Her pulse was thready and nearly punching out of her skin. If not for the ocean, it would have deafened her. As it was, she could taste it molten-hot and feel it beating like a dying bird inside her throat.
Pepper’s life choices up to this moment? So very, very poor.
Half of her was admiring the architecture in front of her (Contemporary mashed into Mid-Century Modern. Really, it did things for a girl) while the other half was considering a full-blown panic attack. Mr. Stark would surely appreciate a stranger going into fits on his front lawn. Honest to fucking god.
She checked her hair, her portfolio, then her heels on the off chance she hadn’t noticed losing four inches in height. It’d taken her three hours to pick the outfit; black too uniform and white a washout, red too bold and purple clearly out of the question because who wore purple on a job interview? And speaking of, who went on an interview to their boss’s house?
But four years of undergrad, a Master’s degree and enough student debt to drown in had steeled her. Pepper had always been a wonder at priorities, and right now, work was more important than an impending heart attack or whether her dress (charcoal-gray, austere) was going to make her look too severe.
Before she could second guess herself, Pepper took the last dozen steps to the house. The front door had no handles, just a little blue screen glowing merrily beneath the finish. Either Mr. Stark’s building contractors had been exceptionally lazy, or—
Her hand spasmed. Closed. Open. Closed. Clenched hard enough to feel her tendons flexing against the bone.
She tapped the screen. “Hello?”
A smooth, posh-perfect voice answered. “Welcome to the Malibu House. Miss Potts, I presume?”
Startled, her eyes skittered to a very discrete camera recessed overhead. It swung a bit as if to acknowledge that yes, it really was there, now would she stop being such a rubberneck and answer the question please?
”Oh, um—” She nearly fumbled the portfolio. “Yes. I’m—Virginia Potts. Here to see…” Words failed a second time.
He threw her a line. “Here for Mr. Stark. You’ve been expected, please, come in.” And with a sharp click, the door unlocked and swung of its own accord. Automated? The futurist in her dearly hoped.
There was a stretch of pale wood, a lance of sun across her skin, then the shine of glass and more glass with the sparks of entire universes shattered across them. Her head swung from wall to wall, then to furniture that probably cost more than the house she’d grown in, then back to another wall because dear god was that an original Yves Klein? The sound that came out of her was embarrassingly breathy.
Reading an entire backlog of The Times, GQ, Popular Science, and a run of tabloids stretching nearly three decades had not remotely prepared her for this.
She could still hear the ocean.
Her heart hit one side of her ribcage then ricocheted to the other. “I’m sorry. I was just admiring the Yves…” But when she turned, the hall was empty. She could still hear the ocean and remembered drowning once, the sea in her mouth and down her throat, her stomach falling and falling as she realized—
There was a pleased hum. “That piece is a particularly provocative selection of his early work; I can see why it drew your eye.” Unperturbed, the voice of unknown-possibly-terrifying origins kept talking. “And my apologies, it seems I’ve been remiss in introductions. I’m the Interactive System that runs Mr. Stark’s house and various satellite properties.”
Her neck craned up to the ceiling. There was nothing there. “So if I talk…?”
“I will hear you perfectly clear anywhere inside the house.” He assured.
She blinked, slotted the information in, and let her mind shoot off because an intelligent program was talking to her and all of her I, Robot fueled childhood dreams might be coming true. “Do you have a name?”
“JARVIS.” And somehow, it sounded as if he was smiling.
She returned the theoretical-grin. “Jarvis, then. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“And I you, Miss Potts.”
Her heart might have fluttered, but if it had, that was between her and the Yves and the ocean out back.
“Mr. Stark is currently in his workshop, I fear your arrival today may have slipped his mind.”
She frowned. “Mr. Stark is scheduled for a meeting with the heads of R&D and the entire Executive Team in less than two hours.” The non-optional nature of this meeting had been made clear when HR had shooed her off this morning on a crash course tryout, and it was a 50 minute drive back to LA. One of these things did not lead unto the other.
“I believe,” His next words screamed delicately phrased. “That Mr. Stark is not liable to exit the workshop for the foreseeable future.”
Her spine steeled. “We’ll see about that. The workshop?”
“Through the living room, staircase will be on your left, the door at the bottom will need to be unlocked. The authorization code you’ve been assigned is three-five-seven-two-niner-niner.”
“Thank you, Jarvis.” Her heels made a satisfying clatter on the floors. With purpose now riding high and heady, nerves didn’t enter the equation. “May I ask what has Mr. Stark so occupied?”
“Assembling a prototype laser testbed.” He paused. “Or building a death ray, the two have been known to overlap.”
She giggled a little, surprised, and then immediately choked on it. “Really?”
“I believe Mr. Stark’s exact words were if that blowhard Archmiedes could do it, so can I. But with more pizzazz.”
“Oh good lord—” She hit the stairs and then the door. She dropped in the code.
