By neech

On the fiftieth day that his P.A. turns up for work, Tony Stark greets her from the doorway with a beatific grin and a flute of Chardonnay clasped loosely in his grip.

"Honey darling, happy golden anniversary!" Tony grins. Virginia- or Pepper (as he has newly christened) is his first Executive Assistant that's made it so far without the countless fits of crying and wailing, and quite frankly, he'd thought she'd break. They normally do. This one's a keeper though- red-headed and tall and leggy like hell, with a professionalism that throws him for a loop, most of the time. But Pepper Potts is brilliant and gorgeous and has expressed as much enthusiasm as a lethargic goldfish at the thought of sleeping with him, so maybe, maybe he's just a little glad she's his assistant and not his newest catch of the day.

Pepper flushes pale pink, and Tony smirks at getting a rise out of the unflappable Pepper Potts, and damn- she looks cute when she does that. In an instant though, her shoulders straighten and her gaze is cool and steady as she meets his eyes and he laughs, because if there's one thing that she is, Virginia Potts is always, always a professional.

"Good morning, Mr. Stark. And what anniversary are we celebrating?" She takes the proffered glass after a few chiding pushes of the champagne flute towards her, ignoring the wounded look he gives her when she places it on the floor.

"Ah, my dear Pepper, how could you have forgotten our anniversary of our union?" Tony sighs in mock horror. Pepper's smile is soft and makes him think of the sun: hesitant and sweet as the Malibu sunset in its final moments. He thinks her eyes are brighter.

"Sir, the last moment I checked, I don't believe we were ever… involved. I think Ms. Maxim of the June edition attests to that?" Touché. Delicate, laced brassiere and matching panties peek out from the basket she holds in her arms and he grins.

"Well played, Pep! I couldn't have taught you more well… Have you learnt snark too?" He teases her, and this time, the blush that settles on her cheeks is closer to scarlet. He likes the shade, he decides, because pale pink makes him think of the fragile little waifs that he picks up on Fridays, and Pepper doesn't come under the classification of walking, talking breasts in his mental categorization.

She's worth much more, he clarifies, because she's starting to become a friend and he's not after her for a mindless fuck anymore (which he can still get, he thinks, if he tries hard enough), and honestly, good secretaries willing to take out the trash are few and far between.

She ducks her head, and he restrains himself from reaching out to lift her chin. She's a good 6'1" in her most comfortable heels and he can't stand the idea that she'll refuse to meet his eyes. His Pepper is self-assertive, intelligent and brave beyond contention, and he never was much of a fan of working relationship boundaries anyway.

He's well aware that she cares though, a bit too much for his liking. You would think that having to untie your boss from his bedposts after a night of drunken debauchery would destroy all forms of boss-employee barriers, but no, not Miss Potts. It's good then, that he's a patient man when it comes to charming ladies into letting their guards (and thongs) down, even if it means being the ubiquitous face on the dartboard and flouting a list of restraining orders a mile wide.

"Ah ah ah Potts, no ducking or cowering and all that useless subservient shit, remember? It's in your contract- run my life, harangue me daily about things I have no interest about and have daily sparring matches that keep me on my toes." He gently tugs a stray tendril of hair affectionately, and he's rewarded with a slow smile that tweaks the corner of her mouth, not unattractively so. For the first time, he notices she has nice, full lips, plump and just the right size. He imagines kissing her would be something like tasting a sweet, succulent strawberry.

Then the moment's gone as she bustles around, picking up his things while outlining his agenda for today, and he's left standing there like an dumbstruck idiot wondering what the hell just happened.

Sometimes, he wonders whether he should have given up trying to get into her pants in the first place.

–– + ––

On the eighteenth day of Tony's return to the world of the living, Pepper comes to the conclusion that she might have made one of the stupidest decisions of her life nine years ago. The mistake that's currently parading butt-naked in front of her, wearing nothing but a Cheshire grin and an air of feigned thoughtfulness that makes her feel like wiping off that smirk. Forcibly.

They're standing in his closet which spans the distance from bathroom to master bedroom, and what makes her want to convulse is the fact that he's picking out a suit for tonight's benefit, and that he needs to be totally -ohgods- starkers to do it.

She really, really wants to gouge her eyes out.

He gives her an innocent smile then, as if to say "It's not anything you haven't seen before" and the days of yesteryear come to mind, where inebriated, naked Tony was someone she had to wrangle into the shower on a weekly basis.

She's not sure she's glad about the change somehow.

