Hello! I'm back! Real life took me for an arduous ride, but I've finally regained some semblance of control. This was born in a creative fit, and as an excuse to write some Tony/Pepper interaction. The timeline on this is murky on purpose, but in general it is set sometime between movies one and two. Enjoy!

I don't own anything. You can have my student loans though.

...

Pepper Potts is certain she is one hundred and twenty percent pathetic.

Her evidence is enough to fill three large courtrooms with exhibits A through Ridiculous and back to Pitiful. But she is nothing if not resilient, and tells herself that the defense against her absurd behavior is strong, and that she might win if she just keeps believing she isn't crazy.

So she tells herself, as her own personal mantra, that she's normal, fine, and isn't about to do something absurd at any given moment because if he looks at her like that one more time she just might crumple. But the prosecution's lawyer is starting up in her head an all she can think of are the ways in which Tony Stark is driving her mad, and how she's fighting what will probably become a losing battle. And so the prosecution brings out the evidence, piece by piece.

For exhibit A, Pepper notes that she's so finely attuned to Tony's motions, his face, his breathing, that she forgets how to coordinate her own body.

It's painfully embarrassing when they're walking together. He places his hand at the small of her back, his big palm radiating way too much heat into her. The heat spreads up to her face and down to stomach, filling her with lead and making her work hard to keep in step with him. She doesn't always succeed, and this time she trips just a little, but Tony is there.

"Whoa," he says, catching her arm. His other arm – the culprit to begin with – wraps around her waist to steady her. "You okay?"

"Yeah, sorry. I have a lot on my mind."

Tony gives her a searching look as she straightens her suit and switches her briefcase to her other hand. "What?" she asks, with more force than is necessary.

"Nothing. You good?"

"I'm good," she replies, and they resume their walk, but Pepper stays far enough away from him that he cannot touch her. If he notices, he does not show it.

In public she can generally regain her composure, mostly because Pepper knows she has to, and that if she doesn't horrible things will happen. When they danced, the first and the last time, Pepper kept herself in line, tried not to focus on the way Tony smelled, how he was close enough for her to see the smooth skin of his jawline grade into his goatee. She wondered what that goatee would feel like on her skin. And suddenly Tony was too close, and she was losing it. Pepper gladly accepted the offer to go outside.

It's when they're in private that Pepper has a harder time maintaining her sanity. Like that night on the balcony: she watched herself from above coming closer to Tony, seducing him for God's sake, and she cringes now at the memory. Totally unprofessional, and completely out of control. But it's hard to resist and ignore him. It's even harder to remember how to function properly when all of her energy is so utterly focused on him.

They've ordered Thai takeout, and they stand near each other at the counter, preparing individual meals. Pepper reaches across him to grab a piece of shrimp at the same time he reaches for the carton of rice. Their arms tangle and she feels jolted at the contact.

"Outta my way, Potts," he says, and she releases the shrimp and lifts her arm automatically, to remove herself from the hyper aware state that skin-to-skin contact brings about. "You want rice?" he asks, and she nods. She watches as he dumps a pile into her bowl, his ear close enough for her to bite. Instead she bites her lip hard and drops her chopsticks with a loud clatter onto the floor.

He doesn't say anything, just lifts his eyebrow in question. Pepper smiles it away, bends down to pick up her fallen utensils, and resumes her quest for the shrimp. But Tony's still watching her, shoveling a piece of broccoli into his mouth. Her arm grazes his stomach when she reaches over. She drops her shrimp into the carton of vegetables.

"Oh my God," Pepper says, at the same time Tony says, "Do you want a fork?"

"No," she snaps, grabbing the shrimp with her chopsticks firmly and shoving it into her mouth. She chews ferociously, angrily, taking out her frustration on the dead shrimp. Tony stares at her.

"Okay," he says, shrugs, and walks out. Pepper puts her palms over her eyes, nearly stabs her eye with a chopstick, and swears.

And then there's the time that they were dressing for a benefit at the mansion, something Pepper was not eager to partake in. She had no choice, though, because driving back to her house to change would have cost her nearly two hours, and a work meeting had already run late, leaving her with less than forty minutes to dressed and get Tony there on time. Happy had offered to run to her house earlier to retrieve her gown, and she had reluctantly agreed.

Now she was standing awkwardly in her makeshift office in nothing but her underwear, feeling dirty and aroused for being so bare in Tony's house. Like it mattered; he once made a habit of being obscenely naked nearly every Sunday morning that Pepper had the unfortunate pleasure of coming to the mansion. Still, now the cards are switched, and she briefly wonders what would happen if she emerged like this with the excuse of having forgotten something in her bag at the front door.

