizes him from.
He stages a re-enactment of his True Blood appearance for her amusement one afternoon, in which he plays all the characters, the climax of which involves him slumping facedown across her desk. Pepper applauds at the end of the scene. She’s been smiling for such a long time that her cheeks ache.
Tony opens the door to his office and sticks his head out. “Do you two mind?” he asks plaintively. “I’m trying to work.” He has a pencil tucked behind his ear, putting Pepper in mind of the old black-and-white photos of Howard Stark that hang in the foyer downstairs. There are two graphite finger-smudges on his forehead.
“Sorry,” says Pepper—then, before she can stop herself: “Mr. Stark.”
If Tony notes the unusual formality, it doesn’t show on his face. “Okay.” He turns away without further comment, letting the door fall closed in his wake.
Pepper and Henry exchange looks, and it’s all she can do to stifle her laughter with the back of her hand.
It’s been a long time since she thought of Tony as her boss.
Maybe it’s because he’s an actor, or maybe it’s just his personality, but Henry is not averse to casual touching. Which isn’t to say he creates opportunities for physical contact; however, neither does he shy away from the small, incidental touches that can happen in the course of a day spent working closely together.
It’s noticeable in part because Tony has very strictly defined parameters for touching. He’s more comfortable with Pepper than he is with most people, but she still feels as though he uses touch primarily to distance her, to frame her within a space.
And aside from a handshake, or an awkwardly formal business hug at Christmas, she can’t remember him ever initiating contact with her in front of other people.
Which makes it all the more strange when Tony takes to resting his hand at the small of Pepper’s back.
Not when they’re walking, because she makes an effort to stay in his wake; but if they’re on an elevator, or she’s pouring him a cup of coffee, or she comes to his desk to pass something by him, his open palm seems to gravitate to that spot as though imbued with a will of its own. He doesn’t do it furtively, and he doesn’t stop doing it if other people happen to walk in.
She debates whether to ask him about it, but decides against it in the end. Because then it might stop. And, truth be told, it’s actually kind of nice. Warm, and reassuring. Affectionate. She tells herself it’s the kind of gesture a friend might make.
Besides, Tony has a lot of odd habits, and he disregards a lot of boundaries. It’s hardly the worst thing he’s ever done.
At the start of his third week in the office, Henry starts growing a goatee. It’s patchy, lopsided, nowhere near as crisp as Tony’s.
“What do you think?” he asks, scraping absently at his chin with a thumbnail in a way that makes Pepper feel strangely piqued. He implores, “Be honest.”
Pepper hates it when people ask her to be honest, because it’s so rarely what they actually want. “Do you own an electric trimmer?” she inquires, tactfully.
“Yeah, but it takes me over an hour in front of the mirror to get it right.”
“It takes the real Mr. Stark about the same amount of time,” she confides, adding sternly, “and he never scratches.” She smiles, and lightly swats his hand away from his face.
“I’ll remember that,” he replies, smiling back.
It takes her a moment longer than it really should to let go of his fingers.
The next morning, Pepper arrives at the house to find Tony draped over the couch, still in his rumpled tuxedo, a tumbler of amber liquid balanced precariously on his chest.
“Twenty minutes,” she announces, without preamble, then heads straight up to the walk-in closet and starts pulling together an outfit suitable for that morning’s television appearance.
Tony ambles in a few minutes later, smiling to himself, looking far too alert for someone who hasn’t been to bed. He tugs at his bowtie until it unravels, then slings it over his shoulder.
“Henry asked me if you were single,” he announces, studiedly casual, peering at his reflection. His scent lingers on the air: cigars, cognac and vetiver. Smoky and decadent and slightly overpowering.
Pepper feels her colour rise dramatically. She’s glad she’s facing away from him. “What did you tell him?” she inquires, matching his laissez-faire tone.
“I said you don’t date co-workers.” He finger-combs his hair. “Do I have time for a shower?”
“No. Sorry.” She can’t quite suppress a flash of irritation. “He’s not a co-worker,” she snaps.
“He’s a professional associate,” he counters.
“Oh, barely.” Pepper knows it’s childish, knows she needs to back aways, but the whole thing is so stupid, because she doesn’t even—sure, Henry is cute, and sure, she’s thought about it, but she would never—
“Want me to pass him a note in class?” asks Tony, irritably.
She turns and skewers him with a look. “He’s just doing research.”
“For his character.”
“Pepper, don’t be naïve.”
“Anyhow, who says I don’t date my ‘professional associates?’” she challenges. “Just because I’ve never dated you…” She regrets it the second the words are out of her mouth, even before his face changes.
