Happy's behavior strikes Tony as needlessly cautious as the other man comes into view as Tony trots down the stairs to the garage. It's enough to make him pick up his speed and dial in his number to the shop without noticing.

"What's up -"


Tony's a little surprised to be hushed by his bodyguard - Pepper would shush him in a heartbeat, but other people didn't normally dare unless he was talking during the last seconds of a big game - so he hushes. The easy answer is that someone has fallen asleep on the way home...though, considering who's in the car, it could just as well be that EVERYONE fell asleep on the way home.

"What's -"

It's Tony's turn to hush someone as Cass comes into the garage behind him.

He points to the car; in the back seat Brandon Tanner and his daughter are both asleep – the younger Tanner leaned up against the older, softly snoring.

Lily Tanner is...cute. Or Tony figures that's the closest word.

She's petite - dark haired, tan skinned and lightly freckled across the bridge of her nose. Her hair is currently pulled back in two low dangling pigtails and there's a small stuffed – otter? - draped across her lap.

"They both went out like twin lights about twenty minutes ago," Happy softly explains as he eases the front passenger door open. "Haven't as much as moved since."

"And Pepper?"

Pepper climbs out of the car with a hand from Happy. "'Pepper' has her phone back," she replies as she taps urgently at the small keyboard without looking up. "You forgot to tell people that I'm on leave." Without looking up, she jerks the phone away when Tony reaches for it. "Will you at least let me finish this memo before you start getting grabby?"

Tony scowls. "How in hell is that thing still working? There shouldn't have been enough juice left in the battery I gave you for it to have lasted this long."

"She hijacked the battery from my BlackBerry, Sir - they're the same model, remember?" Happy informs him a little forlornly. "I tried to get it back but she threatened to bite my hand if I didn't leave her alone. I wasn't taking any chances."

Pepper glances up as she finishes the memo about how she's going to be unreachable for the next several days, and reachable during only certain hours after that. "That is a blatant over exaggeration, Happy. I only threatened to hide your bi-monthly paycheck. And I wasn't serious. Much."

"Potts…" Tony's voice is heavy with exasperation "Don't you have better things to do then bully your co-workers?"

"First of all, you're the one who gave me a phone in case I needed one while we were out. Which as it turns out, I did, since you railroaded me in to this 'kidnapping' gig of yours. Secondly, the moment I turned said phone on, it started screaming at me about all the messages that'd been left. I thought you might appreciate it if I kept it from doing so again once you're in charge of it again."

Still, it's with great reluctance that Pepper turns the phone off and gives Happy back his battery.

Tony nods, deciding to cede the argument for now at least. He sighs and motions toward the stairway. "Come on then...it's late. Let's just focus on getting everyone settled upstairs."

Pepper nods. "Bags are in the trunk. Where exactly are you putting Brandon and Lily tonight?

"We set up Lily's room next to Cass and Brandon's."

Pepper raises a brow. "Are you sure Brandon's going to be comfortable with sharing with Cass with his daughter in the house?"

Tony blinks. That the subject might be an issue clearly hadn't occurred to him. "Uhmm… Tidwell?"

Cass just shrugs when Tony looks to her. "We're about to find out. By the way, Stark -way to take the lead like a man, there…" she teases as she eases over to the car. Her voice is too quiet to carry to where Pepper and Tony are standing, but it has quick results. There's a low moan from inside the car, then a higher one, indicating that both the car's passengers have been woken up.

"Papai?" Lily's voice is the first to speak. "Are we here?"

"Sim Menina." Brandon's voice is reassuring. Still his voice is a little shaky from pain and drowsiness both. "This is where we're going to be staying for a few days."

Lily turns her gaze on Cassie then. "Oi...I mean hello." she corrects herself softly, pulling herself up into a sitting position.

Woman and child study each other for a long curious moment, before the girl extends her hand with a shy half smile. "Hi. I'm Lily Elizabeth Tanner. Nice to meet you."

"Hello," Cass replies quietly, taking the offered shake. "I know it's late, but my name is Cass Tidwell, and I'm a… friend of your papai's. That's Tony over there," Cass points and Tony waves, "… and we thought that we'd come down to help with the bags and show you where you get to sleep tonight."

Lily nods at that, still a little bit shy. "All right."

