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.

This is more a ficlet than a complete story, if a ficlet can be over five thousand words. I'm joining the many who picked up right where the rooftop scene left off in Iron Man 2; this is my feeble attempt to make sense of a scene that I was delighted to see but that begged for explanation. Cincoflex looked after this one as she always does, and I refused some of her most excellent advice to stubbornly pursue my own path herein, so any flaws, as stated above, are mine.

"…I don't accept." Tony squeezed her hands and gave her a grin.

Pepper laughed, knowing half her elation was adrenaline but finding it hard to care. The taste of him was still on her lips, and while she knew the whole thing was insane, the expected sense of disaster was oddly lacking. "Tony, you can't exactly stop me if I choose to quit."

He let her go and bent stiffly for his battered helmet. "Irrevocably, remember? I can't take it back even if I want to. Here, hold this for me a minute, would you?"

The helmet was dumped into her hands, and Tony took a few steps forward to peer over the edge of the roof. Pepper took the opportunity to examine the battered shell, shuddering slightly at the scars etched into the metal.

Dying. He was dying.

She was still trying to process that; between that-idiot-Hammer and the drones and the explosion there hadn't been time. And she was torn between wanting to kill Tony for hiding it, and apologizing for not noticing, because she should have.

Except he distracted you with an entire company. On purpose.

It was only half an excuse; Pepper had dealt with far more stress in the past. On the other hand, none of that had carried the weight of thousands of livelihoods, pressing down on her shoulders almost palpably. Even when she'd made decisions for Stark Industries before, the responsibility had ultimately been Tony's.

She just didn't know what to think at the moment. It was too much, all of it; the company, the revelations, the flying, the-whatever had just happened with Tony-

I need time-

Unfortunately, she wasn't going to get it just then. Tony came clanking back, looking distracted. "Looks like the fires are under control. Shall we?"

"We'd better. I need to check in with the police anyway." Automatically Pepper looked around for a door, but none was in view in the darkness. And, it occurred to her, it would probably be locked.

"Pepper." When she turned back to Tony, he was wearing the slightly apprehensive look he'd worn all week when trying to talk to her, and it immediately made her feel guilty. "Look, I know you don't like flying, but it's the fastest way down."

Finding the door and asking him to break it open for her was a bit much, Pepper decided with an internal sigh, and shrugged. "I guess you're right." She frowned. His snatch earlier had been for her a confusion of wind and fire and terror. "How do we do this?"

Tony held out one armored arm. "If you put your arm around my neck…"

It was awkward, especially juggling the helmet, but his grip around her waist was surprisingly secure, and Pepper found herself leaning into the cold metal despite the discomfort. Then they were rising, and Tony chuckled in her ear. "Don't worry…I'll go slow."

She rolled her eyes at the innuendo, tensing despite herself as they cleared the roof and the ground was suddenly very far below her feet. But instead of dropping down, they drifted outward. "Where are those cops?" Tony asked, his breath warm against her cheek.

"They should be at the exits," Pepper managed, concentrating on the helmet she was cradling against her chest, to distract herself from looking down. Her stomach was dipping uneasily nonetheless, at least until he shifted slightly and covered her lips with his own.

She hadn't been planning on kissing him again, at least just yet, but she could no more resist that touch than she could fly on her own; this was Tony Stark, after all, and in a way the whole thing had been a very long time coming. His breath was surprisingly sweet for a man who was sick and battle-weary both, and his mouth coaxed her and gentled her until she almost forgot how much air was between them and the ground.

When he let her go and she managed to pry her eyes open, Pepper saw that they were much lower, closing slowly on the three officers stationed at the nearest west exit. "You were trying to distract me," she accused.

Tony smirked. "That was just a bonus. Here we go." In a move more graceful than she expected, he dropped them both down in front of the police, setting her on her feet with a flourish and plucking the helmet from her hands. "Jarvis?"

Pepper turned away from the slightly ridiculous sight of him talking to Iron Man's head like Hamlet with Yorick's skull, and conferred quickly with the startled officers, finding to her relief that the last of the injured were being removed for treatment.

