Tony Stark wakes and makes his way down to the shop. Four hours later, Jarvis points Christine Everhart to the exit and informs her that the driver will take her anywhere she wants.
Tony Stark wakes and makes his way down to the shop, and at the very moment that Christine is getting into the Rolls with a slightly dazed expression on her face and a thoroughly rumpled and not-dry cleaned, not-pressed suit, Pepper Potts is, in fact, chasing her three year old son around the kitchen, trying to wipe his face. Her husband comes cuts their son off at the pass -- the doorway between the kitchen and the breakfast room -- and holds him, wriggling while Pepper cleans the peanut butter and toothpaste and God knows what else.
"Is he good?"
"For now," she says, and Obadiah lets Michael go. Michael goes running down the hallway with speed that promises well for the Olympics qualifying trials for 2024; the housekeeper starts to wipe crumbs from the counter top, and Obadiah holds his wrists out to Pepper.
Pepper does the cufflinks, and then she leans up and kisses her husband on the cheek.
Yes, the rest of the situation is what you expect it to be: Obadiah Stane sells arms to warlords and plans for his business partner to be assassinated on trip to Afghanistan. He is, quite possibly, neck-deep in arms dealing for the Mandarin. About a decade before those even, though, at one of the informal lunches they have in each other's offices when they're in the same city, Tony tells Obadiah about a pain-in-the-ass accountant who has been doing his expenses. Gives him shit all the time, and he asks Obadiah to please, for the love of God, to get her off his balls. Obadiah is, after all, his CFO. Doesn't that mean accountants have to listen to him?
So Obadiah makes the trip down personally, and two weeks later, when Tony has gotten another prissy e-mail reminding him that he needs to submit receipts even for excursions to Spearmint Rhino, he asks Obadiah whether he's talked to the woman.
Obadiah looks up from his puzzle. "We're going on a second date when I come back from Berlin."
The eight year old daughter is still in bed. Obadiah offers to go up and wake her, but Pepper tells him to go ahead and go to work.
"It's your birthday," he says. "You sure?"
"I got myself a birthday present." He looks at her for a second, and Pepper adds, "It was very expensive."
At dinner that night at Campanile, Obadiah finds out that it was a year's worth of funding for a women's health clinic in Cambodia.
Tony's present is buying a Jackson Pollock that Pepper believes to be overpriced.
And yes, Tony meeting Pepper for the first time goes about as well as you expect it to: he walks into Obadiah's office one day at lunchtime with sushi delivery for two and finds Obadiah already midway through lunch. He has his jacket off and his tie loosened and his sleeves back to the elbow. Pepper's heels are on the floor, and it's painfully obvious that they'd been having a lunch date. Pepper knows the pricing system in the Stark employee cafeteria and why she brings her own dressing. (By the ounce, and dressing is heavy, so she gets the dry ingredients and brings her own tomatoes and carrots and fat-free Hidden Valley ranch.) She's brought Obadiah a sandwich, too, and it looks like something with -- lettuce? Obadiah hates lettuce in his sandwiches. Tony has heard Obadiah make fifteen year veteran secretaries cry because they forgot
how he likes his food.
Pepper does not look like she has been crying. In fact, she looks utterly charmed.
"You know," Obadiah says, gently lifting Pepper's feet from his lap, then standing. "The two of you should meet."
Tony gives Obadiah a sharp-ish look at that point, and yeah, Pepper doesn't have a chance to get her heels on, and Tony is pretty fucking skeptical about shaking hands with the mid-level spreadsheet pusher who has been hassling him by e-mail for three months.
If he is also a little flustered that the spreadsheet pusher turns out to have red hair and blue eyes and legs that go for miles and freckles in the hollow of her throat -- if he is also a little flustered that she looks at Obadiah like she thinks he is a good man she can trust -- well, if Obadiah takes more than a little bit of pleasure in Tony being at a loss for words, that's his business.
In Tony's head, anybody named Virginia Potts is going to be middle-aged, frumpy, and probably married.
