Pepper got the call and heard the news, she passed it to Tony,
interrupting his three o’clock meeting with the Air Force
team; he took her page and stepped out into the hall as she quietly
told him what she knew.
He returned and called the meeting short; most of the schematics for the new space shuttle had already been hammered out, and the engineers were glad to get out early to beat the traffic. Tony shook hands and patted a few backs, slightly distracted. Rhodey asked what was wrong; he knew enough about Tony’s expressions to pick up that the call hadn’t been good news.
Rhodey looked startled at this, eyes widening. “Ian O’Hara?”
Tony nodded, shoving his hands in his pockets. “Yeah. Some sort of aneurysm; Pepper’s getting the details now.”
Rhodey stacked up the papers from the table, as much to find something for his hands to do as anything else. “Shit. I hadn’t thought about him in years. Were you guys in touch?”
Tony gave a shrug. “Few times a year.”
“Shit,” Rhodey muttered again. “Ian. Man, out of the three of us, I thought he’d be the one to outlive you and me. Was he married?”
Tony took the papers and shoved them carelessly into his briefcase, his stare off in the distance. “Yeah. About six years now. Naomi.”
The name instantly brought to mind the slender woman with the hip-length blonde hair. Tony snapped the locks on the case, and sighed. “Was not planning on a funeral for next week, but . . .”
“Yeah,” Rhodey agreed quietly. “I know what you mean. Let me know when it is, okay?”
Picking up the briefcase, Tony nodded.
The service was sparsely attended and private; a simple church ceremony for the sterling silver urn. Tony and Pepper took a back pew; he’d told her she didn’t have to attend, but she was there anyway, looking somber in a grey suit with black piping on it.
Tony was grateful. Pepper had met Ian a few times and he’d been one of the few friends of his that she’d genuinely liked. Ian had been a lanky man with a shock of blonde white hair and a soft Irish lilt to his voice. He’d been at MIT with Tony and peerless in prosthetic engineering in his time, eventually shifting into medicine to better integrate his fields of interest.
Ian had been one of the few people who could hold his own in conversations with Tony, and one of the few who could make him laugh as well. He and his wife made it a point to see Tony at least twice a year when they were on the coast; the last time had been nearly four months earlier, and Tony remembered the dinner.
He also remembered after the dinner, when Pepper had left and it was simply Ian, Naomi and himself with glasses of sherry in the glow of the firelight, the three of them aware of another bond that held them together.
Tony looked to the front pew where Naomi sat, her long hair in a gleaming chignon under the black netting, and his heart ached for her. He shifted his gaze into a sidelong glance at Pepper, warmed to see she was looking at him with compassion. He took her hand and held it for a moment, feeling her gentle squeeze returned.
The gathering back at the house was even smaller, with only a handful of people chatting quietly in the kitchen. Tony took one of the drinks from the side table and moved out to the back yard, sipping it slowly and looking out over the landscaping with an absent gaze. After a while, he felt a presence moving in behind him and he spoke without turning around. “How are you holding up?”
“I’m lost,” Naomi murmured with quiet honesty. “It’s just sinking in now, but in truth . . .”
Tony half-turned to look at her. Naomi was several inches shorter than he was, and he studied her pale face for a moment. “Do you need me?”
She hesitated, a grateful flicker in her green eyes. Then with formality, Naomi dropped her gaze and briefly crossed her hands behind her back. “I . . . I might. Not right away, but . . .”
“I understand,” Tony murmured, and took another sip of his drink. “When you do, call me, and I’ll . . . make arrangements.”
“Yes,” Naomi murmured with a hint of relief. “Thank you, M-m-m--um, Tony.”
He managed a soft smile at her, and reached out a hand, knuckles up; Naomi glanced around quickly, and took it, dropping a light, lingering kiss on the back of it before straightening up.
Tony gave a grave nod, then slipped his arm around her gently and hugged her. “Good girl. Come on, let’s see if Rhodey’s here yet.”
Pepper had looked up through the bay window in time to see the two of them on the back deck. She had begun to look away when she caught the odd little gesture between Tony and Naomi O’Hara. It seemed . . . out of place, and Pepper made a mental note to ask Tony about it later, maybe on the jet back to California.
She spoke quietly with some of the other guests, and kept an eye on Tony, but he nursed the single drink for most of the afternoon, and when it was time to go, he hugged the widow and whispered gently to her. She clung to him, and Tony wore traces of her perfume for a while.
Back in the jet, he turned to Pepper, his voice low. “If Naomi calls, put her through—any time, day or night.”