"We're closing the perimeter as soon as the last ambulance clears the gates," the sergeant in charge assured her earnestly. "Orders are to wait for the cleanup crews in the morning."

There was so much to deal with that it was overwhelming. Pepper sighed again, pinching her eyes shut briefly, but common sense told her that there was no point in lingering. She'd already issued instructions; those crews would be arriving as soon as it was light to tackle the wreckage, and Stark Industries' PR team was handling the press for the moment. There would be time to make a statement first thing in the morning. And she was tired.

And there was still Tony. With Natasha gone there was no one, now, to look after him and make sure he got the food and rest he needed. Whether she resigned or not, it seemed that one responsibility was still hers.

"All right," she told the officers. "I'll wait here until I can get a car in-"

"No need for that," Tony said cheerfully behind her. "Jarvis says Happy's on his way."

"Good." Part of her was a little miffed that he'd taken off with Natasha instead of staying with her, but under the circumstances it kind of made sense. She turned. "What's his ETA?"

"Um, now." Tony jerked his chin at a set of headlights approaching the gates, and the sergeant hurried to open the latter so they could leave. The deference directed at her still felt strange, but it was nice to know that not everyone doubted her….

As soon as the car stopped Tony reached for the handle. "You're heading for the townhouse, Potts?" he asked, pulling the door wide.

Pepper slipped past him and into the vehicle. "Yes." It wasn't quite appropriate, since she didn't work for him any longer, but she didn't know what hotel Natasha had booked them at, and anyway she still had to make sure he ate and rested. "Are you coming?"

"Meet you there." Tony pried open the helmet and jammed it onto his head; after a second or so, it closed again and the eyes lit. Then he closed the door, and Happy pulled the car forward as Iron Man's repulsors roared to life.

The first few minutes of the drive were silent, but Pepper could feel the weight of Happy's guilt from where she sat. Finally she met his eyes in the rear-view mirror. "Care to explain what just happened?"

Almost eagerly, he did. As if she needed proof, Pepper found Natasha's dress and heels on the floor of the car, and had to shake her head at the woman's flexibility at changing in the back of the vehicle.

"I didn't know," Happy finished at last. "I mean, maybe I should have guessed after she laid me out in the boxing ring, but-"

"It's okay," Pepper broke in gently. "It's her job, Happy. Don't worry about it." After all, she hadn't realized either until "Natalie" had told her exactly who she was after the disastrous party.

Or maybe not so disastrous. Pepper frowned as she relaxed back into the seat. If Tony…but then he…

It wasn't so much a chain of thought as a holistic realization. If Tony had been dying, and knew it-if he had deliberately given her the company, not just to distract her but-then-then-

Her head started to throb, and Pepper rubbed her temples with another sigh. Only Tony would destroy half his house just to mislead someone.

Whether it was going to be her responsibility to see it put back together-well, that was another question that needed answering. It was somewhat alarming to notice that if she quit as SI's CEO, she didn't necessarily have her old job to fall back on. Of course, her replacement hadn't stuck around very long, but-

She was trying hard to not think about the moments just prior to Tony snatching her up, and failing. The upscaling whine of the downed drone had puzzled her-it had sounded like a call for help-and the hectic, twisting flight had terrified her more than the realization that she'd just barely escaped an explosion. So stupid-

The fact that Tony had pulled a fast one on all of them distracted her from that line of thought, and Pepper brooded on the trickster aspect of her former boss all the way to the townhouse, feeling more irritated by the minute. Irritated…and hurt.

I thought he trusted me.

In fact, she'd thought she was the only one he really trusted, after Obadiah's death and the rift between Tony and Rhodey. He said I was all he had. And yet, he'd concealed so much from her, avoiding her questions, her attention, avoiding her-

But behind that justified annoyance came the memory of an ungainly omelette, a box of strawberries, worried eyes trying to meet hers across the desk she'd only just made her own. He'd tried, but she'd been so pissed after his exhibition at the party that she hadn't wanted to listen. Hadn't had time to listen, Pepper defended herself, and to a degree it was true; and it wasn't like he had been actually getting around to saying anything anyway.

