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Think of it this way: identity is not a fixed point. Change eye color or cut off a finger, and only the strictest interpreter would say that a different identity, a different person, results.

How much can you change about Tony Stark and still have Tony Stark?

...

"I feel like you're driving me to a court martial. What did I do? I feel like you're going to pull over and snuff me."

Still, nobody says anything. Ice cubes clink inside thirty-five year old blended Scotch. The four of them are in the Funvee; rattling around under the passenger's seat is a Maxim from four months back. The vehicle rounds a turn, and the magazine slides out -- no carpeting on the floor of a Humvee, and Tony toes the magazine open to the centerfold. The girl is shown from the waist up and wearing a bikini. The matching thong hangs from her index finger, and she smiles, very, very sweetly at the camera.

The Maxim is well-used.

"Yeah, that one's a screamer," Tony says. "The December twins, not so much."

Nobody says anything, either, but it's now brutally uncomfortable in the Humvee, not just uncomfortable. Even the airman in the driver's seat, the one with really good bone structure and who is obviously a woman, looks really uncomfortable. Almost a little disappointed. Tony grins and takes a sip of Scotch, and leans back in the seat, pleased.

That's just the way she likes it.

...

Just to clarify: there are two women in the Funvee. One is an airman. The other is Tony Stark, who does not like it when her name is spelled with a "i" or when she is called "Antonia" or anything but who she is.

Tony Stark.

...

So yes, Howard Stark has a daughter instead of a son. Tony Stark is a woman. What results?

The difference is smaller than if she had been, say, born in 1933 instead of 1973, and the change may, in its own way, create a better end. Tony doesn't end up on the cover of Popular Mechanics as a six year old because the readers of that fine magazine are somewhat less interested in seeing a six year old girl who can build V-8's than an six year old boy who can do it. Nevertheless, there is a photo of her standing by that V-8 on the inside. Bill Gates is only a little surprised when a nine year old girl tells him that his implementation is shit. Howard is too self-interested to notice more than occasionally that he has a daughter, and when he does, he is too busy to care.

In fact, the weight of being Howard's heir is reduced by not having been announced as the Future of Stark Industries in at least three articles and one book, a biography of Howard, by the time that Tony is old enough to think about understanding why jets can stay up in the air. MIT's alumni magazine still has her on the cover, and it is entirely to say that Tony grows up more or less under the same conditions -- that is, in a state of benign neglect and household help.

Tony Stark teaches herself Bernoulli's principle much as Tony Stark teaches himself Bernoulli's priniciple.

Tony Stark moves herself into a furnished apartment in Cambridge, much as Tony Stark moves himself into a furnished apartment in Cambridge. Tony Stark makes friends with Jim Rhodes.

Tony Stark goes to Afghanistan.

Tony Stark wakes in a cave with a light inside her chest and cold throughout her body.

...

"Everybody knows how you are with girls," Pepper says to Tony after they go outside.

...

"How is she?"

The line is a little fuzzy. Obadiah and Pepper are on speaker phone. Pepper asked the question, and Jim can hear how worried she is.

"Fine. Dehydrated. Angry. You know Tony. She told me she thinks the thread count on her sheets is actually negative."

Obadiah laughs; he sounds amused. Pepper laughs; she sounds a little shaky, but relieved and she says something to Obadiah that Jim, through the fuzz on the line and the speaker phone and the weird acoustics of Tony's place in Malibu, which is where Obadiah and Pepper are -- Jim can't quite make out the words, but Obadiah turns back to the phone.

"We were worried," Obadiah says. "We were really worried. But she's fine. Do we know what happened?"

Rhodey, at that point, has to tell them about the arc reactor.

...

It's a Blackhawk, so they sit four and four with Tony wedged between Rhodey and a six foot two staff sergeant. The engine and the wind are noisy enough that nobody can hear anything; Tony's mouth and lips are cracked, and she is, in clear daylight, sitting in a context like this, recognizably a small person. In fact, she sits slumped half in the seat, half in Jim's lap. He isn't exactly holding her hand, but he thinks that, for once, she wouldn't object if somebody tried.

For once, the reason why everybody stares at her chest isn't because of the low-cut tank-top.

...

"How long was I gone?"

Gone, Jim notices. Not. Kidnapped. Or. How long did they have me?

"Three months," he says. "A little more than that."

"What do you have to drink? I want something to drink. Jesus, is there anything to drink around here?"

...

Tony at fifteen is skinny, short-haired, with big eyes.

She looks young, and when Jim finds her in the library, sitting in the back and glaring at bookshelves, it actually takes him two and a half minutes to realize that Tony is not, in fact, just a skinny, short-haired boy genius whose voice hasn't broken yet: the professor said only to have a word with the kid of his old buddy. Tony has her sleeves shoved up to the elbow; once Jim explains who sent him, they play Check The Size of My Scientific Accomplishment Dick, and it takes Jim about forty-five additional seconds to realize that he is outclassed and outpedigreed and flat out beat. Still, Jim sticks around after that discovery because his parents raised him with some manners, and this is, for Tony, somehow enough to earn Jim a regular role in her life: they move from having an academic counselor talks to pinball and arcade games. She hasn't seen the Star Wars movies.

They remedy that and talk about scalable software architecture for the Death Star.

"AT-AT's," Tony says. "I refuse to graduate until I see one go walking down Mass Ave."

They drink to that, and Tony does send a ten foot tall scaled replica walking down Mass Ave as her senior hack. Six cop cars show up, and Tony spends three hours in jail until the family lawyers accompany Jim to bail her out, and there she is, sitting in the cell with her head angled back and her shirt ripped from trying to climb over a fence to get away from the police, but she'd been laughing the whole time, which kind of made it difficult, and she was kind of grinning at them now and --

Being a girl didn't make much of a difference in that respect.

Decide for yourself, though, whether this part changes: one night, when Tony is a full seven months short of being sixteen, she leans over during a late night study session for Linear Algebra and, quite casually, offers to suck Rhodey's cock until he sees stars.

...

Jim knows it's time for that part of the post-pickup examination when the male doctor comes out, and the female doctor goes in. Thirty-five seconds later, the yelling starts.

...

That Jim is on the continent, let alone in the chopper that finds Tony, is a matter of sheer, freakish, bizarre, unbelievable luck. He flew out as chaperone to a bunch of Stark engineers going to Afghanistan for field troubleshooting and is, in fact, sitting through an officer-grade tedious motherfucker of a briefing when some bright mind switches in the unmanned aerial vehicle feed.

There's the desert. There's the mountain. There's a column of fire a couple hundred fucking feet high, and Rhodey pulls rank and shoves people out of the way and almost runs over two Army privates on his way to TOC. It's worth it to be in the chopper, though, when the chief warrant officer riding shotgun spots a shape stumbling along the dunes; it's worth it about sixty times over when they touch down, and Rhodey knows it's Tony even before he can make her features out from under the leather thing she has pulled over her shoulders.

Tony saw the choppers go overhead and waved them down. Her feet go out from underneath her.

Jim goes jogging up the sand dune.

"Next time you ride with me," he says.

Tony closes her eyes and smiles.

...

He doesn't know whether it's OK to hug her, which is why his hand comes down for a second, but she doesn't mind. So he does. And she rides back to base with her head on his shoulder and her left knee over his and her eyes fixed on the horizon.

...

Jim comes by Tony's hospital room afterwards.

It's a private room with a window that looks out onto a vehicle depot, and there' is a tiny television on an pivoting arm sticking out from the wall. Swanky digs, all things considered. The flowers in the little plastic vase by her bed are fake, but somebody has brought her a Coke and a cup of ice. The window looks out onto a small courtyard where people can sit with their families. VIP digs, practically.

"Hey," he says. "How was it?"

She hands him the chart, taken from the foot of the bed.

Jim takes it. TB, leishmaniasis, yellow fever, parasites. All negative. No sign of radiation poisoning, which is comforting, given the light that shines through her chest. Pregna --

He looks up, and Tony has her head angled back and is looking at him with the right side of her mouth twisted up: Tony has had an IUD since she was fifteen. She told Jim when she crawled into his lap and tried to convince him to fuck instead of studying for their Fluid Mechanics final, and yeah, Jim kind of hates how he knows that.

...

"Liaison? You -- "

"Come on, Rhodey. Good career exposure. You would not believe how bad Colin Powell wants to suck my dick. Figuratively speaking."

...

"Hey, wanna hang out with your boss?"

"You're not my boss, Tony. You don't sign my checks. I'm still an officer in the United States Ai -- "

...

Tony still isn't giving up the full story about those three months.

Jim doesn't think the missing part is rape: he doesn't have a clear reason for it, though. Call it twenty years of knowing Tony, and he knows, too, that if it happened, she isn't going to want to talk about it with him. Or the rape counselors. Or the debriefers. Or the nurses. Or anybody, really, until she decides that she wants to talk about it. When she does, maybe Obadiah. Probably not Pepper.

