"Let's call it… having pizza," Tony suggests.
Pepper hums critically. "I don't like it. Too many opportunities for mixed signals."
It's mid-morning on a hot summer day; they're seated outside, by the pool, in matching deck chairs. Tony is fully reclined, hands locked behind his head, sunning himself like an iguana. He's wearing a pair of emerald-green board shorts and his favourite red checkered Ray-Bans, and nothing else—taking business casual to its natural conclusion. The flat, polished surface of the reactor winks in the bright sunlight.
Pepper is perched on the edge of her lounger; she's wearing a slate-grey dress, pearls, Prada sunglasses. A notepad is balanced on her lap. The only concession she's made to the location of their meeting has been to slip off her shoes, lining them up neatly on the ground at the foot of her deck chair.
Just a basic workday for Stark Industries' CEO and CTO; they've even been photographed like this, for one of those cheesy ad campaigns trying to entice people to move to California. Tony wore a t-shirt that day, of course.
The discussion they are having now is definitely not work-related.
"I might forget," Pepper adds. "I don't want you showing up on my doorstep every time I mention that I might be in the mood for takeout."
"Hmm." Despite his relaxed posture, Tony is giving the discussion his full attention—bringing every ounce of his considerable intellectual weight to bear on this most intriguing problem. "Do we really need a code phrase? We're both adults—and if we're going to do this thing, we should be able to talk about it."
"I have no objection to talking about a casual sex arrangement with you," says Pepper, more inscrutable than ever behind her large tinted lenses. "Otherwise we wouldn't be having this discussion. I just don't think the whole world needs to know about my personal life, that's all. And you have a congenital inability to be discreet."
"Which is why 'having pizza' is so perfect. No one will suspect a thing. Look, if you're ever not sure whether we're talking about pizza or… pizza, just ask, 'What kind of pizza?' The answer would be, 'pepperoni pizza.'"
He lifts his sunglasses. And watches her. And waits. (And resists the urge to ask her to repeat the phrase 'casual sex arrangement.')
A look of horrified realization steals over Pepper's face. "Okay, that is—seriously, Tony, if I ever hear you use that word to describe the two of us, in any context, this is over."
He holds up his hands defensively. "Hey, I didn't come up with it. I heard it around."
"Around where?" she challenges.
Tony watches the ripples on the water, absently calculates surface tension. "Just… around."
"The term has appeared in some of the more tawdry celebrity gossip magazines, as well as on the internet."
"Thank you," she says primly.
"Mr. Stark currently has several Google Alerts pertaining to—"
"Mute," interjects Tony, loudly. "Traitor." He makes a mental note to disconnect the intercom by the pool once Pepper leaves.
Pepper smiles, gracious in victory, and it takes all of his willpower not to focus on the sultry curve of her lips. Not to mention her other, more formidable assets: the graceful line of her neck; her small, proud breasts; the gentle swell of her hips and sweetly rounded backside; and of course, those amazing legs. Even her feet are sexy—long and slim, with high arches and delicately pointed toes. Tony has never been especially fond of women's feet as a rule, but Pepper's are the exception. He particularly likes to imagine them digging into the backs of his thighs.
Even when negotiating future opportunities for sex with Pepper, he can't stop thinking about all the sex they could be having at this precise moment.
He stands up, throws his sunglasses on the chair, and walks over to the far end of the pool, the tile and concrete warm under his feet. It's a strategic move: if he'd known they were going to have this conversation today (or ever), he wouldn't have chosen to have it while lying down, wearing only a pair of swim trunks. He doesn't feel as though he has much credibility while doing his best impersonation of a sundial.
"We still need to set some ground rules," she tells him.
He snaps his spine taut, tenses his legs, and plunges into the cool depths, his body slicing through the still water. He swims the length of the pool underwater, then breaks the surface and breaststrokes lazily back over to where Pepper is still sitting, watching him intently, and maybe—he hopes—getting turned on by his impressive display of athleticism. She does look a little flushed, although it could just be the heat.
"Okay," he says, blinking up at her in the dazzling sunlight. "Ground rules. Go."
She reaches down and passes him his Ray-Bans. "Number one: whoever makes the request has to drive to wherever the other person is located."
He scrubs the water from his hair, pushes it back. "Fair enough."
She scribbles something on her yellow pad.
"Are you taking notes?" he demands incredulously.
"Not about this—I have that stakeholders' call at two, I just wanted to remind myself to—"
"Number two, no talking about work," he interjects. It isn't just that she's a workaholic; he knows himself, and he's cognizant of the vast and thus far untapped potential for Pepper to use sex as a bargaining chip in their professional dealings.