Guilt on both sides. That was what it came down to. She closed her eyes and tried to hold the headache at bay. All the euphoria of earlier was gone; the minutes on the roof felt like a crazy dream, even if she could still taste the fleeting flavor of him in the corner of her mouth. What the hell were we doing?

The wisest thing, Pepper thought, would be to just ignore it all, even if the idea made her heart hurt. But she doubted Tony would agree to it.

By the time Happy pulled the car up in front of the townhouse, her headache had settled in to stay, despite the painkillers she carried in her purse. Pepper swung herself stiffly out of the vehicle when Happy opened the door, reminding herself that Tony had to be in much worse shape, and if she could just get him fed and into bed she could collapse in the little suite that was hers and at least get a few hours of sleep before facing whatever music had to be faced in the morning. My resignation's not official yet-

The ground floor of the townhouse was dark and quiet; apparently Tony hadn't summoned the usual staff. It was probably just as well, Pepper thought as she climbed up two flights of stairs to the main floor; Tony was easier to wrangle without distractions.

The big living room was lit with a warm glow, reflecting off the pile of armor pieces in one corner. Pepper blinked at them and looked around for Tony, wondering vaguely how he'd removed them without robotic assistance, and glanced at her watch, praying it was still early enough to order in some food. Whatever's in the cupboards downstairs isn't likely to be fresh. And she was really too tired to do more than microwave something, anyway.

"Potts." Tony emerged from the suite beyond, dressed in sweatpants and a sleeveless shirt, his hair damp. "There you are." He smiled at her, the wide open smile she'd seen so rarely recently, and Pepper felt her heart shift in her chest, as if it had its own electromagnet.

"You need to eat something," she began as he crossed the wide room, his bare feet soundless on the carpet, but before she could continue he was slipping her bag off her shoulder and leaning in and kissing her again, and a small part of her clamored that she shouldn't let him, but it was drowned out by the sheer reality of him, safe and well before her, as vital and alive as ever. His biceps were firm under her questing hands, and she leaned against him a little, unable to help herself, knowing that he could hold her weight.

Then the kiss was over, and Tony pressed his forehead against hers, still smiling. "Hello dear," he said, teasing. "How was work?"

Before she could muster a sardonic reply, Pepper found herself being ushered across the living room to one of the wide couches and pushed gently down. "Tony, you-do you need a doctor?" she asked, trying to focus. She couldn't see any fresh bruises, but his arc, glowing through his shirt, looked different somehow.

"Nope. You hungry? I ordered in from Ray's."

"You did?" Pepper blinked again. Tony loved the deli, but he never bothered ordering when Pepper was around-he just told her what he wanted. "Are you sure you don't need a doctor?"

"Very funny, Potts." Tony was dismantling the large paper bag sitting on the low coffee table, spreading containers and packages across the smooth surface. "Here, start with some soup."

"It wasn't a joke," she protested, and found her hands full of a plastic-wrapped spoon and a container almost too hot to hold. "Tony, you were dying."

"I'm not now." The flippant tone was belied by the look he shot her over his shoulder, his eyes dark and grave. "I upgraded the arc reactor and everything's fine now."

"Upgraded the…what? What has that got to do with anything?" Automatically Pepper set the lidded bowl down and began unwrapping her spoon.

Tony unshrouded a sandwich from butcher paper and took an enormous bite. "Nff lmnt," he said, chewing, and Pepper rolled her eyes and opened the soup. The fragrance rising from it almost made her moan, and her stomach growled without shame. Nothing beat Ray's chicken noodle, not even homemade, and she was tempted to simply drink straight from the bowl.

Tony swallowed. "New element," he repeated. "I created a new element to replace the palladium. Think I can get them to name it after me? I'll have to get Jarvis to find out. Oh, and I may need to redesign the house."

Pepper savored the first spoonful of soup. "Because of your 'fight' with Rhodey?"

Tony's slightly wary glance was proof that he'd heard the emphasis. "Because I put in a particle accelerator, and it's kind of taking up space, but yeah, partly. I'm not too sure about the structural soundness right now."

