I own nothing.
The first time Pepper saw Tony naked was early into her career as the proper Miss Potts and late into Tony's career as the illustrious playboy. She had come to the mansion Saturday morning, a package in hand and dry cleaning to drop off. The house, aside from Jarvis' customary greeting, was eerily quiet.
And a mess.
Blankets and pillows were strewn across the floor, plastic cups adorned everything from the couch to the corner of the Matisse painting, and some food item had seemingly exploded across the floor. But Tony was nowhere in sight.
"Jarvis, where is Mr. Stark?"
If Jarvis was capable of embarrassment for his master, this would have been an opportune time to express it. As it were, he replied in his usual dry voice: "In his bedroom."
"Thank you," Pepper muttered, wrinkling her nose as she stepped over a wet spot on the rug. She was two steps up the spiraling staircase when Jarvis interrupted her.
"I should warn you, Miss Potts, that-"
"No need, Jarvis. I'm ready for just about anything by now," Pepper replied resignedly. She wondered who had been over last night, and what, exactly had been going on.
"Is he...with anyone else?" Pepper asked tentatively.
"No, but it might be prudent-"
"To quit? Yes, I know."
"Jarvis is he doing anything illegal in there?" Pepper asked, putting her hands on her hips and staring up at the ceiling, as if that was where Jarvis lived. "Because you're doing an excellent job of stalling me."
"Nothing illegal, no-"
"Then it can't be that..." Pepper trailed off as she opened the door to find Tony, naked, sprawled on his back on the bed. "...bad."
Pepper blinked, then blinked again, then looked to the left. Oh my God, her brain screamed. Oh my God! Wryly, she thought that taking a Polaroid right now would set her right for the rest of her life.
"Jarvis, why didn't you warn me?" Pepper hissed, looking again at the ceiling.
"With all due respect, I did try."
Pepper thought that the easiest thing would be to back out of the room, to close the door gently and come back again in four hours. Pretend like it never happened, like she never saw her boss' naked form splayed on the bed. She peered towards the bed. He clutched an empty beer bottle in one hand possessively. His dark skin contrasted the white sheets in an appealing way, and the light that filtered through the wall of glass bathed him in its golden glow.
She laid the dry cleaning across the back of a chair, and then Pepper suddenly found herself next to the bed, appalled that her feet had acted upon their own volition, terrified of the discovery that she was, in fact, a peeping-Tom. Her eyes roamed down the curve of his upper arm, to his broad chest, to where his chest tapered into slim hips. And below that-
Pepper swallowed hard and bit her lip.
While her experience with men was far from vast and varied, Pepper thought that as far as male anatomy went, Tony's was, well, nice. Size wise, she would only be able to make comparisons if-
Oh my God! Stop!
With that thought, she shook her head and screwed her eyes shut. She had not – definitely not – just thought about the best way to judge the important characteristics of male anatomy. And she had not – definitely not – briefly imagined what having sex with her boss would be like.
She swallowed hard and steeled her shoulders. Pepper was a professional. Unflappable and practical. She could handle anything, including the very naked and very unconscious form of her very attractive boss lying across his very big bed. And Pepper would be damned if she let image of what Tony could do while naked stop her from acting like the decorous personal assistant she was.
Quickly and softly so as not to wake him – because that, Pepper thought, would be worse than any distracting fantasy – Pepper spread the blanket at the foot of the bed across him. She took the beer bottle from him, almost fainting when he seemed to stir just slightly. She stood still until she was sure he was still in a deep stupor, and then Pepper quickly and quietly left the room.
"Don't tell him," Pepper whispered to Jarvis as she ran down the stairs.
Tony woke to a raging headache. He blinked his eyes wide, his face pulled into one of confusion. He sat up, or at least tried to, for the force of his hangover knocked him back into a prone position.
"Christ," he groaned, and tried to remember what had happened last night. A party, for sure. But a small one. Some of the men from Dubai, smart and quick business men who invested ...he would have to ask Pepper. And women. Yes there were definitely women. Tony was fairly certain he kissed a few, even managed a secluded encounter with Veronica – or was it Victoria? But why, Tony wondered, was he naked on his bed, and who put this blanket over him?
He struggled to sit up fully, taking a few minutes to acclimate to the change in position and the drumming in his head. Tony groaned, rubbed his eyes, then slid from the bed to find clothing. Ten minutes later he was stumbling down the stairs, wandering past the living area where Pepper was seated, papers and her laptop spread in front of her.
Tony paused. "Ugh, Potts. It's Saturday. Seriously."
"You are the most disorganized and irresponsible person. Seriously."
"Mean," Tony grumbled back.
She looked over her shoulder and seemed to take in his appearance with more attention than normal. "Have a good night?"
"Don't remember," Tony answered. "How long have you been here?"