In Obadiah's head, there is a whole world of enjoyment in playing at appearances: important work, too. It's one of the things that Tony doesn't grasp and part of the reason why Tony is fundamentally unsuited for actual hard work. Does he think selling a couple fighter planes a decade is what keeps him in $20 million impulse Gulfstream purchases? No? Does he think that just being a genius pays for his cars, his mansions, his clothes? Maybe people would have taken him seriously off the bat, maybe the, but everybody else who wasn't born with a platinum-plated satellite targeting genius system in his mouth has to do the work to look the look, talk the talk. Walk the walk and sell the weapons and have nobody suspect it.
For that purpose, Pepper works well. She is smart, but would anybody really believe it if he married somebody stupid? She is smart enough to value what she has.
After the wedding, Tony still doesn't trust her. Or like her. Obadiah goes a little soft in negotiating a stock purchase plan with a a subcontractor for the turbines on the YF-22 proposal because there's no reason they should be paying somebody else to their product, and they're back on the plane. Tony accuses Obadiah of going soft. Pepper girl brain-cooties have gotten to him, and Obadiah points out that Tony is old enough not to believe in them. Tony asks whether cooties, back in Obadiah's day, was known as the bubonic plague.
"We're planning kids," Obadiah says, smiling, and doesn't mention that this was only the sweetener: they're buying the company for its long-term and decades-old connection with certain port authority officials who are less than scrupulous about certain kinds of manifests. If Tony only bothered to pay attention to the papers under the papers --
Well, if Tony cared that much, then it would have been a whole different ballgame from the beginning: instead, he likes the glamorous, fun parts of being in the Fortune 100, and when he goes on a glamorous, fun missile demo in the Kunar province in Afghanistan, he should end up in a glamorous, fun hole in the desert. Whose fault is it that he ends up with an electromagnet in his chest, instead? A local warlord with delusions of grandeur, who thinks he can turn Tony into a set of the missiles that Obadiah only sells to the ones who matter. Obadiah is furious, is beyond words with rage that Tony has survived, let alone is somewhere in a cave in the mountains, sufficiently healthy to be building weapons, and he is -- he is going to find out what happened.
Pepper calls his mobile number, the one with global satnav hookup, but it rings and rings.
She puts the kids to bed and falls asleep at the dining table, waiting for him to come home. The next morning, she finds out from CNN that Tony has gone missing.
The thaw between Pepper and Tony doesn't happen until she is about seven months pregnant with Cecily. He shows up at the Stark Foundation one day and asks if she's free for lunch. She is, and she expects that he's maybe made some kind of reservation somewhere, but instead, they do drive-through In-N-Out. Tony tries to pay with his black Amex, he doesn't have cash on him, and Pepper ends up having to contribute so that they don't hold up traffic at lunch hour.
Eventually, they park over the ocean in his little Italian convertible, eating burgers and talking about Obadiah.
"Are there stairs down to the beach?" she asks.
"Yeah, I think so," Tony says. "What, you're planning on going swimming? In that." Pepper decides that it's a measure of how much progress they've made that he doesn't say anything about how she's so big that she could probably float like a whale. Pepper had to move the seat back, but couldn't really reach down, so Tony had to come around and move it for her.
"Walk, Tony. Pregnant women can walk."
Butterfingers makes furiously down-trending noises when he finds out how much sand there is all over the leather, but Tony tells him to shut his synthesizer.
"Why does he call you Pepper?"
"My mom used to call me that. Before she died."
"Why does he call you Pepper?"
"My mom used to call me that. Before she died."
"Can I -- "
Tony starts having lunch with Pepper once a week. Or just dropping by her office at the Foundation when he's bored -- he points out that his name is on the side of this building, too, so he gets to come eat candy out of her secretary's candy dish and scare all the interns.
