Chapter 1: Playboy
The day the incident occurred, Virginia "Pepper" Potts had been part of the Stark Industries family for just over nine months. Approximately six of those months had been spent covering for her boss while he systematically drank himself into oblivion.
It was Pepper's first time around the block as an executive assistant: after having spent the first few weeks of her career at SI in the Finance and Administration pool, she'd found herself being snapped up by Jason Ward, deputy section head of the payroll department. Jason was impressed by Pepper's capacious memory and her facility with both diplomacy and details. He thought she was wasted as a receptionist.
Pepper thought so, too. She'd moved across the country to study art history at Stanford, but had ended up graduating with an MBA, which she'd pursued with the aim of managing either a museum or a gallery. She was ridiculously overqualified for the job at SI, but it was the only one she could find that offered sufficient compensation and was even remotely related to her education and skills. In other words, she wanted to stay in California, but the rent needed paying, and she didn't want to be a night baker or form part of a Marine Mammal Stranding Response Team.
Pepper was the only one of her cohort from Stanford who still bought her shoes at the outlet mall. The most upscale brand name in her closet was "Sears," and she did her own tailoring. However, she had a roof over her head, a car that worked and had air conditioning, and she could afford to go out to lunch on Fridays with the rest of the F&A gang, even if she sometimes had to order from the starter menu. Paying her way through school had taught her how to live frugally; no matter how grim things sometimes seemed, Pepper knew she was unlikely to be the first person in recorded history to die of couture deprivation. She volunteered at a small modern gallery called the Tune-In Institute on weekends, which kept her centred and helped her focus on her long-term goals.
Upon transferring to Jason's office, Pepper committed the classic rookie mistake of making herself indispensable. She wanted to prove that she was willing to work, and capable of getting the job done. Apart from which, while Jason was charismatic and charming, it became apparent within five minutes of meeting him that the man was on the razor's edge. Pepper had been around enough drinkers to recognize the signs.
Pepper tried to be supportive, and gradually began to pick up the tidbits of work that were in danger of sliding off Jason's desk. She and Jason never actually discussed this; it just sort of… happened, and Pepper allowed it to just-sort-of-happen because she could tell that if she didn't, things would get very out of control very quickly. She suspected that if heads were to roll, hers would be first on the chopping block.
Jason started to cut out early on Friday afternoons. Then he began calling in sick on Mondays, and sometimes Tuesdays too. One day, he simply stopped calling altogether, leaving Pepper to stand alone on the deck of a burning ship. Work started piling up in his in-tray, and before she knew it, Pepper was delegating assignments to the entire section, just to keep afloat. She was careful to maintain the pretense that she was acting under Jason's direction.
Like most of the underlings in the payroll department, Pepper had never seen the great and powerful Anthony Stark in person. She knew what he looked like, of course; like many celebrities, he'd existed in the dim reaches of her pop-culture consciousness for as long as she could recall. When she'd first started working at SI, she'd devoured every scrap of information about Stark-the-company that she could find—none of which told her much about Stark-the-man. The few times he'd sent out all-staff video messages, she'd noted that he was good-looking and relatively articulate, but that he seemed to talk a lot without ever really saying anything. She knew that the outlandish tales about his escapades had to be mostly exaggerated; surely no one that smart would be caught doing that many stupid things. In any event, her lowly section was far enough away from the executive offices that Pepper figured she was safe.
So on that fateful day, nine months in, when Janice at the reception desk called and whispered frantically into the phone that the Big Boss was headed in her direction, Pepper laughed, told her "Give him a big kiss for me," and hung up. After all, she had work to do—hers and Jason's. She didn't have time for another one of Janice's juvenile pranks.
Ten minutes later, however, the mythical figure himself appeared in the doorway of Jason Ward's office, to Pepper's utter astonishment.
He was clad in faded jeans, white t-shirt, red leather motorcycle jacket, and sunglasses. The effect was, quite honestly, a bit disappointing; she'd heard tell that Stark was unconventional, but she'd expected a suit at the very least.
"Hello there," he purred, leaning against the door jamb like a man who had all the time in the world. "I don't think we've met, have we?"
Pepper froze, blanching behind her freckles. "No," she squeaked.
Tony Stark was even better-looking in person: tanned, windblown, and nonchalant, with eyes that were dark as anthracite and twice as smouldering. Despite his relative youth—he was, all told, only a few years older than Pepper herself—he carried himself in a way that suggested he was well acquainted with the full and varied catalogue of pleasures this earthly life had to offer.
In short, he didn't look like the type of guy who had ever done a day's honest work. He looked exactly like the type of guy who did some of the other things Pepper had heard about.
He propped the sunglasses up on his forehead, and glanced at the nameplate on the desk. "Jason?" he inquired, in a cavalier deadpan that suggested he didn't particularly care, one way or the other. "Pretty name for a pretty girl."
Was he trying to pick her up, or making fun of her? It was hard to tell. "Virginia," she corrected, absently adjusting her tortoiseshell glasses.
"Even better," he replied agreeably. He was surveying the room with a proprietary air, as though taking stock of his possessions—including Pepper.
"I'm Mr. Ward's assistant." Her voice was hoarse. She tried to swallow, but her mouth had gone completely dry. Her tongue seemed twice its normal size. "And you're… you are, aren't you?"
He smirked. "Yes, Virginia. There is a Santa Claus."
Pepper bit back a weary sigh. Every guy she met thought he was the first one to make that stupid joke.
He offered his hand; Pepper noted that there was dirt under his fingernails. Even so, she reached out, forgetting as she did so that she was still balancing the tower of paperwork she'd gone into Jason's office to collect. One of the middle files slipped free, causing the entire stack to destabilize and spill through her arms.
"I see you're busy," he remarked, grasping her hand firmly as painstakingly organized reports fluttered to the four corners of the office. His fingers were rough, callused; they belied her suppositions.