It takes only a second for Tony to recover, his mouth twisting in a smirk. Then he holds out his arm, and Pepper wordlessly drapes the clothes over it: suit, pants, belt, tie, socks. He can do what he likes about his underwear, she doesn’t feel equipped to handle that right now.
“Fine,” he says. He doesn’t sound angry, just… tired. “Great.”
It’s the last time he speaks to her that day.
“Is Tony a good kisser?”
Pepper is slightly taken aback. “I don’t know what you’ve heard,” she says, icily, “but that’s not really in my job description.” She taps a stack of papers twice against her desk blotter before stapling them rather more emphatically than is necessary.
“No, okay, sorry. Of course not.” Henry puts both elbows on the desk, steeples his long fingers. His eyes (definitely green, she’s almost positive) peer intently into hers. “I mean—the character. This guy, Tony Stark. My character. Do you think he’d be a good kisser?”
She shifts her hands into her lap to hide the fact that they’re shaking a little. She says, very carefully, “I imagine he’s had a lot of practice.”
“Maybe that’s it.” He nods earnestly.
“Maybe I need more practice.”
And then he kisses her.
And she kisses back.
It’s… not entirely unexpected.
That Friday evening, Pepper and Tony stay late at the office to take a call from Tokyo.
The call is productive—Pepper takes no less than fifteen pages of notes—but she can’t stop sneaking glances at her watch. She thinks she’s being subtle, but as soon as they hang up the phone, Tony inquires, “Hot date?”
“Yes,” she says evenly. She will not be baited.
“Huh.” He carefully lines up his Parker pen and his rapidograph in the little divot at the bottom of his desk blotter before directing his gaze back to her. “Anyone I know?”
She takes a deep breath, exhales slowly. “Henry.”
He doesn’t seem surprised. “You don’t think that’s weird?” He fans his fingers over the blotter and shifts it, correcting the angle.
The truth is, Pepper is acutely aware of how Freudian it looks, but she’s also annoyed that Tony isn’t willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Besides which, she thinks, watching Tony meticulously square his blotter, people who live in glass neuroses shouldn’t throw stones.
She stands up and collects her sweater from the back of her chair. “Are we done here?”
He nods briefly without looking up. “Say hi to Henry for me.”
“Tell him…” He smirks. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
“Hilarious,” Pepper deadpans. “Good night.”
Tony gives her the thumbs-up.
It turns out that being with Henry is easy. Uncomplicated, in a way that Pepper’s personal relationships rarely are.
By mutual agreement, they maintain a professional distance when he’s in the office; no more flirting at her desk. This isn’t as difficult as it could be, because Henry isn’t in the office as much—he’s in rehearsals three days a week, which means that the script must have passed muster.
He understands the pressures of her job, and never complains when she has to reschedule a date. He doesn’t mind at all if she’s too tired or frazzled to go out. He listens attentively to her rants about work—which are shorter than they would be if she were with someone who didn’t know all the players involved. It helps that, unlike most of the men she’s been with, Henry clearly isn’t threatened by Tony—probably because, also unlike most of those men, he’s actually spent time with Tony.
Henry is a great cook, an engaging conversationalist, a polite bedmate, a generous lover. He is that rare combination: someone of whom her mother would approve, and also someone who never objects to a late-night booty call.
The problem with dating a gifted impressionist is that he’s almost never entirely Henry. It’s always Henry-as-Connery, or Henry-as-Homer Simpson, or Henry-as-some reference Pepper doesn’t get, because she doesn’t watch enough television. “Enough” being, in Henry’s estimation, anything less than all the television that can possibly be watched by one human being in a 24-hour period.
He talks constantly, but she knows there’s a lot he doesn’t tell her. His SI background check mentioned a divorce, but they never discuss it. She knows he has two older brothers, but he doesn’t mention them. And he has a bronze medallion attached to his house keys which she is relatively certain is an AA chip.
He’s entitled to his privacy, certainly, but it’s frustrating, because she’d like to get to know him better. She can never quite tell when he stops acting.
They’re in her bed one Saturday evening when Pepper’s cell phone chimes softly. It’s the custom ringtone she has assigned to Tony’s home line. At this point, her response to the sound is practically Pavlovian; she doesn’t even realize that she’s reached over to the night stand until the phone is actually in her hand.
“Leave it,” says Henry.
“Sorry.” And she is genuinely sorry, not least of all because Henry is naked and she was about to be.
Henry smirks. “Pepper,” he purrs, his Tony voice absolutely pitch-perfect. Pepper is so revolted that she shoves him right out of bed and onto the floor.
He takes most of the bedding with him, landing on his back with his heels still resting on the edge of the mattress. When he blinks up at her in honest confusion, Pepper has to fight the urge to cover herself.