She doesn't give a shit about what the magazines are raving: Tony Stark, Merchant of Death no longer but a changed man, protector of the people. No one sees that Tony is still Tony, the real Anthony Edward Stark that the media's failed to see under the acerbic wit and nonchalant attitude for years. The papers choose to see him the way they want to. The way he wants them to, because it's a great deal easier to just be what people expect you to be. Then, there are no expectations beyond your next female conquest and the next great American weapon that tears the enemy to shreds.

The only change that he's really made is that he's finally found his purpose, and although she's so proud of him, she hates him for not being selfish.

When she thinks about it, he's something like an onion, but with rough and sandpapered edges instead of smooth folds, razor-sharp with a saw-tooth edge. It's only now, after the proverbial shit has hit the fan, that he's emerging from the layers like a manic Thumbelina, tearing and shrieking and wretched, only that no one can hear him scream.

She's cried for him before, because she knows he can't do it for himself. Because some nights, he lightly pads into the room that's hers on days when the workload is kicking her ass and commuting back home would just be a waste of time, and just sits there because he needs to know he's not alone. Because there are times when he wakes up drenched in sweat and shaking, and he won't say a word, not even to her, about it. Because she's so worried sick he'll kill himself one day; where one little miscalculation makes the difference when you're gambling with your life.

It makes her angry, him being so bloody selfless that he's stopped caring about his mortality. He's still human. He's still made of flesh and of the living, of warm blood which flows from aorta to vena cava and back again, and the fact that he's got an artificial power source embedded in his chest and a fancy-pancy suit with high tech-thingamajigs makes not one difference to her. He still lives. Consumes. Breathes. He can still die.

And that is the one thing she cannot bear to let happen.

What frustrates her most of all is that she might need him, more than he needs her.

His dependence is physical. He needs her in the way he might need anyone in his service; pick up his laundry, settle his accounts, make sure he brushes his teeth twice a day and so on. She may be all he has, but the bitter irony is how replaceable she is.

To her, 'need' is relative. She wants his smile and his awkward sweetness in ways and depths that she doesn't dare fully explore. She desires, oh- the feel of his hands, the touch of palm on palm, to run a finger along the creases and calluses of his hand to the pulse at his wrist. Pepper's only human, after all. She has desires; physical, hormonal wants that can't be satisfied with a short sentence of thanks and a friendly pat on the back. But what Pepper needs the most is the knowledge that Tony Stark continues to exist on this earth, because he's really all she has left, in all senses of the words.

Pepper's greatest fear is falling in love with her boss.

He looks at her then, and for a moment, she's afraid that he can see what she's thinking, a visual play-by-play that projects from her eyes. The words are on the cusp of her tongue- words she's not quite sure are about what, frankly, because words are simply planned diversions, away from the intriguing new 'science project' that dangles in front of his face. Her mind isn't the equivalent of a funky new circuit board that Tony might throw himself into to divulge its secrets, and she'd like to keep it that way. Just to maintain the modicum of dignity that she retains, thank you very much.

He lifts an eyebrow, and she can tell he knows she's shut him out. "Red tie or green?" He says abruptly, and she can feel his sharp gaze on her as she busies herself with extracting the slender strips of silk from the shelves. There is an almost tangible pressure against her back as she compares the cloth against his crisp, black suit; a weight that's pushing her to press back, and oh how she wants to laugh at Newton and the absolute truth of his Third Law.

Pepper refuses to give in to the laws of Physics. Partly because it's his domain, and partly because Pepper has the good old common sense than to weakly go down without a fight.

"Blue." She says without hesitation, and her gaze is planted directly on his face, far from the curve of his shoulder and the irregular constellation of freckles on his back. Far from the iridescent blue glow from the arc reactor, and the smooth sleek lines of cool metal where it meets warm skin. Far from lean thighs and taut stomach and other things better left to the imagination. Oh. She can feel her skin begin to warm at the thought of it.

Pepper needs a cold shower. Desperately.

"Cologne?" He's still staring at her, and she doesn't like the intensity in his eyes, because it's the same way he stares at those girls who are all legs and breasts and attractive body parts. Like a piece of meat.

"Hugo Boss, sir. Or Old Spice." Pepper is filled with the urge to lock herself in his bathroom as she walks in to retrieve his cologne from the counter. There is something in his grin- something faintly predatory that leaves the taste of fear in her mouth, stale and bitter in its harshness.

Pepper's not used to being afraid. Especially not of him and of infinite possibilities.

