Peter sighed. "Mr. Stark, you've got twenty minutes before the board meeting and Pepper was pretty insistent that you show up not covered in grease--again--so you need to get showered and changed."
Tony gasped loudly and spun his chair around to face Peter. "Why, Mr. Parker, are you trying to get me naked? You can just ask; I can't say no to that face."
He finished with a wink and stood, sweeping past Peter to the elevator. Fighting the urge to sigh (again), Peter gave himself a few futile seconds to will his blush down before he turned to follow the older man.
He couldn't believe he'd let things get this far. It was unprofessional, it really was.
When she'd hired him, Pepper had issued two warnings.
The first--that Mr. Stark would be difficult to manage--Peter had shrugged off. He'd dealt with difficult clients and kept to chaotic, air-tight schedules before; he doubted the genius could be much worse than some of the politicians and business owners with whom he'd already contracted. Sure, the contract with Mr. Stark would be his first long-term, live-in arrangement, but at the root it was just the same job, plus the added benefit of zero commute.
A week after Peter was hired, that first warning was rendered moot, anyway, when the billionaire handed the running of the company over to Pepper. Mr. Stark's primary responsibilities became bickering with the scientists and inventing things in R&D or solo in his workshop, showing up to shareholder meetings once a week, and attending whatever social function required the face of Stark Industries to make an appearance. Peter handled it flawlessly, because he was organized as hell (with his work, anyway) and had a knack for catching setbacks almost before they could occur.
It was the CEO's second warning that Peter regretted underestimating.
"Mr. Parker--Peter--he's going to flirt with you. Blatantly and frequently. He does it to all the assistants and individual security detail that are hired for close management. Don't take it seriously."
At the time, Peter had assured Ms. Potts, confidently, that Mr. Stark's flirting would not interfere with his job.
Her responding smile had been a tired one.
It had interfered with his job.
It interfered six days in, during the first gala he attended, when Mr. Stark--after two hours and a couple glasses of champagne--pulled Peter onto the dance floor and into a lazy but graceful waltz. The billionaire's hands had been confident and warm where they rested, guiding, on Peter's body. Peter's face had lit up like a fire engine, and Mr. Stark had winked at him.
(He hadn't noticed the height difference before, but when the billionaire had to tilt his head up just slightly to look at Peter's face, the younger was suddenly very aware of those scant couple of inches.)
It interfered two weeks after the gala, on the way to a morning shareholder meeting--the first one they skipped together. They'd walked out of Stark Tower and his boss had leaned in to murmur, "Come with me if you want to live" in a terrible impression of Arnold, and then proceeded to take Peter by arm and duck around the corner of the building to pile them both into a red Maserati. They'd ended up spending the day at Coney Island.
(Mr. Stark had grinned over at him when they'd gotten off the second roller coaster. At the combination of dark, shining eyes, and the exhilarated flush riding high on the billionaire's cheekbones, Peter's stomach had swooped as though he had never gotten off the ride, and he had abruptly realized he was in trouble.)
It interfered when Tony started deliberately touching him. Innocuous contact here and there, until the day Peter stopped by the shop in jeans and a t-shirt to check on his boss, and Tony stopped Peter on his way out.
"Pete, hold on. Your tag's out."
The light brush of calloused fingers against his nape had sent hot sparks skittering down Peter's spine. As soon as Tony finished tucking the tag back into his shirt, Peter had let out a too-bright "Thanks!" and left without looking back, breathless, cheeks on fire, his jeans suddenly too tight.
(After that, whenever Tony leaned in to whisper ridiculous things to him before entering a conference room or function, the billionaire would slide in close enough to brush their shoulders together, or maybe rest a palm lightly at the small of Peter's back. He started turning just to smooth Peter's lapels, or to fiddle with Peter's tie. It made Peter want to simultaneously push Tony away or pull him closer.)
It interfered every time Peter just...noticed things about Tony. Every time he watched Tony murmur to himself as he worked, lips parted just slightly and barely moving. When Peter realized Tony had started giving him the same small, affectionate half-smile he gave Ms. Potts when she was exasperated with him.
It definitely interfered when it became work to appear professional and dispassionate whenever he'd go down to see Tony in the workshop. There was always the chance he'd find the genius in a white wife-beater or shirtless, smeared with engine grease and sweat, his soft, worn work jeans hanging low on his hips. It bordered on impossible not to stare.
