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A Better World

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I.

Tony Stark comes home from Las Vegas with a reporter. He can't remember her name, but he does remember that she went to Brown. She works for Vanity Fair. Blonde. Long, long legs, and Tony gives Jarvis the command for lights in the main room, he hears her be impressed. It's a nice view. There are some nice pieces in it, and Pepper brings them a decanter, fresh ice, little crystal tumblers. She smiles at Tony, and it's like coming home. It's that warm, familiar, comfortable feeling; the waterfall is off, and so is the fireplace, but the Pacific Ocean is still there, stretching from window edge to window edge.

Here is Pepper.

"Hey," Tony says, softly, and she pauses.

"Is it your birthday yet?" He has two ice cubes in his glass.

"Not for another thirty-four minutes," Pepper says, mildly.

"Well?" Tony says.

"Tony -- " Pepper sounds a little annoyed. She is wearing a black, sleeveless dress. Not fancy. Just standard work clothes, and her hair is pulled back in a pony-tail.

"You've got," Tony says, settling back on the couch, comfortably, making the ice cubes in his glass with a little movement of the wrist when he checks the time. "Thirty-three minutes."

The reporter looks from Tony, to Pepper, back to Tony.

"You asked me how I sleep at night?" Tony says to her, and the reporter stares, open-mouthed, as Pepper sets the tray down on the coffee table, hitches up her tight black skirt so that she can kneel on the ground, and gently, carefully, with both hands, pulls the woman's shoes off her feet.

"Let your hair down," Tony says. Pepper looks up, briefly, then undoes her hair.

...

Pepper goes down on Christine Everhart -- Tony Stark has good body guards and an even better security database, and they took the woman's fingerprints and searched her before letting her into the limo with Tony. Pepper got her name and biographical information on her Blackberry; Jarvis had her face on the display by the great hall entrance, and Pepper studied it and came up with the approach. What would Tony prefer? What would be his preferences, and how would they interact with the woman's preferences?

In the morning, she is downstairs in his lab, running through his morning must-do's -- Jackson Pollock, commencement speech -- and making him a cup of espresso, just the way he likes it..

...

Who is Tony Stark? His father was Howard Stark, and his mother had been Maria Carbonell before marrying. At six, Tony appeared on the cover of Popular Mechanics; at fourteen, Tony went to MIT. His best friend is Jim Rhodes, and Tony went to Las Vegas to receive an award from Jim: instead, he ended up at the craps table, playing to the crowd. Jim was pissed, but Tony charmed him, promised he'd make it up to him, then met a reporter in front of the casino. Tony takes the reporter home to Pepper, and Pepper calmly, gently, gets down on her knees and lets her hair down when Tony asks.

She makes eye contact with Christine, then slides Christine's skirt up two or three inches She kisses the inside of Christine's left thigh and licks the right. Pepper slides Christine's skirt up a little further, and Tony has a little more of his drink.

It isn't that Tony has any formal rights over Pepper: on paper, she was born in North America to free citizen parents. On paper, in the books, she is as much a citizen of the United Empire as he is. Tony doesn't even have her under anything more than a year-to-year contract. At the end of the year, she can walk away. If she leaves now, she just forfeits pay, and Tony has to sue her for damages.

In truth --

...

In truth, this universe is not made for leaving now and walking away.

...

In truth, this universe, at times, doesn't look so different: traffic lights in the United States still have a red light on top, a green light on the bottom, and a yellow light in the middle. The Santa Monica Pier stretches into the ocean and has a ferris wheel and vendors of churros and funnel cake and cotton candy. The Pacific Coast Highway still runs next to the ocean, and along its sides are palm trees and multi-million dollar homes with walls around them: Tony's house sits on top of Point Dume with a wide stretch of ocean to either side and behind.

Theoretically, Pepper has the right to walk away. Theoretically, Tony would have to sue Pepper for damages, but she -- she doesn't, is the point. If Jarvis notifies Pepper on her Blackberry, Pepper puts down whatever she is doing. She goes to her room and checks her hair, slips out of any pantyhose she might be wearing, puts on heels, puts on a dress or a suit if she isn't wearing one. Considers whether to leave her panties on the floor, because he likes it sometime, as a surprise, but doesn't like it every time.

If Pepper had to guess, if she were forced to be honest, she'd frown. She'd hesitate. She wouldn't be entirely sure. She'd insist that she doesn't know, that she just likes doing her job well. She likes doing anything that Mr. Stark requires. A smile. Professional to the soles of her feet: in the bottom of her heart, though, at a level so deep Pepper can barely even find words for it even when she is in her bed at night with the lights off and the house quiet except for the sound of the ocean two hundred feet away, she knows it's because leaving her underwear off every time interferes with the image that Tony wants to have of her.

...

"Hey," Tony says, softly, and she pauses.

"Is it your birthday yet?" He has two ice cubes in his glass.

"Not for another thirty-four minutes," Pepper says, mildly.

The night with Christine, Tony looks like he might be considering having her stay, but then he grins. He wipes her mouth off with the napkin from under his drink.

"Early happy birthday," he says and smiles and shows her his watch face. "Six minutes to spare." Pepper pauses for a second, then looks at the watch and smiles back at him, carefully, measuredly, and Tony touches her on the cheek and turns to Christine, stretched out on the couch, flushed and loose-limbed.

Pepper knows her job is over for the night; as she turns out the lights in the hallway, she can hear Christine laughing and trying to climb on top of Tony, from the sound of things. Pepper turns out the lights in the hallway, steps into her room and slips out of her dress. She lies down in the bed; the moon is mostly-full in the window, shining over the Pacific Ocean, and Pepper stares at the wall until the numbers read midnight and one minute. Her clothes from before are in a pile on the floor. She changed her last minute about underwear and left her panties in a pile by the door: she is too tired to pick them up, even though she knows she should.

"Jarvis," she says. "Lock the door."

He does: Pepper waits to hear the click of the bolt shooting home, takes a deep breath, and then pulls up the covers and rolls over to get a few hours of sleep before she has to be with Tony again.

...

Pepper locks her door that night.