In fact, Jim guesses that there is novel, with movie rights attached, that she isn't telling any of them, but he still comes by one night after dinner and sits down on the bed next to her. In fact, she scootches over to make room for him, but hangs onto the remote control. The dinner-on-a-tray sits on the swing-out table; it looks like there was meatloaf and over-cooked peas with a peanut butter cookie, but she scraped the plate clean and licked the fork afterwards. There aren't even crumbs of the cookie left, so Jim sits with her on the bed. They watch the four channels available on the screen smaller than what Tony has in the back of the Rolls, and eventually, Tony puts her head on his shoulder.

In fact, she curls up around him and falls asleep -- she puts her knees in his lap and wraps one arm around his waist, and her head is around the other side of his hip. Jim knows, from looking at her chart, that it's the first time she's slept since they found her in the desert. It's probably the first time Tony has slept well in the three months; the only sound in the room, besides the HVAC, is her deep, steady breathing.

Yeah, Jim stays there all night. He doesn't sleep very much because it's kind of hard to sleep in that position. Instead, he watches TV. Watches the sun come up. Keeps his hand around Tony's shoulder.

Tony sleeps.

And sleeps and sleeps.

...

"That's ridiculous. I don't paint."

"What about your other nickname, the Merchant of Death?"

Tony looks surprised, and then, after a moment, almost looks pleased. A minute and a half after that, she informs Christine Everhart that she'd be glad to lose a few hours of sleep with her. Christine looks surprised, but gets into the car with Tony.

They ride back to the airport in Tony's Rolls, then fly back to Malibu in her Learjet.

Pepper, as expected, shows up in the morning to escort Miss Everhart off the premises.

...

The morning nurse, on the other hand, opens the door, and Tony jerks awake. She doesn't move, no quick movements, but every muscle in her body goes tense. That worries Rhodey almost as much as when the nurse leaves again, and Jim turns to look at Tony. She's studying him, and yeah, for a second, it looks like she's going to apologize for sleeping curled around him all night.

He offers to lend her his phone card that'll let her call home to the States -- Pepper or Obadiah or, hell, George Lucas and the Radio City Rockettes, if she wants -- but Tony shakes her head, pauses for a moment, then nods, having made up her mind.

She'll see them when she gets home.

...

"You might as well, Rhodey. Scientific poll indicates that 78%? of campus already thinks you're doing me blind every time we study in the group room in Barker. I mean, come on. Just let me -- "

...

Tony Stark is five foot two, five foot three. Small. Neatly built, though surprisingly muscled because she makes a point of keeping it on her body. Black hair, big brown eyes, and a pretty, pretty mouth.

One hundred and fifteen pounds soaking wet. Less, without clothes.

She hides the eyes behind red sunglasses and, generally, tries to use anger and profanity and brains and money and charisma to make up for the rest of it.

...

Tony picks up the chair she'd been sitting on, pauses for a moment with it in her hands, as if testing how heavy it is.

And then she slams it, impressively hard, against the wall.

"Can I get a real goddamn debriefer in here now? One who's going to ask me about how many of my weapons I saw in that place? Or how the fuck they managed to get stuff so new I didn't think that it was even out in the field yet? Or are you even going to ask what the hell I've got in my chest?

The rape counselor slides her chair back a couple inches, but when it comes time to discuss how Tony actually got out, Tony is, of course, curiously lacking in details. She says something about an improvised bomb in their weapons stockpile, wants to talk about why the United States sucks so much at keeping her weapons out of the hands of the people she designed her stuff to kill, and the three-star general looks over at Rhodey and Rhodey tries to look apologetic.

She knows they stopped looking for her a month into it.

Also, yeah, she's a little pissed that the United States apparently sucks at keeping her weapons out of the hands of terrorists.

So many I probably took them to a strip club. So many that my PA probably sent them a fruit basket.

If people don't like Tony Stark, that is their problem.

...

Jim Rhodes remembers Tony at fifteen, pretty sure that the guy her Advanced EECS prof sent over wants to fuck her and not just, you know, yell at her about not showing her work or not showing up to class and drinking and God knows what else because he's supposed to be getting her grade up from a C- because she didn't put anything down on the test except the right answers, and not be her friend or something. So they might as well just get it out of the way, right?

Jim Rhodes remembers Tony at thirty-five, standing in front of the audience at the Apogee Awards. They don't merit Tony lifting her chin and looking down her nose at them. Instead, she looks at the glass weight in her hand, tells them all to go fuck themselves and their pretty, dressed-up female dates because she is the only woman in the room not there as arm candy, and oh yeah, fuck you, too, because it isn't like she has a couple of these at home already. Oh, except she doesn't.

"It would have been better," Obadiah admits to Jim later. "If we'd just gotten her drunk and left her next to the craps table."

"You mean she was sober?"

Obadiah sighs, and in retrospect, it isn't really surprising that when she gets back in front of a podium in the US, she tells the US military and the Joint Chiefs to go fuck themselves. "Zero accountability," she says. "I saw American men and women get killed by the very weapons that I designed to protect them."

Tony doesn't stand at the podium because Tony Stark, even in heels, tends to be a little short to be seen over podiums that are tall enough for Obadiah Stane to be comfortable at.

...

Jim Rhodes remembers the flight out to Afghanistan. The stewardesses -- in a moment of inspiration, Pepper had once nicknamed them the stripperdesses -- were gone, and it was just him and Tony sitting together on the couch. The lights are still dim, and Tony pours the last of the sake into a champagne glass, puts on some music that Jim doesn't recognize, then starts dancing at the pole by herself, without heels.

The music is a little softer than Tony usually likes, and Jim is a little drunker than he usually lets himself get around her. The drinking is really not even in the equation, though, when he's being honest with himself, and he tries to be. Tony comes walking over with her shirt open and looks Jim in the eye. The Apogees and standing there with his figurative dick in his hand while Tony pissed all over everybody she did business with was, what, thirty hours ago? And she was three hours late to the plane. And MIT was twenty years ago.

Jim closes his eyes, and still holding the champagne glass with sake in it, Tony leans down and kisses him.

They do it once, quick and with Tony straddling him, on the couch, and then, they go to the bedroom in the back and do it, slow and good because it's been twenty years happening. It's the first and second time they ever fuck, and Tony stays awake afterwards. Jim's arm is around her waist; he curls up around her. She watches the sun come up over someplace in Siberia, listens to how the sound of the TS-02's mix with the sound of Jim breathing so close to her, and when Jim comes up after the missile demo, she reminds him that the Humdrumvee is back there.

...

"This is because I'm thirty-six now, isn't it."

"Tony -- "

"It's because I'm old. Because I'm a woman. Because if I were a guy, I wouldn't be old. I'd be George Clooney. You'd drink sake with George fucking Clooney, right?"

...

At Rammstein, Tony tells the orderly where he can stuff the wheelchair, and Jim knows better than to even offer Tony his arm as they're coming down the plane ramp in Los Angeles. It's an Air Force base, so no press, and Pepper has also promised to personally end any photo editor buying a photo of Tony in the first week or so after her return, but Rhodey still stays clear, and Tony walks down the ramp by herself, wobbling just a little, chin tilted up and her shirt buttoned to the throat.

...

"Your eyes are red. A few tears for your long-lost boss?"

"Tears of joy. I hate job hunting."

Tony looks at her for a moment, head tilted back and to the side, evaluating the truth of that statement, then turns and nods at Happy, so that he'll open the door.

...

"Cheeseburger first."

...

"I don't like it when you have plans," Tony says to Pepper, exactly as she would if she were a he, if Pepper weren't at least six inches taller than her even without the heels. And Pepper blinks and explains, coolly, that she's allowed to have plans on her birthday. Tony turns her mouth up, just a little, and tells Pepper to get something on her; Pepper says that she already has and that it was expensive. Very expensive.

A moment passes. Pepper can see Tony measuring the pros and the cons of inquiring as to what Pepper bought with the black Amex.

Tony finally decides against it, so she downs the espresso, and why, yes, she did buy that $20 million Jackson Pollock to make Pepper smile. Also, because she's Tony fucking Stark and doesn't care that Larry Gagosian is ripping her the fuck off. Also, because she likes rubbing people's faces in that fact, but also, quite importantly, because she likes making Pepper smile on her birthday.

Really, Tony didn't build herself personal AI system ten years ahead of everything on the market just to miss out on Outlook Calender.

Even when she knows the smile just means that Pepper thinks her boss is being completely ridiculous -- even then --

...

Tony used to carry -- or have Pepper carry for her -- in her wallet, a photo from graduation day at MIT: in it, Tony stood between Rhodey and Howard. She had graduation cap hair, and she was the shortest person in the picture by a head or so, but she's smiling. When Pepper sees the photo for the first time, she realizes she didn't even know Tony could smile that wide.

Her wallet is missing when Tony wakes up in the cave. She only ever had one copy of that photo.