No, she says to herself firmly, and turns to her garment bag. The dress she has picked out for this evening is simple and elegant, a deep royal purple satin number that is modest enough to keep her comfortable. Unlike that wretched blue silk disaster she had worn to the fire fighter's benefit. She was not about to make the same mistake twice.

She slips on her dress and her shoes and studies her reflection in the mirror on the closet door. Fair, she thinks, and turns around, finding the exposed back to be timid in its plunge. The slit, on the other hand, is a little high, and Pepper frowns. She doesn't remember that being a problem when she had tried it on. But combined with her heels the slit is nearly too sexy for her.

A glance at her watch tells her that it's too late to do anything about it now, so Pepper finishes her appearance and emerges from the office. She finds Tony standing in the living area, looking around on the couch for something. His tuxedo, she notes absently, looks far too good on him.

"What are you looking for?" she asks, and he looks up. If Pepper had not been paying careful attention, she would not have noticed the way his mouth opens a fraction and his eyes darken at the sight of her. She ignores it diligently.

"Cuff links?"

"Did you leave them upstairs?"

"I – maybe. I didn't think so."

"I'll check," Pepper says, and turns to go up the stairs. Halfway up he calls to her.

"You look amazing."

"Thank you," she says, glancing over her shoulder, and notices that he's staring not at her face but at the slit that is currently exposing half of her thigh.

She trips, fantastically losing her foot on the steps, and goes crashing onto the hard stone surface. Her ankle twists in an uncomfortable way. She's pretty sure she's made some ridiculously squeaky female noise. Tony is by her side in less than two seconds, crouching on the stairs next to her, helping her sit up.

"Are you okay?" he asks, brow creased with concern.

Pepper blushes furiously. "No," she whines, shutting her eyes. The image of herself tripping replays in her mind. She opens her eyes again and looks down at herself, noting that her dress has miraculously managed to stay intact. There's a large scrape down the inside of her right shin. "Ow," she moans, reaching for the gently bleeding scrape.

"I'll get...something," Tony says, and she knows he's totally unsure of what to do, or where his washcloths or first aid kit are. She smiles.

"It's okay. I'm a total mess, aren't I?" Pepper says softly.

"You still look amazing," Tony says, grinning. "I'm glad you're okay, but that was funny as hell."

"Shut it." She smacks him on his upper arm, then takes his offered hand when she tries to stand up. The pain in her shin is blurring any feelings usually associated with touching Tony. That, and her flaming shame at tripping because he was looking at her.

"I should just stay home before I hurt anyone else."

"No," Tony says, taking her arm and leading her to the couch. "You're coming. I need you there."

He retreats upstairs to find his cuff links and a rag to clean her cut. Pepper sits staring at the darkening sky outside, trying very hard not to dwell on his words. She spends the rest of the evening dutifully staying as far away from Tony as she can. She images, in the car ride home, that he is more distant than usual.

The second piece of evidence: Tony is seducing her, and she likes it. Except maybe it's all in her head. Exhibit B.

They're sitting on the couch in his workshop, the television on low volume. She's reading interdepartmental memos and Tony's playing with a Rubik's cube, his eyes on the screen in front of them. That's what she's pretending, at least. Pepper's actually staring at the same sentence over and over, because each time she gets halfway through it she notices – again – how close Tony is siting to her. If she shifts her right leg just a little, it'll hit his thigh. Their shoulders almost touch.

"You're not reading," he says, startling her. Pepper clears her throat and turns the page, just to prove a point.

"I am."

"Not. You've had that same page open for the past fifteen minutes."

Pepper pauses, fighting for control. She brushes her bangs out of her face. "I'm...tired. That's all. You're obviously not watching the television."

"You're right. I'm not."

The implied ending of that sentence – I'm watching you – remains unspoken.

He's looking at her and she's fiercely looking at the paper in front of her. Pepper tries to imagine that the budget of the janitorial department is really, really important. She will not allow herself to meet his eyes. But she feels his hand at the back of her head, and suddenly her neat ponytail disappears and her hair falls down around her shoulders.

"Hey!" she yelps, one hand flying to the place on her head where her ponytail once was. Tony is holding the elastic, twirling it between his fingers as he studies her. He smiles.

"I like it down."

"I don't," she snaps back, angry that he has such excruciating control over her. She feels flushed and giddy at the attention he's paying her, and if he doesn't stop soon she's going to do something stupid. She glares at him and tries to snatch the elastic band from his fingers. He flings it across the room. Pepper is not about to get up and let him stare at her as she pads to the other side and bends over to retrieve her hair band. Like...some dog. No. Her face reddens with anger and embarrassment.

