A/N: My 2008 NaNoWriMo project ended up being a collection of short stories involving Tony and Pepper from the Iron Man movieverse. Like any NaNo, there were parts that I really liked and parts that I feel were useful only as word padding. Because the project was a collection of mostly standalones with little in the way of overarcing plot, I've decided that the pieces I want to share will be their own stories, rather than submitted as chapters under the overall story heading. That'll also keep me from worrying about chronology. This particular piece is intended as a companion to the scene in the movie at the charity ball, so if you're unfamiliar with that scene, you may not be able to follow it very well. I listened to a certain song when I was writing, so that song has now become the title. For the curious, the song is by Toby Keith.
You Shouldn't Kiss Me Like This
We'd make the perfect pair
But dancing is as far as it goes
Girl, you've never moved me
Quite the way you've moved me tonight
I just wanted you to know
Why was she wearing this dress? Why did she even buy it in the first place? Sure, it had looked nice, very nice – admit it, it looks amazing – but very daring, far more so than any other dress in her wardrobe or that she'd ever worn in her life, up to and including that black number she'd worn at prom despite her mother's thin-lipped disapproval (not that anything had happened, of course, her date at the time had just been a fairly good male friend and she hadn't even stayed long and there had been no reason for her mother to worry so much). Pepper was convinced she must not have been paying very much attention when she was trying on this backless number to not have noticed just how exposed it made her feel. It must be the air in the concert hall, had to be, the doors kept opening and closing with the ebb and flow of guests, there was a constant stir of activity, eddies of movement around the dance floor, it was like a constant breeze and that was obviously the answer.
The answer to why she felt so exposed. The answer to... What was the question? Right, why had she bought it. Why had she bought it? Because it felt oh-so-slightly wrong to buy something like this on Mr. Stark's expense account as a gift for yourself. Because it looked good on her. Because she deserved it, she worked hard enough for it, and really, she didn't spend frivolously. She was appreciative of her salary – highest paid personal assistant on the West Coast – but she never took it for granted. She tried not to take it for granted. She didn't. She spent smartly but she needed to spend right. Her wardrobe was full of smart business suits and pencil skirts, mostly in blacks and white and greys. And this is blue. Blue to set off your hair, blue to set off your eyes, blue to really catch someone else's eyes. They see you in those drab grey tones all the time, no one's used to seeing you in color, and you like hearing the compliments. It was very different from what she usually wore, and it looked good on her. You bought it on Mr. Stark's expense account. It was a reward for all she had to put up with, and the months since then had been especially trying. This was the first occasion she had to wear it that she actually felt comfortable wearing it, though that was really up to debate right now. She really wasn't feeling that comfortable. It's not like he's going to be here. She came alone. She needed a break in her routine. The new routine, which was no routine at all. Everything was confusing and very little was familiar. She never knew what Tony was going to ask of her, and most of the time he holed himself up in the shop and refused to answer her when she called. She'd changed his schedule accordingly and he hardly seemed to notice. He'd been working like a man possessed and she was exhausted just being close to him, and he had been pushing everyone away, so it wasn't like she was even as close as usual to him. Not close enough. Never close enough. He was closed off. She'd needed a break. Maybe it wouldn't help things make any more sense, but at least it'd be something different in a way that wasn't going to confuse and dismay her. Just a charity ball. She knew the people here, most of them, a lot of them. She appreciated their compliments, dodged their inquiries, made small talk and avoided the topic of her boss. It was safe here, and for a while she could put her worries and frustrations and absolute confusion out of her mind.
You wonder what he'd think if he could see you in the dress you paid for with his money.
She needed a break. Casual conversation. Fresh air. Her mind was working overtime and she was salaried so it wasn't like she was getting paid for that.
She couldn't stop thinking about – Tony – work. So going to a charity ball sponsored by her boss probably wasn't the best way to get her mind off of it, but at least it had her mind active, because those nights she spent at home just had her at loose ends and her mind drifted in those directions anyway, as if drawn by a magnet. You want him to draw you closer. She exchanged pleasantries with someone she recognized from marketing. She smiled gently as she declined an offer of a drink from someone in Obadiah's retinue. She murmured an apology and the excuse that she just didn't dance to Happy – why did you come to a ball if you don't dance – and slipped into a conversation about Tony – and you don't mind that at all – and really, maybe this wasn't the best idea.
She was here now, she might as well enjoy it a bit longer, and the crowd was thinning out a bit anyway, or moving toward the entrance, maybe Obadiah was saying a word or two, as the highest ranking Stark Industries employee here. She was glad no one was asking her for official word. Not that they often did, she was usually a shadow behind Tony and most of the press that knew of her only knew her name from the e-mails she sent and phone calls she fielded. Besides, her hair was down, she was wearing this backless blue dress, and it wasn't like any of them would recognize–
"You look fantastic, I didn't recognize you."
Frozen, shocked, fighting a stumble as she turned around. It was Tony, what was he doing here, ("What are you doing here?"), and what did he mean by that ("Are you by yourself?") and oh God, he'd see her in this dress – you wanted him to see you in it – and he mentioned it, she bought it on his account on her birthday ("It was a birthday present from you, actually") and she was doing it again, she couldn't arrest the words before they came out – he said you look fantastic, he said he has great taste – and he was pulling her onto the dance floor, ignoring her protest, that's just the way he was and she could only sigh, except it was covering up how flustered she was.