"A particle accelerator." Pepper wasn't sure if it was exhaustion, or just the fact that she'd known Tony for years now, but the statement produced no surprise, merely a tired attempt to visualize how he'd made it fit. "Maybe you should start from the beginning."

"Later." His voice was unusually firm as he passed her a knish. "Eat first."

She might have argued, but Tony picked up his sandwich again, and since getting food into him was the priority, Pepper held her peace and enjoyed her soup. It didn't make the headache vanish, but the pain ebbed back, and she felt overstrained muscles relaxing. The knish was delicious, and Tony had even remembered to add bottled water, though he was drinking cream soda. It always made her want to smile, the bon vivant playboy who drank the world's most expensive scotch tipping back a bottle of Journey Twisted Bean Vanilla and stuffing the cap in his pocket.

He'd ordered far too much food, but Pepper found herself finishing all the soup and going back for a second knish while Tony decimated potato salad and another sandwich. She couldn't seem to stop watching him out of the corner of her eye, making sure that he was eating, that he was healthy; now that she knew, now that she wasn't distracted, it was easy to see that he was too thin, easy to spot the deeper lines fanning out from his eyes. But the exhaustion that should accompany those signs wasn't there.

Tony was still eating when Pepper wiped her mouth and stuffed the paper napkin into the soup container, so she leaned back, letting out a long breath. There was still so much to do, she knew, from the most important task of seeing that Tony at least went to bed to composing a press release, to at least brushing her teeth, but they could all wait a moment.

Just one moment.

Pepper had always had the trick of waking all at once; no drifting slowly to the surface of consciousness for her, unless she had a fever. So when she opened her eyes to the dawn light, all the facts presented themselves at once.

She was warm, snugged under a blanket.

The surface under her ear was moving gently, and there was a heavy arm across her shoulders.

The view in front of her eyes was half muffled glow, half a tilted view of the townhouse living room.

And she'd failed to accomplish any of her goals last night, including-ick-dental hygiene.

Instead of springing to her feet and off her boss'-ex-boss'-chest, thought, she didn't move. What should have been an uncomfortable, embarrassing situation simply…wasn't. It felt weirdly innocent, Pepper realized, if such a thing was possible around Tony Stark. She'd never expected to wake up literally in his arms, but like his smile, it did things to her that she didn't expect. Pleasant things.

Plus, he smelled good, like cotton and soap and male, with the faintest hint of ozone. The latter was the reactor, she suspected. By almost crossing her eyes, she could make out the pattern of lights just beyond her nose, and the change came clear; instead of a wheel, the outer circle enclosed a triangle now.

Pepper was taken with a strong urge to slide a hand up under Tony's shirt and examine the implant. She'd never had a chance to look at it closely in situ; she'd had his old one boxed up, but out of his body it was just another gizmo, albeit a powerful one. Socketed into his chest, it became his life. And the thing that drove him, in more ways than one.

However, she wasn't about to give in to the impulse. Carefully, Pepper sat up, feeling Tony's arm slide away; he frowned and muttered something, but he didn't wake, and she was grateful. All else aside, he needed the rest.

Getting up off the couch without disturbing him was a delicate process; tucking the blanket around him less so. Pepper found her shoes set neatly side by side next to the table, which still held the remains of last night's supper. She didn't bother sighing at the waste, simply making a mental note to clean it up before Tony got hungry again. He was perfectly capable of forgetting that potato salad could spoil, for instance.

She was halfway across the living room, heading for the stairs and her suite, when his voice stopped her, low and a little raspy with sleep. "Pepper."

She glanced back over her shoulder, smiling without quite intending to. "Go back to sleep, it's early."

Tony ignored that, pushing himself upright. "I don't accept."

"What?" Pepper turned around to face him, baffled.

He stood, tossing the blanket haphazardly over the back of the couch. Rumple-haired and unshaven, he looked thoroughly disreputable, but she'd seen him look much worse, and she was sure she wasn't much better. "I don't accept your resignation."