...

"They stopped looking for me after a month. Would they have stopped looking for me after a month if I was a guy?"

"We thought you were dead, Tony."

"We? We? Because I couldn't possibly have escaped and survived for a month out there. Because if they got me, they couldn't possibly keep me alive for anything. Or if they did, I wouldn't be worth continuing to look for."

"That's not -- "

"Fuck you. And you know, what else? Fuck you. I did a lot of thinking in that cave, and fuck all of this."

...

"You were the only prisoner, Ms. Stark?"

"Yeah, I was. What the hell are you? A colonel?"

"A major. My name is -- "

"Yeah, you said that at the beginning."

"So were you in isolation, Tony?"

"No, I was just the only fucking prisoner. Christ, can you count? One. I have a friend who's a bird colonel, and he can fucking count. You have to learn how to count before they make you one of those, so maybe you should learn. Or buy a dictionary. That's what only means, you stupid son of a bitch."

Sometimes, when Tony doesn't want to give a straight answer, she jokes. Most of the time, she snarls and cusses and gets angry.

The three months she's in the cave, she doesn't joke or bluster or rage at Yinsen.

...

"Did they ask you to do anything?"

"They wanted me to build them a Jericho missile."

"A Jericho missile, Ms. Stark?"

"Yeah, the company I own just sold $750 million dollars worth of them to your company."

There is just a little bit of sarcasm on the second company, and Jim braces for what is undoubtedly coming next.

"Did you build them one?"

A beat, and then the explosion:

"Do you think I'm retarded? Or that I'd commit treason for people who kidnapped me? They yelled at me, and when I still wouldn't do it for some fucking reason, they held my head in a bucket of water a couple times until I said I would, and I found out that they had so much of my stuff that I'm pretty sure that my PA has sent a fruit basket at some point. Or that I've taken them out for a night at Scores. So I told them I would, and when they weren't paying attention, I blew them to kingdom goddamn come because nobody was coming to get -- to get me out."

This time, to let the watchers know that she is done talking, Tony picks her chair up and slams it onto the table, right in front of the debriefer.

...

Tony doesn't say anything when Jim comes into the room, or when he sits down in the armchair by the bed. She doesn't move over on the bed, either, to make room for him; instead, she uses the remote to change the channel on the TV.

"You sure you don't want to call Obie? Or Pepper? You call her now, she'll probably be up. It's only 7 PM over there."

"No. Let me fucking watch -- what the hell is this?"

"Soap opera. I think it's All My Children."

"Fuck."

...

Yinsen is dead, and Tony is actually a little relieved that she doesn't have to explain the marks on her arms and shoulders and legs from putting the exoskeleton on to hammer the helmet for the Mark I. Or the wrenched shoulder. Or. Everybody just assum --

They stand in front of the arc reactor, and Obadiah puts his arm around her. She lets her eyes close for a moment, so that she can just breathe in the smell of Obadiah and his cigar and his cologne and the way it all comes together on him. It's old and familiar; it'd smelled nice when he hugged her right out of the Rolls, but he lit up a cigar after the press conference, and he had a drink before coming to see her, and it's so utterly, wonderfully familiar. The arm around her is familiar. The way he smells is familiar, and when Tony opens her eyes, she sees her father's arc reactor in front of her.

"Your father and me," Obadiah says and gives her shoulder a squeeze. "We were a team."

Tony takes a deep breath and, despite herself, despite some simmering annoyance, wants the moment to last forever.

...

Sometimes, when Tony doesn't want to give a straight answer, she jokes. Sometimes, she offers sex. Most of the time, she snarls and blusters and and cusses.

The three months in the cave, Tony doesn't joke or get angry with Yinsen. She doesn't offer, even once, to fuck him.

...

Pepper comes down when Tony asks and helps replace the arc reactor. Tony has her shirt and bra off, of course, and she doesn't act like Pepper should be worried at all about seeing her female boss lying propped on a table, topless.

...

"I wanna see it," he says.

And Tony leans her head back.

"You sure?"

He makes the gesture with the cigar in his hand.

...

She unbuttons her shirt, and he looks at her for a moment, then looks away. She looks in the same direction, and while she's looking, he steps close and buttons her shirt -- he's had practice at this. He buttons her back up all the way to the throat, and they ride back to her house in Malibu with Pepper talking a mile a minute into her cell phone and both her Blackberries vibrating continuously, and --

"Go home," she says to Pepper when the Rolls pulls into the drive. "Same goes for you, Happy. Come back tomorrow morning."

And when they're gone, Tony pours herself another drink. Nothing but Scotch, not even ice cubes, and downs half of it. Obadiah is still sitting on the couch, wearing his jacket. The cigar is long gone.

Tony sits back down on the couch next to him, right underneath his arm.

"I," she says. "Am going to get drunk."

"Yeah?"

Tony downs a mouthful more of the Scotch. Her eyes are watering a little; she's out of practice. "Yeah. I had my cheeseburger. I'm going to get drunk, then I'm going to get laid."

It's mostly dark in the house still; only the lights that Jarvis turned on were the lights over the couch.

"Tell me when you're drunk enough," Obadiah says.

Tony finishes off the glass, breathes out through her mouth, and then puts the tumbler onto the table. No coaster. Why bother? No ice, and she knows Obadiah is measuring how much her wrist sticks out from the edge of the shirt, how confident she looks. So Tony doesn't lean back when she has finished, and she starts to unbutton the front of her shirt again -- high up, from around the throat, where he had buttoned it. Two buttons later, the top of the arc reactor shows; four buttons later, he can see the whole thing.

"I'm drunk enough," Tony says and climbs into his lap and kisses him.

...

Tony comes once on the couch, rubbing herself against Obadiah's fingers, and she comes again straddling him with his cock in her and both of them in her bed, and when he goes down on her afterwards, Tony has come enough so that she doesn't get off again, at least not as quickly as she normally would. Obadiah uses his mouth and tongue; his beard starts to burn on her thighs, and Tony begs and whimpers and has her legs wrapped around his shoulders and tries to rub herself against his mouth because she's getting close, because she wants to come that fucking badly. She runs her hands over her stomach, around the edge of the arc reactor and begs some more, but doesn't come until Obadiah puts one hand over her stomach and slides the second and third fingers of the other all the way into her, up to the palm, and rocks them back and forth to get them deeper.

Tony comes so hard that she can't stop shaking afterwards.

...

Tony comes so hard that she can't stop shaking, and Obadiah comes up laughing and wipes his fingers on the sheets. She holds her hand up for him to see.

"Some things don't change, do they?" Obadiah says, looking at her hand.

The fingers flutter from the knuckle and won't bend, at least not quite yet, so Tony hooks her elbow around Obadiah and, as she usually does, kisses him until she can't taste herself in his mouth anymore. As she usually does.

...

Pepper suspects. Rhodey has no idea.

...

Maybe Rhodey should know better: the year Tony is sixteen, Obadiah is in Boston to close a deal for a subcontractor with some interesting research into molecular timing devices. He swings by Cambridge afterwards and takes both Tony and Rhodey out for dinner. Tony doesn't have a dress shirt, insists that she doesn't want to wear a dress, so she borrows Rhodey's second best shirt, because he's wearing his best. She rolls up the sleeves and wears it with jeans to the restaurant at the Four Seasons.

Afterwards, when they're underneath the canopy waiting for Obadiah's driver to bring the car around, Tony pauses, licks her lips.

"Hey," she says. "You go back ahead without me. I need to talk to Obadiah."

He looks at her, frowning. It weirds him out a little, he'll admit, that she calls him by his first name, but the Bentley rolls into place at the end of the canopy. It's raining a little, as it tends to do in Boston in the spring at night.

"It's fine," Tony says. "Don't wait up for me. I'll find my way back."

Tony doesn't show up until almost noon the next day and skips all of her afternoon classes because, as she puts it to Rhodey, she's fucking tired, and there's something wrong and not quite right with Obadiah, Rhodey has already decided by the time he's in the Bentley. In the stairway to his dorm room. The next morning, while brushing his teeth and eyeing his reflection in the mirror, and when he sees Tony, still wearing his shirt and looking rumpled and smiling her lazy, self-satisfied smile and waiting outside of lecture hall he sets his jaw.

"Hey," she says, and Rhodey has a pretty good idea that if they were someplace a little less private than a main corridor when classes were changing, she'd back him against the wall and try to put her hand in his jeans pocket and try to grab his dick.

Good thing they're in a hallway. Good thing.

...

Tony swears that she isn't fucking Obadiah: they stayed up and talked shop. The new scramjet had a wing that was the wrong shape. Same general idea as how Rhodey fucked up his Aero project, and Jim is inclined to believe her because when has Tony been even vaguely embarrassed to tell him if she's fucked somebody? She told him when she spent a whole Saturday fucking the brains out of their very married, forty year old Aero professor, after all, and the following Tuesday, said professor calls her a little lady. Patronizes her in front of the lecture.

