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Tony whistled, taking the stairs from the workshop two at a time. He rounded the corner and strolled into the kitchen, coming to a dead stop in the doorway at the sight of Pepper.
Or rather, at the sight of Pepper baking.
It was the only explanation for the scene in front of him. Pepper wore an apron (Tony repressed the less than decent thoughts that ran through his head) and was kneading a clump of dough. She had her hair pulled back, her black jacket hung on the back of a nearby chair, and her blouse sleeves were rolled up to her elbows. There was a streak of flour on her forehead.
"Ms. Potts, I didn't know you had it in you."
She jumped, one hand flying to her chest, leaving a white powdery hand print there.
"Mr. Stark, I-."
"I have a pie pan?" He walked closer to inspect the red ceramic dish with waffled edges.
Pepper's face was flushed – Tony wondered whether it was from the heat of the kitchen or because she was caught doing something so devastatingly un-Pepper-like.
"I found it – the back of a cupboard – sorry, I-."
"And are those apples? And cinnamon? Potts what are you making me?"
"It's an apple pie and it isn't for you."
Tony stared at her as she resumed her kneading. She now had round ball of dough that she placed in a metal bowl, then stuck the whole thing into the fridge. She turned back to the island counter and began to slice apples. Tony's lips twitched.
"Who's it for then?" He had tried very hard to not sound petulant, but failed; his question came out as a whine.
Pepper resolutely did not look up from her apples. "It's for me," she said after a moment.
Tony laughed. "Glutton – you won't share?"
"No, I mean I'm not making it for anyone to eat," Pepper said. "I'm making it…for me. Therapeutically."
"Therapeutically? Baking is therapy?"
Tony was quiet for a moment, watching her thin hands carefully peeling the apples. "So. Why do you need therapy Potts?"
"It's nothing," she insisted, still not looking up at him. Her hands were like wax sliding over the apples. Tony found himself unable to look away. As his eyes trailed up to her face he noticed, quite suddenly, that her eyes were red-rimmed. As if she had been-
"Pepper," Tony said, this time more softly.
She slammed the knife down onto the cutting board and leaned against the counter. Her blue eyes were like steel.
"Mr. Stark," she said, and Tony noticed the formality. "I had a fight with a friend. That's all." Pepper returned to methodically slicing her apples.
Tony took a seat on a stool across from her at the island counter, stole one of her un-sliced apples, and bit loudly into it. She gave him a look from under a stray strand of hair and continued with her knife. Tony watched her; her face was still flushed, her eyes were red. Her hair was slightly messier than usual – what had once been a tidy ponytail earlier today now had shorter strands poking out around her face. There were smears of what seemed to be makeup under her eyes –
And suddenly Tony knew: it hadn't been just a friend, it had been a boyfriend.
Tony let the hand holding the apple drop loudly to the counter. "Who was he?" Tony asked. He could feel something dark and ugly boil in his chest.
Pepper looked up, her eyes wide. "Who?"
"The guy who's making you bake a pie for therapy."
She looked shy suddenly and mumbled something under her breath. She put the knife down again and rubbed her temple. "How did you know?"
Tony didn't answer, not trusting himself to say the appropriate thing. Telling his assistant that he found himself observing her constantly, watching her mood and her movements, was not high on Tony's agenda. Not yet.
"C'mon, Potts, I'm a superhero."
"I didn't realize that included the power to read minds."
"Who is he?" Tony insisted once more, burning to ask a thousand questions about how she met him, what he looked like, what his job was, where he lived…. She propped her elbows on the counter and put her chin into them, the rest of her body angling backwards and out. Tony was glad he found himself on this side of the counter.
"He's an idiot."
"Apparently, since he broke it off with you. Huge idiot."
"No," Pepper said, smiling softly – Tony found her startlingly beautiful. But her smile quickly vanished. "I ended it with him."
"Oh," Tony said. "Because he was an idiot?"
Pepper rolled her eyes. "Yes, but mostly I'm an idiot. Hence the pie-making."
Tony picked his apple back up and bit into it again. "Okay I'm lost. For guys, either the girl's the idiot or he's the idiot. There's none of this mutual-idiocy thing."
Pepper bit her lips and looked at him, her blues eyes coming to rest on his. Tony narrowed his eyes and cocked his head.
"You're not telling me something."
"Your superpowers are uncanny Mr. Stark."
