That Friday evening, Pepper and Tony stay late at the office to take a call from Tokyo.
The call is productive—Pepper takes no less than fifteen pages of notes—but she can't stop sneaking glances at her watch. She thinks she's being subtle, but as soon as they hang up the phone, Tony inquires, "Hot date?"
"Yes," she says evenly. She will not be baited.
"Huh." He carefully lines up his Parker pen and his rapidograph in the little divot at the bottom of his desk blotter before directing his gaze back to her. "Anyone I know?"
She takes a deep breath, exhales slowly. "Henry."
He doesn't seem surprised. "You don't think that's weird?" He fans his fingers over the blotter and shifts it, correcting the angle.
The truth is, Pepper is acutely aware of how Freudian it looks, but she's also annoyed that Tony isn't willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Besides which, she thinks, watching Tony meticulously square his blotter, people who live in glass neuroses shouldn't throw stones.
She stands up and collects her sweater from the back of her chair. "Are we done here?"
He nods briefly without looking up. "Say hi to Henry for me."
"Tell him…" He smirks. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do."
"Hilarious," Pepper deadpans. "Good night."
Tony gives her the thumbs-up.
It turns out that being with Henry is easy. Uncomplicated, in a way that Pepper's personal relationships rarely are.
By mutual agreement, they maintain a professional distance when he's in the office; no more flirting at her desk. This isn't as difficult as it could be, because Henry isn't in the office as much—he's in rehearsals three days a week, which means that the script must have passed muster.
He understands the pressures of her job, and never complains when she has to reschedule a date. He doesn't mind at all if she's too tired or frazzled to go out. He listens attentively to her rants about work—which are shorter than they would be if she were with someone who didn't know all the players involved. It helps that, unlike most of the men she's been with, Henry clearly isn't threatened by Tony—probably because, also unlike most of those men, he's actually spent time with Tony.
Henry is a great cook, an engaging conversationalist, a polite bedmate, a generous lover. He is that rare combination: someone of whom her mother would approve, and also someone who never objects to a late-night booty call.
The problem with dating a gifted impressionist is that he's almost never entirely Henry. It's always Henry-as-Connery, or Henry-as-Homer Simpson, or Henry-as-some reference Pepper doesn't get, because she doesn't watch enough television. "Enough" being, in Henry's estimation, anything less than all the television that can possibly be watched by one human being in a 24-hour period.
He talks constantly, but she knows there's a lot he doesn't tell her. His SI background check mentioned a divorce, but they never discuss it. She knows he has two older brothers, but he doesn't mention them. And he has a bronze medallion attached to his house keys which she is relatively certain is an AA chip.
He's entitled to his privacy, certainly, but it's frustrating, because she'd like to get to know him better. She can never quite tell when he stops acting.
They're in her bed one Saturday evening when Pepper's cell phone chimes softly. It's the custom ringtone she has assigned to Tony's home line. At this point, her response to the sound is practically Pavlovian; she doesn't even realize that she's reached over to the night stand until the phone is actually in her hand.
"Leave it," says Henry.
"Sorry." And she is genuinely sorry, not least of all because Henry is naked and she was about to be.
Henry smirks. "Pepper," he purrs, his Tony voice absolutely pitch-perfect. Pepper is so revolted that she shoves him right out of bed and onto the floor.
He takes most of the bedding with him, landing on his back with his heels still resting on the edge of the mattress. When he blinks up at her in honest confusion, Pepper has to fight the urge to cover herself.
Instead, she points an emphatic finger at him. "Don't," she warns. "Ever."
She forgets about the phone entirely until it stops ringing.
On Monday morning, Tony turns up at the office with fresh bruises and butterfly tape on his face. He's chipper in spite of it all, which may be due to whatever it is he knocks back with the cup of coffee she brings him. "Where's my evil twin this morning?" he inquires, seemingly without any malice aforethought.
"Rehearsal," says Pepper briskly, perching on the edge of his desk with a battered dayplanner in her hand. She can already tell she's going to have to start rescheduling his day.
"I need you to wrangle me an invite to the set. I'd like to check it out."
"I'll call and find out." She makes a note. "Anything else?"
"Nope." He finishes the coffee in two more gulps, grimacing. "Go team," he says hoarsely.
