The New York offices of Stark Industries are trying to call in eminent domain on an old apartment building's lot. Naturally, there's an uproar, and naturally, Pepper's been called in to do damage control. Why the board haven't set their own personal assistants to work on the matter, she's not sure; it's not as though Pepper's been in New York long enough to know which way is up any time in the last decade.
Still, they're paying her extra to go out and see to it, and Tony's promised to keep quiet while they're there, leaving the suit at home and everything. His definition of 'quiet' probably includes hitting every bar in at least lower Manhattan and sleeping with at least three girls that week, but that doesn't require half as much work to spin to the public as Iron Man's escapades do.
Anyway, the first full day they're in New York, they go to meet with the lawyer representing the apartment building's landlord. She's very articulate, and even though Pepper suspects property law isn't her specialty, she does a very good job of laying out the landlord's case.
"In any case," she finishes, "this would hardly be a profitable move for your company, Mr. Stark. The building as it stands isn't very well suited to the company's needs, and whether you remodeled it or tore it down to start from scratch, you'd spend a lot more on the investment than you'd get back."
Tony shrugs. "It's not me you have to convince, it's the board. They're the ones who have their hearts set on doing it. Really, I'm more on your side - they're probably just upset that I've been paying more attention to what they're up to these days."
"Well. Maybe that'll make things easier on Friday. That's all I've got for now."
Tony takes that opportunity to leave; once he's gone, Pepper sighs. "I don't know why the board called us in on this. It's not like we know the city that well anymore."
"That may well have been part of their logic. They're set on getting this building, for all I can't see why - maybe they thought since you're out of practice, you'd agree more readily."
"If it's new offices they want, all they had to do was ask. There's more than enough money for them to remodel what they have, but after this, I doubt Mr. Stark will do much more than let them reshuffle their current furniture."
The lawyer grins. "And they'll have earned it. Property law isn't my usual field, but I had good cause to read up on it, a few years back, and this case... sounded too familiar to let it slide by."
"Were you still around for the riot on Avenue B?"
Pepper thinks back for a few moments. "I think so," she finally says, "but I was living in Midtown, so I only heard about it in passing. Something about a business trying to run out squatters, right?"
"The landlord had lived with the people in the building, before marrying into the ownership, and had promised them they wouldn't have to pay anything. Between that and turning out a tent city on its ear without offering the people in it anywhere else to go... well. My ex-girlfriend organised the protest, but the actual riot was more attention than even she could have hoped for."
"Oh dear. I never heard how that situation turned out."
The lawyer shrugs. "As well as could be expected. The business venture fell apart, the building's still there, and a couple of them are still in it. There's been some talk about turning the vacant lot into a proper homeless shelter, but the trick would be convincing the people they could come back."
"I can definitely see where that would be complicated." Pepper glances out the window, then adds, "I think I'd better get going. Make sure he doesn't cause too much trouble, and all that. It was lovely meeting you, Ms. Jefferson."
"You too. And please, call me Joanne."
Pepper smiles, a little less guarded than her usual professional smile, and heads out.
A couple days later, Pepper almost literally runs into Joanne by accident. Turns out they were both headed to lunch; after a bit of conversation, they decide they might as well go to the same place for it.
"What about Mr. Stark?" Joanne says, while they scan their menus.
Pepper sighs. "He's holed himself up writing out schematics for the day. Better that than him running around town causing trouble, I suppose, but I'm sure he'll get to that tonight."
"He does seem to have a talent for that."
The conversation meanders along after they place their orders, and before Pepper knows it, it's nearly two hours later, and she's agreed to meet Joanne and her friends for dinner over the weekend. Joanne does look a little surprised that she asked, but she doesn't rescind the offer.
And, well. Tony's always saying that Pepper need to take more time to herself than she does. It might have arisen from business, but this is definitely becoming personal, and she can't say she really minds.
Friday comes, and the board is decidedly less than pleased to find Tony agreeing with Joanne and the apartment building's landlord. They don't show it as obviously as they might, probably because it's not just Tony in there, but Pepper's been watching their reactions for years now.
