hegemony: (Iron Man (movie)- Girl Friday Go-getter)
hegemony ([personal profile] hegemony) wrote2008-07-31 12:07 am
Entry tags:

Porn Battle Xplay: ...Across the Wilderness

Title: The Constant Road Across the Wilderness
Fandom: Iron Man (movieverse)
Rating-Pairing: R, Pepper Potts/Jim Rhodes
Prompt-Notes: Originally for [livejournal.com profile] oxoniensis' Porn Battle VI, under the prompt 'waiting'. Also: Copious Amounts of Angst. And conversations about hell and Purgatory, although they're kind of light. It's three months!fic, guys. As with all porn battle prompts, Proofread but unbeta'd. Title swiped from Paul Simon's 'The Cool, Cool River'. Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] stephanometra for the beta.

Pepper's waiting for him on the tarmac when he returns from Afghanistan alone.

He's buttoned up and blank-faced while he walks down the steps from the Stark Jet; she bites her lip, crosses her fingers that he'll be glad she's come to pick him up.

She's aware of the situation, aware of what happened on the trip back from the test site, and she knows there will be no hoopla for him, no photographers or drama. She feels like she needs to be there, though, knows he'll need someone there for him, too. Doing this alone isn't an option, even if they aren't that close.

If you want to be simple, they're people who know each other through their work, share mutual respect as colleagues, perhaps acquaintances or the most casual of friends. There's structure in their support, structure in the two of them, tightly held control. Sure she took a liking to him when they first met, and they've shared a bit of time together beyond the reach of Tony, but she wouldn't consider him a friend. Someone she knows she can count on, maybe, someone she can always go out for drinks with, and someone who understands and commiserates over the finer points of Tony Stark's endless ability to be a brat, but not a friend.

She could probably count the personal things she knows about Rhodey on her fingers and toes. And the first thing on that list is that he's always been close to Tony, close enough to be brothers. Obidiah told her Rhodey thinks it's partially his fault, that he's the one who should be blamed for it, and Pepper doesn't know how to respond to that other than nodding, trying to find a way to fix it.

She doesn't have to be his best friend to know that every part of this must hurt him. It must drive him crazy.

"Hello, Pepper," he says, soft and cold. She watches his lips fashion into a wistful smile that doesn't meet his eyes, can feel her face do the same. She knows Rhodey's not the kind of man who walks around with a blank expression, even when determined. It hurts to watch him be so polite. He's been gutted, a part of him missing.

"Get in, I'll drive you home."

"I'd appreciate that," he says softly, walking past. She lets her head hang, tries to collect herself before getting in, starting the engine.

He's quiet, looking out the window as she drives him home. She expected that, but she itches to know what's going on in his head, wonders how far she's overstepping her bounds by trying to comfort him. She's talked to him since Tony disappeared, could hear the wavering in his usually strong voice even through the phone, and she thought she'd be prepared for this, but the claustrophobia and silence is more than enough to steal her breath.

Sure, there's hope, tender threads of it holding them up like marionettes, but those threads are so fragile; she wouldn't be surprised if they've already snapped, and she's been too busy to notice.

They're in his driveway before she knows it, her hands still gripping at the steering wheel like an awkward lifeline.

"Thanks for the ride," he says, moving to open the car door, fishing in his pocket for his keys. She bites her tongue, nails sinking into the leather stitching.

"Rhodey, wait," she says, gritting her teeth. "I... I don't think you should be alone right now."

She hopes he hears the double meaning in her voice. She bites her cheek, tries not to make this situation any more tense than it already is, looks at him. He scrutinizes her face, hand still on the door handle. His facade cracks right down the middle, emotions carved all over. His shoulders sag as he nods and sighs.

"I need to get a few things, but I'll be right back, alright?"

"You need any help?" she asks, carefully.

"No, I don't think so," he says, getting his bag from the back.

When he disappears inside his front door, she turns the car off with shaking hands, and presses her head into the wheel. She has mantras, prayers, cries of desperation she should be voicing in a situation like this, sloppy-broken and out of their control. She should be worried, for her sake, for Rhodey's sake. She should be--

Tears fall, make little asymmetrical patterns when they splash onto her jeans. She just wants to breathe.