"I think it's incredibly overpriced," Pepper says in the morning, and Tony considers her, his eyebrows and head tilted, watching her in that way that he does that makes the bottom of her stomach feel strange. Her hair is pulled back in a ponytail, and she can feel his eyes on her face, on the bare sides of her neck.

"I need it. Buy it. Store it," he says, finally, and Pepper ducks her head and writes it down.

"Okay. The MIT commencement speech -- "

"Is in June. Please, don't harangue me about stuff that's way, way, down -- "

Pepper signs him up for it, because she knows that Tony would, eventually, listen to Obadiah convincing him it was good for the company. She knows, too, that Tony loves nothing more than an audience: at the end of her list, he pretends to be surprised about her birthday, and Pepper goes with it. It's a tradition by this point.

"Get yourself something nice from me."

"I already did."

"And?"

"Oh, it was very nice. Very tasteful."

He lifts his eyebrows at her, and Pepper smiles.

America is an empire. Some people, including Christine Everhart's professors, or at least those who wanted to keep their lives and the lives of their families -- would call Tony Stark's father a hero.

...

Pepper calls Larry Gagosian back.
...

Pepper talks to the President's office at MIT.
...

Tony downs his espresso and actually gets out of the house, and as soon as the R8 with the flanking security vehicles before and aft head out the security gate, Pepper walks to her bathroom, steps over the clothes that she has refused to pick up from the night before, goes to the bathroom and loses the contents of her stomach, repeatedly, violently, enough that Jarvis asks if he should locate medical assistance for her. She tells him that she is fine, then asks whether Tony has gotten on the plane yet.

...

Pepper remembers --
...

After throwing up, Pepper lies down on the couch in the great room and takes a nap. When she wakes up, it's late afternoon, and she walks, barefoot, through to the kitchen. Housekeeping stocks it with pre-made, pre-portioned meals, and she warms up a box of chicken with vegetables. Pepper eats at the counter while staring out at the ocean, then goes and spends two hours filing e-mails, then goes to her room and, even though the house is empty, tells Jarvis to lock the door, just because she can.

After sundown, Pepper wakes. She tells Jarvis to let her out, then goes to the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea. She spends some time reading newspapers and watching TV, all while standing barefoot in the kitchen, and then, Obadiah calls. Jarvis brings up the call screen along with Jim's picture, and Pepper studies it for a moment, takes a deep breath, and picks up the phone. She tries to sound sleepy, a little unconcerned. Normal.

"We have a situation," Obadiah says. "Jim and Tony were in a convoy. It was attacked by rebels."

Pepper lets her breath out, slowly, carefully. She thinks about asking whether Jim was all right, but she decides it would be too much.

...

There are times when this universe looks like any number of other ones.

There are times when it isn't: half a dozen years before, Pepper had a new job, a lease on a one-bedroom in Calabasas, a new-to-her Honda with only twenty-one thousand miles on it. Eight semester units and an ethics course away from becoming a certified public accountant.

Half a dozen years before, six months into a new job, Pepper sent an e-mail correcting the math of someone she thought was a middle manager sending her receipts from his personal account. She informed him of IRS restrictions on deductions for patronage of adult businesses and added, irritated, that he forgot to carry the two halfway through the column. In truth, Pepper came to work next morning and found a pair of men cleaning out her desk for her, dumping her papers and her photographs into cardboard boxes. Her stomach clenched; she turned to -- she doesn't remember what. Put her lunch in the refrigerator? Throw up in the bathroom? Beg them to be careful with the frame they had just put into the box, because it was her only picture of the woman who had raised her?

While they were packing her things, a third man touched her on the elbow. "Follow me."

Pepper remembers: the long elevator ride up.

Pepper remembers: the dizzy feeling of looking down between her feet, realizing the floor of the elevator was glass, and seeing the long, long drop below.

Pepper remembers thinking: that as a best case scenario, Tony was going to have one or more of his bodyguards beat her bloody, then throw her out on the curb. Pepper remembers thinking: how stupid it would be to end up dead because she sent an e-mail without thinking about just who would have something as stupid as STARKONTOP as an e-mail handle. Pepper remembers: one of her classmates in tenth grade chose to write her term paper about Howard Stark and his role in helping America win the war against the Nazis.

...

There are times when this universe looks like other universes: Tony doesn't touch her for two weeks, three weeks, a month. Six weeks.

He had an assistant when he hired Pepper, a brunette, long and lean, beautifully done in every respect, who seemed to like her work and genuinely like Tony, but was decidedly cool about Pepper, so Pepper kept waiting for -- something. Was Tony going to corner her in the bathroom? Put his hand up her skirt? Tony doesn't touch her, isn't ever even in the room alone with her, and the assistant doesn't do any of the things Pepper would have expected -- put laxative or ground glass in Pepper's food, intentionally give her the wrong instructions for things, so that she'll fuck up in her first week in the job. Pepper begins to think that she really is there to work, especially after she comes by to drop off the revised schedule for Brussels, and she sees Tony screwing the assistant, who is bent over the desk with her skirt hitched up and Tony's hand fisted in her hair.

Pepper gets a significant pay bump. Pepper learns the e-mail filing system and the calendar; she spends fifteen minutes reading a sheet of vowel and consonant sounds, so that Jarvis can map her voice accurately and well. Pepper buys, when instructed, using a company card, a new work wardrobe. Low, sensible work heels.

Six weeks in, one morning, Pepper comes to work and sees, framed in the kitchen, Tony in the kitchen with his chief financial officer, a big, older man. They're trying to figure out how to make espresso, cursing and swearing, and trying to figure out the various valves and stops, and there isn't --

Tony sees her standing in the doorway, and he looks at her for a long moment: Pepper is aware of the black dress she is wearing. Conservative at the neck and hemline, but it leaves her arms bare. Her hair is pulled up and back in a ponytail, and Tony smiles.

Pepper walks forward, slowly, carefully, in her heels on the slate tile on the kitchen.

"Let me take care of that for you," she says, smiling, easing the cup out from Obadiah's hands.

She can still feel Tony's eyes on her back, running along the zipper of her dress, from the small of her back to the nape of her neck, and two days later, sick of waiting in terror, unable to keep down more than a cup of tea since the morning in the kitchen, Pepper leans over the desk and kisses Tony. It's the same desk as the one she saw him fucking his old assistant over.