And they were dancing.
She followed his lead. She couldn't keep time otherwise, she could barely hear the music over her heartbeat thudding in her ears. You like being this close to him. She couldn't meet his eyes without breaking away in a nervous smile – he notices – and oh God, what was she saying, she couldn't keep the words back, what a ridiculous thing to be saying to him – he said you look great and smell great – oh God –
"But I could fire you if that'd take the edge off."
The game. The banter. That was it, that was the way out, that was familiar, that would put this back where it belonged – even if you've never bantered with him before while dancing with him, and he's holding your hand, you know – and at least she could trust the automatic responses in a game so familiar to her, it'd be safe. And the smug smile crept over her as she scored a point, and this was the way it always went – no, it's not – and she could keep things where they were comfortable – you're not comfortable – and this could be salvaged.
"I've got you for the other eight."
Rattled. Nervous smile, nervous sigh, break away from his gaze, and why was it so hot in here, there were too many people in here and they were all watching her dancing with her boss, with Tony, oh God they were watching her dancing with Tony Stark – you want them to see you dancing with him – and she could feel him watching her and that was the only reason she couldn't feel everyone else watching them, because he was overwhelming her – you want him to overwhelm you and yes, you want to mean it like that – and everyone was going to misunderstand this, they didn't hear her protest when he pulled her onto the floor, they didn't know she was trying to keep it professional – you don't want to keep it professional – they'd think it was going to lead to that – you want it to –
And her thoughts wouldn't shut up.
"How about a little air?"
Was he nervous too – ("Yes, I need some air") – he was and he offered and he was leading her off the floor – you're getting to him too – and it'd be safer away from all those eyes, all those people, all the people from Stark Industries, all the reporters, all the people who know what Tony Stark is like and what it means when he devotes that much attention to a woman and it would be a much better idea to just go get some air up on the roof, that's where he was leading her – you're going to be alone with him – oh God they would be alone, what would be worse, dancing with him or going away with him? But it was too late now, here they were on the roof, and there were a few people up here too but they were moving away, and now it was just her and Tony and the torrent of her thoughts that just wouldn't shut up.
It was weird, it wasn't harmless, why couldn't he see? Because he doesn't see his own reputation, not like that. He didn't realize what it meant, what other people had seen and what they'd think about it, he was focused on what he wanted like he always was – you want to know what he wants – and it wasn't just a dance, he didn't realize it wasn't just a dance, he wouldn't understand, he didn't see things that way, he didn't see the consequences of his actions. And people knew what it meant when he paid attention like this, what it meant with all those other girls, but she didn't mean it like that, it was completely fine with her what he did with those girls – no, it's not – but it was different with her, it was different because he was her boss, there had to be a line, a wall, a barrier between them, because it just wasn't right, she was always with him and those rumors had already been spread years ago and this would only stir them up again – with good reason, since you just danced with him – and it would look bad, it'd look like she was changing those rules, they wouldn't understand that there were rules to begin with, they'd forget all these years of her professionalism and there would be all those assumptions about what she was doing and what she was after, they'd misunderstand and he didn't see what this could do to her career – but you've always wondered what it could be like – and she couldn't anyway, she couldn't be like those girls, because she had to work for him, she did what he needed her to do and that wasn't part of the contract – you wish it was – and it was about what Mr. Stark needed, not what she wanted – you want this – and she was on the rooftop with him and he was right here and her pulse was pounding – you want this – and she was drawing closer to him and she should be trembling at how close he was – you want this – and why couldn't it be about what she wanted – kiss him –
No. End this now. It had to be over now. She just couldn't allow this. She had to find a way out.
("I would like a drink.") She heard him murmur assent, felt him move away, she could breathe again, she could find more words to follow those, stumbling, halting, falling over each other – you sound ridiculous – and he was leaving and maybe he didn't even hear what she'd just said anyway, she could breathe, she could tell her heart to calm down – why didn't you kiss him? – and tell those thoughts to shut up.
Not that they'd listen.
What would everyone think? Better that he went back down alone. Probably better if she left soon, if she just went home – you just asked him to get you a martini – she could ask Happy to drive her home – you should have that drink with Tony – she'd have that drink but it'd be best to have it alone, she had to get that barrier back up again, she really should go home – maybe Tony would take you home –
Maybe that martini would be enough to make those thoughts shut up.
He was taking a while. Maybe someone was asking him about that dance. Maybe some other girl caught his eye. After all, he was Tony Stark, and she'd just shown he'd go nowhere with her – you call almost kissing him nowhere? – and he might not even remember that she'd asked for a drink, maybe he'd read it as her shooting him down – you started it – and he hadn't slept with anyone since he got back – you noticed – so really, he was overdue, it really wasn't like him to go that long without it, even though it was obvious that things were different now – maybe different enough – and if he did find a girl to go home with him, maybe he would just forget all about this. It'd probably be best if he did. Then they could just go back to the way things were, however that was anymore, and it'd be for the best. It really would.
Maybe that's why it was taking him so long.