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, 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.
More angsty than I usually get, but this is an idea I've wanted to explore for some time. Many, many thanks to Cincoflex for betawork, enthusiasm, major reassurance, patiently rereading, and of course the banners. And a special thanks to Mingsmommy for another POV and expert advice on Charleston!
Pepper woke to the sound of Tony's voice, but he wasn't talking to her. She lay still for a while, trying to assess the situation, because whatever madness had possessed her the night before was gone, and she was appalled.
What the hell was I thinking?
She hadn't been, that was the problem, Pepper realized with disgust. She'd let herself go completely, jumped her boss in a frantic effort to forget her own problems, and completely compromised herself as well as her career. The fact that it had all been incredibly good didn't really help.
When she opened her eyes, it really was morning, and Tony's one-sided conversation was somewhere over her shoulder. On the phone, Pepper thought, and made herself roll over and sit up, automatically pulling the sheet up to cover herself.
Tony was sitting at the room's little desk, speaking quietly into his cellphone. A mug sat by his hand, and Pepper could smell coffee mixed with the fresh air seeping in past the balcony curtains; apparently he'd made use of the room's coffeemaker.
She swung her legs off the bed and stood up, tugging the sheet free to wrap around her. Tony might have already seen her naked, but that was no reason to give him a fresh view. Her clothes lay where she'd dropped them the night before, along with his shirt and jacket, when she glanced over at him, he was wearing the slacks. He waved, clearly preoccupied, but his smile glinted and she looked away quickly.
It was a moment's work to gather fresh clothes from her suitcase and retreat to the bathroom. It was still slightly steamy, and her boss had apparently borrowed her razor to judge by the hair in the sink.
Pepper peeled off the sheet and kicked it into the corner, and made herself look in the mirror.
And winced. What a mess.
Her hair was a rat's nest. She was as pale as milk except for the pink of the lingering sunburn and the rather impressive hickey decorating her neck. There were other, fainter marks scattered over her body, including a bruise on her breastbone, and she could feel the soreness of well-used muscles.
She stepped into the shower, adjusted it just short of scalding, and scrubbed herself clean, as if she could wash away the last twelve hours. Or twenty-four, or forty-eight, all the way back to the initial phone call. Stupid, she told herself furiously. How stupid could you possibly be?
If she was really, really lucky, Tony would be gone by the time she came out. In fact, she was surprised that he hadn't actually left yet. If he's gone, I won't have to deal with him now. And later could possibly be handled remotely--
Eventually she had to get out of the water. Pepper dried her hair and rubbed lotion into her sunburned face, brushed her teeth and drank three glasses of water, and dressed, wishing for more formal armor than a t-shirt and slacks. But her makeup was in her suitcase and her stilettos were in the closet, and why was she even bothering to think this way, none of it really mattered.
When she mustered the courage to open the bathroom door, the desk chair was empty. Pepper expected relief, and was appalled again to realize that what she actually felt was a sort of miserable disappointment. What do you want? she asked herself savagely. What makes you any different from the other women who throw themselves at Tony? Of course he's gone.
The fact that she'd told him what had happened with her quest was too painful to touch, so she ignored it. It was part and parcel of the rest, anyway, a vulnerability too dangerous to maintain, and it could be dealt with at the same time.
Pepper sat down at the little desk, ignoring the half-full carafe on the coffee machine and the way her body twinged, and opened her laptop. If she got the resignation letter done now, she could e-mail it to Tony before she left, and it would be effective from the moment it hit Jarvis' servers.
It probably wasn't going to be that easy, of course, but if she were really lucky, Tony would let her go without a quarrel, and she could go about trying to recreate her life from the shambles she'd made of it.
The letter was stiff and formal, but it really didn't need to say much. Pepper hesitated over the last sentence, wondering if she should try to frame an apology, but she couldn't think how to begin.
The sudden soft breeze was all the warning she had before Tony's hand landed on her shoulder, gripping tightly. "That better not be what it looks like, Potts," he said dangerously.
How she managed not to jump, Pepper didn't know. I forgot about the balcony-- "Please let me go," she said stiffly.
"Not on your life." His other hand reached down from behind her, and before she could move he'd managed to close the program.
"I saved it," Pepper said automatically, and he snorted.
"Want me to throw the whole thing off the roof? Give it up, Pepper. We need to talk."
She ducked out from under his hand and rose, not wanting to be trapped in one place. "No, we don't, Mr. Stark. If we act like civilized adults, this can all be over very quickly."
"Fat chance." Tony propped his hands on his hips, scowling. He'd put his shirt back on before going outside, at least, she noted, but hadn't tucked it in, and while he was clean and shaved his hair was uncombed. He looked delicious.
