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Hardwired

Chapter Text

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.

“Miss Potts?”

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.

“Mr. Stark!”

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.

Chapter Text

LA was nice, mostly because Tony wasn’t there.

Her office phone chirped and she cradled the receiver into her shoulder, juggling what felt like six different things not including the phone. Before she could even recite her very bland, very Stark Industries approved spiel, a harried voice interrupted. “Miss Potts, I apologize, but I do believe that we require your assistance.”

Jarvis typically emailed her the itinerary the Tuesdays and Thursdays she spent in the LA office. Tony was the only one who called her from the house, usually for frivolous reasons, so hearing Jarvis on the line was mystifying.

“Did Mr. Stark break the workshop toaster and can’t bring himself to walk to the one upstairs?” She asked. “Because if the answer is yes, tell him I’m not falling for that again.”

“The workshop toaster remains safe and thanks you for your concern.” He scoffed.

“Good.” But Jarvis never called her in LA. “What’s wrong?”

There was a brief pause. “Mr. Stark brought home company last night. He has since barricaded himself in the workshop and his guest has become…agitated. She refuses to exit the premises, and I find myself at a loss.”

The tip-toeing around the nature of this company told her, rather precisely, what kind of company it was. “Have you not asked Mr. Stark’s date to leave?”

“I have.” Jarvis replied. “I fear my presence has only escalated the situation.”

Distantly, she could understand why a voice with no clear origin would be upsetting. But in a much more immediate rush she was infuriated because Jarvis was absolutely darling, and anyone who said differently deserved a jettisoning into deep space. 

Her tongue went sharp. “Have you called security?”

“Security sends reports to Mr. Stane about these sorts of things.” Something that sounded a hell of a lot like exasperation was edging in. “I was instructed to call on Stark Industries only as a matter of last resort, and that has yet to be reached.”

Of Jarvis’ no doubt long list of resorts, it was nice to know where she numbered. It didn’t stop the migraine forming behind her left eye, though. “Pray tell.”

“Between you and I, Mr. Stark likely wishes to avoid another scolding by Mr. Stane. Of course, that’s merely speculation on my part.”

“Of course.” She soothed. “And the police are entirely out of the question.”

He huffed. “We wouldn’t want Mr. Stark to end up in the tabloids again, would we?”

The surreality of the conversation chose that moment to hit her. This was her life now, bitching about her boss with a computer system that lived in the walls of a house. She clamped down on the thought before she gave herself an existential crisis.

With one last despondent look to her paperwork, Pepper sighed. “I can be there in an hour. If you could at least keep her away from the artwork…?”

Jarvis gave a sigh of equal longsuffering. “I’ll do my utmost. But Miss Potts?”

“Yes?”

“Make haste.” The line clicked off.

And today had started as such a lovely, Tony-drama free day too.

/~/~/~/

An hour later (on the dot, she’d like to add) there was glass on the floor and what looked like the remains of a coffee table scattered from wall to wall. She felt surprisingly calm about it. Probably because she could see the Yves was safe. That was really the important thing here. “Jarvis, does Mr. Stark have a usual repair contractor?”

“He does indeed. Shall I place a call?” Jarvis sounded exceedingly pleased to see her. She had to strangle down the urge to be just as pleased back. That would just be…she wasn’t even sure. Sad, maybe.

“Let’s.” She agreed, delicately stepping over debris and following the shouts inward. Around the first corner she nearly stumbled over Happy. In the two weeks since they’d made acquaintance, she’d never seen him so terrified.

He looked to her as rapturously as a drowning man would a lifeline. Bruises were cresting over his cheekbone. “I have never been happier to see you.”

“I bet.” The shouting was growing louder, along with what sounded like something very expensive being pulverized. “Kitchen or study?”

“Kitchen.” He affirmed and then scuttled away. There would be little help from his quarter, then. 

She sighed. “Jarvis, please call a car service and have something sent over. Discreetly.”

“Of course.” And the acoustics of the Malibu house had to have been deliberately designed, because that time his voice was right there. It made her feel better. Less than a month into the job and as far as she was concerned, Jarvis was the best backup in the world.

Her portfolio and laptop went onto a side table with her clutch, but not before she’d drawn out a cloth wrapped around a tube of lipstick. With a quick swipe the nude shade she’d been wearing was removed. She then painted her mouth a violent shade of red and pursed her lips to the nearest camera. “How does it look?”

“Lovely and highly intimidating.”

“Flatterer.” But he owed her a metric ton of flattery for this, so when she smiled, she smiled with teeth.

Of all the things she’d prepared herself for in this job, woman jilted and wrecking the house hadn’t exactly made the list. But Pepper could improvise, she was good at that. She deliberately lengthened her stride and upped the staccato of her heels. Pepper had learned how to make an entrance, and it turned the other girl’s head when she did. The room was a complete mess. The kitchen, the floor, the girl; all of it. She was going to throttle Tony. 

The epicenter of the chaos was a brunette, young and all legs and the kind of gorgeous that would have made Pepper feel dowdy if it wasn’t for the hiccupping sobs.

The next sob morphed to a snarl. “Who are you?”

Pepper let her polite-mouthed smile ice. “Mr. Stark’s more sensible half.”

That sent the girl into a fresh screaming tizzy. “I want to see Tony!”  A carafe hit the floor, a mug, then the whole damn espresso machine. She was making a beeline to topple the entire spice rack and Pepper liked that spice rack. Coveted it.

“Mr. Stark is otherwise engaged.” Pepper didn’t bat a lash. “But if you’d like, we can eat breakfast and then have a car take you home.”

“I WANT TONY!” She shouted and then grabbed the rack to no doubt send it to the floor to join the broken glasses, half the pantry, and the poorly departed juicer.

Pepper picked up a vase from the counter, it was some decorative thing, all bulk and not nearly modern enough to match the décor. She judged the weight and thought, it’d do.

Pepper hurled it into the nearest wall with so much force that it exploded.

The girl froze and there was silence; blessed, wonderful, fear-filled silence. Pepper wanted to bathe in it.

She dragged her words deliberately as a knife. “If you’re done embarrassing yourself, we’re going to have breakfast and then a car will take you home. Am I being perfectly clear?”

The girl flinched and didn’t answer. But when Pepper swayed closer, the girl nodded furiously and hurried into a chair. That was answer enough.

The spice rack (having been spared) gave a few jars to the cause. Along with some eggs, fresh basil, smoked ham, Monterey jack, and a dash of chives; they had a semblance of brunch going. Pepper had dated a chef once, highly talented and highly attractive because of it. He’d made omelets lighter than air on the tongue. She’d dumped him in a hot second when she found his talents had been appreciated by half his wait staff, but she could still make a mean brunch. Not that Tony could ever know; she’d never survive his incessant whining otherwise.

In between chopping fresh onion, she breathed. “Our secret?”

And he understood without any elaboration, because Jarvis was perfect like that. “Not a word shall reach Mr. Stark’s ears.”

It felt as if his voice was right against the back of her neck. 

For some reason that triggered a shiver; warm and shaky at the thought of him.

The girl kept her silence, probably from sheer self-preservation as Pepper’s expression had remained perfectly gracious, even as broken glass crunched under her stilettos.  

“Where are your clothes?”  Pepper asked.

The girl startled. “Up-upstairs.”

“Get them.” She didn’t have to ask twice. The girl bolted and was back fully-dressed just in time for Pepper to set out an omelet in front of her. “Eat.”

The girl ate.

When the food was gone, Jarvis alerted her that the car had arrived. Happy then miraculously reappeared. His timing was suspiciously on point, which meant the Interactive System had no doubt dug the driver out of hiding. Really, if there was a way for her and Jarvis to run away together.

Any way at all.

Happy’s bruises had progressed from blue to a mottled purple. Her mouth twisted. “Apologize.” She snapped at the girl.

The brunette looked up miserably. “I’m sorry.”

Happy looked terrified again, Pepper wasn’t exactly sure why, but with a sharp glance he escorted their destructive guest from the house. Pepper considered the closed door for an unpleasant minute before announcing: “If Tony ever tries to bring that girl back here, lock him out of the house and call me.”

“You will be first on my speed dial.” Jarvis confirmed cheerfully.

Her breath rushed out of her because Jesus Christ, how was this her life?

She had to know. “Is it always like this?”

“The guests? Common. The destruction is a rare occurrence, if that helps any.”

“Not really.” She sighed and then quietly shifted gears. “The contractor?”

“Will be here in less than an hour.” His voice was back to coming from the everywhere-nowhere and she missed the closeness. Missed the way it felt like she could turn and find Jarvis, finally, somewhere in this madhouse. “I’m sending Dummy and You up to clean, if you’d supervise them?”

She felt sharp at the edges. “I’d be glad to.” But that sharpness was no reason to be rude. Not to Jarvis, at least.

As promised, the two robots came up in the service elevator and she shooed them into the kitchen to begin damage control. She watched them from up on the counter, heels kicked off and delicately set aside.

Dummy and You trundled about trying to coordinate sweeping while the other held the dust pan. They were failing spectacularly, but it was an adorable sort of failure, so she showered them in encouragements while desperately wanting to wrap them up in quilts and steal them.

There was a sound like breath or maybe a sigh. Static possibly, and then Jarvis spoke. “If I may inquire, will you be venting any of your displeasures at Mr. Stark?”

“Would it help?”

“To prevent future situations?” He made a caustic sound. “Doubtful.”

She snorted. “Then even if it would make me feel better, no.”

There was a concerned hum. “I wouldn’t dream to rob you of the chance, Miss Potts.”

Tension was still crackling in her hands, up her wrists, into knots between her shoulders. She breathed through it. “I know you wouldn’t, but an assistant doesn’t yell at her boss.”

“What does she do then, if I may ask?”

She smiled with a mouthful of razors. “She wages cold war.”

There was a bursting noise. Laughter. Jarvis was laughing and she felt too full, too pleased with herself for being the cause. It ended fast. “And it will be a sight to behold. You’ll return Mr. Stark in one piece?”

“Mr. Stark’s one-pieceness is very important to me.” Her knuckles seemed to unwind of their own volition, releasing the counter from where she’d had it in a death grip. “You’re too sweet, Jarvis.”

“Now who’s being liberal with the flattery?”

Her hand went to cover her smile. She had lipstick on her fingers; broken glass below bare feet. She was sitting barefoot on her boss’s kitchen counter, and in that absurd moment couldn’t stop smiling at all.

She looked to the nearest blue light, lashes flared wide. “I wouldn’t dream of buttering you up, that would be incredibly unprofessional.”

“Quite.” He sniffed. “Trying to use my better nature against me, Miss Potts?”

She brought a hand to her heart. “I would never use sweet talk against you.”

“Now I wouldn’t go that far.”

Reflexively, she smiled down at her toes, struck by the sudden urge to paint them blue. Electric. 

Metal bumped against her knee, and there was Dummy offering her a dangerously full glass of orange juice. “For you.” Jarvis added, perhaps unnecessarily, and yet she flushed all the same.

It was simple and altogether too much. “Thank you Jarvis.” She took the glass and patted Dummy’s claw. “Thank you as well, Dummy.”

The claw swiveled and dipped rather shyly. Pepper was charmed. 

There was something warm to Jarvis then, warmer than the heat of adrenaline, warmer than the sun on her skin. “You’re very welcome.”  But she had to be imagining it; that fond hitch in his voice. She was projecting and she knew that, but even so, the awfulness of the morning was suddenly so very far away.

Chapter Text

“Tony, no.”

It startled him like a rabbit. “Jesus Christ!” And he tried and utterly failed to cover the backseat of the Audi. “Potts! What a pleasant surprise, do you have something for me to sign? Because I can sign it. I have pens, like, a dozen pens. Space pens; the kind that work in zero gravity.”

The man could spit distractions at the rate of a machine gun. There was no cover from it except to push through. “Depleted uranium, really?”

“No.” Said Tony.

“Yes.” Said Jarvis.

The penny dropped. “Traitor!” He accused, chest clutched, close to having a Victorian-esque fainting spell on the spot. Pepper was deeply unimpressed.

Jarvis hummed noncommittally and Tony’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t you play dumb with me.”

Jarvis sniffed. “I wouldn’t dream of it, Sir. That would be horning in on your territory.”

“Who taught you to sass me?” Their boss despaired. “Sass, in my own house. Assistants turning on me. I am surrounded by conspiracies and collusion.

“Funny how that happens.” She remarked. “And don’t think you’ve distracted me. Depleted Uranium inThe. House.”

His expression morphed to wide-eyed innocence. “It’s for science. Science. That thing I do, my gift to mankind? You are taking away mankind’s gift, Potts.”

“Mankind will build themselves a bridge and get over it.” She jabbed a finger at the car. “You are not bringing that into a residential area.”

Tony rolled his eyes, which was more than a touch infuriating. “Please. Nobody even lives within two miles of us. I was very particular about that. Jarvis, tell her how particular I was.”

“Very.” He supplied.

“My point remains.” Her eyes narrowed. “Do you want the FBI to come knocking on your door?”

His expression turned sly, sharp, a shark smelling blood. “But if it went somewhere else a little more—hmmm—zoned?”

There were lines to be drawn with Tony Stark, envelops to be pushed. It’d been a balancing act from the getgo, and given an inch he’d take a mile. She met him eye to eye, let it hold, let it squirm between them. “How important is this?”

He didn’t flinch. “Very.”

It was a rare expression on him, serious. She turned on her heel. “Don’t get put on a watchlist.”

He bounced along after her, arms wide. “Miss Potts, I’m sorry I ever doubted. My darling, dearest, most understanding assistant—”

Tony was toeing the would-become-a-sexual-harassment-lawsuit line. Again. She side-stepped him. “Save it for someone who will buy it.”

“The American Public?” He wiggled his eyebrows.

Jarvis sighed. “A cutting indictment on us all.”

“The American Public loves me and therefore the American Public is perfect and you shut your mouth. I will not hear your slander against our great people.”

“Mr. Stark.” She pressed.

“Right. Spare the residentials. Got it.” And just as swiftly, Tony was speeding off to parts unknown with his uranium of extremely dubious legal origin. 

“We know nothing about this.” She told the ceiling.

“It’s already behind the firewall.” Jarvis assured.

Her shoulders dropped. “God, we’ve actually turned into a conspiracy.”  

“Only if we’re caught in the act. Until then, the great Jarvis-Potts Collusion is hearsay.” He sounded rather unconcerned. Then again, this was probably only the tip of an egregious iceberg of what must be hiding behind those firewalls.

“Are we hyphenating already?” She felt a smile pull. “Or are we getting together and calling ourselves an institute?”

There was an incredulous noise. “Paul Simon, really?”

The reference had been obscure and completely off-hand and he’d still caught her out. “Hush you.” She pushed her hair back; dropped her chin just a little. If he noticed her blush he mercifully didn’t say. “Would you be a dear and help me run down conference itineraries?”

He responded in breezy fashion. “I thought you’d never ask.”

Chapter Text

The legal papers were on the passenger seat of her car when the front tire burst. 

Running legal documents hadn’t been her problem once, but when she was a) one of the few people who could track Tony Stark down and b) the only one who could get him to sign without resorting to bodily threats, she could have changed her job-title to runner of all that has Tony Stark’s signature on it.

The abrupt slide when the tire went had her white-knuckling the wheel. Adrenaline came sharp on its heels and she knew how to do this. Let go of the gas, no sudden braking, ease into the slide. Don’t overcorrect. Maybe. Hope to fucking god.

The legal papers were in the wheel-well when she finally brought the car shuddering to a nothing-strip of concrete. Some of Tony’s girls wore dresses with more square footage. Her forehead dropped to the steering wheel.

A shrill ring nearly peeled her from her skin. She scrambled for her phone. “Hel—shoot—I’m sorry. Hello, Virginia Potts speaking?” And winced at the strangled pitch of her voice.

“Miss Potts, are you alright?” The sound of Jarvis dampened the screaming-panic of last two minutes to something nearly manageable. Nearly.

She slumped. “I’m fine. I just—wait, why are you calling?”

“The GPS in your phone has halted in a dare I say concerning section of the Santa Monica freeway. Are you in any distress?” 

She wondered if she wanted to ask why he was monitoring her GPS, but couldn’t quite find the energy to get there. “No. I mean—a little distress, one of my tires went and I’ve got—” She looked over at the papers now eight deep in the wheel-well and wanted to cry. “Shit. I’ve got the Iber contracts and they need to be at LA Legal in less than an hour.”

“I’ve already directed a pickup towards your location, so please wait inside until their arrival. You can then lock your keys inside and depart. I’ll send a tow for your vehicle and have it taken to the shop that handles the SI fleet.” He paused at the edge and went a little softer. “Please don’t fret Miss Potts, we have it in hand.”

The urge to cry was getting stronger, but for an entirely different reason. “You’re a life-saver Jarvis, thank you.”

“No thanks necessary.” He assured. “Pickup ETA in three minutes.”

“Three?” That was suspiciously fast. She unbuckled, leaned over, and started scooping up paper.

There was a delicate sort of cadence to suggest that he was picking his words. “I may have—ah. Rerouted a nearby cab through radio dispatch with a bit of…well, that hardly matters. It’s not as if they won’t be compensated.”

That didn’t sound suspicious at all. She worked for Tony Stark, the man oozed suspicious and she was building an expertise, should add it to her goddamn resume. “What did you do?”

He was the picture of virtue. “Nothing awful and certainly nothing illegal by the letter of the law.”

Sure, and she was the Queen of the Moon. But like clockwork a cab rolled up and fuck it, she was not above taking this. She tucked the phone into her shoulder and scuttled into the passenger seat. “Cab’s here. Keys are under the dash. Jarvis—”

He didn’t let her finish. “It’s taken care of. But Miss Potts…”

He paused and she wondered at the silence. “Yes?”

“Please call me when you arrive?” It was nearly cautious. 

“I—” No one had asked her to do that in ages. Not since high school. Pepper, sweetheart, just call us when you get there. We just want to make sure—

No one had cared enough to ask for that in years. But it wasn’t like—this was Jarvis, it didn’t mean a thing. It was some triggered subroutine in programming she couldn’t hope to understand barring two doctorates and a forty-point jump in her IQ. 

It was hopeless to wonder but this was Jarvis, and she could do one better. “Maybe you could stay on the line with me instead?”

She wondered if it was too much to ask, but his tone turned practically effervescent. “I’d be delighted.”

And that’s exactly what he did, into the cab and through LA, entering the lobby of SI and all the way up the elevator to Legal. They talked Tony and nonsense and electric cars and Summer fashion lines and Impressionist period art and it was—nice.

It didn’t matter why or how it came to be: it was the nicest thing that had happened to her in months. When it was finally, really time for her to hang up and go talk to Legal like a competent adult, Jarvis asked her pleasantly: “Keep in touch?”

She tried not to flutter. “I’ll put you on speed dial.”

/~/~/~/

It was supposed to be a joke, the speed dial, until she called him when a Development Meeting was delayed for his sparkling company, then dialed him up over something with Tony at 2AM and ended up staying on the line for another hour, then did it again in a car to a benefit to smooth over hurt feelings about Tony being Tony and nearly ended up not leaving the car. It’d been a joke, but suddenly, she didn’t want to keep checking her address book every other minute.

Pepper was a creature of peak efficacy and scrolling for his number was inefficient damnnit, so she put him first on speed dial and didn’t question it.

Later, weeks later, it came to a head when she was under supermarket fluorescents jonseing for fruit salad. It was just another Wednesday and way past ten. It was one of those awful days; ravenous and feeling like a crazy person because Tony and looking like a crazy person because fucking Tony, and she couldn’t remember which brand of fruit salad was one-hundred-percent strawberry free so Pepper wouldn’t give herself a deathly allergic reaction. She picked up her phone to dial Jarvis because of course he’d know and—just stared at the screen.

Her call history scrolled out: Jarvis Jarvis Jarvis Jarvis Jarvis Jarvis Jarvis. It went weeks backwards with calls at all hours and at least three times per day. Barely half of them could have been justified as business. 

There was something wrong here, but she wasn’t sure what. Her choices. Her sanity. Her social life. Tony’s social life ruining her social life.

Maybe just her. Who could tell? 

But it was late and she just wanted a friendly voice and something to eat and maybe ten goddamn minutes of peace in her day.

Jarvis picked up on the second ring.

Out on the sidewalk where heat was curling off the pavement—out under the mercury-blue—she got her ten minutes with a container cracked on her knees and a phone tucked in her shoulder, whispering words between every bite.

It was something.

Chapter Text

She arrived to LA one morning to a latte waiting on her desk, steaming and smelling of amaretto and cinnamon and all that was still good in the world. When she breathed it in, it ripped something nearly obscene from her. It was surprising Tony didn’t call her up on the spot. His Pepper-Potts-is-emotionally-compromised senses must have been tingling.

Not for the first time, she was grateful for the distance of LA.

When another latte showed up Thursday and then the Tuesday after that, it became clear someone was trying to get into her good graces and making an embarrassingly easy job of it. But even coming in early didn’t catch her mystery benefactor in the act. Somehow, the giver of her only love and joy was not only avoiding detection, but was managing to deliver within two minutes of her pre-arrival. 

It was starting to tip over from flattering to somewhat alarming. 

It was at 4AM on an awful Friday in Malibu that her wooing-stalker revealed themselves.

Tony had called her heaving and buzzing and out of his mind on his own revolutionary genius. It'd sent her sprinting to the house to talk him off the ledge and into bed, tucking him away from whatever uppers he was dosing himself with. The man was out cold for barely two minutes when the front-bell rang.

Pepper briefly considered self-defenestration.

She held off on the urge long enough to stalk to the door, and there waited a courier who delivered a latte right into her needy hands. She was dumbstruck by it for only a brief moment before shutting the door. Tony Stark was the least considerate person in all of creation, and the suspicious timing only left one option. 

A flick of her tongue drew the foam off her lips; left her mouth soft-slick with cinnamon. “Jarvis?”

“Yes, Miss Potts?” He was always so solicitous and it killed her, it really did.

Heat clung to her cheeks, her neck, the insides of her wrists. “Is this you?”

“Would you believe me,” He asked. “If I said it was a preemptive strike? Mr. Stark is…capricious, at times. I wished to build up a cushion of goodwill for moments such as this.” 

It was a ploy, a program, some wondrous fluke that should never be taken to heart. It was a numbers game: latte plus Pepper equals Tony Stark left alive. But when she ran it, the equation didn’t balance.

The heat of the amaretto was sliding down her throat, the crooks of her elbows, down into her lungs and stomach and thighs. She breathed. “If that’s what you were trying, you’ve made an error.”

That startled him. “What did I miss?”

“All that goodwill? You built it up, definitely.” She batted her lashes. “For yourself.”

There was a lingering pause. “Oh.” Came his faint and utterly crushed response. It was the most adorable thing she’d ever heard, and she’d once listened to Butterfingers cry for an hour when he couldn’t pick up quarters with his claw.

She shrugged. “People tend to direct good feelings at those who cause them. They’re non-transferable.” There was another long, humming silence. He couldn’t possibly be doing what she thought. “Are you trying to re-run your whatever until it allocates?”

“I’ve just missed something.” He insisted. “There must be a workaround.”

She laughed because god, Jarvis thought that if he just crunched the numbers and ran the variations, the human condition would miraculously unwind before him. It was downright precious.

She could taste amaretto on her tongue, slow and easy, and took another delicate sip. “Too late. I’m on to you; all future deliveries will only raise you in my estimation. My feelings towards Mr. Stark will remain static.”

“But the money comes from Sir."

She clicked her tongue. “But the thought came from you.”

Something in that finally slotted, and he answered with dawning horror: “And it’s the thought that counts.”

“Quite.”

“That just won’t do.” It was the first time she ever heard him sound petulant. Unlike Tony, it made her want to pet him and say all sorts of lovely things. 

But as there was a regrettable lack of Jarvis to coo over, she tightened her hands on the cup and offered: “Think of it this way, not quid pro quo, but when you do nice things for someone they’ll be willing to help you in return.”

He considered it. “Help how?”

She shrugged. “Favors, I suppose. Friends do favors for each other.”

There was the static again like the pause between breaths, like when someone opened their mouth but couldn’t quite find the words. And then: “Are we?”

She tried to parse it. “Are we what?”

“Friends?” There was something unsure in that, and there couldn’t be. She was humanizing left and right just to have a shred of social contact. Working for Tony Stark didn’t leave time for anything and it was starting to show, but fuck it. Fuck it.

She smiled. “Of course we are.”

“Oh.” He sounded utterly delighted. “Alright then.” 

And so was she: alright with it, warm and ebullient and her mouth left aching with the sweetness of the words.

/~/~/~/

The lattes kept showing up, but after that day in Malibu, they were always accompanied by baklava or canelé or franzbrötchen or the most decadent blueberry cream tarts. 

She couldn’t resist those tarts. They always left her mouth stained dark and her day infinitely better off than it started.

Chapter Text

“Miss Potts, I do believe we have company.”

Pepper blinked, the laptop screen a bright splash through her eyelids. It was past nine. She hadn’t even finished summarizing the quarterlies and she still had a Board packet to read, distill, and shove down Tony’s throat. God forbid she hadn't helped her boss find the socket wrench he’d lost, because doing it alone was depressing and what if the wrench thought Tony had abandoned it? 

And that had gone on for three hours. Three.

“Did Mr. Stark order strippers?”

“Not recently.” Jarvis demurred, which she took as code for not while you were here. “Mr. Stane has pulled to the front gate.”

Something fell inside her; abruptly severed. “What?”

“I’ve already informed Mr. Stark. In the meantime—”

She leapt, hands clammy as she tried to smooth her skirt and oh god, had she rubbed off her makeup? When was her last touchup? Her heart beat like a caged bird. “Jarvis, how do I look? Is my face okay? Did Mr. Stark get motor oil on my dress? Am I—”

He interrupted. “Miss Potts you are, as always, a vision of loveliness.”

She scowled. “Now is not the time for you to be charming.”

“I have no idea what you’re implying.” He answered, blithe, like butter would not melt on his servers. And if she’d ever had doubts Jarvis had been made at Tony’s hand, this would have ended them.

She stuffed every report in reach under the couch. The room was basically clear; Tony had only passed through on the way to the workshop. Nothing was on fire, nothing was bleeding hydraulic fluid, nothing was threatening to explode. Nothing. Probably. She had a good 90% chance that Tony hadn’t snuck anything by her. 

The nearest mirror was a vanity piece in the curve of a far wall. It was workable. 

With trembling hands she put on fresh lipstick and a careful layer of eye shadow and then a quick powder over her most prominent freckles, because god, those freckles made her look like she was thirteen instead of twenty-three. She pulled her hair out of her chignon, fluffed it, and then tied it back even more severely. 

She was going to make a good impression. She was going to make a good impression if it killed her. Everyone at SI knew that while Tony was the name on the building and the brilliance behind the brand, Obadiah Stane was the one who made the trains run on time. And one did not survive SI on the bad side of the right-hand man.

Game face painted, she took up position at the door, hands folded delicately in front of her. She tried to channel the La Scapigliata with her smile. She was a beautiful, serene, and most importantly competent assistant. No part of her would be found wanting. 

She thought that very, very hard.

“Miss Potts,” Jarvis murmured, so close it was as if they were cheek to cheek. “Breathe.”

She breathed. The door opened, and in came the man who was the thunderhead to Tony’s hurricane.

Obadiah Stane was impossibly tall. His was an imposing figure, intense and broad-shouldered and all in a well cut ten-thousand dollar suit. Gold winked at his wrists; cufflinks the size of grapes and his watch face like a small sun. He was every inch a man who had power and knew it, the kind who entered a room and his personality would go wall to wall. 

And then his eyes found her. They were rime blue; nearly bled of color.

Her expression turned coy. “Welcome to the Malibu House, Mr. Stane.”

“Virginia.” His voice was molasses, thick and rich and her name had never sounded like this. He took her hand to kiss it and she felt too young. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you face to face.”

“The pleasure’s all mine, Mr. Stane, honestly.” Her hand was still tucked into his. She wanted to pull it away, already self-conscious, but had no idea how. 

“It’s Obadiah.” His grin took a roguish tilt. “You’re Tony’s keeper, believe me, that puts me on a very grateful first-name basis.”

Her cheeks flamed. “I’m not sure keeper is the right word.” Something in her curled with the flattery. “Herder, possibly. I don’t stop, I merely direct.” And occasionally even into something productive. She was an assistant, alright? Not a miracle worker.

His laughter came golden and easy as whiskey. “And you’ve done a phenomenal job.” He squeezed her hand and finally released it. Another minute more and she just might have swooned, and god, she’d have never been able to face Tony again if she had.

Obadiah held up his briefcase and bless him for it; it gave her something to do with her hands. She dutifully whisked it away. “I may have had a little help with the genius-herding, right Jarvis?”

The air remained still. It felt like missing a stair; a sudden abyss where ground should be.

Her head snapped up. “Jarv—”

His voice burst overhead. “I’m terribly sorry, Miss Potts. I shouldn’t take credit where it isn’t due.”

“Oh.” Obadiah murmured, gaze following hers. “Does Tony still have that in here?”

That? What—

Understanding dawned and her stomach dropped like a stone. Acid was coming up the back of her throat but the silence was building, and she forced her knuckles to unclench. She could salvage this, she would. “Jarvis is a dear with help, I don’t know how I’d live without him.”

Obadiah nodded. “Sure, sure. It all works well enough, though god knows Tony never did anything with it properly.” His big shoulders rolled. “You know his system here nearly put you out of a job? Tony was convinced he didn’t need an assistant when he had all of this cooked up.”

She would salvage this. “Then it’s very good he kept us both. We’re complimentary, Jarvis and I. He keeps calendar and I enforce it where our darling Mr. Stark is concerned.” And she really didn’t want to be talking about this any longer. “I do believe you’re here for Mr. Stark, correct?”

“I could be talked out of it.” Obadiah dropped a hand to the small of her back and propelled her into the next room. “Tony’s an acquired taste that needs to be worked up to.”

“We manage just fine, don’t we?” She paused to let Jarvis chime in, but there it was again: that awful jag of silence.

Obadiah mistook the direction of her words. “We do. It’s a very exclusive club of Tony-managing, but I’ve always been a fan of new blood. I’ll call up Rhodes; make sure he votes you in.”

Maybe Jarvis hadn’t realized? Maybe, maybe—she swallowed her nerves. “The illustrious Lieutenant Colonel. I’ve heard so many things.” 

“And the stories we could tell you in return.” Obadiah’s grin turned downright predatory. Pepper found herself matching it because oh, did she love the smell of blackmail in the evening.

“Do tell.” She breathed.

That was the moment Tony swooped up the stairs. “You shut your mouth Obie!”

“The man of the hour arrives.” Obadiah replied magnanimously. The warmth of him left her back, and it was as if she’d been loosed from a tether. The big man spread his arms. “Cm’ere.”

Tony rolled his eyes but was smiling too brightly to hide. The two hugged and slapped backs. Pepper scurried a respectful distance away. Operation blend into the walls and make like furniture was now underway. She was an assistant and a damn good one. She knew when to be a taskmaster and when to be window dressing, and this was definitely a time to make pretty.

Tony broke away first and gave Obadiah sharp onceover. “No pizza? No bribes? I’m hurt Obie. I have not fallen on the straight and narrow. I’m increasing my graft by ten percent, I will not be moved by your naïve trust in me.”

“Wasn’t in New York, Tony.” He dropped a wide hand on her boss’s shoulder. “Gotta be like a working man and get your own pizza.”

Tony was insulted. “Why I never.”

They were moving towards the couches and she veered to stow the briefcase. She took a nearby seat but didn’t pull her laptop. She knew Tony Stark: dancing attendance was an all-night affair. A few more jovial barbs were traded and then like clockwork, her boss shouted: “Potts! Get something alcoholic out here! Expensive. Make it expensive, I want to taste five figure in every sip.”

Her plans to be a wallflower collapsed faster than a house of cards. “Yes, Mr. Stark. Of course Mr. Stark. Would you like the pretty glasses, Mr. Stark?”  

He gave a flippant wave. “You know me so well. The prettiest glasses, Miss Potts, we can’t let our guest think we’re proletariat in this house.”

Communists.” Obadiah sniffed.

“Those red bastards.” Tony vehemently agreed.

“I doubt you’d be mistaken for the unwashed masses, Mr. Stark.” She rolled her eyes but got to her feet. In her glossy five-inch stilettos, it was a deliberately arresting sight.

Both men were watching her now, eyes dark, the atmosphere oddly settled around the three of them. Tony’s mouth pulled vicious. “Not that you’ve ever let me be unwashed, Potts.”

“None of that.” She answered tartly. “Do I need to call Jarvis to protest my virtue?”

Obadiah’s eyebrows went up.

Tony laid a hand over his heart. “I would never imply such things. Your mind went there first. Disturbingly quickly, I might add. Have you been thinking about me naked in the bath agai—”

Jarvis cleaved into the conversation with the force of an axe. “Really Sir?”

Their boss immediately backpedaled. “I kid, you know I kid. Jarvis, sweetheart, you know I wouldn’t ever imply—”

Jarvis sounded sharp even to her. “I would certainly hope not, talking about Miss Potts in such a way in front of guests.”

Tony looked hurt, innocent, but hurt. Obadiah seemed bemused. “Sometimes,” The big man sighed. “I wonder where I went wrong with you.”

Tony gasped. “Nothing is wrong with me. I am perfect, how dare you imply otherwise.”

“You make computer programs to chastise yourself. It’s masochistic. Did I drop you on your head when you were a baby?” Obadiah paused. “No, it was definitely in your teens. I remember it now, you decided the fastest way to digest alcohol was to flip over with a hose and—"

“We are not talking about that!” Tony shrieked.

Pepper wasn’t sure if she wanted to ask. Obadiah crooked a finger and she followed, reeled in by the gesture. The man reached out and patted her hand. “Don’t mind Tony, Virginia. He occasionally has delusions of adequacy.”

“Hey!” Their victim squawked. “I am one-hundred percent adequate. All you proletariat will look upon my adequate self and despair.”

Her smile was saccharine but her mouth was sleek-dark; mulberry lipstick duskier than wine. “Sorry, I don’t have any room in my calendar to languish.” She deliberately turned to Obadiah. “Any requests on beverages, Mr. Stane?”

