Disclaimer: These characters belong to Marvel Entertainment, not me.
I meant this to be set before the film, but it could just as easily be after, I suppose.


by Rex Luscus

It wasn't a terrible weekend, it just wasn't any good, since Pepper doesn't enjoy playing golf, let alone watching someone else play it, and instead of a romantic Monterey bed and breakfast, she'd gotten an amateur tournament at Pebble Beach. She drives back to Los Angeles with her foot down, wondering how she got to be so dull that a man would rather hit balls into the ocean than have sex with her.

She takes highway 1 so she can have something to look at while she obsesses, but that puts her back in Malibu by midnight, far later than she told Tony she'd be. She turns her phone back on as she passes Corral Canyon Road and expects a dozen messages, because God forbid she should have a life of her own, even if that life involves trailing after a golf caddy for a man who isn't getting any younger and who won't have sex with her anyway--but there are no messages. The head of steam she'd been building dissipates abruptly, to be replaced by a seed of worry.

"Call Tony," she orders her car. The phone rings for a minute and a half before going to voicemail--if you got this number, you must be important, but if you're not, call my assistant--so she tells the car to hang up. She knows exactly where he is, or rather what he's doing, so there's nothing further to say. At least someone is getting laid.

She takes the turnoff to his house anyway, because this is the first weekend she's had to herself in months and it always feels a little funny to stay away. All of Tony's cars are there, which means he's upstairs, and she's about to leave when she notices a white scrape along the side of the Tesla Roadster. Tony drives like a maniac but he doesn't hit guardrails and he cares for his cars the way normal people care for infants.

"Where's Tony?" she asks aloud, wondering why she's bothering.

"In the bathroom," Jarvis replies, stoned and androgynous. He sounds a little irritated, as though even he is tired of babysitting.

The bathroom is consistent with Pepper's initial theory, certainly, since Tony has one of those big sunken tubs you could fill with champagne--which he's done, but just the once, since it turns out that what you'd think would be tingly in all the right places just tickles like a million little pinpricks and gets up your nose. But the tub is ideal for entertaining. Pepper relaxes.

She climbs the steps to the living room--she won't bother him, she's quite invisible--and sees, in order: two pizza boxes, the pants of Tony's third-best Hugo Boss suit draped over the pizza boxes, two empty bottles of thirty-year-old Laphroaig, one of them broken, and a smear of blood on the coffee table.

"Tony?" she calls, stomach freezing.

Three classes of people have no dignity and are resigned to living their most intimate moments before an audience: babies, old people, and Tony Stark. Pepper jogs up the stairs to the bathroom, calling "Tony!" ahead to give him some warning, but otherwise unconcerned, except for the fear tightening her chest. "Tony, are you here?" There's more blood on the stairs, just drops and not puddles, but she's programmed to freak out when she sees blood, like most people.

In the bathroom, which is cavernous and granite, she sees a crumpled shirt and a weaving trail of blood up to the bathtub that terminates in two handprints and the very top of Tony's head, just wet clumps of hair standing up above the rim. The words "Jim Morrison" flash through her mind and now she really panics, though part of her is coldly considering what the press release will say. She hurries up the slippery steps to the tub with her heart in her throat and looks down. Tony's floating there, arms buoyed away from his body by the jets, skin flushed, eyes red-rimmed and mouth half-open. She does the first thing she can think of, which is to take him by the hair and drag him up.

"Jesus Christ," he murmurs, and she jumps as though he were a corpse that had suddenly spoken. He looks at her blearily. "Aren't you supposed to be off fucking that investment banker?"

Her eyes fill with angry tears. "What--what is this, Tony?"

"Party in Brentwood, some William Morris people. Did some blow. Bad idea. I get that skin crawly shit, you remember that time--anyway, I had to come down." He shivers, clawing at his arms. "Jesus."

She tries not to look at his body, which is obscured by the turbulent water anyway. "You drank two bottles of scotch."

"I did?"

She wipes her eyes. "Yep."

"Why am I not dead?"

"Because--" She stands up and grabs a towel. "I don't know. Why aren't you ever? Why do you do these things and get away with it where ordinary people would wash out and lose their jobs and drive off a cliff on the Pacific Coast Highway--up, get up." She holds open the towel.

"Pepper…" Tony rubs his arms with a spasmodic shiver, splashing water onto the tiles and her shoes. "Help."

She closes her eyes. It's one thing to be a professional enabler to a high-functioning alcoholic, but it's another to fish a drunk, naked man out of a bathtub and realize that this is the closest she's gotten to sex in over a year. She kneels and pulls him up by his armpits.

"I know, I know," he mumbles, "you didn't sign up for this. Buy yourself something tomorrow."

"Stop talking," she says, wrapping him in the towel as he shivers on the edge of the tub. "You're making it worse."

"Sorry." He rubs his face and sags to one side. "Sorry sorry."

"You should go to the hospital." She takes his hand and examines the cut. "For stitches and fluids."

"Can they come to me?"

That's what Tony's life is--a constant parade of people, coming to him. And her at the back, cleaning up. Always the first in and the last out. "I'll get a bandage," she says.

He leans heavily on her as she wrestles him into his bed, still wearing the towel--she doesn't have the courage to take it off, even though the sheets will get wet. He bleeds on the sheets anyway.

"First thing tomorrow?" he murmurs.

"Of course, Mr. Stark." She draws the sheet over his damp body.

She considers spending the night instead of driving back to Santa Monica. It's late, and she has a lot to do in the morning--arranging for the bodywork on the Tesla, for one thing, unless Tony decides he wants a project. In the end, she gets back on the highway. She tries not to think about her boss--her naked, bleeding boss--and wonders if she should have been more insistent with the banker. Maybe this was just what she was built for: looking after men who don't have the decency to sleep with her. And that's the problem--if she slept with Tony, that would be it, that would be the end, and apparently she likes taking care of a man who does his best to destroy himself the minute she looks away.

In the morning, she's back in Malibu with coffee and aspirin at the ready.