5. A Conscientious Objector
We're settled in the back of the Bentley, finally headed for home.
I'm dimly aware that Pepper is chatting with Happy. She asks him how his brother is doing. Happy says he's doing fine, that the surgery went well.
"That's great," says Pepper, patting him on the shoulder. "Keep me updated, okay?"
He beams at her in the rearview.
I didn't even know Happy had a brother.
Pepper is seated on the passenger side. She's bent forward at the waist, angled across me towards Happy, listening graciously while he goes into unnecessary and graphic detail about his brother's long history of digestive issues. With her hair up, the line of her neck is one half of a catenary curve, long and elegant. There's a constellation of freckles on her bare shoulder, a smaller cluster on her arm just below the elbow. Her hand rests beside mine on the seat, pale and luminous against the black leather.
I watch as my hand slowly reaches over and takes hold of Pepper's slender, speckled wrist.
The complexity and articulation of the human hand is what distinguishes us among the animals of the world: we aren't the fastest, or the most powerful, or the most durable, or the most prolific, and it's even debatable whether we're the smartest. But our hands can build. They can grasp. They can release. They can learn.
Pepper doesn't move an inch; her face doesn't react. She just keeps looking straight ahead, keeps talking past me, like my invasion of her personal space is so entirely commonplace that it doesn't even register anymore.
Her wrist is so little that my fingers and thumb are able to circle it completely; I could probably snap it without much effort, which is one of those thoughts that shouldn't occur to me, but does. Sometimes it seems like all I do is invent ways to hurt people.
Her skin is smooth and slightly cool to the touch; the muscles and ligaments beneath, pliable; the bones beneath that, fragile.
I can name all of the twenty-seven bones in her tiny hand, eight of which are in her wrist. I can feel the shifting of the individual components under my fingers, the beating of her pulse. It's like closing my hand around a live bird.
Pepper's hands are so small, yet so capable. Delicate, but steady and unwavering in the performance of their duty. Graceful. Flexible. Surprisingly strong. Like their owner. They're the only hands I trust as much as I trust my own.
Holding a wrist isn't like holding a hand. It doesn't have to mean something, but it can mean anything.
The haloed streetlights start to hurt my eyes, so I close them for a bit, concentrating on the thrumming of tires against pavement, the purr of the car's engine. It sounds like it's in pretty good shape, although I can tell the alternator bearings are going to need replacing very soon.
I hear Happy ask, "Is he out cold?"
I can feel Pepper shift towards me. I slow my breathing, feigning sleep. "Yep," she affirms, her breath warm on my face.
"Need any help getting him in the house?"
"We'll see." Her stomach gurgles. "God, I'm starving. They never have decent food at these things. I swear, all I ate was melon—and that was only to prevent Tony from dumping it in the nearest installation by mistake."
Happy chuckles appreciatively—he has absolutely no clue what installation art is, but at least he knows a punch line when he hears one.
"I hate melon," says Pepper.
"Hey, you know me, I could always eat. Let me know if you want to get a burger or something." You'd have to be an idiot not to hear the hopeful inflection in Happy's voice.
"Maybe," she says. "Let's drop Prince Charming off and see where we are for time."
"Did he wear the sunglasses all night?"
She snorts derisively. "Don't even get me started." I wish I could see her face.
"Is that a new dress?"
"Yeah. I think I paid too much for it, though."
"Well, it looks really nice on you."
Pepper is not an idiot. Not by a long shot.
"Tony," says Pepper, and I realize with a start that I've been dozing against her shoulder.
I sit up, disoriented. The car's stopped moving. Happy's holding the door open. I have to—something about the alternator. And Pepper's freckles. And melon. "What?"
She smiles in a way that makes her lips look delicious. "We're home."
Not You're. We're.
I had no idea there was a secret stash of ice cream in my freezer, but Pepper reaches into the back and pulls it out without even looking while she's getting the ice pack. She also pours me a glass of water the size of a small vase, and the look she shoots me suggests that if I know what's good for me, I'll drink it.
We eat sitting at the breakfast bar—one carton, two spoons—while Pepper ices my ankle, my foot resting in her lap. Between the Vicodin and the booze, I've still got a pretty good buzz going, but I can hold myself up and I can articulate clearly, which is already an improvement.
