"PEPPER!"

Pepper sighed as she heard Tony's yell from the bottom of the stairs. What could the man possibly want now?

"Ms. Potts, I believe that Mr. Stark requires your immediate presence." Jarvis added in his own computerized voice.

"Thank you, Jarvis." she said, slightly ironically. The AI knew when to back down, and remained silent.

Before Tony could start yelling again, she made her way down the stairs (which can, surprisingly enough, tire one out walking up and down them 20 times a day while wearing 4-inch stilettos). He was back behind the glass walls in his "office", so she typed in the security code and entered. Pepper stood with one hand on her hip, clipboard in the other hand.

"Yes, Mr. Stark?"

He was bent over a holographic image of the Iron man suit, poking it and proposing changes as the image changed continuously. He looked up at her, a piece of dark hair falling into his dark eyes. She resisted even the thought of wanting to push it out of his face.

"Ah, Ms. Potts. Why did you not come when I called you?"

"I came as fast as I could, sir. Unfortunately we can't all get around with power boosters on our feet."

"Touché."

"In fact I ran down the stairs, hoping that I could in any way assist you in one of your ingenious, suicidal plans. Which is hard in heels."

"That is quite enough verbal abuse for today, I think." And he frowned as something beeped on the high-tech computer.

Pepper told herself that tapping her foot would be pushing it. "What exactly did you need me for, Mr. Stark?"

"Right. Do we have any Oreo's?"

She looked slightly confused. This was a new request. "Oreo's?"

"Yeah, you know, the chocolate cookie covering with the white icing in the middle…"

"I know what an Oreo is, Tony."

"That's good. So you can get me some?" she was still staring at him blankly. "Pepper, I know for a fact that you are a competent, independent and attractive woman. However, that unflattering expression you are currently possessed of does not showcase any of these impressive talents."

She rolled her eyes at him. "Those are some big words, Mr. Stark."

He had stopped paying attention to her, going back to tinkering with his newest "toy". Pepper figured that was as close to a dismissal as she was going to get, so she turned towards the stairs wearily, hoping that they had some Oreo's in the cabinet. She sure as hell was not going to fight through the mob of reporters in front of his beautiful, over-the-top home in order to get him something he would likely forget in a couple of minutes. She stopped as he called her name again, this time softer. Her immediate reaction was to turn around and look at him. He had that face on, the face that made it near impossible to deny any request he might make. The face, she supposed, that had lured all the countless women to his bed, to be dropped off with the dry cleaning in the morning. She had already sworn to herself a long time ago that she would not become one of his conquests. It was very hard, however, when he used that velvet-edged, low tone of voice...

"I wanted to ask you if-"

Jarvis cut in, giving Pepper a welcome break from Tony's intense stare. She turned away, blushing, under the pretense of hearing the advanced security system better.

"Sir, I would advise you to turn your attention to channel 5 at this time."

"Right now? I'm in the middle of something…" he caught her eye and winked, giving her the roguish smile against which she had spent difficult years building up immunity.

"Right now, sir."

Tony sighed and looked towards the widescreen t.v. on the wall. The muted sound was turned back on just as an image of Iron man appeared on the screen. Pepper was already wondering why Jarvis had seen fit to boost Tony's ego (which was big enough already) when a female voice started to speak.

"Iron man – a true hero, or a dangerous weapon in the hands of an impulsive billionaire? Has Tony Stark finally pushed the boundaries of science too far? And the biggest question of all – how soon will the already infamous suit technology become available to buyers? More speculating on the mental health of the eccentric 38 year old son of the late Howard Stark when-"

The television was abruptly shut off, and Pepper winced as Tony turned around, his face a completely calm, cool mask.

"My mental health," he snorted. "As if they cared about that when I was bringing the stocks up billions of dollars."

Pepper Potts, for once, was lost for words. She laid a hand on his arm reassuringly, feeling the thick muscles tightening under her fingers. She took her hand back a second later. Dry cleaning, she reminded herself. "Mr. Stark…it's just the media. Just one news reporter. You knew they were going to come up with crap like this. I can try to handle some of the damage from that press conference…" she watched his face, hoping to find the smallest expression of remorse, but he only smirked, "but I can't completely deflect it. I can get the information on that particular reporter right away, though."

He looked wounded now. "Pepper…I'm doing a good thing here, right? It's the only way I know how…I don't want it to be turned into some publicity stunt, or a bid for more sales. The one thing I try to do to redeem myself. Figures, huh? Maybe I should stick to casinos and women and wet bars."

"No, sir. I know you're doing the right thing. You're changing; anyone who looks close enough can see it…"

"Can you?"

There was a pause. She half-smiled and tucked that one strand of hair behind his ear. Motherly instincts, that was all. "Yeah, I can. I'll get you those Oreo's now, Mr. Stark-"

He caught her hand and lowered it, glancing at her slim fingers. "Forget the goddamned cookies, Pepper. It's Tony."

