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Tipping Point

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“…And that is why, effective immediately, I am shutting down the weapons manufacturing division of Stark International until such a time as I can decide what the future of the company will be.”

The ensuing camera flashes are blinding.

 

“Do you know what you’re doing?” Pepper asks once they’re back in the car, leaving Obadiah to deal with the screaming press.

Tony scoffs. “Of course.”

“Tony.”

There’s warning in her voice. You were gone, Tony. Don’t fuck with me now, I can’t take it.

Tony’s only letting Happy drive because his arms in a sling. It’s making him twitchy and nervous. He was bad before but it’s worse now.

“I’ll work something out,” Tony says, in that tone of voice Pepper only hears every once in a while. The I-promise-there’s-a-person-under-all-this-crap tone. It means trust me. It means don’t leave.

Pepper wonders if his previous PAs ever heard it, but always comes to the conclusion that they couldn’t have, because if they could, why would they have left?

But maybe it’s just Pepper.

 

They go back to the house in Malibu. Pepper wants to be professional, but she also wants to reach out and touch his shoulder or something, just to check he’s actually in front of her. She settles for sending Happy home. She can take it from here.

Tony stands awkwardly in front of her for a moment. Tony has confidence in spades. He also has false confidence in spades. He seems to have lost both in the short journey from the factory to the house.

The glowing circle in his chest is like an eye, watching her, until it blinks away as Tony turns towards the labs.

She doesn’t see him for two days.

 

Pepper doesn’t know what the glow in Tony’s chest is. She’s Ivy League educated, she’s not dumb, but she’s a PA to a genius. Tony knows a lot of things she doesn’t.

She would ask but part of her doesn’t want to know because she’s terrified that it’s keeping him alive. Somewhere deep inside, Pepper believes that to be her job.

Not that it was in the job description. But a lot of things Pepper does were never in the job description.

 

She fields questions from Obadiah, from the press and trustees and shareholders and from Rhodey, putting them off because for a short time Tony is back home and safe, and she wants at least a couple of days to get back on balance.

The problem is, she works for Tony Stark.

 

“Did you know,” Tony says, wandering into the kitchen two days later, “that the largest producer of carbon dioxide emissions is the energy sector?”

Pepper is, on paper, a PA. Most PAs get to live in their own home. Sure, for those really important people like CEOs and such, they’re on call twenty-four hours, but they can have a home life, a family, holidays.

She hasn’t had a proper holiday in four years, her family consists of a mother dead from cancer, a brother dead by accident or suicide – no one really knows – and a father she hasn’t seen since she was seven and has no intention of seeing ever again. And her home life revolves around a man who is both her boss and the only person she’s met who she can see herself… well. Best not to think about it.

Pepper couldn’t afford a house in Malibu even on the salary Stark Industries pays her. She has a place in New York but she hasn’t slept there in six months.

Pepper has to be the only PA in existence who lives with a boss she isn’t sleeping with.

“No,” she says over her coffee. “I didn’t know that. Obadiah wants you to come into the office.”

“He told me to lay low. So fuck Obi, I’m thinking.” He waves his hand dismissively before zeroing in on the coffee machine.

“Did you know that the second-largest producer of CO2 emissions is the manufacturing industry?” he continues, making himself the strongest coffee known to man

“No, I didn’t. And you’ve been thinking for two days.”

“I need time to think. Thinking is very important. You can tell Obi that.”

“Tony – ”

“Shhh. Thinking.”

Tony stares very intently at the side of the fridge. He’s wearing jeans and a t-shirt covered in ink and oil. Pepper is in her dressing gown, because it’s seven in the morning and she’s been sleeping terribly.

The problem with living with your boss, Pepper has found, lies with scenes just like this one.

Tony isn’t wearing shoes; he looks more vulnerable like that. His hair is on end, and the thing in his chest glows brightly though the material of his t-shirt. She’s seen him in states of undress worse than this, and not always in connection to Tony’s latest conquest. He’s even seen her in worse than this, but that only happened once and was because privacy means nothing to Tony Stark and according to him, barging into your PA’s room when she’s just got out of the shower is fine as long as you have something really important to say.

But still, they’re in less than professional attire, having coffee at seven am. It’s almost… domestic.

Living with your boss means sometimes you forget that he’s your boss.

“Tony…”

“I need to do more research,” Tony says, turning from the fridge and ignoring her completely.

“Tony,” she says again, but he’s leaving the room.

Tony.” Sharper. Slightly terrified. When he’s out of sight she can’t look after him.

“What?”

Tony pops his head around the door. The corridor beyond is still dark, and the thing in his chest illuminates his chin, his t-shirt, the doorjamb.

Pepper gently touches the material between her breasts, her eyes never leaving the device in his chest.

