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, particularly Cedric, 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.
Yeah, cliché number two. But honestly I couldn't resist. This story would in no way exist without the assistance, beta efforts, and support of Cincoflex, who is the best friend anyone could ask for. She also came up with several of the concepts and phrases in this story, in the first chapter especially, and has graciously given permission for their use here.
Their footsteps echoed in the marble lobby of the big bank, just like everyone else's, but unlike most of the customers Tony never bothered to keep his voice down. His ego liked watching people turn around to see who was disturbing the hush, just as the small wicked part of him liked to see Pepper's near-invisible wince as his words bounced off the ceiling. The bank manager, however, never even blinked as Tony held out a hand and spoke. "Gregory, good to see you."
"Mr. Stark." Ndibe gave him a wide smile and returned his grip without hesitation, then shook Pepper's hand as well. "It's always a pleasure to have you here." With practiced ease, Ndibe swept them off the main floor and into his office. "How are you, sir?"
They exchanged pleasantries for a moment, Pepper smiling genuinely at Ndibe's gentle compliments. Tony kept his smirk to himself. Normally he didn't like people flirting with his assistant, but Ndibe was married, and Pepper had admitted more than once that she loved the man's melodious accent. Tony liked to see her relax on occasion, though it didn't alter his plans to tease her about Ndibe's "crush" later.
"Ms. Potts says that you are here to see your safe-deposit box," the bank manager said at last, after coffee had been offered and politely declined. "Shall I have it brought here?"
"Nah, that's okay." Tony waved a hand and rose from the seat to which he'd been shown. "Just give us one of the rooms. I don't think we'll be too long."
"Of course." Ndibe escorted them to the row of tiny rooms used by customers who wanted to examine the contents of their safe-deposit boxes in privacy, and as they entered another bank employee followed them in with the long, heavy box. The woman set it down on the table and she and Ndibe withdrew. It was all very efficient, but Tony expected no less; Pepper had, after all, called ahead. And while Stark patronship was enough to get excellent service anywhere, Tony suspected that Ndibe would have done much the same for any customer important enough to warrant his personal attention.
"Okay, what have we got in here?" Tony asked, flipping open the lid of the box. Beside him, Pepper riffled through a handful of papers.
"Birth and death certificates, various securities dating from the 1960s, ditto some savings bonds, your great-aunt's collection of silver spoons, and your parents' jewelry." She consulted one. "It doesn't look like the box has been opened since they died."
Tony hid a small pang. "I did stop by right after their deaths, but I think you're right." He started lifting out the velvet boxes and bags inside, laying them out on the table. He actually possessed several safe-deposit boxes in several locations, but most of them held less personal assets, or things like backup copies of Jarvis' basic coding and plans for various inventions. This one, however, had really been his parents'.
It wasn't quite impulse that had led him back to it; Pepper had been going through an old box out of the storage sub-basement and had turned up a photo of his father consulting the pocket watch that had lived in his vest pocket. Tony's conscious mind had all but forgotten about that watch, but the sight of it had brought back memories of how it had fascinated him as a small child; the solid weight of it, the intricately engraved lid, the rich tick of the works and the delicate pointed hands making the rounds of the face. To him it had been an icon of manhood, one of the treasures that only grown-ups could have--and something that would be his own someday, his father had promised with a fond smile.
But by the time Howard Stark had died, Tony's focus had moved to electronics rather than simple gears, and in the initial rush of disbelieving, furious grief he had locked away all the reminders. There were more items in the house safe, but these were the most valuable and some of the oldest.
And the sight of that photo had stirred Tony to hunt up the watch, to feel its cool roundness in his hands again and remember.
He set aside the flat case that held the spoons and finally reached the smaller box that he remembered. As he picked it up, he was aware that Pepper had opened the spoon case and was murmuring in appreciation, but his attention was on what he held.
The box creaked open, and there it was, gleaming gold. Tony lifted it carefully out, the long chain trailing after, and with a press of his thumb sprang the carved lid open. It was just as he remembered--narrow black Roman numerals against a background of creamy white, the slender hands frozen at 2:38; the tiny scratch along the edge of the crystal that Howard Stark had refused to have fixed, because--he claimed--it came from dropping the watch out of sheer surprise when his wife had first told him she was pregnant.