Essentially, Tony is predictable, even in his unpredictability. Maybe it's because she's learnt to anticipate his moments of caprice, from buying up the stock majority of walnut muffin companies and bringing home a new blonde bimbette to add to his collection. Or maybe it's just because they have a system, performed within the inch of perfection after years of practice. He'll push, and she'll pull and they'll banter and fight for that little one-up over the other- just a little, with battles won by wit and panache and pure strength of will. But sometimes he pushes more, toes the invisible dotted line of their boundary with his comments and his eyes- God, his eyes. Sometimes she wants to cave from the sheer extremity of it all. Most times she doesn't. Because Tony always pulls back, and that in itself is her victory.

Not today, unfortunately.

"Underwear." His voice is soft, silken perhaps, and her goosebumps raise when she remembers that he's still standing next to her totally, completely naked.

She wants to jump him. And that to her is the simple, honest truth.

Pepper can feel the lust that rises to the pit of her belly, thrumming and rich in its heat. She can feel the warmth that fills her, a bit like the roaring rush of a tsunami, looming and crashing down in awful, thunderous abruptness. And Pepper can feel the fear that thrums the chords of her heart, louder than anything else that matters.

The last thing Pepper wants to be to Tony Stark is a one-night stand.

Pepper closes her eyes and prays.


She doesn't look but she can feel his warmth; the heat from his hand as he reaches out to touch her, but the pads of his fingers ultimately never touch the sensitive skin of her shoulders, and she never feels his breath ghosting down her skin.

She flinches. The silence is unbearable and awkward, and she wonders if they're both screaming, if only in their heads.

When she finally meets his eyes, he walks past her and leaves her there without a word.

–– + ––

On the twentieth day of Tony Stark's debut as Iron man, Pepper wakes up in a bed that isn't hers, covered in sweat and screaming words from a dream she does not remember. That is a lie. She can remember shapes, silhouettes, emotions- terror.

The clock on the bedside table is chrome and steel, and the numbers (roman numerals on crack is the general impression) glow in the dark in a comfortingly familiar brazen fashion. She has no doubt of whose room she is sleeping in.

If Pepper were more sentient at the moment, she would be wondering what the hell she was doing in her boss's bed.

The clock reads four fifty-three, and Pepper remembers settling into the living room while waiting for Tony to come back from Pakistan. Tony's busy settling some dispute that requires the mediation of a person who won't be blown to kingdom come if and when the big guns come out, and honestly Tony needs to improve his track record, so Pepper practically pushes him there.

The reasons for which Pepper stays are more varied and much more filled with denial.

The list is as such (for Pepper is always good at lists):

Tony doesn't subscribe to bureaucratic red-tape, and someone has to, i.e. type his reports and make sure he doesn't offend the hell out of some country with lots of big, scary weapons. If anyone's capable of triggering a nuclear winter, it's Tony, and Pepper really doesn't want to be known as the secretary-chick-of-the-guy-who-killed-the-world.

Pepper prefers to have her day to end when he dismisses her, clearly and succinctly without any possible chance of misinterpretation. With Tony you never know. Insinuations of taking the day off because her poor feet deserve rest usually end up with her working anyway, accumulating several appointments to the psychologist along the way through balancing her employer's chequebooks with the symphony of sated female screams in the background. But anyway, Pepper has a job, rather than a life, and pretty much delights in making sense out of numbers and not having a sex life since the start of the new millennium.

Pepper just wants to make sure he comes home.

The last reason is the most honest of all, and as she starts to regain higher brain function, Pepper wonders where the hell Tony Stark is.

It is the spots on the carpet, dark against cream, illuminated by flickering blue light that gives it away.

Pepper finds him slumped on the floor of her (his) room like a rich man's rag doll, still partially clothed in the suit. There is a moment where she almost retches, because Tony- ohGod Tony is barely Tony, barely alive, barely human. Not with that amount of blood and bone and raw flesh, red and burned in places. He smells of smoke and of metal, and nothing is able to mask the smell of bleeding, burnt flesh. And for that moment, she truly, truly hates him for caring too much and trying too little, her work jacket gripped in his hands, crinkled and creased and dotted in dark red.

Tony only stirs when she gets Butterfingers to help her in carrying him to the bed, and the scream that leaves his throat is guttural and raw, and her ears hurt from the sound of it.

"P-pep-ghhn-" Her sleeve is damp from his sweat and blood and tears- but it doesn't matter- not at all, when she's busy trying to rip off the fragments of his suit encasing his skin, her fluids freely mixing with his, sweat and tears trickling down her face- a droplet for each time he screams.