“Miss Potts, you may wish to cover—“
There was a catch of air, a pressure seal broken, and then she was Alice walking into Tomorrow’s Wonderland. It was part scientist lair and part playboy dream garage; a madman’s garden of paradise. And it was obvious in that split second what Jarvis had been trying to warn her of. Sound hit like a freight train, music so loud it was distorted nearly beyond recognition. Her hands slammed over her ears, and that was the moment she first laid eyes on Tony Stark.
There was the breadth of his shoulders, the shock of dark hair, the grease down his shoulder blades and worked into his hands. The ratty jeans were a surprise. The wife-beater a bigger surprise. The deafening refrain of Who Made Who probably the biggest surprise of them all.
He didn’t turn; too busy bent over…something spherical that was giving off wires.
“MR. STARK!” Still no response and she gritted her teeth. “JARVIS!”
The music cut and Stark flailed upright. “Hey! What gives?”
“Thank you, Jarvis.” She would have pinned a medal on him, if she’d had a medal or there was something of Jarvis to tack it on. As it was, all she could give him was a swiftly aimed smile.
“You’re very welcome, Miss Potts.” He chimed.
She tried not to beam, but only because ignoring her possible new boss in favor of the Interactive System in the walls would be positively gauche.
“Mr. Stark?” Her voice took up too much space in the quiet.
He jolted sideways. There was a moment of incomprehension when he turned to see her, but it quickly morphed into an appreciative once-over. Then Tony Stark grinned with too much heat and here and GQ had never done him justice. “Jarvis, why didn’t you tell me you got me something nice? Forget what I said this morning, buddy, you and me. Gin and tonic. We go together.”
From the everywhere-nowhere, Jarvis sighed. “This is Miss Potts, Sir, your new potential assistant? The one I told you about this morning?Twice.”
“Right, Vivian? Vera? Something?” He pointed at her portfolio. “You better not be here to hand me something, I swear to god you’ll break my heart if you do.”
“It’s Virginia.” She answered shortly. “And that’ll be Miss Potts to you.”
“Oooh, authoritarian. I like it.” His eyebrows did something ridiculous on his face. “You know, tighten that skirt, get some glasses, raise your heels—no those heels are perfect. Forget the heels. Just get the glasses and maybe a ruler—”
The warnings she’d been given had clearly fallen short; possibly somewhere around her ankles, which judging by Tony Stark’s expression was also where he wanted her underwear to be in the next five minutes.
Her left hand flexed. “Mr. Stark, you have a meeting that you are not even remotely dressed for.”
He made a vaguely sharp gesture. “Yeah, that thing with the top suits? I’m not feeling it. Call it off, or not, whatever floats your boat.” He swung back to the sphere. “Jarvis, cue the music and bring up the power. Thirty percent? Make me tingle.”
“Sir—” She really appreciated Jarvis trying to fight her losing battle. She really, really did.
“Ah-ah-ah! No taking the new girl’s side because you feel bad. Poor form.” Stark was a dervish of motion now, bouncing between the computers and the sphere-array and then a nearby tower that might be the power. He flipped something on. “Look at what you did. You made me do my own work Jarvis, not cool.”
A hum rose; sent her skin prickling from her scalp to the soles of her feet. Tony climbed back over the array and settled in, not even sparing her a backwards glance.
Heat went sharp inside her, clear cut as newly blown glass and still hot at the edges. She stepped to the tower and found the largest bundle of cords. “If I pull this, will anything blow up?”
There was a suspiciously amused catch to Jarvis’ voice. “Not at all. Though I would suggest you try the blue one down and to the left.”
“Right, thank you.” And she grabbed the suggested cord and pulled. The power-sing died, and Tony Stark’s indignant squawks were music to her ears.
“Jesus Christ, put that back!” He sounded utterly aghast and wasn’t undressing her with his eyes anymore. Fancy that.
She crossed her arms, stepped on either side of the cord, and answered sweetly. “You have a meeting Mr. Stark, can I help you get ready?”
“Put it back.” He snapped.
“Put what back?” It was like third grade all over again, she’s touching me no I’m not yes you are and he couldn’t help rising to the bait.
He puffed up. “I will not be disrespected in my own house. Jarvis, make her leave. No, make her put the power back on and then leave.” It was downright petulant and she wondered why, exactly, she’d been so afraid.
The System did not sound particularly moved. “I believe after you fired your first two assistants, had the third file nine lawsuits, and left the fourth stranded somewhere in Milan—”
“I cannot be blamed for that last one—”
“Mr. Stane has made it clear that frivolous rejections will no longer be tolerated, Sir.” Jarvis finished, and had that sounded smug? It had. Pepper might have just swooned a little.
Tony dropped from the array to stalk forward, and her arms came uncrossed because just let him try. “I think I can take you, Mr. Stark.”
His mouth went thin. “You gonna fight me, Vera?”
“Virginia.” She didn’t back down an inch. “And I believe I will, is that a problem?”
The line of his mouth went thin. Sharp. And then—his shoulders shook and out poured the laughter. It was an absolutely devastating sound. When Tony Stark laughed, the world laughed with him. Nothing had done this man justice and it was a crime.
