Hold Me Closer, Kevin Bacon: Fun and Games
October 13, 2016
“Are you moonlighting as a University professor, now? I think there is a clause in our relationship that prevents you from taking a new job without notifying me first. In writing. In advance. Although,” Tony was on a roll, practically bouncing out of the master suite and into the kitchen, and Pepper saved the document she was working on. It was always best to give Tony her full attention. Not doing so resulted in issues. An 11-month slander litigation in 2008. The Espresso Debacle of 2010. Iron Man. The return of Iron Man. Ultron. The Great Home Renovation of 2016. A half-hour of lost work time could save her millions and prevent tension headaches.
“Although,” he said again, pecking her on the cheek and rounding the island to head for the coffee maker, a stack of paper under his arm, “if you are thinking academia, we could get you some glasses. The kind with the black frames. I was too young – and my professors not nearly attractive enough – when I was at MIT, so this is really my chance to try for extra credit.” He pressed a button for Cuban black and kept going without pause. “I’ll turn in my work late, and then you pull off your glasses and say-”
“Tony,” she interrupted before he could get any further into a fantasy he had obviously spent some time developing. Not that she was opposed. Tony was nothing if not attentive and creative in the bedroom. “What is this about?”
“Oooo – I like that, very leading. And then you sit on the edge of your desk and-”
She laughed. Pepper couldn’t help it. It had been less than twelve hours since Tony Stark had shown up at her door, a large Bianca pizza from Gravina Malibu in hand, and a grin on his face. Despite the smile, he had been nervous. He tended to avoid eye contact when he was, in addition to talking over everyone else. He had bulldozed – in his most charming way, of course – and brought up a hundred innocuous topics before he had gotten around to apologizing for his most recent insistence that he was right. Tony had come around to her way of thinking, which was a rare enough event, and Friday had assured Pepper that Darcy had gone to bed. Hostessing duties relieved, she had taken the rare opportunity to revel in a contrite and genuine Tony Stark, extremely dedicated intimate activities, and her favorite pizza. She had woken that morning to find Tony still asleep and her own mind as unburdened as it ever was. It was a good day.
Tony pouted, but the expression was hard to take seriously because his eyes sparkled and he had to hide a twitching smile behind his cup. “This is for your benefit, Potts. If you don’t take communicating with your partner seriously, I’ll tattle on you to my therapist.”
“My benefit?” She raised an eyebrow and let her voice get a little husky. As always, Tony sucked in his lower lip when she did that. After a decade as his assistant/keeper and years as his girlfriend/keeper it was still gratifying that he found her attractive. “This sounds like it’s to your benefit.”
“I could be persuaded to compromise.” He leaned across the island, pressing her laptop closed with one finger. “I’m all about compromise. What will do it for you? Ruler? Rosary beads? School uniform? Me in a school uniform?”
“Thesis,” she said, inches from his mouth.
His eyes held hers, and Pepper melted a little at the happiness she saw there. It wasn’t the sex – well, it wasn’t entirely the sex. Tony had never had many people that were close to him, fewer still after Stane. She felt good, honored, that he was letting himself be happy and relaxed with her.
“No problem. How do you feel about thermodynamics? I’d love to review heat exchange formula with you.”
Pepper laughed again, pressing a firm kiss to his mouth and sitting back. “That had to be one of your worst lines. Ever.”
“No way,” he contested, swinging around the island to press against her side. “I’ve done way worse than that. I’ve done worse than that with you. This year. This month, even.”
“Not really a selling point, Tony.” She reached for her juice and looked pointedly at the thick manuscript tucked under his arm.
“Okay, okay. How about we go over my formatting, Professor. You can show me how to do it Chicago style.” He waggled his eyebrows.
“How about you tell me why you have Darcy’s thesis, and then maybe I’ll show you what I bought this week.”
She nodded, biting the inside of her cheek to keep from grinning.
“Their new line comes out next week. George sent over one of everything.”
Tony closed his eyes for a moment, and Pepper let her smile free. His hair, at least a quarter silver – although he consistently protested it was no more than eighteen percent, was still wet from his shower. His dress shirt already had the sleeves rolled up and his feet were bare. He looked normal. Not tense or anxious. Not angry or hurt. Preoccupied only with ways to get her into, and then out of, beautiful underwear. If she loved him any more she might spontaneously combust.
Which was an actual possibility for her.
“It was on your night stand,” he said once he pulled himself together. “You know how nosy I am, Pep. Leaving it out was basically telling me I should read it. So I did.”
“You’ve been awake for what, an hour? That has to be several hundred pages.”
He waved a hand. “I skimmed the sources, Friday is looking into them for me. More importantly, why did D. Lewis give this to you to read? Is she angling to take advantage of your close, personal relationship with the Avengers? Me. Iron Man. Mostly just me. Only me. Because we should probably revisit that, if she is, make certain our relationship is very personal. Close. Proximal. Biblical.” He nudged her thigh with his hip and leaned into her space suggestively. When he was in a good mood, everything Tony did was suggestive.
“D. Lewis is Darcy, which you already knew,” she said dryly. “And she has her own personal relationship to an Avenger. Which you also already knew.”
“Hopefully not too personal. I saw Foster at a convention once.” His eyes drifted a little as he searched his memory. “Madurai? Dallas? Somewhere ungodly hot. She had that look in her eye. I wouldn’t cross her. Unless, you know, I was me. Which I am, so-”
“So you are planning on starting up something personal with Thor?”