Tony ran his thumb slowly around the curve of the casing, remembering not so much incidents as feelings--the absolute security of his childhood, the tall powerful presence that was his father and the energy and safety that was his mother.
"Does it still work?" Pepper's soft question pulled him from reverie, and Tony snapped the lid shut.
"Probably, it wasn't damaged in the crash. I think I'll take it to a jeweler first, though." Come to think of it, he could probably fix it himself if it were broken, but somehow he felt that the watch deserved the attention of an expert in the craft. On impulse, he turned it over in his palm. "Check this out."
"Hm?" Pepper stepped closer as Tony tried to open the back of the watch, but his nails were too short to pry open the lid. Grumbling, he reached for his pocketknife, but cool fingers suddenly covered his.
"Here, let me." Pepper took the watch carefully, and slipped one nail under the catch. With a tiny pop, it opened a fraction, and she handed it back.
Tony lifted the thin lid. Instead of a window to the works, the back was plain unadorned gold, but between the lid and the base was a scrap of paper, an old and faded photo. His mother's face, young, smiling, looked up at him from a cloud of dark hair, and slowly Tony smiled back.
"Dad always kept this in here." His voice was soft. "I think it was from before they were married."
Next to him, Pepper sighed, a wistful sound. "She was beautiful."
Tony nodded. "She was." He snapped the lid shut and put the watch back into its box, then slipped the box into his jacket pocket. "Take it off the list of contents. What else do we have here?"
Some of the jewelry he remembered, some he did not; there were bracelets and necklaces from his mother, cufflinks that had belonged to his dad. Some of the pieces were considerably older than his parents. One small plush box held their wedding rings, and Tony looked down at them thoughtfully for a long time before closing it and setting it aside.
He'd refused to think about his parents for so long; not until a gentle question in a firelit prison had he finally chosen to remember them, looking back at last with the eyes of an adult. At this end of history he didn't really know what kind of a marriage they had had, but he did know that they had loved each other. There were enough memories of kisses and laughter, embraces and teasing arguments, and just the simple solid security of a childhood that had known no uncertainty.
He glanced up at Pepper. She was going through the items with careful precision, making notes on the inventory list, smiling now and then over a particular piece that pleased her eye. She never wore much jewelry to work, though he'd seen her wear the occasional elegant necklace or bracelet when a function called for it. Tony suspected she spent her money on shoes instead.
Family. Love. Intimacy. Yinsen had made him very aware of what was lacking in his life--made him admit to himself that he missed them. Life had been so hectic since he'd gotten back that Tony hadn't had much time to think about those lacks, but some things had become more clear nonetheless.
And some had remained so. Like red eyes in a smiling face. Pepper walking into danger because he asked it of her. Choosing to kill him, even, because it was the right thing to do.
Strength, loyalty, integrity. Did she have any idea of how much he admired her? Tony was pretty sure she knew he lusted after her, that wasn't really something he tried to hide, but every time he tried to bring up the subject of something more, Pepper seemed to sidestep it with a practiced grace that made it hard to tell whether she was consciously avoiding the issue or just clueless.
Tony supposed that a gentleman would take the hint, if it was one, and let the whole thing go.
Good thing I'm not a gentleman.
He began opening the bags and boxes, spilling metal and gems into his palm for a quick examination. Most of it was gold; his mother's strong coloring had defeated silver.
"You should take these too," Pepper said, pushing one small container towards him. Tony opened it to find a set of diamond cufflinks, elegant sparks that bespoke wealth without ostentation.
"Good idea." That box, too, went into his pocket, and Tony watched Pepper cross it off her list, then circled around the table to see what she was looking at. "Oh hey, I remember that."
He picked up the tiny box for a better look. The wide-banded ring was gold and enameled black, a spiral pattern of leaves and coils set with a round opal--an antique, almost Renaissance-style piece that he'd only seen his mother wear a few times. "It came from Dad's side of the family. Belonged to his grandmother."
Pepper smiled. "It's very pretty, I've never seen anything quite like it."
"Here, try it on." Tony pulled it free of the plush and held it out, but Pepper gave him an admonishing look.
"Certainly not. It's--" He grabbed the hand closest to him. "--Tony!"
"Come on, Pepper, what woman doesn't like jewelry?" He slid the ring onto her pinky finger, gripping her wrist tighter to keep her from pulling away, but the ring was too loose, so he moved on to the next one. This time it fit perfectly. "There."