There is a twenty-five year or so difference between Pepper and Obadiah. When the thaw has started to become friendship, Pepper and Tony are on their way to have lunch with Larry on one of his West Coast visits, and Obadiah has been out of the country for a couple weeks working with a deal they're trying to get set up in Poland, so she tells him a story: the first time that she and Obadiah went out to dinner, it was for terrible, vinyl table-cloth Indian at the strip mall half a mile from the Santa Monica campus. They walked there, and after dinner, and they were coming back to campus, Pepper took off her heels and walked barefoot on the asphalt through the quiet and the glow of the campus at night. Pepper spent most of the next week blushing whenever somebody loomed over her shoulder.
Pepper doesn't say the last part, but the story still makes enough of an impression on him that next time they have lunch, Tony brings Indian food. Pepper looks at the containers for a moment, then over at Tony standing by her kitchen island with Brazilian quartz counter top. He has this expression on his face, both closed and open at the same time, both hoping and afraid simultaneously, that will trouble her if she thinks about it too deeply, so Pepper cuts the whole thing off by asking Tony about the wind farm people.
He closes on a Jackson Pollock from Larry Gagosian because he wants to give Pepper an overpriced birthday present, and she smiles and tells him to put it up on his own walls. Also, actually pay attention to the wind farm people.
It'll make him a better person.
"Where're the pajamas I bought you?"
And on the other side of Obadiah, behind his shoulder, there's a muffled noise. Tony makes out the Obadiah rolls about a quarter of the way over and says, over his shoulder. "It's Tony. It went well."
Pepper makes a noise, and Tony still can't quite see her, but he does see a hand that she tucks on top of Obadiah's waist. Pepper then says something, actual words, that the phone doesn't quite convey, but Obadiah kind of gets this expression on his face. A grin. Kind of a smirk. Congratulatory sex? Tony rolls his eyes and hopes the expression makes it through the Samsung video camera.
"So yeah, pajamas, Obie?"
"Good night, Tony."
Why does Tony fall in love with Pepper in the version of the story you know? Because she is a good woman, and because she is there for him, thick and thin. Why does Tony fall in love with Pepper in this universe? Unclear. There have been plenty of beautiful women who said no to him and kept saying no. Is he just destined to fall for her in most versions of himself?
And yet Tony hears Pepper's voice while he's on the operating table in the cave. He dreams about her office at the Foundation, lying on the couch and mocking the newsletter while she works and the way she smells and the way she holds a glass of Scotch now, from the bottom or the top, the way that Obadiah does, even though her hands aren't nearly as big as his.
There is something more, and yet, Yinsen asks him if there's anybody for him to go back to.
Tony thinks about it for a long, long moment, and then he says, "No."
Pepper meets him at the base because she missed him, and she gives him a hug, and Cecily at eight maybe has a little bit of a crush on him and Michael is totally a big fan and can see the arc reactor through his shirt, but Dummy is the one that puts in the new arc reactor. Tony dances with Pepper at the Firefighter's Benefit, which is actually one of the useless black-tie galas she has been trying to convince the Stark Foundation to cut so that they can focus on making real change -- Obadiah is outside on the carpet, answering questions and handling PR, and Tony brushes off some short guy from some government agency because Pepper is wearing this dress the color of her eyes as he remembered them in the cave.
After dancing, they go out for some air, and Pepper comes within a breath of kissing him. Tony is pretty sure it's a bad idea, but just as he leans in, she pulls back.
"Can I get you a drink?"
Pepper shakes her head, bites her lip. "I think I -- we're not sure yet, but I might be pregnant. Just, um. Some olives?"
Obadiah doesn't cheat on Pepper. On occasion, Tony offers the celebratory hooker or the other December cover twin who actually has a thing for older men, but Obadiah smiles a little, looks only a little regretful. "Have you seen my wife?" he says.
Seeing her wasn't the problem. Meeting her wasn't the problem, either.
Pepper turns out not to be pregnant.
Dummy puts in the new arc reactor, but Tony Stark keeps the backup: being in love with another man's happily married wife teaches you something about nostalgia.