Instead, she points an emphatic finger at him. “Don’t,” she warns. “Ever.”
She forgets about the phone entirely until it stops ringing.
On Monday morning, Tony turns up at the office with fresh bruises and butterfly tape on his face. He’s chipper in spite of it all, which may be due to whatever it is he knocks back with the cup of coffee she brings him. “Where’s my evil twin this morning?” he inquires, seemingly without any malice aforethought.
“Rehearsal,” says Pepper briskly, perching on the edge of his desk with a battered day planner in her hand. She can already tell she’s going to have to start rescheduling his day.
“I need you to wrangle me an invite to the set. I’d like to check it out.”
“I’ll call and find out.” She makes a note. “Anything else?”
“Nope.” He finishes the coffee in two more gulps, grimacing. “Go team,” he says hoarsely.
“I got your message,” she tells him, taking the mug from his hand. “I tried to call you back. JARVIS said you were occupied.”
“Hope I didn’t stress you out too much on your day off,” he says. He smiles, but it looks like it hurts to do it, and she can’t tell whether he’s being sarcastic or honestly contrite.
“What happened here?” She points and almost, almost brushes her fingers against the dark smudge along the ridge of his cheekbone, the stippling of tiny scabs over the bridge of his nose.
Tony waves away her concern. “Happy needs to learn to pull his punches, that’s all.”
Pepper stares pointedly down at Tony’s copy of the New York Times. Iron Man is on the front page: a hot red-and-gold slash across a diamond-blue sky. From the pull quotes, Pepper surmises that the story has to do with terrorists, a bomb, an evacuation, a dramatic explosion in mid-air. That’s all she knows, because she can’t quite bring herself to read it in full.
“Tony,” she murmurs, fighting the urge to lean in and kiss his forehead.
She cancels his appointments. He works at a frenzied pace all morning, crashes around noon, and spends the rest of the day sleeping at his desk, head pillowed on his folded arms. Pepper checks on him every hour, and holds his calls. At five o’clock, she calls Happy to take him home.
That Friday, Tony delivers the commencement address at MIT, and he and Henry go on a bit of a tear afterwards. It makes the papers, complete with a photo of the two of them going shot-for-shot with the best and brightest of the Class of 2009.
What doesn’t make the papers: they enter a Tony Stark look-alike contest in a bar in Cambridge. Tony, slightly bedraggled, his fading bruises camouflaged by a thick layer of Pepper’s Lancôme under-eye concealer, wins second place.
Henry, tailored and trim and wearing a borrowed pair of designer sunglasses, wins first.
A few days later, she’s trying—unsuccessfully—to cajole Tony out of the workshop and into a suit and tie, for the set visit that he asked her to arrange.
He’s standing with his back to her, wearing a grimy cotton undershirt, and she doesn’t mean to compare, she doesn’t want to play this game, but she can’t help it.
Henry’s clothing camouflages the fact that he’s compact, wiry. He’s in great shape, but he’s never going to have the kind of muscle mass or definition that Tony has—and that’s okay, she doesn’t care about that.
Except that she does, a tiny bit.
It isn’t just the aesthetic appeal, but what it represents: the hard work and sheer determination that Tony has put into achieving his goals since taking on the mantle of Iron Man.
She’s angry at him for being so attractive, which is really not his fault, and at herself for dwelling on it, which is even less his fault. She suspects that she may actually be a terrible person, and she pushes her exasperation with the entire situation into her voice as she tells him, for what seems like the thousandth time, “We are committed to doing this. Today.”
“So then you go.”
“I’m not the one who wanted to go in the first place!”
“I need to get this done.”
“Will you at least tell me what you want me to look out for?”
He turns, settles his backside against the workbench, and wipes at his fingers with a filthy shop rag. “Just try not to sleep with Henry’s stunt double while you’re there,” he says, with a tight smirk.
Pepper is actually incoherent with rage for at least thirty seconds. She finally marches over to him and shouts, “Inappropriate!”
“Is it?” He reaches past her to pick up a soldering gun, and she can feel the heat radiating from his body. There’s his scent, too, a concoction of smoke and steel and sweat that shouldn’t be half as appealing as it is. He smells like the very start of a thunderstorm, which is apropos since it matches the atmosphere in the room: heavy, oppressive, electric.
“If you have a problem, Tony, then stop hinting around and just say it.”
He takes a step back and meets her gaze for the first time, and the look on his face is calculating, dangerous. “That’s what you want?”
“Okay. Why would you date fake me and not date real me?”
“It wasn’t an either-or proposition,” she points out.