Brandon shifts a little, kissing his daughter on the temple. "Great use of your manners there." He jostles her gently. "Now that you've been introduced properly, get up and out of the car, okay, before you squash me flat..."

"Papai..." Lily's laugh is chiding. "I'm not THAT heavy."

"Says who…? You look like you've grown an inch since the last time I saw you, Lilybeth. I think that I need to start tying heavy books to the top of your head whenever I visit to stop you from growing so fast."

"Good luck with that," Cass murmurs under her breath, smiling slightly as she rises to her feet to allow first Lily than Brandon to get out. "I'm five foot eleven, and my father tried the same thing."

Lily lets out a little guffaw at that claim, shooting Cass a grin. "She's funny Papai."

"Normally yes. Though she tends to get grumpy too – especially when she has too much coffee. We have that in common…" Brandon draws a deep breath, twisting his legs to hang out the car door. Then he exhales, before pushing himself with a low grunt to his feet.

Once he's upright her turns to Tony. "Stark...is there a room in this place with both a bed and a couch or a cot in it? This house is huge and I want Lily to be able to find me easily if she wakes in the night."

"There's only one bedroom in the house that currently has a couch." Tony replies, "However you don't want to sleep there -it's mine. As for a cot…" He looks at Pepper and shrugs. "We may have one of those downstairs, but I have no clue where it's been stored."

"Don't worry, Papai. I can sleep on the floor if I need to," Lily speaks up. "We packed my sleeping bag and brought it with us, remember?"

Brandon smoothes a hand over the dark head attached to his hip. "It'll be okay Menina…that won't be necessary. I'm sure that Mr. Stark has plenty of extra pillows and blankets in all of the rooms. I'll make myself a nice comfortable palette."

Cass is turning a lovely shade of puce. "Brandon." It's a testament to her self control that her voice remains level, and probably to her dedication to not embarrassing him in front of his child. "You were barely able to get out of the car without help. How do you think you're going to feel tomorrow after a night on a stone floor?"

Lily tugs on Brandon's shirt. "I could just sleep in the bathtub like I used to when Mama's sleep friends stayed overnight, Papai."

Uncomfortable silence falls, until Lily leans forward then and whispers something in Portuguese into his ear that makes Brandon blink. Then he shakes his head. "No, no...there aren't cars in his living room, Lily. This is just his workshop Mr Stark builds things for his job. The actual house is upstairs – that's where we'll both be sleeping."

"Workshop?" Lily's eyes widen... "You mean like where you make toys and stuff…kinda like Santa Claus has?" She turns a speculative eye upon Tony, then turns back and surveys the shop as if expecting to find reindeer grazing through the off-season.

Pepper's a little surprised by the smile that spreads over Tony's face at the question.

"I even have my own elves." He motions with his hand and Dummy and Butterfingers come rolling out of a corner where they'd been - supposedly - in sleep mode.

Lily watches the 'bots with interest – and if they had eyes, Pepper would say the 'bots return the favor - but then she turns her gaze back to Tony critically. "But your hair is black – plus you're not fat enough to REALLY be Santa."

Cass lets out a snort, and Tony raises one eyebrow. "Does that mean you don't want to help me make toys tomorrow?" He crouches down so they're eye to eye. "We can make just about anything down here you can imagine, you know-"


" – as long as your Papai approves, of course, " Tony finishes smoothly. "I was thinking a music box with a dancer or a little robot that can walk. That sort of thing. I figure that you can get up tomorrow, have breakfast and maybe play some board games with Cass and Pepper and then help me out down here while your Dad gets a few extra hours of sleep..."

"Papai, can I?" Lilly swings around and turns puppy dog eyes on her father. "Please? I won't even mind sleeping in the bathtub."

"You're not sleeping in a bathtub, Menina," Brandon replies, his voice rough. "Okay, okay. Fine. Let's start by seeing this room that you two masterminded and we'll make our decisions from there." He heads for the elevator leading to the main floor, his daughter in tow.

Cass leans in toward Tony, raising an eyebrow. "Stark O'Claus, Nos...? Isn't that a little…I don't know, jolly for you?"

He shrugs. "Don't take this in some kind of creepy old man way, but little girls are just really young women. And with the occasional exception," he gestures to both Cass and Pepper when they both open their mouths to object, "I figured women out a long time ago." He shrugs again. "It'll give her something to look forward too AND it's something to keep her occupied tomorrow."