Pepper succeeded in jerking her hand free. "Tony, this is completely inappropriate."
He raised his brows. "How so? There's no one here but us." Tony kept his eyes on her, waiting for her to debate the issue, but she just tightened her lips and let it slide. Piqued, he took her hand again.
"It looks pretty good, actually. Why don't you wear more jewelry, Pepper? You've got great hands, you should show them off." It was true; she kept her nails short but manicured, and her long shapely fingers had figured in more than one of his more pleasant dreams. And the ring stood out against her pale skin, the opal glowing blue-green-pink in its setting.
"We've had this conversation," Pepper said with exasperation. "Professional appearance, remember?" She tugged, but Tony closed his fingers, not done looking. Or feeling; her cool skin was warming against his, and he stroked his thumb over her knuckles, savoring the softness.
Pepper coughed. "Besides," she said, her voice a little constricted, "I'm allergic to silver, and it kind of restricts my choices." She finally pulled her hand free.
"There goes my piercing fantasy." Tony watched as she rolled her eyes and began to tug the ring off. It slid up to her knuckle...and stopped.
Frowning, Pepper twisted it and pulled again, but it didn't budge. "Um..."
Amused, Tony grabbed her hand once more. "If you keep yanking, it'll never come off." He lifted her hand for a better look. "It went on just fine..."
Her knuckle was already reddening from her attempts to remove the ring, and Tony could see that it was starting to swell a little. He looked past her hand to her face, and Pepper was blushing hot pink. "PMS," she muttered. "Water retention."
Tony bit back the quip that sprang to mind--one thing he had learned was that it was not wise to tease a woman about period-related matters--and shrugged. "Well, let's try the obvious solution first." Folding back her other fingers, he slid the beringed one into his mouth, wrapping his tongue around her knuckle and smothering a laugh at her squeak. Pepper went from pink to bright red, and he had to hold her still again, but nonetheless Tony took his time, making sure that her finger and the ring both were thoroughly lubricated before removing them from his mouth. The ring tasted of old metal, but her skin had a flavor he couldn't quite name, something sweet and tempting.
"Tony--" He would almost have thought her disgusted, but for the pulse beating rapidly in her throat. Tony smirked at her and tugged gently on the ring. Unfortunately, it still wouldn't budge.
"For the record, you taste divine, but alas, no ring removal," he sighed, and reached for the handkerchief in his breast pocket. "You have petite hands, but it looks like my mother's were petiter. Is that a word? Petiter?" He started to dry her finger, but Pepper yanked it away, snatching the handkerchief from his hand.
"No, it's not." She turned away, ears still heated, her movements jerky. "I can't believe this--"
Tony picked up the empty box and added it to his stash, since it was clear that the ring wasn't coming off just yet, and went back to looking through the collection. "Relax, Pepper. When we get back to the house we can try KY jelly."
As he expected, that produced a hiss of suppressed swearing, and he grinned and went on sorting, listening to his assistant take deliberately deep breaths as she tried to calm her temper. By the time she'd stuffed the crumpled handkerchief into her pocket, he had finished, and was repacking the safe-deposit box.
Pepper picked up the sheaf of papers once more, and cleared her throat. "Did you want to take anything else?"
"Not unless you have a spoon fetish." Tony replaced the last few bundles. "Why is it that nobody collects forks?"
His assistant, her composure restored, snickered. "I'm sure I could research that question for you if you really want to know."
"Nah, I'll ask Jarvis. It'll give him something to do." He closed the box. "Let's get out of here."
The woman was waiting patiently in the corridor outside to take the safe-deposit box back to the vault, and as they left the room Ndibe met them, still smiling. "I trust everything was in order?"
The bank manager walked them out to the front door, chatting easily, and shook hands once more as Happy emerged from the limo idling at the curb to open the door. "May I offer my felicitations, Ms. Potts, Mr. Stark?" Ndibe asked genially, which made Tony blink in confusion and Pepper go dead white.
"It's not--" she began, but another employee came up behind Ndibe and tapped him on the shoulder, whispering urgently in his ear. The man gave them one last smile and turned away, and Tony frowned as Pepper whirled and all but ran for the car.