Jim winces on her behalf, and the look on her face makes him feel more than a little bad for Tony until two weeks later, she tells him, smug as anything, that she fucked the professor in his office. In fact, she tells Jim about the sloppy details even when he tries yelling over her.

She insists that Obadiah has never put a hand on her that way, so yes, Jim slowly comes around to the idea that Obadiah is a good guy.

...

Really, in conclusion, Jim knows that Tony can do whatever she wants, but anybody who fucked her between the ages of -- whenever she started and say, seventeen, and was more than a year or two older than her, is a total asshole.

Decades later, he mentions this to Tony, and she almost falls off the couch laughing.

...

In the summer, Jim stays in Cambridge and works for professors.

In the summer, Tony goes back to New York, works for her father, goes out a lot. She calls every once in a while, but she always wants to talk about ideas and what they're both looking into. To get news, Jim has to go to the library, which subscribes to the New York Post, and read Page Six.

...

In conclusion, Jim concludes that Tony can do whatever she wants, but anybody who fucked her between the ages of -- whenever she started and say, seventeen, and was more than a year or two older than her, is a total asshole, and she almost falls off the couch laughing.

"Even -- " she says, having rolled sideways on the couch and not really doing anything to sit up straight again.

"Even who?"

She's wearing a grey t-shirt and jeans, and the shirt hitches up on one side, and the jeans are loose. Between them, there's a long isoceles triangle of skin starting just about mid-right hip and angling upwards, underneath her belly button, to the top of her left hip. No underwear. No br --

Jim looks away, and Tony has picked up a little bit of grace in the years in between, and she still likes Rhodey, so she changes the subject.

...

"I wanna see it," Obadiah says.

Tony looks him in the eye.

"You sure?"

...

"What do you think you just proved, Tony?"

Obadiah takes the drink off the tray, doesn't look at the waitress bringing it. Tony does, though, and indicates her approval by putting a twenty down on Obadiah's behalf. The girl winks at Tony and leans over to pick it up.

"I'm just a concerned stockholder, Obadiah," Tony says and tilts her chair back.

Behind Tony's left shoulder, a stripper starts to move around a pole -- I guess I'm just used to sailors, the song goes, and Obadiah leans back on the banquette. One of the Board members he'd been buttering up left ten minutes after Tony sat down, and the other two kept their eyes politely averted while Tony got a lap dance from and put, with smoothness born of a lot of practice, C-notes into the g-string of a blonde with hair down to her tailbone. The guys left after the second round of drinks, but Tony looks at Obadiah now, not the brunette in clear heels who has come around to try her luck with the generous lady in the far back booth.

"What was I supposed to do, Obie?" Tony says, dropping the chair back onto all four legs, then leaning forward with her shoulders and arms. She also says it more softly, more gently than might be expected. Maybe it's because of tiredness. The room is dark, and the music isn't quite as loud as might be expected, either.

"My name is on the side of the building."

"Your last name."

"Dad left the company to me."

Her chin comes up, and even in the low lighting, even with the music and the girls, the shift is clear on her face.

Obadiah notes it, takes a little of his drink, and after a moment, meets her eyes, and Tony gets up out of her chair. For the board meeting, she put on a black business suit, a white shirt buttoned up to just above the collarbones, no jewelry except for her MIT ring, and Tony leaves her chair and comes and sits down next to Obadiah in the booth. There is room between them, and Tony never says the words. What do I do? How can I get you to help me? Obadiah doesn't answer, at least not with words. By and by, though, Tony ends up sliding closer and closer. Obadiah puts his arm over her. Tony closes her eyes for a brief moment and tilts her chin up again, and then, quite deliberately puts her hand on his knee.

They watch the girls on stage until the lights turn on at the end of the night, and then, they go out to the Rolls that has been waiting six hours in the rain for them.

...

 

Maybe there is a smile on his face. Maybe not.

Jim calls Obadiah after the press conference, and they talk.

...

General truth known during college: Jim Rhodes was sleeping with Tony Stark.

General truth known behind certain selected closed doors: Obadiah Stane has Tony Stark well in hand.

In multiple ways.

...

 

Pepper comes down when Tony asks and helps replace the arc reactor. Tony has her shirt and bra off, of course, and she doesn't act like Pepper should be worried at all about seeing her female boss lying propped on a table, topless, and when Pepper goes back upstairs afterwards, the press conference from the Representative from a conservative district in Ohio who had to apologize for having made the really inappropriate comments about why women shouldn't be in charge of major defense contractors -- it's basically over, and the talking heads are just doing the post game.

"Did you get that, Jarvis?" Pepper asks.

"Of course, Ms. Potts," Jarvis says. "I have put it on Ms. Stark's viewing queue for tonight."

There is a moment of silence because Pepper knows -- and Jarvis does, too, insofar as a computer AI that started out as a way for Tony to turn lights out in the shop without having to get out of bed with whoever she happened to be entertaining, and things just sort of developed from there -- that Tony hasn't watched so much as a TV commercial since coming back from Afghanistan. Or listened to a song. Or done anything but stay in the lab and come up, once a day, to work out in the gym.

Occasionally for food, if she doesn't feel like talking to Pepper to ask for it.

...

So Pepper goes home regularly at six for the first time in years, and she watches Nightline. She is in the kitchen getting some leftovers when she hears Tony's name come up, and she uses the remote to turn up the volume.

...

The Board gets together and gives Obadiah a call after the press conference. They talk.

...

Obadiah Stane, after all, has Tony Stark well in hand. Even Jim has to admit that for the real nuts and bolts, for the day-to-day decisions, you go to Obadiah, not Tony.

...

Jim calls Obadiah after the press conference. They talk. A couple days later, Jim calls Obadiah again to touch base, go over in more detail what Jim can tell Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Justice Department and the White House and --

"Yeah, the State Department is coming in, too. Deputy Secretary Anderson called me yesterday to know why we're messing with the arms package to Pakistan -- no reason that you'd know about that. It's not official yet, but he wanted to reach out and see if there was something we could do."

"Christ. Is there anybody who isn't pissed with her?"

The line is a little fuzzy because Obadiah is on his cell phone and reception, apparently, is pretty shitty this far up in the Manhattan headquarters. "Pepper is pissed because Tony is eating all her meals down in the shop and won't even tell her when she's hungry. Tony just shows up in the kitchen and helps herself to food, Pepper says. So it's probably just you. And me."

Obadiah sounds amused, and a moment of silence goes by.

And Jim finally admits, laughing a little despite himself. "Maybe just you, Obie."

...

It's six-thirty, seven PM, and Pepper is in her kitchen with the lights off there, but on in the living room. The remote is on the counter with her, so when she hears Tony's name come up, she turns up the volume, then opens the refrigerator for the takeout Chinese from Tuesday, decides she wants the takeout Greek from Wednesday, but by the time she has the lid off, Pepper has also jammed her thumb down, hard, on the OFF button for the remote to turn that stuff off. In fact, Pepper eats her dinner in the kitchen, standing up at the counter with the lights off and a plastic fork in head, mentally writing a very firm mental note on uninviting the woman from the next Firefighter's Benefit and moving her to the list of blacklisted "Stupid Reporters Who Ask Tony Whether She Wants A Family and A Man and Therefore Make Tony Very Difficult to Handle for At Least Two Days."

There are a lot of interview requests, a lot of access requests, more than Pepper can ever remember, but when the answer is always no, followed by forwarding to Obadiah's personal assistant, it's pretty quick work.

When she's done eating, she goes back into the living room, sits down, and turns the TV on again.

Tony's old arc reactor winks at her from atop the pile of "To Pay on Saturday Morning" bills.

...

Pepper comes into work one morning and is on her way to the kitchen to make espresso because whether or not Tony has been awake for two hours or twelve hours, she likes espresso in the morning.

While she waits for the cup for Tony's espresso cup to warm properly, Jarvis informs her that Ms. Stark has gone to visit Colonel Jim Rhodes at the Air Force Base. This, Pepper decides is good news.

...

While she waits for the espresso cup to warm, Jarvis informs Pepper that Ms. Stark has gone to visit Colonel Jim Rhodes at the Air Force Base. It's a Friday afternoon. This, she decides is good news. They'll get drunk together. Possibly stagger around. Squabble. Tony will try to get into Jim's pants again, and Jim will turn her down, so they'll go out and pick up some girls. Pepper will get a call at 4AM asking her where the closest all-night liquor store is with Jim hissing, not very subtly in the background, at Tony and asking why Tony is bothering the very nice Pepper at such an hour. The girls will have long since passed out on the couch or the bed or where-ever it is that they've ended up, and Pepper full expects to fall back asleep at 4:15AM to Tony and Jim complaining about each other.

Tony is back in under two hours.

It takes fifty minutes to drive to El Segundo from Malibu. Pepper is surprised to see Tony, and Tony shrugs her jacket off, drops it on the table, and disappears down into the lab.