"Ohh." She really needed coffee, Pepper thought, after a session with her toothbrush. "Tony, we can talk about this after I-"

"No." With a few strides he closed the distance between them, and took her hands in his. His eyes held no hint of humor. "We're settling this now."

Pepper sighed, and tugged, but he didn't release her. "Tony-"

"Now," he insisted. His grip wasn't hard, just close, his fingers warm and strong, and she found her own fingers closing around his without the order coming from her brain. "I'm not letting you out of my sight until we reach an agreement."

"Is this why you didn't wake me last night?" Pepper tried to figure out why he was being so stubborn. Now that he was healthy, what did it matter if he took his company back?

"No, I didn't wake you because you needed the rest. Plus you're gorgeous when you're sleeping." A smirk winked in and out of existence, the humor gone as quickly as it had appeared. "I…don't…accept."

Pepper shook her head, exasperated. "And I want a shower, Mr. Stark." He said nothing, eyebrows climbing, and she thought about arguing, but it didn't seem worth the effort before coffee. "All right. How about this? I will retain my position as CEO on a provisionary basis until after I have bathed and changed and we have both consumed breakfast. Will that do?"

She was only half-serious, but Tony let out a long breath. "That'll do," he agreed. "For the moment. But I'm holding you to it, Ms. Potts."

Her hands felt strangely cold when he released them. "Half an hour," she told him, and detoured back to pick up her shoes. "And don't eat any of this stuff."

"Won't start without you," Tony said, stuffing his hands in his pockets and watching her. Pepper did her best to ignore him and headed downstairs.

Her suite was on the second floor, and Happy had left her suitcase sitting outside it. She blessed him silently for his predictable, courteous service and towed the bag inside, still puzzling over Tony's strange behavior. Why the hell does it matter if I resign or not? If he wanted her to keep the job that badly, she could see him trying to negotiate with her, but insisting on her word was just-

It hit her as she was halfway through her shower, and she had to lean against the bath's wall for a moment, dizzy. If you resign, he has no hold on you.

If she was no longer CEO, and no longer his assistant, there was no official connection between them, and she could walk away without repercussions, at least legal ones. She wouldn't, of course, not without some thought and at the very least a farewell, but for whatever reason Tony seemed to have forgotten that. It turned his insistence from strange to desperate, almost pathetic, and raised a lump in her throat that took some swallowing to get down.

He's afraid to lose me.

"Tony, you idiot," she muttered to the rushing water, and squeezed her eyes tightly shut, so that the moisture on her cheeks could easily have been from the shower above.

She had nothing but formal clothes in her suitcase, so Pepper chose a serviceable cream-colored dress, elegant and severe, and put her hair up in a twist. At some point during the day, preferable sooner rather than later, she would have to make a statement to the press, and it was wise to look the part. As she got ready, Pepper thought about the past day and night, and everything that had happened, and what she wanted.

The whole situation was ridiculous, of course, but that was often the case around Tony, and she was nothing if not expert at improvisation. Working for him meant having to think on the fly, to make decisions that could have long-term consequences without possessing all the data. Pepper didn't like doing it, but it was well within her capabilities.

And sometimes it was just necessary, and not just regarding Mr. Stark. She'd known that for quite some time; becoming CEO just made her responsibility more permanent.

She took one last look in the mirror. Every detail was in place; she looked calm and in control. A mask, of course, but it would get her through a press conference, at least. "Onward, Virginia," she told her reflection, and headed upstairs.

Tony was not in sight. Pepper sat down on the couch and picked up the remote, intending to check the news, but her finger hesitated over the button. SI stock had no doubt dropped like the proverbial rock after last night's events, and the thought of listening to pundits trash her yet again-despite the fact that none of the debacle had been her fault-made her feel a bit nauseated.

Before she could scold herself into turning on the TV, she heard the bedroom door open. Tony emerged from the hall, looking sharp-he'd shaved, and was wearing a conservative suit and a carefully knotted tie. Pepper looked at him, all her carefully marshaled words crowding forward, but none of them seemed to matter all of a sudden. When his gaze met hers, something throbbed in her chest, and she realized that she'd made the choice already.

Screw it.

