The darkness had never been more your friend than in the moment you had to contemplate leaving it to step inside Tony’s well-lit home. Darkness hid your face and your feelings and your nerves: your stupid hair that you’d half-tried to make nice before giving up and going back to normal, your stupid trying-too-hard clothes, your stupid fists shaking at your sides. You could still get out of this. You could still go home. If Tony refused to drive you, you could walk. You’d done so a thousand times before and even several miles in these shoes seemed more appealing than whatever was waiting for you past Tony’s expectant face and the now-open door.
Days of planning, of lying to your parents, of alternately bursting with joy and trying not to vomit could not be ignored. The deep breath you sucked in did not come out, leaving your shoulders hunched ludicrously around your ears—but step inside you did. As nervous as you were, your ears were playing tricks on you; you heard Tony sigh with some relief as he followed you in to shut the door.
“Welcome home, Mr. Stark.”
Again you jumped, and felt Tony’s hand reach out to steady you. “It’s just—”
“I know,” you said, surprised to find your voice so normal. “Just JARVIS.”
Even with the odd angle of Tony’s face above yours and your head twisted up toward it, it appeared to you that Tony was trying to assess your panic. His eyes narrowed slightly, anyway. It was easier to interpret that as worried rather than disgusted by the way your hair looked. Suddenly you could remember the hairstyle of every girl he’d ever dated when you'd been growing up. Turning pink, you lifted a hand to pick at your own just as Tony released you to turn toward the doors to your right.
“Right,” he said without looking at you, “I’m going to check on the pizza. Make yourself at home.”
“Welcome home, Miss [L Name],” said JARVIS.
“Not what I meant, Jar!”
“I know, sir.”
You peered after Tony long after his footsteps had faded down the hall. Make yourself at home. Right. Like that was possible. Your mouth half-opened to ask JARVIS where you ought to direct yourself—until you realized how stupid that would make you sound. As often as you’d been around Tony’s house lately, you could at least find your way to the living room and Tony’s garage. A few tentative steps took you in that direction, but soon you realized you were frozen to the spot still in the entryway. What if the garage wasn’t where Tony wanted you to go? If you wound up somewhere you weren’t supposed to be—well, you’d had more than your fill of Stark family secrets over the years. Looking nervously up as though JARVIS was about to demand to know where you were going, you began to inch backward toward the hallway Tony had exited through. Only once you’d gotten that far without any questioning did you turn to trot the rest of the way to whatever room it really was that Tony had left for.
It turned out to be, just as Tony had implied, the kitchen. The room was much larger and spacious than you had expected; your footsteps seemed to echo against the floors and high ceiling. Maybe that was just your hyper-self-awareness kicking your imagination into overdrive, though. Clearly, the kitchen was made to fit a team of cooks, but it looked so clean and new that you doubted that much of anyone used it. Only Tony was there right now, and he was only standing at the counter near the oven, staring straight at you. Maybe the footsteps hadn’t been your imagination after all.
“Thought I said you could make yourself at home,” he said, breaking off eye contact to cut slices into the pizza, much to your relief. Not being watched for signs of whatever it was you were so afraid of made you brave enough to close the gap between the two of you. Your obvious silence, however, soon had him looking up again.
“You left the house with the oven running?” you said to avoid answering him outright. Tony rolled his eyes.
“JARVIS was here. I’ve left much worse running in my absence, you know.”
“Jarvis knows, too.”
“He’s not the same Jarvis.” Tony lifted a stern finger. “And you’re not the one who’s supposed to open up the uncomfortable proceedings. That’s my job.”
Tony meant it in jest. You knew he meant it in jest. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop you from ducking your head to stare at your interlocked fingers. “Thought it be nice, for a chance of pace,” came out only as a mumble. Another few seconds of following silence made you peek up just in time to see Tony roll his eyes again and lift two plates laden with pizza slices into the air.
“Would you lighten up?” he demanded as he began to stride back the way he’d come. “It’s a date. Do you normally act like you’re being led off to the gallows on a first date with a guy? Grab us some Cokes out of that freezer there.”
Though you frowned, you still bent to do as directed. It beat reminding Tony that you had not been out on a lot of first dates. You licked your lips as you straightened with one glass bottle in each hand. “Coke?” you asked with a quirked eyebrow. “Not a pizza and beer kind of guy anymore?”
“Alcohol and I have a sordid past. We’re trying to see other people.” He gestured toward the hall with his head. “Another great topic of conversation, by the way. I don’t suppose you have any substance abuse issues I could relate to?”