...

Pepper brings lunch down, and Tony doesn't look up.

...

Pepper brings dinner down, and Tony doesn't look up.

...

Here is how it should have gone: Tony shows up at the hangar, tells another bullshit story about spring break, 1987, tells pilots there that it's been a pleasure meeting them, and asks Jim to come work with her on something big. He cuts to the chase and asks her why the fuck she's playing this game. When they sat around and watched Star Wars for the eighty-fifth time, she was always more interested in building the Death Star and talking shit about how the Stormtrooper armor did nobody any good than anything else. Tony stops short, kinda laughs, and tells him maybe that's why she needs help with what she's doing. Rhodey would be a little offended by the comparison between the US and the Empire if he weren't forty-one years old, and he still doesn't like it, but they part on something resembling good terms.

Instead, Jim keeps seeing the kicked-dog look on Tony's face over the top of the forms he's supposed to fill out evaluating the pilots he had been talking to.

Instead, Tony drives home at about twenty-five miles over the speed, pours three shots of Balvenie-made twenty-one year old Scotch into a tumbler, then goes down into her shop.

Pepper hears, just before the door seals, Tony telling Jarvis to see what Obie is doing.

...

Pepper remembers being surprised when realized just how tiny her boss was: she mentioned it to Jim at one point, maybe earlier into working for Tony than she should have because it really isn't professional to talk about your boss with her best friend, but it probably wasn't professional to insist on taking a Congressman out for a Senators-and-billionaires only drinks and strippers night, and clearly, the only way to respond was to stay in the hotel and drink all the alcohol in the bar in her hotel suite. Bar, a full blown bar with a counter and a liquor display and everything and a view of Central Park to boot.

When you're Tony Stark, nothing in your life do mini anything unless it's a skirt you chase or nanobot technology. Jim kinda grinned and talked about how surprised he'd been the first time in college when he realized Tony couldn't reach the top shelf at the library. And back then, she wore baggy jeans and black t-shirts and sneakers and no heels at all, so it should have been really noticeable, and when they got even drunker, after Jim told Pepper a bunch of stories about his sister's new boyfriend, he mentioned how Tony used to wear his sweatshirts and T-shirts in college.

If they were sober, there would have been an awkward silence. Jim would have had to cover up by saying that it was because Tony never did her laundry, so she never had clean clothes, and that's why she lived in Jim's t-shirts sophomore year and junior year, wore his jeans until Jim made a poorly-placed joke about how that was the only way she was ever going to get into them, but Pepper doesn't notice. Instead, she talks about how she should stop wearing heels because even when Tony is in those ridiculous four inch ones, she is still a good four inches shorter than Pepper in flats.

When Tony wants to be, she is the biggest person in the room.

Jim met Howard and Maria: he knows Tony didn't learn it from them.

...

Obadiah comes over. Pepper looks at him, sitting with feet planted wide apart and his arm over the back of the couch, and Tony comes bounding out of the shop with defiance in every line of her body but also, the oddest smile on her face.

Pepper clears out without Tony having to say a word to her.

...

Pepper knows Tony used to have a thing for Jim, and Pepper has moved from suspecting to being pretty sure about Tony and --

...

Tony strips her shirt off over her head and comes walking over, barefoot, in her bra and jeans and the arc reactor. He traces two fingers up her stomach, from the button of her jeans to the clasp on her bra lying on just the underside of the arc reactor. Then, he traces his fingers over the diameter of the arc reactor.

"That's new," Obadiah says. "Did you retire the old one?"

Tony undoes the front of her bra and slides into his lap. He traces his finger over the glass in the middle. Taps a little and notes the way Tony runs her teeth over her bottom lip.

"It's a week or so old," Tony says. "And I don't care how hard I end up coming. You still aren't coming down to see what I'm working on."

Obadiah laughs, runs his index finger where the plate meets her chest to make her gasp, and Tony puts her arms around his neck and kisses him.

...

Tony comes back from Europe, and she goes to her first Directors of the Board meeting. She gives a small speech, but after that, nobody listens or gives her remarks and input the weight she thinks they deserve, so she crashes the after-party at a strip club: one of the Directors leaves immediately. Two others leave shortly. She closes the place down with Obadiah, and they go back to the house she grew up in, where the furniture is still draped in sheets.

And.

"Look, Tony," Obadiah says afterwards, propping himself up on an elbow. The reading lamp by the sofa is on; it shows the little nest of cushions and pillows and blankets that Tony has been sleeping in, but none of the other lights in the house are on, so shadows start five feet out and are almost complete in the corners of the room. "It isn't that they're opposed, in principle, to having a woman in the chair. It just has to be the right one."

Tony looks up, skeptical. She's naked and on her stomach with her legs stretched out behind her. The rug underneath is Chinese, red and blue on a cream background shade or two darker than her skin; Tony grew her hair long enough to be a little past her shoulders.

Obadiah still has his shirt, though it's unbuttoned all the way, but the tidy business suit -- trousers custom, jacket from Barneys', clean white shirt -- Tony had been wearing is in sections starting at the door. The shoes are neatly Tony together, but the trousers are on the threshold between foyer and living room. Her shirt is on top of a cloisonne vase that designed to match mid-winter hothouse flowers, and her underwear is underneath the coffee table, which has the draft Stark Industries stockholder's report, 1991, folded to page 14. It's as clear as the dust on every uncovered surface. Also, Tony hasn't moved up into her old bedroom. Also, Tony hasn't gone into the shop beyond turning the lights on and walking out again.

Obadiah trails the back of his hand down Tony's back, from spine to the curve of her ass. She turns her head away from him, and on the sidetable, there is a photo of her parents standing together at some function. Maria wears a silver ball gown; Howard wears white tie. Maria looks distant; Howard looks uncomfortable.

Obadiah trails his hand his hand up Tony's back, from the curve of her ass to the back of her neck.

A trash truck clangs outside; it's getting close enough to dawn that light will be coming through the curtains soon, and Tony turns to look at Obadiah with a flat, almost hostile expression. She doesn't look away, though, or even look like she's going to look away, so grinning openly, Obadiah gets to his feet.

"I'll get coffee. You need to stay awake through this."

...

"An old family nickname for me," Obadiah explains. "Tony picked it out when she was four because she decided saying my whole first name was inefficient. Four years old."

...

Tony shows up to the next Board with a completed, revised response to RFP for the major unit for next generation of heavy armored mobile warfare, and hers lists no fewer than forty-three separate points and improvements to be made to the proposed Stark Gryffin, ranging from that improved fire suppression to a reconfigured, simplified gun turret.

"Though, gentlemen, I have to say. With the talent that we have in R&D, it is a cocksucking shame that we're still in the business of trying to improve on what the Brits came up with when they decided they were tired of picking horseshit out of their teeth."

Also, four inch heels, a dress shirt unbuttoned halfway down her sternum, an excellent pushup bra, and on the middle finger of her left hand, she has her MIT ring. The thumb of her right hand has Howard's MIT ring, sized down appropriately.

Obadiah leans back in his chair and tries not to laugh too hard.

...

"I don't think the stylist intended you to wear that shirt buttoned down so low, Tony."

"Yeah, I don't think I wanted anybody to pay attention to the shirt."

There is, in fact, an edge to Tony's voice.

...

"I don't care how hard I end up coming. You're still not coming down to see what I'm working on," Tony says.

Obadiah laughs, runs his index finger where the plate meets her chest to make her gasp, and Tony puts her arms around his neck and kisses him. He flattens his palm, and the light of the arc reactor disappears. Tony moans, bends down, and sucks his fingers into her mouth.

...

"Yeah, I don't think I wanted anybody to pay attention to the shirt."

There is, in fact, an edge to Tony's voice, and Obadiah notes it, but doesn't comment and watches her unbutton her shirt the rest of the way.

...

The Board gets together and gives Obadiah a call after the press conference. They talk. It isn't hard for Obadiah to convince them the injunction is their idea when heavy drinking and compulsive womanizing and flashy suits and buying expensive art on impulse are standard behavior. It's even easier when --

...

Jim gives Pepper a call one night on her personal cell phone. She asks about his family, and he gives her a status update on the branches: his grandmother is fine, but his dad is having a little trouble with his right knee. His sister is up for partner at her consulting firm, and the cousin that she met, the one who was studying veterinary science, has decided that it would be far cooler to study theater. Theater. What's wrong with being a vet? Absolutely nothing.

She doesn't really have family that he can ask after, though, so Pepper tells him about her house. That's her proxy. And she spends more time home these days, anyways, and eventually, Jim circles around to asking how Tony is because they haven't talked in a while.

"I know she drove out to the Base. She didn't find you?"

"No, she found me." Jim taps against something three or four times, then apparently gets his courage to ask. "It didn't go well -- Pepper, what is she working on?"