She's schooling her own outward reactions, of course, especially when Tony confirms her hunch that he would have sponsored a remodel of their current office building, if they'd just asked. She's impressed; only one of the board members scowls outright, upon realising the lost opportunity.
"So if it's new-looking spaces you guys want," Tony finishes, "trade furniture. After this little stunt, that's gonna have to last you for now. Next time you want to haul me to New York for an eminent domain case, make sure it has a leg to stand on."
The board members start grumbling on their way out; Tony follows them, all but radiating smugness, and fortunately forgets to ask whether Pepper's going with him. Once he's gone, Pepper turns to Joanne.
"Well, shall we?"
Joanne grins. "After that little meeting, I think we both need it. Sure."
They head downstairs and hail a cab. Pepper's halfway through adjusting her seat belt when the roof lights up; she knows what it is right away, and sighs. "I'll never hear the end of this."
"Well, if you'd rather not, we can get another cab."
"...No, I'll stick it out. But I don't care how desperate we get, we're not calling Tony for help."
The driver takes that in stride, and the Cash Cab, as Pepper's heard him note so many times while Tony yells at the passengers who can't answer simple trivia questions, rolls on.
They make out well enough that Pepper doubts Tony will be yelling at them, when the tape finally airs; he'll just be upset that that's the first he'll hear about it. They only get seriously stumped once, and Joanne goes for her phone without hesitation, once it's apparent neither of them know it.
When they reach their destination, Pepper eyes their winnings for a moment. "We really don't need all this for ourselves."
"No. I'm thinking about donating my cut - God knows I do well enough for myself."
"Not a bad idea." Pepper makes a mental note to look into that, and pockets her half of the cash before they head into the restaurant.
There are only two of the three friends Joanne said she was expecting, when they get there. Mark - the one who answered the question they got stuck on, it turns out - looks like he's trying not to be intimidated, and Collins just looks amused as all hell. They fall to talking, while they wait for the last person, and everyone relaxes a little.
Then the last person waltzes in, humming something under her breath and acting like she's not actually fashionably late, and Pepper double-takes. Most of Tony's girls blur together, but she's fairly sure they don't blur together this much, especially since even Tony can only go through so many girls in one week.
Fortunately, she's spared from commenting first, when Mark gets around to attempting introductions.
"Oh! Right, you're Tony's... secretary person."
"Personal assistant," Pepper corrects, without much rancor. She doesn't expect Tony's conquests to remember the official title, since she doesn't usually see them after she shoos them out the door in the morning.
"Right, that thing. Good to see you again. What brings you down here?"
"She's with me," Joanne says, and the other woman - Maureen - grins.
"Good taste as always."
"Not like that." But Joanne's blushing, even as she protests, and Pepper catches herself starting to blush, probably because she noticed.
"Still. It's good taste." With that, Maureen turns to Mark and starts talking about something else entirely.
Once Pepper relaxes enough to take stock of the group dynamic, she finds herself surprised to note that it feels like there should be another three people here. Why they're not, she couldn't begin to say, but the group definitely feels too small, for all she's fitting in rather seamlessly. But then, one person can never replace another.
By the end of the night, she also has a very clear idea of what drew Maureen and Tony together. They're far too similar for their own good, in terms of personality; it's probably just as well they're usually on opposite sides of the country.
Pepper and Joanne exchange email addresses and phone numbers, before Pepper and Tony go back to Los Angeles, but she still finds herself surprisingly melancholy to be leaving. She'd been upset about Tony breaking her lease, when he moved to California, and preoccupied with professional matters on pretty much every other trip, but this time, she can't even bring herself to check the next day's schedule.
"What's eating at you?" Tony asks.
Pepper hesitates for a moment, then shakes her head. "Nothing."
"That's not nothing, Pepper. You're not usually this quiet, you're usually going on about meetings and production specs and the next benefit or whatever, by this point."
He's right, that it's not nothing, but Pepper still refuses to explain. For one thing, she doesn't really know what the problem is herself, and Tony is a terrible sounding board for nebulous issues; in that, he's far too much of an engineer for his own good. Anyway, if she's right about what it might be - and she doesn't want to start examining that too closely, with little to draw from - she'd rather not hear Tony's commentary. The odds that it would sound too much like a Girls Gone Wild commercial for Pepper's comfort are overwhelming, after all.
