Disclaimer: Most of the characters and situations in this story belong to Marvel Comics, Fairview Entertainment, Dark Blades Films, and other entities, and I do not have permission to borrow them. No infringement is intended in any way, and this story is not for profit. All others belong to me, and if you want to borrow them, you have to ask me first. Any errors are mine, all mine, no you can't have any.
I'm new to this fandom, so please forgive any errors; frankly, I'm relieved to have this off my plate, because now I can dive into reading other people's stories. I am not anticipating a sequel. Many, many thanks to my patient beta Cincoflex, who in addition to reassuring me supplied both title and summary for this one.
Nobody ever said that Tony Stark was a genius at relationships.
The first few days were chaos, of course. But bringing order to chaos--particularly Tony's brand of chaos--was her job, and she handled it superbly. Presenting a serene face to the world clamoring outside, she continued with the efficiency that was her trademark--and the basis for her equally superb salary--and gave no hint of the turmoil that she was feeling.
Damn the man, anyway--
It took three days for the roses to show up, and they really were a surprise. Not their elegance, nor their cost, nor even that he'd managed to order something without asking her to do it; in fact, she suspected that Jarvis had made the actual call. No, the surprise was in the fact of their existence. Three dozen roses the color of heart's blood--it blew past restrained and into obvious at Mach 3.
But there was no time to say anything, even if she'd had the guts. She was swamped, and Tony was busy refusing calls from the military and SHIELD when he wasn't neck-deep in fixing that damned suit of his. Neither of them had time for more than the bare necessities, and she suspected he was living on coffee and that dreadful sludge he put together in his garage blender.
As for her, makeup covered the circles under her eyes well enough.
Eventually, though, the chaos began to ebb a little. And he didn't let up.
A basket of perfect, ripe peaches. Two boxes of her favorite chocolates. A vintage hair comb. Trinkets and trifles and even a pair of shoes to match that blasted dress.
It was almost eerie how well he knew her preferences, until she thought to check Jarvis' logs, and sure enough he'd hacked into her credit history. It left her torn between fury and hilarity, because it was Tony all over.
She seriously considered smacking him...but she liked her job.
There started to be time to say something. But she didn't. She didn't know what to say. Tony Stark didn't have to woo women; they threw themselves at him with embarrassing regularity. All he had to do was smile and flirt a little in that disarmingly self-deprecating fashion of his, and they gave him anything he wanted.
But if this wasn't wooing, she didn't know what was. Maybe he asked Rhodey for advice.
The trouble was--the trouble was...
Pepper knew the exact second she'd fallen in love with her boss. It had been three years ago, when he'd shoved himself out from under one of his cars, his undershirt all over grease and his eyes bloodshot, and demanded an update on some project or another. She hadn't even flinched, just cleared her throat and told him what he wanted to know, and he'd absorbed the information, made an offhand, silly comment, and scooted back under the car. Business as usual.
She had sat down in front of her vanity table that night, after tying up the day's many loose ends, and looked long and hard at herself in her worn and comfortable pajamas. She'd weighed the pros and the cons, the risks and the benefits, and in the end she'd decided to stay. She loved her work, she liked Tony Stark for his irresponsible, generous, sodden self, and she knew he would never, ever think of her that way. He might be a playboy, but he had integrity, as little as he might want to admit it.
Except neither of them had anticipated the incredible series of events that had led to Tony boiling down arc technology to the point where he could plug himself into his latest invention, and heading out to save the world from his own creations. He'd...changed.
It was unnerving. She was used to working with Tony, admiring his genius and drive, anticipating his needs with affectionate exasperation. She wasn't used to respecting him.
And as things slowed down a little more, she saw him watching her. Those dark eyes, their wicked twinkle missing for the moment, thoughtful and a little wistful. It took all her strength to keep from looking back, and she didn't quite understand why.
And then the gifts stopped coming.
Tony was gone, off in Japan dealing with company business, but Pepper knew perfectly well why there were no more ridiculously lavish packages waiting for her every evening.
You had your chance, and you let it pass.
In the relative calm of his absence, she figured out why.
I don't want to be just another conquest.
Just because Tony had never had to pursue a woman didn't mean that the extravagant gifts were anything special. Sure, he'd put a little effort into it, but he'd given her no reason to believe that he was offering anything more than a quick hot fling. The presents were just the sort of thing he would tell her to order for his latest lady when he wanted her for a week instead of a day.
She'd spent three years loving him and keeping her balance, but Pepper knew her heart couldn't survive that kind of aftermath. I would rather keep the job and nothing more than lose it all for a memory.
No matter how it made her ache.
He blew back in one morning, trotting down the plane steps rumpled with sleep and pressure changes but smelling of cologne rather than sake for a change. His gaze ran over her once, contained and still thoughtful, and then she was proffering papers for his signature and making mental notes of his instructions and updates, pacing him until he reached his car. With one thing and another, she barely saw him for the rest of the day.
But there were daisies waiting for her when she got home. A simple dozen, snowy petals flaring around hearts of gold. She stared at them a long time, burning fair in the green florist's paper, before she lifted them out and found them a home in a tall vase, restraining an odd urge to cry. I don't know what he's trying to tell me.
But whatever the message, her resolution crumbled.