It took only a second to stand, and another to cross to him, to cup his face in both hands and hold him still for her kiss.

The word he muffled against her lips might have been her name. His arms yanked her close, and she felt his fingers slide into her hair, the comb tumbling free; but for all his brashness, the kiss was more emotion than passion, a strangely joyous coming together.

Then Tony was dipping her backwards, sweetness melting into sensuality and from that to laughter. Pepper clutched his shoulders and tried to glare as she felt his hand sliding up the back of her thigh. "Tony!"

He laughed again and set her upright with easy strength. "Good morning, Ms. Potts." As soon as she was steady, he smoothed her dress down over her hips in a move that was more solicitous than salacious.

"Yes…well…" Pepper found herself almost stammering. "This is insane, you know, but…" His shoulders were firm under her hands, and she wasn't even bothering to pretend to straighten his jacket.

"A little crazy is a good thing sometimes." Tony's hands slipped up to cradle her back, thumb stroking her spine, and his mouth was so soft on hers, so gentle. His mustache was a pleasant prickle, the skin of his neck was hot against her palms; Pepper noticed dimly that she could feel his pulse, running fast and hard.

In all the years of working for Tony, she had never seen him tender. And yet the way he was kissing her was swelling that lump in her throat once more, and she remembered how long tenderness had been absent from her life.

When the kiss was over, she wanted to stay right where she was, but there was too much to do. "Breakfast," Pepper managed, feeling Tony's breath against her cheek deepen in a sigh.

"I hate it when you're right." He released her, and Pepper stepped back, bending a little shakily for her comb. "What do you want?"

She twisted her hair back up and drove the comb in with practiced motions. "We could send Happy on a Starbucks run."

"Sounds like a plan." He was eyeing her chest, defined by her raised arms, but Pepper was used to that.

"I'll call him. And I need to prepare a press release." She reached for her phone, sitting on the now-cleared coffee table, and placed a quick call to Hogan. By the time she clicked off, Tony had the TV on, though muted, and Pepper held back a flinch as she focused on the stock ticker running along the bottom of the image.

To her surprise, however, SI stock had actually climbed almost ten points. Iron Man does it again, she thought with a mixture of amusement and bafflement. The public still loved Tony's alter ego, it seemed; at least enough to counter the disaster at the Expo. Pepper suppressed a malicious desire to find out how Hammer Industries' stock was doing just then.

"Ooh, interview," Tony said, and hit the volume button. The reporter on the screen was talking to a police officer, and Pepper took a deep breath and braced herself.

"-everything," the man was saying, beaming at the woman interviewing him. "She stayed to make sure everyone was off the grounds, and set up transportation to get them home. We were all really impressed-most CEOs would have just left cleanup to someone lower on the food chain."

It took Pepper a moment to realize that the officer was talking about her. She blinked rapidly at the screen, utterly taken aback by the fact that someone was publicly approving of her. It felt so strange, after a week of scorn and mockery-

The station went to commercial, and Tony changed the channel. The morning news was going over the Expo fight, with the usual lurid details, but when they cut to expert opinion, Pepper's mouth fell open as two and then three talking heads all agreed that she was doing a marvelous job as CEO, showing her mettle and grace under fire.

It was boggling. Tony kept flipping channels, and time and again, when she was mentioned, Pepper found that opinion of her had been almost completely reversed. Underneath the surprise, she was both amused and annoyed, because all her week's hard work apparently counted for nothing against a few executive decisions in the midst of a situation she definitely hadn't controlled. Still, the approbation was sweet.

Thanks to cable, Happy arrived before Tony ran out of stations. Pepper pulled her hand from Tony's and rose as she heard Happy mounting the stairs; she'd meant to write that press release, but the TV had been too distracting, and habit had her coming forward to take the bags and the tray of coffee.

Happy looked a little tired, but gave them his usual restrained smile. "What's the plan for the day, Ms. Potts?"

Pepper ignored Tony's eyeroll and smiled back. "I'm not sure yet. I'll call you when we get things straightened out."

He nodded, tossed a salute in Tony's direction, and vanished downstairs. Pepper set out the food on the coffee table and took a grateful swallow from her cup.