(The first time, Peter's breath had caught audibly, and Tony's gaze had sharpened.
"Is there something you wanted, Peter?" the inventor had asked, lowly.
Peter had recovered quickly, and while nothing came of it, the memory of that moment became a jumping off point for some of his first intense fantasies about Tony Stark.)
And four months in, it interfered when Tony ditched Peter at some politician's birthday party. Peter found him making out with a gorgeous woman in a dark corner. He'd seen Tony's hand pushing the fabric of the woman's skirt up her thighs, and felt the urge to both throw up and pour a drink over both of their heads (in the end, he'd accidentally stumbled into a nearby table in his haste to get away, causing way too many champagne flutes to shatter on the marble floor. Tony had whipped around and stared at Peter, flushed and stricken, with something like guilt in his blown pupils).
They slipped backwards, into a weird state of retracted intimacy.
Like a break up, Peter had thought once, before shoving the thought deep under a mental rug. He had defaulted to treating Tony like a regular client (i.e. not responding to Tony's flirting, quips, or efforts to be an ass), and Tony had apparently decided the best retaliation was obnoxiously flirting with Peter every time he referred to him as 'Mr. Stark'.
(Peter hated the distance, wanted desperately to close that gap, to go back to what they'd been...but he couldn't forget the image of Tony's hand on that strange woman's thighs; and until he could, Tony was 'Mr. Stark'.)
...And now he was here, Tony singing loudly and deliberately off-key in the shower (I Can't Fight This Feeling Anymore, REO Speedwagon), steam curling out from under the door, and Peter was valiantly wrangling his mind away from picturing how Tony must look under the hot spray. He had severely underestimated Pepper's most important warning, and he wasn't going to do it again. He was paying for his disregard in mass quantities of frustration, sexual and otherwise, and he and Tony hadn't even come close to sleeping together.
Peter thunked his head back against the wall, groaning. Awkward, endless boners and pointless sadness; it was like being back in high school.
...Tony was kind of a child.
The ballad abruptly cut off at the same time a dull 'thud' sounded through the bathroom door. Peter turned, instantly alert, gripping the doorknob, without turning it. "Mr. Stark?"
A grunt. "I'm good, I slipped--I'm fine," Tony called back, voice a little tight.
It didn't sound too bad, but..."Alright. If you need help, don't...I can come in," Peter finished lamely. Shit. No. He couldn't go in there, Tony was naked in there.
"Well, in that case--Oh God, there's blood everywhere!" Tony called dramatically. "Is that you, Mother? Do I follow the light?"
Peter rolled his eyes and let go of the door. "Alright, Mr. Stark--"
"Peter? Peter! Is that you? Is this the end?!" his boss made a loud sound Peter guessed was supposed to resemble a death-rattle, and he had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing.
He was not going to cave. He wasn't. It'd been weeks, and he'd been doing so well.
Tony kept going. "Pete, take down my last words, tell my--ow, shit--"
Peter froze. He heard a pained hiss.
"Okay. Hey, kid, there's actually blood," Tony called, the dramatic tone gone.
Peter sighed quietly. Praying to whoever was out there for strength, he put on his professional face and turned the doorknob.
"Okay, Mr. Stark, I'm coming in, make yourself...decent-ish," he said, walking in to the still-steamy room.
Tony was standing outside the enormous shower stall, one hand holding a fluffy white towel low and tight around his hips, the other pressed to the back of his head, a mild grimace on his face.
"You didn't say you hit your head." Peter walked right up to the genius, exasperation and concern taking precedence over his hangups about seeing his boss-slash-crush mostly naked.
"Here, let me see, turn a little--yeah. Move your hand," he gently gripped Tony's wrist to uncover the wound--
Peter stared blankly. "There's no blood."
There was water, and damp hair curling at the nape of Tony's neck, and smooth, olive skin...but no blood.
"There is zero blood, here," he repeated, flatly.
Tony hummed again, glancing at Peter over his shoulder with a look of exaggerated innocence.
"Maybe it washed off. It was definitely there. You should probably do a full-body exam, Dr. Parker."
The billionaire waggled his eyebrows suggestively, and Peter wanted to laugh.He wanted to give in to the fond irritation; kiss the ridiculous leer off Tony's face, nip at the inventor's throat, pull away the towel and ask him to say 'sorry', and leave playful, punishing marks on Tony's skin until Tony apologized breathlessly and begged Peter to just keep going...