“Damn.” Apparently assuming you were perfectly content to follow in his wake, Tony turned to lead the way toward the living room. Fortunately for him, he was right. You still weren’t sure if your willingness to follow was fortunate for you. “Well, then we had better find something else to talk about, then.”
“You have rules about first date topics of conversation?”
“Don’t you?” He paused long enough to give you a contemplative look before heading down the stairs to his garage. “Rule #1: No talking about how much the house costs. Rule #2: No talking about histories of substance abuse. Rule #3: No talking about how I pee in the suit.”
That last bit had you pausing yourself. “Why would anyone ask you how you pee in your armor?”
While waiting for the garage door to unlock, Tony turned to look at you, eyebrows raised. “You’d be surprised how attractive some women find it, until I actually do the deed.” He waited only long enough to see you through the door himself before he collapsed on one of the nearby couches someone (probably him, seeing as he didn’t seem likely to ask Pepper to do so) had dragged downstairs. “I hope you’re not expecting your own personal demonstration.”
Again, you thought to yourself that you could leave. No one at home would be watching for your return. Your father had a big dinner planned with some business associates; conjointly, your mother had a big night planned with whoever she was seeing this particular week. Even if either of them were home, they’d be in no condition to harass you over where you’d been all night—if the security staff even bothered telling them you’d been out. Of course, this also meant that Tony could easily murder you and avoid scrutiny. Somehow, winding up dead was the least of your worries.
“Could you please just sit down?” Tony said, head lolling towards you on his shoulders. “You’re making me nervous.”
The smile you cracked felt as brittle as ice, but you sat down on the chair pulled up next to the couch he’d dragged down there. “I’m making you nervous?” At least this time you managed a little more decorum than when you’d freaked out over ruining his latest Iron Man project. Once you settled, Tony handed over one of the plates of pizza and waited until you filled his empty hand with a Coke. Without so much as thank you, he cracked the top open and gulped nearly half the bottle down.
“Nervous enough that you’re making wish I had some beer hidden somewhere around here right about now,” he said, then picked up the top slice of his pizza and bit in like being fresh out of the four-hundred degree oven was nothing. Who knew? Maybe he’d developed superpowers in the past few years, too—heat resistance or something. Enough had changed that you wouldn’t have been surprised. You glanced at the first slice of pizza sitting atop a piece of wax paper on your plate and shifted it away from you as casually as you could. Suddenly you weren’t sure that you could stomach eating. Tony was occupied with doing so for several more minutes. Your dress shoes tapping out a few nervous seconds had him distracted soon enough, however.
“What’s up?” he asked. “If you don’t like pizza, you probably should have said so before we left the kitchen.”
“Pizza is fine. My mouth isn’t super-human like yours, that’s all.”
He smirked at that, and you felt your heart flip in response. All you could do to hide it was frown as Tony said, “Well, that might be up for debate. Depends on who you ask. Obviously I couldn’t say since I haven’t had the opportunity to check myself, but if you’d like a second—”
“What’s next?” You had to interrupt. You had to. You could already feel your muscles tensing. Tonight was one night that you didn’t want to be thinking about Tony kissing you. Him going on about it wasn’t about to help further your objective. He looked flummoxed for all of ten seconds, then:
“Right.” He put the plate down, licking his lips. “I forget you haven’t done a lot of this.”
Your muscles tensed further. Last time you had visited, you hadn’t felt the usual tenseness that came along with crashing in Tony’s garage, but you felt it now. There was an insult hidden in his casual statement. “Haven’t done a lot of what?” you asked suspiciously.
“Dating,” was the expected reply.
“Excuse me?” Your voice sounded stupidly high. Unfortunately, that didn’t change much when you added, “Need I remind you that I have a boyfriend?”
Tony’s only answer to that was an exaggerated eye roll. “Yeah, I bet that one’s real romantic,” he said as he grabbed for the glass soda bottle on the low table in front of him. “What Justin Hammer wouldn’t do for you. Let’s see, what’s a romantic evening at home like for the two of you? Do you two cuddle and look deep into each other’s eyes? Or does he take you to bed and have his way with you until he’s had enough?”
What you did with Justin—What you did in bed with anyone for that matter—was not any business of Tony’s. You were well aware of this, but you still found yourself looking away to glare at the wall opposite him to answer, “You have no idea what we do.”
“I can make a pretty good guess,” Tony said. “Remember, darling, I was stuck in the car while he said his little goodbye to you. I’ve known enough men in my day to know what kind of man your beau is, and—”
“I’m not asking about your opinion on my love life, Tony,” you snapped, forcing yourself to look at him even though doing so made your arms tremble at your sides. “I’m asking what we’re going to do. You told me you’d show me a good time.”
