1: Skeptical Jealousy
Pepper's set James up in a room across the hall, talking to Maria. She's confident that, of all SI employees, Maria is both best suited to speak to James and best equipped to deal with James, should that become necessary. Watching them talk calmly, she doesn't think it will be necessary.
"Is that him? Your homeless savior?" Happy still has a bit of a limp, has accordingly shifted his focus back to being Tony's driver and bodyguard, but that doesn't stop him from thinking of himself as Pepper's bodyguard too. The latest kidnapping attempt during her early morning run has driven him into a frenzy, and she just knows he's going to take out his worries on the man who helped her. Happy peers at James through the glass. "He doesn't look homeless."
"He wasn't homeless, Happy," Pepper objects, hiding a smile. She can only imagine Happy's reaction if he'd seen James half a day ago, before the shower and hair cut and beard trimming. He'd done it all himself; insisted, even when he couldn't quite reach high enough on one side at first. He kept at it, snipping and scrubbing until he was satisfied. The end result is a professional looking man, with the appropriate amount of paranoia in his eye and bulk to his build to make it believable that he'd been able and willing to stop her kidnappers.
Which he had. He probably wouldn't have even needed Pepper's help to do it. But they had, after all, been trying to kidnap her, and that had made her mad enough to breath fire, so she had. People don't like to be reminded of that, though. They don't like knowing that Pepper's capable of that. So in the interest of business going as usual, the paparazzi received an anonymous tip about a mysterious man rescuing Stark Industries CEO Pepper Potts from a gang of AIM kidnappers.
And in the interest of Happy going on as usual, that's all he's going to know about it.
"The only people who hang out in Central Park that early are joggers, the homeless, and people up to some seriously shady business," Happy says darkly. His eyes narrow, and Pepper knows which option must seem more likely now.
She sighs. "He wasn't up to anything, either," she says, but Happy isn't paying any attention to her, all his focus on squinting narrow-eyed at James. "Happy. Look at me." He turns, reluctantly, tilts his head down to meet her eye when she tells him, "He's a good man. He protected me. That's all there was to it." All of that is true. Not the whole truth, perhaps, but true.
You'd think that would make it easier to believe, but Happy still doesn't buy it. "And, what, just like that he's your new PA?"
"Well," she admits, "that, and when I let him borrow my phone he memorized my schedule better than my last two PAs in under five minutes."
And that, Happy has to concede, is a good reason to make a complete stranger your personal assistant.
2: Quiet Understanding
Maria Hill's new job title is a little vague and misleading, in that way that's typical of megacorporations like Stark Industries. The smile on Pepper Potts's face when she personally hand-delivered Maria's acceptance letter and orientation packet suggests that was intentional. Her function is just as vaguely described.
What this really means is that she can do most anything and still claim to be doing her job.
She likes having that kind of leeway.
The potential downside to this is that her superiors can tell her to do most anything and claim that it's part of her job. Lucky for Maria, her only superior is Pepper Potts, who has apparently decided that Maria's job includes vetting the potential hires for the position of personal assistant-cum-bodyguard.
When Maria meets the man Pepper has in mind, she understands why.
With full sleeves, gloves, and facial hair, the Winter Soldier is hardly recognizable as the same man. Discounting those who've met him personally, only someone like her, who's seen the files, who knew where to look in the S.H.I.E.L.D./HYDRA data dump to find the really hidden projects, could know him for who he is.
It would take someone who's spoken to Steve Rogers to know who he really is; that information isn't even in HYDRA's best-hidden files. Maria suspects Zola wanted to keep his prize a secret. It makes her a little sick to think about it.
He doesn't seem to know her, which Maria uses to her advantage, blandly conducting the interview as if she is a typical HR employee. He in turn has bland responses, as if he is a typical PA candidate. Unexpectedly, he's perfectly capable of fulfilling the role on all fronts.
Reluctantly, she lets the facade she'd built collapse. "In a way, I was working for HYDRA too."
His whole body goes still and tight; his eyes watch her warily.
"But I had the choice. I could have left at any time, for a job like this. I worked for S.H.I.E.L.D. when it was a thin shell HYDRA hid behind, and I didn't notice. Or maybe I just didn't care." She hasn't yet figured out which is true. "For the longest time, I didn't think twice about supporting Project Insight. But I had the choice, and in the end I made the right one." She tilts her head to one side, watches him for a reaction, and isn't terribly surprised when she doesn't find one. She's half-decent at reading people, but she's no Black Widow. "That's more than you ever had. So if I got that second chance to make a choice, I see no reason why you can't get one too."