Startled, Pepper nodded. She settled in across from him at the fold down table and pulled out her laptop. As Pepper waited for it to boot up, she spoke quietly. “Why did she kiss your knuckles?”
Tony’s glance was quick, almost furtive. “What?”
“Out in the backyard. She kissed your hand. Looked like something out of The Godfather,” Pepper tried to joke.
It fell a little flat, and Tony folded his hands across his stomach, staring up at the ceiling. “It was . . . a gesture of respect. Nothing to get jealous of.”
“Mr. Stark, I’m not jealous,” Pepper shot back, a trifle quickly.
Tony managed a tired smirk, eyes closing. “Oh I don’t know—spying on me now, Potts?”
There was a tense little pause.
“It is my job,” Pepper replied quietly, “To keep an eye on you. Clearly this is none of my business—“
“—Yeah,” Tony broke in firmly. “It isn’t. I’m indebted to you, Pepper for all that you do, but this is between myself, Ian and Naomi.”
The rest of the trip passed in silence.
Things were strained for a day, but gradually it wore away. Pepper found flowers on her desk and a carelessly written thank-you note in Tony’s familiar scrawl: Thanks for being there— I appreciated it.
It was hard to stay annoyed with a bouquet of beautiful Narcissus blooming on her desk, and Pepper took it in good grace. It was easier to forgive Tony these days; he didn’t have as many vices to despair over. They were back on familiar footing by Tuesday, and a week later, his tease about her latest pair of Astrabellas had her blushing before the board meeting.
“You’re trying to give Velanski a heart attack; admit it, Potts—“ came his husky chide. “You know he’s got a foot fetish. I’m surprised he doesn’t drool every time you saunter pass his office door.”
“Mr. Velanski has always been a perfect gentleman,” Pepper shot back, amused and exasperated. “Unlike some people.”
“Hey, at least I’m willing to tell you those sexy spikes make me think naughty things,” Tony countered with a grin.
Pepper rolled her eyes. “You’re making me self-conscious; should I go buy some army boots?”
“Over my dead—” At that moment the phone on his desk rang; Tony grabbed it, holding a finger up to stop Pepper from walking away. “Stark here.”
His entire body language shifted; Pepper took in a breath at how he straightened up and his expression quickly tightened. “Naomi. Asthore; what’s wrong?”
Tony listened intently for a long moment, his entire concentration focused on the muffled words pouring into his ear. Feeling awkward, Pepper tried to step away, but Tony caught her movement and shook his head.
He spoke into the phone. “No.” The word was firm and strong. “No, I’ll book one of the jets. You’re to come to me. Yes. Yes. Good girl. Tonight.”
Tony hung up, blinking a little, and turned his glance back to Pepper. She could see the rapid reprocessing of his thoughts, and she took a step forward. “Is everything all right?”
“I’ll be having a guest for dinner. Looks like you can take an early night, Potts—more time for shoe shopping,” he teased, but it was almost absent-minded, and she felt a sudden, unwelcome pang of jealousy.
It wasn’t hard to figure out who the guest was, and the fact that she, Pepper, hadn’t been invited—
Stop, she chided herself. They were Tony’s friends, not yours. Besides, it’s simply dinner.
Pepper nodded. “Will . . . Mrs. O’Hara need a car to meet her?”
Tony shook his head, his expression suddenly mild. “No, I’ll pick her up myself.”
He and Happy picked her up in the limo; Tony anticipated that Naomi would be stressed and grateful for the privacy that the tinted glass would provide. When they climbed into the back, her small hands were shaking, and he took one, letting his thumb stroke the tendons along her wrist. “Easy, Asthore, easy,” Tony soothed her.
Naomi took in a deep breath. She was in black silk slacks, with a black crocheted top, and the darkness of the outfit set off her porcelain skin and blonde hair. Closing her eyes, she spoke, her words shaky. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I just—I was cleaning things out, and I found, I found one of the old Wartenburgs. It just brought back so many memories . . .”
“Shhh,” Tony murmured, picturing the glittering wheel in his mind. Ian always bought the best when it came to toys. “It’s all right. You did the right thing in calling me.”
Naomi sighed, visibly relaxing now, her breathing more even. “Thank you, Master Tony. I . . . appreciate this.”
“Shhhh,” he repeated, gently. “We’ll have dinner, and then we’ll . . . take care of things.”
“Yes,” Naomi repeated in a soft, soothed voice. “Thank you.”
They reached the house in forty minutes; Tony dismissed Happy with instructions to return by eight o’clock the next morning. Once the limo had moved around the circular drive and was heading back out to the highway, Tony kept his gaze on the vehicle until it was out of sight. When it was, he turned to Naomi, his dark gaze compassionate.