“Did I?” Tony asked. “And are you not having one? I, for one, am having quite the pleasant evening.”
Your deadpan stare made sure you didn’t not have to actually say whether or not you were having a good time. You didn’t dare bring up any of Tony’s old exes, and for all you could tell, Pepper Potts was a lovely woman. It would be hard to turn the tables and make him miserable about his dating history. Tony sighed and waved his bottle at the ceiling.
“We watch a movie,” he said, “or…”
“Or we could talk.”
“Talk,” you repeated. He nodded. Because that was going so great right now. “About what?”
Tony took another swig of Coke. “You. Me. Us. The air-speed velocity of unladen swallows. I’m not fussed about it.”
“Is that all you’ve been doing lately? Watching old movies?”
“And working on the Mk. VII. And pestering you. We all have our own ways of getting over getting dumped.”
“Yours just had to involve sending me to an early grave.” You fell against the back of your chair to stare at the projector screen in front of you. You had only been at Tony’s for maybe thirty minutes, but already you felt like you needed to sleep for a month and a half to make up the lost energy. Then again, when didn’t you feel like that these days? “Guess I shouldn’t be surprised.”
“I could say something here,” Tony said around yet another mouthful of food. You wondered if he treated his girlfriends to such behavior—but then, you weren’t a girlfriend. Just a friend, if that. Swallowing, he went on, “but I don’t want to be a jackass.”
That you had to laugh at, but at least laughing cleared your throat enough to let you dig into your own plate of food. “You? A jackass? Perish the thought.”
“I thought you liked jackasses, honey.” His grin flashed again at you through the garage’s dim lighting. Fighting yet another blush down, you stared at your plate to pick up a second slice. Now that you were eating, you found the process a welcome distraction from staring at Tony. Too much of that and he would probably notice. This was a fine idea, until Tony had to ruin it by speaking up again: “Otherwise, how do you explain Justin—or my dad, for that matter?”
The pizza slipped right from between your trembling fingers. A strange sort of buzzing had started up in your head, which meant that you surprised yourself when you were able to wrench your gaze up to meet Tony’s. He didn’t look upset, but he didn’t look cheerful anymore either.
“What?” you asked, voice scratchy. Why did you always have to look like such an idiot? Oh, right: because you were an idiot.
“You don’t have to pretend. Everyone was pretty crazy about my old man. Wasn’t really much of a surprise to find out you were obsessed with him, too.”
You knew you were crazy still, because there was no other reason that you would hear what you think you were hearing from Tony. Your hands squeezed at your knees. “I didn’t know that you noticed.”
Tony snorted. “Who wouldn’t notice? Following him around like a puppy, hanging on his words, kept—”
“What do you think I was doing with your father?”
“Doing?” Tony paused; you could almost see the gears churning in his brain. Finally, he shrugged. “Nothing. But that doesn’t mean you didn’t want to be doing something, and it’s not like he’d have had any qualms taking advantage of someone like you.”
“He was married!”
“That wouldn’t stop him.”
That was it. Why were you bothering with this charade? But you had already lost so much in throwing tantrums and storming away. Someone like you said pretty clearly what Tony thought: that you were some weak-willed, soppy little thing obsessed with attention. The worst part was knowing he was right—though you wanted to prove him wrong all the same. A deep breath attempted to steady the feeling of burning in your lungs. “I never slept with your father.”
“Glad to hear it,” Tony said. “What did he talk to you about?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“I meant when he died. He asked to talk to you. What’d he say?”
The hospital room came back to as clearly as the day you stepped into it. You hadn’t talked to Tony Stark in years, hadn’t seen Howard Stark except from across the room at certain fancy dinners your dad dragged you to. Out of the blue, there’d come a phone call from the hospital, saying Howard Stark needed to talk to [F Name] [L Name], and he wasn’t going to last much longer, how soon could she get there? You’d run off without really thinking about it until you’d rode home later shaking to pieces. There in the here and now you heard yourself saying, “It wasn’t me he wanted to talk to.”
This piece of information was not willingly given. It was your last real secret. For years people had speculated what you had to do with Tony’s father, what you had been doing in that hospital room, what he had thought it had been so important to say. You had kept your head up high and ignored it, and now here you were, just giving it to the most ungrateful person you knew.
Tony slowly put his last slice of pizza down. “What do you mean, he didn’t want to talk to you?”