"Excuse me," she said, and he relaxed his grip—making no move to assist her as she squatted down and began to assemble the mess of papers into a pile.
Jerk, she thought. Aloud, she said only, "How can I help you, Mr. Stark?"
"Is your boss kicking around?"
Pepper took a moment to riffle her mental Rolodex of excuses before replying, quite truthfully, "I'm afraid he's not in the office today."
"Okay." Before she could offer any further assistance, Stark receded from the room, and continued on down the hall without so much as a goodbye wave. Being ridiculously brilliant and obscenely rich obviously didn't breed good manners, or even basic courtesy.
It took Pepper a full ten minutes to collect every last scrap of paper from the floor; ample time for her to mentally update both her to-do list for the next month, and her CV. She considered stopping off at the bakery on her way home to drop off an application.
She was down on all fours, tucked head-first under Jason's desk, trying to retrieve the last wayward sheets, when she sensed, rather than heard, a presence in the room.
She straightened up—too suddenly, cracking her head on a corner of the desk so hard that stars blitzed across her field of vision—and turned around to find Tony Stark propping up the doorframe again.
Pepper rubbed the top of her head, blinking back tears of pain. "Um, hi," she said dazedly.
"Hi." He drew the word out, smiling like a shark. He seemed to be waiting for something, but she couldn't for the life of her figure out what it might be.
"Is there… anything in particular you're looking for, Mr. Stark?" she asked, adjusting her glasses.
He shook his head. "Just admiring the view."
The urge to slap the smug right off his face was so strong that her palm actually itched. Instead, she smiled serenely, and replied, "Okay then. Have a nice day, sir."
He frowned, apparently nonplussed, and she seized the opportunity to slip past him and escape down the hall to her own office.
It wasn't until about an hour after the fact, as she replayed the conversation in her head for about the hundredth time, that it occurred to her: Stark had actually expected that line to work. In fact, she strongly suspected that it frequently did work. Pepper felt offended, both personally and on general principle.
She wished, not for the first time, that she someone that she could talk to about this kind of thing. Someone who could be there to support her, inspire her, and give her the occasional pat on the back (as opposed to just ogling her backside).
That night, on the way home, Pepper did stop at the bakery, but only because it was on her way to Neiman Marcus. She'd decided to give herself a little pat on the back—a chocolate bear claw, and her very first pair of Manolo Blahniks.
Chapter 2: Privileged Son
Two years after starting at Stark Industries, Virginia Potts was still working with Jason Ward—as his boss.
A week after the section head's retirement had been announced, Pepper had applied for the job on a whim. It was a Friday afternoon, and she'd had ten minutes to kill before heading home, so she threw together an application and e-mailed it to HR. She'd put it entirely out of her mind the moment she stepped through her front door.
To her shock, they didn't even ask her to go through the formality of an interview—just asked how soon she could start, and offered her a yearly salary that worked out to more than her entire college tuition.
The promotion to SI's elite management team included a key to the executive washrooms, a corner office, and a section of 54 staff, any one of whom would have fallen on a grenade for Pepper if the occasion arose (which was far less likely in payroll than in other departments).
Pepper even got to hire her own personal assistant, a very clever young man called Matthew. She'd switched from glasses to contacts, started wearing sleek monochromatic power suits, and amassed an entire fleet of designer shoes. She'd put a down payment on a condo, purchased her car outright, and made some cautious investments. She still had time to put in the occasional weekend at the Tune-In gallery, and had even been nominated to serve on its volunteer board of directors.
At long last, Pepper felt as though she'd transitioned into the next phase of her life: Virginia Potts, junior executive. Homeowner. Responsible adult.
Pepper started off as a good boss; over time, she blossomed into a great boss. She was flexible and sympathetic, but always fair, and supremely task-oriented. Her previously noted gift for details enabled her to keep track of countless interpersonal issues, of the type that always arise in such a large group; her skill in diplomacy enabled her to resolve each issue with grace and tact. She remembered birthdays, and budgeted for generous Christmas bonuses. All of her staff had carefully thought-out workplans designed to speed their personal development while accomplishing section goals. Pepper knew what it was like to be in the trenches: while she delegated a lot of work, she never asked any of her employees to do something that she wouldn't be willing to take on herself.
Pepper also gave Jason her full support while he successfully and discreetly completed rehab.
Out of everywhere in the company, payroll was consistently singled out as being the most productive, as well as the most positive, place to work. Managers from other departments started head-hunting Potts' staff. Executives from other companies started head-hunting Potts herself.
One of Pepper's new responsibilities as section head was to attend the quarterly section briefing, which was where she made the legendary remark that would signal the end of her meteoric rise through the ranks of middle management.
Obadiah Stane usually presided at section briefings. Pepper liked Obadiah: he was a warm, jovial, larger-than-life man, who insisted that they greet each other on first-name terms. He reminded Pepper of her dad; she could easily picture the two of them playing a game of golf together.
Obadiah had invited her to lunch after she'd started in the new job. He'd told her that he'd been watching her since she'd started working for Jason, and that she'd impressed him with her work ethic and her commitment to the team. He didn't mention Jason's drinking, but his tone made it clear that he knew. He was familiar with Pepper's background and her interests; he asked her advice on a sculpture he was thinking about buying, and actually listened when she gave her opinion. He told a funny story that involved Tony Stark drawing up the design for the Seraphim tactical satellite on a series of cocktail napkins—in Havana, of all places—and then losing one of the critical napkins because he'd used it to give his hotel address and room number to a girl. Fortunately, she'd turned up for the rendezvous, and he was able to retrieve it. "Apparently it was the same bar where Hemingway used to drink," Obadiah had observed, with an indulgent smile.
