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Self-Preservation

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Sleep is one of the few things on earth I don't naturally excel at. (I suppose there had to be something.)

Like everything else in my life, it eventually comes back to my brain being wired differently. I just can't stop thinking long enough to lose consciousness. Eventually, exhaustion takes over and I pass out, but that can take several days, or several shots, or a severe beating. And even then, it's not a sure thing.

Once I get to sleep, I have a very hard time staying asleep, which is why I prefer to sleep alone. And why I hate to be woken up.

My personal assistant strides into the bedroom like she owns the place, the insistent clack of her heels on the tile jarring me into wakefulness. "Lights, please, JARVIS."

The room illuminates. I roll over to check the time, and am immediately in pain—stiff joints, bruised ribs, and a persistent itching and throbbing in my left ankle. It takes me a second to remember: Phoenix. A bank robbery. A bust-up involving at least a half-dozen young punks and a couple of purloined rocket launchers.

Whose idea was this superhero gig, again?

"Let's go," chirps Pepper. She's wearing a suit. There's a clipboard. No good can possibly come of this.

"What." I can't even find the energy to make it an interrogative. Why is she here? Isn't it after working hours? Isn't today Saturday? Surely even Pepper must have a social life.

She's peering down at me dispassionately, the clipboard clutched tenderly to her breast. Lucky clipboard. "Artists for Humanity," she says.

Clearly this phrase is supposed to mean something to me. It doesn't. (That ankle could actually be broken—I landed awkwardly in a damaged boot at one point, and there was a distinct snap.)

"Charity art auction?" she prompts.

Nope, nothing. (Who uses a rocket launcher to rob a bank? Seems like overkill to me—in this case, almost literally.)

"Tony. We talked about this weeks ago."

"Just take my wallet with you," I tell her, stretching my arms over my head ostentatiously. I've noticed that there are certain movements of mine that Pepper's eyes invariably track, no matter how pissed off she is. If I time it right, I can completely derail her. "You can put it in the seat next to you, tell it to behave occasionally, and at the end of the night you take some money out of it and make a big fat donation. I bet you no one will even notice that the rest of me isn't there."

There are at least six hours of work required on the suit before I'm back in fighting trim. I was hoping to get those repairs done tonight. Because apparently I have even less of a social life than my workaholic assistant does.

Pepper is shaking her head. "You already made a big fat donation. They would like to acknowledge you and, coincidentally, the board would like you to be in the news at least once this week for something that doesn't involve blowing up a hospital—"

"Condemned hospital." The building lost what little structural integrity it had left when I managed to deflect one of the missiles towards the hospital, at which point some kid with a camera-phone captured about twenty-five seconds of blurry, decontextualized footage that made it look like I was the one shooting up downtown Phoenix.

She purses her lips and exhales upward in a puff, ruffling her bangs.

"It was due for demolition anyway," I add. "Call it a public service."

The part that didn't end up on YouTube was the two and a half hours it took to dig my way out after the whole works came down on my head. Or the part where the mayor and the chief of police personally thanked me. No one ever seems to get that part on video.

"You have one hour to get showered, shaved, and dressed," Pepper continues, as though I haven't spoken. She holds up a single finger, just like that, one, like I'm incapable of counting that high. She isn't even remotely fazed by the stretching, or by the fact that I prefer to sleep in as unconfined a manner as possible, under only a sheet. I must be losing my appeal.

"That's not an 'I' statement, Potts." Pepper is big on 'I' statements: I feel X when you do Y sort of thing. She's all about taking ownership.

She doesn't miss a beat: "I feel that things go more smoothly when you follow my suggestions."

"I hate black tie."

"Nice try. You love black tie. You told me that once. You said it makes you feel like James Bond."

I can't believe she remembered that—it was at least six years ago. I have only the faintest recollection of things she said to me yesterday. Maybe it's time to get a new assistant, one who doesn't know all my secrets. One who's too awestruck to wake me up so unceremoniously, and who would never presume to boss me around before I even put shorts on.

"I hate artists." I flip onto my stomach, hollow out a nice, dark pit under the feather pillow, and fill it with my head, ostrich-style. "And I hate humanity."

She leaves that last one alone.

"Anyway, I think I have a broken ankle."

She yanks the pillow off my head. "Oh, please, Tony." It isn't the first time a woman has said those words to me in this room, not by a long shot. But usually they're trying to drag me into bed, not out of it.

"I'm serious." With my cheek pressed against the mattress, I can feel the faint, familiar hum of the RT. "I can hardly walk."

"I'll rent you a wheelchair." It's clear that she is not going to give up. Time for a subtle redirect.

I roll over and sit up, letting the sheet slide down until it's pooled in my lap. Now I've got her attention—she isn't blushing, exactly, but there's a definite undertone of coral in the hollow of her throat. "Are you going to wear the dress?" I ask.

"What dress?"

