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Honestly, the Nerve

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It's not that Pepper Potts doesn't like interviews. She's a professional and she understands that reporters have set questions to ask, both for their readers and the editors breathing down their necks. The CEO of Stark Industries just wishes they weren't so rote. Is it too much to ask for a little variety?

This current reporter, a skinny young woman with slightly too much makeup, seems pretty new to the job. She's getting bolder as the questions continue and Pepper answers in turn. She tells the magazine (she doesn't remember which one this is, maybe this is one of the British ones?) about their plans for Stark Tower on Park Avenue, the way it will be powered solely by an arc reactor, completely off the grid for emissions. It will be the first prototype of something beyond LEED-certified and Pepper gestures with her hands the shape of the skyscraper, the plans she and Tony had conjured up on his holo-table last week.

“I thought you were taking some time off,” Tony says confusedly, distractedly, from where he's standing over one of the Stark Industries holo-tables. He peers at her, dressed in the light blue jacket and straight black pants and then back at himself, like it's hard to understand why she isn't also wearing jeans and a grease-stained top.

“And I thought you were going to bed at some point last night,” Pepper retorts but there's little ire in her voice. She knows who Tony Stark is, and knew exactly what she invited into her life. Both of her lovers are nocturnal and she's resigned to going to bed alone more often than not. The man winces, gestures to the table in front of him.

“But look! It's almost done, Pep!” Her heels click-clack on the tile floor of his workshop, a familiar sound to both of them. He reaches into the holographic image and spins it so it's facing her. It's a building, balconies and sloping roof and STARK clearly written on the side. “See, these ten floors can be for r&d, these can be for living and sleeping in, medical-” He points to each level of the skyscraper in turn.

“And all this can be powered from that?” Pepper places a hand over the white cotton, over the blue light that glows in Tony's chest. He reaches up to cover her hand with his larger, warmer one. They’re missing the third, slim hand that usually completes them; it’s been too long since the shorter redhead has been in their life thanks to her job and Pepper frowns.

It’s like Tony knows what she’s thinking, because his hand tightens briefly on hers before dropping back through the virtual building in front of him. “I haven’t heard anything since Nick hates me, but she said this mission should last a month. She’ll be back soon.”

“So, can we sidetrack to the personal matters?” The reporter's pen is poised above her notebook and Pepper collects her thoughts with a slight shake of her head.

“Yes, that's fine.” Pepper knows the way these interviews worked, the readers all want some sort of description of private life.

“There has been a resurgence of rumors on how you got the position of CEO for Stark Industries.” Pepper tries not to roll her eyes because this line of questioning is old. She wonders what had started it this time. “Most of them involve the idea that Mr. Stark gave the title to you in a fit of passion.” While Pepper certainly wouldn't call that time in her life anything approaching passion – Tony's near death, Vanko and Monaco, the late nights as she learned to fight the corporate board without Tony's figurehead behind her – she knew how it had looked to the outside world.

The redhead takes a minute to gather her thoughts, it's been a while since she had to explain for the record. “Mr. Stark and I,” Pepper began carefully, seeming to weigh each word before speaking. It was a habit born of unfortunate long practice. “while we are involved now in a romantic capacity, were not involved at the time he handed the title of CEO to me. That's all I have to say on the subject.” She's still insulted by the question, make no mistake. But answering it has become rote, the world at large always interested in the implausible love affair, rags-to-riches story that they seemed to believe Pepper represented. (She made good money working solely as Tony's personal assistant, even if she did trade in a social life.)

“Your answer brings me to my next question,” the woman finishes writing Pepper's short and pointed description on the bottom of her notebook page. “I received these photos from an undisclosed source and was wondering if you'd care to comment.” The reporter pulls a manila envelope from her purse and slides them across the coffee table to Pepper. The redhead opens them and her mouth turns down. They're surveillance photos, taken from a distance, the one night that she, Tony and Natasha had a late night dinner. Pepper flips through the small stack of grainy images, seeing that yes, the camera did catch Natasha and her in a liplock, though the image where it's Pepper's hand on the shorter woman's cheek is probably more telling than any kiss.

“Where did you get these?” Pepper cuts her eyes to the woman. Her skin crawls at the idea she was followed so covertly; it’s different, knowing what your lover does for a living and having the tables turned on you.

“Would you care to make a statement, Ms. Potts?” The reporter is unruffled by Pepper's angry tone. “If not, I could certainly use the description included with the photographs: Pepper Potts and Tony Stark with unidentified woman, who happens to look an awful lot like her former assistant, one Natalie Rushman.” Pepper sucks in a breath. “I have no doubt the adoring public would have little trouble believing that if you didn’t get your job on your back, you could very well be keeping it by your involvement in this.” She waves the photograph of the two women slightly. The glossy paper shines in the overhead light of the office.

“You think I’m involved with Nat-” Pepper swallows the rest of the name. The world at large has no idea the former assistant is actually a master spy and ex-assassin. She tries again, hoping it would seem that she was having trouble speaking - that much, at least, was true. “You think I’m involved with Natalie to make Tony happy?”

The young woman with slightly too much makeup nodded, looking eagerly at Pepper for confirmation or denial. Pepper sighs. “I am not with Natalie solely because it makes Tony happy. No one should be with someone because it makes someone else happy; be with whom you want because it makes you happy. Natalie makes me happy. Tony makes me happy. We are happy with her, we are happy with each other, and they even get along at this point.” Pepper gave a slight laugh at that admission, because it had been a rocky road for the redhead to regain the trust of the man after her reveal as a SHIELD agent. “I am fortunate enough to be afforded enough protection through my job and status that this usually isn’t much of an issue.” Pepper narrows her eyes. “Let me be blunt: I am sleeping with both of them. It is my choice, my decision and I am deeply insulted you would imply otherwise. That is all off the record and if I see anything in print, I’ll know exactly who to go to. Now get out of my office.”

The reporter keeps scribbling and Pepper points toward the door with a glare when she looks up. The woman flushes pink, shuts her notebook and picked her purse up. Pepper stands from the couch to watch her leave, listening to the door shut with a final click. Then she drops back down to the leather-covered seat and tips her head back.

Pepper is fairly certain Tony will get a laugh out of this, but she makes a mental note to call the editor of the magazine in the morning and review proper interview questions. Somewhere along the line wires got crossed, clearly. For now, she picks up her tablet computer, decides to leave the stack of papers on her desk, and heads back to the mansion. There’s little use in trying to work when she’s this angry.

It’s a few hours, a relaxing bath and a glass of wine later that Pepper relays the story to the man and woman she loves, knuckles white around the stem of the glass of cabernet in her left hand. “I just, the audacity! Can you believe it? I have never been so insulted.”

Tony frowns as Natasha slowly unhooks each of Pepper’s fingers from around the drink. “At least you handled it before it was leaked, I know how much you love dealing with that sort of thing,” Tony responds sarcastically. “Who did she work for again?” He reaches for his virtual notepad on the side table next to him, drumming his free hand on her knee. Natasha slips an arm around Pepper, kissing the side of her head.

“Tony, no. I’ll call the editor tomorrow, it’s all off the record anyway-” Pepper protests until Natasha’s hand on her upper arm squeezes lightly. Tony keeps tapping at the screen in front of him.

“You did what you could,” the woman says calmly. “Now is the time for relaxing, not talking.” Tony looks up at that and Natasha rolls her eyes in a manner that could be considered fond.