“He’s like… Diet Tony. Tony Light. It’s like… well, okay, to put it in terms you’d be familiar with, it’s like buying a knock-off designer handbag out of the trunk of a car.”
She reminds herself that this is another thing Tony does: he deflects by making increasingly outrageous statements, shooting them far afield like flares in the hopes that she’ll go haring off after one. He does not want to have this conversation, a fact which makes Pepper all the more determined.
“It is not like that. He’s not you. At all. Case in point: you never asked me.”
“I didn’t think I had to,” he says, and has the nerve to sound mildly outraged. “My interest was implied.”
"You're not angry because I’m dating someone who looks like you."
"No?” He tosses the soldering gun on the table, which startles her—he’s normally so careful with his tools, so precise. “Because I feel like I really am, actually."
"You're angry because you seem to think that you have some sort of claim, even though you never once actually said the words, ‘Pepper, would you like to go out on a date with me?’"
“My interest was implied!”
“Saying it more loudly still doesn’t make it true!”
"We almost kissed!"
"I know it happened! But I think it's ludicrous that that's your basis for thinking that you’re entitled to…" She has no idea how to finish that sentence, so instead she flaps her hands in a vague interpretive gesture.
“You know what? Fuck it. I give up.”
Which, bizarrely, is the precise moment when he crowds her against the table, cups her face between his curved palms, and kisses her.
Pepper feels as though she’s falling and tries to stabilize herself, her hands scrabbling at his chest before grabbing fistfuls of his undershirt. Tony takes this as a cue to pull the shirt off over his head, which wasn’t what Pepper had in mind, but she isn’t about to object. She bites at his shoulder and he grunts, softly, muscles tensing; she isn’t sure why, but she expected him to be louder, more vocal.
“Bad idea,” she breathes, the words almost lost against his skin.
He’s already unbuttoning her shirt with one hand. “Then tell me to stop,” he murmurs, sliding the other hand down to cup her ass.
He pauses, pulls back a little. He looks the way she feels: helpless, lost. “Please what?”
She hears herself say, “Don’t stop.”
“I’m a terrible person,” says Pepper, quite some time later.
“I started it.” Tony is tracing lazy circles at the small of her back, calluses etching the pattern into her skin. He doesn’t seem particularly regretful.
“Oh, I’m not absolving you of blame, believe me. I just don’t think you also being responsible makes me less responsible. You’re not the one with the…” she can’t even say it.
“Contractual obligations?” he smirks.
She kicks him.
“Is your boyfriend going to beat me up now?”
“You think he could?”
“No. I’d let him get in one good shot though. Seems only fair. Are you going to tell him?”
“I’m insulted by that.”
“Of course I'm going to tell him! Do I really strike you as the kind of person who would date two people at once?”
He looks at her, steadily, and it occurs to her that she is making a lot of assumptions—the main one being that Tony is even interested in dating her at this point. Especially now that they both know she’s capable of being unfaithful.
“Regardless,” she continues, unable to meet his eyes, “he deserves to know. This isn’t fair to him. He's a good guy.”
“So am I,” says Tony, quite unexpectedly. “Sometimes.”
Pepper explains, as best she can, without getting into any of the gory details.
Henry is remarkably philosophical about the whole situation: “No matter how many times I read for the part of the hero, I always end up getting cast as the nice guy the female lead dates in the second act.”
“Henry,” she says awkwardly, because it’s all she really can say. She hugs him. “I’m so sorry.” And she is genuinely sorry. “Thank you for everything.”
“All part of the service, Moneypenny,” he says in his Connery voice, and Pepper laughs, even though she feels like hell.
For the first couple of weeks after the breakup, Pepper doesn’t see Tony outside of work. She also makes a conscious decision not to go to the house unless Happy or someone else is with her. All of her contact with her boss takes place in public spaces.
Tony is not a patient man, but he can, on occasion, be a thoughtful one. He doesn’t crowd her.
She misses Henry a little bit. It was nice to have someone to talk to while she worked. Tony’s office door is closed more often than not.
One evening, she’s packing up her desk, and looks up to see him standing there, watching her. He takes two freshly-sharpened pencils out of her cup and tucks them away in his suit jacket.
“Well?” He says it as though they’re in the middle of a conversation and he’s waiting on an answer to a crucial question.
He plucks at his lower lip for a moment, then asks, “Pepper, would you like to go out on a date with me?”
She nods, blushing a little. She’s not trying to be coy, but she feels bashful—which is strange, considering that they’ve known each other for over a decade and have already slept together. “Okay,” she says finally. “I mean, yes. I’d like that. Thank you.”