He pulls back. He smiles at her, slow and easy. Pleased. Not surprised.

There are times when this universe isn't like other ones.
...

Tony Stark, for example, is clean shaven in this universe, and he likes Pepper to make sure of it. When he wants her to, one of the things she does before he leaves the house or apartment or hotel suite is shave him in the bathroom. Tony wets his face up; Pepper applies the lather, brings him a hand mirror. Then, she gets out the safety razor, and he watches in the mirror while she shaves, working her way carefully along the line of his jaw, the tender, easily nicked skin above his upper lip.

Christine Everhart tries out the line about how Tony Stark has her picking up dry-cleaning after all of these years.

Pepper doesn't answer back.

...

Pepper --

...

Everyone knows how the Starks make their money: everyone knows how the Empire functions: the jets in the sky, the missiles on the ships at sea, the technology in the interrogation chambers and at the belts of the security services. The virtue of strength. People drive their cars, shop in malls, raise their families in safety from enemies abroad and within, and Pepper sees the idea repeated on money -- she carries cash, so that Tony doesn't have to ruin the lines of his suits with a wallet. How could it be more clear? E plurbius unum.

Pepper remembers once, attending a bid-opening with Obadiah and Tony and a few of the other other top-level executives. Pepper thinks it was for the new generation of attack helicopters. One slot, bids from six major defense contractors, each with hundreds of subcontractors, more than a dollars on the line, incredible prestige. The chance to write the future of the Empire's close-range aerial attack vehicles.

Stark Industries didn't win, but neither Obadiah nor Tony was upset: Pepper had been at the meetings, bringing drinks, bringing food, and she remembers them figuring out it didn't make sense to be the front-line on it. It was impossible on the budget set forth. Why not let Northrup take the heat on manufacturing overruns as the prime, then pick off the juicy, wide-margin work of late-stage retooling after heads had rolled?

Pepper remembers that fifteen minutes into the announcements, a man left the room, pulling his subordinate after him. A clear disruption of protocol, but he had already lost, hadn't he? Him and his company. Pepper remembers afterwards, following Tony and Obadiah and the chief R&D officer out of the room. Stark Industries was heading out of the room in a phalanx of security and executives to show that it was neither bent or broken, that they hadn't wanted the contract, but submitted a bid out of respect for the issuing officer, and Pepper saw, out of the corner of her eye, in the hallway, another one of the losers beating one of his subordinates -- not just his assistant, but a subordinate.

Tony nudged Obadiah. Obadiah looked over, considered it, considered Pepper, and she can't bring herself to look anything or anyone in the face. For days, she close her eyes and has to make herself open them again at the count of three.

...

Everyone knows how the Starks make their money: everyone knows how the Empire functions.

Pepper regrets throwing up after Tony leaves. It's a lapse in control. For the rest of the day, she does calming things. She does things that won't raise her heartbeat or make her seem excited. After nightfall, Obadiah calls to tell her that her -- boss and Jim Rhodes have gone missing. Jim has been recovered alive, but they are still looking for Tony.

Pepper lets out a sob, and there is a long, long moment of silence from both ends of the phone.

....

A bedroom door that locks only for the twenty-four hours of her birthday. A -- boss who not only likes to see her go down on other women, but have to think about it and do it the way he wants her to and show the right degree of sexual availability. A boss who likes being joked with until the point that he doesn't want to play the game anymore: he makes a joke of pretending to forget her birthday each year. Pepper believes the first time, Tony legitimately forgot about it until she was down on her knees, blowing him in the workshop because he wanted something before he looked at his to-do list, and he was running his hand over the back of her neck, slow and steady.

"Jarvis tells me it's your birthday," he says to her, after she swallows, but before she gets up from her knees. "Did you tell him to do that?"

"After your birthday party, you said to," Pepper says, and she tilts her head up to look at him, so that her world shifts from jeans to Tony's face, looking down at her. His hand is in her hair.

Tony strokes the back of her neck one last time before telling to get up and take the rest of the day off.

...

At this point in his life, Tony doesn't have to get his hands dirty. It's a luxury of having a father who was a hero to the Empire, of having a brain like his: he has other people to do his dirty work for him, if he wants. Pepper remembers sitting outside of a meeting of a subcommittee of the board, chatting a little with the executive secretary of the officer who was running the meeting. The doors opened, and the secretary screamed, because her boss came staggering out of the room with blood streaming down one side of his face and actual shards embedded --

Obadiah explained to Pepper later: he had caught the man lying, pointed it out.

Tony casually reached across the table, picked up the crystal pitcher full of ice water, and smashed it against the side of the man's head.

...

After Obadiah calls --

...

Six weeks in, one morning, Tony's old assistant is gone. Disappeared. Never heard from or mentioned again, and Pepper steps in to make espresso: Tony doesn't touch her then, either. Two days of his eyes on her, two days of him making very clear that he wants to fuck her, but won't make the first move, and Pepper hasn't been able to keep anything down with more body than tea, so she gets up her courage and reaches over and touches his hand.

Tony smiles, says that Obadiah will kill him, literally, just murder him on the spot if he finds out Tony did anything before the tests were done so --

Tony calls in his driver, and the driver fucks her on the floor in front of him. Tony unzips the back of her dress; Pepper steps out of it, shaking, and she loses her nerve halfway through. She's never done something like this before, and Happy has to pin her down, screaming and fighting until he's inside her, at which point she starts to just cry.

One of the luxuries of being Tony Stark is that he doesn't have to get his hands dirty, if he doesn't want to.

...

"Get yourself something nice from me."

"I already did."

"And?"

The morning he flies out to Afghanistan, Pepper puts a tracking chip in his espresso. It'll disappear in his gut within twenty-four hours, but Obadiah tells her they don't need more time than that.

Obadiah calls her after nightfall: Jim Rhodes is alive, but Tony Stark is still missing. They haven't found his body.

Pepper looks, for a long time, at the moonlight on the wall.

 

II.