It is hell, trying to remove the pieces as gently as possible when each piece is now no better than shrapnel, plugging angry wounds that weep more severely than she thinks is humanly possible- and she shouldn't even be doing this she could kill him he needs a doctor not a fucking personal assistant that was qualified in first aid years ago God he needs stiches-

Thankfully, Rhodey's there, just when she needs him (she doesn't even remember calling him) and the anaesthetic and needles that he brings nearly makes her break down in horror of it all- this is reality. Rhodey dopes him up till he's brimming with analgesics (or as much as is legally possible) but it doesn't stop Tony from screaming the house down once Rhodey starts tugging the shards out. There is so much blood and glints of white that Rhodey makes her hold him down, just long enough for the needle to move in and out and move on the next one. By the sixty-third piece, Tony's head lolls on her shoulder, uttering choked gasps of pain that scare her more than the screams. He grips her hands each time, squeezing, sharing his pain with her, and she accepts it, willingly. Pepper doesn't give a damn about the bruises. Pepper stopped caring about anything but Tony nine years ago.

The paramedics arrive just as Rhodey removes the last piece that splinters his back, right where his heart should be. The arc reactor pulses gently, and Rhodey's face thrown in blue relief is a mask of calm as he places the fragments into a bottle; a hundred and twelve red and gold pieces glinting in the light, pain and protection intertwined, yin and yang in a tiny bottle. It's only after they place Tony on the stretcher, deathly white and sweating and on the verge of unconsciousness that Rhodey finally cracks- crumbles like Pepper's never seen before, and Pepper's there- holding him up and whispering words that they both know mean nothing, but she says them anyway.

Two people bound by fear for the living hurricane that is Tony Stark.

Against all reason, Pepper presses a kiss against Tony's lips as they wheel him away, feather-light and tender and for a moment she can taste starbursts on her tongue, sweetness and sensation spilling into her chest. For a moment she forgets and revels in his taste, citrus tinged with spice, but then it's gone and he's gone too, and all she is left with is a memory and the taste of metallic copper in her mouth.

–– + ––

On the fifth night of his hospitalization, Tony wakes up with an inexplicable craving for jellybeans. Oh, the pain is still there, dull aches a reminder of broken ribs and a few hundred cuts and bruises, but Tony's always been willing to give in to carnal pursuits as a higher order on the priority scale; right now all Tony really needs is the taste of fructose and artificial sweetening, and what a Stark wants, a Stark gets.

Pepper is asleep in the armchair to the left on his bed, tousled head boneless against the headrest, and Tony thinks this is the first time he's seen her looking quite so scruffy. For one, she's actually wearing socks. Green, stripy socks. He does notice the un-pressed clothes and the new worry lines that mar her forehead but it is the coat that covers her that catches his attention, more than anything else.

"Fuck." His voice is husky from disuse. Fuck. Pepper is going to kill him and have his balls for dessert. "Fuck." There are no words to properly express how abso-fuckin-lutely screwed he is. The last thing he remembers is getting hit by a goddamn missile, then another one and-

"If you keep squirming like that, you're going to rip your stitches."

Ah fuck. Nice big smile there, Stark- ooh that hurts- "If I do, does that mean you'll wear that nice nurse outfit I bought you last Christmas and patch up my boo-boos, give 'em a kiss to make them better?" He picks his best not-quite lecherous grin. "'Cause I gotta tell ya, I've got quite a lot of painful parts, like my neck and abs and further down south-" She slaps him so hard he thinks he can hear Obadiah cheering from the grave.

"You are the biggest idiot in the universe and I hate you." She hisses. "God, I hate you." Pepper's anger slowly slips away even as she says the words. His jaw doesn't seem to want to rejoin the rest of his mouth though. "You are an arrogant, overconfident, reckless bastard and I hate you. I hate you." She says them even though her hands run from his shoulders to his face, to trace the ruddy skin of his cheek and beard that probably makes him look like the newest addition to LA.'s Soup Kitchen.

"I hate you." She whispers, and buries her face in the crook of his neck.

He thinks it sounds a little like 'I love you' instead.

Tony remembers the smell of her- mere seconds stolen from unconsciousness- God he remembers. He remembers her taste- honey and jasmine with undertones of lilac, remembers the soft yielding pressure- light and filled with tenderness, remembers the feel of her lips against his.

For a second, he is overwhelmed, fucking scared and confused, because Pepper's not supposed to change the equations, divert the balance and destabilize it all; that's his job, always has been. She is his touchstone, sometime-lodestone, his gemstone in the rough. She is his girl Friday, intelligent, sexy and absolutely gorgeous in a cocktail dress- she is all he has, and if he fucks this up like he always does, he will have nothing left. But that second passes, and Tony's no longer scared and all of those things, not when Pepper's hands are in his, small and delicate but it feels like he's holding the world. Right now, all that matters is that she is all he has and he is everything to her, and for now, that is enough.

"I hate you too."

When Tony finally kisses her, she is smiling against his lips, and truly- it is.