He'd also talked to her about ways her section might improve in the next five to ten years: he wanted HR to move to an automated leave reporting system, which would make things significantly easier for Pepper's staff in the long run. He also wanted her to set up a program for company-wide charitable giving—with the number of employees at Stark, even a one-dollar donation from each paycheck would quickly amount to millions, which would do wonders for SI's image. For the first time, Pepper really had the sense that she could be a key contributor to the company's larger direction. She'd listened carefully, taken a few notes, and left feeling inspired.
Much to her disappointment, Obadiah wasn't the one at the head of the table on this particular occasion.
Pepper had studiously avoided contact with Tony Stark since their first, inauspicious meeting; upon meeting him again, she was still not favourably impressed. She noted that he was, at least, wearing a suit this time. He'd also opted for an immaculately-trimmed goatee in place of the stubble, adding a touch of sharpness and maturity to his boyish face.
However, as the meeting started, it became clear that he hadn't really changed: he still exuded boredom, dissolution, and overall, privilege. He slouched in his chair, played some sort of F1 racing game on his cell phone during half the presentations (including Pepper's), and interjected only occasionally during the other half to make smart-ass comments or ask completely irrelevant questions. None of the other section heads seemed at all surprised or put off by this, which led Pepper to surmise that it wasn't out of the ordinary.
When it was Stark's turn to speak on the subject of projections for the next quarter, he breezed through a visually arresting but sloppily organized Powerpoint presentation, which included three photos from a party at his house in Dubai. In each photo he was with a different girl.
Worst of all, though, was the fact that his numbers were wrong.
Pepper, as it happened, was something of a whiz with numbers. To call her a genius might even have been understatement: she was nothing less than an artist, whose preferred medium was the integer. Difficult equations invariably came right in her hands, and she was capable of detecting patterns and trends long before they became noticeable to anyone else (a skill which served her well in her personal investments). She never forgot dates or phone numbers, and she could recite prime numbers until the cows came home.
The main difference between Pepper and Tony Stark in this respect was that, while she knew she was bright, no one had ever told her she was gifted. She had little reason to suspect the truth—although it did occasionally puzzle her that she was the only section manager who didn't need to take stress leave at fiscal year end.
And unlike Tony Stark, Pepper never rounded up or guessed.
She hadn't seen the whole spreadsheet, and so she didn't know how, or where, but she knew instinctively that somewhere along the line, Stark had either made or perpetuated a miscalculation—one that would have dire effects on Pepper, and her budget, and her 54 devoted underlings.
At the end of his presentation, he said, "Questions?" in such a perfunctory way that made it obvious he wasn't actually inviting any. Nevertheless, Pepper raised her hand.
Stark was half-way to the door before he actually noticed the hand—and when he did, he just shrugged and kept right on moving.
"Excuse me," she called out. Her voice sounded confident, but under the table, her knees were shaking. "Mr. Stark?"
"Yes, Ms.… um…?"
"Potts. From payroll. I was wondering…"
He already had his sunglasses on, car keys in his hand. He took an exaggerated look at his watch.
"I think you made a mistake," she blurted, feeling a bit nauseous.
Around the room, everyone but Stark collectively stopped breathing. Including Pepper herself.
Stark turned, very deliberately, and walked around the conference table to where Pepper was sitting. He pulled up a chair and pushed in beside her, causing a rolling-chair pileup on either side of them as the observers backed away, instinctively, not wanting to get caught in the crossfire. Tony Stark was an unknown quantity, and dealing with unknowns made this particular group a little edgy.
He tossed his sunglasses onto the table, with enough force that they skittered down to the far end before clattering to a stop. He flicked open his tablet laptop, pulled up the original budget projection via a series of finger sweeps, then slid the computer over to Pepper.
"Show me," he suggested—sounding more curious than anything.
With the full spreadsheet at her disposal, Pepper was immediately able to spot the field that had been accidentally duplicated, throwing all the other figures out of alignment. She tapped the screen, highlighting the error.
"Shit," he said, meditatively. Then he announced, "Meeting's over. Everyone go home—except you, Ms…"
"Potts," she repeated. "From payroll."
"Right. You stay right where you are."
The other section heads filed out in silence. No one looked in Pepper's direction. Pepper could feel her stomach taking the express elevator straight to her feet. She was toast.
The conference room suddenly felt cavernous, and very still. Stark was still sitting next to her at the table, close enough that their knees touched. He was studying her face earnestly, his eyes so dark they were almost black. He didn't seem angry; he just seemed… determined.
She met his gaze with a slightly defiant tilt to her chin. "I'm fired, aren't I?" she asked.
He nodded. "Kinda, yeah." He said it with a surprising amount of sympathy, considering that he was in the midst of ending her career. "However, Ms… um…"
Which was when she noticed that they weren't making eye contact anymore.
Something in Pepper snapped. He was firing her, and looking down her top, simultaneously, and he couldn't even be bothered to remember her name. Which was five letters long.
"You know what? Fine!" she said, slamming the expensive laptop shut with as much force as she could muster.
"Hey!" he protested, stroking the sleek surface of the computer's case as though it were a pet.
She stood up. "I am done!"
"You're done?" he echoed, smirking.
"You have no idea how done I am! I am through taking orders from you, and guys like you—I'm through fixing your mistakes, and covering for your failures, and putting up with your crap!" She jabbed the air emphatically with her index finger—not the finger she would have liked to show him, but even in a fit of pique, there were certain lines Pepper wouldn't cross. "You can't fire me, Mr. Stark, because guess what? I. Quit."
As she turned to walk out of the room, he called after her, "Virginia!"
She turned, astonished—and caught him looking at her backside. Again.
"Right?" he asked. "That's right, isn't it? You used to work for Jason Ward. Virginia Potts. From payroll."
She nodded, slowly.
He leaned back in the chair, put his feet on the table, and grinned up at her. "I never forget a face."