Pepper wrenched her gaze away and focused it just beyond his right ear. "There's nothing to say. I did something I shouldn't have, and I can't take it back."
"I don't want to give it back. Pepper, for pity's sake look at me, will you? I don't know why you think you--"
"I don't have a choice, Tony," she interrupted, refusing his order. "This is not something we can just...ignore."
"Damn straight it isn't." He took two steps forward, almost into her personal space. "But walking away isn't the answer."
"Isn't it?" Pepper gave in and glared at him. "How much credibility do you think I'd have, after this?"
He ran a hand through his hair in frustration. "Just as much as you want, this the twenty-first century, not the nineteenth--"
She wanted to scream. "I slept with my boss. What does that make me, Tony?"
"The best thing that's ever happened to him. Come on, Pepper." He took her arms just above the elbows, much as he had the night before. "Stop it. Half of this is just camouflage anyway because you told me your secret."
His blunt words struck deep, and she twisted away in pain. "So what if I did? What difference does it make?"
The question was rhetorical, but as she struggled not to cry, Tony wrapped his arms around her from behind. "All the difference in the world." He rested his chin on her shoulder, squeezing her warningly when she tried to step out of his embrace. "I don't know what it's like to be abandoned, Pepper. But I do know what it's like to be utterly alone."
That stopped her cold, because it was true, even if he'd never mentioned it before. He'd had the sort of love she'd only dreamed of, but it had been torn brutally away in one swift blow, and he'd had to learn to survive in the aftermath.
His breath was warm against her ear. "You trusted me last night, Pepper. I'd like to think it was for a reason, and not just because I happened to be the closest warm body."
Her throat was cramping with the tears she didn't want to shed. "Tony..." The word wavered and broke, and she squeezed her eyes shut. But this time there was no stopping them, and Pepper buried her face in her hands, ashamed as the first sob tore free.
She tried again to pull away from Tony, but she was crying so hard she could hardly stand up, and couldn't make out what he was saying. But his arms wouldn't loosen, and when she staggered he lifted her bodily, settling them down with Pepper across his lap on a yielding surface that had to be the bed. Tony pulled her in tight, and she felt his mouth against her temple, a soft kiss that somehow made her weep even harder.
It was more crying than she'd done in a year, but Pepper couldn't seem to help it. She pressed her hands over her eyes, not caring how she looked or sounded; let out her grief and rage and bewilderment at being turned away by the people who should have loved her.
She cried for the lost dream, all the years she'd spent on it; she cried for herself, more alone now than ever; and she cried for the gray broken woman in the wheelchair, whose chances had all run out.
Through it all Tony held her, warm and secure and silent. Part of her wanted to pull away, because accepting comfort meant admitting weakness, but Pepper just couldn't find the will.
She wept until she could hardly breathe, until her eyes were swollen half-shut and her burned cheeks felt scoured. At some point she'd curled one hand into the front of Tony's shirt, holding it hard, and she could make out the glow of his reactor where her tears had wetted the cloth. And still he held her, the fingers of one hand stroking her arm absently.
Pepper felt hollowed out once more, almost too weary to move. She closed her eyes, wishing she could sleep again and avoid whatever awkwardness was still to come. But despite the way her head spun, sleep didn't seem available.
"When's the last time you ate something?" The quiet question was unexpected, and Pepper blinked.
"Um...yesterday morning," she said, her voice hoarse.
Tony's arms tightened a fraction. "Typical, Ms. Potts. You really need better stress management." His tone was teasing, and he reached for the bedside phone. "Yeah, this is Room 224, I want breakfast delivered...uh-huh...no, three. And more coffee. Yeah. Thanks."
She heard the click as he put the receiver back, and tensed to move away, but Tony hugged her close again. "Tell you what," he said casually, and she could feel his voice vibrate in his chest where her ear was pressed. "Let's stay put until the food gets here."
Again, Pepper knew she should argue, but there didn't seem to be any point. And she didn't have the energy that getting her own way would take, so she complied, knowing she must look ridiculous but too drained to care.
She'd always known that Tony had a deeply compassionate side to him, even though he seemed to spend a lot of time pretending it wasn't there. But she'd never expected to have that compassion focused on her, and underneath the embarrassment and grief Pepper was shyly grateful. Mourning alone would have been easier...but so very, very lonely.
Just don't get comfortable, she warned herself. This is temporary.
When the knock came, Tony sighed, and Pepper braced herself to slide off his lap, but he didn't let her. Instead he stood, and carried her over to the desk, seating her in the chair despite her protest. "Stay put," he told her sternly, and went to answer the door.