Tony catches a strand of her hair and runs it through his fingers, letting it curl around his index finger and then unwind. Pepper wants to run away, but she's frozen; she can feel his breath on her cheek.

"I also really like it when you get mad," he whispers, grinning.

"Excellent," is all Pepper manages to say, her eyes finally drawn to his. He's looking at her steadily, hungrily. Pepper shivers.

"It's sexy," he whispers again.

Pepper swats his hand away. "Stop that," she says, rolling her eyes. "You'd think a horse was sexy if it was wearing a skirt." She gives him a lopsided smile, one that she hopes says 'I'm-so-right' instead of 'I-so-want-you.' Inside she's trying hard to rein herself in. Any more of Tony's playfulness and she would find herself straddling his lap, pressing herself against him. And that would be disastrous.

Before he can defend himself against her accusation, she gets up to leave, taking her papers with her up the stairs. She leaves the hair band on the floor.

As time goes on, she becomes more and more certain that Tony is purposefully toying with her. To what end she cannot fathom. He calls up to her after a mission, and she runs down the stairs of the workshop, terrified that he's maimed beyond recognition. Instead she finds him standing shirtless in the center of the floor. There's a large scrape across his cheek and a growing bruise along his ribs. She opens the glass door and stares at him, looking between his bruised body and the chipped and dented Ironman suit on the disassembly pad.

"Hey, Pepper. Can you doctor me up?"

This is the first time he has ever asked her to patch his wounds, and for a moment Pepper stands frozen in the door. She's usually the one mothering him, clucking about with gauze and antiseptic while he bats her away. Now he stands there, half undressed (the neoprene pants he wears hardly conceal anything), asking for her help.

She steps forward and gets her medical kit from the bottom drawer of a desk. Pepper pauses a moment before him, setting the kit on the nearest table surface and inspecting his wounds closely.

"Are you okay?" she asks. He nods and she takes in the scrape on his cheek; it's deep and jagged, like metal tore its way through his skin. She winces and glances down his broad shoulders to find small bruises dotting his skin. She runs her hand down his right arm, where his skin looks red as if it had been singed. Her other hand gently touches his bruised ribs. He hisses and Pepper suddenly realizes she's touching him without any real reason for it. No gauze in her hand, no medical tape, just her bare hand glancing his skin.

She swallows and steps back. Wonders why he called her down here, since the wounds are superficial and Dummy could have handled it. Almost as if he's reading her mind, he says, "The bots suck. Dummy always pours hydrogen peroxide all over me."

Pepper makes a noncommittal noise at the back of her throat and turns back to the medical kit. She decides to start with his ribs first, since they might be fractured and in need of actual medical care. She grabs a pouch and heads toward the refrigerator at the back of the workshop to fill it with ice. When Pepper returns, Tony is sitting on the counter top, a painful expression on his face.

"Does it hurt when you breathe?" she asks.

"A little," he says, and winces again. Pepper realizes that to get to his ribs she'll have to stand between his legs, and suddenly she is absolutely certain that Tony Stark is screwing with her. While injured, no less. She moves closer to him, feeling his thighs on either side of her hips. She tries not to think about how close she is to him, and how their current position is -

Stop. She bites her lip and applies the ice pack gently to his ribs. He hisses, but when she tries to remove the ice to give him relief he catches her hand and pushes it back against his ribs. Pepper glances at him, his lips twitch into a half-smile. She looks back down at the bruising and moves the ice pack so that all of the area receives attention. The ice is melting. Water trickles between their combined hands. She is at once cold and hot. She watches a droplet of water make its way down his side and disappear into the crevice between his abdomen and his waist.

And she's still standing between his legs.

Pepper pulls the ice away abruptly, throwing his hand from hers as she goes back to the medical kit to retrieve athletic wrap. Turning back to him she realizes that this is foolish, that in order to wrap the bandage around his chest to restrict movement, she's going to have to essentially wrap her arms around him. She can't do that, not with the dead weight sitting in her stomach, the flare of heat in her chest and her between her hips.

I'm fine, I'm normal. This is normal.

Pepper wraps his chest quickly, efficiently, business like. She ignores how close her face gets to his skin, how warm he is between her arms. She does not dwell on this, and she does not look at his face.

"That's just for now," she finally manages to say. "You should get it looked at, make sure you didn't break anything."

"Okay," he says, and Pepper is startled to hear how hoarse his voice is. It washes over her like gravel. Sexy gravel. She grabs antibiotic ointment and takes his chin in her hand to look at his cut cheek closely. There's no debris. Pepper takes a clean swab, applies ointment to it, and runs it across the length of his cut. Then she makes the mistake of meeting his eyes.