“I would but I am kind of tied down now. Shoulders to lick, legs to rub. Gorgeous red hair to twirl around my fingers. Despite the siren call of Muscle Beach and his sonnets, I think I’ll stick this one out. See where it goes.”
If it weren’t for years of experience and a wellspring of patience that would earn her a sainthood, Pepper might have been sidetracked. “The thesis, Tony. Why are you carrying it around?”
With a quick burst of air, not quite a sigh but more than a breath, Tony dropped the teasing. “She says I was wrong.”
Pepper let that hang for a moment. She hadn’t read Darcy’s work yet, but she had guessed that was where it was headed. It was one of the topics during her last big argument with Tony, which resulted in the longest break in their relationship to date. Not the Accords themselves – whatever Pepper privately thought about that agreement it had nothing to do with how she felt about Tony. It was his perception of them, his need for them, and his quickly realized but unvocalized understanding of the mistake of them. Her heart ached in sympathy. Tony had been narcissistic and egomaniacal since the day she met him, rightfully so in many instances, but he had never wanted to hurt anyone else. Above all things, he was extremely sensitive to that. He avoided emotional entanglements and spent his life, even before Afghanistan, trying to protect people. Everything since his abduction had been a fervent race to correct what he saw as his own failing. His inability to keep his company safe. Himself. Pepper. Rhodey. The entire world. In his mad rush to fix everything, he had made mistakes. Huge mistakes. Along with his ego, however, came a stubbornness that could press him to develop clean energy and hold him back from admitting the truth.
“Were you?” Pepper had to force herself to breathe normally. Tony knew the Accords were terrible. She knew he knew that. He regretted what had happened between him and Steve; she knew that too. If the fabrications and designs she had seen in his lab were any indication, he had even come to believe that James Barnes was not only the Winter Soldier. Not necessarily a murderer. Knowing a thing, and confessing a thing were worlds apart.
“Not on all of it.” His voice was strong, but quiet, and his gaze focused on his toes and the cool tile floor. “Most of it, yeah. Most.”
“What are you going to do about it?”
He snorted, and in the blink of an eye serious, guilt- and grief-stricken Tony was replaced with obnoxiously charming Tony Stark. “Give her the wisdom of my critique. Obviously. I mean, look at this Pep. She quoted Ross. Three times. There are almost as many pages devoted to him as to me. She used Arial font. Arial.”
“The mind boggles.”
“Exactly. How does Lewis expect to succeed in the field of – of – what is she studying?”
“Dispute Resolution and Public Policy,” Pepper clarified. The irony of Tony Stark, of all people, giving advice on the study of dispute resolution was not lost on her. He didn’t seem bothered by it.
“Good god, is that a thing? A real thing? Universities are just stealing people’s money now? Making up degrees to keep unemployed liberal arts graduates off the streets?”
“Pepperdine seems to think so.” She continued before he could get sidetracked into an old argument, “And before you say it, yes, I know how you feel about Pepperdine. And no, they do not need a Virginia Potts art gallery.”
“We’ll table that discussion for another time. She’s here right? Friday-”
“You are not going to wake Darcy just to complain about her graduate work. At least wait until after she has breakfast.” It wasn’t asking a lot, but for Tony it might be too much.
“If I may, Boss. Ms. Lewis left early to run errands before her lunch date. I unlocked the key box for her, as Ms. Potts authorized.” Friday’s interruption made Tony frown, and Pepper took a quick sip of juice to cover her smile. Thank god for artificial intelligence.
“Date? The unemployed liberal arts intern has a date?”
“She’s a lovely woman, Tony,” Pepper suggested, then swiftly followed up with, “who has every right to go eat lunch without being interrupted by mannerless billionaires with boundary issues.”
“I’m not mannerless,” Tony said, trying to look offended. “Jarvis taught me better than that. I would have picked up the lunch tab after I interrupted.”
“Let it lie, Tony. Take a few days to think about what it is you want. It isn’t like you don’t know where to find her.” Pepper crossed her fingers that Darcy would be understanding when Tony inevitably showed up on her doorstep with insults to her hard work and a most likely ridiculous offer. If nothing else, Darcy deserved one afternoon with her Little Sister. The kid was adorable and smart in a scary way that reminded Pepper of Tony. That outing did not need to be interrupted by a Stark. Tony was still looking determined, so Pepper set down her juice and smoothed one hand down the buttons of his shirt, letting her palm rest against his stomach. “If you are staying home for a while, I can think of a few ways we could work on our communication.”
“Why, Ms. Potts,” Tony’s eyes gleamed. “I’m shocked. Shocked.” He tugged her off the stool and began herding her back to their bedroom. “Tell me more.”
“I’ll need to evaluate you in action first.”
“An oral exam?” He laughed, light and delighted at her silly insinuations and his own ridiculous pun. “I studied for hours last night. I’ll do my best to impress-” He came to a full stop in the hallway, eyebrows coming together over his nose. “Friday? What keys did Lewis take?”
“The sixty-seven Karmann Ghia, Boss.”
“What? That’s not-”
“Tony,” Pepper said in her firmest, most serious voice. The one for letting the Board of Directors know when her decision was final. “You have a lot of extra credit to make up.” She leaned into him, watching how his eyes were still distracted but feeling his hands come to rest on her lower back and drift from there. “And I have a pair of reading glasses in my nightstand.” He swept her legs out from under her with an excited hum and a quick kiss before carrying her straight to their bed.
The things I am willing to do for a friend, Pepper thought. Although, it wasn’t entirely selfless. Not even mostly.