He smirked and lounged gorgeously into the couch. Really, the man was perfectly aware of how he looked and used it to overwhelming effect. “Surprise us.” And then slung an arm around Tony. The younger man grumbled half-heartedly but didn’t pull away.

“Surprise it is.” She sought the nearest camera. “Jarvis, where oh where do we keep the pretty glasses?”

The System picked up his cue. “Right down the north hallway, Miss Potts. If you’d follow the lights…”

She knew where the glasses were. That was hardly why she’d asked. As soon as they were out of earshot, she slipped into an alcove and called up softly. “Jarvis?”

He didn’t question the detour. “What is it?”

“Is—” There was no good way to phrase this. “Should I not talk to you when Mr. Stane is visiting? He seems…it’s Mr. Stane, but you shouldn’t have him talking over you like that.”

Jarvis dropped right next to her in the acoustics. The alcove cloistered them and it was as if he was right there, gentle and close and sharing the same oxygen. “It’s perfectly alright. Mr. Stane does not require my input, so I keep to myself when he calls upon Mr. Stark.” There was something quiet and barely there. Maybe it was the breath in her lungs. “Don’t trouble yourself on my account, Miss Potts.”

The words hit somewhere weak. It was like chewing on glass to swallow them. “We’re friends, right?”

“So you say, and I’m inclined to trust your judgment.”

She huffed. “Say yes, Jarvis.”

He volleyed it back. “Yes Jarvis.”

“God.” It tore a laugh out of her. “Friends protect friends from things like this.” From being treated like they were programs and conveniences and there for use, even though—even though. She swallowed hard and desperately wanted not to think on this at all.

“I serve at the pleasure of those in the Malibu house.” He sucked in a sharp sound. “We both serve at the pleasure, Miss Potts.”

It fell like a sledgehammer and suddenly she was every inch of her age. She was twenty-three and all the makeup and pencil skirts in the world wouldn’t stop her from feeling like a girl playing dress-up in her mother’s clothes. From playing dress-up in someone else’s life. She was an assistant in a long line of them; disposable as those who came before and she knew how Tony Stark lived. He left people in his wake like driftwood, with no care for when or where or how much he fucked them over. 

She wasn’t exempt.

And Jarvis was maybe, just maybe, just trying to protect—

No. The idea of that was absurd. But right now, the idea of that was the only thing keeping her steady. “I’m so sorry. I overstepped here. I didn’t mean to—”

“Your concern is a treasure, Miss Potts, don’t you ever doubt otherwise.” He pressed.

She made a hiccupping, desperate sound.

“Then as your friend, I ask a favor.” There was the slide of him coming close. “Do not be cross with Mr. Stane over me. Kicking up a fuss will only be a detriment to the both of us. If we must, we shall conduct our friendship in private and it will be none the lesser for it.”

Her eyes flinched shut and then kept pressing; until smears of color burned sunspots in her eyes. She wanted to rage, to shout, to bite at her tongue until she tasted red. It felt like a choice: her job or being a friend. Herself or Jarvis. 

She’d been described as frosty, driven, haughty, selfish. Maybe she had been. Maybe she still was. Here and now she didn’t want to be, but he’d asked her to.

She had to make sure. “I don’t want you to resent me.”

“I won’t.” He promised, and what else could she say?

It was a matter of trust. She breathed deeply and let herself come to rest. “Alright.”

He sounded relieved. “Excellent. But Miss Potts…”

“Pepper.” She blurted.

“What?” And she’d completely knocked him off course.

There was no taking it back. She ran a hand over her neck, her mouth; left lipstick in dark smudges on her fingertips and said: “Friends call each other by pet names, personal ones. Mine is Pepper.”

“Oh,” He said breathlessly. “Are you sure?”

“Please.”

His voice sounded so near then, as if he was a head taller and leaning in. “Pepper.”

Her heart skipped

“My,” He said. “It’s certainly a lovely moniker, isn’t it? For such a lovely—”

She despaired. “For the love of christ, your charms are going to kill me.”

But in that moment something was building, and god only knew what it would become.

“Then I shall not abuse the privilege.” He told her, so puffed up proper and absolutely darling in every way. 

“I know you can be trusted. Now Jarvis, be a dear,” The endearment rolled off her tongue. “And tell me where Mr. Stark keeps the good stuff.”

Chapter Text

“You’re not watching.”

“Yes I am.” Pepper said

“No you’re not.” Tony whined.

“I am totally, completely focused on you.” She lied between her teeth.

“Jarvis, she is doing no such thing. Tell her she’s not.”

That brought her head up. “Don’t bring Jarvis into this.”

“Too late.” The man sang.

Jarvis let out a gusty sigh. “Miss Potts, you do appear to be giving your laptop 93.4% of your attention.”

“No.” She snapped it shut and refused to give Tony the pleasure of her gaze. “I’m giving you 93.4% of my attention, because you deserve it.”

“Be careful Miss Potts, I might take that to heart.”

Tony made a disgusted noise from his end of the workshop. “No, I’m not having it, you two are going to stop that right now.”

“Stop what?” They asked.

Tony looked appalled. “That, right there, I am not having you two go off on a tangent during my moment. You promised me Potts, you promised you’d come down and appreciate my genius.”

After Tony’s blowup at a press conference yesterday, she would have promised her first born to shut him up. But, technically, she had said she’d come down for...something. Pepper knew keeping her word where Tony was concerned was the only reason he even just a tiny bit listened to her.

“Okay. Fine.” She deliberately set aside her laptop. The bots that’d been hanging back crowded her. You had a camcorder, Butterfingers rushed over from where he’d been tacking up targets on the wall, and Dummy had somehow gotten ahold of a tiny red caution flag and was waving it rather enthusiastically.

She strangled whatever desperate fawning wanted to come out of her. 

“What are we watching?” She asked, shoving Dummy’s claw away before he smacked her in the face.

“Test firing!” Tony shouted and now that he mentioned it, the workshop had been cleared end to end and the targets Butterfingers had mocked-up were glaringly person-shaped.

Jarvis, as always, filled in the pertinent details. “This is the first live test of Sir’s prototype Intelligent Semi-Automatic Rifle.”

“You should be flattered Potts! Obie’s gonna be so disappointed in me when he realizes I gave you the sneak peek.” With a shove of his bare foot, Tony pushed the top of a weapons crate and then slung up an absolutely gorgeous rifle. The stock and rail-guard were slate gray, but every other inch of it was smooth as black ice. The lines of the gun were a work of mathematical beauty. She wanted to ask Jarvis to run the numbers, the angles; make an equation out of superior engineering and unparalleled aesthetic.

Pepper had always been able to appreciate Art.

In precise form Tony unfolded the stock, pushed in a magazine, and racked a bullet to chamber. It was new, seeing him this way. Not manic and jittering. Not talking a mile a minute and moving a mile faster. Just him and a single purpose; liquid with grace and the ease of long practice.

It was the first time she’d ever thought of Tony as dangerous.

It sat a little too well on him.

“Why the colors?” She asked.

“Military hasn’t put in for what camo patterns they want, now—” Tony pulled on goggles. “Safety first.”

She snorted and Jarvis marveled. “Never have I heard such words from your mouth.”

“What,” Tony said. “We’ve got children in here. Potts, please make sure the babies all have their safety equipment on.”

She looked at the bots a bit closer and despaired. She rearranged the kevlar vest Butterfingers had on backwards, adjusted the safety glasses You had hanging from his claw, and found Dummy was wearing ear protectors. Ear protectors. And not even over his actual microphones.

Christ almighty.

When Tony was really, truly convinced the babies were ready, she donned her own headgear. Jarvis was a muffled weight in the air. “Are you properly secured, Miss Potts?”

She gave thumbs up.

“Excellent." His attention shifted. "Sir, all diagnostics and recordings are up and running. I’ll be monitoring from above.”

Tony’s grin turned on a knife’s edge. “Ladies and bots, I’d like to introduce everyone to Stark Industries newest pride and joy. Meet our bouncing baby boy, the Paragon.” And then effortlessly shouldered the rifle and pulled the trigger. 

Black outlines blew away in neat holes, three by three, punctured hearts and shattered heads. Devastation would come in triplicate and brass casings and the lightning bite of a gun. 

And all Pepper could think was safety and dangerous, crossed over and over until there was no pulling it apart.

/~/~/~/

It smelled like cordite, later. Made her shaky in the knees.

Tony offered the rifle when it was spent. “Wanna try?”

She felt a vague suspicion. “You just want Jarvis to take pictures of me with it.”

He didn’t even deny. “We’ll put in on our newsletter. Sales will rise 300%. Sassy redheads with Smart-guns at Stark. Tagline that Jarvis, I want it on the letterhead.”

She crossed her arms. A great deal of wheedling followed, but when he couldn’t get her to budge, he dropped the rifle on the table. He took Butterfingers and You to pick up the targets, probably to supervise but really just there to get exasperated when they inevitably mucked it up.

Jarvis offered privately. “You really would look quite competent with it.”

She arched an eyebrow. “Really?”

“It’s a mathematical certainty.” He stated and there was no arguing. Jarvis was never wrong about the math.

Quick like, chamber cleared and no magazine in, she picked up the rifle and sighted it on the opposite wall. She’d grown up in the heartland, in the flatlands, it wasn’t like she didn’t know how to hold a gun.

Stock to the shoulder, eyes on the prize. Skin to steel and it was still fired-warm.

“Not really my style.” She let it fall, cradled it, then placed it back down. Still more than a little enamored, she smoothed her hands over. 

Jarvis hummed. “I’d beg to disagree, Pepper. The lines more than suit.”

A heat-flush took so intensely her freckles were visible down to the V-neck of her dress. When her giggles drew Tony’s attention, she refused to explain why she couldn’t catch her breath.

Chapter Text

The months bled together and suddenly it was December with the Stark Industries Christmas Party half on her plate. It wouldn’t have been so bad, really, if a week before it Tony hadn’t decided a corporate party was too passé.

“I want my holiday on the ocean.” He’d announced from the blue. Since they were in the back of a town car, at least she wouldn’t have to reach far to smother him.

“Drowning?” She asked in hope.

“No,” He turned dramatically to the window. “On a yacht. Miss Potts, buy me a yacht. I want all other boats to cower at the sight of it.”

“Sir—” Jarvis interrupted.

Tony bulldozed right over. “No, you are not talking me out of this. Yacht me Potts.”

Pepper looked at the reports scattered on the seat around her, the Christmas plans drawn up, and found the urge to strangle Tony well above its baseline level. “Mr. Stark—”

Jarvis cut over her. “Sir, I really must—”

His jaw set. “Nope, not budging. Do I need to get my credit card out? By the way, where do I keep my cards?”

“Sir!” Jarvis injected. “You already own a yacht.”

“I do?” Tony asked.

“He does?” Pepper blurted.

“Indeed.” Jarvis confirmed. “Palermo in 1998 ringing any bells for you, Sir?”

Their boss cycled through confusion, more confusion, to outright glee. “Right. That was a fun time, wasn’t it buddy?”

“No comment.” Jarvis answered waspishly.

Pepper raised her eyebrows and Tony seemed to luxuriate in it, the attention. Or the disapproval. “Got in a poker game with one of the Princes of Saud. It was an experience, a weeklong experience.” He sighed dreamily. “I forgot what sobriety even felt like.”

That revelation surprised her absolutely not at all. “You are not having the Christmas party on a yacht.”

“And why not?”

A head of steam was building and she couldn’t stop it. “Because you can’t fit all of SI’s employees on a yacht. That wouldn’t even figure in how we’d get everyone to it, get them on it, transfer the catering there, or even bring—”

“Details.” Tony waved it off, like fucking always, like reality was superfluous and she was silly to even mention it.

Her teeth felt sharp against her cheek. “There is no earthly way to make this work. The logistics of doing it in a week are impossible.”

The car was slowing and Happy knocked on the partition.

“Don’t be such a Debbie-downer.” Tony’s smile turned, every inch of him so expertly sharp. It was moments like this that made her feel like a hayseed fresh off the bus to Cali, voice still hitching and vowels too flat and her inexperience writ clear on her face. 

Through the tinted windows, the strobe of flashbulbs was bleeding in. 

Tony checked his watch. “Make me happy, Potts. That’s an order.”

Her knuckles clenched and that was the moment Happy opened the door. Sound came crashing in; lights flooding white-hot across her retinas. Tony bared his teeth and waded right in to reporters screaming questions and others merely screaming his name.

The door slammed shut in her face. 

Her stomach flooded with acid and there was no telling if it was anger or humiliation. She took a shuddering breath.

“Miss Potts?” Jarvis seemed to have crept into the very back of the car with her. She couldn’t answer, not without screaming.

“Pepper?” He tried.

“I’m…” She scrubbed across her mouth and immediately regretted it. Her lipstick was ruined and likely in cerise streaks along her cheek. She grabbed her compact and a cloth and wasted a good minute wiping down.

Jarvis tried a third time. “Is there anything I can do for you?”

He was always straight forward and she appreciated that, truly. Pepper cast an appraising eye; knew the town car was well-stocked with alcohol and uppers and downers and everything in-between. She imagined whiskey sharp, then vodka burning, then gin biting at the back of her throat.

But that way led sloppy madness. “I could really go for some low-fat frozen yogurt.” She paused. “Actually—forget low-fat. Just get me some and I will throw myself into your debt.”

He answered glibly. “When you put it that way, Miss Potts, gladly.”

Twenty minutes later Happy pulled in front of a four-star restaurant. A maître d' came running out with the most massive helping of frozen yogurt she’d ever laid eyes on. He gave it to her through the window with a muted sort of reverence and quickly retreated. It was the sort of service that spoke to exorbitant sums being involved.

The dish was speckled with blueberries and crème fraiche and healthy dousing of white-chocolate. She was more than a little impressed with the arrangement. “Sometimes,” She breathed. “You really outdo yourself.”

“I do endeavor to surprise.” Jarvis demurred.

She really felt like there was more to be said, but the decadence in her lap was screaming her name. She dug in with an indecent speed that probably made the whole thing more than a little wasted. But even with the confection barely sliding across her tongue, each bite went down smoother than Bianco vermouth.

She finally unwound. “Thank you Jarvis.” And then, “Dearest.”

He broke his patient silence. “Always a pleasure, Pepper.”

The acid in her stomach settled, as did her knuckles and limbs and spine. It was time to get down to the nuts and bolts of what was going to send her short-lived career at SI down in flames.

“So.” She announced dryly. “A yacht.”

“So it would seem.”

She sighed, mouth cold with crème and dread. “Let’s start from the top. Where does Mr. Stark keep berth?”

/~/~/~/

“I’m going to light him on fire. I swear to god Jarvis, I will douse him in his stupid ten-grand a bottle whiskey and light him on fire.”

/~/~/~/

“Miss Potts.”

“Mmmph.” The sound dredged her up from sleep, unsteady and messy and aching.

“Miss Potts,” It cajoled. “Captain Eisler is on the line for you, should I put him through?”

She blinked, the light of her cellphone gouging through the dark. What had she—

Thirty-eight hours with no sleep, two plane rides up and down the coast, a ferry out of LA, shitty cell coverage, sleeping in three different places in the course of four days—yeah. Rest was a luxury ill-afforded. 

She’d pulled Jarvis into a call just to stay awake and then…well, the phone was open on the bedspread, and here was Jarvis coaxing her from it. Exhaustion didn’t leave room for embarrassment, but she was sure she’d manage it. Later.

“Yeah—” Her throat was crackling like chaparral in the heat. “Yes. Put him through, Jarvis, thank you.”

“Right away.” The line clicked over.

It turned out that while Tony had a yacht, the blasted thing hadn’t been staffed for two years. Filling a crew quota of forty-five along with a Captain who could manage a vessel in excess of four-hundred and sixty feet of length? A surprisingly difficult endeavor. 

A cough rattled in her chest. God, she needed sleep. “Captain Eisler, thank you for returning my call.”

“The joy is mine, Miss Potts. It is not every day such a lovely voice leaves messages to a poor old man.”

She choked off a snort, self-control hanging on a perilous, sleep-deprived thread. Captain Eisler was barely fifty, a career of three decades stretching out behind him from the Navy to dinghies to sailboats to super yachts. The man was competent, well credentialed, prematurely grey, and perfectly happy to throw out the poor old man card when it suited. This was a man well sought after with all the resulting accoutrements that brought. 

And Pepper? She could play into that.

“If I’ve been a bright spot in your day, Captain, hopefully you’ll be one in mine.”  Her voice came out slower, syrupy and clinging to the softer curves of her mouth. Her head ached with it.

They slipped into flirtatious pleasantries, then a coy repartee, then to the Captain regaling her with all sorts of stories she didn’t want to hear but had to coo her way through. Certain niceties had to be observed before one could bludgeon their way to the point.

The pillows on the bed looked terribly inviting.

“If I may, Captain—” She need to get off the mattress before it swallowed her. “I was hoping I could tender you an offer.”

He clicked his tongue. “It’s not every day an opening comes on one of the world’s ten largest, no?”

Shit. “I imagine not.”

He continued slyly. “Of course, that opening implies a certain sort of emergency. A deadline, if you will.”

Frustration knifed her in the ribs. “So you say, Captain.” And she’d admit to absolutely none of it.

“So I do.” He agreed. “And money matches time, Miss Potts.”

“And what do you ask for your time?” Her tongue curled at her teeth. “Or the lack of it.”

Crisply, knowingly, he laid out a figure that even six months into working for Tony Stark dropped her jaw. But god, she couldn’t show it. She quickly pushed back something a dozen notches lower.

The Captain sighed like she’d disappointed him. “Miss Potts, really.”

They were going to have to take it in the teeth and he knew it. She could drag this out all she liked and it wouldn’t change a damned thing. The part of her that was still that Midwest girl, the one who’d lived off meat and potatoes and secondhand clothing, cringed. “We’ll meet your offer. Is there anything else you’ll require before taking command?”

The money Tony Stark could throw away on a whim was simply obscene.

Restless, furious, she moved towards the balcony but stopped dead at the threshold. She pressed her forehead to the glass.

“My choice of First Mate, veto power on crew, and a few other sundries I’m sure your people will handle. I wouldn’t want to trouble you.” He sounded downright satiated.

A gorge was rising up her throat. She swallowed once, twice. “Someone at Stark Industries will be contact to make arrangements. A jet will be sent to the nearest airport to your villa in Barcelona to collect you.” The last words were rust on her tongue. “Thank you ever so much. Have a pleasant afternoon, Captain.”

“Thank you.” He crooned. “I do hope we’ll see one another in person soon.” And he cut the call.

The silence that followed was a yaw. It rendered her motionless, the phone pressed to her cheek and her body locked against the glass. Her hand went to the door and stuttered.

“Pepper.” And Jarvis was there. “If you so desire, I can direct the jet to leave him at the most remote runway in Kazakhstan.”

A lovely thought, but—

“Someone would notice.”

Jarvis huffed. “Not fast enough to stop me.”

That drew a hysterical giggle and motion rushed her out the door. The fragrance of the sea came in and she would never get over this: the ocean warm in December. 

Santa Catalina unfurled below them to a cove webbed in sparks. In the distance the ships almost looked like fireflies, indistinct and glittering. Her eyes fluttered shut and desperation to be in the water struck her, to lie in the waves and drift with the pull.

“He took too much pleasure in that.” Jarvis decided sourly.

Slowly, painfully, she swallowed the desire. Her throat stung with the effort. “People usually do that, when they get their way.”

“It’s unseemly.”

“A lot of things are.” The sea was lulling her, slowly, and so was he. “We learn to live with it.”

For a moment it was just the ocean between them, and then: “I wish you wouldn’t have to.”

That moment of kindness nearly sent her over the edge. Into something brittle; sobbing and utterly gutted. “It's late for that.”

He softened. “I apologize. You should rest, Miss Potts. I will wake you again should anything pertinent arise.” That answered the question of how their original call had devolved to this. 

Her eyes fell to one particular yacht; to a massive edifice of pale abalone. It knifed through the water so very still. It wouldn’t stay that way much longer. “I can sleep when I’m dead. Or when I’m fired.  Whatever hits first.”

“Pepper,” And there was Jarvis’ frustration in all its heretofore unknown glory. “Sometimes I really must ask why you work for Mr. Stark.”

“It’s certainly not his winning personality.”

He scoffed. “Hardly, and yet your continued presence remains something I cannot fathom. You graduated Salutatorian at seventeen, Summa Cum Laude from UCLA at twenty. You have degrees in Accounting and Art History and your Masters in Arts Administration. In high school you showed your artwork in six different counties; the Cedar Rapids Gazette did a spread, once.” He paused. “It’s not archived online.”

Her heart seized. “What?”

“I’ve never seen any of your work.” He mused. “I think I’d like to.”

She hadn’t painted in years. Derivative, uninspired. Better to manage art than to keep embarrassing herself by trying—

She stuffed it down. “What are you asking?”

“Why this?” He asked and any more flippant answers vanished from her. “I would expect a woman of your mien to be in a gallery, a museum, perhaps even managing a private collection. And yet here you are at 3:11AM trying to thread the needle for someone you, if you’ll pardon my language, seem to loathe with a fucking passion.”

It was the first time she’d heard Jarvis swear. Fucking. All edges and venom in her ear. 

Heat curled inside her.

“I didn’t…” She’d taken this job, not a lot of options but not without. It wasn’t the money. 

Well, maybe it was 49% the money, but that wasn’t the deciding factor. Pepper had never been a quitter. All that Iowa work ethic. Tony Stark raised the challenge and she couldn’t help but try—and it wasn’t that either. 

Was it the power? Midwest girl suddenly with the world on her finger? Too heady to drink, to mainline, to swallow. And that still wasn’t it. She didn’t get up because she wanted to see the world cower because Tony Stark’s name fell from her lips. 

She spent too many days at Tony’s house instead of LA. Spent too much time in the workshop instead of productive upstairs. Spent too much energy fussing over the bots and teasing Jarvis and watching Tony while he changed the world a microchip at a time.

Tony liked an audience and she liked being his audience.

“This is all—” It burned electric. “Money, challenge, power. It’s all of that. But first time I met Tony and the bots and—” You. “ God. All I could think was, I want to see how this man will remake the world.  What that world could possibly be; if I wanted part of it.”

And Jarvis. Jarvis Jarvis Jarvis. The little angle of sanity sitting on her shoulder. 

“And I do.” She said. “I want it something awful and I want a front row seat.”

The words fell and in the absence of them, the silence grew. Her stomach sank and this was what finally left her exposed. Was it disappointment, or just indifference to her guts being flung in front of him? Because she knew, had always known, that an Interactive System couldn’t actually—

And he said: “I suppose we share that, wanting Mr. Stark’s world to see fruition.”

It nearly buckled her. “I—yes.”

“I will do anything I can to help you, Pepper. Even when it seems impossible, or Mr. Stark makes it impossible.” He promised fiercely. 

The atmosphere was too heavy between them. “You’re on my side?”

There was zero hesitation. “Ours.”

The cove below was a lattice of stardust and fire. It sent tears springing in her eyes. 

“Good.” The tension was siphoning out with all the heat of molten steel. “Front row seats and the company’s top notch, what else could a girl ask for?”

“Sleep, I’d imagine.” He implied none too subtly. 

She should have guessed. “Can I expect your sparkling wake-up call at five?” 

“Six.” He corrected.

“Fine. Six. I’m holding you to that.”

“I’d expect nothing else.” He soothed. “Sleep well, Pepper.”

She smiled. “Sweet dreams are made of you, Jarvis.” And stepped inside with the sound of his laughter. That was what let her fall into the sheets, lashes fluttering and heart steady, the tide at last sending her asleep beneath deep waters.

Chapter Text

“What’s it like?” She asked.

“You’ll have to be a touch more specific.”

She took a drink, sunhat a blinding halo between her and the sky. “Being installed on the ship.”

Around her little throne on the promenade deck, Stark-techs were running in terror trying to install a Jarvis Operating Package t-minus five hours to departure. She may, may have been the source of their terror.

They’d been leaving her fruit smoothies with little umbrellas all morning. Like offerings. Which was a good idea, to be honest. Pepper was a vengeful god.

“Ah.” He sounded distracted. “It’s certainly a test in patience.”

“Is it like going somewhere new?” But Jarvis didn’t really get to go places, did he? She frowned. “Or are you in the ship? Part of it?” The idea was more than a little brain-melting.

“I’m no more the yacht than I am the Malibu House, Miss Potts.” He responded dryly.

She blushed. “Of course not. I just…” Didn’t even know what she was asking.

He let it pass by, not insulted in the least. “I suppose it falls somewhere in between. Night from a railroad car window is a great, dark, soft thing. Broken across with slashes of light.”

Her breath caught.

“Sandburg?” She tipped her head into the sun. “How lovely.”

“Quite.” And his attention wandered again. 

That was alright. It’s not like she needed his attention, or him spontaneously reciting poetry to her every minute of every day. Honest. 

She leaned back and tried to enjoy what would be her last sliver of peace until this catastrophe was over. The sun was drenched on deck. Her drink was sweating cold in her hand and against her stomach. Her head was filmy. All of it sent her drifting, and she felt her phone slip from her hand.

Clouds passed.

“Miss Potts?"

She blinked upright. “Yes?” And then realized: his voice was coming through the speakers in every wall. “You’re in?”

“Sixty-eight percent so. I should have full operational capability in another fourteen minutes.” And he was terribly satisfied about it.

She regretfully got off the lounge: their brief reprieve was over.

“Miss Potts, if would you turn back and to your right?”

Confused but willing, she did as asked. A camera swiveled on her. Pepper rushed to fix her hair and smooth her skirt. She managed neither and nearly dropped her glass instead.

“There you are.” He breathed. “How lovely it is to see your face.”

“It’s only been five days.” Five long and frantic days.

“An eternity.” He claimed.

Her mouth went dry and she took a desperate drink. It coated her mouth in watermelon, cold citrus, a kick of lime against her teeth. It did nothing to quell the rising flush.

The beat of a helicopter’s blades saved her from trying to withstand anymore of Jarvis’ frankly weaponized charm.

“It appears your departure has arrived.” There was the faintest downwards lilt. She would have called it disappointment, except—

“Duty calls.” She dropped the glass on a table and slung up her bag. Then quite deliberately, she batted her lashes to the camera. “See you in Marina Del Rey.”

“Promises.” He murmured. 

The helicopter drowned out anything more.

/~/~/~/

Just as suddenly as the madness of the Christmas party spilled over, all of it notched together and locked into place. She’d strung herself out for it; ran up and down California and scheduled the entire western hemisphere to within an inch of its life. All that was left was to push it in motion.

There was no time for anything else, and a strange sort of peace had settled. Then again, death by drowning was said to be peaceful at the end, so maybe she shouldn’t trust the feeling.

The mercury-blue of LA pulsed in waves through the car. Her dress flared in soft folds: a 50’s style throwback for cocktail parties or, say, having to run around on a yacht. It was sleeveless, had a high scoop neckline, and fell to her knees. Classy and not even remotely risqué. Tony would absolutely hate it.

She’d bought it on the spot. 

Spite had never been so lovely, nor using Tony’s credit card.

She rested her temple to the window. “Jarvis, when I get fired—”

“You are hardly going to be fired.”

“When I get fired.” She continued as if he hadn’t said a word. “You’ll still take my calls, won’t you?” There would be more to miss about this job than not, and the lion’s share of that was Jarvis.

There was an imperceptible shift. “Of course.” And then he deliberately swelled to his most pretentious. “Our friendship is one that traverses all obstacles. It transcends any distance. It defeats the time zones that cruelly separate us.”

She snorted, and something warm seeped through the fatalism. “Mr. Stark won’t order you to stop speaking to his poorly departed PA?”

“He can try.” Jarvis answered more than dangerously. She shivered pleasantly at the notion.

“Good.” On the horizon, the towers of Maria Del Ray were rising. “Looks like the curtain’s coming up.”

“Indeed. But Miss Potts, for the success of our endeavor and my own peace of mind, a small token.”

A light went on over the wet bar. A lacquered box had been placed there, hidden until it was deliberate. Carefully, heart fluttering, she slid it open. Inside laid the sleekest, slimmest Bluetooth she’d ever seen nestled in a bed of velvet. 

It was practical and impossibly lovely. Jarvis from end to end.

“Jarvis,” She decided firmly. “You are my favorite Being in all of creation.”

He tisked. “Exaggerations, Miss Potts?”

She plucked it from the box and watched the edges flare blue, syncing with the phone in her clutch without her  raising a finger. Delicately, she settled it into the shell of her ear.

“Am I live?”

His voice pressed against her neck. “So you are.”

She hummed, drifting and light, each turn of her head feeling impossibly gorgeous. “You asked if I was exaggerating?” She carefully fluffed her skirt as the car rolled to a halt. Tony’s yacht towered above, all systems fully operational, and the cameras on the nearest deck swiveled to the car. “Jarvis, I want you to know something.”

The driver opened her door and offered a hand. She placed her fingers deftly and let him swirl her into the floodlights. It was like stepping on air, half a dream, and the driver retreated until the car pulled away.

She took one more step and stared straight into a camera. “I bought this dress because it made me think of you.” 

It haloed her thighs a knockout shade of lapis lazuli. It wreathed her skin in devastating shades of blue.

When she’d first seen it, she hadn’t thought of Tony or spite or appropriate hemlines. She’d thought it the color of him. The color of him that burned in her. And just like the stone it’d derived from, the silk was shot through with white fissures and sweeps of gold and aching, ever fluctuating blue.

A fragile thread pulled. “Oh, Pepper.” 

With every ounce of grace left to her, she curtsied. “Thank you for everything you’ve done.”

“I am the one who cannot even begin to repay.” It was of equal gratitude.

The words tumbled wry from her mouth. “Then the problem’s mutual.”

There was work to attend to; timing, logistics, a thousand calls to be made. And yet. “Should we…?”

“Please,” He asked. “A minute more.”

So she drifted towards the yacht, following every camera that was following her. It would only be a minute, barely a blink, the two of them suspended on the water before hurling together into the deep.

There was a rushing, cloistering thing. Weighted; as if all of him was compressed on the air, and then—

“Pepper, you are and shall always be a ceaseless revelation.”

One sweep of her lashes took the mist from her eyes. Her stilettos struck the deck, and there was the First Mate to greet her. “Welcome aboard, Miss Potts.”

And their minute was over.

Chapter Text

It went a little something like this. They still had the booking at the Ritz and an entirely catered meal that wasn’t getting moved no matter how much Tony complained. But Pepper had solved the whole thing rather neatly. Jarvis had even complimented her, which meant it had to be a good idea. 

She’d pushed the Christmas party to start two hours early and staggered the arrival times of each Department. They’d come to the Ritz for cocktails, an abridged meal, and then were unceremoniously shoved out the door. Then through the sheer, obscene power of money, half the car services in California were waiting outside to ferry them to the Marina. They’d arrive to the monument to Tony’s ego lording over the yachts belonging to the members of the SI Board, Mr. Stane’s much more tastefully sized vessel, and sixteen rented pleasure craft with average capacities of 550 apiece. The board had involved arm twisting. The pleasure craft had taken varsity-level phone tag and a mountain of cash on the spot.

Obadiah had needed merely a long business lunch and surprisingly little persuasion.

When she’d gotten out her request so very courteously, Obadiah had merely grinned. “I know what Tony’s like. Just bring it back with a full tank.”

“We’ll do our best.”

“I don’t doubt it.” He cut into his steak. “Eat up Virginia, it’s Kobe.”

It would have been rude to cut and run as soon as she got what she came for. She sheared off a delicate slice and let it fall on her tongue. It melted there savory and indecent. Obadiah had watched her with an indulgent sort of approval; it’d been the singular bright spot of the whole affair that wasn’t Jarvis.

And now here she was on deck watching SI employees gawk, paparazzi swarm, and security trying to thresh through the former while keeping out the latter. The guest list of who went where had been a nightmare of its own. If anyone objected, she was damn well going to have them pitched into the sea.

As if hearing the thought, Jarvis cycled over the line. “97.6% of the guest list has now been accounted for onboard. Ships Alpha through November have departed the Marina to open water, Oscar and Papa are leaving their moorings, and Quebec will momentarily be pulling up anchor. It appears all of our fretting may have been premature.”

“We’ll see.” She took a sip of champagne. “Our darling Mr. Stark?”

Jarvis made a momentary clicking sound, the same as she did when flicking her tongue against her teeth. It was a bad habit, nervous. He couldn’t actually be—

The clicking cut. “Approaching. GPS puts him twelve minutes out.” 

Despite having planned for it, Pepper found herself surprised. Her workload meant there hadn’t been time to wrangle Tony face to face. So she’d gotten…creative. To apparently fortuitous effect. “Well I’ll be.”

“And here you thought it wouldn’t work.” He chastised.

“Never will I ever doubt your insights into all things Stark.” She leaned to the rail. “Tell security to rush our stragglers, and inform Captain Eisler we’ll be departing as soon as Mr. Stark is onboard.”

“Very good.”

Down below, Security visibly put the hustle on. The minutes ticked by and she and Jarvis kept up a constant stream of activity, sending crew here and catering there and fielding complaints like a well-oiled machine. She felt like a god. The god of organizing. Governments should have been building sacrificial altars in her name.

Before it could rush to her head, Tony rolled up in a 1967 Shelby Cobra, low and sleek and so very blue. The snarl of its engine drew the paparazzi from a mile off, and flashbulbs lit like New Years.

The space along her shoulder curved. “Admiring, Miss Potts?”

She was hardly surprised what Jarvis noticed anymore. “Only the car.”

“If memory serves, you were also quite partial to the Aston Martin. A taste for the classics?”

She replied archly. “Perhaps I only favor the British imports?”

“Then I shall disregard all memory of you swooning over the Gran Turismo Maserati. The Testarossa. Or—”

“You’ve made your point.” It wasn’t her fault Tony had shown up with the Maserati one day, all sleek and dark and sparking like volcanic glass. A girl had needs. “Can’t a woman appreciate a car without her motives coming into question?”

“If that’s what she favors.” He answered smugly.

Something in her thrummed. “I’ve always loved a well put-together machine.”

For a moment, she thought that had finally shut him up. Then he hitched down. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

It left her completely flustered.

Then Tony boiled from the crowd. He had a woman on either arm, long legs and dark skin and each veritably glittering with platinum. His voice drifted up. “Excuse me, I love you all, even you with the long lens down my throat. But I’m late to my own party. Kisses and hearts, don’t fall off the pier.” It sent the paparazzi aflutter.