He's saved from two no doubt scathing replies when the elevator doors chime open and Lily exclaims, "OOOOOOOOhhhhhhhh. Look, Papai! A kitty!"

Pepper's eyes widen, and she hurries over to check out Tuck, who not only has already had a rough day, what with the rat attack and all, but has also apparently been trapped in the elevator for an unknown amount of time. However, what she finds upon arrival is not an animal in any kind of distress but instead one very content, demented pirate cat, purring away like a chainsaw as Lily very carefully scratches under his chin with a single finger.

"Jarvis?" she asks. "How long has he been in here?"

"Perhaps ten minutes, Ms Potts. I've opened the doors several times to allow your pet to roam the first two stories, but he seems to have taken a liking to the elevator itself more than any other room in the house. I have been unable to determine why exactly…"

Tuck, turns to the shiny metal door and begins rubbing his face against his own reflection, purring furiously.

"Well that answers, that, seems he's in love, Ms. Potts," Tony murmurs in Pepper's ear. "No wonder I like him so much."

Lily giggles. "Rosa's cat Barney does the same thing on the 'fridgerator.' Tia says he thinks that it's a lady cat…"

"Yes, you always have been something of a tom cat." Pepper looks at Tony from under her eyelashes before getting into the elevator. "Lily, this is Tuck. He loves to play with laser pointers, toy mice and string."

"Is he allowed to sleep up on the beds?" Lily makes this inquiry more than a little bit hopefully.

"Yes. In fact, he loves to sleep on beds." But Pepper wonders if he'll STAY. Having company would probably do a lot to put Lily at ease. And having Brandon in his own bed would do a lot to put Cass' mind at rest.

It's preferable to him on the floor or a cot definitely.

She stops Tony before he can step inside as well and put the elevator into motion. "Will you go get the cat treats? Or a can of wet cat food. Maybe we can bribe him to stay with her tonight," she says very softly so Lily won't hear.

Tony smiles, "Sure. Though the other option, Pep, is to simply CLOSE the door to all the bedrooms BUT Lily's tonight."

He's quite sure he and Pepper can survive one night without Pepper's furry heating pad.

Brandon, meanwhile, is speaking his own opinion on the subject of Tucker up on the bed. "Lily, I'm sorry but I don't have my allergy medicine with me. I'll need to buy some tomorrow. In the meantime if *I* sleep in the same room all with a cat then I really WON'T be able to breathe in the morning."

Cass knowing an opportunity when she sees one, cuts into Brandon's monologue smoothly. "Well if Lily doesn't mind, Brandon, you can always just share the bed in my room tonight so she can keep the fuzzball with her."

"You guys are sleep-friends?" Lily asks, interested, which makes Brandon choke a little. Then Cass makes an aborted sound when Lily says, "But he snores."

"So did my sister growing up, Lily. It won't bother me."

"Are you sure?" But Lily's eyes are already straying back to Tuck who is winding around various ankles, including hers. "He's really loud some times. I have to put a pillow over my head."

"As long as he promises not to steal all the blankets? Absolutely."


"Let's wait until you see the room before we make any decisions, Menina."

"All right." Then... "I still need my medicine before bed, Daddy. Remember?"

Brandon nods and looks to Pepper, scrupulously avoiding either of the other adults for the time being. "Do you have some crackers or fruit available, Ginny? She gets nauseous if she takes her Zyrtec on an empty stomach."

"We have plenty. What kind of fruit is your favorite?" Tony asks, betting that after Pepper's extreme shopping trip they'll have it on hand.

"Anything but strawberries are good. They make me itchy." Lily shrugs. "Though I like oranges or grapes the best."

Tony nods. "Okay then. Maybe while Pepper finds you a snack you can help Cass and I get Pepper and your Papai's bedtime medicine ready too…."

"I don't need -" Pepper starts, before Tony slides an arm around her waist and squeezes.

"You do need to help set a good example, though," he murmurs in her ear. "If you take yours without complaint than Brandon will have to take his as well or risk a lecture from both Cass AND his daughter…"

"You will soooo pay for this," she whispers back sweetly, eyes taking on a dangerous gleam.

"Not tonight," he murmurs back with a smile. "Though I do look forward to it. Someone is going to sleep very well tonight after all this running around today."