Pepper thinks the first days with Rhodey are ripped right out of No Exit. Sartre would be proud, especially as the news eventually forgets Tony Stark's name, and the search parties are called off. Hell has truly become other people, their cruelty wrapped in sympathy.

Jim's companionship is reserved, Pepper knows, and there will be a time when he feels comfortable enough to open back up, but she knows right now all he can do is blame himself. She fears she can't exorcise those demons for him. She fears nobody can. Instead, she hopes that he can repair himself, and be there for her while she repairs herself, and they can be something close to familiar again. It's comforting, having him around, but she's grown weary of this already. It's too quiet, too introspective, too aware. It's nice to have Jim around the house; he's always ready to help her out whenever she needs, but whenever they're in the same room, she just feels even more alone, and has a good feeling that he feels the same way, too.

There are days that feel drugged slow, like grief on morphine. It feels like organ failure, something slipping away from their fingers, no matter how hard they try to hold on. It seems like they're another pair of Tony's robots, wandering without direction or purpose when he's gone.

Pepper's job is secure; Obidiah has given her the month off on paid vacation after she'd fought tooth and nail to extend the search parties, give the military every support they needed to find Tony. Now, she's been named the head of a foundation for Tony that shouldn't even exist, and has been left wondering what this all means. What next, where to start, how to get back onto track, why here and now?

She can see those same questions in Jim's eyes, whenever he looks at her long enough.

Penchant for the dramatic set aside, she didn't realize how much this would hurt.

She finds comfort in books, the occasional glass of merlot, long baths and calls to her mother. Most of her communication with Jim comes in fleeting glances, floaty cooking directions, vapid dinner conversation. It's like he's studying her, calculating and analyzing. Strangely enough, she thinks she finds comfort in that, too.

His voice tears into her thoughts like a knife over coffee the next day. "I'm sorry I haven't been very talkative lately."

She looks up at him, searching his face as he sits down next to her. "You don't have to worry about that, Jim. I know you miss him."

"I'm scared, Pepper," he says, unapologetic. He refuses to meet her eyes, looking out at the ocean. "I'm not even afraid he's dead, I'm afraid they're torturing him, I'm afraid they're making him suffer. I'm trained to cope with that, y'know? Tony? Tony's not, at all."

"I know," she nods.

"I just keep thinking about it, worrying about it. And that's not fair to you. You've had to endure this as much as I have," he says, holds firm so she has no room to argue. "My worrying's probably so apparent it's probably contagious. I don't want to do that to you."

"I'm scared, too. Don't worry, I'm absolutely horrified," she says, laughing humorlessly. "I'm sure I'd be even more strung out if you weren't here."

He makes a noise at that. "I just wanted to thank you again. For everything. You don't have to do this, you know. It means a lot that you did. More than you think."

"Anytime, Rhodey. You know you don't have to ask," she offers, putting the book she's been reading down in her lap. "I'm glad you're around."

"Well, if you ever need to talk," he says quietly.

His touch is electric when he pushes a messy curl from her face. He presses his lips to her cheek before he leaves, and when he walks away, she takes the first hopeful breath she has in what feels like eons. There's warmth, everywhere, and she revels in the fact that things are (kinda, sort of, almost) looking up.

The coffee tastes better, afterward. She can do this.

There's a rhythm to this, she thinks. The air around them has gotten easier to breathe, the beach house feels less like a prison. It's like a crazy-house, now. That's got to be a little better.

Jim's started having nightmares (kicking, screaming ones that wake her up in the middle of the night even though she's two rooms over) and picking up weird habits, like re-arranging her kitchen for 'maximum efficiency', hundreds of push-ups at midnight.

She starts realizing she's been at a loss, too. She finds herself unable to sleep during the night, collapsing in her bed just as daylight breaks. She keeps checking her Blackberry, compulsively reviewing the reports that the Air Force sends Rhodey like she's looking for something that could be easily missed. She finds herself overlooking the letters she'd drafted to Senators and benefactors, asking for support, fingers sweeping over embossed company letterhead. Merlot has lost its luster; her mother asks if she's okay too much to keep calling.

She cries a lot, until tears almost lose their meaning.

The changes aren't all bad, though. They talk each other through the worst of it, she whispers lullabies into his ear when his nightmares take hold, and he makes her martinis so stiff she can't drink more than one. They play poker, Go Fish, even War, and she can kick his ass at checkers. They make each other laugh, brushes of shoulder to shoulder, girlish hip-checks and easy hugs that make it seem like Jim can engulf her completely.