Pepper is sitting outside on her pool deck. She invested in a chaise lounge, and it's why she's out there in the dark. She stretches her legs out to give herself something to do while she thinks about how to phrase things.

"I don't know. She won't tell Obadiah, either."

There's a long silence on the other line, so long that Pepper thinks Jim has hung up.

...

Pepper takes the old arc reactor to get engraved. She has a buddy in R&D, material science, and Pepper explains the lettering that she wants around the edge. He looks at the arc reactor, then at her.

"Five minutes," he says. "Jesus, that's all I'm asking."

"Paul, it's on loan from the boss."

"Three minutes. If she really does have a heart, which I doubt, she'll understand."

"No."

...

She can't answer him because he has one hand over her nose and the palm of the other over her mouth. He holds it.

"You should think about coming to New York for the next board meeting. "

She struggles a little, and he leans in to make the point. "Bring the arc reactor."

He lets his hands off; Tony sucks breath in so hard that her entire torso bends forward, but she also laughs and puts her heels in the small of Obadiah's back and pulls him all the way inside her. "Thi -- " She's short enough of breath that the words don't come easily; the word stutters out in the middle, Obadiah bends down low, grinning a little. They're in her bed with the windows looking onto the Pacific.

"Sta -- stays with me," Tony says and tilts her head back to luxuriate the feel of air in her lungs.

Fighting down the black panic, the memories of water and fear, is half the fun.

...

"She won't tell Obadiah either."

There's a long silence on the other line, so long that Pepper thinks Jim has hung up.

...

Pepper comes down into the shop with coffee and the mail and the engraved arc reactor, in a glass case and wrapped up with brown packing paper.

Tony doesn't really notice.

"I thought you weren't designing weapons anymore," Pepper says.

Tony tries to explain that she isn't, that these are just flight stabilizers, but ends up in a pile on the floor anyways.

...

Here is something to know: Tony does not, in fact, sleep with as many people as people think she does.

...

Pepper comes into work and finds Tony's shirt on the floor. Cufflinks -- Obadiah's, by the size of them -- are underneath Tony's bed. They're 24K gold, so the edges are soft; Obadiah takes good care of his things, but there are deep, matching marks in one of them. Knowing Tony, having seen other cufflinks under the bed, Pepper knows that they're probably toothmarks from being held in Tony's mouth. Pepper has seen Tony mouthing her own every once in a while, and yes, Jim sounds a little shocked that that Tony isn't telling Obadiah what she's working on either, but Pepper knows that, in a confused, Tony sort of way that makes perfect sense: Tony has never been quite so obvious about having relied on Obadiah for half of her life.

Tony trusts him to run the Board, to fix her company. To give her something she --

Pepper puts the cufflinks in an envelope and makes a mental note to give them to Obadiah.

Something else has to give. That's the way it is with Tony.

...

Pepper doesn't like girls. Not that way.

...

Tony's hair smells like expensive shampoo and conditioner and product. Tony's hands smell like mechanic's soap.

....

Pepper knows what Tony's hair smells like from buttoning up her shirt.

Pepper knows what Tony's hands smell like from buttoning her cuffs.

...

One afternoon, with Obadiah and the Board's blessing, Tony closes on a deal to sublet her brain: through certain accounting black operations, a certain dollar amount goes to R&D design to Stark Industries, and Tony promises to come in once a month and give Weapons Dev about whatever has been floating around in the back of her brain. They get to take the ideas and run with them, in-house, as far as they can manage. Thirty minutes at the end of each session is given over to trouble-shooting. They have problems, they bring them to her. Tony promises not to go home and build infinitely better versions of them in her shop with floss and a year's worth of MAD magazines from the mid 1980's; the government pays her company a ridiculous amount of money. It's a one-of-a-kind deal for a one-of-a-kind mind, the three-star general who signs for the government says.

Tony is understandably a little excited about this, and they're in the Rolls -- Pepper, Rhodey, with Tony tucked between them. Tony shakes her hair out of the chignon with a happy noise and says, "Ladies and gentlemen, this calls for a little celebration."

"Tony."

Pepper says it with inflection number 213, which conveys that her boss has a long day ahead of her tomorrow, and that time would best be spent eating a light, nutritious meal, reading some files that need reading, and settling into bed, alone, with an eye-mask.

"Pepper." Tony says it with inflection number -- there really isn't an inflection. Tony is so pleased with herself and the world that it drips and hangs from every sound she makes, including the way she settles back against the seat. No inflection necessary. Golden sun slants through the windows and picks out her profile against the window.

"I think you know where we need to go, Happy."

"I think I do, Ms. Stark." Happy glances up in the rearview mirror, and Tony stretches her legs out. Not as long as Pepper's, not as long as Rhodey's, and if she's sitting this far back on the seat, they don't quite touch the floor if she isn't wearing heels.

"Make me happy." Pause, then a glance around because Tony is just that pleased with herself this afternoon. "Happy."

...

Happy is an second-generation Stark employee: his mom was one of the first typists at the New York office, and Tony and Happy apparently used to play together with the mimeograph machine. She bossed him around; at nine, he would sit in a wheeled office chair, pretending o be a test driver on the latest stealth jet-propelled race car, and three year old Tony would pretend to stopwatch time his tests down the company halls. With age, Tony mellowed enough to let men hold doors for her -- Obadiah put the cap on it by bribing a pair of male PR interns to always hold the door him if Tony was there, and that convinced her that at least sometimes, it was a respect thing, not a woman-and-tiny-and-you-can't-possibly-walk-and-open-that-big-heavy-door thing. Happy is the only one she doesn't mind letting do it, though.

Pepper makes an unhappy noise: they're going to be spending the night in a strip club, aren't they? And she's going to have to stick around to make sure doesn't blow anything up. And.

She catches Happy's eye in the rearview mirror. He grins a little.

...

Obie, Rhodey, Pepper: in addition to being bad about calling people by their proper names, Tony has never been very good at categorizing or compartmentalizing. All she knows is that these are her people. They're the closest analogue she has to friends or family or lovers. Tony doesn't build dividing walls in whatever is left of her heart, and the result is a muddle. In the cave, she tells Yinsen that she doesn't have anybody; in her shop, she tells Pepper that Pepper is all she has.

Obie tries to kill her. Rhodey has history with her. Pepper doesn't like girls.

...

Pepper doesn't like girls, at least not that way, and working for Tony Stark isn't going to change that.

She puts Tony's watch on for her, too, when Tony is busy talking on the phone and changing the channel on the TV and eating breakfast and shooting Obadiah the finger through the video conference link, so Pepper knows what the inside of Tony's wrist looks and feels like.

...

For example, there is the habit that Tony has where, whenever she figures something out, she writes it down with whatever happens to be at hand. Sometimes, it's pen. Sometimes, it's pencil. A couple times, it happened to be Christian Dior lipstick, which was annoying to clean up, but was at least clearly visible: Tony wrote down a materials engineering insight underlying the evasion algorithm on the AS-22 strike missile in lip gloss on the mirror of the master bathroom, and Pepper had to go in and transcribe it in a form that she could send to the engineers. Was that a three or a five?

"It's a three," Tony says. She's standing in the bathroom door in gym shorts and a gray t-shirt; the room is still warm from Tony's shower, and she comes padding over in bare feet to give Pepper a quick, compact primer on rocket propulsion systems. Pepper isn't sure she really understands it, and a month later, it's totally out of her head. In the meantime, though, eight days after the lecture, she is back at the Nevada Proving Grounds with Tony. They watch a General Defense Contractor's entry into the corporate beauty contest faceplant into the bedrock, and Pepper, with her agenda and clipboard against her chest, blurts out, "They forgot about balancing."

A not-insignificant amount of military brass and gentlemen in white lab coats turns around.

Tony has the biggest, most pleased smile that Pepper has ever seen on her boss's face.

...

They're at the strip club. Loud music. A discreet view of the floor show from the back-of-the-back, upstairs-of-the-upstairs VIP area. House management is smart enough to turn on, remotely, the track light directly over the screen of Pepper's Blackberry; it's her turn to be in the middle, so she sits in between Rhodey and Tony on the ends of the booth, and a girl comes sashaying over to see if the good-looking woman is as generous as her boss. Over the top of her Blackberry, Pepper can see height. Long hair. Heels, probably. Pepper blushes up to her cheekbones, can't really think of what to say, so she keeps her knees pressed tight together and her fingers typing into her Blackberry. Blonde, maybe? She doesn't know. Definitely heels. Glitter inside the clear heels, too, in fact.

"No, honey, Pepper doesn't really like girls," Tony says, easily. "But I do. Come over here and show me what you'd do for her."

Pepper makes a noise in her throat; Rhodey shifts on the other side of her. There's a beer in his hand and a Sprite in front of Pepper and Tony has bottle service, of course, and is -- an uncountable number of glasses into a thing of champagne so big that it could probably be used to put out a midsize apartment complex that happened to catch on fire. No, Pepper isn't looking. Yes, her eyes are glued to the Blackberry screen.