Hell, Tony acknowledges, for that matter so will he.


Brandon doesn't even bother to protest the way that he's been subtly strong armed into taking his medication - either because he's so exhausted or because he hurts too much to refuse the relief at present. Instead he accepts the pills and a glass of juice, letting Pepper provide Lily with a snack before starting off again down the hallway towards the room that Cass and Tony had prepared.

Lily freezes in her tracks when Tony flips on the lights. "Hannah Montana," she says with hushed reverence.

The Disney teeny bopper is everywhere - including the posters on the wall and the bed sheets. The room is practically oozing in its perkiness. Tony shrugs when Pepper looks at him with a raised brow. "What? Jarvis says she's the latest thing. And if the goal is for her to want to stay in here at night, it made sense to go with it. I figured it'd be good for here and they can take it all with them when they go."

"Get thee back Satan," Brandon just groans softly, making an aborted sign of the cross on his chest.

Cass snorts, but apparently in agreement. "This at least is phase she *should* grow out of," she murmurs as Lily examines the room carefully, squealing with each new piece of merchandise. "and if she's anywhere near as stubborn as you are then the ones in her teenage years should get interesting…."

"You're one to talk. Stark, for the record I owe you for this," Brandon informs him deadpan. He doesn't look particularly grateful.

"Don't worry about it. I was thinking pretty much the same thing when I ordered this stuff." Tony sounds friendly enough, but he's still smirking. Pepper elbows him in the side.

Brandon mutters something back in Portuguese that earns him a raised eyebrow from Cass. "I don't think that's anatomically possible, Tanner…" She pitches her voice toward Lily. "So what do you think, kiddo, will this be okay for sleeping tonight?"

Lily looks around the room, turns the nightlight on and off several times, then looks at her father. "You're right next door?"

"Yes, Menina. And if you need anything you can just come and wake me."

Cass nods in agreement, "Just come knock on our door."

This reassurance seems to settle things for the child, because she nods a little, walking over to stand in front of her father. She hugs him again – careful this time of his ribs.

"Brave girl. Amo-o, Menina." Brandon leans forward to kiss her forehead. "Now - do your remember which bag we put your bathroom stuff in? Because you need to brush your teeth before bed."

Lily nods...then tilts her head. "What about you? We didn't pack any of YOUR things at Rosa's."

Brandon considers this a moment than shrugs, "I have clothes here that will work for sleeping tonight, and tomorrow I'll either go back to my apartment to get few things, or you and I will go out shopping."

"No need Brandy. We ordered you a couple of new t-shirts, a clean set of jeans and a couple of other items when we got all this." Her smile is wry, "There might even be tennis shoes with your name on them in the other room."

"Brandy?" The little girl looks at Cass curiously. "I thought Auntie Rosa said only family – her and Jared and Grandma Lizzy - got to call Papai that."

"I was friends with Jared too," Cass eventually says.

"Okay." Lily looks around the room again, then back at Brandon. "You're going to tuck me in?"

"Sim Menina. Go get brushed and we'll do a story then lights out."

The girl considers this offer before looking at down at the bags sitting on the foot of the bed. "Could I listen to the story you brought me on CD with my new book instead?"

Brandon looks upward. "Jarvis?"

"Affirmative. You need only provide me with the disk, Mr Tanner. I have speakers in every room in the house."

Lily jumps a little, eyes wide as she looks over at Tony. "Your house TALKS?" she asks with a shakily exhaled breath.

Tony crouches down to meet Lily eye to eye. "That's Jarvis. He's a computer here in the house. Mostly he helps me with things in my workshop, but he does other things too. For instance, he can turn the lights on and off, and he can play CDs and DVDs." Tony looks at the little girl carefully. "Jarvis is also in charge of security around here. He watches the outside of the house, and if you want your dad but don't want to get out of bed, all you have to do is ask Jarvis to wake him up."

"Cooooooooooooool," is Lily's reply, after considering this for several seconds. "It's kinda like the house on the Jetsons, isn't it Papai?"

Brandon snorts a little, but does nod his head. "Sort of yes." He braces himself with one hand on the floor and makes an attempt to climb to his feet, wobbling a little.

"Papai?" The child reaches out toward him anxiously.

"It's...I'm fine, Lilybeth. Just a little tired.."