“Alright. Jesus. I will go to your meeting, slugger.”
“Miss Potts.” She frostily corrected.
“Miss Potts.” He stood happily corrected.
“If you’ll go take a shower, I’ll set out a suit. We can brief on the way.” She wasn’t trying to herd him to the stairs, but she may have been herding him towards the stairs.
“Pushy. Seriously though, glasses. Ruler. Look into that.”
“Now Mr. Stark.”
He cackled and took the stairs two at a time. By the time she followed, he’d vanished upstairs. Quietly and only to herself, she breathed with the rhythm of the sea. In the space between one breath and the next, she opened her eyes. “Jarvis, the closet?”
“Right this way.” He answered. “And for the record?”
Her head tilted back. Despite knowing it didn’t matter, she still thought of Jarvis as up. “Yes?”
“That is, by twenty-nine minutes, the shortest amount of time anyone has ever talked Mr. Stark into attending to his duties.” It sounded nearly conspiratorial. And she wanted a conspiracy with Jarvis, okay? A partner in crime and Stark-wrangling.
Good humor bubbled. “You counted?”
“We all have our peculiarities, Miss Potts. Now if you’d turn to your right…”
Tony Stark’s closet made her inner sartorial swoon. Jarvis was polite enough not to say anything when she uselessly fluttered about, because dear god she could have died happy in Tony Stark’s closet. Eventually she settled and picked out slacks (black on black), a shirt (black pinstripe gold), a vest (matte black three-buttons), and a tie (a shock of aureate in diamond pattern). In quick succession they were laid out on the bed and at the sound of the shower cutting off, she departed to Tony shouting: “Hey Potts, will you dress me?”
She looked to the ceiling. “Tell Mr. Stark he didn’t hire a mortician, which is what I’d have to be to dress his corpse.”
“I’ve conveyed your sentiments.” And laughter was somehow suggested in the sound. Did Intelligent Systems laugh? Did androids dream of electric sheep? Asimov had never answered her. “Mr. Stark would like me to return that it is your loss, and that he is clearly wasted on you.”
“My self-esteem will never be the same.”
They still had a meeting to get to, and Malibu to LA was not a short drive. After fifteen minutes of fiddling on her blackberry and sending emails that, yes, Mr. Stark was in fact coming, she started dialing her driver. Jarvis interrupted. “I’m sorry, it appears that Mr. Stark wishes to drive.”
“Mr. Stark does wish to drive.” Tony agreed, barreling out of the master bedroom with suit on but tie askew. “Jarvis, which of my babies have I been neglecting?”
“It has been some time since the Aston Martin has been outside, Sir.”
Tony wolf-whistled and tried to walk off, but she reeled him back in with his tie to put it to rights.
“Why Miss Potts, if you wanted my virile attentions all you had to do was—”
A quick pull nearly turned the tie into a garrote.
He wheezed. “But you didn’t ask, so no cookie for you.”
She smirked. “I’ll try and contain my disappointment.” And smoothed the tie. "All ready.”
There was a long moment: his eyes following the drift of her hands and the line of her neck, a long moment where she felt his breath on her skin. It wasn’t something to be indulged and she stepped away. And like the rescuing angels on high, Jarvis cut in before Tony could turn it vulgar. “Dummy has refueled the car, Sir. Diagnostic scan is complete and without error. You are free to proceed.”
“Thank you Jarvis.” They replied in unison, and that grin came back to Tony’s face, the one that she knew would cause all sorts of awful headaches.
“We have a schedule, Mr. Stark.”
“Of course.” The man was unholy and charming and just a little bit smarmy. “After you.” And the worst part was, she didn’t entirely hate it.
She acquiesced and they were back down the stairs and into the workshop, and then to a car so low slung her hindbrain screamed sleek-sex-gorgeous and her conscious faculties sang back their agreement.
She crossed her legs tighter than necessary when the engine kicked in.
“Miss Potts.” The control panel flared blue and brought Jarvis to her shoulder. “I would advise you to buckle in.”
The words hung in dead space. Tony’s face split into something halfway between glee and mania. She scrambled for her belt, and that was the exact moment Tony decided to floor it.
It was fifty minute drive from Malibu to LA. They got there in thirty-five.
When they screeched to a halt in front of HQ, engine thrumming and rubber burning, she raised an eyebrow. “Will that be all, Mr. Stark?”
And that marked the first time Tony Stark gave Virginia Potts his full attention. It was quite possibly the most devastating moment of her life. It sent her blood singing; it left her nerves jangling. Just when she thought she’d shake apart from it, he said: “That'll be all, Miss Potts.” And stepped from the car in one striking movement, buttoning his jacket as he went.
It was like getting hit by a truck. “Jarvis, was that…?”
“A good thing?” He hummed. “I do believe so, Miss Potts.”
“Oh, lovely, if you’ll give me a minute.” And with that out of the way, she tucked her head between her knees and tried to remember how to breathe.