"Thank you, Ms. Potts." Tony grinned. "But seriously. Spill. Here, give me those." Tony reached across the counter and took the cutting board with apples on it. He picked up the knife and mimicked Pepper's earlier actions: quarter, core, peel, slice. Pepper still had made no move to talk. Tony looked at her seriously, one eyebrow quirked. "Potts."
She sighed. "It's…stupid. We got into a fight. I said something I probably shouldn't have and then ended it."
"How long were you two-."
"Three weeks. It's not a big deal."
Tony released a breath he didn't know he had been holding. Only three weeks. That's nothing. A fling. "If it's not a big deal," Tony wondered aloud, "then why the pie-therapy?" She said nothing. Not looking up from his apples, Tony asked, "What did you say to him?"
"Seriously Tony just forget it."
"Pepper." He looked up finally, meeting her worried eyes, seeing her drawn face. "This is bothering you. I've known you for years and you've never made baked goods in fits of anger. Or whatever."
Pepper sighed and covered her face with her hands. "Imemendedyou."
"I defended you! To him."
Tony blinked, felt his heart skip a beat.
"Well. You're my assistant. I'm sure defending me is in your job contract somewhere," Tony said casually, but he had the distinct impression that he was not convincing either one of them. The air in the kitchen was tight and hot and Tony burned to know what, exactly, had needed Pepper's defense.
"I – yes, it wasn't quite like that," Pepper said softly.
Tony froze, moving only his hand that held the knife, scraping the blade across the cutting board. Brown eyes met blue in palpable silence.
"He said I spend too much time. With you," Pepper said. "Which is ridiculous since I work for you – it's not like we're – he didn't believe me, started going off about…he assumed we were together. You know. Then he brought up your reputation. With women. I yelled at him for that and walked out."
Her face was an endearing shade of pink. Tony found himself wanting to kill this ex-boyfriend, shred him with one swift punch of an iron first. The idiot had taken things out of context, because Pepper wasˆonly his assistant – and Tony abruptly found that this fact bothered him. Had frequently bothered him, as of late.
"My reputation with women, hm?" Tony mused aloud. "This…idiot…thinks we're dating, then accuses me of being a philandering jerk who is just going to screw you over." Pepper's eyebrows shot up. "Right?"
"More or less."
"And then you defended me."
Pepper nodded, tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear. Tony fought an overwhelming desire to do that for her, to smooth down the frazzles of hair that stood up around her face. Instead, he asked, "What did you say. To defend me?"
"Tony, I'm not going to-"
"C'mon Potts I need an ego boost."
She glared at him, torn between a thousand emotions that fluttered across her features too quickly for Tony to register. She leaned back and crossed her arms, staring hard at the ceiling.
"I told him you were a thousand times a better man than he could ever be."
Tony nearly sliced his finger. The door was open; Pepper stood vulnerable after that confession, refusing to meet his eyes and biting her lip again. She shut her eyes tightly as if pretending that everything in front of her would disappear. Tony imagined himself sidling up next to her, thanking her in ways he had been dreaming about for months. Instead he found himself nervously – nervously! of all things – glued to his chair. He said the first thing that came to his mind.
"So complimenting me is so painful that you need a therapy pie?"
She looked at him for a long moment. "Something like that," she whispered, as if only to herself. Pepper pushed herself from the counter and made her way around the island toward the door. "I should go home."
Tony swung out just in time to catch her arm, stopping her mid-stride. He looked up at her.
"I'll help you finish the pie."
Tony thought he would never tear himself away from her blue eyes, or the red mark on her lip from where she had been biting it. He reached up with his free hand and wiped the streak of flour on her forehead, letting his hand slide down the side of her face across her cheek. "Stay."
"I'm an idiot," Pepper whispered, her eyes closed, her face tilted slightly towards his hand. Tony let his hand fall away, but he did not let go of her arm.
"I would have defended you if someone had said you were a philandering jerk."
Her eyes flew open and a moment later she smiled widely. "Good to know."
"C'mon, I have this huge desire to bake a pie. You know, therapeutically. "
"Oh really? What do you need therapy for?"
"This idiot said I was a devilish rake, and then my pretty assistant had to go and fight him off." Tony grinned at her. "Am I a dirty Lothario, Pepper?"
"No," she said, giving his hand a squeeze before slipping from his grip and returning to her side of the counter. "Not anymore."
Tony watched her as she pulled the dough from the fridge and splayed it out onto the counter, her hands working into it, the muscles in her forearms flexing slightly. Strawberry hair fell into her freckled face. No, Tony thought, staring at the one woman who captivated him wholly, not anymore.