A/N: Something to keep you guys busy while I work on Turnabout. Just to clarify: All terms 'office' and 'work' here refer to Stark Industries. I somehow see Tony trying to be more involved (despite Obadiah's insistences) in Stark Industries post rescue. Even if just in showpiece capacity. Beta'd by the effervescent ebonytwist (on LJ) :)
The first time it happens, he comes into work with a cut on his forehead.
It doesn't even look very serious, just a small nick over his right eye. Normally, you wouldn't have even seen it, but since he's been back, things haven't exactly been normal. (Not that they were normal to begin with, but this is decidedly different). Now, your roles have sort of reversed, in a weird way. Now it's you watching him instead of the other way around. As a result of which you often have to stop yourself from following him out of the corner of your eye to make sure he's actually there. That he's real, and not some wayward daydream that will shatter at the next phone call. But you've promised yourself no more moping, plus Tony's never going to do anything about that cut on his own.
So you walk up to him, and flick back the cowlick that the injury is lurking behind so that you can examine it further. "How did you manage to get that?" you ask offhandedly, as you clean the cut and begin looking for a band-aid. You know cuts and bruises mean nothing to Tony, so you are quite surprised when his eyes shadow over for a fraction of a second before he answers, "Nothing life threatening, Potts. I was tinkering with the Cobra and I nicked myself. No big deal." You consider the truth of this remark, and probably would have accepted it if his mouth hadn't quirked upwards in that trademark smirk of his. The one he uses to charm most women and the world at large. The fake one. And as he looks at you, smiling that horribly false smile of his, you suddenly feel a little chill take hold of you.
Ever since he's come back from there (you can't quite bring yourself to say Afghanistan or Terrorists yet) he's been just a little... distant. You've correctly interpreted this as his way of asking for some space and so you do whatever you can to see that he gets it. Each day begins with keeping the press at bay, holding the threat of lawsuit over their heads if they so much as put a fucking toe out of line.
Holding yourself in check; well, that's a different matter.
It takes every ounce of willpower you possess to not break the thin veneer of calm you live under, to not reach out and just hold him. But since his return, Tony has become somewhat wary of physical contact. Or any kind of closeness for that matter. And you respect him enough not to force anything upon him. So if only to maintain your sanity, you immerse yourself in the tasks Obadiah sets for you. You work yourself to the bone so that you can distract yourself as you let him work his way through his mess at his own pace. But there are times when you regret this decision. Times like now.
You pretend to smile half-heartedly as you hand him some press releases to sign. He may not want to get into why he's being so evasive about a small cut, but that isn't going to stop you from finding out. You walk towards your desk and log onto Tony's virtual private network. The one that connects to the private servers at his house. It's a single-user connection you've set up so that you can get in touch with Jarvis from Stark Industries whenever necessary. The login completes and you slip on the headset. Only after looking to check that the door is closed, do you begin whispering into the microphone.
"Hello, Miss Potts. How may I assist you?"
"Are you aware of a cut on Tony's forehead?"
"Why yes, Miss Potts. I believe he acquired it in the bathroom this morning."
"Mmm...The bathroom? Are you sure?"
"Absolutely, Miss Potts."
"Thank you, Jarvis."
You break the connection and stare at the screen for a long time. None of it makes sense. (Of course, sometimes very little of what Tony does actually makes sense, but somehow this isn't the same thing.) You begin tapping your pen across the desk as you think. You know that Tony finally got rid of his sling a few days ago. Plus his physiotherapy has only just begun, and you realize that he's probably still a little awkward using his right arm. You shake your head and decide you're being paranoid. It's just a small cut anyway. Like he said, nothing life threatening. And as to why he felt the need to hide the reason for his injury, well, maybe he's just not into sharing how he cut himself in his bathroom. Which, you realize, is perfectly normal behavior for anyone. You tell yourself to stop obsessing about the man so much and get back to aggregating the financial reports for the month.
The next day he comes in with an ugly cut below his left ear.
You don't even bother asking him this time. The minute his back is turned, you dial in to talk to Jarvis again. You sit at the desk, clicking the top of your pen impatiently as you wait for the login to complete. As soon as you hear the familiar voice of the AI over the headphones, you begin speaking without preamble.
"Jarvis? Can you tell me how Tony injured himself yesterday?"
"I'm sorry, but Mr. Stark has specifically instructed me not to tell you in case you asked."
"Can you at least tell me if he's injured anywhere else besides the cuts on his forehead and ear?"
"I am not at liberty to say, Miss Potts."
"Fine. Fine. He didn't say anything about not showing me, did he?"
When Jarvis says nothing, you know you've found a loophole in Tony's instructions. You ask him to pull up surveillance for the past two days; and he wordlessly complies with your request. The video begins to load in the media player on the screen. And when it plays you suddenly regret that you asked to see it in the first place.
When the sun begins to dip, you make up some excuse about leaving early. You don't know whether to be thankful or depressed when Tony waves you away without even a mild quip. You clock out of Stark Industries and walk towards the silver Audi S5. As you slide in, you wonder if you're going to be able to handle what comes next. As if in response, your fingers automatically rev up the engine and you drive at breakneck speed towards the Stark Mansion.
You walk into the master bath. The lights aren't on; but the fast-fading sunlight casts an eerie pallor on the pale blue tiles. All of a sudden a little chill runs down your spine. You wonder if you're doing the right thing. Or whether you'll even be able to help him if you are. But as painful childhood memories bubble to the surface, your resolve only strengthens. You look at your watch. Obadiah's only goal right now is damage control, and he's trying to keep Tony out of the spotlight as much as possible. Which means there's not much time left until he gets here. You edge deeper into the shadows, and when your hands shake you blame it on the cold.
