When Virginia Potts was nine years old, her parents die in a car crash.
It's nothing more dramatic than a slick road and a guardrail too weak to catch five-thousand pounds of rented van.
She lives with her grandmother - her mother's mother - until she is seventeen. It is not a warm relationship. Her grandmother is always Grandmother. When Virginia signs that modeling contract (University, after all, costs money, and while the Graber name is well thought of in Dundee County, the funds have not been present for nearly two generations), it is understood that Grandmother believes that beneath her, and should she take this path, there will be no going back. Fallen women can repent, but they would only be tolerated.
Virginia does not look back, but in time, she does appreciate the structure her Grandmother gave her, even if she can't forgive the lack of affection.
Ginny learns quickly. She is also incredibly easy to underestimate.
Her agent is the first to learn this lesson.
Big blue eyes, red hair, and freckles make an odd sensation on runways in Europe, but Ginny's seeming malleability and impressive balance override the nay-sayers. She spends two seasons strutting down fifty feet of stage; diamonds, silks, and every fabric inbetween hanging on her thin, coltish frame.
She is quiet during the shows and the after parties. Keeps her eyes and ears open and learns. Brushing her fingers on the weights of fabrics, cataloging styles and cuts. She lingers near designers during their inevitable freak-outs, and begins to ask questions when they aren't expecting it.
By the time business men, more interested in having arm candy than an actual conversation, begin to ask her out, she has a plan. She agrees, goes on the dates, and pays attention when colleagues join them at the table. Perfects the vacant expression and an ability to blend into the background, even wearing the slightest of dresses and highest of heels.
Ginny knows that there is more than one kind of education.
Walking into her first accounting class at Columbia, she is calm and centered and completely sure that this is where she needs to be.
She is Pepper Potts for thirteen years.
She becomes Pepper - not Virginia, or Ginny - because she is good at her job, and catches a tiny accounting error that manages to save Stark Industries about ten thousand dollars. Normally, this would earn someone a polite "thank you". Possibly a gift card, or a mention at the holiday party, should a supervisor be particularly grateful.
But, no. Because the woman who became Pepper caught a mathematical error (admittedly, a drunken one) made by Tony Stark.
This changes everything. This changes nothing.
Pepper/Virginia/Ginny is very, very good at making contacts. Networking. Acquaintances. There is nowhere in the world she is more at home than in a group of people who want something from her. She is easy and graceful and many other adjectives.
What she is not, what she never has been, good at is friendship.
Life at the top, personal assistant to one of the richest men in the world, is a lonely place. And Pepper knows - more than the half-hearted sexual harassment, or the frustration, or the insane demands for competence - it's that loneliness that has broken her predecessors.
But Pepper? Pepper thrives.
All she has been, Virginia and Ginny, makes Pepper. It is a foundation that is unique and perfect, and while it does take time to settle and to learn and to create formality and structure, she does it.
Pepper creates and is created, and for many years, it is right.
But Pepper has learned her lessons, so when Tony disappears and changes, is changed, she tries to take it in stride.
He is different though. And his absence - moreso his reappearance - changes her too.
Because when she looks at him, after... When he looks at her, there is more. There is the desire and the push for more.
For all that Pepper(/Virginia/Ginny) has been alone, so has he.
This changes nothing. This changes everything.
Becoming Pepper Stark is not an easy thing.
The name change is simple; a quick application for a marriage license, a quiet ceremony, two signatures, and a lot of change-of-name applications. But becoming. That is different. That is hard.
Because Pepper Stark is something other than anything she's ever been before. Something more. Pepper Stark is a wife. A partner. Something new, and scary, and nothing anyone she's ever been before has prepared her for.
Pepper Stark is not alone.