A vein started to throb in her temple, and Pepper wondered, briefly, whether she'd be able to make it out of the building before someone discovered that she'd strangled the CEO. Hell, they'd probably erect a statue in the lobby depicting the event.
"Anyhow, Virginia, what I was going to say, before you started shouting and wrecking up the place, is that I'm not so much firing you, as I am… promoting you. I want you to work for me."
"I do work for you," she replied, feeling slightly dumbfounded. She wondered if this might just all be an awful dream.
He laughed. "No, I mean, directly for me. As my executive assistant."
It didn't sound like much of a promotion to Pepper—if anything, it sounded like a punishment. Besides which: "Don't you have an assistant?"
"Right. Okay, so your first job is to fire my old assistant. You can have his office. It's the one right next to mine. Make sure he takes all his plants with him. I hate plants. Don't have plants in your office."
"You're crazy!" she exclaimed.
He clapped his hands together delightedly. "See, this is great. You're going to be perfect. Do you realize how hard it is to find someone who doesn't just tell me what I want to hear all the time?"
"I like working in payroll," she protested, feeling a little like she was shouting into a hurricane.
"You'll like working for me more, trust me."
"I just got a promotion. I don't want to be your secretary."
"Executive assistant," he corrected. "You'll get a company car, more vacation hours, stock options, all that good stuff. And your salary is going to be… quick, give me a ridiculously large prime number."
She didn't rattle off the largest one she knew (it had seventeen digits) but instead gave him a relatively modest one she'd always particularly liked.
He raised an eyebrow. "Nice. Okay, have my current assistant get the paperwork together. Then you can fire him. What?" he demanded, as Pepper frowned and bit her lip.
"That's pretty callous," she told him.
"Is it?" He blinked up at her, legitimately surprised, which caught Pepper off guard. She also found herself slightly distracted by his long, ridiculously girlish eyelashes. "Well, he can have your job. We'll tell him it's a promotion. And by we, I mean you." He vaulted to his feet, grabbed her hand, and shook it emphatically. "Done deal. Congratulations, Virginia. I look forward to working with you."
Pepper's head was in a spin. "Mr. Stark, I…"
He was still holding her hand in both of his, and she felt the heat radiate along her arm and spread into her chest. When he smiled—not a smirk, not a grin, but a genuine smile—Pepper found herself smiling back, in spite of herself.
"Call me Tony," he said warmly.
Chapter 3: Mad Scientist
Arranging the transition with Stark's last assistant, Gregory Townsend, had been relatively simple: the poor man was so relieved to be given an out that he didn't even question the whole "promotion" scenario—just took his plants and left.
Pepper's section staff were devastated when she broke the news. In the evening following her last day of work, they had thrown her a roaring going-away party at a Korean norebang, where they all drank soju and belted out karaoke hits from musicals and power ballads from the 80s. Pepper couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, but since she wasn't the boss anymore, she didn't mind looking a little ridiculous. She and the ever-capable Matthew had finished up the evening with a soulful duet on "Summer Nights," after which he had hugged Pepper and tearfully admitted that he thought he might be in love with her.
Pepper had extricated herself from that situation with her usual grace and tact, breaking Matthew's heart in the kindest way possible—she told him that she had a strict, no-exceptions policy about getting romantically involved in the workplace.
It was with an unsettled stomach (and a slight soju hangover) that Pepper reported to her new boss at his house the next morning.
At least, she tried to report to him—she couldn't find him anywhere. She let herself in, using the keys and codes she'd been e-mailed the day before, and elected to give herself the impromptu tour.
The house was enormous, but slightly sterile, with a variety of rooms dedicated to the care and feeding of idle playboy billionaires: weight room with sauna, games room, a library full of books that had evidently never had their spines cracked. Located directly off the living room, she found a gleaming white kitchen, with expensive appliances showing no sign of use (apart from the espresso machine), but no dining room as far as she could tell. The top floor housed several bedrooms, all rather ascetic in appearance—Pepper guessed at which one was Stark's, by the fact that the bed hadn't yet been made. Presumably because there was an angelic young woman still sleeping in it, her scant clothing scattered across the tile floor along with the various elements of an Armani tuxedo.
At length, Pepper found her way down the stairs and through the glass doors into what appeared to be yet another hobby room. This time, the hobby was machines—cars, robots, miscellaneous mechanical objects, computers.
There was a small stack of dirty dinner plates on one worktable, directly adjacent to a series of cold, half-finished cups of coffee. It reminded her of an installation she'd seen once at a gallery in Chicago, but she doubted Stark had arranged his clutter with an eye to its artistic integrity.
Unlike the spartan quarters above, this was a room where chaos reigned; this, she quickly realized, was where Tony Stark really lived.
Off at the far end of the room—which seemed to run the entire length of the house—Stark was huddled over a workbench, painting a small object with a clear liquid. He wore grey cargo pants and a rather grubby-looking white undershirt, and looked as though he could use a shower.
"Mr. Stark?" she called, her voice echoing in the vast space.
He waved her over. The closer she got, the more the overwhelming odour of solvent permeated the air. She started to feel vaguely fluish—hot and headachey.
"I told you to call me Tony," he said, not looking up from his work. The object he was painting looked like a small rubber ball, the kind found in a shopping mall vending machine.
"I have a few questions for you," she informed him crisply, PDA at the ready. She'd reviewed her contract several times, and had found it frustratingly broad in scope—part personal services agreement, part general proxy, and parts that she didn't even know how to classify. She wanted to get a précis of his expectations, his preferences, his daily routine. She was eager, in short, to get straight down to business.
"Sure, okay. Do me a favour, would you?" Without waiting for her response, he thrust a small red canister into her hands. A fire extinguisher.
"What do you want me to—"
He pitched the ball at the wall adjacent to them. She brandished the extinguisher in alarm—but felt a slight sense of disappointment when the ball made contact with the concrete, and nothing happened. Stark plucked it out of the air on the rebound, and held it up in front of his face to examine it.