"Just got here," Pepper said, with a strange hitch to her voice. Tony frowned, then noticed that the living room was spotless, showing no signs of the events of last night.
"Mmm," Pepper murmured, brushing her bangs out of her face. Nervously. Tony narrowed his eyes – that was the telltale nervous tic. "Dummy helped me."
"Dummy. The half-wit robot? Are we talking about the same Dummy?"
"I brought your dry cleaning, and there's a stack of paper's that need your attention."
"You're changing the subject."
Pepper huffed. "I am not. I just want to reclaim what is left of my Saturday, so please-"
"Totally avoiding me. Jarvis, how long has Pepper been here?"
"Four hours, sir."
In the heavy pause that followed, Pepper's face turned bright, bright red. Which was a strange reaction to having been caught at being an overworking personal assistant. Tony grinned, leaning against the back of the couch, his torso angled so that his head was level with hers.
"You look guilty, Ms. Potts," he whispered, enjoying the way the pink looked across her cheeks, making her freckles stand out brightly. Tony watched the hairs on her neck stand up, wondering if was because of how close he was. Her ear looked so delectable-
"Why would I look guilty?" she asked, turning so she could glance at him. Her bright blue met his deep brown and she looked away. Quickly. Too quickly. Tony's grin widened. Suddenly she stood, her movement causing Tony to step away from the couch. He watched as she piled papers and her computer into her bag, her face hidden by a fall of strawberry hair.
"Fine. Run away from the guilt," Tony said, earning a glare from Pepper. "Did you dry clean that suit?"
"Yes, it's in your room. I'll see you on Monday, Mr. Stark."
Tony nodded, feeling oddly deflated as she walked into the foyer and he heard the front door close. He stood there a moment longer, rubbing the back of his neck, his headache still a dull throb. And then – and then Tony Stark had an epiphany of enormous proportion.
Pepper had been there for four hours. Four hours ago, Tony was asleep on his bed, presumably naked. But Pepper had taken the dry cleaning into the bedroom. Meaning...meaning...
"Jarvis," Tony croaked. "Did Pepper – did she – you know -"
Instead of answering audibly, the large glass windows suddenly turned opaque and flickered into a screen that showed Pepper entering his room and stopping as she noticed Tony's form on the bed.
"Fuck," he whispered, half in embarrassment and half in some sort of giddy excitement. He watched as Pepper paused near the door, then took a few steps toward him and seemed to look him over, taking in the sight of his bared body. Tony swallowed. The digital Pepper suddenly snapped to life and threw a blanket over him before scurrying out.
Tony was suddenly completely and inappropriately aroused. It was ridiculous. Really. Plenty of women had seen him naked. In fact, Tony made sort of a point of it. But Pepper – demure, kind Pepper who batted away his straying hands and lewd comments with ease – Pepper stirred something unknown within Tony, something fierce and slightly possessive and something Tony quickly pushed away.
Pepper would learn, over the years of her employment, that Tony reveled in many forms and varying degrees of nakedness. After finding Tony sprawled on his bed, she never again saw him so fully bare and exposed. Instead she caught snatches – when she caught him with a woman, when he walked from a shower with just a towel wrapped around his hips, when he went swimming.
But Pepper also learned that the idea of being bare has many meanings, and only one includes being without clothing.
Another meaning is to have nothing else left, no other disguise or protection. In a word, vulnerable.
Tony Stark worked hard to look invincible and confident. He strode when he walked, he smiled a devilish grin that could quash any doubts, and he lived as if the only moment that mattered was the current one. His detour to Afghanistan must have knocked some of that bravado away, Pepper thought, because he came back dented and bruised, and set about building a suit to hide the holes that Afghanistan had wrought under his skin.
Once in a while he let his guard down, his eyes losing their gleam and becoming darker, his smile softening, his face etched with wear and something like fatigue.
"You're all I have."
"I wish I could hate you."
"I trust you"
"I'm in love with you."
Cracks in his armor, dents in his shields – these were Pepper's favorite moments, like sweet drops of candy. Varying degrees of vulnerability, Tony Stark laid bare for Pepper to absorb and greedily wait for.
His broken admission of his love for her had wrenched her heart, making her twenty degrees warmer than the cold garage floor she was sitting on. Pepper had wondered if things would change after that, and they did, but just barely. She felt whole, happy, and full. She caught herself smiling abstractly in her office, and she caught Tony watching her, something like happiness playing at the corners of his lips. They argued. Pepper chided Tony for missing meetings and being late, and Tony made it up to her with a night together, alone, enjoying the moon's beams and the quiet whispers between two people in love.
They never talked about the heavy things. No real mention of Iron Man's missions, no discussions about weapons or world politics. Pepper wasn't sure if she was relived or annoyed, because the idea of Tony flying off in a metal suit made her sick to her stomach even as she acknowledged that Iron Man was as much a part of Tony as his hair was, or his excessively nice backside, or his miniature arc reactor.
