Author's Note: yeah, so, I'm blaming all of this on a dream. Not that it was really a dream, more like something my half-asleep mind concocted as I waited for my alarm clock to go off, but something about that plot stuck with me and practically had me bouncing off the walls until I could start writing it down. And so you have the first chapter of what will at least be a two chapter story. And I have no clue if it'll go beyond two chapters or not. It'll probably depend on how the second chapter goes. :P
Disclaimer: if I owned Iron Man or anyone associated with it, I'd probably still write fanfic, but then it wouldn't be fanfic. It'd be canon. Lucky for the Iron Man 'verse I'm on the outside looking in. Credit Stan Lee, Universal, Marvel, and whoever else for intellectual property. Credit Jon Favreau, Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby, Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, et al for bringing them to life.
Tony "I am Iron Man" Stark had survived to the end of a bad week. It wasn't his job that made it bad. After becoming a CEO at an unprecedented 21, he was more than used to dealing with an obstinate board of directors. It wasn't the reporters who'd trailed his every step since Tuesday when he'd come back from another trip to the troubled Middle East with a black eye and a split lip. Though not used to the quantity, Tony had learned years ago how to deal with the press. It wasn't even the fact that he'd had to deal with an irate Fury (no pun intended) for acting without orders…or even a clear idea what he'd been flying into.
What had made this a very bad week – the worst since that week after he'd initially blown his cover as Iron Man – was that this week, Pepper hadn't spoken to him once.
Well, sure, she'd spoken at him plenty. Even when irate, Pepper was nothing if not professional. She'd brought him coffee, and arranged and briefed him about his meetings, and had even run out to complete errands that wouldn't have been necessary if he hadn't procrastinated too long in an attempt to make her talk about anything other than business.
But no matter how professional she pretended to be, there was a tightness to her eyes and mouth…a set to her shoulders that made her posture a little too straight. The signs that whatever was troubling her was both personal and damn important were there. Every time he asked what was wrong though, she would bulldoze right through him with the minutia of his life scheduled down to the last minute until his ears were ringing with it and she was able to make her escape without ever once raising her voice or allowing the mask she wore to slip.
Infuriated, fed up, and hurt by her behavior, Tony had cornered her before she left the house that afternoon. God, he hated fighting with her. Out of everyone in his life, she was the only one who left him with a bad taste in his mouth after letting angry words spill. Yet even hating himself after the fact would be better than living with the hard, impersonal woman Pepper had morphed into.
He'd failed spectacularly, of course. There was nothing else to call it when he'd ranted until he was red-faced and she'd stood there like the personification of grace under fire.
"Will that be all, Mr. Stark?"
"No, that will not 'be all,'" he'd growled at her. "What the hell is wrong with you!" Panting, still a little convinced that she might respond, Tony had stood barely a foot away from her. From this distance every emotion behind her blue eyes should have been legible. They shouldn't have been clear, clear down to their depths.
"It's 5:01," she repeated calmly. "The workweek is over, Mr. Stark. Enjoy yourself this evening, sir." And she'd slipped past him in the hallway.
He'd stood motionlessly in the doorway of her empty office until he heard the front door open and close.
"Jarvis?" He'd closed the door with a gentleness that should have been beyond him at this point. "Lock Ms. Potts's office until further notice. Do not allow her in until I tell you to."
"Of course, sir." There was the soft sound of electromagnets engaging, assuring him that Pepper would eventually have to come to him to finish their conversation. "Anything else, sir?"
"Tell Hogan to have the car ready at eight," he added in a dark tone after a moment's consideration.
"Enjoy yourself," she'd said. Fine. After a week of living like an unwelcome guest in her presence, Tony was in the mood for a little enjoyment. After months of celibacy for her sake – he knew how much she hated seeing those women out – he was more than ready to enjoy himself.
And after seeing the one person he gave enough of a damn about to attempt to modify his behavior for walk away as if she couldn't care less, he was determined to have such a good time that she'd regret…
That she would regret not speaking to him as much as he already regretting yelling at her.
The irony of the venue didn't escape him. The Fourth Annual Fireman's Family Fund gala was just about the last place Tony wanted to find himself. After finishing his fifth Scotch and hearing his too-loud laughter echoing from the walls around him, he knew it was the last place he should have found himself. And after staring at every glimpse of red he caught out of the corner of his eye he knew he'd stay despite all the reasons why he shouldn't.
