Author's Notes: I wrote the bulk of this several weeks before the second movie was released, and have been trying to fine-tune it ever since then. I will probably follow this up with a second story, but it also stands on its own, so don't be afraid of the WIP monster. ;)
1. Don't Forget Your Whip
To say that work has been chaotic recently would be an understatement.
The number of people I've been required to 'deflect and absorb' has increased exponentially since Tony's little announcement. Every branch of the military wants to debrief, the board insists upon regular updates every time my boss so much as sneezes, and all of the section management teams have increasingly pressing requests—mostly of the what are we supposed to do now that we're not building bombs anymore? variety.
There haven't been any official meetings on the subject, but I spend most of my time logging all of the e-mails and phone calls and drop-bys; I've set up a sort of command central in Tony's office, where I meet almost daily with almost everyone to almost assure them that everything is, in the words of our CEO, entirely copacetic. They almost believe me.
Tony, meanwhile, spends most of his time tinkering with the suit, when he isn't lifting weights (or bragging about same). I'm used to having to cover when he becomes immersed in a project to the exclusion of all else—although the fact that the project entails saving the world is a bit ambitious, even for the legendary Tony Stark.
There is one task, however, that cannot be put off any longer. While on a seemingly endless conference call with the Tokyo office, I take a moment to fire off a quick text message to my boss:
Urgent: personal expense review is now THREE MONTHS behind schedule. Please advise.
Obadiah Stane was less than transparent in regards to his personal use of the company's treasure chest; we were able to keep it out of the papers, but the board of directors was another matter. Mercifully, even they don't know the full extent of it—thanks in part to some swift records-doctoring, courtesy of SHIELD.
In the months since Stane's death, the watchword at Stark Industries has become 'accountability,' a term that only occasionally appears in the vocabulary of our fearless leader.
The board demanded a complete account of the CEO's not inconsiderable corporate expenses, and has stipulated that we file monthly expense reports. It's the kind of thing I could handle on my own, were it not for the fact that Tony insists on using his personal and corporate credit cards indiscriminately, opting for a "shoot 'em all and let Pepper sort 'em out" strategy. Even if I were entirely capable of distinguishing between his business-related clubbing and jetsetting and his recreational clubbing and jetsetting (and contrary to popular belief, I'm not privy to every single move he makes while he's out on the town), I still need him to sign off on the reports in the end.
Tony must be taking a break from tinkering, because a response to my text comes almost immediately.
Not necessary. You have signing authority & I trust you implicitly.
Flattering, but not particularly helpful, since what the board is looking for is Tony's accountability, not mine.
Tony spends the company's money as though it were his own (which makes sense, considering that for the most part it essentially is) but he just as frequently pays out of pocket for expenses that could be legitimately written off. Easier for him, but a lot more work for me. Par for the course.
I click briefly through my calendar, then Tony's calendar, scrolling around for corresponding blank spaces. Finding one, I reply:
You have an opening Wednesday afternoon at 1:00. I'll schedule a meeting at the office. Let me know if you need help remembering where you keep your ties.
The rejoinder is typical:
Clearly this is all a ruse to get me alone and exert your feminine wiles, in which case I have an opening tonight, 9 pm. Bring champagne & I will schedule a meeting in the hot tub. Please note swimsuit is optional.
Tony's default setting is autosleaze. I've become relatively skilled at deflecting it, and even more skilled at not taking it personally. After all, it isn't personal: he has an incredibly entitled worldview—lord and master of all he surveys—and women tend to be included in that. Like his cars and his clothes, women are part of the furniture of his life. He acquires them with the same absent consumerism he applies to artwork or architecture. And, like his art collection and his real estate holdings, he leaves me the dirty work of disposing of the ones he's finished with.
At least, that's how it used to be.
I tap out a carefully-worded response:
I will be there at 7:00. No champagne. Dinner would be appreciated. This counts as overtime.
In spite of all the flirting, I don't think Tony had ever seriously considered me as a potential conquest; strange as it may sound, I honestly believe he'd always thought of me in the same category as his robots or JARVIS—an extension of himself, as intrinsic as his own right hand. (Not exactly flattering, since I'm sure I only know the half of what that particular hand gets up to.) But that night on the rooftop changed things—brought me into focus for him in a new way.
In public, it's still 'Mr. Stark' and 'Ms. Potts,' business as usual. To the world at large, I'm still a ruthlessly efficient executive assistant, and he's still a mythical, god-like being largely composed of sex, drugs, and rock n' roll. But when we're alone… he baits me.
He's always had an inexorable physicality about him, but lately he spends a lot of time sitting or standing slightly too close; brushing against me unnecessarily, making sure our hands touch whenever objects are passed between us. Even the way he watches me is a silent challenge, leaving me feeling slightly scorched by the dark intensity of his gaze. Our conversations have changed, too: he keeps trying to charm and disarm by being more vulnerable, less imperious, more personal. Warmer.
He's trying to lure me into… well, that's the problem: I'm not sure what he's looking for. An admission of attraction? A hopeless declaration of long-unrequited love? A quick roll in the hay? It's classic Tony—his actions and motives appear relatively transparent, but in reality, he never gives himself away, never exposes his own weakness. He only tricks his opponents into revealing theirs, then uses it against them. It's one of the essential truths about his character: long before he had the armoured suit, he was already adept at wearing a variety of masks.