In New York, Pepper has a room with a wall-to-wall a view of Central Park: a small and narrow space, but deeply comfortable and tailored to Pepper's taste. There is a desk, an armchair. A twin bed with cool pillows and a warm down comforter, a closet full of expensive clothes, and a window that looks out onto Grand Army Plaza, lit and golden. The crowning glory is, though, is the honest-to-God framed Miro sitting on her bedside table, a rare small-format painting from early in his career. The sky is blue; the colors are vibrant. It's a tiny jewel smaller than Pepper's palm from edge to edge, and when she is with Tony, she can go from the secure underground garage underneath Columbus Circle directly to the private elevator that opens onto a double-height foyer, where the flooring is marble, pale, pale gray, and shot with veins of black and gray to match the statue of Sherman and the angel of victory far, far below at the mouth of the park.

Nice things. Beautiful things, better things than she could have ever, ever bought herself in a hundred lifetimes of working as a midlevel accountant, but the light by the side of the bed turns on, and Pepper wakes, suddenly, sharply, and completely. Her bed in Malibu. Her bedroom in Malibu. She can hear the ocean, and she has a t-shirt on and sleeping pants, so she put herself to bed at her own pace. Pepper chose a bed that only one person could sleep comfortably in at a time, but she realizes that Tony is in the room with her.

In fact, he probably turned the bedside lamp, didn't he? Out of the corner of her eye, Pepper can see the blue of the arc reactor, and she keeps her head down. She doesn't --

Tony doesn't say anything about it.

Instead, he lets her catch her breath, work on making her hands uncurl. "You were yelling," he says, and the tone of his voice startles Pepper. Neither angry, nor excessively casual, nor --

"Do you want water?" he asks.

Pepper clears her throat and makes herself say, politely, "No, I'm fine, Tony. Thank you. Did my yelling wake you up?"

"I was up," he replies, and they look at each other for another moment. Pepper can see the illumination of the arc reactor at the bottom of her vision, but she doesn't look away from Tony's face: he studies her, and Pepper can feel his eyes moving from her eyes, down her face, to her mouth, up to her eyebrows, then back down again. He ends by looking her in the eye.

Tony tells her goodnight. He goes, and after the door closes behind him, Pepper lies in bed, unmoving, awake, until dawn.

Pepper knows: she sold Tony Stark to terrorists.

...

At dawn, she gets up, takes a shower, and gets dressed. She eats breakfast standing alone at the kitchen, then makes Tony his espresso and carries it down to him, along with the morning mail: there are a few things for him to sign and a few things to flip through. He signs them. Pepper goes upstairs.

Pepper knows: she sold Tony Stark to terrorists, and he survived.

...

Before Pepper sold Tony Stark to terrorists, before he let Jim Rhodes test Stark technology on her:

"Look at this," Tony says, putting an object into Pepper's hands. It's the size and shape of two packs of cards, laid end to end. The surface is matte gray, and Pepper turns it over. There are two bumps on the bottom, and the top surface is temporarily black. A display, she guesses.

"What is it?"

"The new Stark agonizer," Tony says and laughs, reaching his hand out to catch it when Pepper instinctively, reflexively drops it. He sets it down, gently, on the stainless steel benchtop, and he puts a hand on her hip. "Obadiah wants to call them personal control devices. Thinks it'll look better in the corporate report. This isn't quite working yet, but if I solve the battery problem, it'll work. We can sell them as the first generation small enough to installed in the body. " he says. "What do you think?"

The hand on Pepper's hip holds her against the work bench; especially in heels, Pepper is taller than Tony, but he likes it that way.

He kisses the back of her neck, and Pepper's eyes are fixed on the agonizer in Tony's palm. The fingers of his right hand brush the small of her back. Is --

"I haven't solved the battery problem," Tony says. "I will."

...

Before Afghanistan, before Pepper sells Tony Stark to terrorists, he solves the battery problem. He lets his best friend test it out on Pepper on the flight out to the show-and-tell for high command: he wasn't expecting Jim to layer it with the effects of the paralyzer, but later, when they're on the floor of the plane and Tony is sitting and leaning against one of the seats, Tony admits to that he should have.

Pepper's eyes are closed. Her head is in Tony's lap, and the only piece of clothing she still has on is her bra. Tony's hand lies against the back of her neck, and Pepper is exhausted, cried out and screamed out and begged out, and Tony tells her to relax. It's over. She's fine. They'll have the hospital check her out once they land, but subtly, on the arm underneath her and angles away from Tony, Pepper digs her nails into her palm. She bites her lower lip. She tries to keep her breathing steady under Tony's hand, but she also tries to fight sleep as long as she can because when she opens her eyes, will she -- how long until Tony installs one in --

Tony's hand is against the back of her neck, stroking her skin, short vertical movements that run parallel to her spine. At the end of every stroke, Pepper has to suppress a whimper.

...

Pepper sells Tony Stark to Obadiah Stane, who she knows is a terrorist, who she knows wants to overthrow the Empire. She doesn't care. She wants Tony Stark dead; she wants her freedom.

Problem: Tony Stark doesn't die.

Problem: Tony survives and comes home.

...

In fact, after he comes home, Tony doesn't --

Pepper doesn't wake up on an operating table with an agonizer box fused to her spine. In fact, at a press conference, Tony announces that he was immediately shutting down the weapons manufacturing division of Stark Industries until he could make sure that they aren't harming the very people they're meant to protect. Pepper stares at him. Pepper feels a slow, cold wave roll through her body starting from her ankles, moving up along her legs and torso to pool at the back of her throat. She grips the leather portfolio in both hands, and when Obadiah hustles Tony off the podium, she swears that Tony looks up for a moment and directly, solely at her. He seems --

Tony wakes her up when she has nightmares so long and intense that he can hear her screaming when he is in the workshop. He turns on the light. He offers to bring her a glass of water. When he sees that she is still frightened, he goes away without doing another thing or even suggesting that she should do something for him. When she goes down to his workshop the morning after, he signs what she gives him.

He doesn't back her against a workbench. He doesn't bring anyone home.

He doesn't touch her. He is, in fact, legitimately kind and decent and gentle to her.

Pepper is terrified. Pepper is having nightmares.

...