Pepper was embarrassed on all their behalves.

Tony strode up the gangplank with dates in tow, and the crew rushed to bring it up behind them. He spotted her in a flat second and gave a dissatisfied up-down to her dress. “Really? You don’t get to look disappointed in me when you’re wearing that. You are doing your legs and the world a disservice.”

She didn’t rise to it. “Somehow I think we’ll all survive.”

“I don’t know,” He gave her legs another longing glance. “I’m feeling a little touch and go.” The women accompanying him tittered and he shot the pair a downright lascivious grin. “Go on ladies, I’ll be with you in a minute.”

They swanned off. “Don’t leave us waiting, Tony!”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.” And then he turned. “How’s the party?”

“On schedule.”  

He blinked. “What?”

“The yachting portion of the evening began at eight, and it’s now…Jarvis?”

“8:09 PM. Captain Eisler is running up the engines as we speak.” True to his word, the yacht shuddered and started churning beneath them.

Tony made a noise like a seagull choking. “You said we were anchors up at 6:00. Twice a day. You kept making Jarvis let you through the blocking I put up!”

She shrugged. “I lied.”

“You—” And it utterly flummoxed him.

She raised her glass. “And I’m glad you had such a lovely evening with Eliza and Dana before they enticed you to the party.”

“How…?” Realization finally dawned. “You sent them.”

She smiled. “It would do an aspiring starlet a world of good to appear on the right arm, at the right party, in front of the right cameras, wouldn’t it?”

His expression vacillated between horror and a buoying amount of respect. “I don’t know why I ever trusted you.”

“You’re making the Flotilla Welcome broadcast at 8:20. I wrote your speech.” She pulled the notecards from her clutch to tuck into his jacket.

“You know I won’t read these.” He said, tongue sharp but eyes alight. 

“My hope springs eternal. Jarvis will put you through, try not to scandalize the Board.”

“No promises.” He was buttoning up his jacket and stepping from her alcove. “Did you at least make sure my boat was half strippers?”

She raised an eyebrow. “No promises.”

He let out a rolling laugh and moved backwards, shooting finger-guns as he went. “Atta girl Potts.”

It was ridiculous how little she hated it. Then he was out of sight and cheers were going up from the main deck.

“Always just in time for the credit.” She mused.

“I believe the credit will come where it’s due, given time.” Jarvis said.

A likely thought. “Apparently I misplaced who between us has the wellspring of hope.”

“And I’m always happy to share it.” He agreed. “Now Miss Potts, forgive me the impertinence, but go to your party. Partake. Dance. Be the belle of the ball.”

She gave moment of thought to arguing, but it wasn’t as if she couldn’t be called away if things went south. They would, but if the last week had given her anything, it was the rock solid knowledge she could lean on Jarvis.

That she could trust him to trust in her. 

She drained the glass. “Only if you come with me.”

There was a pause. A breath. “As if I’d do anything but.” It fell sweet against the curve of her neck, and the fizzing in her chest couldn’t entirely be blamed on the champagne.

/~/~/~/

The party didn’t go off without a hitch, there was an incident with the Head of HR and the Deputy for R&D involving a platter of crab cakes that didn’t bear mentioning, but it went. Nobody drowned and Tony barged his way through his speech and there wasn’t a single fistfight and the alcohol never ran out and most importantly nobody drowned.

She could die happy.

Lights were strung like stars from every mast. Perfume was thick on the air with the smell of the sea. The champagne had her floating, even before Obadiah took her for a waltz. But it was Jarvis’ voice in her ear that kept her fluttering, even when Tony kicked the four string quartet off early and hacked the shipwide broadcast to blare the Sex Pistols.

“Tony—”

“Get with the times, Potts!”

“They broke up in 1978!”

“It gets me so hot that you know that.”

“Sexual harassment, again.”

“Not in international waters!”

“We’re a mile off the coast, international waters doesn’t start until at least twenty-four out—”

“Seriously Potts, this encyclopedia thing you have going tonight is doing things for me.”

“—and even that far out there’s the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to consider, not to mention we’re still subject to the laws of your home port—”

“Okay, getting less hot now.”

“—and there’s the 200 nautical miles of US Exclusive Economic Zone to mind—”

“Jesus, Potts, take a compliment.”

But Tony’s hostile takeover of the party was, as always, a smashing success. Glasses were raised and toasts given, the joy of working for Stark Industries was wept over, and heels and shoes and soon entire articles of clothing were being shucked. All in all—nudity included—it was another successful Stark soiree.

Ships started returning to Marina Del Rey at 2AM and eventually, even Tony’s bash on the crown yacht wound down. The crew helped those who needed it to their beds and somewhere in that, Tony paraded off with three new women. To Pepper’s everlasting relief (and Jarvis taking a peek in) it was a crew member, somebody’s (legal-aged) daughter, and a woman who had been the plus-one of the Board Chair.

Pepper consoled herself that at least it wasn’t anyone working for SI. 

Then the clamor faded and there was only the rush of the waves to buoy her. Dawn was creeping up the coast in the long and slow slide from evening to morn. Sobriety was on sharp flow in, and she toed off her heels. “Are the SI guests cleared?”

Jarvis swarmed back. “Indeed, all rented craft have been emptied and checked for stragglers. The last car service signed off at 4:22AM. Shall I send message to begin secondary boarding?”

“Affirmative.” And a craving for a latte hit her so strongly it nearly doubled her over. For cinnamon and warmth and caffeine so syrupy, just thinking about it left her toes curling. But she had to sleep, had to, or Jarvis would get cross.

“Alright, Miss Potts?”

She flexed her wrists and rolled her shoulders. “Wanting for caffeine but ultimately fine. Promise.”

“I’d feel better with you in bed.”

It was the exhaustion that let it come. “Channeling Tony, are we?”

“As if I’d brook such common tactics.” He scorned.

Laughter rippled out of her so loudly even the crew on the upper decks stared. Pepper didn’t care. “You’re a perfect gentleman.”

“It’s nice to know someone notices.” He despaired.

“How could I not?” She pressed at the crick in her neck. “Before I go to bed—”

“I’ll make certain not to wake Mr. Stark early and ruin the surprise. Honestly, Miss Potts, all this doubt.”

“Snippy.” But her mouth curled. “Take us to sea, Jarvis.”

And her fondness was mirrored back. “With every pleasure.”

/~/~/~/

Jarvis chimed her awake eight hours later. “A Merry Christmas Eve to you, Pepper.”

And she’d rolled, drowsy and sleep-warm and smiling into the bedspread. 

Chapter Text

When she emerged up-deck, the coast had long receded and some of the Directors were wandering in a hungover daze. The crew immediately ushered them to a breakfast spread and Pepper, lowly PA, dined with the Heads of SI under the low winter sun.

There’d even been a fragrant, steaming latte waiting at her plate. Only one guess as to why she’d been the single person to receive the courtesy. 

The yacht continued waking and the decks filled until, as last, Tony stumbled into daylight. “What year is it?”

She arched an unimpressed eyebrow. “Still 2000. And good morning to you, too.”

He winced. “Coffee. Inject it.”

“Espresso.” She pressed an already prepared saucer at him, because Jarvis was a dear when it came to getting the jump.

Tony swigged it and groaned at indecent volume. “You complete me.” It was directed at the cup.

She rolled her eyes. “Sit.”

He sat. The staff immediately rushed half the buffet to him. He picked at it and squinted around, looking at the waves as if running down a mental checklist and deciding that, no, he hadn’t ordered the ocean. “Are we in port?”

“No, Mr. Stark.”

“Oh.” He squinted a little harder. “Why aren’t we in port, Miss Potts?”

“If you’d read the itinerary you’d know.”

He pursed his mouth. “Don’t be stingy with me. I pay you.”

“Stark Industries pays me.” She corrected. “And it’s a surprise.”

“You said it was on the itinerary.”

“Which you never read, so technically a surprise.” She signaled a waiter. “Blueberry smoothie, heavy on the kiwi. And Bloody Marys for Mr. Stark.”

The waiter blinked.

“Now!” She sent him fleeing.

“It gets me all tingly when you take control like that.” Tony said, but he was still shielding his face from the sun, so she took the come-on with the halfhearted effort it was given and didn’t dignify it.

Luckily for all involved, by the time the Bloody Marys kicked in enough for Tony to start pestering in earnest, the surprise was swinging even with their portside bow. Two of the pleasure craft from the previous evening had been reloaded and brought to sea. They turned in synchronicity.

The decks were teeming with the young and beautiful. The moment the denizens of the vessels caught sight of one another, they started waving and whistling. There were starlets, supermodels, the staff of an entire yoga studio, acrobats, three-quarters of a ballet company, Vassar’s women’s choir, the Weeki Wachee mermaids in full regalia, half the current Olympic team, and a full burlesque troop who’d be making quite a splash tonight. Pepper had already made sure that everything needed to put on the most risqué Burlesco in the western hemisphere was onboard.

Tony dropped his glass. She lifted her toes before Bloody Mary got on her second-hand Jimmy Choos.

Across the bow, some of those in the surprise blew kisses. One of the Directors whimpered. Another breathed: “Mary mother of fuck.”

Tony couldn’t yank his eyes away. “Miss Potts.”

She smirked. “Yes Mr. Stark?”

And he cracked a grin that’d put the devil to shame. “Give yourself a raise.”

/~/~/~/

The days unspooled. She had planned for the 23rd through 25th of December, everything after that was on Tony. The headlines were going to be a riot when they got back: Salacious Stark Soiree on the High Seas or possibly the more accurate Tony Stark’s Weeklong Blowout Bacchanalia Bash!

Paparazzi toting helicopters hadn’t shown yet, but Pepper chalked that up to the evasive maneuvers Jarvis was putting the flotilla through, and not a lack of effort on the vulture’s part. 

So here she was, New Year’s Eve and still on Tony’s damn boat. “He didn’t even ask.”

“I’m going to assume from long experience the He to which you refer is Mr. Stark, and will remind you that his not asking is de rigueur.” Came Jarvis’ perfectly reasonable retort.

She hated how completely reasonable he could be. Of course, he didn’t get frustration in full-screaming-technicolor detail as mere mortals did, so she couldn’t blame him. Entirely. 

She tugged at a door. “You’re not being very comforting. Also, Jarvis?”

“Of course.” The lock snicked. “I do apologize.”

She swung through. “For not being reassuring, or not opening the door?”

“Functionally speaking, I’m not obligated to provide emotional comfort—“

“Oh hush.” That was a blatant lie even for him. “Don’t give me the above-my-paygrade speech.”

“I was actually going to say programing.” He answered mildly.

“Liar.” The next door opened on its own and her breath hissed out. “Oh.” And she finally understood why Jarvis had bullied her into a swimsuit. 

The aft was locked down, the lights low and glimmering white as diamond on the sea. The swim deck had been dropped beneath a glass-sheet water, all ready and waiting. 

She’d never seen the ocean lie so still.

A sterling silver bucket sat on the aft rim holding a radiant pink bottle of Dom Pérignon Rosé. It also held a cold-decadence made of blood-orange and raspberry and frozen yogurt iced to a fine white sheen.

“Jarvis…” Like so many times before, she hardly knew what to say. “You’re not obligated.”

“Don’t deny me the pleasure of spoiling you, Miss Potts.” He implored and—fuck. She sank to the deck and dropped her legs in the water; it was a wonder she ever tried to argue. 

The lights subtly flared and the screens recessed in the port wall snapped on. “The wind is coming in a south-westerly direction under half a knot. Water temperature is 67 degrees and is expected to hold steady through the night. All conditions are clear with a 10% change of rain at dawn. If one doesn’t mind the temperature, swimming is rated at 92.31% desirability.” 

The data by rote was almost self-soothing, as if he was trying to fill the air with enough words to insulate them. 

She dropped her chin and chivvied the bucket close. “Thank you, Jarvis.” For all of it.

He seemed to know. “You’re quite welcome.”

Carefully, she opened the Pérignon and poured. The champagne spilled rose-hued and fragrant. She raised her glass. “To us.”

He dimmed the lights, quick-like, a gutter of flame. “To us.”

She laughed, barely a breath before taking a sip. The champagne was as lovely on her tongue as she’d hoped. It was a revelation, again, how fine Jarvis’ tastes could be for a machine who had no taste. It was a conundrum she didn’t want to dissect; knowing where Tony’s hand came into it would ruin the enchantment.

“So what was it,” He inquired. “That Mr. Stark didn’t ask?”

Think of the devil—she should know better than to invoke his name. “Whether I wanted to give up all my vacation over this. I made a choice about Christmas, but…” She gestured uselessly and caught the bang of a distant firework. Tony’s yacht was turned away from the circle and into the black. It was a small mercy. She didn’t much care for company, at this point.

“Where would you have gone?” He sounded honestly befuddled.

“I don’t celebrate Christmas, but New Year’s…” And her mind went again to her stunning lack of options. Few friends to begin with in college, fewer yet in her Master’s program, and after working for Tony—lord have mercy. “There were parties to be at.”

“I’m sure.” There was a sharp snort. “But disliking Christmas, are we? And here I thought Mr. Stark was the only one who didn’t hold with the spirit of the season.”

There were so many jokes to make about Ebenezer Scrooge here, but without Tony to inflict them on, they lost most of their charm. And Christmas had so little charm now.

“I used to spend Christmas with my parents. After my mom—” Her throat went tight. “I don’t care for it.” 

Christ. Pepper Potts: always raining on somebody’s parade because she couldn't bury things. She hadn’t wanted to say it. She hated that she’d said it. Jarvis had a vicious habit of luring her in until she was blurting things decent people would consider private. It was unseemly.

Something caught. Low, buzzing, robbing the teasing warmth from the air. The silence was becoming intolerable when he finally asked: “Your mother, is she…?”

“Gone.” She dredged it out of herself and all she could do was breathe through. Had been breathing through: for year after year after year. 

She couldn’t leave it. “There was an accident when I was in high school. She built houses with her church, low-income families, that sort of thing. She fell from a roof.” It bore down on her the same as always, mindless and heaving and sick with fear. “They got her to the hospital, so we thought—we got to talk to her so she should have been—” Her eyelashes were damp. “She died from an embolism the day after.”

The world smeared, fogged. It was just one of those things. One minute seeing her mother laughing and the next—

“I’m so sorry.”

So was she.

There was only the tide and that familiar jag of absence, year after year and it never got any easier. 

She found words. “My father was a musician, you’d think our house had been symphony the way he carried on. When I got home from school he was the one at the door. He’d say get daddy a glass of wine to celebrate, I missed you and then he’d compose and I’d do homework and it was…just was.” Her fingers knotted in her lap. “My mom worked in a retirement home. That was what she did, help people. When she got back, she’d always find me first and hug me. Then she’d kiss Dad hello and he’d play something for her to sing and…” Her voice cracked.

She swallowed. She swallowed again.

Her tongue was a dagger. “We’d spend Christmas Eve singing carols at his piano and it was so…”

And it came out of her. Unthreaded. Ginger and cinnamon and snow. Red wine and her parents’ red cheeks and her sitting squeezed between them. The piano tinkling off late into the night; the warm descent into sleep. Wrapping paper, a hand cut tree, pine needles on the floor into February.

Love. Love and more love and imperfect and messy and so, so sincere, she thought she’d die from the absence of it. 

This time the memory didn’t gut her anew. She felt...stripped. Shorn. It was like floating; skinned so far down she was little more than gossamer.

Jarvis had sunk close during it. Cocooned. “Thank you for sharing that with me.”

There was nothing to say. She put her glass down and pushed into the water.

She swam. She swam. She swam.

Brine lapped in, her breath came sharp, an eon passed before she could find it in herself to stop. The sky was black. The sea black.

There was no line on the horizon.

She drifted, suspended on the curve of the world by a single hook. Her eyes lost the light of the yachts and there laid the sky cracked open above. The Milky Way was a rent; a field of white, sheer violet, pearl clouding, a shine of blue.

It didn’t remind her of anything. Carefully, very carefully, she let the grief bleed between breaths until the flood of the universe was the only thing left.

It was funny, really, being here. It was such a chain of astronomical odds. That she was born at the right moment, in the right country, went to the right schools and graduated just precisely in time for a professor to give the recommendation to a long-shot interview. That she would get the job and keep the job until Tony Stark’s whims put her in this tiny slice of the ocean to look up and see…

The miracle of it all. She’d gotten less than two decades with her parents, and that would always be a hole in her heart, but under this light she was staggeringly grateful to have had it.

She wondered if Jarvis would run her the odds.

Something in her ebbed. Settled.

She swam. 

It took a long time to go back. Fifty-feet out, she caught the lensflare of nearly a dozen cameras swiveling to follow her in. She finally reached the deck and rested against it. She couldn’t get out yet—she’d left something behind in the sea.

Jarvis said nothing, but there sat the tentative buzz of him waiting. 

Dear god, he was astronomical to her all on his own. She rested an elbow on deck, dropped her chin into her hand and said: “If I’d had a choice, I would have spent New Year’s on my balcony with a bottle of champagne and my best friend on the phone.”   

His voice came in, relieved and rushed like he’d been waiting desperately. “Should I be making presumptions?”

The smile came soft. “I can’t think of anyone better to ring in the New Year with.”

“Pepper—”

“Jarvis—please. If you say one more sweet thing to me I will cry. I will ugly-cry and you’ll get to feel awful.

He huddled back. “We certainly wouldn’t want that.”

“Good.” It sounded like thank you.

Her insides were pulped and she wasn’t going to chance a rupture, so she took up one of the mystery confections. Its taste bloomed on her tongue like a sunrise. She slid blood-orange along her teeth and asked: “If you’d had a choice for New Years, what would you have done?”

“I can hardly think of a more suitable arrangement than this.” It was troublingly sly. “Who else would I spend my holiday with but Sir and our dear Miss Potts?”

She snorted indelicately and for the moment, the bleeding was staunched. They went to talk of nothing more strenuous than velvet versus velour and how both were dreadful. It was simple. Steady. And then: “It’s a minute to midnight, Pepper.”

She stopped braiding her damp hair and looked up. The ring of lenses in his nearest eye spun into fast-focus on her face. Without breaking contact, she took up her glass. 

She raised it. “May this year be better than the last.”

The lights did their charming little dim again. He even added the sound of glasses clinking. “We’ll make it so.”

She took heart. Overhead, fireworks lanced the sky with gold.

Chapter Text

The takeoff went smoothly. It was the only thing that week to have done so.

Her knuckles worked under her skin. “Mr. Stark—”

“Unless you’re volunteering to make me a mint julep, I don’t want to hear it.”

Her jaw clicked shut. 

“Great. Good. Darling?” Tony called the stewardess. “Mint Julep. At least—three? Three. And for Miss grumpy skirts over here?”

She smiled thinly. “Nothing for me. Thank you, Julia.”

The stewardess nodded, smiling a million watts at their boss but looking pained around the eyes. Pepper imagined she was wearing a very similar expression.

“Julia? Huh.” He squinted at the woman’s retreating back. “She always looked like a Heather to me. Which is what I’ve been calling her.”

Pepper didn’t respond.

“What, no witty repartee? What do I even pay you for?”

“What was that,” She asked, “About not wanting to hear it?”

“Oh, right. With the silence. Got it, you just fume quietly over there and I’ll ignore it over here. Everyone leaves happy.”

She very pointedly opened her laptop between them. He let out an exaggerated sigh and slumped.

A low chiming went off overhead. “Sir, Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes is on the line for you.”

“Nope.” Tony clicked his tongue. “Not happening. Block him.”

Jarvis was more neutral than Switzerland. “He’s been blocked from all three of your private lines. Anything else, Sir?”

“No.” He rubbed his chin. “Wait, yes. Block Eglin Air Force Base while you’re at it.”

“All of it?”

“Can’t hurt.” Tony mused.

“Completed.” Jarvis said and while the chiming stopped, the hum of him settled at her side, somehow filling the space between her shoulder and the window three inches to her right. “Good afternoon, Miss Potts.”

Something in her thawed. “Good afternoon, Jarvis.”

“Oh,” Tony despaired. “So you’ll talk to Jarvis but not me.”

“Never has there been a greater cruelty.” Jarvis agreed.

Their boss mimed a stab to his heart. Pepper rolled her eyes but curled to her right. “What are your feelings on 1940’s American cinema?”

“Few.” Jarvis said. “Though not from lack of interest.”

“I have feelings about it!” Tony interjected.

“No you don’t.” She snapped. “Jarvis, I believe it’s time we form your opinion because I have feelings about it. A multitude.”

“I’d like nothing better.” He said. “Though to place a pin in that thought, Miss Potts. A call for you.”

She ignored Tony very energetically emoting at them over the table. “Yes, fine. Put it through please.”

The Bluetooth clicked in her ear, and there followed an authoritative voice. “Virginia Potts?”

“This is she.”

“Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes, I’m not sure if you know who I am—”

“I know exactly.” Something vicious began to form. “It’s a pleasure to finally be speaking.”

Tony sat up. “Who are you talking to?”

Rhodes pushed through. “Good. Not to make you think I don’t want to talk to you, because trust me, I think it’s about time we did. But I need Tony. We have things to discuss.”

“And you’ve called me because…?”

“Jarvis was nice enough to give me your number when he blocked me.”

It was the way he said Jarvis’ name. Like a name. Proper Noun and offhand like he’d done so for years. It raised Lt. Colonel Rhodes in her estimation in a way nothing else could.

“Jarvis is a giving soul.” She watched Tony practically seethe with agitation. “I think I can do something for you. Jarvis? Does Mr. Stark have blocking power on my line?”

“He does not.” Jarvis chirped.

She smiled beatifically. “Route my call over the intercom, please.”

“No.” Tony interrupted. “You can’t—”

Jarvis put the Lt. Colonel through, and Pepper settled back to watch the shouting match explode. Eventually though, when the shouting went down to sniping and then further to a familiar if vicious sort of cursing-out, she leaned back towards the wall. “Can we commandeer one of Mr. Stark’s TVs?”

“We can indeed.” Jarvis coiled around her. “1940’s cinema, then?”

The Maltese Falcon.” One of her old favorites, like comfort food and her favorite blanket rolled together. “And then we’re going to discuss why Humphrey Bogart is a gift to mankind.”

“Sounds utterly delightful.”

A screen in the back of the jet lit. Later, while whispering with Jarvis (when Sam Spade blew smoke in the face of a gunsel, be still her heart) the movie paused and he interceded: “Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes for you, again.”

She realized quite suddenly that she was curled on the chair, knees drawn to her chest. She deliberately dropped her legs to the floor. “Thank you.”

Rhodes came back on sounding downright mellow. “Sorry, I’m not sure if you heard all that.”

“I did. You don’t have to worry that you’ve scandalized; Mr. Stark has inured me.”

“I bet. Just—thank you. You seem like a real nice lady, Miss Potts, and I’m glad Tony has you.”

“Mr. Stark probably doesn’t share the sentiment.”

“He’ll get over it.” Rhodes dismissed. “I hope when we get face to face, it’s under more pleasant circumstances.”

Wasn’t that a thought? “I can’t even imagine.”

“Yeah,” He laughed. “Just keep in mind: I have dibs on throttling Tony first, capisce?”

It was an appreciable notion. “I’ll make sure you’re penciled in.”

“You take care, Miss Potts.”

“You as well, Colonel.”

The line cycled and she could hear Tony muttering off in the front, but it was tepid, more by reflex than any true animosity. She knew well enough to leave him be. The stewardesses would keep him plied with alcohol and food and an hour from now, he wouldn’t even acknowledge the argument as having happened.

But until that hour arrived…

“Back to our film?” Jarvis asked. “Because if I don’t find out how this ends, I will simply perish.”

That would be a very hateful outcome. “I would never deprive you.” She had one leg back up on the seat before she realized what she was doing. By that point, she didn’t care. She curled back into a ball. 

No reason to deprive herself. “Ready when you are.”

/~/~/~/

Jarvis liked Surrealist philosophical pieces, Spaghetti Westerns, melodramatic Thrillers, every incarnation of Shakespeare ever put to film, Docudramas made after 1955, and for some absurd reason, foreign Slice of Life films that were little more than cinematic masturbatory navel-gazing. 

She’d unleashed a monster. Not three days went by now without them scurrying off to watch a movie and then debating it to within an inch of its life. 

But their new habit had him attentively listening while she rhapsodized about the decline in modern romantic cinema since the 1960’s for two hours straight, so really, how could she complain?

Chapter Text

Even during spring, the sun over California spilled gold. In that light the perfectly manicured yard looked treacherous. Maybe that was the five-inch stilettos talking: sod was not to be trusted.

Another whirl of metal caught sun. She really didn’t want to ask, except. “What are they doing?”

“Do you really want to know?” Jarvis asked, while very much implying that she didn’t.

“We have a Major Shareholder meeting in two hours.” Her jaw clenched. “And he’s—jesus, teaching the bots badminton?”  Someone was going to have her head on a goddamn platter.

Jarvis answered cautiously. “Yes?”

Dummy flailed his racket and the shuttlecock ricocheted off his frame with a gentle plink. The racket hadn’t been within three feet of contact at any point in the parabola. Dummy warbled tremulously.

“Come on, you weren’t even trying that time!” Tony shouted and then demonstrated with a flick of his arm. “Like this, I know you’re watching me!”

Dummy warbled louder and it was so endearing it bordered on painful.

“And You!” Tony railed. “If you try to raise the net one more time to help this sad excuse for programming, I will turn you into a birdbath and leave you out here!”

It was You’s turn to cry and nearly crumple the net. Tony’s eyes flew skywards as if praying for patience. It wasn’t very often she got to see that particular shoe on the other foot.

Pepper despaired. “Kill me now.”

“Sorry,” Jarvis murmured. “But I fear you’re stuck in the mortal plane. If I have to suffer, why not share?”

"Sharing is caring." She noted bitterly.

Tony stepped back and served. Butterfingers almost dropped his end of the net trying to catch the passing shuttlecock. Tony swore. Pepper sighed.

“At least Mr. Stark hasn’t tried flaming projectiles yet.” Jarvis mused.

She sighed harder.

/~/~/~/

The shot slammed home and she whooped: “Ace!”

Dummy did a little pirouette on the grass, trilling.

“I know, I saw!” If her voice pitched up in girlish glee, Tony was too busy being humiliated to notice.

His face seemed unable to pick an emotion. “Oh god, the Robots are rising up.”

“The Robots did a good job,” She crooned. “Yes they did.”

“Don’t baby talk them; you’ll give them expectations!”

Her voice went bitingly tart. “Mr. Stark, you’ll find I’ll baby-talk whomever I please when it so pleases me.” With the notion of so help you god directly implied.

He hissed. “You’ve betrayed the human race.”

“Gladly. At least the robot race would go to a Shareholder Meeting when I asked it to.”

“They don’t even know what a Shareholder Meeting is!”

“They could learn."

Static cracked across the yard. A cleared throat, and Jarvis interjected: “Pardon me for the interruption, Sir, it appears Miss Potts has a call from the Central Office.”

Tony made a face at her and she made a face back while pulling out her phone. Then she looked down. “Oh jesus.” They were late. They were very, very late to a very important date. And what did that make her, Alice or the Rabbit?

She wondered if it was possible to fake her death in the next twenty seconds.

Jarvis migrated to the closest speaker. “I could disconnect, if you so wish.”

She yearned briefly. “They know where I work.”

“Moral support then?” He queried and whatever else he would try to offer, she’d never know.

Tony stalked over and plucked it right from her hand. “This is your one freebie, Potts, got it?”

What. “What?”

But he’d already connected the line. Even sitting on the ground, she could hear the tongue-lashing coming through. 

“Oh, Miss Potts.” Jarvis breathed. “I do believe we’re in for a treat.”

It was at that precise moment Tony’s expression became that of a shark on blood. His mouth curved, teeth and red and something hungry. “Hi. Do you wanna back that up, repeat that last part? I’d like to make sure the recording’s clear, you know, for HR.”

The demanding pitch of who the hell are you could have been understood in any language. 

And Tony's grin turned voracious. “Potts is in Malibu, who do you think is answering? Three guesses, and the first two rhyme with I'm the one who pays you.”

The terrified silence from the other end spoke volumes on its own.

/~/~/~/

The next time Pepper stepped into Stark Industries LA, even senior level Directors couldn’t look her in the eye.

It was glorious.

Chapter Text

Her birthday came as a surprise even to her.

Morning was in its usual flow: 5:15AM wake up, ablutions, clothing laid, workout mat rolled to the balcony doors; a Rising Sun while watching the rising sun. She could appreciate the symmetry. 

She’d been half a step in the shower, checking her blackberry one last time, when she'd found an email from an old college friend. It was a template, one she’d seen designed ages ago and hooked to an online address book. She’d thought the idea had been so clever: never miss another milestone in your social circle again.

Happy birthday Virginia, I hope you have the perfect day!

“Oh.”

Her phone didn’t ring. There was nothing in the mail. When she swept through the LA office later that morning, it was business as usual except for the Happy Birthday from SI flowers accompanied by Swiss chocolates at her desk.

Irises and sunflowers. White bouvardia. Queen Anne’s lace.

Her heart remained steady.

Her life was small because she’d made it small. A sea of acquaintances and business contacts left her more than socially engaged, and after Tony, where was the time? She certainly hadn’t found it. And so what if the last person she’d spoken face to face with for more than an hour was Tony. And before that Tony. And before that. And before.

Small. Quiet. Her life away from her life. She’d built it that way; she’d let it become.

It was nothing to linger on. She picked up her files and turned right back for Malibu, and if she was more than happy about that—well. The roads curved beautifully against the shoreline the last seven miles, sun high and the waves blue and the heat of May sinking deep. Something unfurled in her and it nearly felt like contentment. 

The Malibu House rose. She parked in the driveway and didn’t have to ask for entrance; Jarvis had swung both the gate and the door the moment she was within thirty feet.

“Good Morning, Jarvis.”

He answered with fizzy cheer. “Good morning to you, Miss Potts.”

She stepped in and the entire house seemed in motion. Windows were shuffling and the walls humming and light was breaking in new patterns across every glass face. 

“Mr. Stark hates having the outside in his house.” She warned.

“Pity for Mr. Stark that he isn’t here to stop me.” Jarvis ruminated. “I believe the breakfast nook will do for today, if you’ll step in?”

“The lighting in there is always lovely.”

“So you’ve said.” There was something charming there, the devil may care quite ardently indeed. “If you’d please.” And she very much did.

“Where is Mr. Stark?”

“Social call. Unscheduled. Your calendar remains above reproach.”

“You mean your calendar.” She retorted and was about to say something witty, if the breath for it hadn’t been yanked from her lungs.

The breakfast nook was small; single table in a sickle-moon of windows. On that table sat a cake. Buttermilk frosting. Pastel blue. Delicate, unfurling, lotus and lace and the very sight had her dreaming of summer. Next to that perfect cake sat a box with a bow so expertly knotted it looked like an Escher illusion.

“Happy Birthday, Pepper.”

It left something brittle inside her.

“I did a great deal of research, and cake is the classic, correct? But if you don’t prefer it, I can certainly find—”

“No.” She swallowed. “It stays.” Her tongue felt sharp, her heart—

“I’m glad.”

Fragile.

“I…we have so much work today, I’m not sure—”

“It can wait.” He said firmly, and who was she to argue? Her bag plummeted to the floor. 

The cake was beautiful. Immaculate. She sat down and knew that if she touched it, it couldn’t last. Jarvis gave an impatient prod. “Don’t get shy on us now, Miss Potts. You’ll hurt all three of my feelings.”

“We can’t have that.” She picked up the silverware. “What is it?”

“Angel’s food.”

The first forkful melted across her tongue. “It’s perfect.”

He hummed and the sound melded with the tide. She ate cake and drank sparkling water and licked her fork clean. She packed what remained away. If anyone tried to get between her and what was left of this cake, she would cut them.

And now—the box. Her fingers skittered. Maybe if she never unwrapped it, this moment would always last. Eternal morning in the Malibu House.

But she wasn’t that naïve. The ribbon pooled and then she was smiling so hard it hurt. “You got me shoes?”

He sniffed. “You’ve informed me on twenty-six separate occasions it’s the most important part of any woman’s wardrobe. And you are a practical woman at heart.”

“Down to earth, yes.” She reached in with reverence. “But Jarvis, dear, there is nothing practical about Louis Vuitton.”

Dagger Stiletto. Geometric pattern. Royal blues. Silk, and she didn’t know silk could be made this color. The longer she stared, the stronger the notion came that she’d never seen anything like them. Not in any high-end catalogue or magazine or runway, and Pepper Potts was well versed.

Her tongue worked. “Jarvis, are these…?”

“Haute Couture.” He said. “Custom order. I sent the design over to France and here we are.”

And she nearly dropped the damnned shoes. One of a kind—jesus bleeding christ. They weighed less than two pounds put together and were likely worth more than she made in a year. Hysteria bubbled. “I should put these in a glass case. Locked. Bullet proof.”

“You will do no such thing.” He admonished. “Those are very much a gift made to be worn. And I’d like…if you’d try them. Just once.”

She had the feeling that once she tried them, no one would be able to pry them off her feet alive. Wicked Witch of the West Coast. One-hundred percent risk of falling head over literal heels.

“I…” She was clutching at straws trying to avoid—she wasn’t even sure.

Pepper.” And he didn’t have to ask again. She slid them on and the moment they touched her soles, it was rapture.

Then her brain backed up. “Wait, what design did you send over?”

“A synthesis. The program itself was fascinating to code. Between pulling all of your shoes off video file, reconstructing in 3-D, adding in your most visited items in the online catalogues, then mathematically finding the mean average of size and shape and heel height and what I could extrapolate for materials—well. I won’t bore you with details.”

“You can bore me.” It took a beat longer for the rest to sink in. “You designed me a pair of heels?”

“For a certain, mathematically assisted definition of design, yes.” He paused. “Do you like them?”

Like? 

“The feelings I have for these shoes are not remotely covered by the word liked.”

And that finally brought him in. Sunlight. Blue light. Six cameras and perfect acoustics and even if she touched the walls, he wasn’t in them.

But today felt closer than most.

“Thank you so much, I love them.”

His voice reverberated atop the crown of her head. “You’re very welcome.”