“What is it?” she says eventually, honestly surprised that he hasn’t left yet. Tony doesn’t do silences.

He looks down at his chest. He looks at the thing like he’d forgotten it was there. He looks at it like he wishes he could forget it was there.

“It’s an arc reactor.”

Pepper is surprised. “Like at the factory?”

Tony nods.

“But I thought you couldn’t make it smaller.”

Tony gives her a look – his patented I-am-a-genius-remember? look. But this time it has amendments; footnotes and clauses that say something else too.

That say; I didn’t want to die.

 

Pepper goes into the office later that same day, because someone has to. She contacts HR and Legal. She writes emails and drafts responses to various enquiries. She writes a statement for the press and fires it off to the Press Office, surprised to find that Obadiah hasn’t already done so.

And all through the day texts keep pinging her phone. She wonders why JARVIS suddenly isn’t enough of a sounding board.

Did you know that there is only 9°F between a glacial and interglacial period?

Why the fuck did the US not ratify the Kyoto Protocol?

The average US citizen produces 6.8 tons of carbon-equivalent per person per year.

Pepper isn’t an idiot, but she specialises in business and economics, not climate science. Tony is known for sudden binges into related sciences, but Pepper has no idea what’s caused this.

She misses lunch, and sometime around four decides that she should really have a PA of her own. Or a secretary. Or something. She delegates a load of stuff to Tony’s secretary Helen, and goes off to Legal to borrow an intern. She comes back with two; Emmanuel and Rebecca. She gives them more work than they can feasibly get through in the next five hours, lectures them on the importance of confidentiality, and then goes to the employee cafeteria for a limp salad and terrible coffee.

She’s only been there for fifteen minutes before Rebecca comes in, looking apprehensive and carrying her phone.

“I’m sorry Ms Potts, but he kept calling.”

Pepper is close to snapping something about needing to learn the ability to deal with shit when she sees the word ‘Tony’ on the screen. So instead she thanks Rebecca and takes the phone.

“Did you know,” Tony says before she can even snap out I’m working, “that in order to reduce carbon emissions to levels that can be reabsorbed by nature, the US would have to cut emissions by ninety three per cent. The whole world would have to reduce emissions to 1,100 pounds of carbon per person per year and with the population as it is, that means everyone’s standard of living dropping to somewhere just above malnourished.”

“Tony – ”

“And manufactured goods produce twice their weight in carbon emissions just by being produced. That four-ounce StarkPhone prototype we’re proposing would produce eight ounces of carbon emissions just in production. Per phone, Pepper. A 747 produces roughly 800 tons of carbon before it ever leaves the ground.”

“Tony – ”

“What the fuck is with this? Why is no one talking about this? Have you seen the graphs for carbon increase in the atmosphere? Or the complete lack of anything the Ellis Administration is doing about any of this?”

“Tony – ”

“And it could be so easy! Some of this stuff is so easy to do.”

“Tony!”

“What!?”

“I’m working!”

“But this is important!”

“So is this! Go harass JARVIS.”

“But Pepper!” Tony is never more unattractive than when he’s whining.

“Goodbye Tony.”

He’s still talking when Pepper hangs up.

Rubbing her temples, she turns to Rebecca.

“A word to the wise,” she says, and Rebecca snaps to attention like Pepper is going to impart the wisdom of the ages. “Don’t pick up the phone to Tony Stark unless you have a spare hour or so.”

“Yes, Ms Potts.”

 

Pepper gets back to the Malibu house sometime around nine. She let Emmanuel and Rebecca leave at six, but had asked Legal to spare them for the next couple of days. How is it that she has to work when the person she is the PA for isn’t working? Surely that doesn’t follow.

She can’t hear anything from the labs, but she doesn’t go down to check. Tony hasn’t contacted her since she’d hung up on him. A little part of her is hurt, which is ridiculous of course, so she ignores it.

Instead she’s on her laptop in the front room, the TV blaring in front of her, alternating between watching the guy on Mad Money yell about SI’s business plan and fielding emails. Without access to Tony, everyone’s yelling at her.

She’s interrupted by Tony’s question of how big are your hands.

It’s up there among the stranger things he’s asked her, but it’s not the strangest; no, that question comes five minutes later, after which Pepper agrees to plunge her hand into his chest cavity.

Apparently another problem of living with your boss is that sometimes your boss forgets you’re just an employee.

“I don’t have anyone else,” Tony says.

It’s a lie; Tony has Rhodey. Pepper feels poleaxed nonetheless.

 

Is it better late than never? Tony texts the next morning.

Pepper doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but that’s not new.

She texts back, yes.