"What should I call you?" Tony asks. She leans close, says something in Tony's ear that makes Tony laugh, and the club is no-touching, but the girl touches her hand to Tony's cheek, puts her hand on Tony's knee when she's bending over in front of Tony and between Tony's legs.

Tony puts her hand over the girl's. The girl arches her back, and yeah, Tony's nose must be about two inches from the smallest g-string in history.

...

Pepper doesn't like girls.

...

Pepper isn't interested in girls.

...

Pepper doesn't do Tony's makeup. Tony pays mid-five digits to a man who has won four Oscars and about sixteen Golden Globes to take care of her face for everything from Board meetings to a particularly high-profile drinking binge, flies him or his best assistant halfway around the world sometimes, but if Tony needs a touchup before or after, Pepper is the one who does it.

...

They're in the strip club, and the music is loud with a heavy bass beat, but the girl between Tony's legs isn't following. Tony doesn't seem to mind in the least, and the girl moves Tony's hand from Tony's knee to her knee, and when the girl is done dancing to whatever song is in her head, Tony gives her some extra fifties, and the girl turns around and kisses Tony on the cheek. She leaves a smear of glitter, and Tony laughs and wipes it off with the back of her hand.

"Don't let your floor manager see you do that," Tony says.

The girl grins an -- Pepper keeps her eyes glued to the screen of the Blackberry. About ten minutes after that, Rhodey points out there's no reason for her to stick around. Happy can get her home, and he'll take charge of getting Tony back safely, and yeah, what time does Tony need to be up tomorrow?

...

For a moment, a moment before the girl really starts dancing, Pepper looks away from the screen of her Blackberry, and Tony -- Tony is looking at her, actually. Pepper, not the girl. It's dark, and there is a strange smile on Tony's face. Pepper looks at Tony. Tony looks back at her. It is a funny kind of smile that Tony has, a funny kind of look on Tony's face, and then, the girl between Tony's legs does this thing with her hips, so Tony turns and pays attention to her. The girl is definitely taller than Tony; bent over like that, with Tony sitting, her --

Pepper glues her eyes to the Blackberry. She isn't looking. She isn't --

...

It isn't like this is Pepper's first time through these situations, and it isn't like this is the first time with Tony, either. It's more just -- maybe it was how happy Tony was that night. Smiles are expressive. The expression on Tony's face had said things.

We could.

I'd do this.

You want to?

The way Tony's hair smells. The way Tony's hands smell. Tony, with her face tilted up, eyes closed. Tony always licks the inside left corner of her mouth, so Pepper has to repaint the lipstick there with a brush, and Tony has to hold her breath and keep very still.

Tony's mouth would taste like the breathmints that Pepper keeps for herself in her purse and that Tony keeps stealing.

...

Pepper remembers the time she fished half of an Assignment and Assumption Agreement out from under the bed because Tony fucked the lawyer who brought it to her for signing and thinking, Jesus, right above her head was probably where Tony fingerfucked a Harvard Law grad into coming so hard that Pepper could still see the stain on the bed. Pepper remembers the time that Tony casually decided to sit on Pepper's knee while arguing with Rhodey about something; Pepper remembers the time she accidentally drank out of Tony's tumbler of Scotch and the way it burned the whole way down with Tony watching, knowing that Pepper had drunk out of her glass, but not saying anything and kind of smiling. Tony had looked at her while that girl arched her back and worked herself over Tony's lap.

Pepper grips her Blackberry hard the whole way ride back to her place. Says very little but "Good night" to Happy. Tries not to think about the noises she knows Tony's girls make -- once in a while, Tony comes back for leftovers after a couple hours in the lab. The girls tend to squeal because Tony needs a shower, then start moaning for other reasons. Pepper usually retreats to the art wing and puts on some nice earmuffs, like the kind used on gun ranges, and now, Pepper grips her Blackberry so hard the edges dig into her hands.

Pepper comes into work the next morning. Pepper fishes Tony out of Rhodey's off-base condo. Six days later, on her birthday, Pepper cleans up after Christine Everhart and Tony.

...

Three months later, Tony leans back, and Pepper, very carefully, puts her fingers into Tony's chest.

No shirt. No soap. No watches or buttons or makeup.

...

Bras actually fit OK with a little bit of tugging and strap fiddling, and Pepper knows better than to ask if Tony wants to be fitted for some custom ones. The stylist calls Pepper and asks if there's anything she can do: can she bring her team over? Tony has to be way, way overdue for a haircut. Actually, Tony got one at the Air Force base in Germany, and Pepper turns down the video clip Jarvis is showing her where two of the View hosts are talking about how bad they feel about what Tony went through over there, and one of them explains that Tony is taking it easy for a while.

Three months back, Pepper walks into Tony's closet and stands there, two days after her birthday, the day after Tony goes missing and is probably dead in the dust, and Tony's closet smells like clean clothes. Pepper is diligent about dry cleaning. The maids changed the sheets the afternoon.

No shirt. No soap. No watches or buttons or makeup or breathmints or Tony.

Pepper puts her Blackberry on the dresser and goes and sits on the empty bed. She pulls her knees to her chest and wraps her arms around her knees.

...

Pepper missed Ton --

...

Pepper missed Ton --

...

"I don't have anybody else," Tony says to her and looks her in the eye.

Pepper almost believes it for a whole second: what about Rhodey? What about Obadiah?

"Everybody knows how you are with girls," she says, somewhat later. And guys. And girls and guys together. The relevant one at hand, though, is the bit about girls, but some impulse makes Pepper do stupid things, so she closes her eyes most of the way and leans forward. They didn't dance, but they're out on the balcony, and she can smell Tony. She can see Tony. Through her lashes, she can see the arc reactor shining underneath Tony's gown.

Tony hesitates, then leans forward.

Pepper opens her eyes and lets her breath out. "I need a drink."

...

Still at the strip club: "Is Pepper gone?"

Jim has his feet up on the banquette and looks over at Tony. "Yeah. Happy came for her five minutes ago -- you ready to go now?"

Tony kind of shrugs, turns up one corner of her mouth, and looks away to the floor show below. "I could do with some beer."

...

"You asked. What you're asking about is me." Tony says. Her voice has an odd echo to it. "It's not a piece of equipment. It's me -- "

...

Tony comes home from Gulmira, and Pepper comes down into the shop, expecting to see Tony fiddling at the workbench or watching TV or eating a sandwich. Instead, the grown-up, on-horse-steroids cousin of Butterfingers is unscrewing what looks like battle armor from Tony's chest.

"Face it," Tony says. "This isn't the worst thing you've caught me doing."

Something with eight fingers is trying to take off the back of her calf.

...

Pepper stretches her legs out to give herself something to do while she thinks about how to phrase things.

"I don't know. She won't tell Obadiah, either. When I left, he was over there, and she was drinking and. I think she -- I was supposed to go because they wanted to talk."

There's pause, just a moment, between to and talk.

...

Pepper calls him again, and this time, she is so panicked that he has to tell her to slow down because he can't make out what she's saying. Pepper does slow down, and several thoughts come through Jim's head.

Thought one: Obadiah has gone crazy.

Thought two: No, Tony wouldn't tell Obadiah what she was working on. That has always made Obadiah a little crazy.

Pepper says that Obadiah is trying to kill Tony, but Jim doesn't even need to hear that because he's just had -- "Oh sweet fuck," Rhodey says and changes lanes and floors the gas.

...

Thought three: how long has it been going on?

...

Tony has done a couple of magazine covers, but she's too angry to really make journalists comfortable, so she doesn't have many of them, and she gave the Apogee Award away to a Caesar impersonator just off the casino floor. She doesn't have a chance in hell with Pepper; Jim has had a pretty good idea of the clusterfuck that is the inside of Tony's head since she was fifteen. He has his limits.

Maybe Pepper puts a new heart inside Tony's chest, but only if Tony asks her to. Taking it out again, waiting for her in the dark of the house. Thirty years cultivating and raising and shaping her: Obadiah. Only Obadiah.

Obadiah doesn't have limits.

...

"Jim," Obadiah says and holds his hand out. "Congratuations on the tassel."

Jim is wearing his graduation gown; the tassel hangs in his eyes, and he reaches over and grasps Obadiah's hand. Obadiah turns, puts his arm over Jim's shoulder, and introduces Jim to Tony's parents.

...

Four years of school, and neither of Tony's parents ever come up to visit her. Seventeen years on, Tony still worships her father.

And Obadiah would come up to see Tony once or twice a semester. She took the train to New York a couple times to hang out with him when he couldn't make it up to Cambridge, and Jim remembers fifteen year old Tony, sitting on the floor of his dorm room, phone in her lap, two weeks into knowing Rhodey, and having a long, rambling discussion with Obadiah about corporate bond structure.

...

Thought three: how long has --

...