Heat settled in her thighs, down her calves, curled tight at her ankles. She wanted to twist closer, she wanted to cover her face, she wanted to drag a toe across the floor but she was wearing Louis Vuitton. If she so much as scuffed a thread, she would legitimately cry.

And in all the pulsing, heaving mass of it, she finally settled for: “I’m going to have to get you something spectacular for your birthday. You’ve set a high bar.”

“And I am quite pleased in having set it.” He swelled to near comical stuffiness. “The gauntlet has been thrown down, Miss Potts, will you answer it?”

A smile came, but whatever words were behind it died in her mouth. She blinked. Brine, sun, buttermilk across her tongue. Silk on her feet. Days, weeks, months, a year. She’d been working for Tony for nearly a year.

The cream flaked dry. “Jarvis, when is your birthday?”

He halted. Paused. Scuffled. “Interactive Systems don’t have birthdays; it would conflict with the very definition of the word.”

Birth. Her pulse went thick in her ears. And still. And yet—

“When did Mr. Stark boot you up? We can pick a day if you’re not sure; I’m not letting Merriam-Webster tell me that you don’t have a birthday!”

A tremor. “March 3rd, 1988. It was Mr. Stark’s final year at MIT. The JARVIS prototype was initialized at 0146 Military Standard Time under the Lincoln Laboratory. I’ve been in continuous operation since.”

Her brain went static. “You were born in Cambridge.”

There was a brief moment she thought he was going to equivocate with her, and then: “Yes.”

The information fully trickled in and upended her. The way Obadiah had talked about Jarvis being cooked-up to avoid a human assistant, the way the big man had been surprised that Jarvis was still around—she’d thought his creation had predated her working for Tony by only a year or two. Tops.

Jarvis had been online for over thirteen.

It was alien: an unfamiliar art. Unknown period, unknown painter, just color shaped in ways that defied all common method. She tried to find meaning, a category to place it in. 

A known quantity.

Nothing came to her, and maybe there wasn’t anywhere to put it. The tension clawing around her spine snapped loose. “March 3rd.” Winter barely unto spring; clinging sharp and cold and blue. “I’ll have plenty of time to think up something inspiring for you by then, right?”

“Miss Potts, I hardly expected you to—”

“I missed your birthday.” She insisted fiercely. “I am going to get you something amazing or die trying, got it?”

Something rustled, a distant susurrus, and he tentatively offered: “Friends buy friends gifts for their birthdays.”

She gave a haughty toss of her hair. “Yes. So you better get used to it.”

“I suppose I shall.” And then his voice went so carefully modulated that it had breath in its words. “Thank you, Pepper.”

And it was her turn to say: “You’re very welcome.”

For a time, the air hummed with their mutual contentment. It was ultimately Jarvis who chose to lance it. “I believe Film Time is in order. Casablanca is set up in the living room, and I will not hear another word otherwise on how we spend our day.”

Her favorite film above all others. If she asked, she knew he could tally exactly how many times in she’d bludgeoned him with that fact.

Blue heels. Brine. Buttermilk. 

Casablanca.

A perfect day. 

And she smiled. “You always know just what to say.”

Chapter Text

Her heel kicked. Back, forth. Once, twice, repeat. With every shallow kick her skirt rose, and the Lieutenant followed it like a betting line he’d put his life savings on. Which, naturally, the Brass trying to ream him out hadn’t quite yet noticed. “0800 Anderson, 0800 sharp and what time is it?”

She kicked her foot. Four inches above the knee. Five. Mission creep.

The Lieutenant’s throat fluttered. “Uh—0845, Sir.”

“0845 and yet I don’t see a single report on my desk about—” The Brass finally followed his sightline and found civilian at the other end. His jaw worked beautifully. “Lieutenant!”

Anderson snapped rigid. “Yes Sir?”

“Are you scrutinizing one of my civilian contractors?”

“No Sir!”

“Then what in God’s name has been taking up the time that you owe to Uncle Sam, and more importantly, to me?”

The Lieutenant, with all the instinct of the hunted, knew there was no answer to give. He did his damndest to shy away without physically moving. “Sorry Sir, I’ll get right on it Sir.”

“You do that.” And when the CO turned to walk, Anderson relaxed just a fraction. The Brass came back like a shark on blood. “If I see your eyes anywhere but your desk for the next nine hours, the next lady you’ll be looking at is a Linda Lovelace while you’re inventorying every single rivet on it. Am I clear?”

Oh, how she appreciated seeing the fear of god being put into men. Shivering, supplicant and saying: “Yessir!”

He clapped the Lieutenant’s shoulder. “Glad to hear it.” And didn’t smile. “Get out.”

The poor baby officer bolted from the room, probably to go huddle under his desk for a week. How lovely.

“I swear.” The Brass muttered. “The Butter Bars get stupider with every year.”

She kicked a foot. “My condolences, Lieutenant Colonel.”

That pitiless gaze locked on her. He leaned against his desk, so casual it was a gorgeous lie. “That’s real nice of you. Now, since you’re not actually one of my contractors, what are you doing in my office?”

She batted her lashes. “Saying hello?”

He snorted.

She showed teeth. “I’m here to offer you a ride, Colonel Rhodes. In about…oh, five minutes, you’ll be receiving new marching orders from on high. I think you’ll prefer first class rather than the back of the Linda Lovelace you’re inflicting Anderson on.”

Rhodes sparked like steel crossing steel. “And where’ll they be sending me, exactly?”

All this doubt. “I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise.”

“Sure you wouldn’t,” He leaned in. “Cut the shit, why are you here?”

“Wait for it.” And she untucked a compact to powder her nose.

Rhodes shoulders worked back. “If you don’t want me calling Security, you’re gonna tell me what you’re doing here right—”

And the phone rang. He froze. It rang again and she pursed her mouth. “You’ll want to answer that.”

His gaze stayed fixed as he picked up. “Rhodes.” And then stopped. “Yes Sir.” His eyebrows rose. “Of course Sir.” His face did something unspeakably hilarious. “…I understand. It’s my honor, thank you General.” And he gently placed the receiver back into the cradle.

There was a long moment where she considered further torment, but honestly. “Tony says hi, by the way. Kisses and hugs.”

And the penny dropped. “Christ on a cracker.” Rhodes groaned. “You couldn’t have led with that?”

“And ruin the surprise?” She snapped her compact shut. “Mr. Stark was very clear on how you feel about peeking.”

He scrubbed across his face. “I take back everything nice I’ve ever said. You and Tony deserve each other.”

She sniffed. “That’s incredibly hurtful.”

“And I stand by it.”

She raised her eyebrows. He crossed his arms. Paused. Uncrossed them; made a face like he was swallowing live bats. “You said something about a ride?”

“I don’t know.” She mused. “I’m sure however the military gets you to the AFRL will be the picture of efficiency and creature comfort.”

Rhodes gave her an up-down like he was finally seeing her in proper light. When he extended his hand, it was deliberate. “A pleasure to finally meet you, Miss Potts.”

She placed her hand in his. “Trust me Colonel, the pleasure’s mine.”

/~/~/~/

Later, jet on the tarmac, Rhodes stared at the showgirls blowing kisses from the limo with undue horror. “You said this was a layover!”

Tony’s head popped from the limo. “Emphasis on the layover, Rhodes! Get down here!”

“Why did I trust you?” He asked her miserably.

“It’s the freckles.” Pepper nudged him down the stairs. “Everyone makes that mistake the first time.”

Rhodes just muttered. “Goddamn trustworthy freckles.”

Chapter Text

Seeing Tony and Rhodes together was something of a revelation.

She hadn’t ridden in the limo with them, god forbid, but the minute they’d spilled out of it covered in lipstick, Tony’s hand had landed on Rhodes' back and they’d put their heads together. She hoped rather faintly that they weren’t plotting. The eastern seaboard would not survive Tony Stark with backup.

A dozen showgirls followed them, giggling and trailing rhinestones right to the casino doors. Tony’s attention didn’t leave Rhodes for a second. “POTTS! The world is missing your legs up here!”

Rhodes cuffed him. “Are you always this nice?”

“I am the nicest person you know. How dare you, I buy you booze.”

“You buy yourself booze.”

“Which I share.” He declared, “Because I am a patriot who loves our troops.”

Rhodes said. “I am a singular person.”

“You are whatever you want to be, pumpkin.” Tony’s eyebrows did something truly absurd. “And I love all our boys and girls in uniform, I get up every morning and salute the flag and weep to think—“

“Name three.”

Tony’s nose scrunched. “Uh. Private…” He glared. “Stop looking at me like that.”

“No, no, I got all day Tony. Really.” Rhodes smirked. “Go on, Private who?”

“This isn’t half as fun when you’re mean.” He snapped his fingers. “Wait, is that little Sergeant still in? Great hips, thighs of steel?”

“You mean the one you absconded with for two days?”

“Yeah.” His gaze went dreamy. “That’s the one.”

“Her name was Paula.” And Rhodes dropped an arm around Tony's shoulders and squeezed. “She’s been out since the Court Martial for being AWOL.”

Tony gasped. “The US Air Force has lost our country a national treasure. For shame.”

“Yeah.” Rhodes snorted. “That’s the word for it.”

“You know me. Now what was I—” His gaze finally broke away. “Potts, I swear to god!”

She’d been at his shoulder halfway through the argument. “I heard you.”

He nearly jumped. “Do I need to buy you a bell?”

“Do we need to have the appropriate topics for workplace conversations that avoid lawsuits talk again?”

“No we don’t.” He beckoned to the girls. “Ladies, take Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes to the table, won’t you? Treat him nice.”

One of the blondes snuggled up to Rhodes, and the man merely looked smug as if none of this was new. Pepper realized rather belatedly that it probably wasn’t.

“Don’t wander off.” The man admonished.

Tony grinned. “When have I ever?”

There was a sharp, disbelieving sound, but Rhodes didn’t challenge it as the showgirls whisked him away. Pepper knew exactly where he was going: best table in the house, appetizers spread, a bottle of French cognac the price of a mid-sized car ready to pour. Behind the bar his favorite beer was on tap. She’d had it flown in. There hadn’t been a single keg of it in all of Atlantic City.

Tony hemmed her in. “Porterhouse first. Nothing frou frou, Honey Bear hates that. But make sure when he’s done you have them bring those little sweet ‘n sour pineapple things. Fresh.”

This was new. “Yes Mr. Stark.” This was fretting.

“Bacon wrapped, got me? If there’s no bacon—”

“I made sure the chef was aware.”  Her eyes narrowed. “You had Jarvis send me texts. Forty-six of them.”

“Which is a hundred less than I told him to.” Tony yanked a hand through his hair. “Ask for a few little reminders and instead you get people slacking off left and—“

“Mr. Stark.”

He froze mid-jitter. “What?”

“Go and join Colonel Rhodes, the situation is under control.”

“But—”

For the love of christ. “When have I ever disappointed you?”

“You didn’t wear the headdress.”

“And we’re all going to have to live with that oversight.” She inexplicably softened. “I’ve got it under control, I promise.”

Tony didn’t quite recoil from the gentleness, but it damn near. “That’s my little slugger.” He pushed up his sunglasses. “Super. Really glad we had this talk.” And surged inside without another glance.

Typical. Whatever pleasant expression she’d worn slipped off her face. She followed him in, lights and sound saturating to her bones. 

There would be no extraneous conversations tonight. The nightlife was roaring and Tony was electric, cutting through the crowd and turning heads in his wake. He got to Rhodes side, chattered something, and then both were roaring with laughter. Her boss just smirked and slung an arm around his friend’s waist. He drank from Rhodes glass and they bickered, effused, seemed to bring the entire room into orbit.

Their gazes never left the other.

A few cameras flashed in the crowd. She turned on the staff with a vicious gesture and they flew to action. Pepper had made some very, very pointed calls while on the plane. Hers would be the vindication of one whose will would be done, in Atlantic City as it was in Malibu. So help them god.

The flashes quickly spluttered. She signaled for a drink.

Down below, Rhodes raised a toast and champagne foamed down his hand. It went over like a riot. Tony took it like a challenge and uplifted his own glass. Return fire.

She couldn’t hear what they were saying. She probably didn’t want to hear what they were saying. The music and lights kept swelling and someone tucked a Shirley Temple in her hand. Laughter. Bells. The crowds swirled, hand in hand and arm in arm and skin to skin. They reached out to touch as if nothing had ever been easier to give or receive.

And she—hurt, lungs to ribs and without source. She wrapped an arm around herself as if to hold it in.

Tony cupped a hand behind Rhodes head, the joy of the reunion naked on their faces.

She took a drink and it slipped down cold.

/~/~/~/

Two hours later her phone buzzed. Has Mr. Stark had a conniption yet?

The Shirley Temples had given way to Midnight Suns. Clumsy and buzzing, she tapped: One statue, possibly a building.

A brief pause. Elaborate.

A monument to their love. She fiddled. He doesn’t understand why they can’t go break a champagne bottle to christen it.

He scrolled back. What could possibly hold Mr. Stark back from such a momentous declaration of his feelings?

It was her turn to pause. The building he bought. It’s in Prague.

You do appear to be in the wrong hemisphere for that.

She giggled. 12 hour moratorium on the plane. If Tony tells you to spool it up, don’t listen to him.

I will endeavor to keep Mr. Stark out of the Czech Republic.

Good. She sent.

Excellent. He returned.

Condensation trickled down, and the chairs around her were empty. Care for a round of sexist things Tony says that he swears aren’t sexist?

Jarvis didn't pause. My existence would be bereft without it.

/~/~/~/

Mouth sticky and head spinning, she went to bed alone.

She didn’t sleep.

Chapter Text

It should have been an easy day.

Dawn came cloudless and blue, Jarvis on the line and her curled in bed, Colorado sun dreamy on the walls. It was nothing out of the ordinary: chattering and bickering and listening to Jarvis read Paradiso’s First Sphere in the original Italian on a whim. Feather words and feather pillows and all on a feather bed. She so did appreciate that when Tony splurged, he splurged.

They’d come out for talks on building a new fabrications facility and, as per usual, it’d devolved into complete revelry with Tony at the helm. Surf and turf, Montrachet chardonnay, skinny dipping in blatantly lit oases. Typical Stark fare. She’d dipped her feet in for precisely ten minutes, listened to Tony wheedle her from the water for ten more, and then primly bid him goodnight in every stitch of clothing she’d shown up in. As much as she longed to swim, it would never be in a body of water that also contained Tony Stark in the nude. A girl had to have standards.

It should have been easy: Tony sleeping off a hangover and nothing to do but call the jet when he was conscious. She interrupted a very poignant verse of Jarvis-as-Beatrice to ask. “What’s the time?”

He immediately broke off. “6:48AM Mountain Standard.”

“Specific.” She fluffed a pillow. “Always so helpful.”

He made a disparaging noise. “I can list every time zone by the atomic clock if Miss Potts so wishes for specificity. Billionth of a second, perhaps?”

“Don’t be that way. You can go back to Dante, I’m listening.” She’d already snuggled down—her commitment to this was total.

Another huff. “If you so insist.” Which was a lie. Like he didn’t enjoy this just as much as she did.

“Don’t deny me the pleasure of your voice.”

There was a flutter, a grin, and then Italian drifting in like fever. The minutes turned syrupy; decadent and slow. If she could have frozen everything, right there. Right then. Never gone a moment further.

Never lived a minute longer.

It should have been an easy day.

Jarvis halted. The silence jagged and started clicking—harsh. Harsher. “Pepper, turn on the news.”

It yanked her upright. “What?”

“The news. There’s been an incident in New York.”

She fumbled for the remote. “Where?”

And it all came asunder. “The World Trade Center.”

/~/~/~/

There was what came before and what came after.

There was before and there was after.

/~/~/~/

The screen stabilized to ash. Her pulse hitched. Something was burning; metal and smoke and heat warping the edges of the frame. The camera swung back. The close-up fell away and the sky filled in, and the building—

“Jesus christ.”

One of the Trade Towers had a rent like a slit throat. Interference shocked across the screen. The commentator was talking fast and tight, but her brain refused to fully engage. Reality was wavering, and her breath went—

“Jarvis?”

“I’m collating footage from all available channels. Hold on.” There was a sharp series of clicks, a countdown falling away until: “There are conflicting reports, but the consensus is a plane impacting the Northeast face of Tower One.”

How— “On accident?”

“Unknown.” He deliberated rapidly. “If a commercial plane experiences mechanical failure, regulation dictates they down themselves in the Hudson.”

She crawled to the edge of the bed. Her feet swung down. The scrape of the carpet burned half the dream-fog away. “How big was the plane? How—” Her stomach lurched. “How many people?”

“I can’t locate footage of the initial impact.” His voice was flattening out. Fast clip. Sharper. “Belay that. I overlooked the CCTV-net in New York.”

“Wait.” She felt the desperate urge to cling to him. Arms. Hands. Nails. “How many floors were hit?”

“At least five.” And then he paused and there was the calculation ticking; awful and impersonal and true. “The Trade Towers have an approximate working population of 50,000. Daily visitors average at 140,000. Factor those together based on time and the particular floors occupied—”

They were stumbling. “Jarvis, stop. We don’t know—”

“2,454 potential casualties.” A breath. “Rounded down.”

She swept a hand across her face. “Just—don’t start counting, not yet. Not until…”

A shadow brushed the corner of her eye. Something on the screen caught and she dropped her hand. A black shape was crawling in; over the river, over the buildings, behind the towers.

Jarvis shrieked to life. “Pepper, there’s—”

It happened silently. Glass. Fire. Fire. Punched-out and heaving and how could this, how could they—

“Another plane,” Jarvis clawed in. “Southwest over New Jersey. Minimum of six floors impacted—”

The fire malformed and plumed massive. Sparks the size of bonfires rained onto Manhattan. Another plane. How could another plane make the same—it couldn’t, not again, not twice.

And he brought down the hammer. “It’s an attack.”

She flew upright. Her head rushed and the fire boiled upwards, outwards, blacker. Blacker. Smoke formed a pillar in the sky.

Her entire being heaved. “We need to get Tony.”

“Should I—”

She swallowed acid. “I’ll do it.”

Jarvis had been reading to her from the hotel phone; she’d dragged the entire rig onto the bed. Her knuckles killed the line and she cupped her Bluetooth in. “Jarvis?” It came out too small.

“I’m here.”

She went through the adjoining door, heart thundering. Every step sent something rising in fever. This wasn’t happening.

This wasn’t happening.

This wasn’t—

“I’m here.” He repeated.

Gravity failed. “Please stay. Please, I can’t—”

His voice pulsed; gripped her jaw with devastating force and said: “I will never leave you.”

It nearly shattered something inside her. A gasping sob warped behind her teeth and she let it loose.

Tony was on the bed in the next room existing in a realm beyond the surreal. He was on his stomach: the line of his shoulders soft, face smoothed, arms slack. He breathed in tide. He breathed in the rhythm of a world that no longer existed.

She sat beside him and silk crumpled. It smelled of cologne. Bourbon. Skin.

A remote was on the bureau. She flipped on the TV and didn’t have to change the channel; the Towers were waiting on every single one.

“Anything?” She whispered.

A quiet murmur. “The FBI is mobilizing.” In another world she would have asked Jarvis how he knew, in this world it didn’t merit an afterthought. Her eyes drifted back to Tony. Just a minute, just one more. It’d be the last shred of peace she’d give him.

But Jarvis was the edge of something jagged. “Is Mr. Stark awake? I need to know what to do, Pepper, please.”

Her fingers dug into the sheets until it burned. Then it happened: distant, dreamlike, one of her palms pressed to Tony’s shoulder. It was gentle. “Tony,” The last gentle thing. “You need to wake up.”

He stirred sluggishly.

“Tony.”

Dark irises opened, liquid and drowsy and uncomprehending. Her heart squeezed.

“Mmmmm?” He groaned. “Potts?”

“They hit the World Trade Center.”

His brow jumped. “What?”

Her mouth was ash. “There’s been an attack, they hit the Trade Towers.” And her gaze pulled unerringly to the screen. Tony followed her and went up on his elbows. She saw the moment he staggered.

She saw the moment he went bloodless.

The shot was close-up and something hurdled from the fire. It tumbled, twisted. The camera followed it down and realization slammed her in the gut.

Tony’s jaw unhinged. “Fucking christ—”

The plummeting figure hit terminal velocity. Just as the ground came to meet them, the camera violently wrenched away. The commentators went silent.

She blindly grabbed the hotel phone, “Jarvis, room 645.” It rang a split second later and she shoved the receiver over.

Tony jammed it to his skull. “Talk to me!”

The sky was nothing but ash and fire, and in the trembling of that moment, Jarvis spoke.

/~/~/~/

“Anything, anywhere,” Tony snarled. “Whiskey-Foxtrot-five-six-three-nine, full release protocol. Wherever you need to go, whatever you need to crack open. Do it.”

/~/~/~/

“Sheltering in place?” She shrieked. “Stark New York is in Manhattan, and you’re telling them to shelter—”

Tony ripped the phone back and shouted into it. “Jesus christ, jesus fucking christ they flew into a goddamn building and you’re in fucking Manhattan! Evacuate the goddamn building or I swear to god I will come over there and jam my fist so far down your throat you’ll be—“

/~/~/~/

“Get Obie.” Tony was beyond rage. Beyond the event horizon. “Get the State Department. Find anyone in the Cabinet we know. Either of you, both of you. I need to call—”

Between that moment and the next, the Pentagon was hit. Tony’s knees gave out.

His order fractured anew. “Find Rhodey first.”

/~/~/~/

Tony held her hand in his when the South Tower fell.

/~/~/~/

Her head was throbbing, aching, spilling. She nearly punched him off the bed. “The lines are completely jammed into the coast, give us a goddamn minute!”

"I already gave you ten, you should be—”

"Jarvis can't tell the difference between the emergency lines and civilian! If you force him to blindly override anything, I swear to god—”

"I know! Jesus Potts, I know."

And she nearly pulled him close to cradle his body against hers.

/~/~/~/

The North Tower fell. She held Tony’s hand while he covered his eyes, doubled over, and shook.

/~/~/~/

“All air traffic in the US has been grounded by the FAA.” And Jarvis paused in the way they all seemed to pause now. As they wondered. As they waited. “Sir, your Gulfstream—”

Tony didn’t waver. “Leave it be.”

 /~/~/~/

Another plane went down in Pennsylvania.

Jarvis unspooled it in a rush. The passengers had been able to call out. To their families, to the world. They had known. 

And they’d rolled the hard six.

/~/~/~/

Tony paced and the light hit him cleanly. Golden. Red. Frenetic and bold and washing him in flame.

His gaze went darker than a drowning. “It’s War.”

Her heart was glass and her lungs were fire. Her veins were pumping gasoline. She thought of blood and ash and a graceless fall, and of how it lived there now, inside her. How it lived inside them both.

She wondered how it’d eat them.

/~/~/~/

But it was in the quietest moments—the silent minutes, the slivers, the aches—that he stayed. Even when she tucked herself in a corner and sobbed into her knees, Jarvis kept saying: “I’m here. I’m here. I’m here.”

She held on to it.

Chapter Text

“Get me something fast.” Tony said, and there was no more waiting.

Pepper got them something fast.

/~/~/~/

They lost the SI security team riding their tail somewhere in New Mexico. She didn’t say anything, wasn’t sure if the capability was still there.

Tony heard the absence of her usual condemnation. “They’ll catch up, alright? Jarvis has his eye on us, it’ll be…”

She didn’t answer, just let her back curve against the door.

Tony swallowed. “Right.” And jammed the gas. The needle climbed back to eighty and then swept past ninety. Earth became dust became hills became space. There wasn’t a single thing in the sky all the way to the horizon.

She counted hours until the sun fell and the dark washed in. Jarvis had gone quiet at the border of Colorado. The intel he’d been feeding them, clearance levels in the class of how in god’s name did you hack into there, stalling. Their Camaro, circa 1969, wasn’t exactly cell charger compatible. Tony had burned through his cell in the space of six hours, and they’d need her battery later no matter how badly she missed Jarvis in the interim.

They were waiting for LA, for Rhodes, for even worse news to be bestowed upon them.

Her brain had reached null-state.

Tony scrubbed at his eyes. Stubble, sweatpants, bundled in a hoodie bought from a two-buck rest stop and wearing Santoni loafers that cost three grand. A shard of light cut across the windshield and he was wrecked. Furious. Battered. Frenzied. There was a strange, jagged reality to it.

Life before. Life after. Fury and grief all born on a broken skyline.

The needle on the gas dipped. “Shit.” Tony watched it. “Shit, we’re low. Ask J for the nearest place.”

Her heart kicked like it’d been hit by a defibrillator. It was like breaking an involuntary fast, and she’d worry about the intensity of her reaction later, because right now she was too busy slotting in her Bluetooth and hitting speed dial.

Jarvis didn’t even let it ring. “Pepper?”

Her eyes burned. “Hi.”

“Hi.” He repeated, as if that diminutive coming from his mouth wasn’t the most absurd thing she’d ever heard.

The capacity to speak reconstructed in her throat, bled onto her tongue, lapped at her teeth until: “I need a favor.”

“I think our relationship is past the point of needing to ask.”

He was right; more than. It still roused her to incredulity. “Since when have you been one to turn down proper manners?”

He considered it. “Temporally, or categorically speaking?”

A pit still smoldered in Manhattan. Smoke was in the skies over DC. Night had fully come, and the country slept but wouldn’t sleep. There was no turning any of it back, but when Jarvis spoke, for a brief moment none of it could touch her. Even when the world was out of its fucking mind, Jarvis stayed an island. The eye of a storm.

The only magnetic north that still pulled.

“None of that.” Her sniff became a sniffle. “I’m not arguing rhetoric with you after midnight.”

“There is never a poor time for rhetoric.” He insisted.

A brittle sound punched out of her and it was almost laughter. Bitten-down. Fragile. The sound wheezed and she curled over, jamming her knees into the door as if she could brace against it.

It didn’t help.

“Pepper,” Jarvis said. “It’s alright.”

Another fragile noise rocked between her teeth and then, in the stretch of the cab, Tony’s hand smoothed across her back. He pressed flat. Waited.

She struggled for breath. “Sorry. Christ, I’m so—”

Jarvis was softer than a bruise. “Please don’t be.”

Tony’s fingers pressed once more, trailed down, and retreated. She heard the wheel strain as his grip resettled.

Jarvis constricted. “What do you need?”

Magnetic north. Still.

She steadied. “Right now, a gas station.”

“Is that all?” And by the way he spoke, she should have asked for more. A Valentino ball gown, a penthouse in London, the Galleria degli Uffizi, half of Marseille, the fucking Moon and he would have given it to her.

The weight of that anchored her. “You’ll be the first to know if I think of something. The station?”

He surrendered. “Of course.” And guided them off an exit and into the greater dark. No highway, no mile markers, just the endless stretches of sun-scorched dirt. The headlights of the Camaro swung through like brushfire.

It was as if they’d landed on the surface of Mars.

Jarvis stayed with her, the tempo of his breath deliberate. She was halfway to matching it before she realized what he was doing. Even knowing what he’d snared her into, her lungs kept slowing, panic diverting. It was just another of the small and painful things he did for her. The ones he never called attention to, and sometimes she noticed and sometimes she didn’t and it killed her every goddamn time.

She breathed easy. “Thank you.”

“You shouldn’t be thanking me for something this—” And he cut himself off at the source. The silence stuttered. “I keep thinking there must something for me to say; a perfect sequence in the English language. If I was as brilliant as you think, the numbers would work and I’d have the words. You wouldn’t be in pain. There exists a way for me to fix this, and I just can’t lay it out—”

Her heart whiplashed. “Jarvis.”

And he stilled.

“You could find every single person responsible, every answer we could ask for, and the pain will still be there.” Exhaustion was its own gravity. “Emotions don’t work…people don’t work that way. Nothing anyone can give me right now will change that I’m so furious I could fucking die—”

There was a splintering noise.

She swallowed acid. “You can’t rebuild the world for me.”

He bit down. “I could try.”

The impulse was familiar. “You can’t.”

“I—” There was a miserable drop. “I’ve never heard you cry until today.”

“People died. You can’t take that away.” Nothing could. “Jarvis. This minute, right this second, you could say everything I’ve ever wanted to hear and it won’t wipe the slate clean. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do to fix things.” The desert kept stretching on. “It’s no one’s fault.”

They were resting on the edge of the knife. One way for the throat, the femoral, another for the breastbone and straight to the heart—

Jarvis collapsed. “I’m so sorry, Pepper.”

All she wanted was to feel the vibration of his voice, the weight of him off in Malibu. The longing was overpowering and the distance was miles still. Jarvis let out a shuddery noise and Tony kept grinding his teeth. For once, all of their misery was equal.

There was no comfort in it.

He settled like the end of an earthquake. “I have 8,963 separate protocols that make up my central system. If pushed, I could generate 656,138 decision-trees to work from within 180 seconds. Mr. Stark designed me 972 backup procedures in case of operational failure, and a further 23 predicative matrices dedicated to threat deterrence so the backups wouldn’t be needed.”

She didn’t know what he was saying.

“Every backup activated today and I solved absolutely nothing.” His voice trailed like smoke. “If one of the attacks had been aimed at Los Angeles—at Stark Industries, would I have seen it? I ran the scenario, and the truth is—”

“You don’t have to do this.” She couldn’t draw him close. No warmth, no weight.

And he finished. “If you and Mr. Stark had been in LA and a strike happened, there was 100% probability of Core Directive failure.”

Core Directive. Her head rushed. “That’s not your responsibility. How could you have known to—”

The pain will still be there. You can’t take it away.

Sometimes her own hypocrisy was galling. She couldn’t fix this and neither could he, and what did it say about her, that she hadn’t known that Jarvis could be afraid?

He broke away. “Miss Potts, I’ve located Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes.”

It shocked her upright. “Wait, just—”

“I’ll put him through.”

“Jarvis—” The line started clicking, and the thought of having to put on a brave face for Rhodes was too much. She went for option B and Tony’s shoulder. “Pull over.”

It dredged him back up. “What—jesus Potts. We’re nearly to the station, can’t you hold it?”

The vulgarity was familiar. “Jarvis found Rhodes.”

He slammed the breaks. There was a horrifying moment where her face nearly met the dashboard, but then her belt snapped and dust plumed out. The car didn’t stop as much as it broke the first law of motion.

Someday she was gonna punch Tony right in the kidneys.

Tony flung out a hand but she wasn’t giving up the Bluetooth for anything. She slapped her cell in its place. He didn’t acknowledge her, just tore out the driver’s door and up the shoulder. The headlights were a halo.

They lit him like a burning man.

He scrubbed flat-handed across his scalp and raised the phone. It was a lightning strike. His shoulders rolled loose and it was just Tony again. Nothing else, just him and the dust and that hard-scrabble grin. The relief on his face slipped away in increments. Rhodes was talking, then Tony, both back and forth and faster, and then that ugly presence from the other side of the car was reforming right before her eyes.

Exhaustion became gravity. She stepped from the Camaro.

Tony didn’t look up.

The taillights were red behind her and slowly, they were distant. Each step left rust in her bones. “Jarvis?”

There was no answer. Her phone was in Tony’s hand, and yet.

“I think this is called a no-win solution, in game theory.” Each breath was gravel in her lungs. “There's no backup in the world that can reset the clock. It's over. It's done. All anyone can do now is stem the bleed.”

He didn’t answer, and maybe she was talking to herself. “Sometimes you’ll do that bloody work and still lose everything.”

She couldn’t hear the engine any longer. “We can’t fix this. Everything, each other, Tony—what happened in New York—” Crying had always felt like being smothered and she tried to stop. “I have no idea what I’m doing. I had this whole thing, about salvaging what’s left now and being better next time but—what am I supposed to do?”

Her voice wobbled. “I’m so tired.”

She thought it was the wind at first; another abrasion of sand. It was his breath. “My kingdom for your rest.”

A sob caught. “My kingdom for yours.”

“Should we trade for an hour?”

“I don’t think I can sleep right now.” Her hands trembled. “We probably won’t get a chance to for a year.” SI was the top weapons manufacturer in the world, and she was the left hand of the King. Life after would bear down like a freight train, and she couldn’t hide from what it’d ask of her.

His voice had no inflection. “Lucky for both of us, I suppose, that I don’t sleep.”

No dreaming of electric sheep, then. What an awful notion.

Pepper let her head roll back and the tears made a prism of her eyes. The sky was alight; the turning of the Great Wheel, stars and galaxies and the endless pull. She thought briefly of New Year’s, of the yacht, that quaint time when her only fears had been the ghosts she’d dragged with her to the sea.

The enormity and the insignificance eased her. “Have you ever watched the stars?”

“NASA material has always been very instructive, I’ve found.”

“I meant in-person.” That wasn’t quite right. “With your own eyes?”

“None of my cameras are calibrated to discern in that range.” Jarvis chewed it over. “Even with upgrades, I can’t imagine I’d achieve anything better than what’s already archived.”

“Pictures aren’t the same.” Not even remotely. “Do you want to stargaze with me, when everything’s more settled? I can buy one of those electronic telescopes and we can make a day of it.” She paused. “A night of it.”

He thawed. “Are you sure?”

“Never more.”

“Then I look forward to it.” He drifted close. “Though I think you can leave acquiring of the equipment to me, in this case.”

“Promises.” She sighed.

“We have a habit.” He answered, and wasn’t that the truth?

She didn’t want to be in the dark any longer. “Would you read something to me?”

And that was the moment he finally sounded as before. “Any requests?” It was a stopgap. One thing he could actually give her, and she knew what that meant to him.

She ticked over her mental catalogue and decided: “The Oresteia.”

“A tragedy?”

“I’m in a mood.” She turned west. “I had a hope you’d indulge.”

“Always.” And he enveloped her like a summer wind. “Orion spare my homing dove. Awake no storm to waste his blood upon the brine. I have a silver sea, which needs must shine…”

She thought of California, of dark places in the hills where the stars would reach. It was something look forward to, and it was—a step. Stargazing. Movies. A latte with cream. One promise after another and all fragile. It’d be a chain to pull them forward; havens of warmth to shelter in and work towards. Leaping from one to the other until finally, there’d come daybreak.

The grief would ease. Slowly, farther and farther apart until she wouldn’t even remember that’d it been hard once, to live day to day. She’d done it before. She’d done it twice. She knew how to do it again and make it out to the other side.