Cass, snorts. "All right time for both you and your dad to get ready for bed."

"Well, if you two don't need anything else, then I think it's time Pepper get tucked in as well." Tony wraps an arm around Pepper's shoulders.

"Sleep well," Cass and Brandon unintentionally simultaneously reply.

Tony smiles and gently leads Pepper out of the room.


"Jarvis," he instructs as they leave the trio behind. "Keep an ear out tonight for our latest little guest. If Brandon and Cass don't respond to her for any reason, wake me up right away."

"Care to guess whether father or daughter will pass out first?" Pepper asks in a softly amused voice as they walk, his arm around her waist and her hip bumping into his comfortably as they make their way to the master suite..

Tony chuckles, "Right now I'm guessing the odds are an even 50-50."

"And what do you think my odds of falling asleep that quickly are?" she asks, just a tad bit suggestively.

Tony glances over, eyebrows raised high. "On any other night? I'd say they'd be pretty skimpy. But tonight I'd say you're in luck if you're looking for some quick shut eye." Tony closes the bedroom door behind them. "You've been tromping all over creation this afternoon."

Pepper yawns. "I AM tired," she admits. "But unfortunately I also need to go back down to the basement. I want to grab actual pajamas since we have guests in the house and my other pair is dirty at the moment. Not to mention while Brandon and I were out at the store today I bought you a couple sets of rat traps."

"Why don't we leave the traps for tomorrow? Though I appreciate the thought…" He scratches his chin, "You know, maybe what I'll end up making tomorrow is a prototype cat bot for Lily."

Pepper raises a brow. "And what about pajamas, Stark? In case you forgot you have a habit of kicking of the blankets when you sleep, and the last few nights it's gotten damn cold in here."

"I'll help keep you warm," Tony promises, with faux innocence.

"I thought you just said I was supposed to go to sleep." Pepper looks at him over her shoulder. "BUT, I suppose you have more than enough clothes up here...if you don't mind my borrowing a sweatshirt…"

"Mi Closet Es Su Closet," Tony agrees affably.

Pepper snorts as she goes into his closet and liberates a lightweight MIT Sweatshirt and a pair of silk boxers.

"Silk. Excellent choice." Tony himself grabs a pair of sweatpants. "Want a second opinion on your stitches?" he asks as she heads towards the bathroom.

"No, but I'd take another back rub before we pass out..." she calls back over her shoulder sweetly.

"Hmmm.... You're going to have to let me think about that one." Tony strips off his shirt with a stretch and lets out a deep sigh. It seems like it was an entire day ago since they'd had their afternoon nuzzle 'n nap.

Pepper nods, then looks down at her watch and blinks, "Good Lord...has it really only been six hours since we left my place? It feels like twice that...though I suppose with Brandon's errands and then packing up Lily...." She shakes her head.

"Adrenaline," Tony supplies. "Plus probably the shock of finding out about Tanner's kid. I certainly didn't see THAT one coming..."

"I don't think anyone did." Pepper acknowledges wryly, "However, looking back on the whole situation now, it does make a strange sort of sense." There's a sound of running water as Pepper washes her face.

"How so?" Tony comes to lean on the door frame, voice a little curious.

Pepper shrugs. "It just...fits somehow with who he is. Explains certain things that I always wondered about in terms of his choice of profession. Brandon's too competent a masseuse to have gotten into the business just to use it as a cover." She shrugs. "He LIKES his job...and I'm not even talking about the illegal part. "

She grimaces a little. "God, I can't imagine what it must be like for him at the moment …to have a kid that needs to be fed and have to change professions in this economy...Not to mention how would you feel if you had no health insurance and you knew you were slowly losing the use of your HANDS?"

"You have a point there," Tony admits, rubbing his hands over his face as he yawns. When his hands lower, he focuses on Pepper's ankles, then her calves...all the way up to her bare thighs until they're covered by the borrowed boxers. The sight is...pleasing...to him, in ways he can't entirely define.

Pepper continues, "I just...well...in the same position I guess I can see where I might have made similar choices...okay maybe not - but then I had the life insurance money Caroline left…and active scholarships I just had to maintain. Still.... You go a little crazy in some ways when you become a parent. It's hard to imagine what I wouldn't have been willing to do for Derek's sake."