Initially, I figured whatever issue he was having was just temporary, and entirely located in the trouble caused by that outlandish dress. Me, of all people! I've never made a secret of the fact that I have no respect for girls who parade themselves in front of their male colleagues—who use pure sex appeal to succeed in the professional world, reinforcing the stereotype that female personal assistants are nothing more than arm candy. I've done everything I possibly can to avoid attracting that kind of attention from Tony, to stay off his radar, because I like my job and I want to preserve the status quo. And now—all because of a single piece of uncharacteristic, birthday-anxiety-induced, silk charmeuse open-backed fishtail-trained folly!—it seems I am firmly in his sights.
I love that dress. Now I don't know if I can ever wear it again without spontaneously combusting from sheer embarrassment.
It didn't help that I'd been drinking, or that he'd been drinking, or that the effortless way he coaxed me onto the dance floor reminded me of the old Tony Stark, the one whose chest didn't glow in the dark. I never would have thought it, but since his return, there had been a few times when I'd actually missed the bravado, the swagger. Seeing him in action again was a bit like coming home.
It didn't help that he's one of those men who can wear black tie as effortlessly as a second skin. It didn't help that he candidly admitted he was totally dependent on me, and didn't seem to mind the admission. Was kind of proud of it, actually.
It didn't help that his hand was sliding slowly, perilously down my bare back as we danced—or for that matter, that he knew how to dance, guiding me so effortlessly that it felt like flying. It didn't help that it was an oppressively muggy night, or that he looked at me in a way that seemed to expel the oxygen from the room.
He suggested that a little air might be in order, and I followed him without a second thought—I was incredibly conscious of the fact that every other Stark employee in the room was watching me dancing with the boss, and I would have said or done just about anything to be able to evade the spotlight.
On the roof, I started off trying to clarify the precarious nature of my public reputation—it would never even occur to him that he could make me a laughingstock, not to mention fodder for every gossip rag in town, and destroy years' worth of delicately-nurtured professional relationships—and he was being infuriatingly blasé about it, as usual, denying that the problem even existed.
As I talked, I couldn't help but notice his achingly familiar smell: metal shavings and engine grease, alcohol and aftershave. I recalled how I'd missed it in the days following his disappearance—how I'd put off sending the last of his suits to the cleaners because I couldn't bear to lose that scent.
And then he stopped arguing, and I stopped explaining; we were close enough that, even though he barely moved, I felt his whole body shift towards me. Close enough for me to feel the heat radiating from the centre of his chest. I leaned in, clutched at his arm, forgot how to breathe.
Frozen in anticipation, I waited for him to move in for the kill, except… he didn't. Neither of us did. And then I knew: he was waiting for me to be the first to move, to take the plunge. To expose my weakness.
I did not want to be that girl—the one who gets one drink in her and then sloppily mauls her boss in a public venue crawling with photographers—and so I did the only thing I could think of: I told him I needed another drink. He shot down those stairs so fast you would have thought he already had his jet-propelled boots on.
A little while later, a waiter turned up on the roof with a martini on the tray. Dry. Vodka. Four olives. "Compliments of Mr. Stark," he told me. Was there a message? No, there was not; he'd had the car brought around, and he'd left. An emergency at the office, apparently. To add insult to injury, it was a dirty martini—his preferred drink, not mine.
I'd assumed that, once the haze of alcohol-fueled attraction had lifted and the blood flow had been rerouted back to his brain, Tony had realized what a monumentally stupid idea that kiss would have been. He'd seen the imminent train wreck, and he'd extricated himself, as gracefully as could reasonably be expected for a man with limited diplomacy and even less patience.
I felt awkward about the whole thing, but I figured it wouldn't be too long before things returned to normal—or, as it turned out, as normal as they got when your boss was a man whose idea of fun was to fly around saving the world in a bright red gold-titanium rocket-suit. (And I thought I had it tough before!)
But over three months have passed since that night, and his focus hasn't wavered. He seems determined to goad me into something, and I've become equally determined not to give in. It's turned into a game of cat and mouse—and I'm not about to delude myself that I'm the cat.
He also hasn't called me in to 'take out the trash' in a while. I can't help but wonder whether it's part of his more conscientious outlook on life—the new Tony doesn't like being responsible for human collateral damage. Maybe that extends to broken hearts, too.
Off the call at impossibly long last, I'm typing up my notes and to-dos when my Blackberry buzzes, startling me.
I love it when you're strict with me, don't forget your whip and furry handcuffs.
I snort derisively, my thumbs flying over the keys.
I have three words for you, Mr. Stark: sexual harassment lawsuit.
The reply is almost instantaneous, as though he already knew what I was going to say:
Right as always, Potts. Completely inappropriate. I withdraw the remark.
PS What type of underwear are you wearing, if any?
Fortunately, Tony never has to know that I actually laughed at that one.
The final message, about a minute later, reads:
OK, sending Hogan to get you at 6. Don't keep the boss waiting.