"I got your message," she tells him, taking the mug from his hand. "I tried to call you back. JARVIS said you were occupied."
"Hope I didn't stress you out too much on your day off," he says. He smiles, but it looks like it hurts to do it, and she can't tell whether he's being sarcastic or honestly contrite.
"What happened here?" She points and almost, almost brushes her fingers against the dark smudge along the ridge of his cheekbone, the stippling of tiny scabs over the bridge of his nose.
Tony waves away her concern. "Happy needs to learn to pull his punches, that's all."
Pepper stares pointedly down at Tony's copy of the New York Times. Iron Man is on the front page: a hot red-and-gold slash across a diamond-blue sky. From the pull quotes, Pepper surmises that the story has to do with terrorists, a bomb, an evacuation, a dramatic explosion in mid-air. That's all she knows, because she can't quite bring herself to read it in full.
"Tony," she murmurs, fighting the urge to lean in and kiss his forehead.
She cancels his appointments. He works at a frenzied pace all morning, crashes around noon, and spends the rest of the day sleeping at his desk, head pillowed on his folded arms. Pepper checks on him every hour, and holds his calls. At five o'clock, she calls Happy to take him home.
That Friday, Tony delivers the commencement address at MIT, and he and Henry go on a bit of a tear afterwards. It makes the papers, complete with a photo of the two of them going shot-for-shot with the best and brightest of the Class of 2009.
What doesn't make the papers: they enter a Tony Stark look-alike contest in a bar in Cambridge. Tony, slightly bedraggled, his fading bruises camouflaged by a thick layer of Pepper's Lancome under-eye concealer, wins second place.
Henry, tailored and trim and wearing a borrowed pair of designer sunglasses, wins first.
A few days later, she's trying—unsuccessfully—to cajole Tony out of the workshop and into a suit and tie, for the set visit that he asked her to arrange.
He's standing with his back to her, wearing a grimy cotton undershirt, and she doesn't mean to compare, she doesn't want to play this game, but she can't help it.
Henry's clothing camouflages the fact that he's compact, wiry. He's in great shape, but he's never going to have the kind of muscle mass or definition that Tony has—and that's okay, she doesn't care about that.
Except that she does, a tiny bit.
It isn't just the aesthetic appeal, but what it represents: the hard work and sheer determination that Tony has put into achieving his goals since taking on the mantle of Iron Man.
She's angry at him for being so attractive, which is really not his fault, and at herself for dwelling on it, which is even less his fault. She suspects that she may actually be a terrible person, and she pushes her exasperation with the entire situation into her voice as she tells him, for what seems like the thousandth time, "We are committed to doing this. Today."
"So then you go."
"I'm not the one who wanted to go in the first place!"
"I need to get this done."
"Will you at least tell me what you want me to look out for?"
He turns, settles his backside against the workbench, and wipes at his fingers with a filthy shop rag. "Just try not to sleep with Henry's stunt double while you're there," he says, with a tight smirk.
Pepper is actually incoherent with rage for at least thirty seconds. She finally marches over to him and shouts, "Inappropriate!"
"Is it?" He reaches past her to pick up a soldering gun, and she can feel the heat radiating from his body. There's his scent, too, a concoction of smoke and steel and sweat that shouldn't be half as appealing as it is. He smells like the very start of a thunderstorm, which is apropos since it matches the atmosphere in the room: heavy, oppressive, electric.
"If you have a problem, Tony, then stop hinting around and just say it."
He takes a step back and meets her gaze for the first time, and the look on his face is calculating, dangerous. "That's what you want?"
"Okay. Why would you date fake me and not date real me?"
"It wasn't an either-or proposition," she points out.
"He's like… Diet Tony. Tony Light. It's like… well, okay, to put it in terms you'd be familiar with, it's like buying a knock-off designer handbag out of the trunk of a car."
She reminds herself that this is another thing Tony does: he deflects by making increasingly outrageous statements, shooting them far afield like flares in the hopes that she'll go haring off after one. He does not want to have this conversation, a fact which makes Pepper all the more determined.
"It is not like that. He's not you. At all. Case in point: you never asked me."
"I didn't think I had to," he says, and has the nerve to sound mildly outraged. "My interest was implied."