They tried basketball, once, and failed. Miserably, if Pepper would say so herself. Too many limbs, too awkward to get physical like that. Rhodey could blow past her like a tornado, sailing right past.

"I was thinking of going for a jog, if you want to come," she tells him quietly.

"It would be nice, wouldn't it?" he says, free throwing the core of his apple in the garbage, flexing and stretching his wrist. "Gotta warn you, though. I push a hard pace; think you can keep up?"

She laughs, happily, and says, "Talk your game all you like, but I bet you won't be able to find your way back to the house if I don't come along."

He laughs, shakes with it. "Well, Pepper, when you're right, you're right."

"Of course I am," she says, preening. "Go get your shoes."

Pepper wishes she'd thought of this sooner. The physical exertion is good for them, healthy competition and blood pumping. It gets them out of the house, out into the sun and they both cling to it, like flowers in need of energy. She works on a pretty sweet tan out on the deck in the mornings, he goes swimming in the afternoons. She watches him from the deck, taking notes on how to properly run a memorial foundation and library, what the hell kind of pacifying job Obi has really given her. He's a good cook, and she's got a library of old movies with his name on it.

Tony would have wanted this for them, she thinks.

What he probably wouldn't have expected is the way their support has turned into a waiting game. Where there was sterility before, ghosts of Tony's disappearance at every turn, there's a warped little warmth that's grown, at least in Pepper's case. He's growing on her in ways that make her think they're dating and they just don't realize it yet.

Rhodey's politely casual touch lingers, even though she knows it shouldn't. He does things that surprise her, like making coffee the way she likes, or bringing home flowers with the groceries so she can tease him as he searches for a vase, or rub her back on days where she's too depressed to do anything but sob.

The neighbors have asked her a few times if the charming man she's staying with happens to be a new boyfriend, as he seems rather ubiquitous. She searches for words, and ends up excusing herself politely.

She's taken to sharing a bed with Jim, light sleeping and a careful eye so she can calm him in case his dreams get rough. She wouldn't possibly admit to curling up around him during those lullabies, heat shared with only a few layers of cloth between his back and her chest. She finds herself entangled with him when she wakes, tries to slip away but he always reels her back, and she always says yes.

She wonders if Tony would have expected that, and maybe, just once wishes she could see his reaction to all this, knows what he would say ('Heh, that's my Rhodey'), but wonders what he'd mean.

Jim Rhodes is the only man ever to snatch Pepper's Blackberry out of her hands without pulling back a bloody stump or something like it, gloating when he slips it into his back pocket and walks away. Not even Tony can do that, because she won't let him.

"That's enough, Pepper. If they find anything this time, they'll call me. I promise," Rhodey says, soft yet firm. "I want him back as much as you do. Trust me, if they hadn't kicked me out..."

They both know how that sentence ends. If they wouldn't have shoved Rhodey back into the jet with orders to take personal leave, he'd still be over there, turning all of Afghanistan upside down, because he's that good a friend. That's what happens when Tony Stark goes missing, the bastard.

"Did you always have reflexes like a cat, Rhodey?" she asks, clinging to the easy mood. She needs something to do with her hands, feels useless. Perhaps she'll make brownies this afternoon, or look for new shoes for the first day on her new job. Can't be looking like a slut when you're the president of a memorial library, she thinks. You have to wait a while.

"Don't you know the Air Force started genetically altering all of its fighter pilots with kitty DNA? Old Gulf War trade secret, there," he jokes, returning to his book. "I can claw like a motherfucker and I always land on my feet. Just your average, run-of-the-mill superhero, that's me."

"So, kitty-man, do your foes often lure you into their sinister traps with catnip?" she asks, playing along, and watches as he laughs, long and sweet, and maybe just a little hysterically. The sound of it, the laugh she used to remember from him before all this started, rips into her, makes a mess of her.

She doesn't realize that she's been laughing, too.

He's taken to reading Dante, an old and tattered copy of the Divine Comedies that looks weathered and torn and maybe like a relic from his college years, even though she's threatened many a time to throw it out the window and get him a new copy that doesn't look like it's been shoved into tight corners and bottoms of bags for too many years. When she asks him why, he looks down at it lovingly before looking back up to her.