Pepper remembers the time that Tony smashed a pitcher's a man's face for lying to him. Pepper remembers the time that Tony thought it was mildly amusing when a disappointed business competitor kept on beating a dead man's body. Pepper knows how she came to replace Tony's old assistant, the one who actually liked her job.

Consequently, the brand new improved arc reactor Tony Stark notwithstanding, she has a fairly good grasp of what will happen if it comes out that she betrayed him.

...

"He didn't -- "

"Pepper -- "

"You promised that -- "

"Pepper, listen to me."

Pepper is on the edge of hysteria, and she is about to open her mouth again, but Obadiah puts a hand on each of her shoulders, and she makes a noise in her throat, low and fearful. Almost desperate, but Obadiah's hands aren't gripping her hard enough to cause pain. Instead, his hands lie on her shoulders, on her top of her clothes. Palms-down, well away from her neck.

After a moment, almost reluctantly, Pepper closes her eyes.

"Take a deep breath," Obadiah says, and his voice is almost kind.

...

Two months into the time that Tony spends in Afghanistan, a week after Pepper almost loses her nerve with Obadiah, Pepper lets that breath out: she is sitting in the great room, working on a laptop. The waterfall is off; the fire isn't lit. Sunlight pours in over her shoulders, and Pepper considers the words that she is typing for another moment or so, then takes it off her lap and goes to the kitchen and fixes herself a glass of water with ice in it. She comes back into the great room, considers putting her shoes back on -- they're neatly lined up together next to the couch, but she decides against it, so she walks down to the garage in bare feet.

Not the workshop, which is dark and shuttered. Pepper hasn't gone down since the morning Tony left. Instead, she takes a short walk outside to the actual garage with the Rolls and Tony's everyday cars, the ones he actually takes out on the road. Fresh air, she thinks. Blue sky. She walks carefully and sticks to the sidewalk. The garage itself is a two-story structure above ground, but Pepper knows there are four or five stories underneath. Happy, from what she understands, lives in a small apartment above the garage.

When she gets there, he is out front, wearing garage coveralls. He wipes his hands on a rag.

"Do you need me to bring out a car?" he asks.

Pepper shakes her head, and the ice cubes in her glass clink. "I haven't said a word to anyone all day except for Jarvis," she says. "And nobody is coming by the house today, so I figured I'd come out and sit. Do you mind?"

Happy considers her for another moment, taking in the hair pulled back into a loose ponytail, the bare feet, the glass of water. When she smiles at him, looking a little hesitant, a little nervous, but sort of -- indicating that she comes in peace, and he blinks. Pepper settles down on a bench, and the sky is vividly blue in that peculiar coastal California way. The sunshine is warm on Pepper's shoulders and hands.

After a while, Happy puts one of the Audis up on a lift and slides underneath.

After a while, Pepper takes a drink of her water.

...

What does Pepper have nightmares about?

Pepper knows that her memories are -- confused. Even before Jim Rhodes used the paralyzer and agonizer on her, there were gaps in what she could remember. How long did it take for Tony's old assistant to disappear? How, exactly, did she make that first play, so that Tony knew she understood the parameters of the game? Pepper knows that eventually, unable to bear the tension, she leaned over the desk and kissed Tony, but did he say anything to her immediately afterwards?

...

Pepper settles down on a bench, and the sky is vividly blue in that brilliant coastal California way. The sunshine is warm on Pepper's shoulders and hands, and after a while, Happy puts one of the Audis up on a lift and slides underneath. After another while, Pepper gets off the bench and gets down on the blacktop next to Happy. The floor is cool under her bare feet. Clean, too, because even when Tony Stark is away, Happy takes pride in his work: the floor of the garage is clean enough to eat off. The car is raised up, but just enough so that he can slide underneath on a dolly.

When he hears Pepper come close, he slides halfway back out, so that his head and shoulders stick out from the car. Pepper looks from his hands to the underside of the car, then back to him.

"What're you working on?" Pepper asks.

"Taking a look. Making sure she's clean." Happy looks up and their eyes meet. "Just in case he comes back."

Pepper doesn't say anything, but doesn't move, either, though she does look away. After an awkward moment, Happy says, "You know anything about cars?'

"My father did," Pepper answers. "He had a garage."

"Really?" Happy looks at her, surprised.

"Up in Washington state. He and my mom owned and worked it while I was growing up, and after my mom died, it was just me and him. It's how I got started keeping books -- standing on a chair so that I could see over the counter and printing receipts for customers and writing it up at the end of the night. Old fashioned kind of place."

Their eyes meet again, and Pepper looks away, towards the front of the car. Happy realizes that sometime between her sitting down on the bench and him sliding out of the car, Pepper let her hair down. It covers her ears, and after looking at her back for another moment, Happy opens his mouth to say -- he isn't sure what. He isn't sure what he can say, but when she turns back to look him in the eye, Happy realizes there are blue lights in Pepper's ears.

He manages to suck in half a breath, get out half a scream, before Pepper sets the paralyzer off next to his head.

...

What does Pepper have nightmares about?

Pepper knows her memories are not -- precise, but she knows what it feels like to be fucked with tears on her face. She is familiar with begging for mercy while someone else already inside her; she has a sense memory of being dragging backward on her knees across carpet. Consequently, once Happy is paralyzed, she moves quickly. How many years has it been since she worked in a garage? Decades, but the things she needs haven't changed. There is an air gun for taking the nuts and bolts off tires; she gets the wheels off the Audi. When she goes to the control system for the hydraulic lift, the system asks for authorization, and she keys Happy's into the system.

The system considers it for a minute, then blinks green and starts to bring the car down, slowly, maybe an inch every ten seconds, onto Happy's body.

...

Pepper remembers in a hazy way the first time she was raped. She knows that she had the nerve to take most of her clothes off, but she remembers, in a general emotional sense, that she eventually lost her nerve. Again: a hazy recollection of begging. A memory of being on her knees looking up through a glass-topped table at Tony Stark's blurred face while she was on her hands and knees. She doesn't remember the words, but she does remember crying. She remembers begging, and she remembers the long, drawn-out feeling of being pulled back out from under the table.

Pepper doesn't remember what she did back, but she does remember, she --

...