“Undress,” he told her quietly, “here,” and picked up her suitcase. He turned for the house, not bothering to watch her follow his command.
Inside, he spoke in a low voice. “Jarvis, I require a full blackout this evening, with only outside and security perimeter monitoring online.” With a dry swallow, Tony added, “Revoke Pepper’s clearance for this evening, and send her calls to voice mail.”
“Yes sir,” Jarvis replied.
It is good, Tony admitted in sullen delight. Damn it. It shouldn’t have been, but it was. He wiped his mouth and pushed away the remains of the grilled fish on the formal dining table. Naomi sat at his feet, her long hair cascading down her bare shoulders as she finished from her plate on the floor.
Tony swallowed the last of his wine, and poured another glass. He picked it up and rose. “Follow me, Asthore.”
She did, her barefoot steps quiet behind him on the gold marble floor. They moved to the living room, and Tony looked at the fireplace. “Low blaze, track lighting.”
When the setting was what he wanted, Tony turned to look at Naomi, gratified to see how calm she was, standing there naked and quiet. “Are you warm enough?”
“Yes, Master Tony,” she murmured, standing with her wrists clasped behind her, eyes down. The glow of the fire played over her breasts, and gave a gleam to her skin.
He gave her a brief smile, and set his glass of wine on the coffee table, then circled around her, laying warm hands on her bare shoulders. Leaning in, Tony whispered formally, “You did right in coming to me, Asthoreen, and I’m pleased. Your pain would distress Ian. Let me take it from you and replace it with something else tonight. Are you willing to let me do that?”
“Yes,” she blurted, “Please! But—” Naomi blinked a little and dared to meet Tony’s eyes over her shoulder. He nodded, giving her wordless permission to continue, and she did. “What about your own needs? Your own . . . one?”
Tony gave a low, frustrated laugh, leaning over her short shoulder and brushing his cheek against hers. “This isn’t about me, Naomi. I haven’t . . . I don’t, Play anymore. You know that. Not unless it’s with you and--and Ian.”
“Oh. I thought finally . . . when I saw her with you at the funeral?” Naomi asked in sweet confusion.
Tony came around and lifted her chin in one hand, his eyes with a modicum of pain and patience. “No. It’s . . . complicated. She’s not yet in touch with what we both need, and I refuse to push. Enough about Pepper—this is about you tonight, Asthore,” he purred in her ear.
The old rush came back; a hard dark wall of pleasure tingling through him, and Tony paused to regain a bit of composure. Naomi was breathing shallowly now, already beginning to slip into her zone, her pupils wide.
He gave a gusty sigh. “You have too much freedom, and I’m going to fix that right now.”
With care, Tony brought out the brushed aluminum attaché case from secret compartment behind the fireplace and set it on the coffeetable. He opened it slowly, letting the ‘snick’ of the popping locks echo in the room. Naomi shivered at the sound, and he himself felt another throb of pleasure.
Memories flitted through his mind, mingling with fantasies, all of them stronger because of the little audible cue. Tony looked down into the case, and reached in, pulling out a pair of pale leather-wrapped handcuffs linked by a short section of glittering chain. The chain clinked a little when he turned to Naomi, and smiled. “You need . . . correction, Asthoreen. You need to remember your place.”
“Yessss, Master Tony,” Naomi sighed quietly.
Pepper had trouble distracting herself. She knew she should be grateful for the night off; God knew they didn’t come often when Tony Stark was your boss. Still, the thought of Naomi O’Hara, recently widowed and highly . . . vulnerable, alone with Tony bothered her.
She wanted to be objective, or at the very least, compassionate. Pepper knew how genuine the friendship was; she’d had dinner with the O’Hara’s and understood how much Ian and Naomi’s friendship meant to Tony. The four of them had gotten along nicely—certainly better than pairings with some of Tony’s other friends, despite the odd remark now and then. Pepper had liked Ian and Naomi.
It would be easier if she wasn’t so pretty, Pepper glumly admitted as she waited for her toenails to dry. She’d changed them from her usual French manicure to a frosted pink, all the better to emphasize her matching lipstick, fresh from Sephora.
Pepper sighed. She didn’t want to think about the J-word, although she was honest enough to acknowledge it was there. Tony had flirted with Naomi before, sure, and in front of Ian, but they both seemed to adore it, and neither one of them minded. When it came right down to it, Ian had flirted with her as well, and Pepper remembered some of his comments with pleasure.
“You’d be so good for Tony.” And, “When is he going to talk you into a few things, Pepper?”