 

Over the next couple of days Pepper spends the mornings at the office with Emmanuel and Rebecca, and the afternoons at the house. She’s got things down to a manageable level, so Emmanuel and Rebecca can go back to working the jobs they signed up to do and Pepper can go back to working her unofficial job; making sure Tony Stark is alive and stays that way.

He’s working most of the time – building things, as usual. She sees what he says is a flight stabiliser, and Pepper wonders what it’s for and what it has to do with carbon emissions, or what carbon emissions have to do with it. She looks at the car Happy drives her to the office in and suddenly feels guilty that she doesn’t live close enough to walk.

Obadiah goes to the Board meeting in New York, and while Tony being locked out of the company isn’t the worst thing that could have happened, it’s not great. But what is worse is the look in Tony’s eyes: It’s the look he gets when he’s got a new project. It’s the look he gets when he’s going to get his way.

When Tony says responsible, Pepper wonders if he actually knows what the word means.

 

US carbon emissions have risen from 600 tons to 1600 tons since this company was founded Tony texts her one day.

And then two seconds later: That’s metric tons.

There have been bangings and crashes in the lab downstairs for days now and a while back JARVIS asked her to relay messages through him, so she hasn’t been in the lab for a while. She hasn’t seen Tony all that much either.

Next time, she tells herself. Next time she sees him she’ll ask what this is about.

 

The problem of being Tony Stark’s PA is that people tend to prefer talking to her than to Tony Stark, and as such, Pepper is often expected to turn up to things even without Tony there. Meetings are boring and she’d rather not, but charity events are reasonably enjoyable all told, so she makes the effort. To be honest, Pepper Potts is probably the reason Tony Stark has such a good public profile; in the eyes of shareholders, Pepper is a wonderful counter balance to Tony’s tabloid indiscretions.

The other problem with being Tony Stark’s PA is that she has to work with Tony Stark.

Pepper does not find this difficult in the way other PA’s have found this difficult, but she does find it difficult.

For instance, Tony is a very spontaneous person. This sometimes means thing like shutting down the main reason his company exists, and sometimes means texts like; Come 2030 there’ll be nothing we can do to stop global warming.

Sometimes it means turning up to charity functions he was never planning to attend, and it also sometimes means dancing with his PA at said charity functions.

Very occasionally, Pepper forgets that Tony Stark is, in fact, her boss. For many reasons, this is not one of those times.

The primary reason though, is because he leaves to get her a drink and just doesn’t come back.

 

Pepper tries not to be hurt, and really, why should she be hurt? Nothing is ever going to happen, no matter how many strange quiet moments occur at seven am, when she’s just waking up and he’s still too wired to sleep.

So she continues as she was, going to work and organising Tony Stark’s life. She gets Rebecca a permanent position with the Legal team after she spots irregularities in some files – something Pepper will look into as soon as Tony comes back from wherever he is – and has Emmanuel transferred into the frequently-vacant position of Vice Chairman Santos PA. Emmanuel is brutally efficient, incredibly professional and, more importantly, very male; Pepper is sure that he’ll manage to keep the position for more than three months and report any unsavoury behaviour by Mr Santos back to her. Pepper would love a concrete reason to have Santos removed from his position.

The random texts from Tony have stopped and she hasn’t seen hide or hair of him for three days, so she goes down to the labs after work one day to make sure he hasn’t fallen asleep into his soldering, or accidentally electrocuted himself. Not that she thinks that’s likely; JARVIS always tells her if Tony’s being particularly reckless.

But Tony isn’t there. There are metal parts strewn all across the lab, in silver and gold and bright red, but she can’t make sense of it so she doesn’t even try. She’s about to leave when she sees another desk, slightly out of the way and covered not in metal and soldering equipment but in paper and books. Tony is, of course, a genius, and reading voraciously often comes with that territory, but since JARVIS, Tony’s use of physical books had dropped off dramatically so this desk comes as a bit of a shock.

Pepper peers closer.

Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis reads one cover and How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth reads another. There are journal articles, and books in both French and English. There are designs and scribbled notes in Tony’s familiar hand, and when Pepper wakes up the monitors surrounding the desk she sees graphs and tables and projections and something that looks like the beginnings of a detailed cost/benefit analysis.

“JARVIS?”

“Yes, Ms Potts?”

“What is this?”

“I believe that is a problem Sir is trying to solve.”

Pepper looks at the books and papers again. One has Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change written in the corner.

“He can’t fix this by himself,” she says eventually, because Tony can’t. It’s too big. No matter what Tony thinks, he can’t change the world like this.

“I think the point, Ms Potts,” says JARVIS, “is that he’s going to try anyway.”

Nothing changes if people don’t try first.