"It always makes me wonder what's on the other side, you know? It always makes me hope that life doesn't end here," Jim says. There's a tension in his eyes that reads farther into the situation, says the things he can't say.

There's fear, popping like electricity between them even though it feels like they've made progress, come real far. Maybe they are just scared little children or aimless little robots that lampoon real adults, Tony Stark's surrogate parents and braintrust left behind in his time of need. She can't bring herself to think of what that means.

Pepper has to fix it, piece it back together. "Jim, he's not--"

"I know that, Potts, alright?" Rhodey tells her, almost hissing as he sits straight up, bones popping into place. He lets himself relax, sets his jaw before speaking again. "But still."

He kisses her one day, after a jog that leaves them panting and screaming and pushing hard enough to snap. The minute he gets her inside the front door, he just turns her around, framing his hands into the sides of her face, and presses their lips together. She finds herself surprised, but not because it's happened. She finds herself surprised because the little voice in the back of her head is saying 'god, finally.'


So she leans into him, presses her lips upward and opens her mouth a little, easing her head back and moaning when he slips his tongue in, and thinks to throw the door shut because this is something she doesn't think the neighbors really need to see.

They aren't going any farther than kissing. Not right now. There's still something dirty (and no, not in the good way) that tells her fucking her potentially dead boss' best friend is going to make her into the worlds biggest floozy, and she can't take that right now.

She doesn't think Jim can, either, actually. Doesn't want to think about it because then all she'll do is over-think the situation in ways that will make her stand still, cling to tennis shoes and run as far away as she possibly can.

"You look sick," Jim comments. He keeps stealing the raspberries she's got on top of her cereal, "Pepper, c'mon, talk. Pepper, please?"

She's gonna snap, go postal, run away to Las Vegas and run up the bill on all of Tony's old petty cash accounts, have a consumer therapy bender as she moonlights as an identity thief and locks herself into Tony's high roller suite at The Palms. The news has stopped talking about him; it's not like anybody knows he's probably not coming back.

"Pepper?" Jim asks, one more time, snapping his fingers in front of her face, watching her with unblinking eyes. She's kind of shaking, neurons misfiring, palms sweating, muscles contracting without her consent. She can see the fear rise again in Rhodey, doesn't mean to do this, but by that time she's already faded to black.


Later, she finds herself lying in bed in her tank top and jeans, and she can see the rise and fall of her chest. Jim's lying at the foot of the bed, reading again.

"Scared me there, Pepper," he says, easily. "You shouldn't make falling face first into cereal a habit, you know. It doesn't look very good on you."

"I passed out into a bowl of cereal?" she asks incredulously, trying not to think about how raspy she sounds. "And you let me?"

"Only for a few seconds before I realized you weren't joking around," he banters easily. "It's not like I left you there. Cleaning cornflakes off your face isn't my idea of a good time. You're welcome, by the way. Given the way you slept afterward, even after the smelling salts in the first aid kit, I'd say you've been spending too much time worrying about me and not enough time looking out for yourself."

"It's nothing, Rhodey," she says. "I had a bit of a panic, is all. Forgot to breathe."

"People don't forget to breathe unless they've been forgetting about a lot of other things, too," he says, turning the page in his book. There's a silence over them like a blanket, but Jim doesn't seem to mind. He watches as she sits up in bed, pushing a hand through her hair. "I think I like this book because of Purgatory."

"Most people like the part about Hell," Pepper shrugs.

"Nah," he says, shaking his head. "Hell's easy. It's just endless pain, suffering. Dante doesn't write it as if you can expect to move up through hell and get a sweet little shack in limbo. You stay where you are for all eternity. There's nothing more. But Purgatory? You gotta work through that. It's all about whether or not you can stand it, whether you can find the strength to keep moving. You have the privilege of a goal, all the time you'll ever need to accomplish it. The guys in hell never get that."

She stays silent. Perhaps he's talking about them. Perhaps he's talking about her.

"Go back to sleep, Pepper. It will do you some good."

She turns over, and sleep comes easier than she thought it would.