"You're not angry because I'm dating someone who looks like you."
"No?" He tosses the soldering gun on the table, which startles her—he's normally so careful with his tools, so precise. "Because I feel like I really am, actually."
"You're angry because you seem to think that you have some sort of claim, even though you never once actually said the words, 'Pepper, would you like to go out on a date with me?'"
"My interest was implied!"
"Saying it more loudly still doesn't make it true!"
"We almost kissed!"
"I know it happened! But I think it's ludicrous that that's your basis for thinking that you're entitled to…" She has no idea how to finish that sentence, so instead she flaps her hands in a vague interpretive gesture.
"You know what? Fuck it. I give up."
Which, bizarrely, is the precise moment when he crowds her against the table, cups her face between his curved palms, and kisses her.
Pepper feels as though she's falling and tries to stabilize herself, her hands scrabbling at his chest before grabbing fistfuls of his undershirt. Tony takes this as a cue to pull the shirt off over his head, which wasn't what Pepper had in mind, but she isn't about to object. She bites at his shoulder and he grunts, softly, muscles tensing; she isn't sure why, but she expected him to be louder, more vocal.
"Bad idea," she breathes, the words almost lost against his skin.
He's already unbuttoning her shirt with one hand. "Then tell me to stop," he murmurs, sliding the other hand down to cup her ass.
He pauses, pulls back a little. He looks the way she feels: helpless, lost. "Please what?"
She hears herself say, "Don't stop."
"I'm a terrible person," says Pepper, quite some time later.
"I started it." Tony is tracing lazy circles at the small of her back, calluses etching the pattern into her skin. He doesn't seem particularly regretful.
"Oh, I'm not absolving you of blame, believe me. I just don't think you also being responsible makes me less responsible. You're not the one with the…" she can't even say it.
"Contractual obligations?" he smirks.
She kicks him.
"Is your boyfriend going to beat me up now?"
"You think he could?"
"No. I'd let him get in one good shot though. Seems only fair. Are you going to tell him?"
"I'm insulted by that."
"Of course I'm going to tell him! Do I really strike you as the kind of person who would date two people at once?"
He looks at her, steadily, and it occurs to her that she is making a lot of assumptions—the main one being that Tony is even interestedin dating her at this point. Especially now that they both know she's capable of being unfaithful.
"Regardless," she continues, unable to meet his eyes, "he deserves to know. This isn't fair to him. He's a good guy."
"So am I," says Tony, quite unexpectedly. "Sometimes."
Pepper explains, as best she can, without getting into any of the gory details.
Henry is remarkably philosophical about the whole situation: "No matter how many times I read for the part of the hero, I always end up getting cast as the nice guy the female lead dates in the second act."
"Henry," she says awkwardly, because it's all she really can say. She hugs him. "I'm so sorry." And she is genuinely sorry. "Thank you for everything."
"All part of the service, Moneypenny," he says in his Connery voice, and Pepper laughs, even though she feels like hell.
For the first couple of weeks after the breakup, Pepper doesn't see Tony outside of work. She also makes a conscious decision not to go to the house unless Happy or someone else is with her. All of her contact with her boss takes place in public spaces.
Tony is not a patient man, but he can, on occasion, be a thoughtful one. He doesn't crowd her.
She misses Henry a little bit. It was nice to have someone to talk to while she worked. Tony's office door is closed more often than not.
One evening, she's packing up her desk, and looks up to see him standing there, watching her. He takes two freshly-sharpened pencils out of her cup and tucks them away in his suit jacket.
"Well?" He says it as though they're in the middle of a conversation and he's waiting on an answer to a crucial question.
He plucks at his lower lip for a moment, then asks, "Pepper, would you like to go out on a date with me?"
She nods, blushing a little. She's not trying to be coy, but she feels bashful—which is strange, considering that they've known each other for over a decade and have already slept together. "Okay," she says finally. "I mean, yes. I'd like that. Thank you."
He's smiling now, more confident. "Great. Tonight?"
The smile fades.
"It's pretty short notice," she chides gently.
"So what? What else have you got going on?"