The movie plays out the way you expect: Tony comes home, and Pepper is there, with others, to meet him at the airport. Tony has his press conference, and Pepper and Obadiah come over one night with pizza when the housekeeper agrees to watch the kids. Tony takes the suit out for a test flight, and he feels happy, energized, so he goes to the benefit, where he and Pepper almost kiss. Maybe there is a flicker of something in her eyes, a memory of how she felt during those months, and then, good sense reasserts itself. She pulls away, and Tony goes go get drinks. As he waits at the counter, Christine catches up to him and brings out the photographs of Gulmira.
A couple days later, Pepper drives over because she thinks they need some clarity about what's going on. She thinks, for a moment, about bring Michael along, but in the end, decides against it. What does it say about her that she needs to bring along a prop to keep herself from doing something she knows shouldn't happen anyways?
In every universe, Tony trusts Pepper with a pass code for his laboratory.
Pepper comes down into the laboratory, and she finds Tony trying to climb out of the suit. It isn't the worst thing she's seen him doing because putting the moves on his business partner's wife at a highly public event is definitely, definitely worse, never mind all the scrapes and escapades that Obadiah has probably told her about.
Pepper gets ice from the kitchen upstairs, though she has to go through all the drawers looking for a Ziplock bag to put it into, then for Tony to tell Jarvis to let her into the shop again. The condensation drips a little on her hands, and he puts the bag on his shoulder. And his chest aches. Tony looks older than she's ever seen him look before.
"There's nothing else," he says. "No benefits. No openings. There is only the mission."
Pepper hasn't worked for Tony in almost a decade.
She looks at him. He can't look at her for a moment, then lifts his chin and looks her in the face: for the first time in a long time, Tony Stark is in love with something besides her.
Lying on his back in a cave in Afghanistan, Tony remembers: graduating from MIT. Getting the news about his parents. Being the best man at Obadiah's wedding and watching Pepper -- Virginia, Tony, my name is Virginia, you don't get to call me Pepper -- walk down the aisle alone because both of her parents are dead, and all she has is an aunt who she hasn't seen since she was twelve.
Pepper doesn't say, "I don't have anyone else either," because she does. She is married. She has two children and a house and a job that involves Tony only insofar as his name is on the side of the building.
Still, she buys women in a farming village in Cambodia a year's worth of health care with her birthday present. She works when she doesn't have to, and if the Stark Foundation is going to put on stupid fundraisers with expensive hors d'oeuvres and an open bar, she's still going to try and make sure that some good comes out of it. Obadiah buys her a blue one-of-a-kind bias-cut Valentino for her birthday and a pair of matching sapphire earrings, too, but that is wholly beside the point. Pepper understands a little bit about idealism, more than a little bit in fact, and she has always felt bad about living so well when it's based on misery because as, Obadiah puts it, baby bottles don't pay for what she wants to do in the Third World, but Tony hands her the ghost drive, and she hesitates.
Her husband doesn't have anything to hide --
Pepper looks from the ghost drive to Tony's face, and his expression doesn't change: for years, his face has always changed when she looked at him. Just a little. No matter what he was doing or saying, how obnoxious he was acting or what his date was doing under the table.
She looks at him for another moment, and when his expression stays the same, she reaches out and closes her fingers around the ghost drive. She has, however, never noticed the tiny box, no larger than a pack of cards and prudently lacking a light to indicate when it's transmitting from the underside of her Mercedes.
"I don't think he likes me very much," Pepper says. Tony is gone, but she hesitates to put her feet back in Obadiah's lap. Her salad is getting soggy on the table, and his sandwich is definitely soggy through and through.
"He'll come around," Obadiah says and takes her right foot and puts it on his knee. She looks at him, hesitating a little, and he runs his hand up from her ankle to her knee, then from her knee to just under the hem of her skirt, which is hitched up from sitting like that in the sofa, and who knows how much leg Tony saw when he came in?
Obadiah doesn't cheat on Pepper.