"Tony, this looks broken." Her fingers skim over the purple and black smudges that now run the length of my swollen foot, giving it the look of a charcoal sketch from an anatomy textbook. "I think you should see a doctor."
"I'll get JARVIS to scan it."
"I can't believe you didn't tell me."
"I did tell you."
She starts to argue, then stops short. "I guess you did," she admits.
"Are you going to hook up with Happy?"
"I see you've regained your ability to ask inappropriate personal questions. That's usually a good sign." She starts wrapping the Tensor slowly around my ankle. "Let me know if this is too tight."
"Do you think I'm a jerk?" I ask.
The corners of her mouth twitch, but her hands never falter. "Sometimes," she says finally.
I dig into the carton of ice cream, excavating a vein of caramel. "I'm sorry."
"'Sorry' doesn't mean anything if you don't know why you're saying it, Tony." Her eyes flick from the bandage to my face, then back again.
I guess she's right: everything that comes out of my mouth is an 'I' statement.
"I didn't kiss that girl," I say, around the spoon. It's so cold that it burns the roof of my mouth.
"You can kiss whoever you want, Tony. Please don't feel you have to lie to me about it." Her tone is convincing—but then she bites her lip, which is one of her tells.
I put the spoon down on the counter. "I didn't, though. I mean, kissing did occur, but I did not participate. In fact, I refused. I was a conscientious objector."
"Okay," she says, in her you're-the-boss voice.
"Also, I would like to point out how much more enjoyable our evening could have been if we'd just done the prom thing, like I suggested."
"That's probably true." She smiles, tucking in the end of the bandage and lifting my foot out of her lap. "How did that go again?"
"A ride in a limo…"
"Right." She stands up, high heels cradled in one hand, and helps me to my feet with the other. For once, I have the height advantage—at least until my ankle gives out.
"A few drinks…"
She leans in, does the breathalyzer move. "I think you've got that covered for both of us," she observes. "What else?"
I shift towards her in return, but she isn't backing away this time. Her eyes are wide, apprehensive. Her lips part, ever so slightly; the shoes slide out of her hand, clattering against the hard floor.
The sound twigs something in the back of my mind, and I realize what part of the equation was missing all along:
She blinks, startled. "Pardon?"
"What's a prom without dancing?" I take advantage of Pepper's momentary hesitation to slide an arm around her waist, my free hand clasping her fingers.
"Your foot," she protests, following along reluctantly as I sketch out a sloppy box step on the smooth tile.
"Been walking on it all night," I remind her. Then I shake out my wrist and give her a little spin, holding her suspended at arm's length for a long moment before reeling her back in. She relaxes, allowing herself to fall into an easy, swaying rhythm, settling into the crook of my arm as though we've been doing this for years. The repetitive motion is hell on my ankle, but I'm enjoying myself too much to let it stop me.
The lazy lilt of a saxophone subtly insinuates itself into the room—JARVIS knows me and my habits a little too well. Fortunately, he has enough sense not to dim the lights.
Pepper rolls her eyes. "I've been meaning to ask you," she begins, then pauses.
"Where did you learn to dance?"
"Prep school." The lie slips out with practiced ease.
"Ah." She's watching me intently, a slight crease in her brow.
"Did I mention it was an all-boys' school, and that I was small for my age and exceptionally pretty?" I cant my head and bat my eyelashes at her. "I was in my twenties before I figured out that I was actually supposed to lead."
Her gaze doesn't waver. "I thought your mother might have taught you."
I have no idea how she knows that. Rhodey, maybe. Maybe Obadiah.
I dip her suddenly, making her squeal in alarm—it affords me a pretty good view down her top, if only briefly. Rather than her usual demure camisole, I get a glimpse of alabaster curves and black lace; it's the kind of bra a woman wears when she knows someone's going to be looking at it. I can't help but wonder who Pepper's intended audience is.
It takes her a moment to right herself, clutching at my shoulder. She's breathing fast, her chest heaving. "Just once, I wish you'd warn me before you do something crazy," she gasps.