"Whoa, Potts!" He caught up with her at the curb, but she dove into the vehicle before him, so Tony just slid inside after her, shrugging at Happy in bafflement. The chauffeur merely tipped his head and closed the door; it took a lot to ruffle him.
Tony turned to his PA, who was yanking once more at the ring, her face set. Alarmed, he grabbed both her hands this time. "Hey, hey! That's not going to work. What the hell is the matter?"
"The matter, Mr. Stark?" she spat. "The matter is that Ndibe now thinks we're engaged." She shook the beringed hand in his grasp, which, he noticed belatedly, happened to be her left one.
Tony gaped down at it. He should be horrified, he thought vaguely, but the thought uppermost in his mind was actually what a great idea.
"It's not an engagement-type ring," he managed, ignoring Pepper's attempts to pull free.
"That doesn't matter--you heard him." Pepper sounded angry and a little panicked. Tony looked up at her, intrigued by that panic, and let his forefingers find the pulses on the underside of her wrists, stroking gently. Her lips moved in a silent oath, and she drew in a breath. "It's a good thing he's not inclined to gossip--"
"Destination, sir?" broke in Happy's voice from the front of the vehicle. Tony didn't take his eyes from Pepper.
"Home. We have a date with some lubricant." He smirked at his now beet-red assistant, but Happy was used to such quips and merely pulled the limo out into traffic.
"Mr. Stark, if you want to keep this quiet you had better shut up."
"Ooh, you're really pissed if you're back to using my last name. Why should I keep it quiet, Pepper? It sounds to me like a pretty good thing." Her pulse wasn't slowing under his touch; in fact, it seemed to be speeding up despite his attempt to soothe.
She sucked in another long breath, held it, and then exhaled sharply. Her hands relaxed in his, and Tony loosened his grip, only to have them snatched away. "Tony. This is not the time for one of your jokes. Do you realize what kind of effect a rumor like this could have? Stock prices, the press, the board--not to mention my credibility--"
Tony slumped against the seat, his mind turning over the possibilities rapidly. The idea of keeping Pepper, though, as a permanent part of all his life, kept intruding. He hadn't thought much beyond coaxing her into a relationship, but contrary to all his past, the idea of forever was...tempting.
And for Tony Stark, the best way to deal with temptation was to give into it.
Given how stressed his assistant seemed to be, though, now was perhaps not the best time to broach the subject. "Pepper...Pepper, take it easy. As you said, Ndibe doesn't tell tales. We'll get the thing off as soon as we get home, and that'll be that." He patted her knee. "I'm not sure you're right about the effect, though. The board's been trying to get me to settle down for years."
Pepper grimaced, sitting back a little. "Not with your PA, Tony. A sordid office romance is hardly the sort of thing to reassure them."
"Who says it has to be sordid?" Tony protested, surprised at his own mild offense. "Dirty, sure, I'm all for that, but anyone who thinks you can be sordid needs his attitude adjusted. I have wrenches..."
Pepper blinked at him, her cheeks pinkening again and the corner of her mouth turning up. "Public perception is the problem, not reality, as you well know." She picked up the papers she'd dropped on getting into the limo and stacked them neatly. "And I can't do my job if no one respects me any longer."
He had a hard time imagining anyone not respecting Pepper Potts, but the idea made him genuinely angry. The woman does the work of six people and keeps me in line. She's worth a hell of a lot more respect than I am.
"If you were married to me, Pepper, they'd have to respect you," he said, pitching his voice to tease but very curious as to how she'd react. To his delight, the roll of her eyes was accompanied by a deepening of that telltale flush. "But if anybody gives you any trouble, let me know. As I said, wrenches."
She sniffed dismissively, fished out her BlackBerry from her pants pocket, and began scrolling. Tony put his feet up on the opposite seat and folded his hands on his stomach, and considered the situation.
The more he thought about it, the more the idea of being engaged to Pepper appealed. Especially if there was going to be a wedding at the end of it. One of the things Tony knew he feared was losing the people he cared about, and Pepper was at the top of that list. And she keeps her promises.
It was a worthy fantasy--his ring on her finger, her kiss on his lips, and taking her home with him forever. He'd spent his adult life avoiding romantic entanglements, but the idea of belonging to Pepper felt nothing like a trap and entirely like something he should be working on, right now.
But does she want you, genius? He frowned. Pepper was attracted to him, no question about that; but a marriage, a true one, would require more than that.