Obadiah sells weapons to terrorists, to warlords, to whoever will pay, but he doesn't cheat on his wife with the girls that Tony offers him.
Whereas everybody knows how Tony is with girls.
"Don't talk to me about lines that we don't cross. There is a line that you don't cross," Obadiah says and uses the upgraded Mark I to backhand Tony into the side of a bus.
Tony checks the phone, and it's a call from Pepper. The ID photo on his phone is her with her hair up, a couple bits hanging down the back, a distracted look on her face because, as he remembers it, she had a squirming year old Michael in her arms at the moment and kept telling him to delete the photo, but he wouldn't. Tony frowns, wondering if she's got the ghost drive yet, and he barely hits the green button before the whine goes off in his ear.
Obadiah doesn't tell him to breathe, though, or relax. He lets Tony flop against the back of the couch, then comes around and looks Tony full in the face while Tony struggles to breathe and keep his heart going. They can both hear Pepper on the phone going, "Tony? Are you there?"
"Are you going to talk to her?" Obadiah says. Tony can't even persuade the muscles of his abdomen to move so that he can breathe when he wants to; the paralyzer seizes up voluntary control of the muscles, not the involuntary ones, and he just looks at Obadiah, and Obadiah bends down and picks the phone up.
"Hi, Pepper," he says.
There's a long moment of silence, and Tony can't look away. He can't move his head. He can't move his chest, and he strains to hear if Pepper is talking while Obadiah gets that ugly smile on his face, but he can't quite hear anything at all besides the trickling of the waterfall and the occasional, low pop of the fire. A smile starts at one corner of Obadiah's mouth and slowly spreads down to the middle, then across to the other side. He's almost caressing the phone. "Breathe, Pepper. Stay calm. We'll talk about this when I get home."
Tony struggles to make a noise, but only manages a kind of grunt. He tries to move, but his hand flops to the side of the couch.
"When I get home, Pepper."
And Obadiah hangs up and drops the phone onto the couch. He puts one knee next to Tony's and leans forward, undoes the preliminary locking mechanism, and Tony's heart feels like it's trying to collapse in on itself.
"It's a pity you had to get her involved," Obadiah says in Tony's ear.
He undoes the secondary one.
Obadiah pulls, and Tony's world goes gray around the edges.
Pepper gets the ghost drive out of Obadiah's office.
Pepper doesn't meet Agent Coulson on the way out of Obadiah's office. She walks right past him, but when Coulson stands and looks up, he sees Obadiah standing there on the catwalk, arms braced on the railing. Coulson studies Obadiah, but Obadiah doesn't notice: he is too busy watching his wife walk away with both their lives in her hands.
Obadiah has the arc reactor in his hands and cradles it. It's surprisingly light and surprisingly cool, too.
"It's a pity you had to get Pepper involved," Obadiah says, settling down on the couch. "Trying to fuck her -- that's one thing. I can't blame you for that. Turning her against me like this, on the other hand -- "
Tony can't turn his head, but he hears Obadiah pack up the arc reactor, and then Obadiah bends down one more time. "I really would have preferred not to -- "
The world, already gray around the edges, dissolves.
Still, it works out: Obadiah goes back to the Stark campus to put the arc reactor inside the upgraded Mark I. Tony drags himself into the elevator, down into the shop, and claws his way to the old arc reactor. He manages to put it in, and after Obadiah hung up on Pepper, she was sitting int he dark, in the dining room at the dining table, listening to Cecily in the shower upstairs. Michael is at her feet, dressed in pajamas and getting drowsy in the dim light. Pepper had her knees pressed together, and her fingers shook, but she had her PDA next to her and pulled up the company directory. Lieutenant Colonel Jim Rhodes. Tony's best friend.
"I don't know if you remember me, Colonel Rhodes, but we me-- "
"I remember you. Tony talks about you all the time."
Pepper closes her eyes for a moment, and her knees are still pressed together to keep herself from trembling too much. Michael has fallen asleep underneath the chair on her right-hand side.