"You know the one."

Her lips curve in an almost-smile. "I have a lot of dresses, Mr. Stark. You'll have to be more specific."

"The birthday dress." I picture it: a backless sheath of silk, the colour of deep water. I wish my recall weren't quite so perfect, though, because now I'm in a little bit of trouble. (Actually, I've been told it's a generous amount of trouble, particularly for a man of my height, but who's keeping score.)

"I don't know about that, but you probably shouldn't turn up in your birthday suit," she says, pointedly, which makes me wonder if she's noticed my predicament. She brandishes my tuxedo in its cocoon of dry cleaning plastic.

"Would you mind hanging that in the bathroom for me?"

"That depends. Are you getting up?"

You have no idea. "In a minute." I flap my hand at her emphatically. "Quit hovering. You're making me anxious." Among other things.

She pivots on her heel and stalks out.

The moment she's out of the room, I reach over the edge of the bed for my discarded boxers and pull them on, trying to think unsexy thoughts in case she comes back. She might; she's occasionally unpredictable, especially at the end of a long workday, or if she's had a drink, or if the weather is humid, or at certain times of the month. I guess you could say she's predictably unpredictable. How perfectly Pepper.

I gently press my injured foot against the cool floor, and draw a sharp breath as pain shoots along my instep and radiates up my leg. It can support my weight, barely, and only if I grit my teeth. I think it might actually be fractured.

That's an unsexy thought.

*

A scalding hot shower, a couple of Vicodin, an Ace bandage, and three fluid ounces of Auchentoshan fix me right up.

Once I'm sufficiently medicated, I start on making myself presentable. People don't realize how much work it actually takes to make it look like you just rolled out of bed and into an Armani tux—and I like to keep it that way. I spend about as much time detailing myself as I do on any of the cars. It's not entirely vanity: when your name's on the side of the building and your picture's on the front page, image is crucial. Looking good (not counting the part taken care of for me by genetics) comprises about twenty percent of what I actually do. Before all the Iron Man stuff, it was more like sixty percent, but saving the world has really cut into my beauty sleep and spa treatments.

Predictably, Pepper starts calling reminders through the door at the fifty-five minute mark, at which point I'm in the process of doing some precision work on my goatee. "Don't rush me," I call back. "If I slit my throat, you're out of a job."

"I'm willing to risk it," she retorts. "Are you dressed?"

"Yes." Which I am. In a towel.

Pepper flings the door open, sucking all the heat out of the bathroom. When she sees me, her hands shoot up in exasperation.

She's managed a complete refit in the time it's taken me to shower and shave: it's not the swath of ocean-coloured silk that's been haunting my dreams, but a more demure black satin sleeveless number. The good news: it shows off her legs, which are about ten miles long and nothing short of spectacular, especially in heels. The bad news: her hair is up in a neat little twist. Professional, yes; inflammatory, not so much.

"I can't believe you," she snaps. She brushes past me and starts savagely ripping the plastic off my tux. Is she going to try and wrangle me into it, I wonder? Because that could be a lot more fun than some lame art auction.

"You look cute," I tell her. "I like it when you wear your hair down, though."

"We. Are going. To be. So. Late." She bites the words, says late like it's an obscenity—which, to Pepper, it is.

I lean closer to the mirror and examine my handiwork—scraping my index finger along each cheek, checking for rough patches.

As the condensation ebbs towards the corners of the backlit glass, Pepper's reflection gradually appears in the mirror, just over my shoulder: lips slightly parted, wide blue eyes examining me intently. Her gaze roams over my shoulders, down my bare back. I tell myself it's just the infusion of cool air that's giving me goosebumps.

I'm not always good at reading faces, but I know Pepper's looks pretty well—especially annoyed, amused, bored and, most recently, proud. This is something else, though: something dark and liquid and determined. It's unusual, but familiar—I know I've seen it somewhere before.

"Potts," I say. It comes out a bit lower than I was expecting, rougher around the edges.

She starts, a blush spilling down her cheeks to her throat and pooling at her collarbone. She looks away, then back again, chin tilted defiantly. Her eyes meet mine in the mirror.

"Come here and feel this," I say.

"Absolutely not."

I grin at her reflection. "My face, I meant."

"Absolutely not," she repeats, arms tightly folded. The look, whatever it was, is gone.

I apply a splash of aftershave to my cheeks and chin. "Towel's coming off," I warn her.

She bolts.

*

When I finally emerge from my chrysalis of steam and tile a scant half-hour later, Pepper is pacing the length of the living room in long strides.

She slows to a stop when she sees me, which is generally the effect I have on women in this getup. Some men, too, for that matter. Occasionally also machines. "How do I look?" I ask, as if I need to be told. The word magnificent springs to mind.