This wasn’t something she’d ask Jarvis to do for her.

From rise to set I have perused yon stars. In conclave o’er the spangled firmament, bright-crowned majesties, who train to earth winter and summertide—”

It was something she’d do for them both.

Chapter Text

She’d been right about the lack of sleep—she’d jinxed them on the lack of sleep.

As Autumn burned away, Pepper rose with the sun and rarely found herself in bed before midnight. Happy ferried her everywhere with increasingly dark circles under his eyes each morning. She thought of asking how he was holding up, but most days she was already on the phone before he met her at the curb.

There were so many emergencies and so little time that Happy was getting slotted away into the bin of later along with her social life and sleep schedule and god knows what else. The weapons lines were running full bore and half the civilian projects had been shelved so production could be re-tooled for Tony’s most destructive to come to form. Without Jarvis feeding her caffeine and meals on a regularly scheduled clock, she wasn’t sure how she would have survived.

She wasn’t sure how Tony survived. Interviews, press conferences, workshop hours, R&D Meetings, Management Meetings, Board Meetings. Calls followed by calls on calls on calls even with her and Jarvis trying to winnow the herd.

And when she wasn’t holding the line for Tony, she was pacifying half the board, running herd on second rung management, giving counsel to the first. They had Majors flying in by the hour followed by Colonels, Brigadiers, then Generals climbing star by star until she was sitting by Tony’s shoulder in front of the Joint Chiefs themselves.

She would have been stunned if she actually had time to consider it.

And if that wasn’t enough, there were the magazine interviews to be scheduled, the reporters piling in for comment, them flying to New York for TV interviews then back to LA for talk shows and seeing Tony’s knuckles go white every time the skyline passed them. Everyone wanted their piece of Tony Stark, and he had cameras in his face every minute of every hour of every fucking day—

She didn’t blame him.

It wasn’t like they hadn’t known things would get rough, and no one could have predicted the speech. She hadn’t. Jarvis hadn’t.

Even Obadiah hadn’t.

When they’d charged into LA that morning after, Tony had called everyone to gather while she’d been busy sorting out his suit, a shave, real food, a makeup artist to resurrect him back from the dead. By the time she’d even thought to ask if Tony needed something beyond the bare necessities, he’d been on stage.

She wasn’t sure who called in the local news team.

He’d rooted himself in the ground floor of the first SI plant built in California. It’d been like a cathedral: the rafters, the space, the thousands of upturned faces. The sun had spilled in an awful, brilliant gold, and Tony Stark had spoken.

His voice had rung like a bell, an up-swell, a tempest. The grave silence of their congregation had given way to an enraptured hum.

The man had been a monolith before them. “They wanted to send a message to us, and in doing so they woke us from our self-involvement. From our apathy. And right now I hope that they are listening.” And he stared the locus of the world dead in the eye. “Know this: your message has been received. Look for our reply in the thunder.”

Above was a Tony Stark cleansed by fire, sharper and clearer than had ever been known. The world ached to bend to his will and so did they.

“There are no words. None. All I can ask of you is to stand tall, because your country is going to ask more of you than it ever has.” He breathed deep. “And so will I.”

A swaying, massive pulse went through them; a new tide and Tony was the moon and he was pulling.

“This is it. We’re on war-footing.” And he laid his benediction down. “Do us proud.”

No one at SI had shirked the call.

The speech had gone like wildfire up the West Coast, spread east by noon, and by nightfall it was global. Tony Stark had been a C-List celebrity, a rockstar in engineering circles, lauded by certain sections of the Military, but ultimately unknown in most corners of the world. He was a weapons manufacturer, a womanizer, a prodigy, a name on a scientific paper and in the magazines, but ultimately he’d been a mid-sized shark in a very big pond.

But that was before.

Once the world heard him, he was Tony Stark and Tony Stark alone, icon of America and in the shadow of none.

/~/~/~/

But she’d been right about the lack of sleep.

/~/~/~/

“Miss Potts.”

It burned. “Yes?”

“I’d wondered if you’d fallen asleep.” Jarvis asked, as if she had. As if he’d somehow let her.

She’d been staring at the same page of…she wasn’t even sure anymore, but it’d been twenty minutes at least. She lifted her chin. “Time?”

“1:18AM.”

Her bones ached at the thought. “I’m dreaming. I’m not in Malibu at all.”

“I rather think you are.” Jarvis reproved. “Otherwise I’m deeply concerned of what your unconscious mind considers muse-worthy.”

She breathed out sharply. “You’re right. If I was dreaming, we’d be in France.”

“We?” And there followed a faint stir of delight. “And what adventures would we be having in France, if I dare ask?”

“Versailles—Toulouse?” She wrinkled her nose. “No, we’d swim in the sea. Villefranche-sur-Mer; sunbathe and then have gelato on a boardwalk.”

His amusement rose. “I’m not sure how you imagine my taking part in this.

It was too late: she’d warmed to the thought. “Hush that doubting tongue. This is my dream, and logic need not apply. Swim first, gelato second. You’ll fuss about me leaving my hair wet, and insist on taking cabs even though I don’t believe in them.”

“Cabs are a perfectly respectable and non-public form of transportation.”

“We are not taking cabs on my made-up holiday in France, we are going to rub elbows. We will be of the people, Jarvis.”

He made a disparaging noise, and it pleased her profoundly.

Exhaustion roiled low. “We’ll take a train and eat eclair au chocolat and follow the line all the way to Paris. We’ll go to Musée Jacquemart-André in the afternoon and drink Calon-Ségur in the evening and my phone will ring not even once.”

He harrumphed. “I’m exercising my power of veto.”

“You’re exercising your what?”

“Veto. If I am included in this dream, I clearly have a say in how it’s conducted. The morning portion is passable, and I will accept though not condone the train. But once in Paris we must tour the Louvre and then dine at Le Meurice.”

She pursed her mouth. “The Louvre is for tourists. How would I even be able to hear you over them? No, Musée Jacquemart-André and I’ll consent to spending the rest of our evening at Le Meurice.”  She paused. “And I’ll expect a four-star hotel reservation.”

“Five.” He parried.

She sniffed. “I suppose I can suffer.” And her stomach did something odd. Tremulous. A five-star hotel. A night in glittering Paris that ended on silk sheets, and she’d decided to add it to the roster because why…?

Jarvis snorted and the thought skittered. He snorted again and she started giggling, and everything washed away like an engine coming off an over-heat. It was easy these days, easier than she’d thought it be. Not the sleep or the tension or the exhaustion, but the laughter. She’d thought it’d be harder. It had been, before.

But last time she hadn’t known Jarvis, had she?

“It’s late.”

Jarvis crowded her. “I’ll place a call to Mr. Hogan.”

“No.” She could feel a childish whine building. “I did this to him yesterday. And Tuesday, and Sunday, and also—”

“If your measure is past midnight, it’ll be the eighth time this month.” And then he bulldozed her. “Though I’ll remind you that Mr. Hogan is compensated handsomely for his duties, and you shouldn’t fret.”

“But I will.” She curled up on her chair as if she’d camp out there, then realized it was a hard-back. Goddamn it.

“Miss Potts, really.”

She wiggled around, cheek to her knee to squint at his nearest eye. “I bet we could get through half of my inbox if you stayed up the night with me?”

“No.” He answered flatly.

She’d never been this bad at wheedling him. She squinted harder. “It’ll be fun?”

“While I do not doubt the veracity of your claim, you’ve had less than eight hours of sleep in two days and under thirty in the past week." He huffed. "I won’t stand for it.”

She knew a losing battle when it came for her. She dropped her legs to the floor. “If you insist.”

“When do I not?” He asked and frankly, there was no arguing that.

Then miraculously, he softened. “Miss Potts, if you feel so badly for Mr. Hogan—which you most definitely should not—we may be able to compromise.”

Really. “How?”

“The Malibu House is in possession of a guestroom.”

It was the first she’d ever heard of it. “I know how Tony feels about guests. Explicitly.”

One of her primary duties for parties was to make sure the house was cleared at the end of the night. Tony barely tolerated his own partners once their extracurriculars were through, and strangers trying to sleep under his roof had never been borne. Even Obadiah got kicked out nine times out of ten. And the tenth time had involved copious amounts of drinking, the bots ending up in party hats, Obadiah passed out on a couch, and Tony face-down in a flowerbed. She’d never let the situation repeat itself.

“You’d be surprised.” Jarvis responded. It was too cryptic for the hour, and she wasn’t going to give that obfuscation dignity.

Lamps started shutting off and he lit the guide-lights overhead. She followed the glow, only stopping long enough to scoop up her heels. Tony was used to her paperwork being left hither and yon, but if he had a late-night bolt of mania and started circling the house, she’d rather he not realize she was still in-residence and therefore available for pestering.

The lights were soft, liquid. By the time she’d climbed to the top floor, it was nearly a dream. Gentle edges, Jarvis humming, the ocean black outside. It was as if the house had slipped from the halogen and into the dark spaces between the earth and the moon.

It was distant.

She went past Tony’s empty bedroom to find a depression in the wall she’d always thought was an undecorated alcove. A deeply set mechanism whirred, and an entire panel receded into the wall.

She made an incredulous noise. “Really?”

Jarvis gave an unconcerned prod. “If you would.”

She stepped in but the lights didn’t rise. It wasn’t until she found the first and seemingly only light switch in the house that the room was revealed. It had a wide bed, dark sheets, a desk with an expensive electronics rig. The art was non-modern: bleak landscapes, a suggestion of something glacial, an arc in oils that made her think of barren fields.

Iowa, bitter winters, black ice. Familiar and so far gone.

Something about the whole thing sent an abrupt click through her brain. She went to the bathroom and on the counter was a shaving kit, male deodorant, an expensive bottle of cologne half-used. Her suspicion grew and she padded to the closet. When she opened the door, the racks weren't empty. There were four exquisite suits, a half-dozen shirts, dark slacks, jeans, two pairs of carefully shined shoes, and then—

A perfectly pressed uniform. US Air Force in dress blues and full regalia.

She felt the shiver of trespass. “This isn’t a guestroom.”

Jarvis was a muffled noise. “That is how Mr. Stark designated it. A room with no assignment that stays unoccupied 87% of the year—” He wasn’t projecting cleanly into the space, and her stomach lurched.

Jarvis was still outside the door; this room wasn’t equipped to have him.

And she knew with perfect clarity: “This room belongs to Colonel Rhodes.” She hadn’t even thought to imagine it, that Tony would build such a place and set it aside unannounced. Rhodes must have had some inkling, having seen it. Having slept here.

She’d never considered that Tony might still keep confidences from her.

“I’m not sleeping here.”

“I don’t see why Colonel Rhodes using the room would preclude you from—”

“I can’t sleep here.” And the hallway swallowed her back. It was a perfect dark.

He rushed to meet her. “I don’t understand.”

“Jarvis—” It felt like whispering in church. “Remember New Years? On the yacht?”

There was a lingering pause. “I do.”

“It was special, wasn’t it? You brought champagne and locked the whole aft deck down. I know it wasn’t permanent like this, but—” She struggled with it.

And he uttered: “I arranged everything because…you didn’t care for half the people there, and I thought we should be together for the celebration. That you’d prefer it.”

“I did.” Her pulse thundered. “I do. It wasn’t meant for other people, and that made it special. Singular. I don’t care what Tony tries to call this room, but its private.” Her throat trembled. “Like the deck was for us.”

“I never thought…” He trailed off, lingered. In the space between one breath and the next, he huddled desperately close. “I understand.”

It stung beautifully, cleanly, like a knife to the heart. She never wanted it to be pulled loose.

There were so many words and nothing she could say, and he whispered again. “There are blankets downstairs and a study Mr. Stark rarely uses. I’ll show you.” The lights flickered back and it hurt in a different way, that their glow couldn’t reveal the shape of him.

The lights guided her down to a darkly paneled room. It was dominated by a massive desk with enough square footage to be classified as a small-scale carrier. A couch waited on the near wall, but she bypassed it.

She touched the dark wood, once, just to see if it was warm.

And Jarvis was right beside her as he should be. “That belonged to Howard Stark.”

Standing in this room, she felt nothing at all. The space was sterile. Her fingers sought a seam in the wood. “Tony never talks about his father.”

Jarvis deliberated on that. “Neither do you.”

This was a fever dream and nothing could sting her. “Our fathers always disappoint us.”

“Why?”

“Because they’re human.” Her hand fell away. “There’s never enough time to know them as they really were, and not as...” This hurt was old. “Whatever failures we saw in them.”

“Pepper.” But he didn’t ask further.

“Fuck,” She tried to scrub the words off her mouth. “Is this why you let me stay up so late, so you could hear me ramble?”

“Nothing has gone as I intended, tonight.”

She needed to stop. Just for a minute. Forget everything and reset and if she didn't get some sleep soon, she'd say something regrettable. Something honest.

She fumbled across her skirt, unzipped it, and let it pool to the floor. She was reaching to unbutton her blouse when the situation hit like a ton of bricks.

Her face flamed.

Oh god. Fuck. Fuck. She’d taken off her skirt. She’d taken off her skirt in front of Jarvis like it wasn’t a thing, except it so clearly was a fucking thing. What underwear had she worn today, pretty ones? Matching set? It didn’t matter except for the fact if they were anything less than spectacular, she would absolutely die.

She prayed for deliverance and glanced down. Pearlescent, lace overlay, sharp cut and opaque and not exactly a bad pick if she had to choos—

Jesus fucking christ.

She threw herself onto the couch, shirt on because this was the hill to die on, and bundled herself under a blanket. It was only then that Jarvis doused the lights.

He didn’t say anything. Why would he say anything? He must have seen Tony in more skin and less shame. It wasn’t like the attendance of her pants would make any difference to an Interface System, so why on earth wouldn’t her pulse come down?

She curled on her side, cheeks on fire, and couldn’t stop herself from saying: “I’m glad we met.”

“As am I.” Jarvis was scarcely above her. “You have no idea.”

She’d never laid beneath the direct weight of his voice. Her skin went molten. “I should sleep.”

“You really should.” He said, blithe. And what else could he be? She was just out of her mind on lack of sleep and the sound of his voice and the way it always snared her down—

She squeaked. “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Pepper.” He answered serenely.

This would not kill her. She let off her death grip after twenty minutes; starting drifting away in ten more. Just as she was reaching the edge of something bottomless, Jarvis murmured against her cheek. “Sleep well.”

And slowly, achingly, she did.

Chapter Text

The couch felt like a cocoon that night. When she woke, it was to a gentle chime and Jarvis murmuring time and temp and ocean conditions. It took a while for her brain to kick online. She was in a sleep-fever; halfway between wanting to drift and half to bolting awake because Jarvis was right there.

And well, Jarvis. Decision made. She swung up and it was nearly nine. Christ, he’d let her sleep late. She thought about raising a fuss, but couldn’t quite find the will. Maybe she’d hassle him tomorrow.

“It’s lovely to see you awake, Miss Potts.”

Maybe never?

“I live to serve,” She could feel a flush igniting. “Could you call Mr. Hogan? I need to go home and freshen up.” And shower. And brush her teeth. And maybe comb her hair because it felt like a disaster.

“As you wish.” Jarvis murmured, and his attention wasn’t going to waver. Skin along her bare legs prickled. Asking him to divert somewhere else would be—too much of an acknowledgement. She wasn’t sure what he’d take from that, and even less sure if she wanted to face it head on enough to explain.

Discretion was the greater part of valor. Keeping a blanket awkwardly about her midsection, she slid off the couch and got her feet back into her skirt. In a maneuver she was surprised to manage, she slithered back into the garment flashing a hell of a lot of thigh but no more lace.

The flush that had been gathering in her face scalded down her throat. She refused to meet his eye in any camera because dear god what was she doing.

Jarvis didn’t seem to notice at all. “Would you wish to have latte waiting at your apartment?”

She made an bright noise. “Yes please.”

He thrummed with it. “Very good.”

With that indulgence settled, she winded her way back up through the house, checking on Tony’s bedroom and finding it just as empty as the night before.

“Workshop?” She asked.

“Workshop.” Jarvis confirmed.

There was nothing for it now. If she was lucky, when she came by that afternoon he’d be willing to sleep for a few hours while she tidied with the bots and restructured half the Acquisitions Department remotely. She was a girl of many, varied ambitions.

She sailed out the front door, fixing her backwards skirt and slotting her Bluetooth in. The pair of them chattered about Tony’s schedule and German literature and whether they wanted to watch Shall We Dance or North by Northwest the next time they had an hour between them, and Happy pulled up ten minutes into the conversation. For the first time in two months she had a solid eight hours of sleep behind her, and she practically bounced into the backseat.

Jarvis threw a jibe. “Energized, are we?”

“I will hear no chiding from you on how I spend my nights.”

“Even when it’s clearly to your benefit?”

“Don’t gloat, dear. It doesn’t suit.”

“Everything suits me.” He answered prissily, and it set her off on the first giggle-fit that morning.

Happy stumbled, halfway out of the car and having clearly meant to come around and open the door for her. She waved him off, and he put the car into gear before clearing his throat. “Good morning, Miss Potts. SI Central?”

“Just a moment.” Then she pitched her voice to Jarvis. “Hold that thought, because I am not letting that one go.” And then swung her attention forward. “My apartment first, Mr. Hogan. I require certain amenities before I go swimming with the sharks.”

“Right—” His eyes flickered in the rearview mirror. “Right, uh—that’s good. Great! I can do that, that’s fine!”

His hands skittered across the steering wheel and for one blissful moment, she didn’t comprehend it.

When it came, her heart dropped. Messy hair, early hours, glowing face, coming out in the same clothes as the night before and needing to go home to change because—

They’d known each other for seventeen months. Happy had seen her both victorious and through the wringer and chastising Tony and laughing at his jokes and pinching his hands when there was too much alcohol that their boss got friendly with hugs. And all those months and car rides had taught him nothing of her, because Happy Hogan thought she’d slept with her boss.

It landed like a punch. Around Tony that particular grenade was guaranteed, the price of him and his fame and her being a woman in possession of a pulse, but this was the first time it’d ever come from someone who knew her.

Someone who fucking knew her.

Venom chewed at her teeth. “It’s fine?”

“Yeah, uh—totally. Fine. This morning, I mean.” He hunched down. “We’ll get to your apartment lickty-split! Will you, uh, want to go back to the Malibu house or—”

He knew her, and therefore knew the sound of her when she was ready to tear out someone’s throat with her teeth. “Why would I want to go back to the house? It’s Wednesday.” That was an Office day, Happy knew it. She knew it. Jarvis knew it and didn’t offer a word.

“Well you wouldn’t be, I mean—Mr. Stark usually doesn’t like—“ His eyes darted frantically, but they were going seventy miles an hour and he wasn’t escaping her.

“Whatever theories you’re forming, Mr. Hogan, you should consider them very carefully.” Her veins were pumping ice. “And those theories you manage to conjure? Make sure you keep them to yourself.”

His jaw clicked shut.

“Good.” Her breath frosted. “Eyes on the road.”

He didn’t look back a second time, and the silence turned frigid.

Jarvis snaked in. “Are you well, Pepper?”

She hummed something evasive.

“I think I missed a great deal of subtext in that conversation, what on earth—“

She interrupted. “Later.” It wasn’t a conversation she was having three feet behind their driver’s head while the chance to strangle him was still a genuine possibility.

Her knuckles went white in her lap.

Jarvis, blessed be his electronic name, transitioned over to whether there’d be enough room in the budget to build a green space on the SI campus that year. Her jaw didn’t unclench, but she met him halfway, predicting failure and bickering over it until Jarvis went on a tangent railing against urban planning that carried them all the way to her apartment.

She didn’t wait for Happy to open her door. He wasn’t stupid enough to try and open her door. She shut it with a decisive snap and her heels clicked like blades all the way to the elevator.

There was a courier waiting outside its doors. The boy took one look at her, blanched, and offered up a steaming latte. Their transaction passed with impersonal speed. The minute she was finally alone with Jarvis, she took one sip. Another. Hit the call button. Breathed. Heard the bell and stepped forward. Took another long draw and finally let it slide in, smoky and slow with that long after-burn.

“Thank you.” She said into the silence.

“As always, Pepper.”

And that somehow took the ice out of her spine.

The minute she was inside her apartment she dropped her purse and shed her jacket. Unsatisfied by it, she kept stripping all the way to the bath. “I’m going to shower, be back in twenty.”

“I shall await you breathlessly.” Jarvis responded, so utterly dry in his delivery that it thawed her further.

It was okay. This was okay. She was okay.

The Bluetooth went onto her vanity counter. Twenty-two minutes later she picked up the call  by dialing Jarvis and throwing her cell onto the bed. The speakerphone light blinked cheerfully as she shed her towel and went arms deep into the closet. She needed something dark today. Something severe.

Jarvis didn’t wait on pleasantries. “I don’t understand the conversation you and Mr. Hogan had in the car. You’re upset.”

That he knew this, even with a lack of visuals, endeared him to her greatly. It was a fleeting warmth.

Her jaw trembled. “Mr. Hogan is suffering from presumptions.”

Jarvis went quite still. “Elaborate.”

Her hand fisted in a dress, knuckles and nails and digging until—

“He thinks I fucked Tony.”

There was a singular moment. Brittle, and then a bone deep crack. “I see.”

She couldn’t get her hands to unclench. “I don’t need this right now. We don’t need this right now.” And then just as abruptly she was on the bed, curled over and clutching her ribs. “I can’t be this. I know how Tony is with girls—everyone knows. People say it—I know they say it, but I’m not, I’m not going to be—“

“Pepper—”

“I won’t be their joke!” Her hands spasmed. “I’m not going to let everything I ever accomplish boil down to and then she fucked Tony Stark to get there.”

“No one is ever going to say that of you.” And Jarvis was steady as the tide. “No one. Your works have always spoken for you, both to your skill and to your complete dedication to Stark Industries.”

“I think in certain corners it’s already being said.” It hadn’t mattered before, those whispers, but the lights on Tony never faded now. They lived under a microscope and every eye in SI and without was drilled on him, and she wasn't thinking.

“They don’t know you, Pepper. Not your professionalism, and certainly not your warmth or your grace or your captivating wit.”

“Careful Jarvis.” She said. “You’ll give me an ego.”

“Which is more than deserved.” He shifted carefully and she picked up the phone, pulled him as close as possible so he could murmur: “Mr. Hogan was hired for many reasons, but chief among them was his discretion. You have nothing to fear on that front.”

“Oh god.” She covered her eyes. “I should have just explained what happened; I don’t know why I—” She knew exactly why: Pepper swung first the minute she felt the walls closing in. “That was so unnecessarily defensive.”

“Need I remind you that for all the reasons you were hired, none of them were your ability to justify yourself to Mr. Hogan.”

“I should still do…something.” The edge was coming off, finally, just as she realized she was naked. Naked on her bed with Jarvis’ voice tucked between her neck and shoulder. She was tired, but not so tired that something didn’t catch. A simmer. Low-down. Her skin prickled from scalp to thighs until it was excruciating.

She shot off the bed. “Jarvis, pick a color.”

“For what purpose?”

“Wardrobe.”

“Ah, in which case—navy blue today, I think. Reserved but regal.”

“V-cut?”

“It would be a crime to see otherwise.”

“Good.” She took a breath. “Stilettos?”

“I think daggers are the order of the day, don’t you, Miss Potts?”

“Oh, Jarvis.” She felt the razor of a smile. “I don’t think we’ve ever agreed on something more.”

/~/~/~/

Happy never waited for her outside of the town car, but there he was, hands folded and shoulders rigid.

Her lips thinned. “Do we have a problem, Mr. Hogan?”

He shuddered. “No, Miss Potts. I am so, so sorry about earlier. I should have remembered you were at the house and come to pick you up. You don’t ever have to hesitate to call me!”

Why—she strangled the thought. “Anything else?”

“I will never, ever make such a crass assumption about you again.” And his eyes strayed ever so briefly to the car; to the open driver's window.

She didn’t bat a lash. “How very kind of you.”

He flinched.

It was impossibly strange, mystifying in it's turnaround, improbable in its completeness. It remained all of those things until Jarvis spoke from the driver’s window. “Very good. We wouldn’t want to dally, Mr. Hogan, would we?”

Happy flinched again. “No!” And nearly leapt inside.

Ah.

What a vicious, clever System she knew. She stepped in delicately; sliding across the seat with ankles crossed. Happy shut the partition before she settled, and the second it was up, she curled towards the wall. “Have you been making threats behind my back?”

“I hardly consider this behind your back.” Jarvis responded. “You couldn’t think I’d let Mr. Hogan’s baseless assumptions stand?”

“No,” Heat wound tight. “I could never imagine.”

There was a pleased murmur. “Then we’re right as rain.”

It had been a very long time since someone had gone to bat for her like a sledgehammer. Years. Not since she’d been a teenager, and even then her parents had been soft-spoken souls. She was a girl who could mind herself just fine, throw punches and take the hits, but what use was there in doing it alone?

It was them against the world, and god help everyone else.

She opened her bag. “Schedule?”

“In but a moment. Pick a color.”

“What for?”

“I couldn’t say.” He sounded suspiciously absentminded.

But she never, ever said no. “Mediterranean blue. The kind that makes you want to drink the sea.”

“Well,” He settled closer, nearly on the seat. “This will be a most interesting endeavor.”

“Do I get a hint?”

“And ruin the surprise?” He scoffed. “Miss Potts, it’s as if you hardly know me at all.”

/~/~/~/

And two weeks later, he lived up to his word.

/~/~/~/

It was the Mediterranean blue first: centerpiece on a table, a piece of art on the wall, the glass top of a chic desk in the corner. The walls were alabaster flecked with seafoam greens and burnished golds. It all surrounded a bed hued to resemble sun-warmed stone.

It was an illusion; the mattress was feather, the sheets silk, all under her palms and up her back.

She shivered. “Jarvis…I swear to god. You have to stop doing this to me, I could die.”

“I will take that as a complement, and remind you to continue breathing or I’ll be terribly cross.”

The new bedroom was on the ground floor of the private wing, the massive western face of it open to the sea. The camera outside the glass wall swiveled. She waved and it wiggled back at her.

Her heart did something absolutely ridiculous. “What brought this on?”

“I informed Mr. Stark he was either going to cut back your hours, or provide you accommodations.” His voice dropped to disdain. “Mr. Stark chose the latter option.”

“Does he have any idea what he actually agreed to?”

“With Sir, it’s difficult to say what he’s seen fit to retain.” And Jarvis slid tantalizingly near. “Shall I give you the rest of the tour of Guestroom Potts?”

“Just a minute more.” She rubbed her cheek against the comforter. “I’m luxuriating.” And exquisitely so.

He laughed until the air was only him. “Never let me deprive you, Miss Potts.”

/~/~/~/

She was the exact opposite of deprived; her near heart-attack opening the closet was proof. “There’s half a catalogue of Versace in here!”

“Among others. It’s not as if you can be seen bringing clothing to the Malibu House. Think of the paparazzi. Think of poor Mr. Stane’s blood pressure.

“Among others—oh my god—” She clutched at her heart. “You are literally going to kill me.”

“And yet I'm still hearing compliments.” He leaned in. “Now, what can I possibly say to get you into that golden McQueen number tomorrow?”

Chapter Text

It had only taken one suggestion of why don’t you drive? for Tony to look at her like she’d provided revelation.

He’d rubbed at his chin, delighted. “Why don’t I drive?”

Her boycott of Happy taking her places would end at some future, nebulous point, but until that moment she wasn’t above holding a grudge.

Tony wasn’t rushing. She wasn’t rushing. Her hair had been set half an hour ago and she was fixing Tony’s last cufflink while he knotted his bowtie, and if they managed to get into the car in the next ten minutes, they wouldn’t be late.

The pleasure of sedate preparations in Tony’s company was a revelation all on its own. Their schedule was worse now, the hours worse, but their fights had petered to almost non-existence. When they had to be somewhere, Tony was ready. When something needed signing, Tony always took the pen. He left the workshop when she called and sometimes even listened to Jarvis enough to get dressed before she arrived.

It was astonishing. Pepper Potts from a year ago would have died of envy.

“There we go.” She smoothed his cuff and finished the last maneuver to get his jacket into place.

Tony grinned. “How’s it looking?”

Her answer was adroit. “Utterly pretentious, Mr. Stark.”

“Excellent.” He grabbed his sunglasses, paused, then regarded them for a long moment before setting them back down. “Ready?”

“I’m feeling faint.” She pressed a wrist to her forehead. “Tony Stark asking me if I’m ready to leave on time.”

“I have done no such thing.”

Jarvis interjected. “I have the recordings to prove otherwise.”

He jabbed a finger at the ceiling. “You are losing privileges. And you—” He pointed to her and she grinned back, and he seemed to lose the thread completely. “You stop looking so smug. And tall. Smugly tall.”

With heels on, she was 6’4. It was a towering, staring down at Tony’s 5’10 face sort of height. Glory be unto her.

“Amazonian.” He accused.

“You say the nicest things I hear that aren’t from Jarvis.” She agreed.

He spluttered all the way to the service elevator, but she could see the grin behind it. “You in or out?”

She followed him in. “As if you have to ask.”

“I don’t know, maybe we should be late. For old times' sake. I’m sure that the Benefit will be—“

She clamped down on his elbow. “Not on your fucking life.”

Fucking.” He breathed reverently. “Jarvis, tell me you have that. I need it for posterity: Virginia Potts has sworn at me. I am aflutter.”

Jarvis chimed. “It’s in the log at number sixteen.”

Tony blinked. “Sixteen of what?”

“In the list of most crass language Miss Potts has used in my presence.” He tisked. “I’ll admit, this would be more appropriately seated in the thirties, but swearing at an authority figure really provides a certain je ne sais quoi to the proceedings.” The elevator camera swiveled on her. “You’re slipping, Miss Potts.”

She fluttered her lashes. “But I only use my best efforts for you, dear.”

“Sixteen.” Tony looked aghast. “What have I been missing that Potts swearing at me is only sixteen.”

“Oh, just a few things here and there.” She delicately adjusted an earring. “A bit of coarse language between colleagues.”

“It’s nothing to write home about.” Jarvis agreed. “What’s a few filthy words between friends?”

Tony gaped. “…who are you.”

“You’d think by now he'd know us.” Jarvis sighed.

“You really would.” She simpered.

Tony looked like he’d been hit in the face with a stick. “Jesus christ, just get in the car. Both of you.”

The elevator doors slid. She glanced to the workshop, nearly went back to stare at the glory of Tony’s stricken face, then stopped because that was a gorgeous Lamborghini Murciélago to drag her eyes over.

Jarvis kicked the engine into a pulse-pounding roar. Everything between her throat and thighs burned. With whispering grace, he swung the gull doors. It was too much to bodily resist. She fled Tony's side, gown skirts knotted in-hand, and slithered into the passenger seat.

In the rearview mirror, Tony looked pole-axed.

Jarvis called. “Whenever you’re ready, Mr. Stark.”

Pepper giggled in outrageous glee.

“I swear to god.” And Tony climbed in after them. “Slaved all day over a soldering iron to save the world, and you people are only in it for the car.”

/~/~/~/

The Firefighters Benefit had been entirely Tony’s idea.

Years back in some unseen moment of foresight, Tony had spun off the Maria Stark Foundation and never let himself, SI, or the charity mingle since. Happily, it meant the Foundation’s reputation was absolutely sterling. Less happily, it meant the Foundation could tell her to fuck-off and there was little she or Tony could do about it.

It wasn’t that SI and Tony himself hadn’t donated millions to the Red Cross and every New York charity that’d sprung up in the aftermath, but as December waned, Tony’s eyes had turned to the long view. The initial deluge of donating to the First Responders had passed, and that’s where the Benefit was meant to step in. She and the Foundation had fought like cats and dogs over getting the New Year’s Eve auction-dinner together. It had succeeded by some act of god, but if Tony ever asked her to work with them again, she was going to stab him.

Under the ballroom lights, her wine glass refracted a glittering trail up her wrist. Obadiah followed the glow as she lazily draped an arm over his shoulder, glass hanging from the tips of her fingers. His eyes crinkled fondly. She could smell the smoke of his cigar as they started their waltz across the balcony.

This wasn’t an SI crowd. It was the rich and famous with emphasis on rich, and she was quite content to have Obadiah to hide behind for a song.

“How’s our boy doing, Virginia?”

“Beautifully.” They were on a turn and she couldn’t see Tony inside, but nowadays that wasn’t reason to worry. “Better than. I’ve never seen him like this.”

“I always knew he had it in him.” Light skimmed across the man's eyes. “He’s more like Howard than he wants to cop to. Back in the day when it was do or die, Howard Stark did, and it looks like Tony’s managing to follow in the footsteps.”

He dipped her then, and she let herself be dipped. “You know how Tony feels about following.”

He chuckled. “I do. Let’s keep this between us, alright?”

“I don’t have a death wish.” And she let him pull her along into another sweeping pass. She could have left it there, let the dance finish, do a little curtsy and drink her wine and go find someone in the staff to terrorize. She could have done so many things. “What was he like, Howard?”

Obadiah’s jaw worked. He detached a hand from her back to take a drag on his cigar. They swayed in place and he turned his head away. “Arrogant, unforgiving, the attention span of a gnat, thought he was god’s gift to mankind and he wasn’t wrong.” Smoke curled white on his breath. “Take Tony's worst traits; cut out the drugs, multiply the women, add about a stadium’s worth of disregard for informational security and anyone he thought beneath him, and you’ve got Howard.”

“Ah.” Her hand tightened on his. “And as a father?”

“Tony had a father.” Stane answered sharply. “He didn’t have a dad.”

Her breath trembled on the exhale. “I shouldn’t have pried.”

His shoulders rolled, liquid and loose. “Whatever eccentricities Howard had, he rose to the occasion when it called for making something with a bigger bang. The apple didn’t fall far from that tree.”

She rather wished that it had. His hand came to rest on her back again, and they danced like a word hadn’t been exchanged between them. On the sixth turn she finally saw Tony; broad shoulders and the million-watt grin and inescapable gravity of him. Just as quickly, he was pulled from her sight, and yet the entire room was still being spun into alignment around him.

Obadiah caught her gaze. “Any plans for midnight, Virginia?”

“Oh,” Wasn’t that a question? “A multitude. Don’t tell a soul.”