By the time they land, she's mustered up the will to look at the schedule, but her analysis of anything beyond the next day is unusually half-hearted.
Pepper and Joanne start out emailing each other twice a week, but it quickly escalates to several times a day. Joanne tells her a lot of the story she'd missed; it turns out Pepper was right, in thinking there should have been another three people in the group. From some of the stories, she's a bit sad she didn't get a chance to meet them when they were all there.
When it turns out that Maureen is Joanne's protest-organising ex-girlfriend - and Mark's - she at least doesn't have to ask what they ever saw in her. It's the same thing everyone sees in Tony, in a way.
She returns the favor by sharing some of the stories about Tony that didn't make international press - and, after a while, just venting her everyday frustrations. Joanne knows how to listen, unlike most of the people Pepper's talked to since college.
Two and a half months after the eminent domain thing, Joanne calls her. Pepper's a bit surprised, but definitely pleased - at least, until Joanne says they need to talk as close to in person as they can. Pepper's not as good at reading voices over the phone as she should be.
"What about?" she says, trying to keep a lid on her sudden case of nerves.
"...Mainly the fact that I'm beginning to think Maureen was more right than she knew, when she complimented my taste. More right than I knew, anyway - I wouldn't put it past her to spot it first."
"Oh. Well. I'm... glad you think so. I think I've been in a similar boat for a while now."
"Well then." Joanne sounds pleased, or at least not upset. "I haven't really tried a long-distance thing before, I'll warn you now, and we're both tied down enough that it'd have to be that. If you want to try, that is."
"I can't say I'm averse. So far, at least, it seems like it'll be worth the effort." Not to mention, the distance will probably help her keep the relationship away from Tony's prying eyes, at least until such time as she figures out how to explain it.
They talk for a while, and when they finally hang up, Pepper's quite glad she opted to work from home for the day. Jarvis would be discreet if she requested it, she's sure, but she can't seem to stop grinning at the moment, and Tony would ask about that for sure.
Two months after that, Joanne sends Pepper a one-line email: Collins took a turn for the worse.
All she can think to say in response is Do you want me there?; after she sends it, it hits Pepper how serious this is getting - has gotten, who is she kidding? She probably should clue Tony in sometime soon, but... well. Even now that it's not nebulous in the least, the last thing she wants to do is hear the jokes. Especially since Tony can be really, really bad about letting that sort of thing go; she'd probably be hearing it for months.
Joanne says God yes, to the offer of company, and Pepper puts in for the personal time. She just hopes she won't be showing up in time for a funeral; she'd stay for that, naturally, but she'd like some part of the visit to be a happy occasion.
Tony approves the time off, but still ribs her about it. "One of these days, you're going to have to tell me what got you to actually use some of your vacation time."
"Perhaps, sir. For now, content yourself with the fact that I'm taking the vacation."
"True. Here's hoping I don't fall apart while you're gone."
Pepper smiles. "Jarvis will have your schedule. And if you get truly desperate, I'm only a phone call or email away."
"I'll keep that in mind, if I need to put my Social Security number on anything."
"I'm pretty sure Jarvis has that on file as well. Will that be all, Mr. Stark?"
Tony waves her off. "That will be all, Miss Potts. Enjoy your vacation, wherever it is it's taking you."
Joanne's waiting for her at the airport; Pepper can't help the completely unguarded smile, at that.
Collins looks like hell.
Pepper had braced herself for it, from what Joanne had to say, but it's still a nasty shock to see him on a hospital bed, hooked up to several different monitors and somehow managing to be dwarfed by the bed. He's a big guy, too, so that's one very impressive trick.
Despite the situation, when they walk in, Collins grins. "Oh, good, she did say something. I was wondering."
Pepper smiles. "We've been working on it for a couple months now. It's... slow, but I think it's worth it."
"The way she talks about you, I'd say definitely."
Pepper blushes, and Joanne mutters something about how Collins could have asked.
"Hey, don't make fun of the patient," he says. "Anyway, you still need to learn how to relax. Both of you do, from what I've seen."