The women he'd mostly steered clear of since his return from hell – more commonly known as Afghanistan – were more than willing to keep up with him. They interpreted the restless energy that poured out of him as good spirits, his calculation as charm. They danced with him without protest, never once suggested that they trade the perfumed air indoors for the cool night air outdoors, and never expected that he wanted anything less – or believed that he could want anything more – than their company at the end of the evening.
Iron Man or no, Tony Stark was a playboy and they all knew it.
Once, just once, Tony thought he saw her there. He thought he'd seen her dancing with a man across the room, looking comfortable and at ease. Once, just once, he thought he saw her eyes meet his, and then slide away without even a flicker of acknowledgement. Once. But that had been well after the eighth Scotch. And if he also thought he saw her leave the venue with another face in a black tuxedo that had absolutely no bearing on the two women he eventually escorted to the door himself.
The women's empty chatter rang around him without meaning as he waited for Happy to bring the car around. The discrete stares from others caused by his possibly too-loud innuendos were ignored if they were ever even noticed. The world was nicely hazy and out of focus. The only taste in his mouth was a lingering hint of Lagavulin and his mind was too dulled to hang on to any one thing for long. There was no battle to forget, but neither was there any real impetus to continue. Alcohol had achieved his goals for the evening; being in public had given him an acceptable excuse for the inevitable hangover the next morning where staying home and getting drunk alone wouldn't have. Bringing his drinking companions home with him was more of an act of habit, picked up again after long neglect, than an urge. But who was he to argue with habit? It didn't matter what else had changed in his life, he decided as his car pulled up in front of him and the backseat door swung open without visible assistance.
"Who's she?" The brunette – Sandy? Mandy? Andie? – on his left arm almost toppled over as she turned towards him. "Who's that, Tony?"
It didn't really matter what else had changed, only what hadn't. And what never would. Pepper would never –
"Mr. Stark, please get into the car."
He blinked in unbelief and amended what Pepper would never do. Pepper would never leave him. Even when pissed beyond belief at him.
"Right." He disentangled himself from the two women with the cautious movements of the very drunk, and climbed into the backseat of the sedan without another thought. That was how his life worked, after all. He was the boss, a man in control of a massive corporation, but he didn't even begin to believe that he was actually in charge of Pepper. She was the one who told him what to do and where to be, and he did it. He usually didn't say what he was supposed to, but he was usually at the right place when he said it. And Pepper wasn't under the illusion that she was actually in complete control of him either. It led to some uncomfortable moments when they both wanted to be in charge.
"Home, Hap." The car was already in motion, so he didn't notice that the window partition was up. The backseat was quiet. The light in the ceiling was still on, giving the space a dim illumination. Tony couldn't quite take his eyes off the soft shine of Pepper's hair. But habit, roused and half awake now, had him taking a mental inventory of his assistant no matter what his eyes wanted to do.
Black. She was wearing black and it made her hair, and her eyes, and her skin absolutely radiant in a way her somber business suits never did. She was turned towards him, and the uncertainty over whether or not her dress was backless tormented him almost as badly as its tight grip on her breasts, waist, and hips did. The skirt spilled across the seat like the tide, washing up against his thigh. On the floor he could just make out a few toes peeking out from under her skirt; her toenails were painted a vibrant red. Hot-rod red he might even say.
"I thought the workweek was over." It was about the only thing his intoxicated mind could grasp. Well, about the only thing it could grasp that wouldn't get him slapped. She probably didn't want to hear that her dress would look better if it were adorning his bedroom floor. Or the living room floor. Or the basement floor. Or any floor, really, as that would mean she was no longer inside of it.
"It is." Nothing about her demeanor changed, but there was a patience in her voice that was new. Not just new after her behavior this past week, but new entirely. It was a tone he'd never heard from her before, and she'd had cause to sound patient with him before. "No one but you calls me over the weekend, but everyone who will call me later in the week wants to talk to me on nights like this."
"Why?" He wasn't really tracking what she was saying, just that she was saying it to him and not at him.
"Because you do things during the week – occasionally on Mondays and Tuesdays – that unnerve people. Not everyone wants to do business with a man who flies around the world in a red and gold suit, Mr. Stark. And it's on occasions like these that they seek me out for reassurance that the man running Stark Industries isn't off his rocker."
"Oh." He reached out and touched the hem of her skirt that was brushing against his leg. The material was soft. Silky. Cool. His head still couldn't wrap around the fact that she was here, though it was easily able to imagine that her skin would feel similar to her dress. But better. And it occurred to him that they were alone, though the scent clinging to his lapel claimed that he at least hadn't been for long. Pepper never wore perfume but he reeked of it.
