Pepper honestly never paid much attention to the ceiling in Tony's bedroom before today. The first time she'd been in there she'd checked to make sure there were no mirrors on it--there weren't, thank god--and never thought about it again.
Only now she was sort of obsessed. She liked its height and the way it curved at the window. It was a ceiling that had seen a lot, a ceiling a lot of women had seen.
Should she be bothered by that? She'd always known about Tony's habits, even before she worked for him. Knowing about the previous women in advance wasn't proof against being jealous, but... she didn't feel bothered.
Was she really that delusional? Did she think just because it was now her looking at this ceiling, that it made that much of a difference?
Apparently she did; underneath her worry about how things were going to change and how often they were going to fight about really stupid things, she felt pretty calm. Happy, even.
When Tony was captured, she'd been a wreck. Outwardly she reassured worried board members and wrote dozens of emails to managers looking for guidance. She soothed shareholders and reporters alike with her calm demeanor and optimistic answers, but it was only an act. She cried any time she was alone. Once or twice she cried in front of Obadiah--she tried not to think about how she'd been grateful for Obadiah's support.
But Tony came back. He came back a little different, yes, but he was still Tony. He was... refined,, stripped of some of the excess he used to carry around.
Even before Afghanistan, they--Pepper struggled to admit this--they flirted. It was innocent and safe, because they both knew it wasn't going anywhere. Pepper always believed that Tony somehow stopped seeing her as, as... well, as a girl he might take to bed. She always believed that she wasn't a woman who would go to bed with him.
Then Tony dragged himself out of the desert, and all of the sudden it wasn't innocent anymore. It sounded the same, it looked the same, but the way Tony looked at her now, the way he turned all their conversation serious, unsettled her. He asked her to replace the arc reactor. She nearly killed him and he told her she was all he had.
And then they danced.
She knew Tony. He danced with women as a means to an end. When that outcome was off the table, he moved on. But their conversation moved from surprise to flirtation to one of those new and strange serious notes. He gave her a look, she went with him to the balcony, and she almost kissed him.
She almost kissed him. And he hadn't kissed her.
When Tony left to get drinks, Pepper spent a lot of time on that balcony, thinking about why he hadn't kissed her. Unless she was very mistaken, Tony was attracted to her. He had danced with her, flirted with her, relied on her. So why... ? Then she wondered where the hell he was. Then she realized he'd left her alone on a balcony waiting for a drink that would never come.
She was pretty ticked off about that at the time- partly because she thought he'd gotten distracted and picked up a blonde or two at the bar before going home.
It wasn't until she was en-route to Stark Industries with a flash drive, listening to coverage of the events in Gulmira, that she put it all together.
She wasn't stupid. Tony slept with women. Pepper was sure he slept with several women over the years she never knew about at all, and it made sense to assume he had done it again after he got back from Afghanistan.
And it wasn't that she didn't care. She just... didn't mind.
That seemed a bizarre distinction to make, but it was true. She didn't mind, because, because...
Beside her, Tony moved, the sheet shifting over the arc reactor. It was beautiful from a distance, but up close, scar tissue, puckered around it. Earlier, Pepper had traced Tony's veins on his chest, still visible in a way they shouldn't be.
Tony took her hands, placing them over his chest. "They'll fade. I'm fine."
She wanted to tell him that he'd never be fine, that the thing in him wasn't a positive force, that it would keep trying to kill him. Maybe not directly now that he'd invented a new element, but it always made him a target.
She didn't, though. Instead, she pressed her hands against him, leaned down, and kissed him.
Earlier that night, after deciding the rest of the fallout from the Expo could wait for a night or two, Tony tugged her into his bedroom, but instead of sex, they just... collapsed together and fell asleep, the window blacked out against the lightening sky. She honestly wasn't sure how long she slept, but when she woke up, Tony was still asleep. She watched him for a few minutes but then needed to use the bathroom, and when she got back he was awake.
Bleary-eyed, he stumbled past her and returned a few minutes later. She was sitting on the edge of the bed, looking mournfully at her wrinkled skirt.
"God, Tony," Pepper said, "how can you stand sleeping in your clothes all the--"
He kissed her.
Pepper wasn't sure at first what kind of kiss this was supposed to be. Their kisses on the rooftop had been colored by relief. This was nothing like those. Tony wrapped his arms around her and dragged her closer to him, standing between her legs and ruining the attempts she'd made to repair her skirt. Pepper wrapped her legs around his, but Tony stayed where he was, his hands not straying past her waist. Tony could never be tentative, but he was holding back.
He teased her lips with his, and it clicked for her. This kiss was about desire, but it was also a question. Almost like an interview.
What kind of future can you imagine here?
She smiled, but the silliness of the idea didn't make it untrue. She answered by pulling him closer, opening up to him. This time, Tony came with her.
Some time later that night she had traced his veins and scars as he lay beneath her. She wondered if anyone else saw the fragility in him that she did. Rhodey, maybe.
At that point, they'd both still been mostly dressed. Totally indecent, but their clothes were more or less still covering the correct limbs and parts. So she kissed him, and climbed off. He looked a little confused, a little hurt, until she shed the rest of her clothes.
"Pepper," he said, "you really should let me..."
She shimmied out of her underwear and climbed back into bed. "Next time," she promised, leaning over him to kiss him again.
He helped get his own clothes off, and then it was just their eyes, their skin and fingers and mouths.
Which led back to the ceiling.
Pepper admitted she hadn't really gotten a good look at it last night. Probably--she felt herself warm pleasantly--because Tony had been looking up more than she had.
Although she suspected he hadn't really paid attention to the ceiling, either.
It wasn't really about the ceiling at all. The ceiling was just a symbol.
She wasn't sure what it was a symbol for. Baggage? Possibly. Change? Maybe.
She took a breath and let it out quietly. She should probably get some more sleep. They'd both made it through a long week, and this kind of moment would be rare going forward. She should take advantage of it.
She lasted two more minutes before she slid out of bed, grabbing her underwear and blouse before scrounging through her purse for her phone and tablet. If she was lucky, she could take care of at least a few dozen messages before Tony woke up. After he did--well, Pepper intended to take a break for breakfast and a shower, and they'd take it from there.
Pepper just reached the door when Tony shifted again, his breath escaping in a little sigh that Pepper found endearing. Symbols were okay, as far as they went, but at the end of the day, the real work was done between people, in what their hands made.
Pepper left quietly, leaving the door open a crack behind her. Tony could join her when he was ready.