When Pepper is nine, she loves three things: her family's battered white farmhouse, her brother Sam, and her dog, who is also named Sam. He's an ugly old thing with a snaggle tooth and a missing eye, and Sam-her-brother isn't as flattered by Sam-the-dog's name as she thinks he should be. But then, that's her brother, always wanting the sleekest, shiniest, newest things, even out in the middle of nowhere. Pepper tells him he ought to learn how to be happy with what he's got because that's what her mama says, but secretly, she's glad that Sam doesn't listen to either of them. Sam is the brightest thing in this whole town.
Too bright for his own good, her mama says, which Pepper doesn't understand. Sure, she's more modest than her brother, and organized enough to do both their homework, but what's the problem with wanting to stand out? Sam isn't doing it right, but that's better than not doing it at all. Some days he spends in the principal's office because he mouths off in class; other days he pisses off the teacher by sleeping for a week and then acing the test. After school he gets into a fight or two; in summer, he sneaks beer out of the convenience store in his backpack and drinks it in their barn. Sometimes Pepper takes her allowance money down to old Mr. Waters to pay for what Sam's taken. It's never actually enough, but when he sees her coming, he doesn't call the cops.
Sam talks a lot about getting out of this place, but by the time Pepper's twelve, she can see that he's not actually going anywhere. Now that she's got her own after school baby-sitting job, she's not doing so much of his homework anymore, and he'd gotten kicked off the basketball team for mouthing off to coach, so he won't be getting an athletic scholarship either. His idle talk does make her think, though. It wouldn't be so hard to leave, if she wanted to. She's got the grades for a good college, and if she keeps saving her baby-sitting money, it might be a lot by the time she's eighteen.
She goes to Vassar on a full scholarship, double majors in art history and economics. The night before she leaves, she goes to see her brother in his new place, which is as old as their farmhouse but not near as comfy. She steps over beer bottles without quite wrinkling her nose.
"Come back and see me sometime, Pepper," he says. His voice is jovial, but the light in his eyes is dim, and she doesn't quite have the words to tell him she hasn't given up on him, even if their parents have.
At school, she introduces herself as Pepper, the nickname he'd given her. It's not professional, but then, she might have been getting an associate's degree at the community college in Clayton if he hadn't taught her to dream. Freshman year, she doesn't call as often as she should; sophomore year, she tries harder, but he doesn't pick up the phone.
When she comes home for spring break, he presses a wad of grubby bills into her hand.
"For all the baby-sitting money you gave Mr. Waters," he says, and she untangles the bills carefully, smoothing them into a neat stack in her hands.
"I can't take this much," she says. Each bill is $100, and he's given her more than ten.
"Yes you can," he says, and she puts the money in her wallet because she can see it's all he has to give. That night she sleeps on his threadbare sofa, trying to shake the feeling that she'll never see him again.
He dies in a car crash the day she flies back to school.
The money is enough to buy her first interview suit two years later, at the kind of store where the saleslady looks at her like dirt because she pays with grubby hundred dollar bills. Maybe that's why she goes to the designer resale shop next and blows the rest of the money on a pair of high heeled shoes with bright red soles. She wants to live up to her nickname, after all. She'd promised her brother she would.
Two weeks after graduation, she lands a job as a Development Associate at the Met. Her friends ask her for resume and interview advice, and she tells them, "If someone asks if you want to be a fundraiser, just say no." At her six month review, her boss tells her she's too pushy with their donors, and that funding a museum is not the same as closing a business deal. When she meets a Stark Industries recruiter at a fundraising gala, she takes the job offer right away. Being a secretary isn't exactly her dream, but the pay is good, and she figures she can save up for grad school in some field where being organized and pushy is a good thing.
Every woman in the secretarial pool wants to be Tony Stark's personal assistant. Some of them just want to sleep with him -- although Pepper really doubts you have to be his secretary to do that -- but most of them are dreaming of multi-million dollar sexual harassment settlements. Rumor has it that three of his personal assistants have retired in luxury before the age of twenty-six.
Stark chooses his assistants at random. In her first month on the job, something called a JARVIS draws a name out of a hat with a robotic arm seconds before catching fire ("just a prototype," Mr. Stark says, beaming.) In April, May, and September, a man in a somber suit comes downstairs and calls a name from a manila file folder. These assistants seem to be chosen for their qualifications, but they are also the quickest to depart, with or without undisclosed sums. On Valentine's Day, Mr. Stark throws a bouquet over his shoulder, promising a promotion and half a million a year to the woman who catches it. Pepper's the only one who stays at her desk.