There's a look in Tony's eyes that Pepper has never seen before. It's dark and steady and intense and Pepper can't look away. She feels arousal flare in her, realizes it would take only inches to close the distance between them. Tony's hand finds its way to her hip, the other takes hold of the hand at his cheek.

"Tony," she hears herself say, and later will be embarrassed by how much it sounded like a moan. She's pressed against him now, their hips together and the point of contact agonizing. His eyes ask, search, filled with desire and want and Pepper is overwhelmed.

She thinks this was his plan all along.

He says her name like a breath on his lips and rolls his hips against her, his attraction unmistakable. Suddenly the magnitude of what this is, what this all means, washes over Pepper and she jerks back, dropping the swab to the floor and stepping away.

"I have to go," she says lamely. Before Tony can change her mind, she steps away from the tempting impossibility of him and retreats upstairs and out the door. She pretends that she doesn't hear him call her back.

And finally, the most damning is exhibit C. She dates other men to get Tony out of her system. And it fails.

She has been in his employment for six years; she has taken his suits to the dry cleaners 2,477 times, and she has bandaged him after a mission 67 times. The other 178 times he brushed her off, and it was always evident that his injuries were more than just superficial – that he had lost his personal battle that day, that the other side had gotten the upper hand. On these times Pepper quietly left him to his brooding and went back upstairs, her throat tight with anger and the sick feeling of rejection.

"Tony just let me look at it," she pleads, the welt on his arm livid and black. He has been pushing her away since he got back from this particular mission but Pepper is worried the injury is serious. He sits stubbornly on a stool, his suit gone and out of sight. The anger is still livid on his face.

"Pepper. Get. Out."

She blinks, startled at the tone of his voice. He often is cold or disinterested, but never angry. "Tony, stop being-"

"GET OUT!" he roars, throwing a wrench to his side so that it neatly shatters the glass partition around the stairs. Pepper has her hands raised by her head, as if in protection from a violent noise, even though he threw it in the opposite direction of where she stands. She stands horrified, her heart in her throat.

Tony runs his hands through his hair and turns his back on her. So she does the same.

She knows he wasn't reacting to her. She knows that something horrible must have happened for him to get so angry, and it really had nothing to do with her. Wrong place, wrong time. But Pepper feels insulted and scared of him. At home she paces her living room. It's been a week since Tony's artful seduction with his bruised ribs, where things nearly spun out of control. They had left that episode unspoken, and now, after Tony's intense desire for her to leave, Pepper is at a loss. She knows she shouldn't take tonight personally. But she does.

She brings up a voicemail left on her blackberry earlier this week. James Yew, from law, with whom she has regular contact because he's in charge of that department's budget, has asked her to dinner. She looks at his number on the screen, then presses call.

On Friday a few days later she's preparing to leave the office early. James invited her for a stroll in the botanical gardens, as it was a rare week of mild weather before the drying heat of summer set in. Pepper's shutting her computer down when a cough from her doorway makes her look up.

"Hey," Tony says. He's leaning casually against the door jamb, his tie undone. It's the first time they've talked since he broke the glass. Pepper had discreetly called a repair company to have it fixed.

"Hi," she replies, calmly, as if he hadn't thrown a wrench through the air a few days ago. "I'm taking off early."

"I noticed. Where are you going?"

Pepper considers not telling him, because he'll no doubt make a scene about it. And if she thinks about this carefully, they should have talked about what happened between them. Instead she's running away from it. On the other hand, her anger still lurks. Anger with him for playing games, for pushing her away. The bitter side wins.

"I have a date."

She doesn't dare look up at him. Pepper hears him leave, and she lets out a breath she didn't know she had been holding.

She and James are halfway through dinner before it dawns on her that this plan of hers is not working. James is nice, and attractive, and interesting to talk to. While Pepper enjoys herself, she simultaneously wishes she were at Tony's mansion watching a movie with him, deflecting the kernels of popcorn he so enjoyed throwing at her. Except, she reminds herself, she and Tony are in a strange place. A place between lovers and friends, a place between where she hates him and needs him. And it's the reason she's on this stupid date to begin with.

Pepper parts ways with James after dinner, explaining that she enjoyed their afternoon but that she's not sure if there's a future for them. He is amicable about it, smiles, nods, wishes her a good weekend. When Pepper arrives at her front door, she sees Tony sitting on her front stoop, elbows on his knees and hands hanging down. He looks up when she approaches.

She feels her control spiraling.

...

There will be a second part posted sometime (I make no promises) from Tony's perspective. Please read and review.