Pepper studied her toes again and tried not to think of how Tony might be comforting Naomi O’Hara. It was damned near impossible, and with a frustrated little oath, she bent to blow on her toenails, ignoring the late hour on the bedside clock. When all ten were dried, she brushed her teeth, took a Sominex and climbed into bed, determined to rest.
It was a long, long time before she finally dropped off.
She got up an hour before her usual time, and frittered it away listening to the morning DJs and lingering over her toast. Even then, traffic was light, and when she pulled up to the mansion, Pepper felt a little awkward at arriving at seven thirty. She carefully trotted up the steps to the door and pressed her palm into the scanner.
Nothing happened. Pepper tried again, but the familiar green flare didn’t happen, and she looked at it carefully before speaking into the little grille over it. “Jarvis? It’s me. The entry scanner seems to be . . . not working.”
There was silence. Pepper looked up at the glass windows and narrowed her eyes, feeling alarmed and annoyed to equal degrees. She and Tony had an understanding; to whit: he never EVER locked her out. Since there was power on along the walkway lighting, the issue wasn’t electrical.
Pepper pulled out her phone, reluctantly willing to give him the tiniest benefit of the doubt; the first ring echoed, and she gritted her teeth, waiting for the loop to voicemail when it suddenly picked up.
“Hey. Let me get the gate open.”
Tony’s voice. Perfectly calm, not even sleepy. Pepper checked the time again doubtfully. Still seven thirty. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other as the power surged and the light on the scanner came on. She hesitated a moment, then walked in, steeling herself.
He was standing at the big windows overlooking the Pacific, what looked like a Bloody Mary in one hand, tie still undone, his dark hair still slightly damp from his shower. Pepper crossed the room slowly, looking around. She couldn’t help it; she didn’t like it about herself and forced her attention back to the man at the window.
Tony was relaxed. The set of his shoulders and gentle smile on his face startled her, and she gave him a tentative smile in return. He saluted her with the glass. “Enjoy your night off?”
“Um,” she gave a shrug, not willing to admit her big extravagance was changing her polish. Pepper didn’t have to; Tony glanced down and gave a low whistle.
“Pink. I like pink. That makes you kissable at both ends,” he pointed out, clearly proud of the observation. Pepper laughed a little, relieved at his familiar flirtatious banter. She would have replied, but the sound of feet made her look over; descending the stairs, Naomi O’Hara came around the curve, smiling.
“Good morning,” she called cheerfully.
Pepper froze, her expression caught between surprise and disappointment. Tony gave her a brief glance, and took a big sip of his glass before turning to the approaching woman. Naomi wore a pantsuit of dark gray pinstripe linen, with a huge brooch of twisted gold on her lapel. She joined them, and looked beyond Tony and Pepper to the ocean. “It’s such a lovely view.”
“One of the best,” Tony lightly replied, not shifting his glance from the horizon.
He took Pepper by the elbow, bringing her along as they both walked Naomi down to the car. Happy was already there and Tony waved for him to stay behind the wheel as he himself opened the door and moved to load up the suitcase.
Naomi seemed blithely unaware of Pepper’s brittle silence and spoke softly. “I hope you and Tony . . . well, both Ian and I still hope. He’s such a lonely man without you.”
“Oh he seems to do just fine,” Pepper replied dryly. Naomi looked amused.
Tony came back, and in a gentle gesture, pulled Naomi close and reverently kissed her forehead. “I’m never more than a phone call away, Asthore; you know that.”
“Thank you, Master,” she replied. Pepper’s eyebrows went up, but before she could say or do anything, Naomi O’Hara slipped a hand up and around Pepper’s neck and pulled her down--
--into a deep, sweet, kiss. It was such a surprising and sensual move that Pepper was swept up in it for a few seconds. Right as she began to protest, Naomi released her and gave a happy sigh. She climbed into the limo and closed the door.
Tony gave a soft little moan. “Mmmmmo-kay. Yeaaaah. That’s going in the bedtime memory book.”
“Oh my God, she . . . she kissed me!” Pepper protested as the limo began to pull away. “She just—“ Turning to register her confusion, Pepper caught Tony’s bemused and slightly delighted smirk. “Oh stop it!”
“Stop what? You were the one she laid a lip lock on, Potts,” he pointed out with a growing grin. “I had no idea you hopped the fence. Gives a man ideas, you know.”
“You always have ideas,” she snapped back, unsettled and not amused.
Tony gave an expansive shrug and smirked. “Yeah, but I’m not the one with two shades of lipstick on my face. For once.”
Pepper turned and stalked back into the house, unable to think of the perfect, scathing reply to that.