"That's weird," he remarked, polishing the ball against his shirt. "It's supposed to—"
He burst into flames.
Pepper yelped. Then she pointed the extinguisher and fired, covering her boss and everything in the vicinity in a fine purple powder. She emptied the full canister at point blank range. Everyone at Stark Industries received fire safety training as a matter of due diligence: now that she'd had a chance to observe the CEO in his native environment, she suspected she knew why.
When the dust cleared, Stark had potassium bicarbonate in his hair, beard, eyebrows and eyelashes, and clinging to his clothes. But the fire was out.
"I think we're safe now," he observed, smirking. There was a giant smoking hole in the front of his undershirt where the fabric had simply been incinerated, but the burns on his skin didn't look much worse than the results of a day on the beach without sunscreen.
Pepper was trembling. She dropped the extinguisher, which hit the concrete floor with a loud clang. She wondered what in the hell she'd gotten herself into.
"So what we need around the core is a layer of…" he stripped off his undershirt and glanced at the tag, "cotton-poly blend, treated with the accelerant, to speed ignition." He seemed to be speaking to no one in particular; Pepper wondered whether she should be taking notes.
"Yes, sir," said a disembodied English voice, in a faintly reproachful tone. "Might I again make the recommendation that you use protective equipment while engaging in this particular experiment?"
Stark was rubbing the dry chemical off his face and neck using the remains of the charred shirt. "You can try." Catching the bewildered look on Pepper's face, he added, "That's JARVIS. He's the nanny."
"Not exactly," corrected the voice.
"Says you, Mary Poppins." To Pepper, he elucidated, "He's an artificial intelligence I programmed to run the house, help me with a few projects, and generally not be a pain in the ass. The latter part could use some tweaking, obviously. Go ahead, say hello."
"Hi, JARVIS," said Pepper, feeling a bit silly.
"Hello, Ms. Potts. A pleasure to make your acquaintance. I hope you enjoyed your tour of the house earlier?"
"No need to be so formal," admonished Stark—who, given that he clearly didn't feel the need to put on another shirt, apparently liked to practice what he preached. "In case you weren't aware, JARVIS, Potts here is going to be your new mom." To Pepper, he added, "Congratulations. It's a… computer."
"I'm thrilled to no longer be the product of a broken home, sir."
Pepper was getting that headachey feeling again.
"May I ask, Ms. Potts, whether you prefer to be addressed by your first name? I understand from your personnel file that you do have a nickname—"
"That's okay," she said, hurriedly.
Stark perked up. "A nickname? Do tell."
"I'll be the judge of that. JARVIS?"
"Really, it's not—" What was that even doing in her personnel file?
"Apparently Ms. Potts has been known to go by the sobriquet of 'Pepper,' sir."
"Hey!" Pepper exclaimed.
"Sorry, Potts, you may be the mommy, but Daddy knows best in this household." He ran a hand through his hair, causing an exhalation of purple dust. "Pepper, huh? I like it."
"No one's called me that since college," she protested.
"It's cute. Spunky. Like the smart girl with the freckles and the glasses from Josie and the Pussycats."
"You're dating yourself, Mr. Stark. They cut that character out of the series before I was even born." The word 'dating' sparked a reminder in Pepper's brain. "Incidentally, you have a guest upstairs."
Stark looked mildly horrified. "Still?"
"Well, if you don't want to say goodbye—" he gave a derisive snort, which she assumed was a no— "at the very least, should I call her a cab?"
"Sure, okay. Take care of it. Don't let her come down here."
"What's her name?"
He gave Pepper a blank look. Of course he didn't know the woman's name. "I think it started with a B," he said finally.
Pepper rolled her eyes—she didn't mean to, but she couldn't quite restrain herself.
"You disapprove, Ms. Potts?" he challenged.
"'Moral compass' isn't in my job description, Mr. Stark." With that crushing rejoinder, Pepper walked through the glass doors and back upstairs. She'd do this for him one time, and one time only—after that, he was on his own.
Pepper returned to the basement about twenty minutes later, having given a tearful young Brandi (at least he was right about it starting with B) her marching papers. She found Stark in a different area of the workshop, assembling something so tiny and intricate it required the use of watchmaker's tools and a lighted magnifying glass.
"We still need to talk about my workplan," she reminded him.
He hummed noncommittally.
She tried again: "We should do this soon, before you fly out to the Tokyo office on Thursday." She'd taken the liberty of studying his appointment calendar for the next few weeks, just so she could hit the ground running.
He looked up at her in what appeared to be honest confusion, deploying the eyelashes. "Am I doing that?"
"I don't know, are you?"
She sighed. Loudly.
He leaned back, stretched his arms over his head—a surprisingly graceful, fluid motion, emphasized by the fact that he still hadn't managed to locate a shirt—and scratched the back of his neck absently with the head of a tiny screwdriver. "Look, Pepper…"
She noted with chagrin that he didn't have a hard time remembering her name now.
"…I'm at a crucial stage of development here."
Adolescence, thought Pepper ruefully.
"I don't have time for a chat right now."
"Well then, let me put it this way, Mr. Stark. I'm your assistant. What exactly do you need my assistance with?"
He stood up and took a step towards her, frowning intently, as though he was giving her his full consideration for the first time since her arrival. It was a little unnerving.
"Got it," he said at last, and snapped his fingers. He walked over to an area of the basement that obviously served as a loading bay, where several large crates were lined up against the wall by the service elevator. All of them were stamped with the words FRAGILE and THIS END UP. He beckoned her over. "You can help me figure out what to do with all this stuff."
"What is it?" she asked, dubiously. If he asked her to unload a bunch of engine parts, she was prepared to tender her resignation on the spot. Maybe the Marine Mammal Stranding Response Team still had an opening.