Her instinct is to push back, to ask him why he assumes she doesn't have friends, or obligations, or pets. It takes an effort, but she manages to check that impulse. "I'm going to get Chinese takeout, do my laundry, have a hot bath, and watch cooking shows," she tells him, honestly. "And maybe paint my toenails."
"I haven't decided yet."
"I vote for hot pink."
She rolls her eyes. "You do not."
"Or purple. Purple would be nice too."
"Ugh, stop it."
"With a pink sparkly unicorn on each of your big toes."
"I'm not twelve, Tony." She's waiting for him to invite himself along. He's not going to, she realizes. Which is when she hears herself say, "If you bring the food, I'll let you pick the colour."
"That's okay." He catches her fingers, squeezes them quickly, then lets go. "I'd like to be surprised."
Two weeks later, the studio sends over a rough cut of the series—six episodes—for Tony's approval. He invites her to his house for a private screening. "I'll make popcorn."
She accepts. Neither of them says the word 'date,' but Pepper buys a flattering sweater and gets her legs waxed for the occasion.
It's very strange: pulling into the garage around the time she would usually be leaving the house. Sitting on Tony's couch in her favourite jeans and the new sweater, trying not to feel underdressed, while he uncorks a bottle of wine and pours each of them a glass. Making small talk about her day, as though they hadn't just spent the past eight hours working ten feet apart from each other.
The living room is absolutely immaculate; Tony is quiet, attentive, weirdly polite. She wonders whether the whole thing is a mistake, after all.
Seeing Henry on the screen just adds to the feeling of surreality. But it isn't him, really—it's Tony, or at any rate, Henry's interpretation of Tony. He seems bulkier on film than he is in real life.
"Too tall," says Tony critically.
Pepper nudges him. "He's the hero. He needs to stand out."
Tony yawns, stretches ostentatiously, and flops his arm around the back of the couch.
"Excuse me, are we in junior high?" Pepper inquires. "In the 1950s?"
He shrugs. "You don't like my moves, Potts, you don't have to be here."
She puts her hand on his thigh, leans over, and kisses him until she feels him relax into it. "Better."
She doesn't realize she's said it out loud until he smiles and replies, "Yeah."
A few minutes later, he's already outraged: "I would never wear a paisley tie."
Pepper pats his leg reassuringly. "Shh."
"Did you seriously just shush me in my own—"
She presses a hand to his lips, which turns out to be a poorly-thought-out maneuver when he starts to nibble on her fingers. Desire flickers through her, its heat curling the edges of her resolve.
"I thought we were watching this," she says, her voice barely above a whisper.
"Then stop putting things in my mouth," he replies.
Pepper covers her eyes with a squeal when the redhead appears.
Tony gently but inexorably pries her fingers away from her face. "Fair's fair," he tells her, curling an arm around her to pin her hands in her lap. His body is solid and warm against hers, in a way that makes it difficult to focus on the screen.
The actress is young and impishly adorable, with luminous green eyes and a smattering of freckles not unlike Pepper's own. She carries herself with a devastating self-composure that Pepper wishes she had in real life.
She's also extremely well-endowed, and wearing a low-cut wrap top that most certainly is not in line with the Stark Industries dress code.
"Nice," says Pepper. "That's just… lovely."
Tony whistles his agreement.
"And you approved this?"
"No. I approved the script. Nowhere in the script does it say Establishing shot: Pepper's cleavage."
"It would be a close on, not an establishing shot."
Tony groans feelingly. "I don't care. God, that script. Took me forever to get through it."
She glances at his face. "Why didn't you just delegate, boss?"
He's sheepish. "You were so angry at me for getting us into this. I wanted to do my part."
Onscreen, Virginia Potts is crisply correcting Tony Stark's math. Pepper looks over at Tony again, surprised; she never told Henry this story, and even if she had, he never had this much input into the script.
"She was kind of dumb in the first draft," he remarks. His tone is studiedly offhand, but she can tell he's actually quite pleased with himself.
"Okay, I changed my mind," says Pepper, squeezing his hand. "I like her."
"Me too." Tony grins. "Think Henry can get me her number?"
Pepper shoves him. "Is it really too much to ask that you not objectify other women on our first date?"
"Whatever. You still love me." He shoots her a look; even though it's not an interrogative, it's still a question.
She grins back. "I thought that was implied."