She tried to tug her arm back, but he wouldn't let go. She felt the strength in those fingers and grimaced. "Fine. Tony."

He still wouldn't let go of her, dragged her closer instead. Pepper bit her lip, looking down at the blue disk in his chest that glowed faintly even through his black t-shirt. Sometimes she forgot what he must have gone through, knowing that he would die if he didn't complete his desperate task in time. One of his hands was on the table, the other one still on her wrist.

"I meant what I said before, Pepper. You're all I've got. Trust me on that – obviously everyone else thinks I'm either insane or a threat to all mankind. You and me against the fucking world, right?"

She couldn't help but smile weakly at him. "And Jarvis."

He chuckled. "Yes. Jarvis?"

"Yes, sir?"

"Could we have a moment?"

"Yes, sir. I will count the increasing number of reporters outside your front door."

"You do that," Tony said, mischievous eyes twinkling into hers. Oh, no, she thought, breaking his hold and backing away.

"Mr. Stark– "

He waggled a finger at her. "That's a no-no."

She groaned and massaged her temples. "Whatever. I need to go check the times for that meeting tonight with the…"

"Tell them I'm busy."

"You've canceled on them four times."

"Four?"

"Yes. Four."

"Have to make it five then, won't we?"

Without another word, he closed the gap between them with purposeful strides and kissed her. All her clouded mind could process was wow. All the rumors were actually true…amazing. It felt right to her, his hands on her waist, and it just made her remember how long it was since she had actually kissed someone…she could feel herself kissing him back, one hand creeping up the back of his neck…

Then the logical side, the reasonable side screamed danger! And she pushed him away, breathing hard and staring at him with wide eyes. He cocked his head to the side and stepped back easily, that cocky grin on his face that she despised, and oooh was he going to get it now…

"Not bad, Ms. Potts," he says softly, teasingly.

Pepper struggled with her words. She wanted to say something scathing, something that would slap that self-assured smirk right off of his face, but all she could think of was

"Dry cleaning," she blurted out.

"What?"

"Umm…" now she had to dig herself out of the huge, gaping, uncomfortable hole she dug herself into. She raised her eyes to heaven, thankful that Tony was keeping a few steps away from her.

"Tony, look. I'm your personal assistant. Your employee. I don't want to end up in a limo with a thank you note, heading towards the unemployment office."

"I always liked a red-head. Fiery."

"Please be serious."

"Fine. You think I would do that to you? After all these years?" He was completely serious, a line forming in the middle of his forehead.

"God, Tony, I don't know…All I know is that I've never seen you with the same woman twice. Do you know what they told me when I first started working for you? They told me that I'd be gone within a week. That every other attractive assistant you'd ever had ended up being escorted out within a couple of days with a month's pay and bragging rights…"

He was closer to her now, gesturing wildly with his hands. "What did I just say? Were you listening to what I was saying? If I said anything about firing you, then someone slap me now, because-"

She shook her head. "It's not just that. I don't think you've had a healthy relationship ever. You can't commit to anything. It wouldn't work, and you know it. It would just be awkward and I'm not good for you and you're not good for me. We've had this conversation before."

"Who says you're not good for me? What if I think you're good for me?"

"You don't know what you want, Anthony Stark."

"Pepper." he took her chin in one hand and turned her face towards him gently. She looked at him, really looked at him, for the first time since the day of the disastrous press conference. There were dark circles under soft and vulnerable-looking brown eyes. She saw the little scar on his forehead that had never gone away, and she again experienced that horrible feeling, like a stone just dropped into her stomach. It was the same stone that appeared when she thought that he would never come back. It was fear.

"When I was in that hell-hole of a cave, a dying man who had just saved my life told me not to waste it. I'm trying. I can't just…snap my fingers and magically turn into a different person. I wish I could. But I'm done with taking life for granted. So bear with me, okay?"

All she could do was nod, still staring into his eyes. He smiled slightly.

"Good. Want a drink for real this time?"

She looked at him exasperatedly. "It's two o'clock in the afternoon, and I'm working."

"As your boss, I hereby give you the rest of the day off."

"As your personal assistant who has entirely too much to do, I politely decline. Do you still want the cookies or not?"

He paused. "Can I get another kiss instead?"

"Tony," she sighed. He fought back a grin and turned away from her, placing both his hands on the table in a serious manner.

"I guess that's a no," he said. "That will be all, Ms. Potts."

He could hear her taking an agonizing step closer. "But…"

"That will be all," he said firmly. She huffed angrily at his back and marched back up the stairs. He turned around and smiled lazily, looking up after her.

"Don't you think that was a bit harsh, sir?"

"She'll come around, Jarvis. You just wait."

When he came back from another test drive with the Iron Man suit (he made sure that the number of reporters had dwindled, so that Pepper had less damage to minimize), there sat a box of Oreo cookies and a glass of milk on his work table. After he had finished them off, he found a note stuck to the bottom of the glass.

I'm trying too.

-Pepper