She approaches, eyeing me critically up and down. "How can you still have bed-head after you showered? Here, let me—"

"Don't—I like it like that. Makes women want to run their hands through it." Case in point: I reach up, brush her fingers aside. "It's my mating plumage." I grin. Her hand snaps back like it's been burnt.

"Brushing your teeth with scotch now?" she inquires, doing that move where she leans in close and tries to smell my breath without being completely obvious—except it is completely obvious, because it's the only time she allows herself to get within kissing range these days. Pepper Potts, Human Breathalyzer.

I shrug. "Just a nightcap. Want a taste?" I step into her comfort zone, the RT bumping against her shoulder. Getting in Pepper's personal space is the easiest way to distract her, get her riled up, keep her from fussing too much.

"No, thank you." She blushes, takes a step backwards, puts a hand on my chest to stop my approach, and brushes nonexistent lint from my lapel. She's redrawing the invisible lines: my space, her space. "Anyway, Tony, I don't think they call it a nightcap if you have it when you get up."

"It's a relative term. Sure you don't want to stay home? We could order pizza."

"We're a little overdressed for that, don't you think?" She smoothes down the front of her dress as she says it, preening.

"It'll be like prom night—we go for a ride in a limo, have a few drinks, and then at the end of the night we turn down the lights and you let me get to second base on the couch."

She rolls her eyes.

"I have the house to myself all weekend. You can tell your parents you're at a sleepover with your girlfriends."

"What do you know about prom?" she asks, plucking at my bowtie unnecessarily. "What were you, ten?" Her sudden, affectionate smile is a gift—that much more rewarding for being so unexpected.

"What do I look like, a freak? I was twelve. And I had the best-looking date in the room." At least three of those pimply-faced clods tried to get my mom's number. "Just like tonight," I add, grasping her wrist. There's something compelling about the long, loosely-knit joins of her body: wrists, shoulders, hips. She doesn't have that coltish awkwardness that so many tall girls do; every move is invested with a quiet confidence. It's incredibly sexy. "You're amazing," I tell her.

"Let's see if you still think that when you're sober," she retorts, shaking off my hand.

*

The gallery is solidly Brutalist: slabs of unfinished concrete, stacked up at odd angles like giant Lego blocks. Bald fluorescent lighting. Weird twisty nude statues. I've really only ever been interested in art as an investment, and because of that I only know isolated facts. The things I like are rarely the things that are worth a lot. I rely on Pepper to fill in the gaps: she knows art as instinctively as she knows money.

The hors d'oeuvres are about on par with what I expected: tiny, unappealing variations on the theme of food sculpture. Little towers of charred vegetables, mushroom caps filled with spackle. The fruit skewers are minimum forty-five percent melon. I hate melon. Fortunately, Pepper seems to like it, or maybe it's just that her parsimonious little soul hates to see anything go to waste. Whatever the reason, she plucks the half-finished skewers out of my hand, even as I'm looking around for a convenient potted plant to ditch them in.

We browse the art that's up for auction: the first piece that catches my attention is a series of cut-out Playboy centerfolds with antique watches glued over their faces.

"Apparently I've been collecting fine art under my mattress since I was in high school," I tell Pepper, who bites her lip, but refrains from comment. There isn't much I can say at this point that will actually shock her, but I like to try just the same.

Looking closer, I can see that one of the clock-head girls has a small birthmark on her inner thigh. I have fond memories of that birthmark and the adjacent properties. Her name was Amber... or maybe Angela...?

Pepper hooks her arm through mine, wordlessly, and tows me to the next piece, which happens to be an enormous, lush oil painting of an avocado.

"You're still wearing your sunglasses," she murmurs.

"I wondered why you looked so yellow," I stage-whisper back. "I thought you might have jaundice."

I didn't know it was possible to eat melon off a stick in a reproachful fashion, but somehow Pepper manages it. In a more normal tone of voice, she adds, "It's night-time. And we're indoors."

"I'm aware of that, thank you." I point to the painting, which provides me with an easy deflect. "This makes me want tacos. Let's stop on the way home."

I'm surprised Pepper doesn't get migraines from rolling her eyes so much.

I prefer to keep my sunglasses on because it creates a physical barrier between me and anyone I'm not particularly interested in talking to. Not only that, but my eyes are the most expressive part of my face. They give a lot more away than I would like them to at times—particularly to someone who knows how to read them.

Call it self-preservation.

*

The model conducting the art auction is a masterpiece in her own right: Cleavage for Humanity. Racked and stacked, masses of cherrywood curls, big brown doe-eyes, a flirtatious little bow mouth. She's wearing a low-cut halter dress that looks painted on: hot rod red. My favourite.

"What's your lot number, honey?" I ask from the third row. "I'm prepared to put in a generous bid." Particularly generous for a man of my height.

I get a couple of laughs, but most of the first and second rows twist in their seats and scowl at me. I ignore them. If I ever get so serious about philanthropy that I can't appreciate a real work of art when it's standing right in front of me, I hope someone puts me out of my misery.