His lips thin, but he nods. "Thank you," he says, and it's the first real thing he's said to her. He sounds hoarse and shaky, and hurt.
After signing off her approval for his hiring, she hands over his orientation packet, sticking an extra pamphlet on top. "Stark Industries cares strongly about its employees' physical and mental health," she tells him. "You should too."
He doesn't seem to understand at first, but she notices him reading through the pamphlet as he leaves. She leans back in her chair, momentarily satisfied.
It's a start.
3: Wry Amusement
A week or so after Natasha's grand exit from Capitol Hill, she calls Pepper up and is convinced to make a pit stop at Avengers Tower on her way off the grid and out of the country.
"It's so good to see you," Pepper says warmly, clasping one of Natasha's hands in hers.
"You too, Pepper," Natasha responds. It sounds sincere to James, but Natasha is better than most who've come out of her program at sounding human. She glances over Pepper's shoulder, notices him, and stills for a microsecond before smiling and cocking her head to one side.
Pepper glances over her shoulder, and doesn't look terribly surprised to see him there. She looks at him expectantly.
He nods, knowing his cues. "Ms. Romanov."
Natasha's smile widens. "Interesting hiring practices at SI these days," she says.
"Not really," Pepper says, and they both laugh lightly before Pepper changes the direction of the conversation. "Tony wants to talk to you out of disappearing, but before you turn him down, I just wanted to congratulate you on your response to those senators. You handled them with far more aplomb than somebody I could name..."
"My ears are burning!" Tony announces, entering the room with a strut in his step. "What filthy, filthy lies are you spreading about me now, Potts?" he asks, giving Pepper a loud smack of a kiss.
She puts a hand on his cheek, smiling fondly. "No lies, Tony, just telling Natasha how much we liked her last words at the Senate hearing last week."
Tony pauses mid-turn to face Natasha. "Hm, wha - oh, that. Yes. Very nice, very - dramatic. Not like you, Ag - uh, Romanov."
Natasha shrugs. "Not like me before, maybe. I'm a whole new woman now."
This makes Tony curious. "That right? Does this whole new woman want to finally give in to my demands and move into the cool kid clubhouse?" He holds out his hands, and a holographic schematic pops up. "There's a whole floor, just for you!"
She smiles, shaking her head. "Not interested. But maybe next time there's a crisis we can have a sleepover." She turns on her heel, gives James a long look and an approving nod, and walks out.
Tony, unfortunately, notices. "Hey, hey now, what was that - that look, what was that look? Ag - Romanov - Natasha! Do you know Pepper's boytoy PA? How do you know Pepper's boytoy PA?" He turns on Pepper. "Is your boytoy PA a spy? Did you hire another spy to follow you around and schedule your meetings?"
"Tony," Pepper tries to interrupt him.
He frowns. "Do you like having spies schedule your meetings? Because we could do that - "
It doesn't seem to be working. "Tony - "
" - we could hire spies to do that, but I'd like to know ahead of time if the person I've hired for a job is a spy. I don't think that's too much to ask, do - "
"...you?" Tony shuts up a syllable too late.
Natasha smiles, a small, sincere one. Or, at least, the closest to sincere a product of her upbringing can manage. "He's not a spy."
Tony stares at her for a minute, unconvinced. "Promise?"
Natasha crosses her heart, smile turned cheeky, and exits the Tower.
Tony turns back to Pepper. "You'd tell me if you hired a spy, right?"
Pepper pats him on the cheek. "Of course I would, Tony."
4: Scientific Fascination
"It's not that the gloves aren't nice," Pepper explains, leading James down to a floor they haven't visited before. "They're out of style, yes, but they suit you. The problem is, they're noticeable. Eye-catching."
"People will ask questions," he concludes.
She shakes her head. "They already have." The elevators open onto a floor full of shiny, metallic, clean, clinical labs. James shuts his eyes, clenches his fists, and breathes deep. Once, twice... he lets out a long, low sigh, relaxes his hands, and when he opens his eyes he's fine.
Therapy has been good for him.
"If it were possible," Pepper says, as if there had been no pause in their conversation, "I would have just had the people in R&D make up a cover for the arm - synthetic skin, or a hologram, or something like it. But there are a couple people familiar with the technology in your arm down here - " Scientists lured to Stark Industries from HYDRA-controlled companies, in other words. " - and they're concerned about its stability."
James frowns, puzzled. "A false skin glove isn't going to interfere with its function."