But past the promising heat in Tony's eyes was something that looked a little like hope, like caution, and it burned Peter. He couldn't believe in that look, couldn't believe that Tony might actually want anything more from him, because that meant believing that he could want more and still choose to rip Peter open...he'd looked right at him--his hands up that woman's dress--
"God damn it!" Peter burst.
Tony recoiled slightly, eyes wide.
"Fine!" Peter said, "fine, you--you fucking win, okay? Congratulations! You're so far under my skin it hurts to fucking breathe; you win!"
He yanked Tony into a brutal kiss, spelled out all of his hurt and frustration into the older man's mouth. But when Tony unfroze and started to respond, Peter released him and pulled back sharply, barely retaining the presence of mind not to bodily push him away.
"I'm done," he said, breathlessly, "I can't--I can't do this anymore."
Peter turned and walked out of the bathroom--heedless of Tony's exclamation behind him--and down the hall to the elevator in the penthouse entryway. He slapped a palm on the 'Down' button as his vision began to blur, the doors opening with a quiet 'ping' almost immediately. Footfalls approached on the marble as he climbed on, and he'd barely pushed his floor number when a hand caught the door.
The doors reopened to Tony, hair still dripping, wearing nothing but the towel and a look of bewildered frustration. When Peter just shook his head and pushed the 'Door Close' button with renewed vigor, the billionaire's expression tightened.
"Peter, damn it, stop. Will you come out and talk about this instead of running away?"
"There's nothing to talk about," Peter said petulantly, mashing the button again. He knew he was being a shit, but he needed this confrontation to end before Tony could say something that would give Peter hope he really didn't need.
"Oh, for--" Tony stepped into the elevator. "JARVIS, lock-down protocol: Going Down."
The doors slid shut with an electric clicking noise, the lights dimming to something warm and intimate. Peter scoffed incredulously, distracted for a moment. "Really? 'Going down'? That's not even creative!"
"It's funny, but it's also not the point. You took off like a bat out of hell; can you just talk to me?" The genius was looming, somehow managing to be imposing in only a fluffy towel. It was one of those moments that could make Peter forget that he was physically taller than Tony.
"It doesn't matter," Peter said again.
"No, it doesn't! It never mattered, it was never anything! We danced once, you flirted with me because you flirt with everything that moves, and then you tried to fuck someone else!"
The last words caught in Peter's throat; ripped out and left him hollow, like he was pulling out his own insides. "I know you know what I'm talking about," he continued, "I know you saw me!" Peter was practically yelling now, backing the other man--who was suddenly doing a lot less looming--to the other side of the elevator.
"Is that what you wanted?" Peter asked, with less volume and more shaking. His cheeks itched; he reached up thoughtlessly to swipe at one, and his hand came away wet. When he realized he was actually crying, it pulled him up short.
Tony stared back at him, eyes wide like they'd been when Peter had first snapped. Peter was crying in front of Tony Stark. In front of his boss.
That's all Tony was. Peter's employer. Not really even his friend, let alone his romantic partner. He'd just spent minutes yelling in his boss' face.
What the hell am I doing?
Peter nearly choked on a sob, and Tony suddenly looked alarmed.
"Pete--" Tony's was rough, agonized, as he reached out.
Peter batted away the extended hand, and stepped back. He squeezed his eyes shut, pushed his palms to his lids until he saw stars.
Fuck, this had gone so far.
Taking a deep, shaky breath, he started gathering himself. Straightened his spine. This is work. This is a job. Mr. Stark is a client.
He opened his eyes, and the genius now looked absolutely devastated.
"Pete, don't--don't pull away; kid, come on, just--talk to me," the billionaire pleaded.
Peter sniffled, but was proud when he otherwise managed to remain composed. He shot a short, plastic smile at Tony.
"You can release the elevator, Mr. Stark."
Tony stared at him, eyes bleak. "You can't--"
"I'm not resigning," Peter cut in, watched Tony's jaw snapped shut. The skin on Peter's cheeks felt tight where the couple of tear tracks had dried.
"Breaking down like that in front of you was inappropriate--" he said.
"Damn it, Peter--"
"--and it won't happen again," Peter finished.
The facade buckled a little, pain coming back through, but he grit his teeth and reeled it in. He could do this, could retreat into professionalism.