Joanne sighs. "Probably easier said than done, by this point."
"Doesn't mean you can't try."
The conversation moves on to other things. One of Pepper's stories about Tony gets Collins to laugh; Pepper winces, when the laugh turns into a cough that lasts far longer than it has any right to.
Collins rolls his eyes. "Don't even try to apologise. I'll never say no to a good laugh, even in this state."
"Still, it - this whole thing, it hardly seems fair."
"I gave up on life being fair a long time ago. Best I could hope for was full, and it's certainly delivered on that front. Besides--"
"Angel's waiting," Joanne says, before he can finish. Collins nods, as he helps himself to a drink of water.
"I'm sure she has been the whole time," he says, when he's done with that. "And... I don't know, I guess I just reached a point where I started wondering what the hell I'm doing here. Especially now that I know you're all gonna be just fine."
They decided, in planning things out, that it wouldn't be a hassle for Pepper to stay at Joanne's apartment. There's room enough for two people, whether they want a little space or feel like testing the waters, as long as they're in the same city to do so, and while money isn't much of a object for either of them, they both think that saving it where they can is a good thing.
When they come back from dinner, a couple of nights into Pepper's vacation, her phone rings. It's Tony; she considers letting it go to her voicemail, but it might be something important, so she answers.
"Why didn't you tell me you were in the Cash Cab?"
Pepper sighs; she'd nearly forgotten about that. "I didn't think you needed to know, sir."
"Needed, not as such. Would have loved to know, hell yes. Congratulations, though, I only had to yell at you two once. That was the lawyer from the eminent domain bullshit, wasn't it?"
"The one who called the board on theirs, yes."
"Thought so," Tony says. "So you have told her you like her, yes? Because there was some serious chemistry in that cab, I gotta say."
"...Tony, that was three days after we met." Then again, Maureen had said something that same night. Pepper is quickly drawing the conclusion that Tony Stark and Maureen Johnson need never meet again; they cause enough trouble on their own.
"So? Have you said anything?"
Pepper sighs. "That depends. Are you going to be crude about it?"
"I save that for my own relationships, Pepper. I'd rather you didn't try to eviscerate me when you get back here."
It would be easy to tell him there wasn't anything to it, that he'd imagined all that chemistry. But Pepper doesn't back down from a challenge when it's presented, and Tony is usually a man of his word - especially when it comes to not wanting to die at the hands of his personal assistant.
"Yes," she says. "We have. It's sort of why I came out here, actually - one of her friends is in the hospital."
"Ouch. Hope that turns out all right. Otherwise, well, don't do anything I wouldn't do."
"Technically, sir, we can't do half of what you would do. I don't think you have to worry about that."
Tony snorts. "Fair enough, fair enough. Anyway, if you end up in the Cash Cab again, tell me this time?"
"I don't think we will, but I'll keep that in mind. Will that be all, Mr. Stark?"
"That will be all, Miss Potts. See you when you get back."
"See you then, Tony." Pepper hangs up, and shakes her head.
"What was that all about?" Joanne calls from the kitchen.
"Tony's a Cash Cab addict."
"Well... there are worse things to be hooked on."
Pepper nods. "And I wouldn't be surprised if he's tried at least half of those. Anyway, apparently we were on tonight, and... if not for the fact that we met independently of them, I'd wonder if he and Maureen were trying to set us up."
"If they were, Maureen would have been gloating by now. He wasn't an ass about it, was he?"
"Actually, no." Pepper smiles. "Kind of a relief, considering I'd been bracing myself for that."
Even so, she does her best to put the phone call out of her mind. She's got better things to dwell on, for the evening.
Collins pulls through enough that he's discharged from the hospital a couple of days before Pepper leaves. But there's a definite sense that it's only for now, that Collins effectively confirms when they all go out for dinner to celebrate the occasion.
"It's been fourteen years since I was diagnosed," he says. "So really, this is a good ten more than I expected to get."
Mark smiles, a little watery. "So like you to be all philosophical about it."
"Would you prefer Roger's approach?"
"God, no," Joanne says. "He was a terrible patient."