He shrugged. "It's my art collection."
"Art?" Pepper took a step towards the nearest crate, as if magnetized.
"Yeah. My parents were collectors, and I've been keeping it up, on and off." His well-muscled shoulders rippled in a fluid shrug. "I don't know the first thing about it, I just pick stuff out of catalogues. Obadiah says it's a good portfolio diversifier. And donations to museums and non-profits are great write-offs."
"That's true." She took another step. "May I?" she asked.
He was already walking back towards his workbench, waving his hand in the general direction of the crates. "Knock yourself out."
As she delved into the first crate, Pepper had the distinct sense that she was being sidetracked.
Chapter 4: Man of Fortune
Some time later, JARVIS informed Pepper that Mr. Stark "requested the pleasure of her company in the kitchen." Which was where she found her boss perched on a stool at one end of the breakfast bar, eating fried rice out of a white cardboard carton with a pair of chopsticks. Pepper again puzzled over the absence of any formal dining setup, even though there was plainly enough room.
"I wasn't sure what you liked, so I got a little of everything." He gestured to a large array of cartons, neatly lined up on the counter—enough food for four people, at least. "Plates are over the sink if you want to get fancy."
He seemed to have regained some sense of the proprieties, and had bathed and put on clothes—a fitted white t-shirt and a well-worn pair of jeans. His dark hair, now free of last night's styling products and this morning's potassium bicarbonate, was thick and slightly wavy, and tumbled boyishly over his brow. Pepper felt a sudden, startling impulse to run her fingers through it.
She supposed it wasn't all that shocking: considered objectively, Tony Stark was one of the most strikingly handsome men she had ever seen in person, up close. This was simply a fact.
Not only that, but he was in good shape; the weight room was clearly not just for show. This was another fact.
She was willing to bet that he put considerable time and effort into his appearance, and that he was well aware of the effect he had on women—not a known fact, but a solid hypothesis with plenty of evidence to support it.
It was probably going to take a little while for her to adjust, that was all.
He smiled winningly at her, and Pepper reddened, embarrassed. Instead of wasting time ogling her boss and drooling over his art collection, she should have been learning his routine and—at the very least—picking up his lunch. She felt woefully out of practice as a PA; she was far too accustomed to setting her own agenda.
"This is very thoughtful of you, sir. How much do I owe you?" she asked.
Stark looked vaguely insulted. "Potts, do you read the financial pages, like, ever?"
Pepper decided it was time to push back a little. "Of course I do, Mr. Stark. But I was also head of payroll, until recently. I know your annual salary. And I've seen how you live." She smiled, trying not to let on that her heart was pounding in her ears. "Let me know if you'd like me to get my purse."
It was a gamble: he could laugh, or he could fire her for the second time in a week. For a moment, he blinked at her, looking a bit stunned—it had probably been a long time since anyone had spoken to him like that.
Then he nodded, and chuckled appreciatively, and she knew she'd made the right choice.
Pepper fetched a plate and helped herself to rice, steamed vegetables, and kung pao chicken. Her boss, meanwhile, continued to eat straight from the cartons, sampling each one, so deft with the chopsticks that they were practically an extension of his fingers. That was why there was no dining table, she realized: Tony Stark didn't usually entertain dinner guests at home.
They ate quietly for a few minutes before he up-ended another carton, spilling a small pile of pre-wrapped fortune cookies onto the counter. "When you read your fortune, you have to add 'in bed' to the end of it," he told her.
"What do you mean, why? Because. That's what you do." He cracked a cookie. "'Your success will astonish everyone.' In bed." He flashed her a wicked grin, and she felt her cheeks getting warm. "Agreed. Let's see… 'Endurance and persistence will be rewarded.' In bed. Well, I'd say that's a given. Wouldn't you?"
Pepper smiled politely, but refrained from comment. She could tell that anything other than a neutral response would just encourage him.
Stark flicked a fortune cookie across the counter to her. "Your turn."
With some trepidation, Pepper snapped the brittle biscuit in half. "'You will surmount considerable… hardship,'" she read, willing herself not to stumble on the last word.
"In bed," he added for her. "Good one." There were two cookies left—he slid one over to Pepper and opened the last one himself. "Huh."
"What does it say?" she asked, in spite of herself.
He shrugged. "It doesn't really work. It says, 'It takes a man of iron to forge a heart of steel.'"
"I like that," Pepper mused.
He extended his arm, the slip of paper fluttering between two fingertips.
"I don't think these are transferrable," she remarked wryly, but let him deposit the fortune in her hand anyway. When his fingers brushed against hers, something tightened unexpectedly in her stomach.
She opened the last one, popped the cookie into her mouth, then almost choked on it as she read.
"Don't keep me in suspense, Potts," he said, imperiously.
"It's blank," she told him, feeling herself blush. She was a terrible liar. Fortunately, he didn't know her well enough yet to know that. "What do you think that means? That I have no future?"
"Either that, or someone at the factory is asleep at the switch." He held out his hand again, palm up. "Let's see."
Pepper decided a change of subject was in order. "Your art collection is unbelievable," she told him, as she surreptitiously slid the incriminating fortune into her pocket. "I'd say you have at least 4.5 million dollars sitting down there—and that's a conservative estimate. Is it catalogued?"
He gave her a blank look, which she assumed meant no, then went back to picking all the shrimp out of the lo mein.
"Mr. Stark, in order for art to be a real investment, you can't just buy it and store it and wait for the money to roll in. You have to curate it. Each piece should have an accession number, and they should be stored in a temperature-controlled—"
He sighed loudly. They had apparently reached the event horizon of his interest in the conversation. "You do it," he told her.
"You do the…" He made a vague, sweeping motion. "The art. Just do whatever needs doing, I'll pay for it."
"Don't you even want to look at any of it? Maybe put some of it up around the house?"