Pepper doesn't tell me to behave, but she pokes me in the ribs with a sharp little elbow.

The luscious auctioneer gives me the fisheye and continues without comment, but I can tell from the way she angles her body towards me, the subtle tilt of her hips, that it's not out of the realm of possibility. There's nothing I like more than a challenge. There's a shimmer of perspiration on her bronzed collarbone. I imagine licking it away, the salt of her skin on my lips.

I slide my sunglasses up onto my forehead and hit her with my most dazzling smile. She smiles back.

Bingo.

*

There's an intermission, and we're having a drink. Well, I'm having a drink, and Pepper's holding one for me in reserve. One person does one stupid thing at one party, and all of a sudden every cash bar in town is more strictly-regulated than a border crossing. It's asinine. Besides which, I paid for every one of those windows I broke.

Sometimes reflective surfaces piss me off.

"Are you interested in any of the pieces?" Pepper inquires.

I bypass the obvious crude remark because I know she's expecting it. "How much do you think the clock-bunnies are going to go for? That would look great in my office. We could set all the watches to different time zones. I'd never forget what time it was in Tokyo again."

She ignores me. "We should buy at least one Vers Page sculpture. She's going to be—"

"I knew at least one of those girls," I continue, talking over the rest of Pepper's art lecture. "I mean 'knew' in the Biblical sense. I think her name was Amber."

"Antoinette."

"Bullshit."

"Okay," she says, in that all-too-voluble way that means she's deferring to me because I'm the boss, not because I'm right.

"How could you possibly know that? You can't even see their faces."

"I usually see more than their faces," she observes dryly. "I remember her in particular because she told me her friends called her Toni. I remember thinking that you'd raised the bar on your own narcissism. Again."

It never really occurred to me that she would have time to learn anything about the girls before showing them the door, but I shouldn't be surprised. Everyone talks to Pepper: store clerks, waitresses, doormen. Happy's told her his life story about fourteen times; she knows all of Rhodey's best jokes—all the ones that are PG-13 and under, anyhow. Even JARVIS spills his proverbial guts to her on occasion. People can just instinctively tell she's a good listener. A repository of secrets. God knows she keeps enough of mine.

"Okay," I say. "Vers Page. Thrill me."

There's a row of mirrors on the wall opposite, and my eyes are immediately drawn to our reflections. I'm propping up the bar: drink in hand, dressed to kill, hair in artful disarray. Status quo. Pepper is talking animatedly, pointing at a couple of the twisty nudes by the entranceway. Her head is canted towards mine, her brilliant smile completely ingenuous. It's been a while since I saw those dimples.

"Don't you think?" she prompts.

I nod. I'm half-listening, watching her in the mirror, trying to parse exactly what happened between us the last time I saw her reflection.

I take a sip of my martini, and then it hits me: of course. That night. The blue dress night. It was the same look: dark and liquid and determined.

I want to see it again.

Empirical science suggests that the best way to repeat a result is to recreate the conditions of the experiment as precisely as possible. Well, we're both dressed up, there are drinks and music and charitable giving...

I wonder if this place has a balcony?

"Could you please stop undressing that girl with your eyes while I'm talking to you?" asks Pepper plaintively.

I blink, shift my focus slightly, and sure enough, directly under the mirror I've been staring at is the cute model in the red dress. She smiles and sprinkles her fingers at me, coyly. I smile back—flirting is an autonomic reflex for me. I wonder how long she's been standing there?

I decide to go with it. "I hate to break it to you, Potts, but it's gone way beyond undressing. I'm pretty much smoking a post-coital cigarette with my eyes at this point."

Pepper doesn't quite sigh, but she definitely exhales forcefully. There's tension in her shoulders.

"Oh, come on—are you honestly telling me you wouldn't hit that so hard that whoever could pull you out would be the next king of England?"

"I can't even begin to tell you what is wrong with that question," she replies dryly. "Besides, she's a little young for you, don't you think?"

"Age is such a construct. If there's grass on the field—"

"Oh my God." She actually covers her ears with her hands and squeezes her eyes shut, as though the words are somehow explosive. It's ridiculous and adorable. "Oh my God, Tony, you did not just say that."

I give her shoulder a nudge. "What's the matter, Pepper, is there no grass on your field?"

"Stop it."

I elbow her again, moving further into her personal space. "Don't tell me you're a fan of the scorched earth strategy. As a natural redhead, you have a civic duty."

She drops her hands and glares. "You're disgusting." There's a note of warning in her voice now.

"'I' statements, Pepper."

"Everything that comes out of your mouth is an 'I' statement, Tony." She sips my reserve martini, then purses her lips—she doesn't like them dirty.

"Oh, come on!" I protest. I'm not sure whether I'm arguing with her assertion or the fact that she's stealing my drink. Probably just the drink part.

