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. Any errors are mine, all mine, no you can't have any.
Well. Due to unforeseen complications, I need to take a week's hiatusfrom Palmer's Kiss. So here is a small bit of fluff to tide you over.
For Cincoflex, who patiently puts up with my muse cutting into our chat time!
The first one was a rose. Pepper found it on her desk when she came in one morning, a single, vivid red bloom in a slender crystal vase. It had been delivered just that morning, the office manager told her--only ten minutes before she'd arrived.
Pepper bent to sniff, bemused and pleased. The scent was rich and cool, a little earthier than a normal florist's rose, and the petals brushed her lips with a hint of velvet. A tiny white card lay next to the vase, and she picked it up.
From an admirer, read the impersonal print. There was no signature, no name, and Pepper pursed her lips, puzzled. Her first thought was that the rose was from Tony--he'd been known to send her gifts on occasion--but while he didn't always sign the cards, the words made the sender's identity unmistakable. She still remembered the dirty limerick that had come with the shoes, the last time.
She ran through a mental list of possibilities--certain aged board members, Stark Industries division heads, one or two rival CEOs--but without more clues it was hopeless. Shrugging, Pepper sat down at her desk and turned on her computer. An anonymous gift was unusual, but it was also a pleasure.
Tony noticed it mid-morning, when he came in to harass her about a scheduled meeting. "Nice flower."
"Yes, it is. Do I have you to thank for it?" Pepper was scrolling through her computer's calendar, and barely managed to catch his fleeting frown.
"Nope. I'd never stoop to anything so measly. Seriously, Pepper, can't the committee meet here? I'll send a car for them."
"Absolutely not. You're the invited guest, you have to go there. I'm afraid you'll just have to resign yourself to a forty-minute drive." She clicked on an appointment. "And there's something to be said for restrained elegance."
"Pfft." Tony flicked the rose with a forefinger, which did nothing more than rock it in the vase, and stuffed his hands in his pants pockets. "Can I at least take the chopper?"
"If you must," Pepper replied, having planned for that before the negotiation began, and that was the end of the matter.
Two days later, it was a huge vase of mixed flowers, carnations and multicolored daisies and other things Pepper couldn't name, an explosion of color and scent. This time, Pepper was sure they were from Tony, a rebuttal to the single rose, but again the card was anonymous. Your grace inspires was all it said.
She regarded the words for a long time, wondering if she should be alarmed. Anonymous gifts were all very romantic in theory, but in practice they were a bit worrying; a stalker was always a possibility, and triply so considering Pepper's job and her proximity to Tony Stark. It would hardly be the first time someone had targeted her in an effort to get close to Tony.
But somehow the simple phrase, the stunning arrangement, carried no hint of threat. It felt...old-fashioned, Pepper decided finally, as if the sender was sticking to older, stricter notions of propriety.
And, she had to admit, it made her feel good. It had been a long time since someone had given her a present that wasn't for her birthday or Christmas, and the compliment was sweet.
But she couldn't help wondering who it was.
Tony hadn't seemed to notice the flowers, but it was hard to miss the third gift when they walked in. The basket of peaches filled her little office with a mouthwatering fragrance, and Pepper's stomach actually growled. She loved peaches, and they weren't in season.
She plucked one from the basket and lifted it to her nose. It was heavy, and the ripe scent spoke of hot summer sun and lazy summer days. These must have cost a fortune. Pepper gave a little moan of pleasure, and only then noticed Tony's stare.
She steadfastly refused to blush. Pepper lowered the peach and replaced it, reaching for the card and waiting for his suggestive comment, but all she heard was his swallow.
The card was in a different handwriting this time, but still bore no name. For your sweetness, it read.
This time, she did blush, though she couldn't say exactly why. "Who's it from?" Tony asked, his voice a little constricted.