They start going out, after that. Dinners, drinks, a movie every now and then (Pepper always wants to see wibbly-eyed dramas. Rhodey just shakes his head, points at the latest stoner comedy and says, 'we're gonna see that, Pepper. You can either get drunk before or after'), long rides down to a beach here, up to a ridge there. They've gone dancing, but there aren't nearly enough places in LA that operate without expecting that they'll have sex on the dance floor. They're not barely legal, and so it's really hard for them to find a place to hang out where they don't have to pretend they are.

They make out a lot. He's good at listening, good at being a gentleman, a neater kisser than she thought he'd be, with fleeting touches and a quicksilver tongue. She likes it, likes the fact that his hand rests just against the small of her back while the other presses against her hip, and that he waits for her okay to slip his fingers under her shirt and tease at the curve of her breast. He's never ventured beyond that, never beyond a careful hand against her stomach, even though she's aware of his erection every time, knows the task of waiting must be killing him.

She doesn't quite know if she feels sorry for him about that. It makes her aware that she's still a looker, still a good kisser, still as hot as she ever was. It's all her heaving chest against the solid anchor of his, laying on top of his on the sofa, his hand slinking into her back pocket.

"Tryin' to pickpocket me?" she asks, doesn't realize how sex-heavy her tone is until the words have fallen out of her mouth.

"Maybe I'm tryin' to cop a feel," he groans happily. She presses down against him, rolling her hips along the long column of his erection, watching him squirm. She's given up caring about how awkward this will be if (no, when) Tony drops himself back into it, but can feel the rough hesitation in every line of Rhodey's body.

She bites at his lip, licks at the skin. "You could just ask politely, you know."

"I could," he shrugs. "That'd be pretty awkward, though, wouldn't it?"

"Probably," she smiles. She lets it drop, kisses him breathless until he's rutting back against her.

The doorbell rings, and she knows it's the neighbor trying to check up on the two of them. Pepper wants to get up, clear the disturbance away but Rhodey's other hand slips into the other back pocket in her jeans, keeps her pinned. She likes it, on top of him, feels powerful and focused, in ways she hasn't in a very long time. All of her inhibitions don't fly out the window, and the tiny voice in the back of her head is still accusing her of being a floozy, but she figures she's gone through the hardest two months of her life, and that she's watched him do the same as well. She'll be damned if she can't indulge every now and then, and Jim Rhodes' mouth is the sweetest sin she can find this side of the San Andreas Fault.

She could do this for eternities. Hell, as far as she's concerned, there'd be no better fate.

She wonders if they're healing, or if they're just numb to the pain, now. She can't figure what's a better option.

His nightmares have started to subside. She wonders how scandalous this genuinely is as she reads the morning paper, watches Jim do his ridiculous push-ups. They're back to bickering easily, finding the places where one ends and the other begins, points of disagreement. She's afraid of what he thinks of her, on days like these where all she can stand to do is take it hour by hour, wracked with insecurity about everything, about Tony. As far as she knows, the Stark brand name is still doing well, stocks may even be up a little, thanks to whatever Obidiah's been cramming down people's throats. Pepper knows the man lives by the motto 'if it goes 'boom' I'll sell it.' and wonders sickly if he's selling any of those missiles Tony had been so proud of.

She and Rhodey 'break in' to Tony's house. They get smashed, clearing out the liquor cabinet and chasing each other through his workshop, making out drunkenly in the kitchen, sleeping curled up like cats in his bed. Jarvis wakes them up at seven, sharp, and while Rhodey tries to take his hangover to task, Pepper looks through all the things she's decided to divorce since Tony went missing. Mail from MIT and those sellers of that Pollock Tony 'had to have,' rags and tools left out as Tony would want them, powered down robots everywhere.

She thinks about 'stealing' one of Tony's cars, 'kidnapping' Rhodey for a weekend in Baja, falls quiet when she knows that's too easy. They'll do that when Tony's around, or when this catastrophe is over.

Either one, either way.

She knows the minute that last string of reluctance over this disappears in Rhodey's gut, replaced with need. She can feel his change in demeanor, still as broken as she as, itching just under the skin. Sure, she can't remember the reason why they started kissing, but she knows this is it, can feel him bolder, surer of himself when he touches her on the couch, knuckles skimming over the skin of her chest. She grabs him at the wrist, turns his hand around. He pulls away from her mouth, looking at her.