"Sure, why not? Pick out a few good ones for me. After we eat. I don't know how they do things over in payroll, but around here we don't work on our lunch breaks." He poked his chopsticks into the carton of steamed veggies, snagged a large piece of broccoli, and ate it in a very self-satisfied manner.
Regardless of his numerous shortcomings as a boss, Pepper couldn't help but appreciate the fact that Tony Stark appeared to have an excellent grasp of the concept of work/life balance.
After lunch, Pepper called a fine arts storage service, and arranged for a managed unit where the rest of the pieces could be catalogued and stored. She called a delivery company to collect and transport the crates. She even called a couple of galleries, and offered them the opportunity to exhibit pieces from the private collection of Tony Stark—a small gesture that couldn't hurt his reputation.
Pepper spent the rest of the afternoon sorting through the photos and paintings, figuring out which pieces would suit the furniture and décor in the house. Once she had chosen the finalists, she set them up in the various rooms where she thought they should be displayed. Then she gave her boss the tour.
"You have a good eye for this kind of thing," he told her. "I love how it all goes with my stuff."
"You bought most of it," she reminded him.
"You're right." He grinned. "I'm awesome. Thanks for reminding me."
Pepper didn't even try to restrain her eye-rolling this time.
To her surprise, Stark insisted on hanging the paintings immediately—it clearly gave him great joy to be able to get out his toolbox and climb around on the furniture in his workboots. Pepper thought about suggesting that he take them off, but after all, it was his house. If he wanted to wreck his $12,000 couch, so be it.
Pepper had to admit that there was a certain satisfaction to be gained from watching him: put a hammer and a level in his hands and he moved quickly and decisively, demonstrating the high degree of precision and care that was generally lacking in the performance of his duties as CEO. His energy was boundless, his smiles infectious.
Most surprising of all, he asked intelligent, thoughtful questions about the pieces, and listened without condescension to her answers. He knew a lot more about art, on a purely instinctive level, than he'd given himself credit for; he could pick out the subtler elements of form, and colour, and even appreciate medium and technique. He was, after all, a designer, with a defined sense of style. His apparent lack of interest in his own collection had stemmed from a profound disinclination towards the administrative side of things.
Pepper had now encountered several different incarnations of Tony Stark: the irresponsible playboy, the privileged heir, the obsessive genius. None of them had particularly impressed her.
But this man—the one who compared an artist's use of chiaroscuro to the application of light transport theory in three-dimensional rendering; the one whose brown eyes softened momentarily when he looked at a painting, before explaining that his mother had picked it out on her honeymoon in Venice—Pepper had never met this Tony Stark before.
She liked him.
They were discussing Barnett Newman when he suddenly trailed off, mid-sentence, at the precise moment Pepper was bent at the waist, collecting a framed painting from the floor. She knew, without even glancing behind her, exactly what was happening.
"Tony," she said, low and warning.
When she turned to face him, he was grinning. "You used my first name," he remarked.
"You were staring at my ass," she retorted.
"I need you to stop doing that. It makes me uncomfortable."
"Yeah, well, it makes me uncomfortable when someone far more qualified than me to be the head of a company calls me 'Mr. Stark.'"
She gaped at him. Pepper had spent years cultivating the kind of poise and assurance that was Tony Stark's birthright: it amazed her that someone could be so supremely self-confident, and simultaneously so openly vulnerable.
"I did my homework on you," he explained. "I mean, technically, JARVIS did my homework, but I programmed him, so… yeah. Obadiah chewed me out when I hired you for this job. He told me it would be a criminal waste of your talents to have you picking up my drycleaning and making me coffee. That got me curious, so I did a little research."
Pepper's cheeks burned.
"What the hell are you doing here?" he asked.
Her own answer surprised her: "I like a challenge."
He grinned. "I can definitely give you that."
"You hired me," she pointed out. "You obviously had some kind of plan."
He laughed mirthlessly. "I think you're giving me too much credit."
"I don't think you give yourself enough."
"Potts, I know you haven't been around me much, but modesty is not something I'm generally accused of. I'm a brilliant inventor, and I'm fun at parties, but as a CEO, I'm aware that I'm sub-par. That no one takes me seriously. I'm not Obadiah. I'm not my father. That's not going to change."
"No, it's not. But I still think you could be a pretty good CEO, if you actually tried."
"Are you saying I don't try?" he challenged.
"I think you purposely set the bar low enough that you don't ever have to disappoint anyone."
He appeared to consider this for a moment, then slowly nodded, tacitly acknowledging the truth of what she had just said.
"I'm not really into scheduling," he told her. It was an apparent non sequitur, but Pepper understood. "I completely lose track of time when I'm working. I forget about my appointments, and I'm always running late."
"I can help with that."
"I keep weird hours, I avoid paperwork, and I don't like to use speaking notes." He was ticking the individual facts off on his fingers now.
She nodded. "I can help with that, too."
"I don't like to be handled—if I sense that you're trying to get me to do something, I'll usually do the opposite."
"Yeah, I get the sense that not a lot gets past you."
She inclined her head gracefully, accepting the compliment as nothing less than her due.
"I sleep with women. A lot of women." He smirked. "Can you help with that?"
"It doesn't sound like you need much help," she observed dryly.
"Point taken. Feel like you're in over your head yet?"
"Not at all."
"This is actually very cathartic," he told her. "This is probably the most honest conversation I've had with a woman, ever. At least since my mom died. Oh, that's another thing. I talk about my dead parents."
"So do lots of people."
She nodded. "Sometimes."
"I'll probably try to sleep with you."
She expected a flip answer, but he stopped short, giving the question serious consideration. "Why not?" Pepper was already drawing breath to answer when he cut her off with, "Okay, spare me the itemized list. Just answer one question: why do people climb Mount Everest?"
He snapped his fingers. "Nope, try again."
"Nuh-uh. No. Because it's there. I like a challenge, too."