Her mouth smiles, but her eyes are steely, cold. "I think you can get your own drinks from now on, Mr. Stark. How's that?"

She takes the martini and walks away.

*

I tip a couple more martinis down my throat in rapid succession, then retreat to the men's room, where I take another Vicodin and ask my reflection what the hell he thinks he's doing.

I'm weighing the pros and cons of smashing the mirror with my fist when I hear the click of heels on the tile floor—unusual, given the setting.

It isn't until I turn to see the lovely auctioneer that I realize how disappointed I am by who she's not.

"I'm here to thank you for your generous bid, Mr. Stark." She smiles bewitchingly, giving me bedroom eyes, reaching back to lock the door behind her. "I also wanted to let you know that you're the current high bidder."

Sometimes, my life is a little too much like a letter to Penthouse, even for me.

"Lucky me." My ankle is pulsing. Even with the help of the alcohol, the Vicodin isn't kicking in as quickly as I'd hoped.

"Lucky you." She presses herself into me, unknots my tie. I can smell the spearmint gum she's been chewing; a second later, when she kisses me, I discover that it's still in her mouth. She's sloppy—an amateur. Which I guess is better than a professional, although frankly that's a matter of personal preference.

The challenge of conquest eliminated, the whole exercise suddenly seems pointless and perfunctory—especially since I can barely stand. And, while I generally espouse a 'love the one(s) you're with' philosophy, somehow this just isn't doing it for me.

"I appreciate your directness, but I'm here with a guest."

"She doesn't have to know." She starts unbuttoning my collar, attacking my neck with more suction than technique.

"That's very accommodating of you." I detach her, gently but firmly. "But I think I'll pass."

The sweet ingenue smile cracks, giving way to annoyed petulance. "I thought you were supposed to be a player." Up close, I can see that she really is young. Now I feel like a sleazebag for that 'grass on the field' crack.

"In case you hadn't heard, sweetheart, a building fell on me this morning."

"I saw it on YouTube. What kind of superhero blows up a hospital?"

"Condemned hospital."

She snaps her gum. Charming. "Is it true you have some kind of crazy laser cannon in your chest?"

As Pepper would say, I can't even begin to explain what's wrong with that question. "No."

"Can I see it?"

"Okay, kiddo, it's past your bedtime." I grab her by the shoulders, spin her one hundred and eighty degrees, aim her towards the door, and propel her forward with a hand between her shoulder blades.

She unlocks the door. Her parting shot: "Nice sunglasses. Asshole."

As the door swings closed behind her, I catch a snippet of sound: someone saying my name into a microphone, followed by polite applause. There was something I was supposed to do right about now, and clearly I'm not doing it.

I turn to the mirror and try to fix my collar and tie, but of course now is the moment when the drugs actually start working. My eyes won't snap back into focus, and I can't seem to make my fingers work right. I splash water on my face, but it doesn't help. I hang onto the counter, trying to stay upright.

The pain recedes to the point where it's manageable, and then everything around me retreats down a long grey tube for a while.

*

When I find her again, much later, Pepper is chatting with a couple of guys in tuxes, in front of a painting of a neon orange woman in an electric blue paisley headscarf. It's so bright I can't look directly at it, even with the shades. I'm completely wrung out—I just want to go home and crawl back into bed and forget that this whole night even happened.

One of the guys has frosted hair and a skin tone comparable to that of the girl in the painting. The other one has a shaved head and is consciously flexing—the face he's making suggests it's no small effort. Either that, or he's constipated.

"I'm normally terrible with plants, but I've done everything in my power to kill this mint and it's still enormous," Pepper is saying.

Fake-bake laughs, a little too loudly—even though she clearly hasn't gotten to the punch line yet.

"I bought it with some vague plan in mind involving mojitos. I've hardly even watered it, but I it's reached the point where it could probably take me in bare-handed combat. The other day I could have sworn it said 'Feed me.'"

Flexo asks her if she'd like a drink, pointing to the bar in an exaggerated motion clearly meant to show off his impressive physique. She gives him a polite 'no thanks' wave.

"Anyhow, a couple of the neighbourhood pets have gone missing," she adds. "I may have to move."

She grins charmingly, dimples and everything. It's first-rate material, but neither of them so much as cracks a smile. Pricks.

I sidle up, ease in between Pepper and the guys, grab her arm at the elbow, and drag her away. She waves goodbye over her shoulder, shrugging.

"I didn't know you liked mojitos," I remark, slipping her arm through mine.

"They announced your donation," she informs me. "I had to make a speech."

"I'm sure you were fine." It's entirely the wrong answer, but it's the only one I can think of.

"They'd like you to pose for a few pictures." She turns to face me, looks me up and down appraisingly. "Do you feel up to it?"

I shrug. "Why not?"