He had it open before she could voice a warning about the reactor under his shirt. But as far as she could tell, the tall man who wheeled in the cart of breakfast didn't notice; he accepted the generous tip that Tony handed him and left, not even blinking at the room's disarray. Pepper closed her eyes briefly and told herself that if the whole situation turned up in the tabloids it wouldn't be her problem any more.
"Smells good," Tony said cheerfully, and filled them both plates, handing her a fork and then leaning against the desk to eat rather than sitting on the bed. Pepper tried not to assume that he was blocking a potential escape route, and looked down at the food, suddenly aware that she was very hungry.
Tony consumed about three times what she did, but that was typical, and Pepper filled up on omelette and toast and fruit. The fresh coffee eased the tight band around her temples, and by the time Tony had popped the last strawberry into his mouth she was feeling much clearer. Automatically she stacked the dishes back on the cart and wheeled it back out into the hallway for pickup.
She glanced at the clock by the bed when she came back in. She had the room booked through Friday morning, but it was only eight-twenty, and checkout was eleven a.m. I can be out of here by then.
Tony was on the phone again, and she slipped past him to the bathroom, wincing again at the damage. Pepper soaked a washcloth in cold water and bathed her eyes until they felt better, and reapplied lotion and brushed her hair smooth once more. She still looked like a wreck, patchy red and white, but it would have to do.
When she came back out Tony was crouched next to her fallen purse, picking through the scattered contents; as she watched, he came up with the CD in its case. "What's this?"
Pepper thought about prevaricating, and decided it wasn't worth the hassle. "Photos. I think."
Tony straightened, and lifted an inquiring brow; Pepper shrugged at him, and went to gather the clothes still lying on the floor. Tony went over to the desk and opened her laptop, slipping in the disk.
It took him only about five minutes to go through the pictures. Pepper carefully didn't watch, instead packing her possessions methodically and indulging in a brief fantasy of slipping out the door while he was preoccupied. The laptop, after all, was technically his property.
But he finished just as she was zipping up the suitcase, leaning an arm over the back of the chair and resting his chin on it. The expression on his face didn't bode well; it was the calm stillness that meant he was beyond cajoling or argument, the one she most often saw when he was getting ready for another Iron Man mission.
"What do you want to do now?" he asked.
Pepper set the case on its wheels by the door. "Go home."
"Good idea." Tony didn't move. "Then what?"
"None of your business, Mr. Stark. I resigned, remember?"
He actually rolled his eyes. "Don't even start, Pepper."
It was a little frightening the way her temper flared back to life. "You can't keep me if I decide to leave."
His mouth twisted. "Maybe not. But you don't have to."
He caught her gaze, and Pepper's stomach dropped at the wary wanting she saw in his eyes. Slowly Tony rose and walked towards her, moving as if he were trying not to frighten her away. "I know you've been through a lot right now, and I don't want to push you. But I meant what I said."
"What you said?" she repeated numbly, trying and failing to remember what he was talking about.
His hand skimmed her cheek, curving around the back of her neck; his thumb rested lightly beneath her ear. "You're the best thing that ever happened to me. Professionally, personally, the whole package."
She could feel her pulse racing, and it wasn't just the memory of his mouth on hers causing it. "Come on, Pepper," Tony coaxed softly, so close that she could feel the heat of him. "Yeah, we had sex, and it was amazing. And if you want to pretend that didn't happen, I might even be able to get used to it." His lips curved up. "Eventually."
Pepper swallowed. "You honestly think we could just...continue," she managed. "Like nothing happened."
He shrugged. "Not really, but if you want to try I'm willing to go along with it until you figure out we can't."
That made her bristle, and Pepper pulled away. "You don't understand, Tony."
"Yeah, actually, I do." His voice was suddenly hard. "You showed actual human weakness, and now you think you have to do some kind of penance for it. Let me tell you, it's bullshit."
Tony stepped closer again, and Pepper realized she was backed up against the bed. "We've been dancing around this ever since I got back. Sure, this wasn't ideal circumstances to start a relationship, and I regret that, but we did start. Finally."
Pepper looked at him for a long, long moment. What he said was true; they had been hovering on the brink of...something...for months, something that would never have been possible before he'd changed. And while she'd assumed that the night they had just shared had negated that, Tony apparently believed otherwise.
But she couldn't clear her head enough to think about it. Too much had happened in the last couple of days. Pepper sat down on the end of the bed, leaving him looking down at her in surprise.
"Tony...I...I need time to think about this."