Twenty minutes later, it's dark outside as you hear his footsteps on the stairs. He doesn't bother to turn on the lights as he walks in. The room is dark, but the moonlight falls on his face as he swiftly strips; and in that brief moment, you can see the grim determination etched onto his face. His eyes glint dangerously in the half light; and he seems tense. Scared.
His hands curl into knotty fists and he steps into the bathtub. Your breath hitches in your throat as his hand moves towards the shower knob and hesitates. Because you know what comes next. They may not have thin ice in Afghanistan; and you don't know much about what they did to him there but you do know what it feels like when the water hits. The way it goes up your nose; in those all-pervasive little bubbles. How it feels to keep struggling and falling and thrashing and never being able to rise as your lungs keep filling over. And even if you're lucky enough to make it through the whole thing, everything changes. How ordinary things you always took for granted, now seem... different. Things like swimming pools. Bathtubs.
As the spray hits his body your limbs carry you forward of their own volition. Even as he falls back, thrashing violently against the pounding water, you raise your arms and catch him before he falls against the edge of the bathtub. Your arms wrap around his chest and push him up, even as your heels slide against the slippery marble. His body is slick and wet, his movements wild and panicked as you push him back against the surging shower spray.
The cold water runs in rivulets down your body, soaking your hair and your clothes. You ignore it, as you have learnt to ignore it since that fateful day you had fallen through the ice. Instead you concentrate on Tony, intent on keeping him under the steady stream that emanates from the shower head.
Your fingers curl tightly around his wrists, and as your body presses against the hot skin of his chest, you can feel his heartbeat. It is fast and erratic and reminds you of a bird you had once held captive in your hands. He struggles briefly against you and you can feel the power of the muscles that ripple underneath your fingers. Power you know that he restrains only for you.
He buries his head in the crook of your neck as his body crumples in defeat, and you can hear his voice tremble as he whispers against your ear.
"Why couldn't you have just let it go, Potts?"
Your eyes film over with angry tears as you release his wrists and cradle the back of his neck, fingers knotting in his dark hair. Your other arm curls around his waist before you answer in a voice filled with barely suppressed rage.
"Because I will not see you lose to a fucking shower head."
And then as his body starts to shudder uncontrollably, you simply draw him closer as you both slide to the floor. The water pounds relentlessly, and you pause only to change the shower knob from cold to warm. And then your arms are back around him as you stroke his wet hair and whisper soothing nothings to him until the shakes stop. Only when you know he's asleep do you close your own eyes.
The next morning he's gone.
You open your eyes to find yourself in his bed. But he's not there. You jerk awake and look around, suddenly afraid. Your head spins as you ask Jarvis where he is, only to be informed that he left for work an hour ago. You find a neatly pressed suit laid out on his bed and suddenly everything looks horribly familiar.
You hurriedly slip into the clothes as you try not to think about what has happened. About why he left you. About the enormity of what you may have done. And sure enough, when you arrive at work, everything seems different. Worse.
As you enter his office and give him the documents he needs to sign, your heart sinks as you see that he isn't meeting your eyes. The rest of the day continues in the same vein. You dance around each other at the meetings and briefs, nimble as ever, hiding the mutual discomfort with a near-perfect mask of professionalism. And if he notices your red eyes, he doesn't show it.
The pain in your head spirals to a dull, persistent ache, and you wonder if this is how it's always going to be from now on. It doesn't help that you know why he's behaving the way he is. You realize too late that you've pushed him too hard. Pushed him so hard that you've pushed him away. Because now when he looks at you it only reminds him of his failure and whatever else he may have gone through. The realization forces you to rush to the lady's room for yet another crying jag.
As the clock finally strikes six, you begin gathering your things. You push the button near the elevator, unable to prevent your eyes straying towards the piece of paper in your hand. For the second time in as many days you wonder if you're doing the right thing. But before you can follow that train of thought, the elevator doors open.
And Tony's in there.
Your insides immediately fill with lead, but you force yourself to enter. You walk in standing unnaturally straight, clutching the handwritten resignation letter like a shield. The air is thick and suffocating as you stare at the doors while the steel box you are both trapped in begins to move. He is standing right behind you but you just can't bring yourself to turn around. The silence stretches like a chasm between you both as the elevator begins its descent.
Your eyes are burning with unshed tears and just as you think the day can't get any worse, you feel his arm reach out to curl tentatively around your shoulders. You stiffen, but only for a moment, as the arm in question pulls you into a soft, warm hug. The scent of citrus, spice and something that is uniquely Tony overwhelms you and you give in to the urge to lean against him. His face is so close to yours that you can feel the warm puffs of his breath tickle the skin of your temple. And then you feel his lips plant a soft kiss on your cheek.
"I… That is, uh… I suppose I'll see you tomorrow then, Potts," he mumbles awkwardly before he steps away. And as the elevator doors open, he turns to leave. But before he does, he turns and gives you a smile.
It's a small, unassuming smile, nothing like the carelessly casual smirk that he gives to the world. Instead, in its place, a small, hesitant little thing peeks out at you shyly before ducking back into its hiding place in the corner of his mouth. It's a tiny smile you've never seen before. A tiny smile of Tony's that you somehow know is only for you.
And as you watch him walk away through the closing elevator doors, you think if you had to do it all over again, you would.
A/N: First foray into this style of writing. Review please.