Six weeks later, when his latest assistant has departed, Mr. Stark picks up her name plate and tosses it up and down.
"Pepper, Pepper, Pepper," he says, "I like that name." He keeps the name plate and hands her a pile of folders, and she takes that to mean she's been chosen.
Every morning, she braces herself to find Tony Stark's dead body: cocaine overdose in the office, burned to a crisp in the lab, drunk to death in his bedroom, possibly on top of a hooker. All seem equally plausible, and none of them ever happen. In hindsight, she ought to have braced herself for naked Tony Stark, which happens in the lab, the office, and the bedroom with startling regularity.
The first time, she screams and runs away.
The second time, a lawyer greets her with a check.
The third time, she closes her eyes and recites his schedule anyway.
The fourth time, she says, "Put your pants on and sign this form."
He says, "Give me a pen."
She says, "Not until you wash your hands."
In her sixth month as Stark's assistant, Obadiah Stane asks why she's still here, and she shakes her head.
"I don't know." It's sort of the truth. "I've never liked to be bored."
The next day, she finds Stark semi-conscious in a pool of his own vomit. When she rolls him over, his eyes are strangely clear, and he asks, "Why are you still here?"
"You've asked a lot of women that question, haven't you?" Her mobile's already in her hand, punching out the numbers to Stark's personal physician, just as she'd been instructed on her first day on the job.
Stark's lips twist into a wry grin. "Haven't had a lot of chances."
"Maybe you remind me of someone I used to know."
"Nice shoes, Pep," Stark says when he comes back to work three days later, acting like he hadn't almost died of alcohol poisoning on a random Tuesday morning.
"Thank you, sir," she murmurs. His eyes are wild and he's tapping a mechanical pencil against the lab bench with an intensity that hurts her head. "If you're going to ask me about my bra size again..." She fixes him with a dangerous glare.
"Pepper, would I do that? Did I do something like that?"
"Every Tuesday, sir. Except the one when you were passed out in your own vomit."
He puts a hand over his heart, all mock indignation. "Pepper, I am offended. I merely wished to inquire where you had gotten those fabulous shoes."
"They were a gift from my brother," she says. "Now, there's a shareholder meeting at 10:30 this morning, and I really think --"
He snatches the file from her hand and flings it over his head. Papers scatter on the floor.
"Stick to the topic at hand, Miss Potts. Isn't that what you're always telling me?"
"I'm not picking those papers up."
"Fine. Bettina will do it." The pencil's tapping again, and Pepper snatches it from his hand. Stark looks deeply offended.
"Betina quit last week," Pepper tells him. "Now, as I was saying --"
"Betina quit? Why did Betina quit?" More mock offense. Stark knows the answer, wants her to say it anyway.
"Have you considered Adderall?" she snaps. "Betina quit because she doesn't like to walk in on threesomes in the living room when she's vaccuuming. Now, as I was saying --"
"Now, as I was saying, why does my personal assistant have only one fabulous pair of shoes?"
"I'm from the Midwest, Mr. Stark." She seizes another tap-tap-tapping pencil from his hands. "It's a miracle I have anything that isn't sensible."
"Have I mentioned that I don't like sensible assistants? There's a surprise for you in your office."
"Is it the DEA again? That wasn't a good surprise." She waits expectantly, arms crossed over her chest, but Mr. Stark has put on a welding mask, and he's ignoring her. "Shareholder's meeting. 10:30. Be there."
"Make me," Stark mutters from behind the mask.
Then she avoids her office until seven p.m. because she's terrified of a Tony Stark surprise, and she figures if it's a male stripper, he might have gone home. But it's not a stripper. To her relief, it's not anyone or anything alive. There are thirty-one pairs of shoes in her office, one for each day of the month. All of them cost more than her family's monthly mortgage payment, and the card in the bottom of the last box says, "Welcome to the Stark family." She knows then that she's staying for good. The shoes aren't the real reason, but both of them can pretend.
Tony Stark doesn't change. He forgets her birthdays, evades paperwork, cancels meetings, and strands her in the most awkward of press conferences after she bails him very discreetly out of jail. But she is never, ever alone on the day her brother died.