"Or Iron Man," she counters, setting the notepad down beside her.
"I am Iron Man."
"You know what I mean, though," she persists. "Superhero talk counts as work. The latest update from SHIELD? Not sexy. And I refuse to call you Iron Man in bed."
"You won't be calling me anything." He leans forward, adopting a serious tone. "You'll be lucky if you remember your own name. I have been known to cause women to lose their powers of speech entirely."
"Pretty full of yourself, aren't you?"
"You bet. Want to be full of me too?"
Pepper rolls her eyes. "Rule number three: no sleeping over."
Tony is surprised—most of the women he's been with have been keen to spend the night. "Sounds good to me."
"I mean it, Tony. The last thing I need is for someone to spot your car in my driveway overnight—and no, that is not a euphemism," she adds, seeing him poised to interject. "Rule number four: no talking about this arrangement. To anyone. Ever." She gives him a pointed look.
"Who, me? I am the soul of discretion."
"I'm sorry, what was that? I couldn't hear you over the sound of your naked ass all over the internet."
He flicks water at her empty shoes.
She raises her sunglasses and glares. "Are you sure you want to do that?"
He plants his forearms on the the pool's tiled edge and lifts himself up out of the water, ever so slightly. Her eyes do a lingering sweep over his shoulders and chest. He reaches out, his wet hand ghosting over her the top of bare foot. Her toenails are painted a very inflammatory shade of red. He thinks she's going to jump back at the unexpected contact—but instead she flexes her leg, arches into the touch, and gives him a smile, slow and predatory. He's not used to seeing that look on Pepper, but he likes it. He's suddenly, acutely aware of the bright sun overhead, beating down on his bare skin.
"So when do we start?" he inquires.
Her foot slides free of his grasp. "Start what?"
He waggles his eyebrows suggestively.
"When you reach the age of majority, apparently." She stands up, stone-faced once more, and slides the notepad into her bag. "I have to go." She shakes a few stray droplets of pool water off her foot before stepping into her shoes.
"How about now?"
She shakes her head. "Stakeholders' call. Remember?"
"Do it here. You can use my office. We can use my office. There's a futon."
He's gotten pretty good at gauging her level of annoyance by her posture. She's standing very straight now, spine rigid, hands on her hips. Not a good sign. "If I'm getting paid to sleep with you, then what does that make me?"
He knows he shouldn't say it, but he can't resist. "Stark Industries' Employee of the Month?"
He watches admiringly as she walks away.
Tony takes a quick shower—just long enough to rinse away the chlorine and sweat and to take care of his persistent sundial issue. The nice thing about working from home three days a week is that he can set his own schedule. Pepper doesn't particularly care what hours he keeps, as long as the work gets done on time; she knows him well enough by now to know when he needs handling and when he can be left alone.
After getting dressed, he takes a lap around the house to check the progress of the reconstruction. Everything seems to be moving forward on schedule—Tony can use his office and his gym, and he isn't sleeping in the workshop anymore, but his living room still has a big pit in the centre where the floor ought to be. He keeps telling Pepper that he's going to install a fireman's pole so he can slide down to the workshop in emergency situations. She usually greets this suggestion with the frosty silence it deserves.
His personal life is in equal disarray—but that's a more long-standing issue, one he's used to dealing with, and one that seems less pressing at this particular point in time. It's less likely that he'll trip over his post-traumatic stress in the middle of the night on his way to the kitchen and break an ankle.
He sits down on the couch, directly in front of the hole, in the spot that was Pepper's preferred location when she worked for him. It's a different vantage point, a different view of the room than he's used to—which is exactly how he feels about the conversation out by the pool.
He's a little bit in shock: Pepper Potts, of all people, suggesting they negotiate the terms of a 'friends-with-benefits' arrangement. Not that he thinks Pepper is a prude—he knows she's had boyfriends, he assumes they weren't all priests or eunuchs—but she doesn't seem like the type of person who would be open to that sort of thing. He can't help but wonder what crucial piece of the puzzle he's missing.
The loudest, most dominant part of his brain (the vocal majority, which he suspects is physically located slightly south of his belt buckle) is advising him to shut up and accept what she's offering. To take whatever he can get. To enjoy the ride.
He has some misgivings; the last thing he wants is for her to quit, and walk out of his life completely. Mixing sex and friendship has a tendency to get messy. This is the main reason that Tony doesn't have a lot of female friends. Pepper doesn't do messy. Pepper does tidy and rational and clear. Pepper does boundaries.
She made that abundantly clear to him in New York.