"I don't think there was any permanent damage," the doctor says. "Some bruising and tearing, but you knew that. I can give you some topical cream for discomfort."

Sitting on the examination bench, with her legs out of the stirrups, Pepper starts to cry.

The doctor is kind, and she works for Stark Industries, too, so if she doesn't know what happened, she can guess. She finds a reason to step away and gives Pepper have some time alone.

...

It takes six months Pepper to come back all the way clean. Some antibodies take that long to show up after exposure, and the hardest part, the worst part, Pepper recalls, had been reading the test results and figuring out what activities were now on the table and making them, and only them, happen with Tony.

Six years later, she sits on a rock at the beach on the bottom of the cliff underneath the house. The rocks are rough and hurt the bottom of Pepper's feet.

"Is that it?" she asks.

"It is." Obadiah says.

"How will that -- "

"He has good medical care here. Better security."

Pepper looks from the vial in Obadiah's hand. It catches in the light, and she has to lean close to see the chip, which chip is as thin as a hair and smaller than a grain of rice: tiny by any measurable, but they both know that Tony has been living as the Empire's foremost weapons designer since he was a teenager. Certain things are habit now, and Pepper know, too, what kind of medical care Tony has access to.

"I'm going to need you and the rebels to do something for me first," Pepper says, quietly.

...

What does Pepper have nightmares about?

Pepper had nightmares about Tony for years. Sometimes, it's long, inchoate terrible variations on running without being able to escape. Other times, it's specific re-enactments of episodes of things that happened. After years of it, she betrays him with the assurance that Obadiah will not only arrange for Tony's death, but also --

"Absolutely not," Obadiah says.

"I'm only asking for one thing," Pepper says back, and Obadiah has to look away at the ocean: this is, out of all places, the most secure against eavesdropping.

The waves keep long-distance sound amplifiers from functioning; Pepper and Obadiah are out in the tidal zone at low tide, where the changing conditions make it difficult to plant a recording device, particularly since Jarvis maintains, a hundred feet out, along a string of buoys and custom-designed depth-charges, a barrier that prevents attack by sea. In the end, with Obadiah trying to suggest other things to ask for and Pepper holding to the essence, if not the timing, they compromise: until Tony goes to Afghanistan, Pepper carries it in a silver bracelet. Pepper is rarely physically searched, but she does have her regular medical checkups with full-body chemical scanning.

After Tony goes to Afghanistan, Obadiah will have one of his contacts come to the house to put it in a bit of epoxy.

"It isn't as easy as it looks in the movies," Obadiah says.

"What's the alternative?" Pepper says, and he looks at her.

...

Obadiah is --

...

Obadiah has been working for the Starks for a long time. Thirty years, his personnel file, tells Pepper For most of his adult life, after the company he had joined out of business school was bought in a takeover. For almost twenty years, he has been Tony's right hand, but the reasons why Obadiah wants Tony dead don't matter to Pepper -- it wouldn't have mattered if he wanted to do it for the usual reasons, but in trying to convince her that she wants something else out of the bargain, Obadiah tells her that he believes in what he is doing. There is a better way to live. Pepper looks at him with her face carefully neutral, and Obadiah has been around long enough, remembers her position to guess what the face actually means.

There is a better way, Obadiah insists: there is a version of the world where freedom doesn't have to be earned, where freedom doesn't have to be --

Tony crashes the Fireman's Benefit, but doesn't pull Pepper onto the dance floor: he doesn't touch her. He can guess where the dress came from, so he doesn't embarrass her by reminding her that it came from him.

"Having a nice time?"

Pepper says, a little hesitantly, "Yes."

He makes a series of motions that are somewhere between a smile and a shrug. Pepper understands the gesture, correctly, to mean I'm glad you're having a nice time and I know you're not going to say anything else to me, and they look at each other for a moment before Tony goes to the bar for Scotch.

...

"Do you want to walk out of here? I won't stop you."

...

"What was it like, working for Tony's father?"

Obadiah considers her. "I know what you're asking. The answer is no, he never took it as far with me."

Pepper still feels a little shaky. "Was it because he didn't have the technology?"

She means: the medical testing, the body scans, the agonizer, the paralyzer. Obadiah is older, but still easily over six feet and two hundred pounds or so. He looks good in a suit; he wears the black ring with the single diamond with authority. From what Pepper can tell from the photographs, Tony's father wasn't a big man, but Obadiah shakes his head. They're sitting in the tidal zone at the bottom of the cliff, and the water washes over their rocks. Pepper takes a deep breath to keep herself from panic when it takes Obadiah while to answer.

"Different kind of man," Obadiah says. "He didn't care knowing you hated it."

Pepper thinks about asking when Obadiah threw his lot in with traitors, but she doesn't. Instead, she asks:

"Did you ever murder someone because of him?"

Obadiah looks at her for a moment, eyebrows lifted. They're sitting by the ocean, and water runs over the rocks.

...

The thing that Pepper asks for and that Obadiah is reluctant to supply, is security: she wants assurance that no matter what happens, she has a way out, and because he is a man of his word, even after the Ten Rings betrays him, Obadiah keeps his promise to her. He has contacts and resources that Pepper doesn't, and a man comes to the house under cover of Pepper having a toothache and Obadiah sending his dentist to her. Stark Industries, at least publicly, has every confidence in the Empire's troops returning Tony Stark to safety. Why change standard, normal everyday life?

"Tilt your head back," the man says, opening his bag. "Open your mouth as wide as you can."

...

"Do you want to walk out of here? I won't stop you."

...

"Do you want to walk out of here? I won't stop you."

...

Pepper comes down to Tony's workshop the morning after the Fireman's Benefit and finds the ground covered in glass. She stares at the mess; he sits on the sofa and looks back at her.

"Hey," Tony says. "You busy? You mind if I send you on an errand?"

Pepper doesn't say anything.

"I need you to go to my office," Tony says, holding his hand out, and Pepper instinctively puts her hand out to take whatever he gives her. "You're going to hack into the mainframe, and you're going to retrieve all the recent shipping manifests. This is a lock chip. This'll get you in. It's probably under Executive files."

"Executive files?"