Tony finished half of his first in one draft, and began rummaging through the little bags. Pepper sighed fondly at him and took the egg-white sandwich he extended in her direction. "About my resignation," she began.

"Still don't accept," Tony said without looking up. He brought out a scone and immediately began picking the fruit out of it. "I told you it was irrevocable."

"Nonsense," Pepper shot back, though she wasn't actually clear on the legalities. "I can certainly resign if I want to."

"Why do you want to?" Tony stuffed a chunk of scone in his mouth and swallowed quickly, eyes finally meeting hers. "Come on, Pepper, being CEO can't be more stressful than herding me around."

She frowned at him, puzzled. "Tony, you gave me the company to distract me from the fact that you were-sick."

"I gave you the company in case I couldn't figure out a way to save myself," he corrected. "I mean, that's why I did it then. But seriously, you're much better at this sort of thing than I am. And don't you think Stark Industries deserves a CEO that's not distracted most of the time?"

Pepper couldn't muster an immediate reply. She'd never expected him to admit to that last; it was certainly true, but she hadn't even thought he'd realized it. And as for the rest of it-well. Running a company had never been her dream job, but she had long held a secret suspicion that she would be better at it than her boss.


She narrowed her eyes. "Are you just saying that because you don't want me to be your assistant again?" The repercussions tumbled through her head, sexual harassment, status quo, dropping the whole idea of a relationship and going back to what had been before-she didn't know what to think.

Tony frowned back, looking insulted. "Give me a break, Potts. You're a PA goddess, and I'm probably going to have to hire five or six people to replace you, but I think Stark Industries needs you more than I do." His mouth twitched, almost a bleak look. "At least on a professional basis."

Her throat ached. Pepper gripped his hand hard, ignoring the crumbs, and felt his fingers wrap around hers in a return squeeze. Then he was pulling her hand to his mouth and kissing it in a gesture that should have been ridiculously theatrical but somehow wasn't. "I'll never buy you strawberries again," he murmured against her skin, and she had to laugh. His answering grin was the sweet one, and she leaned in to kiss him again, startled on some level by how natural it felt to do so. And with the meeting of mouths something snapped into place in her middle, and Pepper knew.

Yes, she'd chosen, but now she knew she'd chosen rightly. Whatever other choice she made concerning her employment was secondary; this, she would keep.

"You know you want to," Tony murmured, shifting to her cheek as if speaking the words against her skin made them truer. "Face it, Potts, you're made to be a CEO."

He sat back a little, and Pepper smiled at him, rueful. "You know people will say you gave me the company just because we were sleeping together."

Tony grimaced. "Who cares what they say? For one thing, we're not. Yet." He gave her a blatantly anticipatory look. "For another, you're going to do such a terrific job that no one but the tabloids will actually care. And it's not like I don't still own a controlling interest."

It was true, Pepper thought, that while Tony was known to be generous with his lovers, sometimes to a ridiculous degree, he'd never given a woman anything that mattered to him. All his gifts had been as disposable as the women themselves. And now that she considered it, it seemed like Tony had given her to Stark Industries as much as he had the reverse. He cared about both of them, in his own way, and the appointment was an acknowledgment of that.

You know you want to.

He was right, damn him. Pepper sighed. After all these years acting as a proxy, she cared about SI almost as much as Tony did. And she did love a challenge.

"All right." The words were terrifying, but they made her heart rise. "All right, I'll stay."

His smile was brilliant, and Pepper found herself caught in a vigorous hug. She laughed and struggled a little, more out of surprise than anything else. "Don't you dare get grease spots on my dress!"

Tony snickered, and let her go. "Eat your breakfast," he said, and handed her the sandwich again. "You're always so snippy when your blood sugar is low."

He was taking care of her. Like he had the night before. Pepper bit into the sandwich and regarded him as he finished his coffee and reached for the extra cup Happy had brought. It was a nice change, she had to admit, but five more assistants or not, he was still going to need some looking after himself.

Well. I think I can manage that.

Smiling, Pepper started plotting that press release.