Pepper turns off the water and dries her face. When she turns to Tony, expecting understanding on his face, she finds a distracted sort of appreciation instead. "Did you hear a word I just said?"

"Caroline, life insurance and scholarships, better choices," Tony says. The shirt is...less appealing, in one way. It's much too big for her frame and hides anything of anatomical interest, but still... It's his, and it's on her.

"And what - no smart comments about how I would have made a hot stripper under different circumstances?"

That much at least earns her his full attention again. He smirks, "I could have a pole installed in the bedroom. Or in the garage. I'm sure it'd be a great workout for that leg once the doctor okays it."

"How generous of you. I'll make sure to google male strip club outfits." She snorts, then deliberately sets down the washcloth on the sink and all but sashays over to stand in front of him...well, as best as she can with a slight limp anyway.

"Look at it this way, Tony...if I had been in the position Brandon was, then you and I might have met several years sooner," she murmurs, letting one finger trace lightly around the ring of metal imbedded in his chest. "And probably in a far less PG setting."

Tony can't help the thrill that shivers through him, though he does trap her hand to lay flat against his chest. "Yes. When I was a callow, chauvinistic youth who didn't see much point in spending more than a day or a week with any one woman. That sounds like it would have worked out so much better than how things DID work out." He'll take reality as it is.

Tony feels up the hem of the sweatshirt she's wearing. "If this is too long, I can get something to cut this off, Amante. Mid-riff length might be more comfortable."

Pepper groans a little as his hand snakes under for a moment to caress her belly. "Tony we need to go to SLEEP – isn't that what you keep saying?"

"Yeah." His voice is mournful. "It's a pity. Bed, Pep. I'll meet you there in a minute."

Tony presses a quick kiss to her lips before entering the bathroom to take care of his own before bed routine. Quick brush of the teeth, quick splash of water of his face and neck. Another yawn. He turns to leave, but then quickly grabs a tube of lotion from off the counter - when had Pepper had time to put anything away? - just in case she'd been serious about wanting a massage. He knows she has to be sore – even if her meds are starting to finally kick in.

When he emerges it's to find Pepper perched on the edge of her side of the bed, leaning forward just enough to drop her head so she can easily brush her hair out. The position leaves tempting spans of exposed skin at the nape of her neck.

"I really need to do this every day," she murmurs – to herself as much as him. "And I should probably get back in the habit of braiding it back every night. Well, that or it's time for me to go out and get another hair cut. If I don't, you're gonna end up eating it in your sleep at some point."

Tony thinks about that before voicing an opinion. He likes it long. It's a guy thing, he thinks. There's something about long hair that's very alluring. However, short hair makes that intriguing spot on the back of her neck much more accessible, and in the few times that she's actually had her hair short in the time he's known her, she usually takes the time to style it into a sleek cap curls in the mornings. The kind of look that makes a man's fingers itch to run through it.

It's a toss up, honestly.

"I like it fine like it is," he admits. "But I can see where it might give you headaches – that's a lot of weight atop your head."

She shrugs. "That's never really bothered me…though I suppose it might contribute to my tension headaches." She straightens, sets the brush on the bedside table, then pulls her legs up onto the mattress before flopping backwards with a soft sigh, lifting her arms above her head in a sinuous stretch. Then she flips, sprawling out contentedly on her belly.

"This another hint you want a backrub?" Tony asks in amusement, thoroughly enjoying the view.

"Just getting comfy," is Pepper's yawning reply. "That's all..." She pillows her head on both her hands.

"Sure. Mmmmhmm…and driving me nuts is just a bonus I assume?" He snorts, allowing the palm of his hand to dig in, gently, on the center of her lower back.

Pepper groans… "God that feels good." Then, " It's not my fault you're a satyr in all but the hooves, Tony…"

"I have those too – cleverly hidden in the classy designer shoes." He feels the knot atop her tailbone shift, then finally start to loosen. He leans forward to kiss her bare collarbone. "You're just one big knot, you know that? Methinks someone needs one of those ultra plush heated massage chairs."

"Don't even tempt me," Pepper murmurs. "They're awesome but way outside my budget."

She shrugs a little. "I am thinking of making a appointment with my regular doctor next week… Brandon suggested this afternnon that I might benefit from regular physical therapy and the regular use of…" she pauses, "I think he called it a 'TENS' unit."