I want what Mom and Dad had. It was a strange realization, given how long he'd refused to remember, but nonetheless it was the truth. And something like that had to have a firmer foundation than lust, honest though it might be.
So break it down. One--find out if she's in love with you. If yes, then all you have to do is talk her into a real engagement. If no--
The thought made his chest ache, but Tony didn't stop. If no, then...you'll have to woo her.
Which, he had to admit, he had no idea how to do. He could flirt, sure, and while he didn't usually have to put much effort into seducing a woman there had been a few times when he'd played a merry game of chase. But how do you offer a woman your heart?
Obviously, he had work to do. Tony closed his eyes, and began to plan.
When they got out of the limo, Pepper outdistanced him into the house. Tony followed her to the kitchen, and found her rummaging through the cabinets. When she retrieved a tall bottle and walked to the sink, he snorted. "Cooking oil, Potts? If you don't want to borrow my KY I'm sure there's some Vaseline around here somewhere." He thought for a moment. "Or machine oil, if you prefer."
Pepper shook her head, yanking a dishtowel from the rack where it hung in snowy folds and tying it around her neck--to protect her blouse from any splashes, Tony surmised. "Opals are fragile, Tony, and this is an heirloom stone. I can't even use lotion."
He drifted closer to watch as she trickled a generous splash of the golden oil over the ring and her finger, and set the bottle down. Because he wanted to, Tony reached out and took her dripping hand in both of his, using his fingers to work the oil in under the ring and ignoring Pepper's abortive protest. He wasn't sure if she was more worried about his sleeves or the fact that he was touching her again, but either way he wasn't going to stop. "You're going to smell like a French fry."
"As opposed to a machine shop?" she shot back, and he grinned.
"Some people find the odor of fine lubricant arousing." The oil was making her skin even softer. "Now relax."
He gripped the ring carefully and slid it up her finger, but again it stopped at the knuckle, and no matter how he twisted, it wouldn't go further. Tony frowned. "I don't want to hurt you."
Pepper brushed his hands away and took over, pulling much harder than he would have dared, her lips in a tight line. Tony flinched as she yanked, and when she had no more success he grabbed her wrist. "Stop, Pepper. This isn't working."
She sighed, shoulders slumping. "I guess not."
Tony gave her wrist a squeeze, and reached for the sink dispenser with his other hand. "You can try again tomorrow." He pumped a dollop of detergent into his hand and began to lather it with his fingers.
"Wait, no soap," Pepper said in alarm, but Tony snorted again.
"I doubt once will hurt it much, Pepper, and anyway you need to get the oil off. If necessary the stone can be replaced." He ignored her wince and scrubbed her hands gently. "The swelling should go down overnight."
Pepper sighed again, a tired sound. "Three days," she said. "That's how long it usually takes."
Tony turned on the faucet and guided her hands to the water, rinsing both pairs before letting her go and plucking the towel from around her neck. "Three days, then." He gave his hands a cursory wipe and held out the towel, smirking again. "You can wear a Band-aid over it if it worries you so much."
She rolled her eyes, and took the cloth. Tony glanced at the clock on the microwave. "Since we're here, Potts," he went on, "why don't we call it quits for the day? By the time we get back to the office it'll be time to leave anyway." It was a slight exaggeration, but he really didn't want to bother going back, and he was betting that Pepper wouldn't either with the ring still on her finger.
She hung up the towel, looking at the time herself. "You're right," she said reluctantly. "I can handle the budget reports by video, and there's nothing else there that can't wait until tomorrow." She looked down at the ring still stubbornly clinging to her finger, and shook her head. "It's probably just as well."
"Probably," Tony agreed dryly, and picked up the oil, turning to the cabinet to put it away. He felt Pepper's eyes on him for a moment before she spoke.
"Tony...it's not..." She hesitated. "It's not the idea, you know--it's just all the problems involved--" She huffed a distressed breath, and that made him turn back. "I mean, I'm not assuming anything but--"
"I know," he said gently. Pepper was red once more, and all he wanted to do was hug her until she stopped being so embarrassed. For a moment, he almost did, but--No. Don't screw this up. "It's okay, Potts. I get it. I'm not insulted. Now go make your call."
With a distinct air of relief, Pepper fled. Tony watched her disappear, amused, and went to change clothes. Suit schematics were calling him.