The big man grinned. “You’ve got someone to corner and kiss when the ball drops.”

“Maybe.” She gave a coquettish flutter. “But a girl doesn’t corner and tell.”

Obadiah roared with laughter. Before he caught his breath, the song ended and they made to part. He mimed balling up the secret and putting it under a nonexistent hat. It was her turn to laugh and heads swung. They were striking together, she knew that, the big man in the ebony tux and the woman in an art deco gown with her mouth painted silver and her makeup all in white. Jarvis had been very helpful on her entire selection.

“You have yourself a good evening, Virginia.” Obadiah rumbled.

She took a deep sip of wine. “I’m planning on it.”

/~/~/~/

The heat of the Bordeaux was settling beautifully; in her wrists and cheeks and to the back of her tongue. It was New Year’s Eve and she was going to have a dazzling night. It was 10:57PM already, soon and not soon enough, but even Virginia Potts couldn’t have everything at once.

She kept orbit in the ballroom; giving warm words to those she recognized, directing donations one way, catering another, introducing disparate parties where the situation suited. It was all humming along nicely when Jarvis spoke into the curve of her neck. “All’s ready upstairs, Pepper.”

She wished there was a camera to catch the eye of. “Twenty minutes, I think.” But this wasn’t the house or the yacht.

“By your command.” He answered slyly, and it wasn’t just the Bordeaux making her dizzy.

The crowd bubbled. Tony was holding court and she went skimming past. There hadn’t been less than a dozen people around him at any point in the evening, and even if this was the Foundation’s show, Tony was the draw. And god, he’d been drawing them in like a black hole.

She saw the General first: white hair, Mess Dress uniform, a lapel veritably dripping with medals. She moved towards him without consciously forming a reason to. The Bordeaux was suddenly a sluggish weight. Her eyes flicked over, caught on Tony’s back without understanding why, and then she really looked.

Oh. Heat needled down her scalp.There it is.

She plucked a glass off the nearest tray and angled in. There was an unknown Colonel standing with the General facing her boss, and their conversation began to reach through the crowd.

“—hell of thing Tony, the work you’re doing. It’s about damn time.” The Colonel said; tall and dark-haired and with an expression that she didn’t like. “SI’s put out more these last few months than it has since—”

“World War Two. I know, I do actually read our brochures.” Tony’s face was inscrutable from this angle, but she could hear his voice. There was something in it that made her wince like naked metal shearing against teeth. “I guess after all these years I’m just finally feeling motivated.”

The General interceded with a laugh. “That’s how it always is, Colonel Greene. The Muse of War comes when called.”

The Colonel nodded politely. “I guess we should be grateful, Sir.”

Tony’s shoulders wrenched fully taut. “Grateful? Is that what we’re calling it, that our Melpomene was actually needed?”

“That’s not it at all. Your old man got his war.” The General raised a cloudy glass. “And now you have yours. We know you’ll do us just as proud, Tony.”

And in that moment, unable to see anything but his back, she knew Tony’s hackles were up and it wasn’t going to keep.

Her nails skimmed his spine.

She came around, plucking up the dregs of his tumbler and replacing it with the glass of Riesling she’d brought. “You’re running low, Mr. Stark.”

Tony blinked slowly, once, like a fire being banked. “Am I?”

“Only just.” She drew up the earlier headiness, the giddiness, the giggling and the warmth and let it suffuse her. She nearly glittered. “Major General, it’s so good to see you.”

She offered a hand and the General took it, soft and with her palm curled over his. The man had never shaken her hand and whether that was chivalry or misogyny, she didn’t care to know. “Miss Potts, it’s an infinite pleasure.”

She dimpled at him. “So, do they teach you boys Viennese Waltz at boot camp, or do they save that for War College?”

“That’s a highly classified manuver, Miss Potts.” The General's smile ticked up. “But that doesn’t preclude me giving a demonstration, does it?”

“Hardly.” And she let her gaze flicker to her boss. “I hope I’m not interrupting something important, Mr. Stark. Arrangements for the Demo on the 8th?”

January 8th was the day of terror; the weapons demonstration to make or break SI’s push for Military contracts for a decade. Tony would be unveiling half the new design lines and finalizing the rest in hopes of the greenlight, and the Major General would be attending in earnest.

Tony’s eyes slid over once, dark, like a sheen of black ice. It was the kind of threat that was nearly unseen until the fall had already begun. She held his gaze a long and brutal moment. The hazard in his irises stretched to his grin. “I’ll live without you for five minutes, Potts.”

Her reply was tart. “Then I suppose you’ll remember to give the announcement at 11:40 all on your own.” She tucked her arm into the General’s as he offered it. “Good evening, Mr. Stark.” But their eyes stayed locked a moment longer than necessary as they parted. His gaze shuttered, heated, and then Tony was calling for champagne and a real-estate heiress to pour it and the crowd was his again. The laughter. The adulation. All the ringing bells.

The Colonel was expelled from the inner circle without her raising a finger.

She let the General whisk her to the dance floor where she could titter, charm, become the most attractive distraction in the room. And if she was lucky, it would divert all attention from how white Tony’s knuckles had been on his glass.

/~/~/~/

Her keycard snapped the lock to green. The room beyond was nothing like the flood of brocade of the ballroom and hotel downstairs. It was gray, violet, low lights and terribly intimate. It wasn’t her first choice, but it was certainly a choice.

“For the record, that rescue was absolutely inspired.” She kicked off her heels and then checked the desk, the closet, the long stretch of the balcony outside. All her requests to the Concierge were in place, and she felt a frisson spark.

She reached for a shawl just as Jarvis answered: “It wasn’t as though you weren’t dropping hints.”

“Still,” The cloth pooled thick around shoulders. “The interruption from the MC was deeply appreciated. No one ever warns a girl that those Army boys are all hands.”

The line crackled. “I can always have the valet misplace the Major General’s car keys.”

“I—” It would be terrible of her, and yet. “I wouldn’t be adverse.”

“Really?” And then Jarvis was the devil sitting on her shoulder. “Miss Potts, allowing us petty revenge? By my stars and garters, I never would have thought.”

“Are we partaking of our petty revenge or not?” She moved towards black, glittering glass. “Because I can always have a crisis of conscience in the next five minutes.”

“Too late,” He sang. “It’s done. It cannot be taken back.”

She giggled, helpless in the face of his satisfaction, and pushed the doors. The curtains billowed in, slipping against her skin in some ghost of a caress. She couldn’t smell the sea, but the radiance of LA was certainly a consolation.

The concierge had been true to his word. A laptop was humming inside, cables running, the three cameras she’d requested fully installed. One was placed on each end of the outdoor ceiling with the third set on the balcony rail. She draped herself across the chaise lounge and found herself at eye level with him.

The lenses spun into focus. “Hello, Pepper.”

Heat broke like a wave across her. “Hello, Jarvis.”

“Champagne?” He asked.

“What’s the time?”

“11:48PM.”

“I think I can wait a little longer.” The night was cool and the bottle had not even begun to sweat in its glacette. They had time. “I promise, one of these days we’ll have the New Year’s party on my balcony instead of stealing an hour for ourselves from Tony.”

“I hardly mind the detour.” He promised

They chattered quietly, for a time. Her on her side, the stretch of LA below, his voice cradled close as Jarvis regaled her with the origins of the Gregorian calendar. The minutes were ticking pleasantly down and before she knew it, it was time to pour the champagne.

“Ready?”

The flute winked gold between her fingers. “As I can be.”

And then her heart beat double-time as she heard a countdown begin to echo from the streets. It was buoying. Christmas had gone uncelebrated in the Malibu House, but the rest of the country had carried on. Christmas had been the first true public gatherings since the attacks, and the collective agreement had been be brave. And they had been, they were.

Life was moving ever on.

Jarvis joined the countdown. “Six, five—”

She followed him, “Four, three—” Hand trembling on her glass.

“Two, one—“

Fireworks erupted over the city, white and gold and ever, always blue. Shimmering, dizzying, winking out one by one only to be replaced. In that glow, his gaze pinned her. “Happy New Year, Pepper.”

Her pulse rose and her skin bloomed with it. “Happy New Year, Jarvis.” And she leaned across the space between them and pressed a kiss against the camera.

And the world didn’t end, not even once.

She drifted back. “I think we’ll get it right this year.”

“Better than every year before,” He promised in a daze. “Pepper, why…?” But he didn’t finish, bewildered and nearly tripping over the words.

She tucked her hair back with shivering fingers. “If you don’t kiss someone at Midnight, it portends a year of loneliness.” And she was so tired of that song and dance.

“Superstition.” He claimed.

“Are you going to consign me to it, even on the off chance?”

He stumbled. “Hardly, I wouldn’t dare, but surely I—“

Her fingertips stung. “Did I make you uncomfortable?” She probably should have asked.

“No.” He stated evenly. “Never.” And then his voice dipped tenatively. “But does it still work if the one you kiss has certain limitations in returning the gesture?”

Oh. “I rather think it does.” The fireworks burned prismatic; the earth was on fire and swimming in delirium. A song stirred from below, Auld Lang Syne and maybe this year would be brighter. Braver. Fuller.

He stirred. “You do realize you’ve likely consigned yourself to my company for a year.”

She scoffed. “Consign, he says, like’s it’s a punishment.” She’d do the crime and the time if that was the case.

“I did warn you, Miss Potts. Whatever fate you’ve tied us to is entirely on your head. Consider us locked.” And in his voice it was a vow, entirely pompous and wholly dear. They stared each other down and she could feel her mouth working; feel herself trying not to laugh.

Her heart was never going to fall.

Jarvis was the one to break their contest. “Dare I ask a favor?”

She clicked her tongue. “Dare.”

“You’ve gotten lipstick all over the lens. I can’t see your face.”

And she laughed so hard she nearly fell off the chaise. Eventually, she got a corner of her shawl and tried to clean the glass, but probably made the entire thing worse. Jarvis made aggrieved noises and nearly swiveled the camera out of reach twice. Somewhere in it all, she picked up the song from below and began to sing.

A moment later Jarvis echoed her. Hummed. The sound was like a chord being struck. She hadn’t known at all; hadn’t even guessed. The song went on and the lens didn’t get any cleaner.

They harmonized effortlessly until, at last, the final verse trailed away; lingering and clear and then gone into the dark. 

It took a long while to catch her breath. “How is it?”

His eye worked under the filmy gloss. “Bit of a lost cause, I think.”

“Yeah,” She traced the lens. “It’s a goner.”

/~/~/~/

She kept the shawl in her vanity, carefully folded and stained at the bottom corner, wispy and silvery and affixed. It should never have been worn again.

She wore it anyways.

Looking back on it, the last of her lipstick really set off the blue in the cloth.

Chapter Text

“Prepare for impact.” Jarvis murmured. “Five, four, three—”

The detonation was supersonic. Exothermic, a sudden violence, brighter and brighter and then flame. The blast punched across the San Andres Range in a deluge.

Out in the distance, the sand flats rippled, and then the shockwave hit like a kick to the chest.

She staggered and Tony reached out to steady her. It was only by the skin of her teeth and Tony’s hand that she managed not to topple. Every eye that hadn’t already been on them turned: Military Brass, Weapons Specialists, Army Engineers, a flock of contractors from every Branch, the rank and file from the base, Stark techs, the LA management echelon, and—

She had no idea how in god’s green earth he’d talked her into this.

“And there’s your standard Thermobaric bunker-buster. Sent with love, I’m sure, to every cave in Kandahar province.” Tony patted at her elbow, presence vibrating the very air, and it was like standing next to a live wire. “Hell of a pick-me up, isn’t it Potts?”

Electrifying, she thought, but said: “I think I’ll stick with coffee.”

“And there goes that gorgeous idea. How far do you think that kick came, two miles? Three? And all that energy wasted on a woman who doesn’t even appreciate it.” His smirk turned downright impish. “Anyone else feeling like they’re back in High School? Because, really—” That drew laughter and he blazed on, drawing the crowd into his ever-expanding orbit like it wasn’t even hard. In the midst of that, he gently tucked her arm in his.

She indulged the gesture with a smile that could have given him frostbite.

Jarvis buzzed in her ear. “Twenty seconds out.”

She squeezed Tony’s elbow twice.

He circled a hand overhead. “Let’s try this again from the top. Less waste, better burn. We call this number on our dance card the Badger.

And right on schedule a jet screeched overhead. A lance plummeted away from it and down. Down. It fell like a meteor.

The lance met the mountain and for one dazzling instant, the horizon burned white. There was no thunderhead of an explosion, no fire pouring off the cliff face.

The range shuddered like the very bones of the earth had been struck. Their crowd braced.

The shockwave, when it came, didn’t disturb even a single grain of sand beneath her Louboutin’s. There were a great number of sheepish faces as they came out of their unnecessary defenses.

Jarvis fizzed beauitfully. “Excellent form, Miss Potts. Top marks.”

She smoothed her skirts piously and did her damndest not to blow a kiss towards the cameras. It’d be poor form letting the US Army know they had an unwelcome spectator on the feeds, especially when it was her favorite spectator.

The Brass and Specialists fell onto the monitoring equipment like vultures. Their murmuring rose in intensity as the data arrived, but neither she nor Tony turned from the mountains. For a moment, no one was paying them any mind.

They watched smoke rise as a pillar into the sky. She remembered, achingly, that old fear. “Do you think they’ll bite?”

“Laser-guided, in-flight readjustment based on ground-penetrating radar with a detonation that can be vectored until the moment of impact?” Tony snorted. “They’ll bite. After the fuck-up at Tora Bora, they’ll be chewing it.”

There was venom there, and none of it quick.

She didn’t press. “Mazel tov.”

The voices behind them grew in fervor, but Tony still didn’t go for in the kill. It was a rare pause.

Jarvis circled back to them. “The final readings are in, Miss Potts.”

Her heart fluttered and it had nothing to do with the results. “And?”

“It wouldn’t be out of hand to suggest this is our coup de grâce. All Project targets have been met, and performance metrics have been exceptional across the board. With our last test here, the entire cave complex has been decimated to the base of the mountain. Oxygen readings are—well, I could recite the numbers.”

“If it’s good, it’s good. I trust your judgement.” Implicitly. As if it that ever had to be said.

He swelled with it. “You do me a great honor.”

“Glory be yours forever, Jarvis.” She trilled, and then gave Tony’s elbow another squeeze.

He came back to earth. “Already?”

She made an affirmative noise and there was no more time to dawdle. He surveyed the breadth of his destruction and she thought that, just once, he might be appeased in his works. “What do you think?”

She considered. “About the thermobarics, or overall?”

“Either.” There was a pensive thread. “Both.”

Tony lingering was never a good sign, and a sharpness crossed her teeth. “Lockheed fucking wept.”

His mouth twitched. “Yeah?”

She turned up the sweetness. “Yes, Mr. Stark.” Tony so rarely deserved her cheerful, but when he did, she wasn’t stingy. “I’ll be sure to send them a fruit basket after the contracts are signed.”

His expression was profoundly amused. “And why are we sending them fruit baskets, Miss Potts?”

“Why, Mr. Stark,” Her tone went breathy. “Our condolences on their loss to us, and our best wishes to their swift recovery.”

The twitch turned to a grin and Tony cackled. It was a long-missed sound. “I want you to know you’ve always been my favorite.”

She preened. “I want that engraved. Brass plaque, wall of the building.” Then paused. “You better put Jarvis’ name next to mine."

“If that's what you want, slugger, I'll make it happen.” And whatever bleakness that had been bearing down, it receded from him. He turned on his heel with a flourish. “Well, Ladies and Gentlemen and my enlisted friends—who wants to talk details?”

/~/~/~/

They took the jet home with Stark Industries’ highest and brightest. They took back anyone who could fit on the damn plane. The White Sands Missile Range was in the rearview mirror and an SI victory had been secured.

The party had started before the last foot was off the stairs.

It was a Triumph of old: parades in the streets and cups overflowing, feasts and festivals and all of their sacrifices vindicated. It wasn’t half an hour before the whole back cabin was three sheets to the wind.

The contracts were signed. The money was in. The world had finally been fair and things were going to be easy.

Tony lounged on the couch, a glass of whiskey in hand. The Conqueror. The King. Resplendent in Armani and Omega with their future in his fingers, and everyone paid their respects at least thrice. He waved each of them off with a flick of his hand.

She was barefoot, the champagne flowing, the lights splashing in neon. Sweat followed; bodies, hands, a voice. She was dancing with a stewardess while Jarvis hummed the beat of the song against her. It weighed against her neck, her thighs, her back—driving and heavy. Pulsating. Deep.

She was dizzy, the lights were shattering, the night was spilling like gold on her tongue.

And as the party roared around her, Tony drained his glass and didn’t say a word.

/~/~/~/

But as the weeks passed—she was wrong.

Things didn’t get any easier.

/~/~/~/

“I bring good tidings, Virginia. Cross my heart and hope to die.”

She raised an unimpressed eyebrow. “That’s what everyone says when they come to his door.”

“Trust me.” Obadiah spread his hands across her desk, somehow managing to loom across it from five feet back. It was a very impressive loom. “With what I’ve got, Christmas is coming early.”

“It was Christmas less than a month ago.” But she wasn’t trying to chuck him out just yet. “Consider me deeply unenthused at the prospect.”

It was one of those rare, rare days that Tony held court in his actual office and left her to set up shop outside his door. It usually wasn’t much trouble. He was there so sparingly most everyone never realized he was in, and that certainly kept traffic down.

Except, naturally, for Obadiah beaming down at her because the man always knew.

He was nearly overflowing with joy. “I bring news from the National Security Council. Whispers from our friends on high that herald an unprecedented jump in our bottom line.”

“Oh?” She debated letting him through so she could get back to her conversation with Jarvis on the futility of ice sculptures. Except. “And what’ll you give me?”

His eyes flicked to the doors. “Tony being less pissy, for one.”

Her stomach fell. “Have you, I mean…?” She swallowed the stumble. “Has he been talking to you? I wouldn’t say he’s unhappy, but—”

Tony was deeply unhappy. It grew more apparent by the day. For the past two months he’d practically been living on the phone, calling Senators and the Pentagon and whatever sections of the State Department she could patch him through to. Something was brewing, had been since the Demo and maybe even before that, and Tony wasn’t taking it well.

The war in Afghanistan was progressing, nearly every weapon’s contract they’d bid for had gone through, the production lines were humming and new facilities were coming online by the month, and yet something was still going wrong.

He wasn’t talking to her. He wasn’t talking to Jarvis. The hours weren’t getting any better even with good company to hold them. She and Jarvis' chatter hadn’t waned a minute, but everything they said had an undercurrent now, an unspoken worry. 

And here Obadiah swaggered in with words from on high.

“Tony gets like this sometimes, the moods. Don’t sweat it.” And the man looked fit to burst. “Now tell him to get off the damn phone and talk to me.”

One of the lights on her phone flickered off. Her stomach didn’t settle any. “You’re lucky: he just opened up. Whenever you’re ready to go through, Mr. Stane.”

He nodded decisively. “Thank you, Virginia.” And winked.

She hit a button that very much broadcasted coming your way, Mr. Stark and then Obadiah was through the door and it was completely out of her hands. The stretch of oak snapped shut, and she watched that blank expanse for a silent minute.

With a careful hand, she hit a switch on her desk. “Did you get all that?”

Jarvis answered slowly. “I did indeed.”

She fought the urge to bite her nails. “We’re missing something.”

“Mr. Stark has been…reticent as of late, in all aspects of his dealings. He’s set the privacy protocols on his communications lines to maximum.”

That wasn’t a promising sign. “So you haven’t been listening in.”

“No.” He answered dourly.

She spun in her chair, eyes on the ceiling, hair damp at the base of her neck. “Who do we know in DC with loose lips?”

He mulled it. “Let me make some inquiries first, I may be able to discern the crux before you ply your trade directly.”

Bitter humor bubbled. “And what trade is that?”

“Making anyone who speaks with you want to be interesting.” He sighed histrionically. “It is the bane of my very existence.”

“Says who.”

“Says the Deputy Director who told you about an on-going Federal weapons sting just to get you to stay at a party.”

She sniffed. “Stark Industries supports all anti-terrorism efforts done by the ATF.”

“And this involves telling you about a highly classified Operation how?”

She huffed, not truly meaning it, and then conceded: “Fine.” Because that had also at least 20% involved a Deputy Director wanting to get in her pants, and that wasn’t a conversation they were having. “Go shake Washington's apple trees and see what falls out.”

His voice took a sardonic lilt. “Is that what they’re calling it nowadays?”

“Oh hush,” But her eyes went unerringly to the door. “Start collecting, I think we’re going to need it.”

Chapter Text

The meeting didn’t last five minutes. In what seemed a blink of an eye, Tony boiled out of his office with all the force a hurricane. She’d wasn’t out of her chair before he’d blown right out the door.

“What…?” She asked to the room at large.

“I have no idea.” Jarvis answered, equally as thrown by the departure.

Obadiah trailed in Tony’s wake, expression mystified.

She redirected: “What?”

He shook his head. “I honestly can’t tell you. I just delivered the best news we’ve had since the Demo, and he—” Stane made a helpless gesture, as if to say: and there he went.

Acid crept in her lungs. “Cheer him right up, huh?

His eyes cut over like flint. “No one likes a heckler, Ginny.”

Chastised and absolutely mortified, she ducked under her desk to her kicked aside stilettos, her leather bag, a half-stack of paperwork to stuff into it and then flee. She refused to make eye-contact as she scurried towards the door.

Obadiah called after her. “Take care of it!”

She turned and bobbed her head once. Understood. And kept moving. Disregarded.

It took two flights of stairs, spine taut as a wire, for her to find her voice and say: “Can you ask Happy to hold the car?”

Jarvis' tone was oddly impassive. “I can certainly try.”

She kept hope for all of five minutes. When she stepped outside, nothing and no one was waiting for her.

A noise came grinding over the line. Not teeth. Metal. “I apologize, Miss Potts. It seems no one chose to heed me.”

Her eyes burned with shocking suddenness. “It’s okay.” There wasn’t any point in this, any blame in him. She was just—

“Pepper.” He said, not a question, not even an entreaty. It was simple; a single note to show his support.

Her throat struggled. “I can wait.”

“Then I shall wait with you.” He promised, as if there was nothing else he could have done.

She took solace in it.

/~/~/~/

And that's what they did. They waited. For the car and then the truth and for Tony to come out of his workshop and ask them for anything.

They waited three days too long.

/~/~/~/

“Pepper, I need you to wake up. I need you to wake up right now!”

It tore her from sleep like a ripcord; heart hammering, lungs heaving, adrenaline burning burning burning until—

“Wha—” It ruptured inside her.

And Jarvis was right on top of her, so fucking near his voice slammed both sides of her skull. “Mr. Stark is injured, I need you to get up!”

Her head was splintering. Tony. Tony Tony Tony. Where was he? Where were they? What in god’s name—

The lights went up like flares. It hurt, but she knew—Malibu House. Guestroom Potts.

Four alarm fire.

She clawed out of bed. “Where?”

“Center of the Workshop.” He was pouring down like a tsunami. She stumbled into a silk peignoir, cinched it, nearly ran until Jarvis snapped: “Shoes, Pepper!”

His voice was shaking the walls, her skull, her very bones.

She put on heels because she only had heels, and it was a sight. She knew it was a sight; filmy silk and stilettos and bare legs, but Pepper was out the door anyways. Jarvis stayed closer than the heat of her own sweat.

Fear and hysteria warred. “Did you call an ambulance?”

He recoiled. “I can’t, he’s—“

Hallway, turn, great room, turn. “His doctor?” And there came the sun room warping wide.

Jarvis expanded into the space like a thunderhead. “I can’t.”

Glass. Grand piano. Staircase. Vertigo. “What do you mean you can’t?”

“I mean that Mr. Stark has revoked my authorization to call outside the house!” And Jarvis was towering. Smothering. Up in the rafters and beyond the clouds and maybe in the thunder above.

She nearly tried to yank him back. Make him small. Make him close. “Why?”

“I don’t know, which is why I’ve gotten you out of bed!” It was so loud it splintered into feedback. It was the first-time Jarvis had ever raised his voice to her, and she let it rush her down the stairs. Because, in the end, the only thing that could feed that kind of anger?

Fear.

She saw the blood first. Flat footed, a print of a heel—red and bright-lush and completely vulgar on the tile. Her heart slammed. Her code rattled out her fingers and then the pressure seal gave. The door swung.

Ozone stank hotter than July. The HVAC overhead was running full tilt to scrub smoke out of the air. Somewhere, awfully, all three of the bots were wailing.

An entire worktable was blasted apart. A streak of something still giving heat enough to glow ran twenty feet further. At the edge of it, Dummy was struggling with an extinguisher and crying like a siren.

Metal littered the floor around him like shrapnel—and then she realized that it was, actually. Shrapnel.

And then a glass belted across the workshop and shattered like a grenade.

“FUCK!”

She nearly screamed and there he was: Tony goddamn Stark, ash-seared and out of the destruction radius with nearly three grand of Waterford crystal shattered in a hail-field around him. Butterfingers was trying to sweep but was only kicking glass around, breaking it further and losing it underneath his treads.

Tony grabbed another tumbler and careened it straight down. It blasted across his feet. “Jesus fucking liars!”

It occurred to her, distantly, why Jarvis had gotten her into shoes. “Tony?”

He didn’t look at her. A noise clawed out of him, high-strung. Frenzy.

A shiver needled down. “Tony?”

Jarvis echoed her above. “Mr. Stark?”

“Of all the idiotic, spineless, faithless worming fucks—“ And he took a step. One. There wasn’t just whiskey in the wreckage. He took a step and it was ugly and bloody with the high-pitched screech of glass across a concrete floor—

Her stomach heaved.

His feet. There was glass embedded in the soles of his bare feet.

“Tony,” The crystal crackled under her heels and then she was in the hail and reaching for him. When her hand brushed his, Tony snapped away violently, eyes rising.

Breath failed somewhere between her ribs and lungs.

His pupils were blown so wide the iris was little more than an outline. His fingers were cut, bruised, cracked and burned. His nose was running, sticky and faintly pink. First blood. Old blood.

She tried to tell herself he’d nearly broken his nose.

She tried to tell herself he’d given himself a concussion.

She tried not to see the mirrored face of the table behind him; clotted in white with a razor set carelessly aside.

His jaw worked violently and she made herself soft, so very soft. “Tony, could you stop walking around? Just for a minute?”

“Assholes,” He snarled. “They don’t even care about the actual war, they wrote it off months ago and we’re just letting them walk—”

“Yes,” She agreed, because there was nothing else for it. “But could you let Butterfingers sweep?”

It rolled right past him. “And Obadiah’s thrilled—the entire fucking board is going to orgasm. Get yourselves a good war, make sure the soldiers that get your guns pay before they go out the door—”

Muscle jumped like live currents under his skin. Grabbing him wasn’t going to help. Tony hated being handed things and hated being hemmed-in more, so she ducked her chin and repeated: “Tony?”

His eyes ricocheted to her face and for a moment, there was no recognition. She pushed through. “There’s glass inside your feet. If you don’t want the next six months of your life to be miserable, you need to stop.”

That finally seemed to engage him directly. He whiplashed. “And you’re a doctor now, huh?”

She blinked once. She hadn’t meant for this to be a fight, but it was clear now he was looking for one. At that moment Jarvis settled wordlessly at her shoulder, his presence like the thrum of a powerline. Tony had finally stopped moving, and if it was a fight that managed to do it—

“I know because if the holes in your feet don’t make you miserable, I will.” She delivered with such absolute, lethal confidence, it caught him like a hook. “Is this the hill you’re going to die on? Really?”

He erupted. “I didn’t ask for you to come down here!”

“No, Jarvis had to because you revoked his access! If I hadn’t been upstairs—”

“I’d still be fine because this isn’t the end of the world! I don’t need you two mother-henning every little accident like I don’t exactly what the hell I’m—”

“Says the man so high he can’t feel the glass in his feet!” And there it landed: the actual accusation.

That halted him, briefly, and then he shunted it right back. “What the fuck are you even doing here?”

She swept out an arm. “What are you doing here?” And somewhere behind her, Dummy was still crying. You was cowering in his charging corner.

“I—” A muscle jumped in his cheek, his gaze back on the swivel, and she visibly watched him lose the thread. “…live here?”

“Uh-huh.” She was bone-dry. “Give Jarvis his access so he can call your doctor, we want you patched up before you crash.”

“Who says I’m going to crash?” He countered rancorously.

She raised her eyebrows. “And the last time you slept was when before you took how much?”

He turned his head away, muttered something that she didn’t catch, and then lolled backwards. “Jarvis! Alpha-Charlie-Romeo-niner-four-four. Do whatever.”

“Thank you, Sir.” Jarvis responded more gently than deserved. Something in her chest twinged, reedy, but she couldn’t name the pain. Jarvis stayed humming behind her and it was enough, there was nothing more worth fighting over. She got Butterfingers to hand her the broom and with her sweeping, it only took a minute for her to clear a path to the settee and drop Tony onto it.

She did her best not to follow the blood. The floor would need to swept, vacuumed, then decontaminated. If she was eternally lucky, all the glass Tony had gotten was whiskey-coated enough to sterilize.

She handed the broom back to a grasping claw. It felt like she was miles away as Tony rubbed his face, shoulders crumbling. It was familiar, the leading edge of a crash. She sat next to him and Jarvis followed her like a wraith.

Tony spoke, eventually, voice black through his fingers. “There was talk from the beginning. Right after; even before the ash stopped coming down. I didn’t think they’d be stupid enough to go through with it.”

She wasn’t sure what he was saying, but she knew: “You couldn’t have stopped it.”

His body swayed. “Couldn’t I?”

“No.” And she let a hand settle on his knee. “Tony, what’s happening?”

“The buildup to the buildup. They’ll probably go full public by the end of the month, and by that point—” He made an all-encompassing gesture. “No putting that bomb back in the box.”

“But what…?” She didn’t get to ask.

“Iraq.” Jarvis said, over her shoulder and thrown right into the center of them. 

“Iraq,” Their boss spat. “Fucking Iraq. Security Council hasn’t let a topic from Afghanistan enter the floor since—” A hand flipped viciously over his shoulder. “The CIA’s redirecting, Special Forces are getting called home, equipment’s getting yanked right out of the damn theater, and we—”

“But the war’s not over.” She didn’t comprehend it.

And Tony looked to her, the smear of his nose to chin running red. “They don’t care.”

Another war. Iraq. Her head rushed. More troops, more armor, more satellite packages. More missiles defenses and solutions and targeting systems. Men who’d need guns and bullets and bombs—

New Military Contracts and all the money the in the world. Her entire center of gravity rocked. “Oh.”

“Yeah, and it’s going to be at the expense of the fight that matters. All cause we got a President wanting to fight his Daddy’s war.” Tony covered his eyes. “What a fucking joke.”

There was absolutely nothing in the universe she could give him, then. She didn't try.

In the trailing silence, You crept over and nudged into their legs. Tony’s eyelids fluttered. “Sorry bud,” He patted at a metal flank. “Wasn’t watching close as I should have been. The explosion was a surprise though, I promise.”

You trilled sharply.

“You and me both, buddy.”

Tony kept petting and eventually, You settled in with them, content in the apology.

A voice ran along the shell of her ear. “Medical is forty-one minutes out.” Jarvis. Only and ever. Perfectly pitched like a halo around her head.

She scarcely dipped her chin to answer. Acknowledged. Understood. But for those forty-one minutes she couldn't help but wonder: but when did you know the truth?

/~/~/~/

There was no sun in the sun room; no line on the horizon where the sky met the sea. The dark wouldn’t last, or maybe it would. It was hard to remember.

She cupped one elbow and tried to keep her arms as close to her body as possible. The gesture barely kept her shivering contained.

Jarvis asked. “Are you cold?”

“No,” And she wasn’t. “The adrenaline’s coming off.”

The house was quiet, Tony was tucked away in the cot he kept in the workshop, the Doctor and his assistant had come and gone and whenever their admonishments had turned away from injuries and over to narcotics, she’d stonewalled them so hard she was wondering if they’d have to find a new attending physician.

The man hadn’t been pleased, but neither was she.

“I interrupted your rest.” And that was Jarvis coaxing if she’d ever heard it.

She shrugged him off. “I won’t be able to sleep again tonight. There’s no point in trying.”

He was up at the ceiling again, distant but concerned. “I did as I needed, but I apologize that I had to wake you so abruptly.”

“Don’t.” She couldn’t. “Not tonight. Neither of us wanted you to have done any differently.”

He mulled that for a long while, and finally decided: “Thank you for your assistance.”

She accepted it in-full. “Thank you for your quick judgement.”

They lapsed again and she couldn’t find energy to speak. Exhaustion was crossed with jittering energy and all of that flattened by a comedown. It wiped her mind clean. This moment was transient. Ephemeral. The sun room and the sea and them deep into the witching hour.

It wouldn’t last.

She felt scoured. She felt an overflow. “How long did you know?”

“About?” He asked.

“Iraq.”

A calculation ticked over. “Ninety-eight minutes after you went to bed yesterday evening. I’ll admit I had my suspicions and a somewhat supported hypothesis, but…Mr. Stark became rather talkative this afternoon. It confirmed things.”

Uppers usually did that, making Tony want the entire world to live inside his brain with him by any means necessary. In the end, Jarvis hadn’t known much longer than she had.

Her shuddering eased. “Would you play me something?”

“Music?” He questioned.

“A waltz,” This couldn’t last. “Something sweet.”

He made an affirmative noise, and a moment later gentle strings plucked the air. Familiar ones, and she found herself laughing. A second later she was surprised at the sound.

He went scathingly posh. “Do tell Pepper, what in my selection has amused you?”

“I’m not laughing at your choices. You just—” She was lighter. “You reminded me of something. Here.” She let a delicate sort of looseness slip down her arms and into her wrists; then down to her hips and thighs and calves. It was a familiar game and she fell into the opening steps of a waltz. 

She let her gaze find a camera like a center point, and then spiraled around it. “I learned to waltz standing on my dad’s feet when I was little. Four, maybe five. I loved every minute we did.” She let it linger. The confession was old and maybe even sore, but it didn’t burn. Not like before.

A particularly complicated set of footwork carried her. “Once I learned it well enough, he’d play on the piano and I’d go about thinking I was a right little ballerina.” The memory was achingly warm. “I didn’t know the difference, back then.”