*

The photographer positions me between a thin, impeccably-tailored man and a tiny Asian woman in a fluffy ballgown. Pepper moves in like a ninja and swipes the sunglasses right off my face before I can stop her. She reaches up to knot my tie, but I wave her off—it's a ritual that feels too intimate to be performed in public, and without my shades I feel exposed.

"It's the end of the night. Let's keep it casual," I suggest. A couple of people laugh, as though I've made a joke.

Pepper has one of her patented we're-at-a-party-so-let's-all-be-nice smiles plastered on her face, but her eyes are like diamonds: hard, glittering. "Whatever you say, Mr. Stark."

She ducks out of the shot just as the bright lights start to pop.

With the flash seared into my field of vision, I shake the hands of half a dozen strangers before cornering my PA and steering her resolutely towards the exit. She digs in her heels.

"Quit herding me, Tony. I'm trying to work."

"Yeah, I saw you. Were you seriously going to let one of those guys pick you up?" I demand. "They weren't listening to a word you said. I bet neither of them knows how to make a decent mojito. I bet neither of those jerks could even spell mojito."

She gapes at me for a second, like I've started speaking in tongues. "Glass houses," she says finally.

I can't decide if she means my tendency to date uncomplicated women or the fact that I never listen to her. Maybe just my spelling.

"That reminds me," I say, holding out my hand. She reluctantly hands over the sunglasses.

"Where were you?"

So the good news is, no one told her about my little nap on the men's room tile.

"Bathroom," I say, studiedly casual.

She raises a skeptical eyebrow. "For half an hour?"

"Bad shrimp."

"Uh-huh."

"So we can leave now, correct? Mission accomplished?"

She sighs defeatedly. "Okay," she says. "I guess we both got what we came here for."

She pulls out her Blackberry and calls Happy. I can tell she's annoyed about something, but I don't have the inclination or the capacity to mine for it. She keeps her hand on the small of my back as she guides me out of the gallery.

At the front entrance, there seem to be a lot more stairs than there were when we came in. I'm trying not to limp, but Pepper doesn't miss a trick. She moves to the opposite side of me and takes my arm—which allows me to lean heavily on her without it looking as though that's what I'm doing. As always, she's there, propping me up, keeping me respectable, helping me to retain the illusion of strength even when I'm at my weakest.

As we descend the stone steps, she tells me softly, "You have lipstick on the inside of your collar."

I want to ask her to reframe that as an 'I' statement.

*

We're settled in the back of the Bentley, finally headed for home.

I'm dimly aware that Pepper is chatting with Happy. She asks him how his brother is doing. Happy says he's doing fine, that the surgery went well.

"That's great," says Pepper, patting him on the shoulder. "Keep me updated, okay?"

He beams at her in the rearview.

I didn't even know Happy had a brother.

Pepper is seated on the passenger side. She's bent forward at the waist, angled across me towards Happy, listening graciously while he goes into unnecessary and graphic detail about his brother's long history of digestive issues. With her hair up, the line of her neck is one half of a catenary curve, long and elegant. There's a constellation of freckles on her bare shoulder, a smaller cluster on her arm just below the elbow. Her hand rests beside mine on the seat, pale and luminous against the black leather.

I watch as my hand slowly reaches over and takes hold of Pepper's slender, speckled wrist.

The complexity and articulation of the human hand is what distinguishes us from the other animals. We aren't the fastest, or the most powerful, or the most durable, or the most prolific, and it's even debatable whether we're the smartest. But our hands can build. They can grasp. They can release. They can learn.

Pepper doesn't move an inch; her face doesn't react. She just keeps looking straight ahead, keeps talking past me, like my invasion of her personal space is so entirely commonplace that it doesn't even register anymore.

Is it?

Her wrist is so little that my fingers and thumb are able to circle it completely; I could probably snap it without much effort, which is one of those thoughts that shouldn't occur to me, but does. Sometimes it seems like all I do is invent ways to hurt people.

Her skin is smooth and slightly cool to the touch; the muscles and ligaments beneath, pliable; the bones beneath that, fragile.

I can name all of the twenty-seven bones in her tiny hand, eight of which are in her wrist. I can feel the shifting of the individual components under my fingers, the beating of her pulse. It's like closing my hand around a live bird.

Pepper's hands are so small, yet so capable. Delicate, but steady and unwavering in the performance of their duty. Graceful. Flexible. Surprisingly strong. Like their owner. They're the only hands I trust as much as I trust my own.

Holding a wrist isn't like holding a hand. It doesn't have to mean something, but it can mean anything.

*

The haloed streetlights start to hurt my eyes, so I close them for a bit, concentrating on the thrumming of tires against pavement, the purr of the car's engine. It sounds like it's in pretty good shape, although I can tell the alternator bearings are going to need replacing very soon.

I hear Happy ask, "Is he out cold?"

I can feel Pepper shift towards me. I slow my breathing, feigning sleep. "Yep," she affirms, her breath warm on my face.