"An...admirer," Pepper said, not looking at him. She rounded the corner of her desk and opened the top drawer where the other two cards sat, and dropped the new one in. But before she could shut it, Tony was there, grabbing the edge of the drawer. Her shove failed to dislodge him.
"Wait a minute--who is this?" He scooped up the cards, evading her snatch for them, and flipped through them. "From an admirer, your grace inspires, for your sweetness, buy my...tires?" He scowled. "Burma Shave."
Pepper reached around him and took the cards back with a firm tug. "Tony, please."
His grin was quick and dismissive, and didn't quite reach his eyes. "If it's peaches you want, Potts, I can buy you a cannery. Who the hell is this, anyway?"
Pepper ignored his riposte. "I don't know," she said, trying to sound off-hand. "Someone who appreciates me, clearly."
"Clearly." Tony snorted, and plucked one of the peaches from the basket, heading for his office. "Let me know what the rest of the rhyme is."
Pepper sighed as he disappeared through the connecting door, and reached for another fruit. She had just taken the first succulent bite when Tony stuck his head back in. "Have I told you lately that I appreciate you?"
She would have sworn, but her mouth was full, and this time his grin was real, catching her with juice dripping down her chin. Pepper narrowed her eyes at him, and he winked and vanished once more.
Pepper sighed in peace, and settled to enjoy her peach. Unfortunately, it was almost gone before she noticed that the webcam on her monitor was on. She snapped it off with an oath, and fumed to hear the laughter in the other room.
The peaches were followed by a large beribboned box of Belgian chocolates, and a card that said merely You deserve all things good. Pepper felt a little uncomfortable, but obviously her admirer didn't want a thank-you note.
Still, her curiosity was awakened. Pepper spent her lunch hour tracing the gifts; the florist and the chocolatier were easy, but the orders had been paid through a card, and when she managed to track that down, Pepper discovered that it was backed by a Swiss bank account that was firmly anonymous. Dead end. Whoever was sending her presents was determined to stay in the shadows.
She wondered if she should be worried now. All the items were expensive, to be sure; but they're all consumables, she thought. Nothing that even hinted at vulgarity or bribe.
Tony wandered in when she was polishing off the second bonbon, and stopped dead at the sight of the box. "Okay, that's just creepy," he declared, scowling again. "Potts, who the hell is this?"
"Someone who prefers to remain nameless," Pepper shot back, nettled. "And before you start in on stalkers, Tony, don't. There's no threat, okay? Just someone sending me presents."
He hunched his shoulders, his frown deepening. "How do you know? Could be anybody. Pepper--"
"No." She cut him off with a sharp gesture. "I'm not going to let you spoil this. Someone's being nice to me, and I like it. It's none of your concern."
"The hell it isn't, I--"
Pepper's phone rang, saving her from the incipient argument. Snatching up the device, she answered it, turning away from Tony, and after a moment he growled and stomped away.
But her pleasure in the chocolates was spoiled, and it wasn't until she was lying in bed that night, staring at the dark ceiling, that she realized why.
I wish it was Tony.
The thought was sad and half-shamed. Pepper knew she'd done the right thing when she'd turned down his proposition--much as she might have wanted to say yes, the situation was just too complicated, and--
No. Be honest with yourself, at least.
The truth was, she'd been afraid. Afraid that he wasn't really serious, afraid that she couldn't handle a relationship with him, afraid that he would discard her the way he had so many others. And her own pride had spoken up as well, telling her that things came too easy for Tony, that if he were serious he wouldn't just let the matter drop.
But he had. He still flirted with her, certainly, and he'd brought home not a single woman since his return from Afghanistan, but Pepper had the dismal feeling that she'd let her one chance pass by. It had taken her years to fall for her difficult, demanding, utterly charming boss--she'd had to learn him inside as well as out first--but apparently it was too late now, and pride and fear wouldn't let her bring up the matter again.
Her mysterious admirer made her feel good, yes. But he could never win her heart.
Pepper squeezed her eyes shut and forced herself to sleep.