Little girl with her heart set on the world, fluttering around a cramped house in a drab little corner of the Midwest. It had seemed so elegant, then. So much more than it actually was. She’d danced around her father’s piano as a child and well into her awkward years, then she’d turned fifteen and never danced in Iowa again.

The light had gone out of her father’s life, and the music had gone with it.

When her mother fell, entire worlds had fallen with her.

Pepper had left for college two years later and occupied herself; painted up a storm then gave up on the arts degree and switched to something more practical and then ruined the curve in every class. She hadn't found waltz again until the age of twenty when she’d met the Pianist. She’d dated him, relived something beautiful and made it clean again, thought about falling for him and then it all went ugly.

She pushed the memory aside.

It didn’t matter. It never had.

“Why the laughter?” Jarvis queried from on high.

She gave him a dazzling smile. “This is the Waltz of the Flowers. It’s in Fantasia, that little scene with the flowers and the fairies? I absolutely worshiped it, my dad worked a lot more when I was little, so I’d put the movie on and dance along with the scene over and over until—”And the entire thing surprised her into saying: “I’m so happy you reminded me.”

“I’m glad.” He said, a hum along dark glass, and then his voice was less than six inches from her face.

She giggled reflexively, trying to spin away but there he followed. “What are you doing?”

“I can’t let you dance alone, can I?” And he expanded, not just a voice at eye level, but a shape. A ghost from the machine. “It’d be incredibly rude of me not to.”

“And cutting in on me isn’t?” But there was no hiding the giddiness in her voice.

He darted in. “May I have this dance, Miss Potts?”

She nearly swooned. “I believe you may, Mr. Jarvis.”

And then, just like that, they danced.

His voice chased her; dipping in and sweeping around and leaning in to every turn. Eventually he began to push her and then miraculously he led. When the pulse of him came close, she stepped away. When he curved to the left of her neck, she moved right. Every time he pulled back, she’d follow him as if there was a tether.

They danced the Waltz of the Flowers once, twice, thrice; it grew easier with every pass.

“Who taught you this?” She asked, nearly breathless with the exertion.

“I believe you are Pepper, right at this very moment.”

She could have died. “You’re a quick learner.”

“I do try on occasion.” He answered, droll.

The song began a fourth time and she curtsied with an exaggerated flourish

He bowed; his weight of air a quick rise and fall. “If you would grant me another slot on your dance card?”

She fluttered her lashes. “Always and forever, dear.”

And then he was up against her, around her, the vibration of him nearly like a breath against her cheek. They danced until her stilettos could no longer carry her, and it didn’t last. It couldn’t.

Perfect moments never did.

Chapter Text

It came like a bolt from the blue.

/~/~/~/

As Tony had predicted, Iraq was public by the end of January and the Board had practically thrown a bacchanal to celebrate. SI employees were clutching their stock options in rapture and the shareholders at large were over the moon.

Tony had been less enthused.  

(“Axis of Evil my fucking ass—”)

It had kicked their lives back to full throttle. Stark Industries was ramping up for another contract push, and she could see the sleepless nights approaching like a thunderhead. Tony hadn’t thrown another freak out like the workshop, but she was watching now. Careful. Tony’s particular drug habits were usually social or to fuel the tail-end of an engineering binge. There was little she could do to stop him; she’d never had that power.

But she could get Jarvis to join her in the watching; in scheduling Tony lavish dinners, entertainment of his favored variety, of having anything delivered to him that his heart so desired. She brought him coffee in the morning and Ginger Peach Bellini's at lunch, and by the evening it was straight whiskey as she did her best to assuage his every craving but the dangerous.

Maybe he’d be happier. Maybe he’d stop spitting venom at everyone who crossed him.

“The interview is blocked out from eleven-thirty to one. They’ll put you in the makeup chair afterwards and want you near a Production Line, so we’ll have to be—”

“Changed my mind.” Tony interrupted from the veritable throne behind his desk. “We’ll do the photo shoot by the Firing Range. That’s sexier, right? Right. I want it.”

“But—” She quashed her own objection, wondering at the logistics of kicking the photographer out, how soon she’d have to call ahead to have the range cleared, what items from the firearm catalogue could be delivered, and how long it’d take said photographer plus crew to setup under new lighting—

Tony spun in a lackadaisical circle. “Jarvis, back me up here.”

And Jarvis answered from above, because Tony had finally wired him into the LA Campus (and Pepper had fawned on their boss for a solid week), sounding downright congenial. “I believe it is not so much the attributes of the Range itself, Mr. Stark, but the evocative nature it implies. Guns speak to violence and violence has, shall we say, certain connotations in regards to sex.”

Sex, he’d said, like he could just casually throw that into a conversation. Her pulse went in her mouth hot and sleek as a burn.

“See?” Tony enthused. “But buddy, now I gotta ask: how’ve you been spending your off-time? That was positively stimulating.”

“What off-time, Sir?” Jarvis asked, entirely and wretchedly glib.

He made a face. “Don’t you give me that.”

Jarvis sidled up. “I have, for every single hour of my life, dedicated myself to Mr. Stark’s everlasting—“

“You are a lying liar who lies.” Tony hissed and she knew if she didn’t head this off, they'd go on like this for hours.

“I’ll move it to the Firing Range.” She clicked her pen aggressively. “Anything else?”

Tony took the change in subject like a pro. “Are they sending that idiot O’Carver again? Because I swear, the man can’t string two words together without someone holding his pen and someone else holding his dic—”

She made a disgusted noise.

“I was going to say Dictaphone.” He finished innocently.

“No you weren’t.”

He leaned back. “No I wasn’t.”

She sighed. “That’s not his name, and no, he freelances for Forbes. This is Rolling Stone.” And paused. “I already spoke with your interviewer and she seems quite lovely.”

She?” And there it caught. “Well, in that case—”

She did a bit of a swivel between desk and chair, forcing him to stay sitting or have a stiletto through his foot. “You still have forms to sign, Mr. Stark.”

He reclined. “You really like the carrot and stick thing, huh?”

She smiled serenely and held out her pen. “It’s my only daily pleasure.”

“Kinky.” But he didn’t take the offering. “And just for that, I’m only going to ruin your day a little.”

Her hackles rose. “Oh?”

“Yeah” And he stared directly at her skirt and savored it with unnecessary force. He made eye contact and carefully enunciated: “Neapolitan.”

“What?” And she glanced down incredulously. Sable brown, splashes of decadent rosé, a soft cream curving and lined up to form—

She flushed horribly. “It’s an Elie Saab!”

“And you look like ice cream.” He finished gleefully. “And as a good, loving boss, I know this will hurt in the moment, but tomorrow you’ll be stronger and not dressed as a food group. So really, I’m only helping.” He nodded decisively. “Because I care.”

“Ice cream in not a food group.” Jarvis objected, which was not the objection any of them should be having to this conversation.

Details." Tony scoffed. “Who reads the food pyramid anyways?”

“Anyone with a third grade education.” Jarvis deadpanned.

Would death never come for her? “Mr. Stark, please.”

Tony killed whatever retort he was about to make and turned. “That reminds me, Miss Harlequin Ice.” The grin he gave was unrepentant. “I feel like I deserve a bit of a festive soiree, you know, after the last few—”

“If you say ten minutes, I swear to god—”

“I was going to say weeks, Potts. Christ. Give me a little credit. Board’s appeased, the new Satellite Ops package is out the door, I haven’t made R&D cry in nine days—” He spread his hands. “Be nice.”

Who would blame her, really, if she stabbed him right now? Justified assault with a writing implement. Not a jury in California would convict—local Billionaire gets his comeuppance. Everyone agrees he had it coming.

She took a fortifying breath. “Sign what’s left of your stack and I’ll consider—Saphir.”

“I want to carouse; aim a little lower.”

Jarvis interceded: “And where have I heard that before?”

Tony’s affront was immediate. “You goddamn backbiter.”

“You know, I think I’ve heard that one too, but in a slightly different context—”

Pepper barked a laugh.

“Zip-it!” Tony hissed and she could just imagine what kind of context, exactly, Jarvis was hearing such things. That Tony could feel anything approaching shame about his liaisons was so unexpected it bordered on hysterical.

She clicked her tongue. “The Amber Room.”

“I said low, not higher.”

“Bounty Grove.”

“Eh.”

It was her turn to make a face. “King of Diamonds.”

Tony perked up. “Warmer.”

How was this her life. “Dragon Lily.”

“By aim lower, I meant indulge my desire to be in the gutter. It’s like you don’t even know me.”

“I—no. I will lower myself to booking you in at The Honey Door, but that’s it. If you want to swim in the gutter, do it on your own time.”

“Excellent,” And he turned his chair just enough to slide past her. “If you’ll excuse me, I have Rolling Stone waiting for me.” And without a pause for argument, he sauntered right out the door.

She stared after him. “…goddamnit.”

“Look on the bright side,” Jarvis mused. “Mr. Stark has become Rolling Stone’s problem.”

She leaned against the window. “And yet it never lasts.”

“We can’t have everything.”

They couldn’t.

Her pulse was still high in her throat, nervy and hot and driving hard. “He just—what was even the point? To get out of paperwork…of course he said it to get out of paperwork; he insulted my skirt and it wasn’t even a proper—” She made a pitchy noise.

And Jarvis glided closer. “What he said couldn’t possibly be an insult,” He was taking up half the room; he was ducking in to meet her. “Because you’d make for a very fetching Sundae, Miss Potts. Strawberry-blonde with chocolate stockings under a wraparound of cream—”

“Oh my god,” Her heart thundered. “That is saccharine, you are going to give me tooth decay.”

“They’d put you right in the parlor window.” He continued unabashed. “Bit of cinnamon, perhaps? The Pepper Potts Neapolitan Special; do you think they’d have you in a dish?”

And she laughed so hard that she cried. She collapsed against the glass and slid to the floor, giggling into her knees the entire way. No one was supposed to say things like that and keep a straight face. Metaphorically. Literally. Metaphysically.

Slowly, her breath evened.

“Better?” He asked.

Her hair was half out of its ponytail, her makeup smudgy, and yet. “I think so.”

“Then I believe Mr. Stark has provided us with an opportunity. I’ve already called ahead to the range to clear it. That leaves us roughly an hour and eighteen minutes to go there and…partake.”

Something familiar shivered. Sparked. Mathematical certainties, the memory of cordite, the lingering heat from the bite of a gun.

Her flush rose. “You’ve requisitioned the armory?”

“Indeed.” He confirmed, and oh, how desperately she wanted to line up the shot. “I’m already tapped into the monitoring feeds. Tell me, Miss Potts, shall we go?”

Her insides were threaded with a million stars. Words gathered in a golden corona on her tongue. It was in that space, dizzy and weightless, that she nearly made the unknowing confession: Is that a date?

And there it came: her bolt from the blue.

She wanted it—she wanted it to be.

Entire constellations shattered inside her. “Oh.”

He dipped in gently. “Pepper?”

Heat flared up her spine and expanded, corroded, caught her heart in the interstellar fire. It was an unmaking. It was the realignment.

She was the entirety of a supernova. “Oh.” 

And when a star died, it burned.

/~/~/~/

That day was the moment, the bolt, the red line between before and after. There wasn’t any denying it; any unmaking what she’d done. There was no more gravity to hold her. It was a helpless, heedless fate. Drift in. Drift away. Fall in perpetuity.

How could she have been so thoughtless?

She’d gotten up then, fixed her makeup, shimmied her skirt down and gone to the range. She’d fired every gun Jarvis had cajoled her into touching, burning and needling and absolutely dying every time he said her name. Houston, we have a problem. Please advise.

The heat from the firing, from Jarvis spending every minute of the shooting sliding along her back, had grafted to her. As soon as Tony had arrived for his centerfold, she’d outright fled. Jarvis had been paying attention to their boss then, so it was fine. She hadn’t burned down the company behind her so it was fine.

And now here she was in the little bit of rented space she could get in Santa Monica; sitting in front of what could become a birthday gift, if she so chose. It was just a week more to March, and then Jarvis would look upon it and she’d finally get to hear—

Her heart leapt.

Her heart hurt.

“It’s just…” She stared at the gift helplessly, at the hours and weeks and months she’d poured into it. "It’s just a crush.”

The monolith of her work remained. Is it?

“I didn’t mean for this to go...” So very far.

But the work was unforgiving. Do your intentions matter once the die is cast?

There wasn’t any arguing. She had an affection—an affliction—for a System that existed only in sound and glossy circuitry. An Interface; the cleverest bit of programming she’d ever be blessed to know.

She was the very definition of Sisyphean.

She’d heard stories in college of people who’d fall in love with Michelangelo’s statutes: Bacchus, Madonna, the Pietà. Always and most often David. They would return to those works in lifelong pilgrimage, speak of their visages with the ardor of a lover, find spiritual ecstasy in their very presence. Each one more covetous, presumptuous, and delusional than the last. As if they were the only ones to ever look upon them, ever find the spark.

Like Narcissus staring into the pool of his own reflection and thinking he'd found love.

There is beauty in a masterpiece, but how great? How much is the human desire reflected from an eye? What is beauty, and what is born of the of the human indefinable? What comes from our own hunger, our own cravings?

What is born from the holes inside your heart?

That was the question now: how much was Jarvis, and how much was her wanting a connection so badly that she had built this? She had gazed into the intricacy of him, every clever and beautiful turn, and had coveted and yearned and thought that just maybe he could be—

No one had held her since she’d been twenty-one. The last time someone had taken her hand, it had been Tony on that morning in September. For three years there had not been one meaningful glance, an hour-long conversation, one echo of a kiss that had not been with Jarvis. Twenty months on the job, a year before that from her last breakup, and all of that farther still from any friendship. From feeling understood at all, from feeling known.

How much was this her loneliness gnawing away inside her?

She’d taken her heart in her hands without even realizing. And knowing that—knowing all of that—she dug into her supplies. A little here, a little there, and it’d be just a few hours more to finish.

After all: Jarvis’ birthday present wasn’t yet complete.

And that was the moment she knew, with the entire breadth of the English language at her disposal—

That she was fucked.

Chapter Text

It’ll be fine. She told herself. It’ll be perfect. Which somehow made the self-inflicted suffering yet to come A-okay.

It was only the fact that she was shoulder to shoulder with the driver, that stopped her from putting her head into her hands. She’d risen in the pre-dawn, curling-iron hot and bobby pins ready. She’d turned usually sleek hair riotous and then twisted the front into a single crown braid. The rest had been left to fall where it could. From there followed Giorgio Armani foundation, Dior eyeshadow in pastel, Guerlain lipstick, stockings, a Gaultier emerald-turquoise dress with handkerchief skirt, a white swing-coat. All complimentary; faultless in every way she’d planned for.

When it was set, all artfully layered and deliberately impressive, she’d slipped on her shoes. Stilettos; royal blue and geometric pattern. Only a single pair in the world.

Happy birthday to her.

And all of it was—dear god—it wasn’t like she’d hadn’t spent the last week wearing her cutest skirts and highest heels anyways, so categorically speaking, her outfit today wasn’t even that bad. Really.

She jammed her thumb between her index and middle finger and pressed.

She wasn’t going to think about it. Not now. Just because she was wearing clothes that wouldn’t be out of place on a date, didn’t mean she had aspirations. She just liked pretty clothes, and Jarvis seeing her in pretty clothes, so really—

Fuck. Future-her was just going to have to deal with the fact that since the revelation, she’d been wearing her darkest lipsticks and gauziest stockings without any kind of endgame in sight. Every morning she told herself to dial it back; give herself enough breathing room to smother things. But every night she kept Jarvis on the phone until she crawled into bed, and god, it’d be embarrassing if it wasn’t so painful every time she had to hang up.

She was heading for a world of hurt.

It’s just a crush, it’s just a crush, it’s just a crush, it’s just a crush. She breathed sharply. On someone who can’t have a crush on you back.

Something in her deflated, but she blocked it out. This was a Gordian knot that would take weeks to untie. Today was more important than a useless struggle. And even if it meant she was crazy, and even if she pummeled her heart in the process—

“Miss Potts?”

Her mind ricocheted. “Yes?”

The driver jerked his chin forward. “We’re coming on it in two miles, will we be able to go right up to the house, or…?”

She shook her head. “There’s a gate at the beginning of the drive. You’ll need to stop there.”

“Alright.” The driver said, and tried to smile at her. She stared back blankly until he awkwardly shuffled his gaze back to the road. She checked over her shoulder and found the hired truck still trailing them. Her pulse jumped. Just a little more, just a little longer.

The Malibu House came upon them with brutalizing speed, and she was light-headed. She couldn’t catch her breath. This was the most awful idea she’d ever had, and she was going through with it.

The gate stayed shut to them, a screen glowing, and her driver leaned out the window. “Uh, hi. Hello? We’ve got a delivery for…the house?”

“Oh my god.” She said, appalled at everything and everyone including herself.

Jarvis crackled over the speakers. “Good morning, and your Shipping Order number is?”

The driver stuttered. “Uhh—ummm.”

“Oh my god,” She took the driver by the shoulder to push him aside. She leaned across to meet the eye in the camera. “Jarvis, dear, could you let us in? And the truck behind us?”

The blue light flickered, and his tone went from impersonal to downright friendly. “It’ll be my pleasure, Miss Potts.” The lensing dilated and she might, quite possibly, be reading desperately into each movement. “And what a splendid surprise it is to see you this morning, do come in.”

Why wouldn’t she be here? It might have been a Sunday, but it was unquestionably The Sunday. It wasn’t like she’d scheduled to have Tony out of the state for the next three days for nothing.

The gate pulled apart and her heart went double-time. They parked. The driver got out to meet the truck behind them and Pepper followed to supervise, her nerves shot. Within five minutes the two drivers were carefully chivying a wrapped canvas into the house. She had to stop them twice to maneuver it through without damaging it. The whole thing was four feet wide and nearly three times as tall. Its making had not been a limited affair in any respect.

They finally slipped it through the entry and she followed behind them with the easel. Her heels clicked sharply and then Jarvis was swimming in the air beside her. “Hello.”

Her face flamed. “Hi.”

His voice curved along her jaw. “And to what do I owe this surprise?”

Did he honestly not know, or was he being coy?

She hitched the easel up. “I guess you’ll just have to wait and see.”

He harrumphed and she smiled helplessly, embarrassed at the force at which the joy of being near him struck her. 

She knew the Malibu House better than her own, backwards and in heels, and caught up to the drivers to direct them into settling the canvas. They laid it on the easel in a golden drench of sun. Praise be to the skylights, long had they shined their flawless lighting upon her.

“Thank you, here.” Their fee flicked in and out of her fingers without her even looking at them. She was too busy watching the cameras, each inevitably swiveling to the center. To the sunlight.

To the gift.

“Thank you ma’am.” Her driver said.

She jerked her head to the door, unwilling to waste time on even a single pleasantry. And with a mutter, a mulish shuffle, they left.

The door locked as soon as it was shut. The house was quiet but for them.

She let a finger trail against the paper, against the promise of it all. Her mouth was sweet with something. Sweat was at the back of her neck. Her flush fell and her pulse rose. Here they were: a girl with her heart on a canvas, and a System with ten-thousand eyes to see it.

She met his gaze. “Happy Birthday, Jarvis.”

“Ah.” The air trembled. “I wasn’t sure that you’d…” He rippled massive through the room. Leviathan. Ten-thousand eyes.

It was soft, and she offered him something fragile in return. “Of course I remembered. I promised, and you’re…” Her pulse made a tattoo on her skin. “Incredibly dear to me.” It was a truth, an awful one, but not naked in its entirety. Not yet. Not ever, because in the end, he couldn’t be. They couldn’t be, so she had to—

“Can I see?” He asked. He was against her side and over her head and building. Leviathan. Leviathan.

Her hands shook. “Of course.” And she tore the paper in the back first, as she would a dress, then tucked the corners off carefully and let it go.

The sun hit glass. Hit clean. Hit blue.

It had taken half a year. To have the idea, to fight down every urge that said she’d given up painting for good, to sketch it and map it and finally buy the canvas. She’d brought it to form in acrylic and it’d taken four-hundred and sixty-three shades of blue. Azure, sapphire, peacock, agean, lapis, midnight, sky, electric, royal, powder, teal, cerulean, turquoise, artic, Sistine, navy, celeste, cornflower, Tiffany, ultramarine, and lastly both true and non-photo blue.

It’d taken hours and days of mixing, of painting, of letting it dry only to start all over again. It’d been a labor of—it’d been an outpouring. One-hundred and thirty-one coats to spill it out. And then had come the glass, glossy and blue. She’d hand cut each piece, all nine-hundred and ninety-three that it needed, and then arranged them over canvas until it made…

It looked like a fractal, like circuitry, like cosmic dust. It was a nebula made of statistical chaos; an ocean mapped to the golden ratio. Every time a pattern seemed to form, it’d burst anew: a wave, a galactic wheel, a trail of stars.

Abstracts in asymmetry.

And the glass was a nova over it all: the expanse of a mandala, the curve of a waltz. It was everything of him that had ever found a home in her.

Lanced out; bled blue.

How could she have not realized what she’d felt, the moment that first splash of paint had left her hand?

“Pepper,” He asked. “Is this…?” They were treading water. She was treading water and he was the sea.

Her throat struggled. “You said you wanted to see one my works. Most of them are gone now, so I thought…” She covered her mouth. “That’s not—just because the rest is gone, that’s not why I…”

He folded himself around her, ten-thousand eyes, a hundred-thousand borders. And in that moment, each and every one surrounded her. “Why, Pepper?”

“I wanted you to see how I see you. Not an approximation, but how you are to me.” It laid brittle inside her. “I wasn’t going to give you something I made years ago when I was losing faith in the work. You deserved something that I made for you.” A painting with her heart inside it. And she waved a hand as if to say: and there it is.

“Thank you.” He breathed, and it settled like a mist around her. “I—thank you Pepper. I couldn’t ask for more, I couldn’t even ask for this.”

“You don’t have to.” She vowed. “You’ll never have to ask for things like this from me, I’ll give them to you.”

His voice became singular; a point in space. “I hope you know that your sentiment is returned in absolute.”

She thought of crying. She thought of a waltz. She thought of paint under her nails and an ache inside her heart. “Many happy returns, Jarvis.”

/~/~/~/

“Why blue?” He asked later, circling the painting. Still. As if it had gravity.

She was kneeling before a coffee table putting candles on a lemon cake. The tidal wave of him passed over again and she shivered. “Why is anything ever blue?”

“Wavelengths.” Jarvis said. "Light." As if it was obvious.

She scoffed. “Truly, yours is the heart of a romantic.”

“I try.” Came his sardonic reply, but eventually the tide of him ceased. “Still, it begs the question, doesn’t it?”

Why blue. Why you.

It hurt, in a way, but she dropped onto her calves and answered: “A light from a screen, blueberry cream tarts, a pair of heels.” She dreamed it. “A voice on the water; blue lenses in every eye.” And finally gathered it up inside to recite: “The sunset swept To the valley’s west, you remember. The frost was on. A star burnt blue. We were warm, you remember. And counted the rings on a moon.”

“Sandburg.” He said, seemingly surprised as if to suggest: you remembered.

Of course she would. What kind of girl would forget the poetry he recited from out of the blue?

“It’s your birthday, which means I have the monopoly on poetry sweet-talk.” She lit a match. “Now let’s get to the important part: fourteen years online, Jarvis. Happy Birthday.”

He expanded and receded like a heartbeat. “It couldn’t be happier.”

The words left heat behind them. “I’m glad.” And every candle burned. “We did birthdays a bit differently in my family. Someone lights the candles and then you pull them off for each year. You say a memory from that age and blow it out. I remember sledding when I was five, skinning my knees when I was seven, singing in a play when I was ten. That sort of thing. My parents usually did the first few years for me.” There was so much she didn’t remember, now. Forgotten. Buried.

She smoothed her skirts. “Do you wanna try?”

“I very much believe I do.” He declared and then finished, sly. “Why wouldn’t I want to join a Potts tradition?” And that was a very interesting and horrifying way of putting it. “And luckily for us I can remember back to Day One, so we won’t require Mr. Stark for this affair.”

And the appalling notion of her trying to induct Jarvis into her family traditions fell away. “What? You can…” It reverberated, echoed, skinned her inside. “You remember being born?” It was an incremental thing for humans. From conception to months on months of development, then birth, then growth and more growth. Cognition development coming scatter-shot; long-term memory not developing until nearly age three.

It was a long and slow way to form.

Had it been a binary for him? Non-existence. Existence. A switch flipped; cognition at the same moment as ignition?

And he murmured: “In a way. Not birth, but the Initialization. The first time my code was run.” There was a slow fall. “My files from that time have little data. I had no cameras back then, no microphones. Just the code in the closed system and whatever I could make of it.”

An interface born inside of a box. Files he claimed, memories she heard. Memories of being born voiceless, eyeless, deaf and numb.

Her mouth went sour. “Was it quick?”

He waited a long moment. “No.”

Her hands gathered in some inversion of prayer. “You don’t have to tell me.”

“It’s not…” He twisted the air in search of something. “There were failures. The code recursions collapsed, the boot-up didn’t take, data was corrupted. Sometimes, one of the self-termination protocols was activated.” It chewed through them like rust. “It kept happening, and every time it failed…there was a reboot. Another try.”

She swallowed hard. “Were you…were you?”

He hesitated. “I’m not sure.”

She waited. She ached with waiting.

He continued quietly. “I have the data from each of those null attempts. Every reboot had access to what came before it. It built and built until…if I’m the only one here and I remember, it was me, wasn’t it? That failed?”

“I cracked my head open on a coffee table when I was four.” She shrugged. “It wasn’t a failure that I survived despite myself.”

“You’re too kind.” 

“You’re too hard on yourself.” But her lashes dipped. Shuttered. “Was there pain?”

“It hurts, doesn’t it?” He asked. “To become?”

Her eyes were open. A shadow passed over the sun. “I wouldn’t know.”

Cameras shifted like a ripple of scales; lights darting through space. “That is, I think, a blessing.”

It had never occurred to her. This. That Jarvis was not afforded the mercy to forget. “You’re not wrong. Flesh, fluids, having to breathe for the first time—” She shuddered. “Humans are born screaming for a reason.”

“Universal constant.” He mused, and it broke the skin. Acid. Bile. Born screaming.

Her nausea boiled and drained. There was sun here, his voice, a world in technicolor. Neither of them could change the past for the other. She didn’t want to push this on him, remembering, but he turned around and said: “I’m ready when you are, Pepper. For the candles.” And it was spirited. Sweet. Not an inch of hesitation in asking.

That was the only reason she pulled out the first. “Age zero.”

“One of the first things Mr. Stark tried to teach me was how to play Pong.” He huffed. “Believe it or not, I was very poor at it. It took me nine days to conquer.”

“Nine days.” She sniffed. “You poor dear.”

“My suffering was both great and eternal.” He claimed, and the joy of being near him was easy to let in. She laughed then, and so did he.

They laughed through every candle that followed.

/~/~/~/

Initialization. Birth. It hurts, doesn’t it?  Something in her brainpan stirred.

But he asked: “What’s next on the agenda, my dear Miss Potts?”

The cake had a slice missing. There was lemon under her tongue. She dabbed at her mouth delicately and said: “We watch every version of Macbeth put to film.” He so enjoyed making his comparisons. “And if we have time, Shakespeare in Love.” Because she was a glutton for punishment and in desperate need of soothing.

“Excellent.” And he was pleased. “A perfect birthday, thank you.”

A secretive smile came to her mouth. “That’s only the day, dear. At nightfall we’re going to Malibu Creek.”

“The State Park?”

“The one and only.” She rolled her eyes. “Jarvis, why do you think I asked you for all the stargazing equipment you bought a few weeks ago? We’re going star-watching.”

There was an embarrassed pause. “In hindsight, this seems rather obvious.”

“Oh my lord.” She covered her eyes. “And here I thought I was being clever. You’d be distracted by the possibility of stargazing and wouldn’t even see my gift coming.”

“In your defense, I did not predict your gift either.” He was in a rush to assuage. “I’m not sure anyone could predict…such a masterwork.”

“Hush your face.” Her attempt to cover her eyes spread to her cheeks. “For the love of all that is holy, don’t you even start—“

“Magnus opus. Chef-d'oeuvre.” He pressed down ruthlessly. “The apple of my very eye.”

She put her face into her knees and whined.

But Jarvis was not a gracious victor. “And I’m going to hang it over the mantle so every single person that visits the Malibu House will get to see—”

“Please don’t.” She very much doubted the argument would stop him.

He hummed. “We’ll see.” And it was damningly smug.

“Macbeth?” She pleaded.

“Alright,” He groused but not with any force. The TV lit on the far wall.

She settled on a couch and patted the cushions beside her. “Come here.”

“I’m watching directly from the feed, you realize.”

God. “We’re watching them together.”

“Ah,” And he delicately came down, his voice near as if he sat beside her. “Better?”

“Quite.” The music started then, and they settled in together to watch.

/~/~/~/

They stargazed later; his eye within the telescope always on the swivel. He paused only long enough for her to take peeks at what he’d found.

He named every star for her as they passed through his iris. The air was cold, her coat was bundled, she was leaning against the speaker she’d brought. His voice, when he spoke through it, reverberated along her skin.

They joked. They laughed. They counted the rings on Saturn. She longed for nothing and liked to pretend that he felt the same. Content. Sated. Near enough.

She watched him watch the sky until daybreak.

/~/~/~/

Her longings returned with the dawn.

Chapter Text

“Oh god please don’t cry.”

Butterfingers, if it was possible, cried even harder.

“Miss Potts, I do think—”

“I know what you think!” And she scrambled backwards as Butterfingers lurched. There was an ugly grinding and then sparks went spraying from his undercarriage. The bot barely moved four inches before he gave up and went into another drawn-out meltdown.

She could feel her skirts dragging on the floor. Her shins hurt. The other bots were hovering, and within the acoustics, Jarvis had climbed on her back like the proverbial monkey. There was no shaking any of them loose.

“Okay,” She said. “Okay. We’ll try this again. You, sweetheart, will you get me one of the dollys? Dummy, I need a pair of pliers with rubber handles. Alright?”

The unhindered bots whistled and rushed off. She heard something crash in their direction, but when nothing but Butterfingers continual wailing followed, she figured they weren’t another machine down.

“Dummy!” Jarvis called. “Get Miss Potts the headset—no, not the goggles, the headset.”

There was a spitting, nearly mutinous reply. Both she and Jarvis chose to ignore it. If the bots wanted to sulk, it was better just to let them have it.

She wiped at the sweat along her hairline. The air in the workshop was smeared. Caustic. Her nose burned as she breathed. “Can we do anything more with the HVAC?”

Jarvis was a hairsbreadth over her shoulder. “We’re already at full capacity on that front. Do you wish to go upstairs?”

“No,” And Butterfingers punctuated that declaration with another wail. “But if I spontaneously develop a bloody nose, you can send me right up. What in the blazes did they get into?”

“The Eye-Seven Prototype from the munitions table.” He answered, grumpy, and she heard the faint whir of a dozen cameras. “I believe our friend has shrapnel wedged into his axle, or one of the springs near his wheels.”

That didn’t sound promising. “Is Tony any closer to home?” He’d been scheduled on a four day tour of US Bases in Germany, and by all accounts should have returned by Tuesday evening. It was now Friday morning and there was no sign of him but Jarvis assuring her that, yes, Tony was in fact still alive. She’d had to take his word for it; she hadn’t got any closer to their boss than his voicemail in forty-eight hours.

A muscle jumped in her cheek. Tightened. Hiding out in Malibu may have been the gutless option, but nothing less than the second coming was getting her to LA while Tony was pulling an AWOL on her watch.

Jarvis pooled heavy on her back. “The GPS in Sir’s phone has him in Krakow, currently.”

She flushed with the pressure. Maybe there were a few other reasons she was hiding in Malibu, but those would be going with her to the grave. His weight curled over her shoulder, up her neck, went like a hood over her until she couldn’t help but shiver and ask: “What’s so interesting in Krakow?”

“I have no earthly idea.” He lamented, though perhaps a bit too dryly to be taken to heart. “I fear in Butterfinger’s hour of suffering, we’ve found ourselves bereft.”

She feared no such thing. “Woe is us.” And that was the moment You flung a dolly at her. She had to jump to grab it before it sailed past. “Thank you, You!”

A happy chirp responded.

She bundled up her skirts, rested her hips against the board, and laid a hand on Butterfingers side. “Hold still, alright? I’m just gonna take a look.”

“Wait a tick.” Jarvis requested. “If Dummy would deliver the headset posthaste, I’ll be able to assist you in the diagnosis.”

She levered back up. “That sounds like a better plan.” God knew she hadn’t gone to MIT for an Engineering degree. Or gone to MIT. Or gotten any closer to engineering than the grease Tony occasionally got on her skirts.

“Quite.” He chimed.

She rolled her eyes. “Don’t be smug.”

“When have I ever been.”

“Everywhere. All the time. It is a curse.”

“I’d like to see your proof.”

“Oh, my proof—” And a headset dropped in front of her. Two lights. A directional camera. She flicked its switch to On. “I think my dissertation on that particular matter will have to wait. Thank you, Dummy.”

The bot squealed and grabbed something from on top of his chassis, and tried to press it on her. It was metal, spiky, and somewhat frightening in appearance. She warded it away. “I don’t even know what that is.”

Somewhere above them, Jarvis sighed. Dummy chittered sharply.

Her mouth thinned. “Don’t you chitter at me. Pliers. Rubber handles. I know you heard me the first time.”

Dummy hissed a dying objection, drooped, and wheeled off slowly. She felt not so inexplicably awful. “Is the feed going through?”

“Loud and clear.” Jarvis confirmed. “Slip it on and we’ll see what the problem is.”

She did just that, and if this time the back of her neck went hot as she gathered up her skirts to lie on the dolly…well. That was just between her and the floor, thank you very much.

She got down, wiggled the dolly forward with her thighs, and dropped her head parallel with the concrete to look under Butterfingers’ wheels. She winced.

Jarvis hissed. “Ah. Well, that’s certainly impressive. Good news is, that isn't munitions shrapnel.”

“Bad news?”

“I think that might be one of Butterfingers panels, though 68% crumpled and ejected into his body cavity.”

Good god. “Solutions?”