“He wanted to talk to you,” you said, spitting the words out as you met his eye. You had endured the shame this long, and it was his fault. Really, everything was. “He wanted to talk to you and you didn’t answer so he asked me to come because he thought I could make you see reason.”
Tony’s hands were white and stiff around his grease-stained plate. His brown eyes, however, fixed on you with an intensity that made you want to go hide in your bed all over again. “What did he want me to see reason about?” You shook your head. “[Name].”
It was the softness that did it. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t—You don’t know? Did he not tell you anything? Because you said—”
“I didn’t understand it,” you snapped. This cost you quite a bit to admit, too: that you had wasted Howard Stark’s dying breath.
“Was it about you?”
But that split second of hesitation before your answer was enough. “You’re lying,” Tony said. Yes, even Tony knew what a bad liar you were now. But no, the things Howard Stark had said about you were understandable, and not at all anything you wanted to share with Tony.
“HYDRA!” you burst out.
Tony paused. Too late, you realized you’d given him exactly what he wanted trying to avoid telling him what you didn’t want to. “Huh?”
“I-I don’t know. He said they were inside. That they’d done it, and you had to warn them.”
“You mean…you don’t know?”
“I’ve heard of HYDRA,” Tony said. “They were pretty big in WWII, but that’s also when they stopped existing. Dad spent years trying to find the guy that did it. That was some wreck Dad had. He was probably delirious.”
“He seemed sane to me. It was so important to him. I wanted to tell you, but you wouldn’t answer my calls. And then at the funeral—” Just then, you realized you were shaking. Your plate was rattling against your knees. Again. It was happening again. Something had set you off, so you were going to embarrass yourself by bursting into tears right front of someone you very much admired, no matter how much you tried not to.
And that someone knew. Tony’s expression became unreadable just before he rose, set his plate on the cushion next to his, and went to perch on the side of your chair. “Hey,” he said, sounding slightly less alarmed than last time. “Hey, uh…” His hand hovered above your shoulder for a few seconds before finally coming down and squeezing. For once, you didn’t flinch away. “Hey, it’s okay.”
“It’s not,” you said into your hands. “I promised him I would tell you and I didn’t! I promised!”
“[Name], it was my fault.” You shook your head with your face still buried in your fingers. “Let’s be honest here, Dad probably knew I’d pitch a fit as soon as I saw you. Come on. You don’t gotta cry about it. Alright? Promise me.”
“I’m not any good at promises.”
“Right. Forgot what we were talking about. Bad choice of words. [Name],” Tony said again, seriously, “Dad’s long gone. And whatever he was saying probably didn’t have anything to do with me, and it definitely didn’t have anything to do with you. Even if it did, I mean, no one’s died over it, have they?”
“Your parents did.”
The hand on your shoulder contracted and froze. “What was that?”
“Your parents did! That’s what your dad said, that HYDRA got in and they knew he knew, and they had to wipe him out. He told me to be careful, and to make sure you were careful, too, once I told you.”
There were a few moments of silence during which you could only hear Tony breathing next to you. “And were you?” he finally asked.
“Was I what?”
You thought about it. After Tony had shouted you out of the funeral, and Rhodey had tried to comfort you outside, and your father had come up and dragged you away, had you really changed anything? You’d gone home and destroyed most of the evidence that you had ever been somewhat friendly with Tony Stark at all—but that had been because of your feelings, not because of any danger seen or imagined by Howard. “N-No,” you stammered, because this was only further proof of faithlessness on your part to the one adult that had ever had a kind word for you growing up.
“Then there wasn’t anything to worry about, was there?” Tony said, clapping you on the back. When you did not suddenly rise to your feet with joy, the hand returned to rub slow circles there. “You know, this is usually the part where I start kissing the pretty girl to calm her down a bit.”
A burbled sort of laugh erupted from your chest. “Nice try,” you said, now rubbing at your eyes. You had never really started crying in earnest, but there was still a bit of moisture there that you wanted to be rid of before Tony got much closer. When you finally looked over at him, you realized it was far too late to be worried about that.
“I’m serious,” he said, and he looked like it. You swallowed.
“You think I’m pretty?” The words came out before you could stop them; you almost wanted to bury your face in your hands again. Somehow, you resisted, and you were glad that you did since Tony’s reaction was a simple blink.
“Well. Yeah,” he said as though this were the most obvious thing in the world. “But in my opinion, it’s always nicer to show someone I think they’re pretty then to just tell them. With my lips. And other applicable body parts.”