Tony frowns at that. "Did he say for what purpose, exactly?"

Pepper yawns and nods. "Pain control due to 'partial right SCM overcontraction.'" She puts the words into quotes, " He says he can tell that it's getting worse because lately I tend to tilt my head just a little to the right. Plus I have a knot of fibrous scar tissue along my right shoulder blade that's not helping matters any."

"Scar tissue? I didn't see any surgery marks." He traces the pale skin of her upper back gently.

"You wouldn't. I just had a couple of really bad shoulder sprains from playing college level volleyball…" She grins over her shoulder at him, "Which was probably my own fault. My coach was always telling me that when I serve, I do so 'unnecessarily agressively'..." She winks, obvious not referring just to volleyball anymore..

"Not in my opinion," Tony volleys back with a similar grin. "So what position did you prefer…to play? On the team I mean"

"It varied. I had a pretty wicked serve…or so they said. But I was also tall enough to be good at guarding the net…and I wasn't the type to be easily intimated." She snickers. "Peter got me into playing, as a means of stress relief to be honest."

"How long did you play?"

"One year for fun and two years on the AA team. That was once I knew that I was good enough that I could play without fear of breaking my glasses…"

"Speaking of which…" He pokes her lightly in the ribs, "How come I've known you for years and yet I still had no clue that you have vision issues…?"

Pepper snorts. "Because I got tired of being blind and had my eyes surgically corrected as my Christmas present to myself the year that I turned twenty-five."

"Again - it's a pity. I probably would have developed a corresponding fixation. Wait a minute…twenty-five. You were already my P.A. at that point..." His eyes narrow a little, "THAT'S what you were recovering from during your 'Call me again for something other than house exploding and I'll KILL you when I get back, Tony!' diatribe?"

Her ears go a little red. "While I was a bit annoyed that you called me six times in one hour, I'm quite certain that I didn't chew you out quite THAT bad…"

Tony shrugs as he works slowly works out the knots. "Maybe not. A guy can dream though. You in that kind of temper is…memorable, usually."

Pepper chuckles softly. "Just be glad I didn't realize at the time how much of a...kick…you actually got out of being yelled at that way."

"Would you have stopped?" Tony raises an eyebrow.

"I'm not sure," she answers honestly. "Maybe. Hell, probably yes. I mean face it, Stark, you wrote the book on blurring the line between true sexual harassment and innocent flirting,"

"Flirting is supposed to be innocent?" Tony shoots back, deadpan.

"Not the way you usually do it," she replies. "But with me you kept it on the innocent side. Mainly, I suspect, because you had better ways to piss me off when you wanted to."

"I may have had a list yes. Not that I used it often. Doing so usually resulted in a withdrawal of our conversational foreplay…"

"Conversational WHAT…?"

"The linguistic thrust and retreat we've gotten so good at over the years, Potts. Face it, it's essentially verbal sex. And don't even get me started on how you single-handedly inspired a stiletto fetish..."

"Single-handedly?" Pepper asks with a good dose of skepticism.

"You may have had a LITTLE help," he acknowledges after a minute. "Though Cass is more into leather than footwear." He whistles, "God...you two could like rule the WORLD if you ever combined your wardrobe collections..."

"Women already rule the world, Stark. Get used to it."

Tony snorts. "Well at least you're one of the ones who doesn't try and DENY it. The whole 'weaker sex' thing some conservatives tote has always seemed like a big load of crap to me. You guys are scary as hell when you want to be."

Pepper's lips quirk. All joking aside, she knows that women are all too often overpowered by their male counterparts. But still, in this little kingdom, the power behind the throne is definitely her, and has been for a good long time now. "Just don't tempt me to use my powers for evil."

"Not EVER?" Tony pouts. "Well that's no fun at all!"

"Oh, I'll be as evil to you as I want. I was thinking of the welfare of the greater world." Pepper admits candidly.

"As long as I can occasionally get even...I think I can live with that."

"Mmmm...I thought you might see it that way." Pepper lets out a long, contented sigh. "So, you and Cass went shopping while we were gone, hm?"

"Just online..." Tony snorts. "Cass needed something to distract her. This whole thing with Brandon has involved far too much brooding on her part. She's always been at her best on the offensive. It was time to get her off of the bench and back into the game, so to speak."

Pepper snorts, "I take it she's not irreparably furious about Lily, then?"