Pepper smiles gently at him. "They're concerned about its stability generally. We don't know what implants HYDRA may have in there, meant to control you or cause you harm."
James clenches his left fist. It isn't something he's never considered, but it's an unpleasant thought. "So they want to open up the arm, experiment on it?" A more unpleasant thought.
A sad look briefly crosses Pepper's face, replaced by mirth. "Zero for three, James; they want to make you a new one."
As if summoned by the sentence, scientists and engineers start to pop up all over the place, eyes wide and latched on to the sliver of silver that shows between his sleeve and glove. Feeling uncomfortably like the girl on the working side of a peep show window, he pulls off his glove. People sigh and gasp. One of them sinks to his knees, staring.
He looks at his metal hand. Turns it over, flexes it. Does he have any lasting fondness or partiality to this arm, the arm given to a weapon?
No, not particularly.
Without another word, he unbuttons and shucks off his shirt. The undershirt he's wearing is a tank top, and reveals the whole length of the arm. One of the engineers swears under her breath, an absolutely filthy bit of French that has James flashing back to the war. It's a rare, purely happy memory of that time, of Dernier and Gabe mistranslating Dugan's attempts at flirtation, and the furious twofold retaliation of the woman in question: once in response to what they'd told her Dugan had said, and once when an English-speaking friend revealed what had actually happened.
He and -
He had laughed about that until he cried.
Now, forced to display the most weaponized part of himself for an all-too-eager audience, he recalls that happiness and manages to crack a smile. "Where do you need me?"
5: Shocked Joy
James has been antsy all day. Pepper hasn't brought it up, because she knows better than to do that at this point. If it's a concern that involves her, he'll bring it up on his own. If it doesn't, but he still wants to talk, he'll bring it up when he's ready. She's learned not to pry.
It isn't until she walks into her three o'clock meeting and Steve Rogers gets to his feet that she understands.
She hasn't spoken to James about who he is. She knows, of course - she did her research, she wasn't about to hire a total stranger just because he helped her take down a dozen AIM henchmen at five-thirty in the morning on a Tuesday in Central Park - but Maria approved him. That was all the proof she needed that he was closer to the man he'd been in 1945 than the one he'd been in 2013. He hadn't offered further details, and she hadn't requested them. No prying, no pushing.
She recalls, suddenly, with the clarity of hindsight, that the last time Tony brought up Steve, he called Steve's current occupation "a year-long game of Where's Waldo? without even a red striped shirt to go by." At the time Pepper had assumed Tony was referring to the hunt for HYDRA. Judging by the look on Steve's face when his eyes drift past her and catch on the man behind her, HYDRA was only part of his search.
Pepper turns around, giving James her full focus. If he wants, he can leave the room now. He doesn't have to deal with this if he isn't ready. She hopes the look in her eyes tells him that, because she can't bring herself to say that out loud where Captain America can hear it. James's lips thin out, in that way he has of trying to force down unpleasant thoughts, and he shakes his head. He shuts the door, still in the room, and averts his eyes.
Alright then. Pepper closes her eyes and breathes deep. Once, twice... she exhales, a long, low sigh, and turns to greet Steve with her best professional smile. "Captain Rogers," she says, holding out a hand, "it's an honor to properly meet you."
He takes her hand and shakes it automatically - trained behavior from USO tours and interviews, Pepper suspects. He wasn't trained perfectly, though; his eyes aren't on her, staring dazedly at James standing by the door. "I, uh... thank you for meeting me, Ms. Potts, but..." He coughs, and laughs sheepishly. "I'm afraid I've forgotten why I asked for this meeting in the first place."
"You wanted to express some concerns about Avengers Tower security," James says, reading from a memo. "And to request that she convince Tony to stop letting his robots in the kitchen."
Steve makes a small, choked noise. "That really the first thing you're gonna say to me?"
James finally looks up, an uncertainty in his that hurts to look at. "Is... is there something else you'd rather I say, Captain?"
Steve's face screws up for a moment. "I'd take my name, for starters."
James swallows thickly. "Alright. Steve."
"Bucky." Steve steps forward, but hesitates. James bites the inside of his cheek, then takes the initiative, wrapping Steve up in a hug that he returns eagerly, greedily, saying, "God, I've missed you."
Pepper turns away to discretely dab at the corners of her eyes, feeling ridiculous for hoping that she won't have to start searching for a new PA.
(What can she say? After all the overqualified secret agents and assassins, normal PAs just can't live up to her expectations.)