She really expected him to argue, but instead he grinned, a sudden flash that made her heart jump. "That's my Pepper." He bent, cupped her chin in one hand, and kissed her slowly, the sweep of his tongue against her bottom lip a sensual promise that made her shiver. Then he was tugging her to her feet. "Come on. Let's go home."
The flight back to Malibu took two hours longer than it usually did, due to major storms across the Midwest, but for once Tony didn't mind. He settled into his seat and watched Pepper as she worked away at her laptop, studiously ignoring him, and counted his blessings with greedy pleasure.
One, amazing sex; two, she's still here. And he wasn't fool enough to think the first more important than the second; it just seemed worthy of celebration that the only woman he wanted anymore should be so perfect in bed, even under less than ideal circumstances.
So soft, so hot, so-- Tony breathed out slowly and cautioned himself to be careful; the end of months of celibacy had his body eager for more--a lot more--but Pepper clearly wasn't ready for that.
And he'd managed to coax her into staying, at least for the moment. He understood her reservations, but to his mind they simply didn't matter. He was Tony Stark. His personal assistant deserved--and would get--all the respect to which she was entitled, or else. She's always been paranoid about it, anyway. Wait until she sees that almost nobody cares. In fact, he suspected that a lot of people already assumed they were having sex, and they still treated her properly.
It remained to be seen if he could convince her to go on with what they'd started, however clumsy a beginning it was. Tony knew it would take some doing--but he usually got what he wanted, in the end, and he was prepared to do whatever it would require. If she needs time, I'll give it to her. But, Pepper, you're not getting out of this without a damned good reason.
When she paused to rub her eyes, Tony got himself a Scotch and then resumed his seat, pretending not to notice as she closed the computer and moved to the long couch. He'd gotten rid of the flight attendants months ago, giving them generous severance checks, because privacy was more important in the wake of his changes. And it worked to his advantage now.
Pepper was exhausted, he could tell that without looking, and it wasn't surprising. She'd had the week from hell, in a way, and Tony wasn't sure how much comfort he could offer without making her shy away. But offer it he would.
When she bent to undo her shoes and then curled her feet under her, Tony set down his glass. The blankets were kept in a small cabinet near the couch, and he pulled one out and draped it around Pepper's shoulders before she could protest, sitting down next to her with his arm across the back of the couch behind her. "You doing okay?"
"I'm fine," she said, and of course it was automatic. He didn't call her on it; he just waited. And after a moment she tugged the blanket tighter and sighed.
Tony waited some more. It wasn't what he was best at, but sometimes it was necessary. And after a while, Pepper gave in.
She didn't tell him much, but along with the photos it wasn't hard to piece together. Lois had probably already been involved with drugs by the time she'd gotten pregnant, and while her older brother seemed to have eventually turned his life around, Lois never had. Instead, she'd given up her toddler to the state and gone on to try to forget she'd ever had a child at all. Tony couldn't begin to say why, but the thought of that bright little girl left at the mercy of a drug addict for any longer than she had been made him queasy. Just because he'd been born into privilege didn't mean he wasn't aware of what could happen to the small and helpless.
As the halting tale came out, Pepper edged closer and closer to him, and Tony all but held his breath, wondering if she were even aware of what she was doing. But when her head came to rest on his shoulder, he let his arm fall gently around her, and closed his eyes in a moment of relief when she didn't pull away.
It was a bleak picture, on the whole. Given up, given away, rejected; despite her gifts, Pepper had never been chosen for adoption, though as far as Tony knew she'd never had a bad foster placement either. She simply hadn't been wanted. And he could see how that would leave her alone in the cold, maybe even unable to believe that she was worth wanting at all.
You are so wrong, Virginia.
When she was finished, Pepper was quiet for a long time, and when she did speak again the simple question made Tony's throat tighten.
"Why did she give me up?"
He knew it was rhetorical, but he couldn't help answering it. "I don't know. But it may have been the most heroic thing she ever did."
That made her sit up, and stare at him. Tony shrugged, going for honesty, blunt as it was. "Her life...you know it wasn't good, Pepper. And it looks like it didn't improve." He dared to touch her cheek again, to let his thumb stroke the soft, soft skin. "By letting you go, she probably saved you from something worse."
Pepper's eyes widened as she took in his words, and then slid shut, another tear spilling over to splash over his knuckle. Tony gave in to yearning and pulled her into an awkward hug, feeling her quiver with a silent sob and hoping desperately that she could make peace with her past.
When she fell asleep in his arms for the third time, he let himself hope for more.
The flames were almost invisible in the bright noonday sun, but Pepper could hear them crackling over the wood Tony had piled on the beach. The fire smelled good, an honest smoky smell, and she half-expected Tony to whip out a bag of marshmallows, like he had at the last Fourth of July party. But his hands were already full, and his face sober.