Tony shrugs, "It looked to me like she was less pissed about him having a kid than she was with the fact she's finding about it when said kid is five." He shakes his head. "Tanner's whole deception seems a little excessive if you ask me. I mean she said herself that they've never been anywhere near what passes for a exclusive couple - so what's with the soap-opera secrecy?" He shrugs a little.

Pepper shifts a bit, making an uncomfortable sound in the back of her throat, "Yes well, be careful you don't judge things too harshly, Stark. After all, you haven't heard HIS side of the story..."

"Wasn't that YOUR job?" He raises an eyebrow.

Pepper kind of half shrugs. "I guess."

"So go on…enlighten me," he prods. "It'd help to know what the hell we're actually dealing with."

"Fine. Let's start with this. Belle is Lily's MOTHER, Tony."

Tony blinks. "And who is Belle again?"

"Likely the woman who shot me and beat up Brandon – or who controlled whoever did."

His forehead wrinkles…"And why in hell is Lily's mother trying to kill you and the father of her child?"

"Because she's a lunatic." Pepper says like it should be obvious. "Though in this case that insanity comes conveniently packaged with gang ties and a serious drug addiction. It's how Brandon ended up with custody. Now he's just trying to protect his daughter, as well as keep Cass out of the fray."

"No offense Pepper, but the best thing that Brandon could have done for Cass would have been to keep his pants zipped up in the first place..." Tony winces a little, at Pepper's chiding sound. "Don't get me wrong, Amante…the munchkin seems nice enough…but still. Tanner clearly doesn't always have the best taste in women. He should have manned up when he found out Belle was pregnant. It's not like Cass would have reamed his ass over it indefinitely."

Pepper pokes him in the chest. "People who've lived in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, Tony. Or are you going to claim you've never done something you regretted while drunk? This is no different. Brandon was a sodden MESS the night that Lily was conceived from what I've gathered…"

"That doesn't excuse him from the consequences of his actions..."

Pepper snorts at the irony, "Oh he agrees with you on that, Tony - to the point of absurdity. That's EXACTLY why he's been trying to cope with all of this by himself instead of dragging his friends into 'his' mess. God forbid he might be HUMAN and entitled to a little mercy when he's in pain and he fucks up."

She sighs again, lifts her head to meet his eyes. Debates a moment how much of Brandon's privacy she can violate, before deciding she's just going to have to trust her lover to keep confidences that aren't her own. "Tony, I'm guessing Lily was conceived not long after Brandon found out that your friend Jared's cancer was back out of remission."

Tony goes very still at that, though his face remains mostly blank. She presses on, "And from what little he's actually told me about that night, he never intended to sleep with her in the first place. Brandon woke up in Belle's bed AFTER Belle gave him a shot glass of whiskey and promised him a safe spot to sleep off his grief on her COUCH. "

"Damn it," Tony finally mumbles, very softly under his breath. Pepper nods. It certainly explains Tanner's lingering trust issues.

That he trusts any woman to top him speaks very highly for his relationship with Cass.

She rests her forehead against his neck a few moments more, then says the other thing running through her mind

"Ever hear the phrase, "There but for the grace of God go I?" When he nods a little she laughs, though there's no pleasure in the sound, "Maybe I wasn't as many chapters in to the soap opera yet, but Brandon's provided one hell of a preview of where things could have ended up if something hadn't interceded. As it is, I starting to think I owe Belle a drink for shooting me."

"Tell me about it." Tony finally admits. "God, can you imagine me with a preschooler?"

Pepper snorts in spite of herself. "You are a preschooler, Stark. You would have done fine. Eventually. Having people to take care of…well it seems to WORK for you."

And it's the truth. Tony…well if she's honest Tony's flourished in the last week. She'd never considered before now that in his case, DESIRED responsibility might smooth out some of the more chaotic elements of his personality.

And yet somehow her boss has settled into being her de-facto BOYFRIEND with almost frightening naturalness.

Which, if they don't want to end up like Cass and Brandon, she should finally address.

So she takes a deep breath, "Tony?" Her voice is quiet, "Remember how I said that I didn't have time in my life for a real relationship? Back when we first made our deal few days ago, I mean?"

He nods very carefully. "Yeah."

Her smile is wry, "I think I'd missed the fact that I'm already in one."