 

Pepper discovers Tony is back from wherever he went when she comes down to the lab the next night to find piles of broken glass and Tony encased in metal. The terror she feels when she sees the bullet holes has only been matched twice in her life – when he brother died, and when Tony was kidnapped. (Her mother died in increments and it felt more like being slowly crushed than anything else.)

The problem with being Tony Stark’s PA and living in his house and seeing him with bare feet at seven am is that Pepper sometimes forgets that he is her boss.

‘Sometimes’ is happening more and more these days.

 

It’s like everything is happening on fast forward.

Two weeks ago her boss was being held hostage, which isn’t usual by any means, but her boss is Tony Stark – there’s always the possibility of something like that happening. But now, now Stark Industries has shut down its major weapons facilities, or is in the process of doing so. Now Tony is looking more manic and tired than Pepper has ever seen him. Now there are times when she literally doesn’t know where he is. And that terrifies her. Everything seems to be gaining momentum, running towards some final conclusion that she can’t see or anticipate.

She feels off kilter, guilty and in the dark. She feels scared.

And then she comes down to the lab at Tony’s request to find him bruised and bloody with an ice pack on his shoulder. She’s been working like hell so she didn’t have to see, but now it’s in front of her, and she can’t avoid it any more.

All this climate stuff might be something Tony’s trying to do, but it’s been hiding something else; something metal and explosive and riddled with bullet holes.

“They've been dealing under the table,” he says, “and I'm going to stop them.”

Pepper suddenly remembers the flight stabilisers, and Rhodey ringing to say check he’s alright, Pepper, before going on TV and saying unfortunate training exercise, and unexpected turn of events on the ground in Gulmira, and the United States government was not involved.

The terror is a wave inside her, and it’s breaking.

When Tony says there is nothing except this, Pepper wonders if he means the strange metal suit, or the table covered in papers proclaiming the end of the world. But whichever it is, Pepper no longer wants to stick around to find out. She’s lost everyone else already; she’s not sticking around just to lose him too.

“You stood by my side all these years while I reaped the benefits of destruction. And now that I'm trying to protect the people that I put in harm's way, you're going to walk out?”

“You're going to kill yourself, Tony.” She thinks of her brother and suddenly she knows. “I'm not going to be a part of it.”

But then Tony looks at her, and she’s fairly sure Tony has never looked at her like this before; because the promise has disappeared from his I-promise-there’s-a-person-under-all-this-crap tone. Now it’s just the person. This is Tony Stark, with nothing but his brain, his determination and the belief that he’s doing the right thing for the first time in his life.

Pepper knows she’s back on board before he’s half way through saying, “I shouldn’t be alive.”

Sometimes Pepper forgets her boss is her boss. It’s been happening more and more until suddenly Pepper realised that that wasn’t really what it was. What Pepper had been forgetting was that her boss was just her boss.

She can be honest with herself now she’s worked it out; Tony Stark is not just her boss, not really. Tony Stark is more than her boss. He’s her boss, plus some extra things; things like dancing at charity functions, things like quiet seven ams, things like putting her hand into his chest, things like almost kissing.

Things like this.

She picks the memory stick back up and wonders if she should acknowledge this revelation.

She looks at Tony, at the monitors with these strange armour designs on them. She looks at the arc reactor in his chest. Self-sustaining clean energy, the promotional material had said, but they’d never done anything with it. She remembers the other desk, covered in papers. She’d looked into it a little, after she’d found the desk, and everything had said the same thing;

We’re very close to never being able to go back.

“You’re all I have too, you know.”

 

The primary thought Pepper has during what happens next is, Thank the Lord for Agent Phil Coulson.

As Pepper watches the factory burn she wonders how much carbon is being released into the atmosphere. She looks at the fire trucks and thinks about how much water is being used to douse the flames. She thinks these things to prevent herself from thinking about how Tony almost died. Again.

 

Just before Pepper sends Tony out with his pre-prepared statement, she checks his lapels one last time and asks, “Do you know what you’re doing?”

“Manufacturing is the second largest CO2 producer after energy production,” Tony replies. “I’m going to manufacture new forms of energy production. Then I’m going to manufacture news forms of manufacturing production. I’m also going to build a tower, powered by an arc reactor. I’m going to turn this company around. I’m going to fix this.”

He turns to her.

“I’m probably still going to make some tech though. Just, it will be better tech.”

Pepper fights not to roll her eyes.

“I meant now. Do you know what you’re doing now?”

“Oh yeah, sure. Just what’s on the cards.”

“And now, Mr. Stark has prepared a statement. He will not be taking any questions. Thank you.”

Tony grins at her. “Trust me.”

Unlike the last time Pepper asked him this question, this time she is filled with foreboding. Tony Stark is, after all, a very spontaneous person.

 

“The truth is… I am Iron Man.”

The ensuing camera flashes are blinding.