"You sure about this?" he asked for the fourth time, and Pepper took the pile of papers he held, wrinkling her nose at him.
"It was your idea, Tony." She clamped one hand down on top so that the breeze off the cliff wouldn't carry the sheets away.
"Yeah, but...never mind." He shoved his hands in his pockets. The wind tossed his hair into his eyes and he shook it back out again, looking irresistibly boyish despite his expression.
Pepper looked down at her armful. It wasn't a lot, in the end; reports, receipts, some Google printouts; even the CD was in there, despite her protests that burning it was probably dangerous. All of it.
It had been nine days since they'd returned from South Carolina, nine days in which Tony had let her think with fewer interruptions than she expected. By tacit agreement she'd continued working as if nothing had happened, although her resignation was an option sitting at the back of her mind, brought involuntarily forward every time he surprised her with a sudden gentle kiss.
They hadn't talked about that either, but it was pretty clear what he was offering, and deep down Pepper was still amazed by the idea of Tony Stark wanting any kind of permanent relationship at all, let alone an exclusive one.
Amazed, and moved, and tempted. Even to the point of tentatively returning a kiss or two.
Now she stood in the middle of a sunny Saturday, attending a funeral. With care, Pepper crouched next to the fire and began feeding it with paper.
None of it took long to burn, the private investigator's notes flaring into ash within seconds. The CD turned to slag, and it stank, but the breeze took away the reek, and Tony handed her a long stick to poke the last few clumps of charred paper into dust.
Pepper straightened eventually, wiping her hands on her pants. She would have liked to say that she felt freer, or lighter, or something positive, but she only felt tired. The memories were still there, and the shards of broken dream would take time to wear away.
Still, it was done. She had declared independence from her past; her choices from now on would be wholly her own, unhindered by that invisible weight.
"Should we put it out?" she asked Tony, watching the faint flames dance.
He shook his tousled head. "Nah. The tide'll take care of it, and there's nothing down here to catch." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the low waves creeping up the beach.
Pepper hesitated a long moment. "All right, then."
The soft sand gave way under her feet as she turned to walk back to the house. Within two strides Tony had caught up to her and slung an arm around her waist. "I did tell you that Jarvis ripped that CD, right?"
Pepper snickered, surprising herself, and caught his grin out of the corner of her eye. I should have expected that.
They were halfway to the cliff that housed the elevator when she slowed. Tony had been unbelievably generous over the past ten days; it was time to give something back. "Did I ever tell you why I let you give me a nickname?"
He pivoted to face her, hands ending up resting gently on her waist. "No."
She let her own hands creep up his forearms, wanting the connection, and looked him in the eye. "Pepper...she doesn't have a past." She searched for words, finding them easier to speak than she expected. "She was always successful, always good enough. Nobody ever left her behind."
She saw Tony's throat move as he swallowed, and then he leaned in to press his forehead to hers, their shy clasp becoming an embrace. Tony held her hard, and Pepper let herself give into it all the way, accepting the strength he offered.
And then, for the first time since that Thursday morning, she kissed him. Offering, acceptance; they mingled until keeping a balance sheet didn't matter any longer, and the soft sound he made was as much relief as pleasure, his mouth possessive and gentle and giving all at once.
When they parted, Tony looked into her eyes for a long, long moment, and then smiled, shifting to whisper in her ear.
"If my parents were still alive, Virginia, they would have loved you."
That made her throat tighten, and she lost herself against his lips once more.
When they resumed their trudge through the sand, Tony's hand was wrapped securely around hers. "You know," he said thoughtfully, "I don't have any family either."
Pepper glanced at him, a little puzzled. She already knew it; his parents had been the last of his immediate relations. "That's true."
"So, maybe we should just make one of our own." His grin was sly, but she could tell he wasn't entirely teasing.
She squeezed his fingers, amused. "That's a little precipitous, don't you think?"
They stepped into the elevator car, and Tony hit the button for his private level. "No, no, I'm not talking anything like that...yet." He smirked at her. "C'mon, Pepper, it's there already. You, me, Jarvis, the 'bots..."
Pepper found herself laughing as they rose upwards. "Only you would think of that, Tony Stark."
"So? You think about it too." He kissed her through her giggles, stopping only when the elevator doors opened on his bedroom. Stepping out, he tugged on her hand, his expression moving from amusement to an intense tenderness that made her breath hitch. "You had your turn, Pepper, and I had mine. Now...make love with me."
Smiling, Pepper walked into her future.