Her throat feels dry. Her fingers feel cold. Pepper looks down at her palm, then back up at Tony. When she talks, her voice sounds like it comes from outside her body. "Tony, what happened at the Benefit?"

Tony doesn't answer, and Pepper doesn't move. She goes on looking at him with the lock chip in her hand. Her throat feels dry. Her fingers feel cold.

"You told me once that you'd help me with anything," Tony says, after a long, long time, and the rest of Pepper goes suddenly cold.

...

Pepper --

...

After having been back for a month or so, Tony calls up on the house intercom system and asks Pepper how big her hands are. Pepper had, when the message came through, been sitting on a couch in the great room thinking about how she had killed a man in cold blood. Had he raped her? Yes. Had he liked raping her? Enough.

Did she stand over him and watch a car press the life out of him?

...

"You told me once that you'd help me with anything," Tony says. "Do you remember?"

"Yes," Pepper says, and if she weren't so cold in every part of her, she would be surprised at how calm her voice sounds, at least to her own ears.

"I made you promise me."

"You didn't -- "

"I did," Tony says. "Not in so many words, but you weren't in a position to say no. Do you remember?"

"I remember," Pepper says, and it's hard to breathe from the cold that grips her. It keeps her chest from moving; it makes her arms and legs feel heavy. She'd forgotten what this particular kind of fear felt like: it's been a long time since she thought she was going to do.

After all, the day on the plane with Jim Rhodes and -- Pepper wasn't so much afraid that she was going to die, but was afraid of pain. This is different.

"It was the day I swapped the arc reactor for you," Pepper says. "It wasn't very long ago."

"I release you from that," Tony says back to her.

This jolts Pepper, and she blinks. She must have heard wrong. "What?"

"I release you from that," Tony says, and Pepper knows she is openly staring at him.

"What?"

"I release you," Tony say. "Do you want to walk away? You can. I won't try to stop you -- I think, over the years, you have enough money that you should be OK even if you never want to work again, but if you want more, just tell me. Whatever you want. You don't have to see me again. You don't have to touch me. I promise."

Pepper swallows, and it feels like there is ice in her throat.

...

"I killed Happy."

"I know."

"I used the paralyzer to do it."

"Security has video," Tony says, and because Pepper can't keep on looking at Tony, she opens her palm and looks down at the lock chip in her hand. "They told me in the hospital in Germany. Asked me what I wanted them to do with you, and I told them I didn't want you touched. I thought it was fair."

In spite of herself, Pepper flinches, but looks up out of her palm and back over to Tony. His expression doesn't change, and Pepper feels that her expression doesn't change either, though it takes a while for her voice to come back.

"You think Obadiah betrayed you," she says, finally. "Do you think he set you up in Afghanistan?"

"Yes."

"Then you don't have anyone else," Pepper says, quietly, but distinctly, and crosses the room to him. Tony is still sitting on the sofa; he doesn't get up when she comes over, glass crunching under her heels, and Pepper has a paralyzer tucked into her right sleeve. Every morning, she pins it into place, and even with the lock chip in her hand, she could, under the cover of getting a firmer hold on the chip, slide the paralyzer into her palm. She could bring it up to Tony's head. She doesn't have the earplugs with her -- too hard to hide, too suspicious -- but with her heels, with her standing and Tony sitting, with her hand against his ear, it might be enough to paralyze him while leaving her mobile.

Pepper puts her right hand on Tony's left cheek, just under the cheekbone.

"I don't have anyone else," Tony says, and smoothly, without hesitation, Pepper leans down and kisses him open-mouthed.

...

Pepper knows that because Obadiah is a man of size, with both actual and natural authority that he plays up by dressing well and handling himself in a certain way, he doesn't have to use much violence to keep his position as he otherwise would need. There are stories of what he has done; there is the promise of it in the way he looks across the table and considers someone who is lying to him or to Tony. When Pepper meets him on the rocks and tells him that she killed Tony's driver because Tony had used him to fuck her for six months, until the tests came back clean, Obadiah lets his breath out, slowly.

"This is the Empire," he says. "We all do terrible things."

They've talked enough that Pepper knows he doesn't just mean her murdering a man in cold blood, partially out of revenge, partially out of frustration, partially out of a determination that she would not, for once, be the most powerless person in a situation. Obadiah means, too, that he either knows or suspects Tony used to have a line about not touching her until the tests came back clean, because otherwise Obadiah would kill him. He regrets it. He is angry about it; the role that he has to play to survive is, Pepper understands, part of what drives him to want to destroy the Empire. He believes in things that Pepper didn't think could survive a lifetime at the elite levels of Empire politics.

"Before, you asked me before what it was like, working for Tony's father."

Pepper nods, and after a pause, Obadiah tells her a story that is true, but that Pepper has never heard before. Obadiah is the only one alive who knows: when he was thirty-six and the old man was close to sixty, when Obadiah was a star on the rise and they were in a meeting with a four star general, and the general was drunk and asked how badly Stark Industries wanted his attention on the new submarine-to-air missiles so badly. Howard Stark said they wanted it badly, and the general responded by pointing out that his left shoe needed to be retied. What the man really wanted was a comfortable consulting job after he retired in a few years, but he wanted to know how much Stark Industries valued him -- what better, more graphic evidence than asserting his dominance over one of Howard Stark's prize employees?

"Tony wasn't born then," he says.

"What did you do?"

"I refused to do it, so Howard hit me in the face and made me get down and do it. I went over on my hands and knees and did it under the table. The general was satisfied, so he left. We went back to the office, Howard and I." Obadiah pauses and rolls up the cuff on his left arm to show Pepper: Pepper looks and sees a pair of pale brown marks, visible under the hair. "Howard lit cigars for us both, then got me drunk and tied me down on a table in his office. You can guess what happened after that."

Different kind of man. He didn't care knowing that you hated it.

Pepper breathes out, slowly, and Obadiah rolls his sleeve back down.

"We all do things we regret," Obadiah says. "The question is living with it."

"What did you regret about it?"

"Two things I've never forgiven myself for," Obadiah says. "First, that two weeks later, I beat my secretary so badly that she spent six months in the hospital. I had to find her another job when she came back because I couldn't look her in the face."