Violets. Oranges. A tiny spun-sugar castle that was far too beautiful to eat. Gift followed gift, each accompanied by a simple phrase or a scrap of classic poetry, a verse or two extolling Pepper's charms. Tony's expression grew grim at the sight of them, and to her dismay more gifts began to arrive, at her house as well as her office--more chocolate, a cobwebby shawl, a pair of shoes she'd been considering. All these were from Tony, blatantly; the cards that came with them were either signed in his own bold hand, or bore teasing, salacious comments. At any other time, Pepper would have been torn between embarrassment and shy delight, but now they only made her sad and angry. Because--
He's only doing this to show up my secret admirer.
One thing she knew about Tony was that he was possessive. And he clearly considered her his property, professionally if nothing else. Given that he wasn't actually interfering, Pepper held her tongue for a while, but her temper grew shorter, and they began to snap at one another.
The last straw was a bra and panty set in silvery silk that cost more than Pepper's mortgage payment. She'd long since gotten used to Tony's lack of propriety, but there were lines even she wasn't willing to cross. So that evening after work, when they reached Tony's house, she followed him in with the box.
"I can't accept these," she said, thrusting it at him.
"Not your color?" He was pretending to be casual, and it only made her angry.
"I thought you liked gray, you wear it often enough." He wandered over to the bar and poured himself a drink. "Of course, if you modeled them for me I could see just what was wrong with them."
Pepper slapped the box down on the piano so hard that she heard the strings vibrate beneath the polished top. "Stop it, Tony."
His smile was the empty one he used when bored. "Stop what?"
"Stop acting like a child," she shot back. "Stop sending me presents."
"You're my PA. I'll send you anything you like." He sipped from his glass, and Pepper wanted to smack it out of his hand.
Tony's eyes flashed. "Don't talk to me about inappropriate. You've got a full-blown stalker, Ms. Potts, and you're sitting there eating out of his hand like a naive innocent--"
"You couldn't trace him either, could you?" Pepper interrupted triumphantly. Tony's brows drew together.
"Which is exactly why I'm concerned!"
"No, you're not. You're just miffed because someone else is daring to express an interest in me." The words were tumbling out of her, unstoppable. "Well, let me tell you something, Mr. Stark--I'm not your toy. I don't belong to you, and if I want to--"
Tony stepped nearer. "No. You're not." His voice was hard and angry, and he set his glass down on the piano with a clink, barely missing the box.
Pepper swallowed hard. Her whole body was thrumming, so close to him, as if his anger were contagious, and she fought to keep control of her emotions. "If I want to accept these things, I will. It's sour grapes, Tony, you're not serious but you can't stand to see someone else who is--"
His grip on her arm was sudden and tight. "Is that what you think?" Tony all but spat the words in her face. "The hell I'm not serious, Pepper, you--"
She yanked, but he didn't release her. "Let go of me."
Tony glanced down at where his hand wrapped around her forearm, and his mouth tightened. "I can't."
The helplessness in his words was a shock. Tony lifted his head, and Pepper found she couldn't look away from his eyes, anger mixed with a deep despair that stunned her.
"You turned me down cold," he said in a low voice. "What the hell was I supposed to do?"
She had never realized that she could actually hurt him. Pepper felt a surge of shame heating her face. "Tony..."
His free hand rose to her cheek, fitting delicately to its curve as if he weren't quite sure she would hold still long enough. "Pepper...I can't..."
Her thoughts spun, then focused, and whatever else he was going to say was lost against her lips as she leaned into him. Tony made an inarticulate noise, and dragged her closer.
Pepper figured they'd get around to the rest of the discussion eventually.
The view through the cameras was excellent. Judging from the soft sounds and the closeness of the two figures, the situation was resolved.
Jarvis wasn't programmed to feel pleasure, but he was programmed to learn. With the electronic equivalent of a smile, he erased all traces of his work, and shut down the video feed.