Jim finds Tony on the floor in the shop Her face is white, and her clothes are soaked with sweat. He steps through the broken safety glass and picks her up bodily. An ambulance. Why the fuck didn't she call an ambulance? What did Obadiah do to her? Why didn't Jarvis do anything? Jim can't see any visible marks on Tony, but he props her against the work bench, and she heaves for breath. She grips his shoulder.

Why are the glass walls around the shop missing?

Tony asks where Pepper is.

"Pepper is fine. She's with five agents. They're about to arrest Obadiah."

The lights are on, and Tony tilts her head down, looks at the floor for a second, then looks back at him, having made the calculation.

"That's not going to be enough."

She puts her hand out on Rhodey's shoulder and pulls against it to stand back up, turn. They start walking towards the suit.

...

Halfway to the suit, Tony's knees go out from under her, and Jim has to catch her.

...

Halfway to the suit, Tony's knees go out from under her. Jim has to catch her.

...

Tony tells Jarvis to execute evasive maneuvers, but hasn't quite hung up the Bluetooth connection before the suit starts moving: on the screen, Rhodey sees a hundred and thirty-eight million dollars of absolute air superiority outclassed by a suit built in a basement.

In his ear, he hears Tony laughing, happier than he has ever heard her.

...

Obadiah settles her on the couch and comes around the side.

...

Objectively, Obadiah was around when Tony was younger, but Tony doesn't remember a lot about him from that period. Clear memories of him start with a conversation, a couple weeks before her eleventh birthday, on a balcony overlooking Fifth Avenue, about how the Pentagon's weapon development bid system works. It's cold on the balcony because it's November in New York City, but his voice is warm, and he laughs when she tells him to hurry up. She already knows that part. He touches her on the shoulder, then on the back of the neck.

...

Halfway to the suit, Tony's knees go out from under her, and Jim has to catch her with one hand underneath each shoulder. Her legs won't work. Tony tries to get them to work, but she can't put any weight on them before they go out on her again.

"Get me to the suit," she says, and he just looks at her face, pale and sweating. The corners of her mouth shake from the effort of having tried to walk.

It would be ridiculously easy to pick her up and carry her upstairs and keep her there.

"The suit has an exoskeleton," Tony pants, sort of hanging there between his hands, and she looks over at the suit.

Jim looks over there, too.

"I'll be fine," Tony says, and Jim looks down at her.

What should he say? It would be really easy to put her over his shoulder and carry her up the stairs. Hell, he wouldn't even have to put her over her shoulder. He could just pick her up, and she probably wouldn't have the strength to kick him, much less get down the stairs again. Pepper has five SHIELD agents with her, and yes, Jim has had a few dealings with them before. It's a small world on the bleeding edge of weapons development. SHIELD can take care of its own damn self and then some. He'd be more worried about Oba --

...

Jim remembers the day of graduation. He remembers shaking hands with Howard and Maria -- it had been oddly formal, and Tony was being more than a little difficult. Howard and Maria didn't seem to notice; Obadiah did.

Jim remembers Obadiah.

Obadiah was the one who took the photo, in fact, of Tony standing between the people she loved most in the world.

...

" -- you think that just because you have an idea, it belongs to you?"

...

Tony can't quite get the words to beg out of her mouth, but she doesn't have the strength to stand anymore. She can't even quite look him in the face; Tony just sort of tilts her chin up and looks off into the far distance. She knows what he's thinking about.

Jim looks down at her.

Jim puts his other hand under her knees and carries her over the shop floor, over to the suit.

....

" -- your Ninth Symphony."

...

Jim guides her feet into the footpieces holds her steady while the chest, with the window in the middle for the arc reactor, comes down.

"You need me to do anything else?" he says.

The turns to look at him, considering, but the voice that comes out sounds nothing like Tony.

...

Jim puts his other hand under her knees and carries her over the shop floor, over to the suit. Tony, despite herself, lets out this noise somewhere between a sob and a gasp and lets her head rest on Jim's shoulder for a moment. She closes her eyes.

Obadiah backhands Tony into the side of a bus.

Tony rips the optic cable out of Obadiah's suit.

"I'd have this girlfriend," Tony says to Pepper.

...

Tony rips the optic cable out of Obadiah's suit, and Obadiah crushes Tony's helmet in one hand. She loses a repulsor, so one weapon down, but more importantly, even if she squeezes a last burst of juice from the arc reactor, no flying. It isn't like she had a lot of options before, but Obadiah has no options. The moment Pepper found Agent Coulson in the lobby, it was over for him, and they both know it.

Obadiah isn't stupid. Tony hangs on with all the strength in her arms and, by extension of the exoskeleton, her mind, and Pepper puts makeup on Tony's hands, on her face. Tony wears an undershirt, then the dress shirt, then her jacket, buttoned fairly high. Tony turns her face, and Pepper checks the coverage on Tony's cheekbone.

...

"I would have this girlfriend -- " Tony says, angling her head and looking Pepper in the eye.

It doesn't work, of course. Tony had been there, after all, when Pepper went up to Not-My-First-Rodeo Coulson and basically told him to call her. Pepper is still straight. Pepper doesn't like girls that way, and Tony holds the look for a moment longer, and then Pepper makes sure the shirt lies smoothly over the arc reactor

...

"Just stick to the cards," Jim says in her ear.

"I think I should say it was just Pepper and me," Tony says to Agent Coulson.

...

 

"Just make it through this," Obadiah says in her ear. Rain pours down over the coffins; somebody holds an umbrella over them, and Obadiah's hand is pressed against the small of her back.

...

The desert is brutally cold at night and catastrophically hot during the day: she had no water, no cover, no method of signaling. Tony knows she was staggeringly lucky to have been found and unthinkably lucky to be found by Jim, who recognized her on sight, and you should know this by now: identity is not a fixed point. Identity is not height. Identity is neither dress nor costume. Nevertheless, change the shape of the body underneath, and expectations shift. Memories and, to an extent, personality follow. Think of identity as a musical piece with a hundred notes. Play it on a cello, and all one hundred notes are there, but some will be louder, and some will be softer than if you played it on a viola. Or a trumpet. Or a cornet. Same piece. Different sound.

Tony has more more heartbreak; Tony grows up angrier. Hungrier. Tony falls asleep in Jim's college bed, and he has to explain to his roommate, to his RA, to his parents. Tony walks out of a board room, standing every inch of five foot three in flats, seven in heels, and Obadiah has openings, opportunities with the Board, with the major shareholders. Tony wakes up in a cave in Afghanistan with a battery hooked up to her chest, watching a man shave himself in a fragment of mirror. Shortly after that, other men take her into a dark room. It is no longer so cold that her breath hangs in the air, but when the door shuts, for a long, frightening moment, all Tony can think, over and over, clutching the battery, is that she is going to be raped. They are going to rape her. They are going to --

It is, in fact, a relief when they hold her head under water. Tony gives in and agrees to build the missile before they try anything else: the shame of giving in so easily is something that she has to deal with later, but they put her head under water, and she sees the arc reactor. She hears Pepper's voice. She remembers her father. She remembers Obadiah. She remembers that she has loved Jim for twenty years; she is probably in love with Pepper. She loved Obadiah; she comes to love Yinsen. While playing backgammon, she asks him whether he is going to stone her for showing her ankles. He looks confused, then disappointed. Then amused.

Mostly, though, Tony sees the arc reactor. She smells the forge. She knows the strength in her hands and the light in her mind. She mourns Yinsen more intensely than she has ever mourned anything in her life. For the first time, in fact, Tony feels an emotion that has nothing to do with her or her fears or her wants: she doesn't remember going through the camp and burning every person she lays her eyes on. She barely remembers flying to Gulmira. Or the boy. Or the Jerichos. Or the dogfight.

Still.

There is an explosion. She escapes.

...

Christine sits in the front row, unimpressed. Tony grins and leans forward on the podium. It's still too tall to be comfortable. The press eyes her warily, not quite comfortable with her. There has never been a reporter that Tony can comfortably call by his or her first name.

"You need me to do anything else?" Jim said in the workshop.

"Just keep the skies clear."

...

The explosion from the munitions actually helps her gain more altitude than she otherwise have had: the arc downward will start at any moment, and --

When she goes back to Gulmira, after she outflies the F-22's, there is a moment when she skims low over the dunes.

...

Obadiah was the last person living who remembered Tony before MIT, before her parents died, before she made her first circuit board, and she remembers, vividly, the day they stood on a balcony overlooking Fifth Avenue, and they talked about her father's company, her future. Obadiah touched her on the shoulder and the back of the neck to suggest that they go inside when, eventually, it started to rain. Tony doesn't move. Obadiah goes inside. She stays alone.

...

Christine sits in the front row, unimpressed.

"I am Iron Man," Tony says, and the room explodes, and all she sees is --

...

Tony crests the dune, and for a long, glorious moment, all she sees is sky.