"Need any help getting him in the house?"

"We'll see." Her stomach gurgles. "God, I'm starving. They never have decent food at these things. I swear, all I ate was melon—and that was only to prevent Tony from dumping it in the nearest installation by mistake."

Happy chuckles appreciatively—he has absolutely no clue what installation art is, but at least he knows a punch line when he hears one.

"I hate melon," says Pepper.

"Hey, you know me, I could always eat. Let me know if you want to get a burger or something." You'd have to be an idiot not to hear the hopeful inflection in Happy's voice.

"Maybe," she says. "Let's drop Prince Charming off and see where we are for time."

"Did he wear the sunglasses all night?"

She snorts. "Don't even get me started." I wish I could see her face.

"Is that a new dress?"

"Yeah. I think I paid too much for it, though."

"Well, it looks really nice."

"Thanks."

Pepper is not an idiot. Not by a long shot.

*

"Tony," says Pepper, and I realize with a start that I've been dozing against her shoulder.

I sit up, disoriented. Happy's holding the door open. I have to—something about the alternator. And Pepper's freckles. And melon. "What?"

She smiles in a way that makes her lips look delicious. "We're home."

Not You're. We're.

*

I had no idea there was a secret stash of ice cream in my freezer, but Pepper pulls it out without even looking while she's getting the ice pack. She also pours me a glass of water the size of a small vase, and the look she shoots me suggests that if I know what's good for me, I'll drink it.

We eat sitting at the breakfast bar—one carton, two spoons—while Pepper ices my ankle, my foot resting in her lap. Between the Vicodin and the booze, I've still got a pretty good buzz going, but I can hold myself up and I can articulate clearly, which is already an improvement.

"Tony, this looks broken." Her fingers skim over the purple and black smudges that now run the length of my swollen foot, giving it the look of a charcoal sketch from an anatomy textbook. "I think you should see a doctor."

"I'll get JARVIS to scan it."

"I can't believe you didn't tell me."

"I did tell you."

She starts to argue, then stops short. "I guess you did," she admits.

"Are you going to hook up with Happy?"

"I see you've regained your ability to ask inappropriate personal questions. That's usually a good sign." She starts wrapping the bandage slowly around my ankle. "Let me know if this is too tight."

"Do you think I'm a jerk?" I ask.

The corners of her mouth twitch, but her hands never falter. "Sometimes," she says finally.

I dig into the carton of ice cream, excavating a vein of caramel. "I'm sorry."

"'Sorry' doesn't mean anything if you don't know why you're saying it, Tony." Her eyes flick from the bandage to my face, then back again.

I guess she's right: everything that comes out of my mouth is an 'I' statement.

"I didn't kiss that girl," I say, around the spoon. It's so cold that it burns the roof of my mouth.

"You can kiss whoever you want, Tony. You don't need to lie to me about it." Her tone is convincing—but then she bites her lip, which is one of her tells.

I put the spoon down on the counter. "I didn't, though. I mean, kissing did happen, but I did not participate. In fact, I refused. I was a conscientious objector."

"Okay," she says, in her you're-the-boss voice.

"Also, I would like to point out how much more enjoyable our evening could have been if we'd just done the prom thing, like I suggested."

"That's probably true." She smiles, tucking in the end of the bandage and lifting my foot out of her lap. "How did that go again?"

"A ride in a limo..."

"Right." She stands up, high heels cradled in one hand, and helps me to my feet with the other. For once, I have the height advantage—at least until my ankle gives out.

"A few drinks..."

She leans in, does the breathalyzer move. "I think you've got that covered for both of us," she observes. "What else?"

I shift towards her in return, but she isn't backing away this time. Her eyes are wide, apprehensive. Her lips part, ever so slightly; the shoes slide out of her hand, clattering against the hard floor.

The sound twigs something in the back of my mind, and I realize what part of the equation was missing all along.

"Dancing."

She blinks, startled. "Pardon?"

"What's a prom without dancing?" I take advantage of Pepper's momentary hesitation to slide an arm around her waist, my free hand clasping her fingers.

"Your foot," she protests, following along reluctantly as I sketch out a sloppy box step on the smooth tile.

"Been walking on it all night," I remind her. Then I shake out my wrist and give her a little spin, holding her suspended at arm's length for a long moment before reeling her back in. She relaxes, allowing herself to fall into an easy, swaying rhythm, settling into the crook of my arm as though we've been doing this for years. The repetitive motion is hell on my ankle, but I'm enjoying myself too much to let it stop me.

The lazy lilt of a saxophone subtly insinuates itself into the room—JARVIS knows me and my habits a little too well. Fortunately, he has enough sense not to dim the lights.

Pepper rolls her eyes. "I've been meaning to ask you," she begins, then pauses.

"Shoot."

"Where did you learn to dance?"

"Prep school." The lie slips out with practiced ease.