In the end, she doesn't go to the Stark complex. She puts her children to bed. Agent Coulson of SHIELD overloads the arc reactor. On the eleven o'clock news, she watches blurry footage of two armored figures fighting each other on the freeway, and she almost calls Michael and Cecily down from out of bed: Pepper recognizes one of the figures, at least, from the designs on the ghost drive, and she wants to put her arms around her children and say, "This is your father. It's the last time you'll probably ever see him alive."
She doesn't, though. They need their sleep. Nobody needs to see their father caught in the chest by lightning that comes from the ground.
Forty-five minutes later, SHIELD knocks on her door and asks for the ghost drive, and Pepper is dressed and calm and tells them to keep their voices down because her children are asleep.
Obadiah Stane marries Virginia Potts because she has a brain in her head and has great legs and gets under Tony's skin like nobody else he has ever seen, and he, Obadiah, has always had a thing for redheads.
Virginia Potts marries Obadiah Stane because it makes sense, and also, because she thinks she might be in love. She probably is. She definitely comes to be.
She thinks he is a good person. She tries to be a good person.
Obadiah's secretary assumes Pepper is there for a little afternoon delight: why else does the boss's thirty year old wife show up in a low-cut silk camisole and four inch heels? Pepper tells Obadiah she just wanted to see if he was free for lunch and was checking her e-mail because Michael threw the batteries on her Blackberry out the window of the car, and she is pretty sure that he can smell the lie on her. Virginia has never been very good at lying, and she almost starts out of her skin when he stands behind her and puts his left hand on her shoulder and uses his right to trace her collarbone from sternum to, underneath her jacket, where it meets her shoulder.
When Pepper calls Jim Rhodes, she tries to remind him of when they met and --
Tony doesn't see Pepper again until the day of the so-called memorial service. It's a clear day, surprisingly cool for the time of year, and there isn't anything to put in the ground. Pepper has dealt enough with SHIELD to know that asking for his wedding ring or the anniversary necklace is futile. Michael, after a month and half, still hasn't figured out that asking for his father is futile: he cries intermittently through the whole ceremony, and Pepper eventually picks him up and holds him. Her daughter curls up against her side. They all wear black, and when Tony comes up to them afterwards, he isn't stupid enough to breathe a word about being a superhero or a girlfriend or Pepper being proud of him. Are you a superhero to the children and wife of the men you kill?
Michael turns a tear-stained face towards Tony, and Pepper settles Michael a little more comfortably against her shoulder.
"The injunction is gone, but you're still going to need my voting shares to get the Board to go along with the deweaponization," she says. "In return, I want a seat on the Board and the chance to buy out Obadiah's remaining options."
"All right," Tony says. "Do you want SHIELD to help with the bad press?"
Bad photos. Gossip about how young Pepper is and how terribly coincidental that blurry cell phone photo of two figures standing on a balcony. The faces are only half-recognizable, but the bright blue dress with matching earrings is very, very clear. Tony Stark lives like a celebrity and gets publicity accordingly, and wasn't it convenient that her older husband went on a vacation without his family so shortly thereafter? Wasn't it convenient that his plane never made it to St. Tropez? And something that looks like a smile crosses Pepper's face. "I can handle that on my own." She pauses because Michael has just tried to stick a strand of her hair in his mouth; she pulls it away, and he sighs and puts his arms around her neck. He is a little hoarse from a prolonged fit of crying when he woke up at the end of the ride in the funeral procession.
"Stark Industries is always going to need a Stane," Pepper says.
Tony remembers that afternoon in Obadiah's office almost a decade ago.
"Come on, Cecily," Pepper says. "We're going."
Pepper goes with her son in her arms and her daughter with the fingers of one hand tucked under her mother's belt. Tony always thought that Cecily had her mother's eyes, but just as they get into the Bentley, Cecily turns, fixes Tony with them, and even at fifty yards, Tony can tell that there is nothing of Virginia Potts in them.
After all, she only holds the shares in trust until the children turn eighteen.