Pepper swallows, and Obadiah looks away from the ocean, rolling onto rocks under the bright California sun. He looks Pepper directly in the eyes.

"Second, that I waited another fifteen years to kill Howard Stark."

Pepper's mouth falls open.

After a moment, she starts to cry, and Obadiah puts an arm around her. Pepper turns her face into his and begins to sob, helplessly, like a child, with her hands over her face.

"There is a better version of this world," Obadiah says. "There is another way of living."

...

Obadiah Stane is, as far as this universe will let him be, a good man.

...

Obadiah Stane believes, insofar as this universe has equipped him to do it, in the possibility of being better.

...

"I don't have anyone else," Tony says, and Pepper kisses him.

They have sex on the couch. Tony hasn't touched Pepper sexually since coming back from Afghanistan, but after Pepper kisses him, he goes down on Pepper -- it isn't the first time, and Pepper slides her skirt up over her hips. Tony slides her underwear down and gets on his knees in front of her. He kisses his way up the inside of her thigh and uses his tongue on her clit, lightly at first, then with more intensity, using broad, flat strokes until Pepper comes. Then, he climbs up on the couch; Pepper kisses the taste of herself off his mouth, and he slides into her. They're face to face.

After a few moments, Pepper kisses Tony again, then pulls away.

"Let me turn over," she says. "I'm more comfortable that way." He opens his mouth to say something, but shuts it again, so Pepper unzips the back of her dress, yanks it over her head, and drops it onto the floor next to the couch. This leaves Pepper in a black bra. Her hair is still halfway in a ponytail, so she reaches behind herself again and undoes it, so that her hair falls on her shoulders. She slides down to the end of the couch.

"Come on," Pepper says and spreads her knees. When Tony kisses the back of her neck and breathes out, warm and hot in her ear, she closes her eyes.

...

Obadiah believes in a world where freedom doesn't have to be earned, where being a decent human being is the default state of existence.

After the sex, Pepper takes the lock chip and goes to the office. She pulls the information from the ghost drive, and there is a moment, she knows, when Obadiah is thinking about killing her. Can he smell Tony on her? How much has he guessed?

Pepper sits in the chair behind the desk and watches as, at the pre-arranged signal, Coulson and his agents kick the door open and drag Obadiah away.

...

After a moment, Pepper starts to cry, and Obadiah puts an arm around her. Pepper turns her face into his and begins to sob, helplessly, like a child, with her hands over her face.

"There is a better version of this world," Obadiah says. "There is another way of living."

They're sitting on rocks together; the tide, eventually, comes back.

...

"When did you guess?" Pepper says, coming out of the bathroom and settling onto the couch next to Tony. "On the stairs at the benefit? I saw you talking to him."

"Before, actually. In the cave where they had me."

"They had you in a cave?"

"They had me in a cave, eating beans out of a pan. I had a lot of time to think."

Pepper laughs and settles her head against Tony's shoulder. She sounds sleepy; she smells like the shower she took with him. Her hair is still a little damp, so it looks almost brown, and Tony leans back on the couch in the great room. Sunlight pours over their shoulders. The fire is off, and so is the waterfall.

"What else did you do in the cave?"

"I thought I heard your voice when they were torturing me," Tony says, after a pause, in a tone of voice that suggests this is absolutely true and he wanted to say this to Pepper, but isn't quite sure what to make of it himself. Accordingly, after a pause of her own to let him know that she understood the message, Pepper shifts a little on the couch. She leans her head against his right shoulder.

"You built an arc reactor, Tony. And that suit you used to blow out all the glass in your workshop."

"I did."

"And you figured out that Obadiah was a traitor before you came back."

"My math was right. It always is."

"Jim says he helped."

"It was my math."

"But he found you in the desert."

There is a slight pause, and then Tony says, "He did."

Pepper yawns. The sunlight is strong and bright, so she closes her eyes all the way and feels Tony's hand rest on her shoulder. She holds still for a moment, then decides to lie down all the way and put her head on his right knee, so that she is looking down along the hallway to the front door.

...

"So when you said that you were shutting down the weapons division, it was planned. He knew. Everybody who mattered already knew."

"Except for you."

Pepper yawns a second time. "Glad to know I matter."

...

Pepper assumes that if she had a poison capsule installed in her mouth, Obadiah did too. Pepper closes her eyes and wonders if he had a chance to use it: her guess is no. If she had a poison capsule in her mouth, and if Obadiah did too, she's guessing the Empire security knows about it.

She doesn't need to ask what will happen if they take him alive.

...

"You have options," Obadiah's man says. "By and large, it's a trade-off between speed and being sure. If you want something that works fast, it'll be dramatic. They'll notice, and they'll have a chance to stop its action."

"Do you have anything that works fast and is -- sure?"

The man looks at her and doesn't say anything, so Pepper breathes out, carefully. "What do I have now?"

"Fast and dramatic." The man looks down at his case. "You want to switch it for the one I'm going to put in the epoxy in your mouth?"

Even when the attempt to kill Tony had failed, Obadiah kept his promise.

...

"You know, if I do what they're asking me to do, I'd be a hero."

"Would you?"

"I'd have this girlfriend who knew my true identity. She'd be a wreck, 'cause she'd always be worrying that I was going to die, yet so proud of the man I'd become. She'd be wildly conflicted, which would only make her more -- "

"You want me to worry about you? You want me to be a wreck?"

Tony pauses. "That didn't come out right."

"You should think about that." Pepper yawns a third time. She is so tired that her words are starting to slur together, and when she closes her eyes and keeps them firmly closed, Tony laughs, strokes the back of her neck, and watches her breathing slow.

"Pepper?" he says, softly, quietly. "Pepper?"

She doesn't answer.

...

Pepper turned the water on in the bathroom and timed biting down on the tooth with the suicide capsule to match when she flushed the toilet: she wished that the fireplace or the waterfall had been on, because it would have helped cover the sound. It would have been easier, but Pepper knows that she chose the slow option, so she needed time. She needs to be sure.

in the end, she gets her wish: she dies with her head on Tony's knee and his right hand lying across her neck.

In a better world, Pepper hopes, she would have been a better person.