"That's very flattering. Did you try to sleep with Gregory just because he was there?"
"No, but he didn't look as cute in a skirt as you do. Seriously, Potts, those legs are killer."
She smiled indulgently. "Be that as it may."
"I can be very persuasive."
"Let me put it this way, Mr. Stark: I think you'd have better luck scaling Mount Everest."
"Here's one other thing you can help me with," He took a step closer, right into Pepper's personal space. She stood her ground, held his gaze, and waited. A beat went by, then another. "You can take home the rest of that Chinese food in the fridge," he said at last. "I think it's time we called it a night."
Pepper drew herself up to her full height. "Will that be all, Mr. Stark?"
"Yes, that will be all," he said, and touched her shoulder in a move that wasn't quite a caress. "Ms. Potts," he added, smiling.
And so it was that Pepper headed home from her first day of work with a head full of personal trivia about Tony Stark, and a handbag full of leftover takeout.
It wasn't until Pepper was unpacking the contents of her handbag into the fridge that she remembered the fortune in her pocket. She fished it out and read it over before tossing it in the small drawer where she kept spare rubber bands and twist ties and a tin of pocket change. Not because she thought it meant anything, of course—there had to be tens of thousands of identical fortunes given out every day in California alone. But she thought it might be worth hanging onto, just for the sake of posterity.
It read, The great love of your life is sitting across from you.
Chapter 5: Man of Iron
The benefit wasn't his usual scene, but he was bored, and rangy, and feeling uncharacteristically dissatisfied with himself. He couldn't figure out why, exactly: Rhodey and Obadiah were irritated with him, sure, but they'd come around eventually. They always did. Things were going great with the flight suit—for the first time since he'd come home, it seemed like his life finally was back on track. He wasn't quite sure what to do about this growing sense of malaise, this feeling that he was missing something.
In the end, he'd reverted to type—dissolute playboy billionaire—and decided that what he needed most was a fast drive down a long stretch of open road, then a prohibitively large amount of some type of recreational substance, followed by dirty, sweaty sex with at least half a dozen women, either consecutively or concurrently.
So it was with this predatory mindset that he sleazed his way across the ballroom to the bar, set himself up with a drink, and began to assess the various opportunities in the room. He was in mid-prowl when the ubiquitous Agent Coulson started nagging him about a debriefing…
And then he spotted her.
She was a strawberry blonde with a stunning figure, and her flawless skin had the delicate blush of a Georgia peach. Even from this awkward angle, he could see that worlds of promise lay in the smooth expanse of her bare back and the sultry curve of her pert little backside. Her dress was the blue of the ocean, and she wore it with a casual elegance that bordered on the sublime, inviting him to dive right in. He imagined lifting her hair and kissing the nape of her neck, sliding the straps of her dress down the gentle slope of her shoulder and letting it drop to the floor…
Tony sipped his drink and reviewed his options, wondering which approach was likely to work in this situation. The pricey setting suggested she wasn't as likely to be dazzled by his wealth, but the slinky dress suggested that she might not object to the offer of an intimate rendezvous. Maybe, if he really pulled out all the stops—gallantly asked her for a dance, plied her with drinks, maybe bought her a car or something—
It was then that he caught the first glimpse of the girl's face in profile, and oh God, it was Pepper.
A hot, sick flush engulfed him, accompanied by an overwhelming sense of shame. He felt as though he'd been caught mentally undressing his sister. And liking it.
It was definitely Pepper, and she was laughing. At him? Had she seen him staring at her behind? How did she always know? It was like she had a sixth sense. In her ass.
He tried to rearrange his expression into something less openly incredulous, but his facial muscles didn't seem quite equal to the task. He felt a sudden, dense weight in his chest, like he'd inhaled a brick. If it weren't for the uninterrupted vibration of the RT, he would have wondered whether his heart had stopped.
It struck him now that she was speaking to the person beside her; she wasn't laughing at him at all—hadn't even noticed his presence, in fact. He'd been afforded an extremely rare opportunity to observe her in the wild, to see how she behaved when divested of the restrained, deadpan outer shell she adopted around her boss.
He'd heard for years, through the grapevine, that Pepper was fun at parties—but he'd never been able to picture it in his head. Accountant parties, maybe. Undertaker parties.
Everyone in the small group that had gathered around her seemed transfixed as she spoke. The man standing beside her asked a question, and Tony felt an irrational surge of irritation as she touched the guy's arm affectionately. Who the hell was that asshole, anyway?
She really was a different person without him: more open, more relaxed, softer… watching her like this was like suddenly putting on blinders. Or maybe, suddenly taking them off.
Where the hell did she get that incredible dress, he wondered? He'd never seen her wear anything even remotely like that, in all the years they'd worked together. Was this how she dressed when he wasn't around?
Where the hell did she get that incredible smile?
Somehow, in spite of the fact that the entire world had flipped upside down, Agent Coulson was still talking. And Tony was talking back. About what, he had absolutely no idea. His brain was in overdrive.
Pepper was the only woman in his life that he'd ever counted as a friend. And, sure, from time to time it would cross his mind that she was cute, but it had never seriously occurred to him to actually act on it. After so many years together, he'd come to think of her in the same category as Rhodey or Obie or Happy—like a member of his chosen family. Like a sister.
But Pepper wasn't his sister, and this very key revelation seemed to open up a series of increasingly intriguing possibilities. She was smart, she was hot (God, was she ever), and best of all, she'd already seen the worst sides of him and hadn't yet run screaming into the hills. There wasn't anything about the idea of them together that made it wrong, really. Well, apart from the distant potential for a sexual harassment lawsuit.
He was willing to chance it.
He agreed to a rendezvous with Coulson—he would have agreed to just about anything at that point, simply to extricate himself—and started walking towards his assistant.
It was time for them to have an unscheduled meeting.