"You drove off –"
"Yes," she replied, well aware that he was never going to remember those women's names. Or probably even their faces.
She didn't even look ruffled by the accusation. She was still as calm as she'd been earlier in the day. "Yes." She must have seen the shock on his face because she showed pity on him and explained herself. "I'm tired of seeing you mistreat and whore out what belongs to me."
Tony blinked. Pepper usually made sense. She also didn't usually use crude language. And she most definitely didn't usually use crude language in conjunction with him.
She hadn't actually called him a whore. Had she?
"I have something that belongs to you?" Starting at the beginning seemed the best way to make sense of this.
"Yes. You. You do. You belong to me."
Did that mean she had just called him a whore? "Did you just –"
The question went up in flames as Pepper leaned across the seat and kissed him.
For moment he thought his heart had stopped despite the reactor still buzzing in his chest. Then his brain – well, the back, impulsive part of his brain that always led to both his worst and his best ideas – kicked into action with the same wrenching jerk as a junker kicking into third from first gear. His heart started racing and his eyes were frozen open as Pepper's lips ghosted over his. It was an extraordinarily intense reaction for what amounted to tenderness, but that tenderness dominated him more thoroughly than any other woman's most lustful kisses had. He was Tony Stark. He didn't do gentle, he didn't do tender, and he didn't do intimate without some kind of agenda. He almost chalked his reaction up to originality, but the kiss. God. This wasn't just a kiss, this was Pepper. This was a bitten lip and red eyes. This was heartfelt assurances that everything going to be alright despite the face he was going into cardiac arrest. This was every reason she'd come up with on this night last year why they shouldn't…and it was all the reasons she'd never vocalized.
This was earth shaking, and life changing, and for a moment Tony could hear her screaming his name in the back of his head just like he had in that dirty terrorist's camp. Just like he had after the arc reactor had overloaded and blown up. And he was suddenly terrified that this couldn't possibly be real because this wasn't something that happened to men like him. They did not receive the most meaningful kiss of their lives on a night they'd been planning to take two women home with them from the woman who'd been pissed at them all week and who knew full well what he'd been planning to do before she'd stopped him.
"Pepper." Ending the kiss was agonizing – practically a tangible physical pain – and all he could think as he gripped her shoulders and pushed her back far enough so that he could see her eyes was that her skin felt as amazing as he remembered. Until he looked in her eyes. What he saw there subjugated him more surely than her kiss had; not lust. Not need. Just pure, undiluted confidence.
He didn't want to know what it said about his face that she didn't take his actions as rejection. It was enough that he could feel the bewilderment bubbling up inside of him. He pulled his hands away from her and rubbed them into his face, grinding his palms into his eyes as he laughed helplessly and with more than a touch of hysteria. He no longer felt drunk, just very, very confused. "Who are you and what have you done with Pepper Potts?" A body snatcher's scenario was the only thing that could explain this. Or perhaps he'd fallen into an alternate dimension. Or perhaps this was just revenge for whatever prick thing he'd done to rile her so. It was the only explanation for why what should have been a glimpse into paradise felt like a glimpse into his own personal hell.
"Look at me."
Yes, definitely body snatchers, he decided as he ignored her soft command. It explained everything so well. Her becoming Super-Assistant, her calm acceptance of his anger earlier in the evening – since when did Pepper back down from any sort of fight with him? It was practically her job to but heads with him when necessary. – her mutation into a Stepford wife here in his car…
He heard her sigh and cautiously spread his fingers just enough so that he could look at her through them.
"Yes," she confirmed.
"I'm not asleep."
Her lips quirked in a little smile, the kind that indicated he'd just done something endearing. "The answer to that is debatable."
A good point, and exactly what he would have expected her to say.
"And you're not crazy."
"That's also a matter up for debate in some circles."
Hm. He didn't like the implications of that, so he ignored them. It was nobody else's business what he and Pepper were to each other. Though it was very much his business and he wanted to know what the hell was going on.
"What the hell is going on?" Yeah, he'd never had much of a mind/mouth filter.
A smile he'd never dreamed of seeing on his assistant's face – the kind of smile that belonged on maneaters not women who routinely wore business suits – teased the corners of Pepper's mouth. "What's going on, Mr. Stark, is that I accept your offer."