"What do you want, Pepper?" he asks, drawling vowels that make her think of how she wants him naked, wants it as soon as possible.

"Please, Jim," she murmurs, hotly, pressing his hand against her waistband, tempting him to slip into her jeans, push lower. She feels like a powder keg, secure in the knowledge that he wants this as much as she does, and that this has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with the circumstances that parked them there. Tony be damned, this is theirs. Perhaps he set this up unintentionally, pulled their gravities together so they could do the rest, created the horrible instance that made their bonding second nature, but she doesn't think about that, all she thinks about is the way Rhodey's face doesn't say 'I'm worried' anymore, only says 'I want,' and maybe even 'I'm going to have.' She kisses it right off his face, presses his hand right into her pants, watching how he stops when he can feel how wet she is.

"I didn't even realize how long I've been waiting for this," he whispers, pressing his fingers all over her, sliding idly between her lips as he kisses her again.

"Go, go, c'mon, do it," she whines. "I want--"

He does, his fingers thick in her, seeking out that place in her core that will make her scream the quickest, the most. She clenches down on it, and listens to his breath come harder, longer.

"God, Pepper," he whispers. "I want to taste it. Let me see, let me taste it."

She is so a floozy for this, but she shoves her jeans right down her legs, panties following until she can see his palm cradling her, fingers teasing her lips. Her legs fall open; her heart beats faster. He seems to slither down, teasing her with his mouth, sucking at her even through the gauzy cloth of her ratty t-shirt, pausing to lick at the outline of her nipples, the curve of her breast, the flat of her stomach. She wants this, aches for it, almost comes simply from the first touch of his lips to her clit before he manhandles her, hooks her knees over his shoulders, pushes her back on the sofa until all she can do is relax, listen to what his mouth is telling her.

She should have known he'd be good at this, unabashedly eager for it, like he's dreamed about this since the moment he met her. She tries not to think in terms so cheesy, but then his fingers pull away and double when they return, and all she can think about is the padding of his lips, the way he's sucking at her, the way he's curved his fingers to get right at her, drag her to the edge. She reaches down, curling her hand in the back of his shirt, and he arches into it, fucks her with his fingers and presses his lips against her palm, his other hand holding it still. It's maddening, the way he teases her with his tongue, innocent patterns against the flat as he twists his fingers, adds a third.

She shakes out of his grip, Reaches for his t-shirt and starts pulling it up, her request clear.

"C'mon," she groans, "C'mon, Jim, fuck. Do it, please."

He pulls his fingers away, surrenders his shirt being pulled away in the odd position, and presses his mouth right to her core when he's allowed to return, using everything he has to get at her, not letting up.

"I'm gonna die, Rhodey. Jesus, more," she says, as he pulls away for air, pressing his lips to her thighs, fingers grazing and tracing lines and curves all over her lower half. "Make me do it, Make me come."

He simply slides his tongue as far as it can go inside her, laughing silky smooth while she arches, tipping herself into his mouth. He rubs her off with his thumb until she's clenching everywhere, like he knows he's driving her wild. She squirms under him, her hands gripping at whatever they can find, her head rolling back. He slips fingers into her again, fucks her rough until she's shaking with it, until her body's doing the work for him, and all he has to do is open his mouth and reap the fruit of his labor. She has a new appreciation for his callouses, has them all mapped out in her head and wonders where he got them from. She longs for more of the wet suction of his mouth when he licks her clean, soft enough to make her want more.

"You should see yourself, down here," he says, softly. "The way you puff up, the way you strain. You fuck everybody like that?"

Pepper doesn't even answer, just pressing her face into his even though the position's awkward for this type of thing. She can taste the bitterness of her come in his mouth, on his filthy-wet lips. Her brain short circuits, she can only moan, barter. "Want. Jim, Rhodey, please."

He's still laughing, relishing in how she writhes before yanking her to her feet. "Not here, Pepper."

The bed is still unmade, and that just adds to the illicit nature of the situation, especially as Jim throws her down on it, slithers over her. He presses her shirt over her head, wiggles out of his jeans, kissing her like he never realized how much he wanted this, too. This feels ridiculous, all this buildup, but she likes it, wants more. She doesn't know. She doesn't care.