They never talked about it, or anything terribly serious, so that's why Pepper was caught completely off guard when Tony brought something serious up, randomly, in the middle of a public place.
"Ever wonder what the hell the point is?" Tony asked, gesturing toward the pier's amusement park with the wave of his hand.
"Fatty foods and the cheap thrill of going on less-than-secure rides, I imagine," Pepper replied, twirling a strand of spun sugar on her finger before licking it off.
"I meant...what's the point of anything? Of my being Iron Man, of you being my infallible assistant?"
Pepper raised an eyebrow at him, pausing in her candy ministrations to look at him in worry and amusement. He was wearing sunglasses and a ball cap to hide his face. She was likewise wearing a hat, a big floppy one, in order to hide her flamboyant hair. Ever since the field day that was Vanity Fair's photo, Pepper and Tony were followed mercilessly. And on their one night out in weeks, Pepper was not about to be stalked by flashbulbs and asinine questions.
"Heavy conversation for a cotton candy date, Mr. Stark," Pepper said carefully.
He gave her a wan smile and chuckled. "Yeah well. What if I'm not...doing my best? Fulfilling my role, or whatever."
Pepper frowned, thinking while she ran her tongue along her teeth, savoring the sickly sweet taste that lingered. "We make our own roles, Tony. No one gives them to us. You told me you knew – in your heart – that you were meant to be Iron Man. That finally you found something. What happened?"
He gave her a long look, but his eyes were hidden by his sunglasses. Pepper suddenly felt uneasy, her stomach flipping in worry.
"What if its not enough?"
"Not enough?" she echoed faintly.
Tony took her hand, absently rubbing his hands over it. "Superheroes need girlfriends."
"You have one, Tony." She said it dryly to mask the mounting fear that was flaming up from her stomach and into her throat.
"Sometimes 'girlfriend' just doesn't cut it."
She let the silence stretch while she found control of her vocal cords, her cotton candy forgotten in her hand. "Are you breaking up with me? Again?"
"What?" Tony looked at her, bewildered, then laughed. "No. Pepper – that's – no."
"Did I do something wrong? Is it because I boss you around? Oh, God, I knew this would happen," Pepper rambled, feeling her face warm and sincerely regretting ingesting all that candy. She felt sick.
"Pepper," Tony said sharply, grabbing her hand again, pulling it toward him and over his arc reactor. "Stop. You're crazy when you're nervous, you know that? That's not what I'm saying. I'm..." and suddenly he looked totally vulnerable as he pulled his sunglasses off and gazed at her, his eyes deep and full. Pepper swallowed, overcome by how open his face was, how unguarded. Bared for her to see.
"I'm trying to say that you're...well you're really everything. I need. You're it. And I'd like it to stay that way."
Pepper's stomach jumped, her throat constricting at his raw his voice, soft and deep and slightly hoarse. "Tony I'm not going anywhere."
She blinked at him, frozen, wondering if she had heard right.
Tony leaned in and kissed her, his lips teasing hers apart to indulge in a deeper kiss. Pepper lost herself in it briefly before pulling away. But he kept her close, one hand on her shoulder blade.
"Marry me," he whispered urgently, longingly. "Stay with me forever."
Pepper smiled into his shoulder, wrapping her arms around him and pulling him closer. She wondered if this was when she was supposed to cry. Women in movies did. She smiled harder at that, pressing a kiss to his neck. "Always," she whispered in an answer. Her voice was thick, rising over the swell in her throat.
Tony grinned when he sat back up. "Sorry, uh, I don't have a ring. It was sort of spur of the moment."
"I figured that if you had planned this, you wouldn't have asked me at a cheesy carnival."
"I did buy you cotton candy."
"A superhero's wife...that has a nice ring to it, you know?" Tony said, standing and offering her his hand. "Plus," he added as he wrapped his arm around her waist when Pepper stood. "The thought of you as my wife is seriously turning me on."
Pepper groaned and slapped the back of her hand against his stomach. "What doesn't turn you on?"
"Plenty of things. Like Larry King. Or pineapples."
"Long story," he muttered, squeezing his arm around her tighter. Pepper found she fit perfectly in the curve of his side, her elbow tucked under his ribs, her shoulder under his arm. She smiled, leaning her head against his shoulder, her eyes fluttering closed when he pressed a gentle kiss to her forehead. She was pretty sure she just found the largest crack in his shell, the biggest hole under his armor. What was more was that he let her in, baring himself for her, granting her access to the secret places he hid away.
It turns out that the invincible Iron Man is really nothing more than nervous smiles, hopeful eyes, and a wildly beating heart.
This is where this story ends. I hope I did the ending some justice.
Thank you so much to everyone who has taken the time to drop a note. This story marks the first multi-chaptered (sort of) fic I've written and completed, and the response from you all has been terrific. Again, thank you all so much.