Mark shrugs. "What else do you expect from a rock star?"
Pepper raises an eyebrow. "Literal rock star, or just in attitude?"
"Literal, when he wasn't too strung out or sick to do it. He - he wasn't too bad."
Joanne changes the subject, and no one protests. So far, there's been no sign of Maureen; she's supposed to show up at some point, but Pepper's not exactly holding her breath. Maureen's a bit like Tony, after all, so the odds she got distracted by something shiny are high.
By the time Maureen does eventually show up, everyone's in a good mood, but Collins is running out of steam. He sticks it out a little longer, then he and Mark (who's making sure that nothing goes both terribly wrong and unwitnessed) head home.
Pepper hesitates for a moment, then gets up and gives Collins a hug. It's not the sort of thing she does often, but this group adopts people really damned fast, she's found - and she doesn't want to regret it, if she can't make it back before his immune system finally gives out.
"You - you take care of yourself," she says, and finds herself choking up a little, despite her best efforts.
"I will. You don't work too hard."
When they pull apart, Collins gives her a look. "That's a load of shit. You need to take more vacations. Tony hasn't exploded so far, right?"
She manages to smile. "You might have a point there."
Pepper and Joanne stick around a little longer, but with just the two of them and Maureen, things get a little awkward. When they do eventually go home, they share Joanne's bed without a second thought, even though nothing much happens beyond sleeping.
It's the soundest night's sleep Pepper's had in years.
When she goes home, she can't even bring herself to pull up Tony's schedule once. It's not urgent - she'd planned for that possibility, so Jarvis will be able to keep Tony going, whether Pepper knows all the details or not - but it does make her think.
Maybe she's in deeper than she'd realised. She's fairly certain she's not reading too much into it, not after the way the week went; the long-distance thing can be a real bitch sometimes, but they talk enough to make it work. But more to the point, she's pretty sure she doesn't mind being in this deep.
In fact, she kind of likes it. Well, other than the whole cross-country romance thing, but at least they know it's not in vain.
She calls Joanne when her plane touches down, and has to leave a message, but that's all right. The important thing is letting her know she got there in one piece.
She collects her bag, returns to her apartment, and turns on the TV, only to see something about Iron Man blowing up a weapons cache in Pakistan. She sighs; SHIELD will want to know about that tomorrow, assuming they didn't already. She pulls up Tony's schedule on her Blackberry, and tentatively marks in the occasion upon seeing some free time in Tony's afternoon.
The next morning, she's feeling up to par again, so she goes to Tony's house and helps Jarvis wake him up. There's no girl this morning, which helps put Pepper somewhat at ease.
"don't wanna," Tony says, and pulls a pillow over his head.
"Too bad, sir, you have a meeting in an hour. Don't make me throw a glass of water on you."
"wha-- oh, right, you're back." Tony emerges from his cocoon long enough to grin at her. "Miss me?"
"Are you sure you want me to answer that question, Mr. Stark?"
"Maybe not. How was your vacation? Your friend make it out of the hospital?"
"He did for now." She's a little surprised that Tony's asking about the welfare of someone he doesn't even know, but presumably he has his reasons - even if it's just proving he won't be an ass about her personal life.
To be fair, it's really the first time since she started working for him that she's had much of a personal life. Maybe he would have done this the whole time.
"Anyway," she says, "you have a meeting with a few of your engineers in an hour, and if SHIELD doesn't already know about your escapades yesterday, they'll want to. You'll have time for that this afternoon."
"Do I have to?"
"Most likely, yes. At least this way, you have some say in setting the time - do you want them to tell you it's first thing in the morning tomorrow?"
"Dear God no." Tony sighs. "All right, all right, I'm up. Will that be all, Miss Potts?"
"That will be all, Mr. Stark."
Once Tony hauls himself into the bathroom, Pepper goes to the kitchen and starts up the French press. Part of her is already wondering when the next chance for her to take a break will come along, and that's new; usually, she spends more of her time trying to avoid taking vacations. Still, even with that, she knows she couldn't do that all the time. Too much of her life is here, making sure Tony doesn't get himself killed by anything she has a prayer of stopping.
And in that sense, it's good to be home.