Especially when he wraps her leg around him and sinks right in, slow and teasing, maddening her all the way to the hilt. This is them, all that fabric thrown to the wind in order for her to feel this, the way he pushes into her and keeps pushing, happily still competitive. There's a deep, roaring ache as they change position, as he falls in at a different angle, starts to thrust. She squirms, can do nothing but hold on for the ride, be the most responsive she can, tell him how good it feels. Just when she thinks he's going to give in and make her come, he slows down even more, like he wants to torture her, make her wait.

"C'mon, c'mon, wanted this for so long, fuck," she gasps, already shaking. She's eager, can feel herself clamping down on him until he hisses, buries his head in her neck. He's thick, filling her up, thrusting like he's preforming for an audience of more than one as he pushes her back, holds her legs wide open and rolls his hips in slow motion until she's grabbing at the sheets, screaming at the shift in position yet again.

"Shit, Pepper," Jim grunts, turning her around again, falling into her with another angle, and she reaches over and holds onto him, opening her legs a little further. She reaches up, brings his mouth down to hers, tongue-fucks him hard, like she's trying to give him ideas about how she wants him.

He keeps going, deeper, harder, nasty little shoves in all directions until she's seeing stars, the will to talk gone, all other sensory input lost. She breathes, strained, in time with him, and when he turns them around again, pressing her back to the mattress, she turns into something different, something new, her hands clawing for something to ground her other than Rhodey's thighs, his chest, his cock. She only finds the sheets instead, gathering them in her hands, holding on as he presses in rougher than before. He buries his face in the arch of her breasts, the column of her neck, tucks her legs around him, and tucks his legs under her in a position that should be way too complicated for the both of them to get into.

She knows she's close when her mouth starts forming words she can't ever remember thinking about, like want and need and please, please, please. She takes his mouth again, her hips suddenly able to move in this new position so she can speed the pace up even further, work to get him in the same state. He eats at her mouth, one hand in her hair, looks at her even when he's panting for air, leaning back for more leverage. He doesn't say anything (not that she could hear it if he did, at this point) but he doesn't need to. Everything's written on his face, everything she needs to know.

That healthy competition is back again, the urge to try and tire each other out first, the denial of what they want the most to see who'll break first, another waiting game. She clenches around him easily, makes it even harder for him to endure, but he reaches down, grazes his calloused thumb against her clit, gathering her up on his lap, whispering "Come, Pepper," and she feels like she's tripped and fallen right into it, her body convulsing hard around him, the nails of one hand sinking into the skin of his shoulder, the arch of her back so exaggerated it may as well snap. There's sweat everywhere on them, and her mind blanks out, there's nothing beyond the roar of blood in her ears, the hardness of Jim's cock inside her, the support he offers when she can't decide if she wants to cling or pull away.

Even though her mouth is open, she doesn't make a sound.

They don't do the sex thing often; there are still a few worries about how big a faux pas fucking your dead boss' best friend could possibly be, and it's not like it will fix them more than anything else. They're still broken, from all of this, even if Jim's not so cold, and Pepper doesn't cry as much. The neighbors have stopped asking about who Jim is, and she thinks it's because they already have their answer.

Still, the physical is nice with Rhodey, another complicated part to a complicated relationship. It makes her realize that no, not everything right now is about Tony, and that she really has been ignoring herself in lieu of taking care of his grief. They aren't robots, after all, not when something can feel so spontaneous and blinding, gorgeous. It doesn't mean that she doesn't still have bad days, though. She wonders what the hell she'll do when they have to go back to work. She likes Obidiah, but knows that he thinks she was hired for superficial reasons, her legs and breasts, the way her mouth curves when she's angry. She's been given a shut-up job, she knows it, but she also knows that all the people who Obidiah could possibly turn to probably like her better, anyway.

Rhodey's been sketching old flight plans, coded descriptions of turns and rolls and banks, the type of things that he can tell her about, but she can't genuinely understand anything beyond his elation of it, his fondness for the air, the cockpit, the ability to climb and dive.

They spend more time in the city, unimportant faces now that Tony's gone, and value it more. The summer heat is finally in full force, and for the first time in a long while, Pepper thinks she enjoys it.

Pepper's in the bath when Rhodey opens the door, slips in. He looks so much better, like he's getting over it. He's holding his phone, biting his lip.

"Pepper?" he asks, like he's dazed. He puts the phone down on the counter. "Oh God, Pepper."