She stills in my arms, then gently removes my sunglasses. She slips them on; they're too large for her small features, making her look vaguely insect-like.
"What's that about, bug-eyes?" I ask.
She smiles. "I'm trying to see the world the way you do."
"And? What's the verdict?"
She reaches out and strokes my cheek, tentatively, as though navigating by touch.
I sigh. "Very funny. They're not that dark."
As she takes a step closer, right into my comfort zone, I can feel my fight-or-flight response kicking in: my whole body tenses, coiled to spring. Behind the RT, my heart is hammering like a kick drum.
Still caressing my face, she lightly grazes my lower lip with her thumb—a gesture that sends a jolt straight to the base of my spine. Her smile is fixed, inscrutable; I can't read her eyes through the opaque lenses, can't divine what she might be thinking.
"Shh." Her hand slides around to the back of my neck, fingers threading their way through my hair. I don't even realize how shallowly I'm breathing until my head starts to swim. The house seems so quiet—I didn't even notice when JARVIS cut the music.
She guides my head down and presses her lips to mine for a few seconds, tightly closed; they're dry, but very warm. In this moment, it's still possible to delude myself that this is simply a friend-kiss. A thank-you-for-the-lovely-dance-in-your-kitchen kiss.
Then her mouth relaxes, inviting me in.
Kissing Pepper—finally, actually kissing her—is like taking a strong drink: an infusion of liquid heat radiating down through my chest and welling in the pit of my stomach, spreading through my body until every nerve ending tingles. Intoxicating. Addictive.
It's been a long time since I kissed someone without an overarching goal in mind—since I kissed for the simple pleasure of kissing—and so I feel a bit rudderless. She cups my face in the palms of both hands, holding me in place while she moves her lips over mine. Her fingers, still chilled from holding the ice pack, are deliciously cool against my temples. The inside of her mouth tastes of caramel, and vodka, and beneath it all, a trace of melon.
I have one hand on the counter to steady myself, the other anchored to her hip—I know I'm standing perfectly still and upright, but I have the sensation of falling forward at dizzying speed.
I feel like maybe we shouldn't be doing this. At the same time, I feel like maybe we should have done this years ago.
I'm unable to stop, unwilling to stop until she breaks away, placing a hand on my chest, heaving a tiny sigh of completion—the kind that says, okay, that's that over with. Like she just checked another item off her to-do list. The thought of being on Pepper's to-do list suddenly makes my tuxedo pants seem a little confining.
I wonder if James Bond ever has days like this.
"I'm going home," she tells me, patting my cheek. "I'll stop by in the morning, in case you need anything."
"Technically, that was only first base," I point out.
I try to wrap my arm around her, but she steps out of reach, scoops up her discarded heels, and favours me with an enigmatic smile. "That's okay. You didn't bring me a corsage."
"Hey. Nurse Nightingale." My hand is still extended towards the echo of her body, my fingers curved around empty air. "Wounded superhero here? Aren't you going to at least help me to bed?"
"Nice try." She turns and saunters off on the balls of her bare feet, like a dancer. Like a runway model. Like only a woman called Pepper can. She takes her sweet time; she must know that I'm not likely to chase her very far. Not just because of the ankle, but because I can't stop watching her walk away from me.
"Okay, seriously? Are you stealing my sunglasses?"
She pauses, slides the shades up onto her head, and cuts her eyes at me over her bare shoulder. "You don't need them." Then she strolls out of the kitchen, hips swaying, shoes dangling by their thin straps from a single fingertip.
I'm still too drunk on her to move, to think beyond the moment. I can't decide whether what I'm feeling is elation or anxiety. Maybe both.
The soft click of the front door closing finally snaps me out of it. I head for the service elevator—there's no way I'm going to make it down those stairs tonight.
The good news is, there are more than enough repairs to keep me busy until morning—most of which can be done sitting down. A good six hours in the workshop will help me get my head on straight, give me time to figure out what just happened and what I'm going to do about it.
"JARVIS?" I call, my voice echoing through the empty house.
"At your disposal, sir, as always."
I really should get him to scan my ankle—but first things first. "Put on the coffee and crank up the tunes. We've got work to do."