That sounded like Tony. Saying you were pretty much less so. You smiled and rubbed at the skin right below your eye, just in case you had cried and hadn’t noticed. Thankfully, everything was still dry—and Tony was still close. Too close. It was at that moment that you realized with a thrill that rang through your limbs that he was serious. Your body stiffened without you telling it to. Really, though, that was the proper reaction.
“Thought you said you just asked me out because you were bored.”
“I am. Have you ever actually had sex? That ain’t boring, princess.”
“I have a boyfriend. And you don’t like me.”
“Who ever said I didn’t like you?” he demanded.
“You did. Years ago. That’s why we never talked. Not even before your dad died.”
Tony nodded. For once, he looked a little defeated. This only lasted half a second, before he looked back at you. “Why does that have to matter?”
“Why does either one have to matter? Who cares if you have a boyfriend? You’re a grown woman. Are the two of you exclusive? Because the amount of times I have walked in to some room during a convention and found Justin in a provocative position with some reporter or another would indicate no.”
Your stomach dropped at this information. For once, though, Tony was right: What did it matter? Justin sleeping with newswomen and reporters and convention heads wasn’t new information, really. You’d seen plenty of them leaving the place when you went to visit him, and there were a couple of child support checks you knew went out once a month. Why did Justin have to get all the fun? Well, if what he was doing was really “fun.”
“As for that last bit, about not liking you,” Tony was saying, “that’s completely untrue, but I can understand why you’d think it. Even if was true, though, it still wouldn’t matter. People who absolutely hate each other can still have a good time having sex, so long as they follow the rules.”
“Like making sure the person you hate is actually into the hate sex. For instance, I’m not kissing you now because if you actually hate me, I’d rather not have to sport a black eye for the next couple of weeks.” He must have been able to tell that he wasn’t exactly convincing you with all this. Not that there was much convincing to do, since sleeping with Tony Stark…well, thinking about how much you’d used to want to do that was unnecessary. But you were still dating Justin. And Tony had still made it pretty clear how much he hated you back then. Tony took a deep breath. “Look,” he began, “I was a stupid kid, you were a stupid kid, Justin was a stupid kid. Something I realized recently is that I didn’t have to grow up into a stupid adult.”
“Meaning?” you asked.
“Meaning let’s throw caution to the wind. Let me kiss you. Just once. I won’t do it anymore. We’ll just see how we like it. No strings attached.”
There was something magical about the words no strings attached. Your breath caught. “Justin doesn’t have to know?”
“I’m definitely not going to tell him.”
“And my parents won’t find out?”
“I don’t see why they have to know what we’re doing. We’re consenting adults.”
You bit your lip, but in this was just to make sure that you didn’t come across as overeager. This was stupid—just one more thing in your long line of stupid lately. It would come back to bite you in the butt one day. That was for sure. But you didn’t care. It felt good your stupid, and there was a very large part of you convinced that kissing Tony would only make it feel better.
“S-Sure.” That didn’t sound nearly as confident as you had thought you had felt. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea. Maybe you should stop Tony before this started. You still had time. His lips still weren’t on you. The words didn’t come, though. The damage was done.
The kiss started slow, slower than you would ever have imagined possible. His brown eyes fixed on yours as he drew closer and closer. Your chest strained around the tremulous breath you were trying so hard to contain. 'It’s just a kiss. Just a kiss.' His gaze shifted to your lips. Oh God. Your fingers gripped the edges of your seat with a ferocity you did not know you had. Were you holding back? Clinging to the only sound structure available? You couldn’t say. Not until Tony’s lips finally reached yours.
It felt very Harlequin Romance to say, but you melted against him. Tony obviously hadn’t meant to go any further than a closed-mouthed starter kiss, but as soon as you felt his mouth on yours, something inside you just gave up—only this time it was in the best way possible. Your lips parted almost immediately; there was no struggle from your end. Being an experienced kisser, Tony didn’t hesitate to use this to his advantage. His soft tongue flicked at the edge of your mouth, and when you did not back away or scream, entered entirely, moving in and out as you forced yourself not to squirm.
That was supposed to be the end of it.
The kiss should have been the end of it. Your innocent teenage thoughts hadn’t ever allowed themselves to go further. By all counts, Tony’s tongue entering your mouth—however briefly—should have been enough to sate your high school dreams’ lingering influence. And yet, it wasn’t, and high off of this success and the reminder that your boyfriend was off sticking his tongue down any willing throat in Queens, you ignored the screaming in your head telling you to stop. Tony backed away. Tony watched you carefully. You looked up at him, rose, wrapped your arms around his neck, and put your lips right back where they had been.