She found him in the garage, behind the newly restored glass, tinkering idly with a spiky piece of mechanism. He barely looked up as she punched in the code and stepped through the door, but as she neared he set the thing down. "Ms. Potts? Aren't you up a little late? You're going to have OSHA on my back--"
She cut off his amiable ramble. "Why did you start again?" It was an incomprehensible question, but he was always saying things she couldn't anticipate and it suddenly seemed only justice.
Except that she didn't confuse him. "They reminded me of you. White skin and those cute little golden freckles." He fidgeted, snapping the pliers he held open and shut nervously. "Pepper, I don't--"
She held up one hand, squeezing her eyes closed and breathing deep. How could he do that, turn everything inside out with one simple statement? "Tony..."
There was a clank as the pliers hit the workbench, and then she opened her eyes to find her other hand in his. Sitting on the stool he was shorter than her, looking up with a sort of muted pleading under his teasing smile. "Look, I know it's not an ideal situation, but you already know the worst about me, and I still need a girlfriend who knows my secret identity."
"Everybody knows your identity," she pointed out, irresistibly diverted. His fingers were warm, and more callused than a trillionaire's ought to be. "You told them. It's not a secret any more."
He shrugged this off. "Yeah, but I need somebody who'll be a wreck when I get in trouble, remember? Because I'm already a wreck myself." He was tugging gently on her hand, pulling her gradually closer. "You're all I've got, Pepper. I need to know you'll be there no matter what."
For a long moment she regarded him--the quirky mouth, the dark hair that was softer than it looked, the tiny lines bracketing the intense eyes, the oddly shy hunger beneath a facade of humor. The emotion trembling on the brink. "Always?"
He blinked, smiling one-sided. "As long as you'll put up with me. I mean, I know I pay you to put up with me, but--"
Pepper pulled her hand free, and he stilled instantly when her fingers covered his mouth. "Mr. Stark...I'm only going to say this once." She bent closer. "Shut up."
His lips were quite soft, and his mustache prickled enticingly. The faint sound that rose up could have come from either one of them, and Pepper closed her eyes, savoring every instant, the eager way his mouth moved on hers. Tony rose slowly, wrapping her up in a close embrace, and she could feel his reactor implant warm against her breastbone.
The kiss went on for quite some time, and when it was over Tony rested his forehead against hers and sighed, as though some long pressure had been released. Pepper was finding it difficult to focus; his reputation was not exaggerated, not at all.
"What made you change your mind?" he muttered against her skin, rubbing his cheek against hers in a sort of wondering caress. "Not that I'm trying to analyze this or anything. Am I breaking the moment?"
He pulled back slightly to meet her gaze, and the wicked twinkle was back; the smile escaped her all unbidden. "The daisies," she told him simply. "You finally thought about it."
His brows went up as he processed that. When he drew in a breath to say something, she put a hand behind his head and kissed him again. It was proving a very satisfactory way to stop his rambling, she found.
The sunrise was actually behind the house, but the view through the window was splendid, and it was nice to watch the ocean change colors, safe in the circle of his arm. Pepper didn't consider herself the sort of woman who needed protection, but it was quite pleasant to have the option, as it were.
"You're taller than me in those heels," Tony said drowsily; they hadn't gotten much sleep. Pepper smiled against his shoulder.
"Do you want me to switch to flats?"
He gave her an incredulous look. "Are you kidding? And miss watching you walk around the place and--"
He laughed and pulled her closer. "Ask me something."
"What?" Part of her mind was trying to bring up schedules and meetings and breakfast, and she was doing her best to ignore it.
"Ask me something. Anything you like. I'll answer."
She passed over all the obvious questions, and briefly considered taking a pass, but something told her this was important to him. "Do you miss your father?"
He didn't flinch so much as become very still, and she opened her mouth to take back the question, but before she got the words out he spoke. "Yeah."
Pepper slid her hand over his chest, just below the glowing reactor, and he sighed. "I still want to ask him why, and whether he ever regretted it, or had second thoughts."
She let a breath's worth of silence pass. "You never got to know him as an adult."
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him blink. "You're right." He let out a long breath. "Okay, my turn."
She sat up--or tried to, but his arm tightened to hold her in place. "Hey!"
He was smirking. "Turn about is fair play. Come on, Pepper."
"You set me up," she accused, again lost between annoyance and amusement.
"Yup." He was completely unrepentant. "Now. What I want to know is--"
She braced herself.
"--How did you end up with a name like 'Pepper'?"
She blinked, startled. "That's your question?"
"It's not a secret."
"So tell me already."
Pepper shrugged and let herself relax against him again. "My mother was a hippy who worked at an import grocery. She named all her kids after products--Pepper, Ginger, Saffron, and Fennel."
Tony snorted. "Fennel?"
She sighed. "We call him Fen. I changed my name legally when I got to college, but somehow it never stuck."
He shook his head, looking bemused, and she remembered that he'd grown up without a clutch of siblings to tease and support and fight with. "Huh. Well, I've only got one thing to say to that."
"Oh? What's that?"
His smirk was as wicked as his eyes. "I've always wanted my own Spice Girl."
"Tony!" She dug her fingers into his ribs in revenge, and he grabbed at her, howling with laughter.
The tickle fight was ruled a draw, and the sunrise went on without them.