He’s smiling now, more confident. “Great. Tonight?”
The smile fades.
“It’s pretty short notice,” she chides gently.
“So what? What else have you got going on?”
Her instinct is to push back, to ask him why he assumes she doesn’t have friends, or obligations, or pets. It takes an effort, but she manages to check that impulse. “I’m going to get Chinese takeout, do my laundry, have a hot bath, and watch cooking shows,” she tells him, honestly. “And maybe paint my toenails.”
“I haven’t decided yet.”
“I vote for hot pink.”
She rolls her eyes. “You do not.”
“Or purple. Purple would be nice too.”
“Ugh, stop it.”
“With a pink sparkly unicorn on each of your big toes.”
“I’m not twelve, Tony.” She’s waiting for him to invite himself along. He’s not going to, she realizes. Which is when she hears herself say, “If you bring the food, I’ll let you pick the colour.”
“That’s okay.” He catches her fingers, squeezes them quickly, then lets go. “I’d like to be surprised.”
Two weeks later, the studio sends over a rough cut of the series—six episodes—for Tony’s approval. He invites her to his house for a private screening. “I’ll make popcorn.”
She accepts. Neither of them says the word ‘date,’ but Pepper buys a flattering sweater and gets her legs waxed for the occasion.
It’s very strange: pulling into the garage around the time she would usually be leaving the house. Sitting on Tony’s couch in her favourite jeans and the new sweater, trying not to feel underdressed, while he uncorks a bottle of wine and pours each of them a glass. Making small talk about her day, as though they hadn’t just spent the past eight hours working ten feet apart from each other.
The living room is absolutely immaculate; Tony is quiet, attentive, weirdly polite. She wonders whether the whole thing is a mistake, after all.
Seeing Henry on the screen just adds to the feeling of surreality. But it isn’t him, really—it’s Tony, or at any rate, Henry’s interpretation of Tony. He seems bulkier on film than he is in real life.
“Too tall,” says Tony critically.
Pepper nudges him. “He’s the hero. He needs to stand out.”
Tony yawns, stretches ostentatiously, and flops his arm around the back of the couch.
“Excuse me, are we in junior high?” Pepper inquires. “In the 1950s?”
He shrugs. “You don’t like my moves, Potts, you don’t have to be here.”
She puts her hand on his thigh, leans over, and kisses him until she feels him relax into it. “Better.”
She doesn’t realize she’s said it out loud until he smiles and replies, “Yeah.”
A few minutes later, he’s already outraged: “I would never wear a paisley tie.”
Pepper pats his leg reassuringly. “Shh.”
“Did you seriously just shush me in my own—”
She presses a hand to his lips, which turns out to be a poorly-thought-out maneuver when he starts to nibble on her fingers. Desire flickers through her, its heat curling the edges of her resolve.
“I thought we were watching this,” she says, her voice barely above a whisper.
“Then stop putting things in my mouth,” he replies.
Pepper covers her eyes with a squeal when the redhead appears.
Tony gently but inexorably pries her fingers away from her face. “Fair’s fair,” he tells her, curling an arm around her to pin her hands in her lap. His body is solid and warm against hers, in a way that makes it difficult to focus on the screen.
The actress is young and impishly adorable, with luminous green eyes and a smattering of freckles not unlike Pepper’s own. She carries herself with a devastating self-composure that Pepper wishes she had in real life.
She’s also extremely well-endowed, and wearing a low-cut wrap top that most certainly is not in line with the Stark Industries dress code.
“Nice,” says Pepper. “That’s just… lovely.”
Tony whistles his agreement.
“And you approved this?”
“No. I approved the script. Nowhere in the script does it say Establishing shot: Pepper’s cleavage.”
“It would be a close on, not an establishing shot.”
Tony groans feelingly. “I don’t care. God, that script. Took me forever to get through it.”
She glances at his face. “Why didn’t you just delegate, boss?”
He’s sheepish. “You were so angry at me for getting us into this. I wanted to do my part.”
Onscreen, Virginia Potts is crisply correcting Tony Stark’s math. Pepper looks over at Tony again, surprised; she never told Henry this story, and even if she had, he never had this much input into the script.
“She was kind of dumb in the first draft,” he remarks. His tone is studiedly offhand, but she can tell he’s actually quite pleased with himself.
“Okay, I changed my mind,” says Pepper, squeezing his hand. “I like her.”
“Me too.” Tony grins. “Think Henry can get me her number?”
Pepper shoves him. “Is it really too much to ask that you not objectify other women on our first date?”
“Whatever. You still love me.” He shoots her a look; even though it’s not an interrogative, it’s still a question.
She grins back. “I thought that was implied.”