"Ah." She's watching me intently, a slight crease in her brow.

"Did I mention it was an all-boys' school, and that I was small for my age and exceptionally pretty?" I cant my head and bat my eyelashes at her. "I was in my twenties before I figured out that I was actually supposed to lead."

Her gaze doesn't waver. "I thought your mother might have taught you."

I have no idea how she knows that. Rhodey, maybe. Maybe Obadiah.

I dip her suddenly, making her squeal in alarm—it affords me a pretty good view down her top, if only briefly. Rather than her usual demure camisole, I get a glimpse of alabaster curves and black lace; it's the kind of bra a woman wears when she knows someone's going to be looking at it. I can't help but wonder who Pepper's intended audience is.

It takes her a moment to right herself, clutching at my shoulder. She's breathing fast. "Just once, I wish you'd warn me before you do something crazy," she gasps.

I grin.

She stills in my arms, then gently removes my sunglasses. She slips them on; they're too large for her small features, making her look vaguely insect-like.

"What's that about, bug-eyes?" I ask.

She smiles. "I'm trying to see the world the way you do."

"And? What's the verdict?"

She reaches out and strokes my cheek, tentatively, as though navigating by touch.

I sigh. "Very funny. They're not that dark."

As she takes a step closer, right into my comfort zone, I can feel my fight-or-flight response kicking in: my whole body tenses, coiled to spring. Behind the RT, my heart is hammering like a kick drum.

Still caressing my face, she lightly grazes my lower lip with her thumb—a gesture that sends a jolt straight to the base of my spine. Her smile is fixed, inscrutable; I can't read her eyes through the opaque lenses.

"Pepper—"

"Shh." Her hand slides around to the back of my neck, fingers threading their way through my hair. I don't realize how shallowly I'm breathing until my head starts to swim. The house seems so quiet—I didn't notice when JARVIS cut the music.

She guides my head down and presses her lips to mine for a few seconds, tightly closed; they're dry, but very warm. In this moment, it's still possible to delude myself that this is simply a friend-kiss. A thank-you-for-the-lovely-dance-in-your-kitchen kiss.

Then her mouth relaxes, inviting me in.

Kissing Pepper is like taking a strong drink: liquid heat radiating down through my chest and welling in the pit of my stomach, spreading through my body until every nerve ending tingles. Intoxicating. Addictive.

It's been a long time since I kissed someone without an overarching goal in mind—since I kissed for the simple pleasure of kissing. She cups my face in the palms of both hands, holding me in place while she moves her lips over mine. Her fingers, still chilled from holding the ice pack, are deliciously cool against my temples. The inside of her mouth tastes of caramel, and vodka, and beneath it all, a trace of melon.

I have one hand on the counter to steady myself, the other anchored to her hip—I know I'm standing perfectly still and upright, but I feel like I'm falling forward at dizzying speed.

Maybe we shouldn't be doing this. Or maybe we should have done this years ago.

I'm unable to stop, unwilling to stop until she breaks away, placing a hand on my chest, heaving a tiny sigh of completion—the kind that says, okay, that's that over with. Like she just checked another item off her to-do list. The thought of being on Pepper's to-do list suddenly makes my tuxedo pants seem a little confining.

I wonder if James Bond ever has days like this.

"I'm going home," she tells me, patting my cheek. "I'll stop by in the morning, in case you need anything."

"Technically, that was only first base," I point out.

I try to wrap my arm around her, but she steps out of reach, scoops up her discarded heels, and favours me with an enigmatic smile. "That's okay. You didn't bring me a corsage."

"Hey. Nurse Nightingale." My hand is still extended towards the echo of her body, my fingers curved around empty air. "Wounded superhero here? Aren't you going to at least help me to bed?"

"Nice try." She turns and saunters off on the balls of her bare feet, like a dancer. Like a runway model. Like only a woman called Pepper can. She takes her sweet time; she must know that I'm not likely to chase her very far. Not just because of the ankle, but because I can't stop watching her walk away.

"Okay, seriously? Are you stealing my sunglasses?"

She pauses, slides the shades up onto her head, and cuts her eyes at me over her bare shoulder. "You don't need them." Then she strolls out of the kitchen, hips swaying, shoes dangling by their thin straps from a single fingertip.

I'm too drunk on her to move, to think beyond the moment. I can't decide whether what I'm feeling is elation or anxiety. Maybe both.

The soft click of the front door closing finally snaps me out of it. I head for the service elevator—there's no way I'm going to make it down those stairs tonight.

The good news is, there are more than enough repairs to keep me busy until morning—most of which can be done sitting down. Some quality time in the workshop will help me get my head on straight, help me figure out what just happened and what I'm going to do about it.

"JARVIS?" I call, my voice echoing through the empty house.

"At your disposal, sir, as always."

I really should get him to scan my ankle—but first things first. "Put on the coffee and crank up the tunes. We've got work to do."