"What's wrong?" she asks, sitting up. "What's happened?"

"I just got a call from my C.O. They think they've found him. They need me back," he gasps. Pepper can feel tears sliding down her face, watches as Jim sinks into the tub even with his clothes on, single minded in the need to get close to her. This is almost too hallmark--too ridiculously cliche--the way they lie there, water spilling over the sides, but it doesn't matter after the way he holds her, pressing his forehead to hers.

Rhodey's leaving in a few days; they're making it out of limbo.

She doesn't mean to kiss him goodbye that way, standing there in her modest suit and heels. Still, everything is made as clear as day while they stand there. In the back of her head, she thinks about how this feels like all those 1950's cinema sendoffs, ponders girlishly raising one of her legs, leaning her weight completely into Rhodey's solid form.

"Bring him back," she says.

"I'll do the best I can," he replies. "I'll miss you."

She smiles at that, never expecting to hear those words from him. "Well, you should."

He laughs, "I'll see you soon, Pepper. Thank you for everything. Take care of yourself."

"I'll do the best I can," she nods. "The house will be empty without you around doing those push-ups and getting the grocery."

"I'm sure your neighbors will be happy that I'm gone," he says, happily. He presses lips to her cheek, breathes her in one last time, and then walks away.

He doesn't look back. She doesn't expect him to.

She gets a message on her phone, two weeks later. Rhodey sounds like he's been running, excited and out of breath.

"We found him, oh God, Pepper, we found him. He looks like shit, and he's skinnier than a fucking toothpick, but Pepper, he's alive."

She locks herself in Tony's old office, stands in front of the window and sobs.

Her heart leaps when she sees the both of them, arms linked and fingers locked as Rhodey helps Tony down. She can't help but smile, breathe sighs of surprise and relief, and uses all of her self-control so she doesn't look like a real idiot. Nobody would ever let her get away with making a fool of herself within minutes of Tony's return to American soil. She'd never live it down.

She just stands there, nails in her palm to remind her that no, this isn't a dream.

That night, after the press conference, Pepper goes home. She takes a shower, dresses up in the hottest lingerie she can find in her closet, shrugging on an old t-shirt and a pair of jeans, and orders food from Rhodey's favorite Chinese restaurant, picking up a bottle of wine and a bunch of flowers.

She looks at herself in the rear-view mirror as she drives over to his house, wonders if she's more of a floozy for wanting to date her boss' best friend, now that it's been declared that Tony's (still) alive. This has passed through the realm of being a crutch, neither of them in a state of mourning. It's want for the sake of wanting, and that's scary new territory.

Still, even if she didn't want this, she'd owe him dinner for bringing Tony back. She knows he's angry for the press conference, knows she thinks it's a slap in the face. She doesn't really want to care about that. After all, an angry Jim Rhodes is better than one turning to stone in grief.

She presses the doorbell, and knocks on the door. He only opens it a crack, not enough for her to curl through.

"If you're here to apologize for him, I'm not in the mood," he says on a sigh.

"What makes you think I'm here for him?" she asks, smiling casually. She's glad she didn't make a bigger production of this; he still looks like he's been silently fuming ever since they left the atrium. "Just because he's back doesn't mean I'm only doing things on his behalf. I don't know what he saw over there, but I don't agree with what happened anymore than you do. I thought you would have realized that."

"I guess I should have." He looks down at his shoes, bites his lip. "So what are you doing here, then?"

"I thought I'd bring some food, and set about congratulating you for accomplishing a goal, Colonel," she teases, using her free hand to wiggle into her front pocket, the waistband of her jeans slipping a bit, black lace peeking out. This feels a bit awkward, stilted, and she wonders dreadfully if the only way this could work is in a world where Tony Stark's ubiquity no longer exists. She prays that isn't the case. "One step closer to heaven, isn't that how Dante says it works?"

"Yeah, Pepper. It is." He looks at her, and the bags in her hand. He laughs, easygoing. "Did you doubt me when I said I'd bring him back?"

She doesn't even have to think. "Not at all. Why would I, Rhodey?"

He nods at that, looks a bit far off and steps away, opening the door for her to pass. She steps through, leans into his lips and sighs, relishing the feeling that this is mutual.

Maybe, she thinks, this will work out just fine.

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