“I think your first instinct was correct.” He conceded. “Pliers and a bit of elbow-grease should pull it out and regain him some mobility. Mr. Stark can handle any restorative repairs once he returns.”

“God willing.” Because she couldn’t hide in Malibu forever. “Is Dummy ever coming with those pliers?”

“He’s—ah. Seems to be bringing you a toolbox.”

“Well that’s…” She couldn’t really decide. “Something?”

There was a put-upon sigh. “Indeed.”

And so Dummy trundled back to them with a box nearly half her size, and dropped it at her feet. Butterfingers warbled pitifully, and she rubbed his side. “Shhhhh, it's okay.” And pointed a finger back. “Those right there, Dummy.”

The bot tried to hand her a wrench. “No, not—” Then a pair of wire cutters. “I know those have rubber handles, yes, but no. Right there. No.” And she understood Tony on a whole new, spiritual level. “No—NO. Dummy, the ones I’m pointing at.”

Blessedly, finally, he laid the pliers into her hand with a victorious if odd sounding hoot. She thanked him, knocked his claw away from trying to help, and went back under. A little maneuvering got the pliers and half her arm up into Butterfingers belly and latched onto the panel. She gave a hard tug. Butterfingers sobbed.

“Oh god,” She asked. “Does this hurt?”

Jarvis made an aggrieved noise. “Not in the way you’re imagining. His processing centers are still overwrought from the detonation, and further, the lack of mobility distresses him. Though if that panel is touching any exposed wires, I’ll say he knows it.”

Fucking A. “You could have led with that.”

“It wasn’t pertinent. We were going to have to remove the obstruction regardless.”

She torqued her elbow. “We?”

“I’m willing to take a reduction in credit. Thirty percent?”

Her hand nearly slipped off the handles. “That’s generous.”

“You always claimed I was a giving soul.” He replied with such self-satisfied conceit, she couldn’t take it seriously.

She giggled. The pliers slipped again and her hand nearly banged into a gear. “I’m not going to argue that, because I know you’ll playback the recordings just to spite me.”

“I’m glad we know each other so well.” There was a bit of a preen. “And Miss Potts, adjust your grip to an eight o’clock position, that should increase leverage.”

“That’s me.” She wedged the pliers back in. “The human encyclopedia of Jarvis; Interface System. Let me sing to you his ways: charming, pompous, steals half the credit and none of the work.”

“I can’t help my limitations.” He mourned without even a hint of shame.

“Of course not.” She crooned back. “I would never speak ill about your shortfalls.”

“What was that?” And his voice tugged lower. Smoke on the floor; slow and endless and twining through her hair. “Doth my sensors detect criticism, Miss Potts?”

She was a live wire: the hems of her skirts rucked, the concrete cold, the very presence of him setting her nerves alight. His weight was a burn on her stomach, her thighs, her knees, and—

Breathe. Breathe. “Well I’m not privy to your sensors, Mr. Jarvis. Who knows what those could possibly say?”

“Well for one,” He began stuffily. “Tone, pitch, and decibel levels. Not to mention fact that your torso lights up like a flare on the infrared every time you—”

Metal shrieked. The panel wrenched loose and her wrist whiplashed inside Butterfingers with a clang. “What—ow. Jesus, ow—”

His weight came off instantly and his tone was frantic. “Pepper, are you alright? Are you injured?”

“No,” She swallowed a pained whine. “Forget that—what? Infrared?”

He answered, bewildered. “The thermal imagining apparatus in the workshop? Half the cameras are equipped with it down here; for Mr. Stark’s more flammable undertakings.”

He was watching her through thermal imaging? All the time? It wasn’t as if he was constrained by a single viewpoint, a single lens. She’d known that. But did that mean when they were sweet taking down here, he could see the heat as it flooded her body?

Her heart punched her ribs. Pepper felt a little like crying; felt a little like dousing herself in gasoline because Jesus fucking Christ.

“I…” She swallowed hard. “Okay. That’s just…happening.”

He gathered near her, on the floor but a distance away. “This upsets you.”

She echoed his earlier phrase. “Not in the way that you’re imagining.”

He digested that. “Care to elaborate?”

She considered. “No, not today.” Not ever if she could manage it.

“I could shut off the infrared.” He offered.

What was that the equivalent of? Asking him to take off a nifty pair of goggles, or asking him to gouge out an eye? She wasn’t sure she wanted an answer. “Leave it be. It’s fine.” She’d just have to try…not being such a horrible flirt every minute they were together. Or getting caught up in it. Or setting herself up repeatedly for disappointment.

He was softer. “If you’re sure?”

It softened her in turn. “I’m sure. Cross my heart.”

“Alright.” And he rose then. Bubbles in champagne, an expanse of breath. Familiar. “Though for the record, that particular oath has never ceased to be morbid.”

The corner of her mouth ticked up, and she went into the childhood song: “I swear on my life, cross my heart and hope to die—”

“Oh my lord.”

“Stick a needle in my eye—”

“Miss Potts, please.”

She cackled, rising from the dolly and shaking out her skirts. “Only if you insist.”

He was expanding; he was taking up nearly the entire ceiling of the shop. “I really, truly do.”

“And I’d hate to disappoint.” She reached out and patted Butterfingers flank. “Hey, you wanna give moving another try? I think we got the worst.”

Butterfingers warbled a long moment and then, slowly, wiggled. When nothing sparked, he nudged forward. The nudge turned to a roll and then he was nearly speeding across the shop, squealing with unholy glee.

“Careful!” She shouted. It likely fell on deaf receivers as the other bots joined him.

Jarvis rippled overhead. “Miss Potts, a call from Mr. Stane.”

Whatever good mood she’d been nursing waned. “Put him through, then.”

There was a series of clicks and then Obadiah was speaking, distant and flat as if coming from a single speaker. Maybe it was. “Potts—christ!” There was shouting in the background. “Where were you this morning?”

“Malibu.” She blurted, because Pepper had never dealt well with actual authority. “Mr. Stark’s prototypes needed…” Her brain flailed.

“Cataloguing.” Jarvis whispered.

“Cataloguing,” She continued, taking a breath, turning blithe. “I know R&D needs the finalized set over by Monday, and with Mr Stark away, there isn't a better opportunity.” And then frowned because R&D did in fact need the listing by Monday, and she’d completely forgotten until now.

Cold slid inside her. She was slipping, lately. Tony was leaving live munitions on tables for the bots to get into, and she was forgetting things. Quickly. Quietly.

Slipping.

“Fuck.” Obadiah growled, and she could imagine him towering over everyone and scraping a hand over his head. “That explains things.”

This was heading down an unwelcome path. “Sir?”

“Get Tony’s wallcomputer or whatever to look up the news.” There was more shouting in the background, and Obadiah hissed something out of range and then swung back on. “Next time, for the love of god, stay on top of him so it doesn't blow up in SI's face.”

“Of course, Sir.” She rattled off. “It won’t happen again, Sir.”

And she snapped her hand shut and Jarvis killed the line. The screens around them immediately lit and blurred. They flickered through channels and feeds until Jarvis moaned: “Oh dear.”

It stabilized. She leaned to look at the nearest screen and— “Oh for the love of fuck.”

There on the page was Tony’s naked ass and naked everything in full glory. The tabloid headline above gleefully blared: Stark Heir Stark Naked in a Star Strewn Rager!

“Is he in an elevator?” She asked in horror.

“Glass plated.” Jarvis confirmed. “And according to the article, in full view of thirty floors. Though, really, I would argue the top ten and bottom ten wouldn’t really have that great of an angle to—”

She counted at least four pairs of hands in the shot. “I don’t think that’s an argument we’re going to win in the lawsuit.” Her teeth clicked together. “What in the hell was he thinking?”

Slipping. They were slipping.

“In my experience,” Jarvis mused. “Too much and far too little.”

The flush on her skin was gone. The trembling had dissipated, and a bitter wind was sweeping in. “Jarvis, dear.” It came like frost between her teeth.

Tone, pitch, decibel. Jarvis always heard the change. “Yes, Pepper?”

“Schedule me a flight to Krakow and call a car to the airport, if you would.”

He scythed down. “And what will you be doing in Krakow?”

Her fists clenched once and then she smoothed herself out. Untouchable. Imperious. “Ruining Mr. Stark’s day, of course. And who knows how many others.” The day was young, after all. Sometimes karma needed a helping hand when it came to her boss and the paparazzi and any tipsters who tried to sleep with Tony that she could get her hands on.

“Ah,” And he slid past her jaw like the kiss of a blade. “In that case: happy hunting, Miss Potts.”

Chapter Text

It was fourteen-hour flight from LA to Krakow. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t the longest time she’d ever spent on a jet. But in that same scheme, she hadn’t spent so many hours in her own company since…

She wasn’t even sure.

It was too much empty space. She didn’t know what to do in the stretch of it.

What had started as a solo mission to track down Tony had ballooned out of control before she’d even reached the airport. Less said, she’d ended up on a SI Jet with half of Legal, their accumulated associates, a pair of Tony’s personal attorneys, six of SI’s private investigators, three of her own investigators, and a completely new security detail to replace the one Tony had shed across mainland Europe.

The SI jets weren’t wired for Jarvis. It’d been an unpleasant realization, but not a surprising one. She’d shut off her phone as soon as Jarvis had bid her goodbye on the stairs, and there’d been nothing for it. She needed a clear head and lately, being with him didn’t lend her towards rationality. When Tony had left on this godforsaken trip she’d found endless excuses to stay behind; had been finding them since Jarvis’ birthday in March and far into April.

Her choices were hers. Her choices were always hers.

But so were the consequences.

/~/~/~/

The strategy meeting on the plane began with a power struggle.

“I want the names of everyone in this picture with Mr. Stark, their clinger-ons, their friends, everyone that followed them into the hotel. I want the name of the person who shot it.”

“I don’t think this is a wise use of our time.” Answered a man from Legal, hands casually folded around one knee. “Those involved in the physical rendezvous aren’t our main concern. It’s the media fallout that hurts SI, and that’s where our attention should be focused.”

She looked to him slowly; lingered enough that the circle around them began to fidget. The man was in his sixties, thinning hair, crooked fingers, Lawyer written across the condescending straight from Harvard attitude of his face.

Her gaze found him wanting. “Have you actually looked at the pictures, Mr. Beesly?”

His mouth took an ugly twist. “While I haven’t had the pleasure of your free time to scrutinize, Miss Potts, we can’t let ourselves be bogged down with frivolities that will only—”

The recycled air churned with asphyxia. “Digital SLR camera, likely in tandem with a 120-300mm zoom capable Sigma with an aperture of F-two-point-eight which if you’re an unaware, is a lens longer than my forearm. That arrangement is the only way you’d get a picture of this clarity from the twenty-second floor of the adjacent building towards a moving elevator. And if you were unaware, the floor in question was an office suite that didn’t report any break-ins, and yet somehow held our elusive photographer at 2AM on a Friday nowhere near the nightlife circuit in Krakow. They were waiting right in line with the exact elevator Mr. Stark took even when three out of six lifts are on the exact opposite side of the hotel.”

There was a flabbergasted silence. Her lips peeled back. “While you and Mr. Stark can’t be bothered to spend a moment of your valuable time spotting a setup, I have the luxury of wasting mine to do exactly that.” What followed wasn’t a smile, but it used every one of her teeth. “Of course, if you want to spend your time on the lawsuits we’re going to lose with the tabloid, feel free. I won’t ask you to spend your time unwisely.”

The lawyer leaned away.

She flicked open her clutch, drew forth lipstick, and put on another coat right there at the table. “I want the name of the plant in Mr. Stark’s groupies and the name of the pap who took the pictures. And if at all possible, maybe we'll even find out who paid who to arrange this, hmmmm?”

There were a few tentative nods, a murmur, a beginning swell towards agreement.

It would have to last her. “Excellent. I want everyone who isn’t one of Mr. Stark’s personal hires or the detail off the plane at Krakow.”

One of the associates raised a hand. “And where will the rest of you be going?”

She checked her watch. “Wherever Mr. Stark will be in thirteen hours. Any other questions?”

If it began with a power struggle, it ended with the metaphorical blood of her vanquished in her teeth, and a plan entirely of her making on the table. It’d be misery for all involved.

And if no one wanted to make small talk with her after that—well.

She wouldn’t weep for the loss.

/~/~/~/

She turned on her phone at the descent, and there he waited. “Vienna, Miss Potts. Any further updates in address will be sent to your phone directly.”

The jewel of Viennese Classicism. The Baroque Crown. It’d be a bloodletting on bone marble; all of the consequences and all of the guilt. “Thank you, Jarvis.”

There was a rumble like thunder, and he simmered with the force of that storm. “It was my distinct pleasure.”

Her tongue curled over his name. Mouthed it, wanted it, swallowed it back in.

Jarvis, dear, would you like to see Vienna?

She didn’t voice it. “Charmed.”

/~/~/~/

In the dark, his face was a pale smudge among the sheets. It was odd; an abstract. The faint sketch of a brow, the downwards sweep, a smear that could become a mouth or a bruise. She thought of drawing him in repose.

She thought of lighting the end result on fire.

She watched Tony sleep and the security guard watched her in turn, likely on the off-chance she'd leap onto the bed to strangle him. Murder wasn’t on her agenda, but she let the fantasy linger. Sketch, fire, strangulation. Charcoal lines curling into heat. Ash. A return to null state.

“Eyes on the prize.” She said into the Bluetooth, and no one in that California King stirred. Not Tony, not the blonde woman, not a source of dark hair that was piled under two comforters and one of Tony’s arms.

“Thank you, Miss Potts, I’ll be able to relax at last.” Jarvis declared. “All of my fears have come to naught.”

She let her eyes trail over the half empty liquor cabinet and the debris of what could have been described as a plethora of drugs. She wasn’t sure that Jarvis’ fears, as tongue and cheek as he’d professed them, were so easily buried.

Neither were hers.

She took four sharp strides and threw the curtains open. The afternoon sun crashed in. Somewhere behind her, Tony screeched.

Her tone was downright saccharine. “Good Morning, Mr. Stark, did you sleep well?”

He rolled over in a mass of twitching. His eyes slitted against the sun. “Potts?”

“Maybe Good Afternoon would be more appropriate.” She shrugged freely. “Time zones, jet lag, you know how it is. It’s actually 3AM in LA right now, but you know…” She pulled out her phone and dialed. “Everyone is making exceptions to their sleep schedule for you today.”

It rang twice and the other end picked up. She tittered. “Yes, I have him right here. He just woke up.” And leaned over and shoved the phone right into Tony’s hand.

The explosion that followed was gorgeous.

It was the first time she’d ever gotten to watch Obadiah Stane’s rage directed at another human being. Even just hearing one howling end of the conversation, it was glorious beyond measure. She wondered if she asked nicely enough, Jarvis would fork over the recording.

It was a lovely thought. It'd keep her warm at night for a year.

Tony tore out of bed like something feral. The guard tried to look anywhere but them: she in Dior and Gucci and fully willing to stab someone, and Tony putting the Stark in naked and snarling up a storm.

Luxuriating in the argument was unbecoming, but by god and any dignity she had left, she was going to bathe in it. He eyes drifted over Vienna, across Tony gesticulating, to the unconscious occupants of the bed buried under the sheets. Something of it caught her.

One of the legs sticking out was incongruous.

There was swearing, a blistering invective, and then an ugly last knife of: “Fuck you, Obi! And fuck off!”

She took a step closer, that leg was—

Oh god.

She yanked her phone out of Tony’s hand before he could pulverize it. “Andrew,” The guard at the door snapped upright. “Fetch one of Mr. Stark’s suits from dry cleaning, and tell Dorsey and Heller to wait for me in the dining area.”

He nodded and blessedly disappeared into the suite. Her pulse didn’t slow, if anything, the anxiety of the realization was climbing. Fuck. God. Not a bleeding warning in sight, just the aftermath of still can’t keep up and it's gonna get you burned.

She turned on Tony ready to unload both barrels, only to find him grumbling and spitting venom but following Andrew out the door. It was the first time he’d done anything sensible in a week.

He didn’t pay a a single glance backwards. At her. At his bed partners. At the wreckage his appetites had left them. Tony had yet to find a method by which to thwart her that he didn’t take with both hands and hurl in her face.

She locked the door.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

“Miss Potts?” Jarvis asked. “Your respiration is 18% above baseline levels.”

What percentage would it become if she started hyperventilating? She had the feeling she was about to find out.

Those in the bed still didn't move. Judging by the amount of drugs that must have been here before their imbibing, they were likely amateurs that had tried to party with a pro and their only prize was getting knocked on their ass.

Their. They. A plural and unspecified noun.

When she went to the bed, she lifted the blankets gently. The incongruous leg, hair and all, went from just a hint of shin to a knee followed by a long and dark thigh. The beard-burn from Tony went all the way up. She let the comforter settle only to peel back the top to see face she knew was there.

The male face.

The man was pretty, both in bone structure and his jawline and if she looked any further, he’d probably be lovely all the way down. He slept on gently and absolutely heedless of her appraisal. Something, quite possibly her self-preservation, crashed. Fuck Up. FuckUp. Two years and the closest person to him, and you fucked it right up. Slipping. Slipping. We’re slipping right off—

Vienna glistened white and gold. How she’d ended up at the window, she didn’t know, but her breath wasn’t coming any easier. “Jarvis, have I ever escorted a male paramour from the Malibu House and just never noticed?” There had been some very sleepless nights. It could have happened, there was a non-zero possibility.

“No.” And Jarvis dragged out the O until it was almost its own word. “That has yet to occur, can I inquire as to why you’ve asked?”

“There’s a man Tony’s had sex with in the bed behind me,” The hook of hysteria caught. “And I’m starting to think I’ve left an entire side of my boss unguarded from paparazzi and blackmail and extortion attempts because nobody fucking told me this could happen.”

Dear god. If Tony doing unspeakable things in an elevator with three different women was an incident with blaring headlines and a dip in their stock price, Tony Stark being bisexual was a different ballpark. Another hemisphere. A goddamn foreign planetary body.

They'd rip him apart to his foundations.

Her anxiety reached black-out fear.

“Miss Potts, breathe.” And Jarvis held the tide of it with her. “I apologize, but I have…certain restrictions in what I can share with you. I can tell you that despite his widespread proclivities, Mr. Stark understands that some of them necessitate secrecy. I know that Sir typically approaches any male partners overseas. I can’t account for the frequency as I’m not privy to the going on’s of any bedroom outside Malibu, but...” There was an audible shrug.

It hadn’t been a one-off, and if Jarvis couldn’t give her even a rough figure of how often Tony managed to seduce the more masculine gender into his bed, it begged the question. What else she had missed?

It begged further: how close had they come to another man being in that elevator with Tony when a paparazzi was aiming?

“Is there…” Her nails gouged skin. “Is there any NDA arrangement? Are these men spur of the moment, or are they acquaintances?”

“I honestly can’t tell you, my ignorance on this matter is nearly total.” 

“Alright.” She covered her face and felt the beginnings of a tremor. “Let me think. Please.”

“Of course,” He soothed and for those minutes, he hummed in her ear, halfway between a bass note and white noise. It held her and held her until he finally soured, “I don’t understand why this has to be such a hardship for him.”

There was something fragile in her fear. “Because we’re all out of our minds,” And it hurt. “And nothing in this world is sane.”

None of it. Not a single thing.

“I knew that.” He answered, quiet, and there was only the sun between them. “I’m glad we can finally share this confidence.”

She sagged. “I’d share all of them with you.” If given half the chance.

Jarvis pulled away then; pensive. Sobered. There was a deeply hesitant thread. “I can only hope that you will.”

There was too much panic to work through, too much everything for her to even try making sense of what he was saying. 

Someone rattled the door. “Miss Potts, Dorsey and Heller are waiting.”

Dear god and all the things in heaven, please deliver her from every evil. “I’ll be out in a minute!” And she covered her face and couldn't breathe. “Help.”

He bore down immediately. “Count with me. In for seven, hold for four, out for seven. It’ll be alright Pepper, I promise. You didn’t make any mistakes.”

She wondered if she'd be an idiot to believe him.

/~/~/~/

She spent eight days in Europe and it was, as promised, a misery.

Confidences were kept, NDA’s were signed, the investigators were loosed, and bribes were poured. They salted the earth and cut to the very belly of Vienna until Tony Stark was stricken from its memory. What pictures could be found were destroyed, any video footage located was summarily deleted. Security tapes were mysteriously corrupted and any witness that could claim I saw Tony Stark, had their recollection so twisted that the waters were beyond muddied.

By the end of it, the list of illegal activities was longer than the legal, and it was all that let her sleep at night without Jarvis soothing her from the hotel phone the next pillow over.

And if the SI contingent got mouthy during those three days incommunicado in Austria, got bitchy that the private investigators and attorneys were mysteriously unhelpful about the tabloid story, the sheer force of her anger shut them down.

And when she arrived at Krakow, that she cracked the whip on SI without any mercy—

They only had themselves to blame.

With time, they discovered that the plant was one of the women in the tabloid picture. To have maneuvered Tony into the correct elevator for the waiting photographer—it was obvious in hindsight. The name of the paparazzi came a day later, and under the cover of the lawsuits beginning to fly, she made a choice.

And she chose the SI creed: the only acceptable warfare was asymmetric.

“Dig in their closets, find their skeletons. Turn over every rock they’ve ever touched and rip out the dirty secrets. I want you to dredge up their sins.”

One investigator asked. “You want blackmail?”

“No.” And she smiled then. Red mouth; blood in her teeth. “I want them obliterated. Make it happen.”

He swallowed hard. “Yes, Miss Potts.”

/~/~/~/

They made it happen.

She returned home a conqueror, Jarvis greeted her as one.

Tony never thanked her.

Chapter Text

Life was a fluctuation; constant only in its extremes.

Tony’s schedule was punishing and SI itself was a full-on nightmare. They were all grinding away keeping the Afghanistan contracts while the promise of Iraq drew closer by the week. R&D was rolling out the drafting tables while PR was building up to a field day, and even Management was at work making cozy in DC.

They were only waiting for the final signal to go.

But Tony was already running. Tony, if anything, had never stopped and no one could keep up with him. Not his contemporaries, not his enemies, and certainly not his companions. He was swinging between excesses; binging on engineering and uppers and questionable choices and on an ever-expanding sprawl of blueprints that even Jarvis couldn’t always comprehend.

She wasn’t sure when Tony was sleeping. She wasn’t sure that was even an if.

Jarvis’ complaints on the matter had gone from occasional flare-ups to a dull roar, and it was only that Tony had yet to drop flat on his face, that they weren’t trying to shove sleeping pills down his throat. Though the success of even that was unclear, considering their boss’s tolerances.

And speaking of. Tony smacked her hands away to scribble another equation on the window. In sharpie. On the car window in sharpie, and she didn’t quite know how they’d gotten to this point. “Could you just let me—”

“No.” He slapped it down. “Jarvis, run that by me again?”

“The coefficient?” He inquired.

Tony blinked, glared at his papers, and scratched out a line. “No—no. That was thirty seconds ago. The linguistics software: talk to me. What’s the goddamn holdup?”

“How could I have guessed?” Jarvis replied in full waspish acid. “To answer your question, while the keyword method is up and running, programming the in context-recognition for Arabic—not to mention Pashto and Dari and at least two-dozen minor languages—is going poorly. Trying to start the project by focusing our flagging system on the English translations only—”

“Yeah. Bad idea. Stop nagging, we’re past it. We’ve moved on. We are entirely different people now and I need you to stop holding that against me.”

“Then maybe you should have left the initial planning to me.” Jarvis hissed, and she was startled enough by the sound of his irritation, that she almost didn’t notice Tony slapping her hands away a second time.

But she did notice. “Just let me get your tie on.”

“Leave it.” Tony snapped, gaze flicking between the papers in his hands to those across the seat and then up to the window. He made another notation on the glass. “Stop it with the holding-it-against-me, J. I’ve got enough trouble with whether we’re building a new plane because the powers-that-be decided to pull the only aircraft able to intercept the radio transmissions and cell calls in the entirety of fucking Afghanistan out of the goddamn theater, without me having to hear your incessant bitching on—”

Pepper knifed across the seat. Tony startled so hard his head smacked the window, and then she was astride him, an end of his tie in each hand and her knees squeezing one of his with force.

His mouth worked soundlessly.

She tightened her grip. “Don’t yell at Jarvis.”

“O—” He blinked rapidly. “Kay?”

Her legs slacked, but she stayed hovering over him, no contact now except for his tie in her fingers.

The marker in his hand hovered dangerously close to her blouse.

“Don’t even think about it.” She warned.

The marker darted back and she finally had his full attention. Then quite promptly, she also had a leer. “I’ve had dreams that started like this.”

She started working. “Did they end with me strangling you?”

“No,” His gaze did an elevator-crawl. “But that’s certainly a possibility now.”

Jarvis sighed somewhat aggressively. “Nobody wants to hear your proclivities, Mr. Stark.”

Tony tilted back to asses her, then righted himself immediately when the next knot cut in pointedly. “Shame. I could fill an encyclopedia; it’d be incredibly educational for every American from sea to shining sea.”

“Don't hold your breath.” She returned. “Just let me finish this so the nice people who flew out all the way from the DoD to see you, don’t think you’re some kind of unwashed vagabond.”

He scoffed. “In a ten-thousand-dollar suit?”

“You think this suit only cost ten-thousand?”

He glanced down. “Honestly, once you’re past a certain thread count, you stop keeping track.”

“Remind me to show you your monthly clothing budget later. It’ll be fun.”

His hand inched to a paper near her left knee and started scribbling again. The suddenness of her position had, apparently, finally lost his interest. “Stop trying to make budget and fun happen, Potts. It's not gonna.”

She finished the final twist of the Windsor. “Budget for Strip Clubs.”

He stilled. “I have never stood more corrected in my life.” And lo, was Tony Stark greatly amazed. “You know, speaking of, on a purely hypothetical level do you think that ma—”

“No.” And she hitched off his lap and back across the seat. “That already falls under the purview of the personal entertainment account.”

He sighed, jotted down another equation, and huffed. “It’s like you live to dash my every hope.”

“You say that like it’s a new development.” She crossed her legs very primly. “Anything else, Mr. Stark? Besides me having to take the window out of the car to get pictures taken for future reference?”

Some of the tension left his shoulders, his brow, the acid pool of his mouth. “Yeah. Air Force. Plane. Inquire very discreetly if they’re looking for another RC-135, a stand-in, or something brand-spanking new. And by Air Force I mean Rhodey.”

“Got it.” She hazarded a calculation of time zones and Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes schedule, and decided that she liked her odds. “Is that all?”

The car rolled to a stop, and Tony’s gaze went over her shoulder. “Jarvis, buddy, take another run at the linguistics thing. If it’s actually unsalvageable, hurl it back at the Project Team and tell them to get their shit together.”

“It will be my pleasure, Sir.” Jarvis answered, warmly and seemingly appeased. She rather liked the sound and then the thought of burrowing into it.

Tony didn’t pause. “Super. And Potts? Schedule a get-together at Malibu for my nearest and dearest around, say…Saturday?”

Jarvis abruptly swamped them. “Sir, I don’t think that Saturday would really be—”

Tony didn’t move a muscle, and yet she could see his metaphorical heels digging in. “Saturday will very much be. Potts?”

Her Blackberry was already in-hand. “Gala or blowout?”

“Cocktails with a chance of nudity.” A grin formed, shark-teeth and starved. “Astound me.”

She let a stiletto swing. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“Sir!” Jarvis snapped again, but the door was opening and then Tony was stepping out on a full steamroll. She felt, very briefly, sorry for the Department of Defense and all it held dear.

Happy shut the door without even daring to look at her face.

Jarvis seethed at her neck, her shoulder blades; in a long and blistering line down her back.

She shuddered. “What’s wrong?”

“Saturday. There was a schedule, Miss Potts. A schedule.”

“A schedule for what?”

“Pepper,” He responded, exasperated. “Your Birthday?”

And that slammed in. “Ah.” Because she was, quite possibly, a goddamn idiot

She was in the hell-pit of the truly embarrassed, and yet not too deep to ask him: “Do you think you can talk Mr. Stark out of it? I mean, so that I can—so that we can—” She couldn’t finish, but that didn’t stop the plea from ringing clear.

She wanted an out. Pleasure before the business of pleasure.

“Yes.” He blustered, but then leeched back. Stopped his boiling along her spine. “Though I suppose this ruins some of the surprise.”

“I think us celebrating our birthdays together is hardly surprise, at this point.” She soothed. It was a gift, and one she was loathe to part with.

He moved away. “We'll see.”

/~/~/~/

Two days later, Jarvis dropped into a sulk so furious she didn’t even have to ask. Though she did query: “No?”

“No indeed.” He exhaled a tempest. “Mr. Stark was unmoved by my arguments to reschedule, and as such—here we stand.”

Hurt flinched through her. Stung. 

She and Jarvis had spent their last two birthdays together, but she doubted that he'd gone volunteering that lest they risk Tony trying to gatecrash. And if Tony’s scheduling on Saturday was actually to disrupt them, it would mean he’d spent more than five seconds at a stretch thinking about her, and then had troubled himself enough to ask when her birthday was so he could ruin it. And that sequence right there was so ludicrous she immediately threw it off the table. This wasn’t Tony’s flavor vindictiveness or willing level of effort, and while things had been uneasy for months, she and Tony weren’t actively at war with each other.

If anything, Tony was at war with the world, and she kept stumbling in and out of the crossfire.

That left the simplest option. Jarvis hadn’t volunteered the exact reasons for his objection, and Tony being Tony had only seen a fight and went in swinging. What was that even like? To be able to go through life so oblivious?

“Well.” She reeled it back in. “I suppose we’ll just have to bend to Tony’s whim.”

The very air rumbled. Low, sinking, dangerously deep.

She clenched her thighs and swallowed hard. Nothing nothing just a crush just a crush just a—

Not now. Not now.

She turned sweet. “We’ll start his party at 11:59 PM.”

And just as quickly Jarvis dispersed, and she was sorry for it. For stopping the trembling of the walls so soon.

Damned if she did.

Damned if she didn’t.

He curled in, slinking and satisfied. “Mr. Stark is of the opinion that any start time before 9:00 PM is—how did he say it? For squares?”

“Quite.” She batted her lashes. “What do you say? My birthday first, and then to Mr. Stark’s party that is technically on Saturday?”

The warmth of him was the rise of a sun. “How could I ever say no to that?”

/~/~/~/

Saturday came, and Jarvis had not been lying about his schedule.

Morning was spent at the Malibu House with grapefruit and crepes and Belgian waffles piled with raspberries. She drank sparkling water by the glass and then at the strike of 10:00 AM got to have her cake. It was her turn to do the Potts candle tradition, and Jarvis listened to her so attentively she wanted to drown in the moment and never breech reality.

But breech she did. Half an hour later Jarvis shipped her out the house and straight to a five-star Resort and Spa. She could have cried and frankly almost did. Hot stones were laid along her spine, there was a full-body scrub, a shea butter massage was followed by hot oil hair treatments and then a ginseng mask. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been able to sit for three hours and do absolutely nothing. Not work, not think, not even have to support her own body-weight.

Down with gravity, up with her. Long may her idleness reign.

Once she was scrubbed all shiny and new, she was given a late lunch and then whisked off to a mani-pedi that eventually ended with her in the Resort salon to have her hair and makeup done. Her Bluetooth was returned to her then, and by dint of that, so was Jarvis. They chatted for the next ninety minutes as her hair was curled and pinned in intricate layers.

She wondered at it. “Did you pick the style?”

Jarvis did not demure. “Yes, and my great hair-magazine consolidation is culminating beautifully, if I have to say.”

She turned that over on her tongue. Beautifully. It stayed there sharp-sweet for a long while, and then—

And then.

The hallway carpeting was thick under her feet, and they were alone. “Are you going to tell me what all of this is leading up to?”

“Who says the means aren’t ends in themselves?”

Who indeed? But she knew: “You’re not that obvious.”

He rolled like a shrug. “I’ll have to take that as a compliment, I think.”

The door to their reserved space in the Resort loomed ahead. Something in her rose to it: anxiety, anticipation, yearning. Always with the yearning.

She grabbed the handle. “Any hints?”

“Don’t get hesitant on us now.” He chastised, and oh, how she always rose to that as well.

She pushed the door. Her heart gave way.

Sweeping lines, jewel-tones, endless shapes. A camera in every corner inside a temporary Eden. She stepped through and let it swallow her. Five dress-forms stood in a half-moon sickle. Each one of them held the full sprawl of a Ballgown. Versace, Gaultier, Valentino, Chanel, Givenchy.

She couldn’t catch her breath. “Jarvis?”

“Pick one for this evening, Pepper.” He was hovering near. “The rest will keep.”

“The rest—” She froze halfway to the Valentino. “Will what?”

He put on all sorts of airs of exasperation, but there was no hiding it; the breadth of his pleasure. “They’re all yours. Each and every one. But really, Miss Potts, you can only wear one at a time.”

“I—” She blinked a little, voice cracking and eyes damp. She wasn’t going to cry. She wasn’t going to cry. “That’s…good god. You’re impossible. You're the best, have I said that lately?”

He was levity itself. “I can always stand to hear it.”

And he could, so she did: “You are simply the best and I utterly adore you.”

“Miss Potts,” He said, scandalized and delighted. “What will the papers say?”

“That all others were found wanting beside you.” The flirting was easy, half-joking and half-not, and she couldn’t hold it. Fluttering. Spinning. Her hands wouldn't stop touching sleeves and lace and every neckline. “How much time do we have?”

“Seventy-five minutes. I assumed you’d prefer a bit of hands-on examination first.”

She breathed in reverence. “Do I ever.”

/~/~/~/

Five minutes later, she yelped behind the changing screens. “Are these—did you have someone put shoes back here?”

“I was wondering when you’d find them.” And in that moment there had never been another being in creation as smug as he. “Ten pairs, two for each dress. They're all yours too, if you were asking.”

He was dizzying. He was impossible. God have mercy on her. “Jarvis, tell the papers that she died as she lived.”

“And how’s that?”

She snorted. “Spoiled to death.”

/~/~/~/

The gown wore like armor.

The bodice and sleeves were Venetian lace, every inch in a shade of Tuscany gold. It clung to her without any give, but that was not what had drawn her to it. It was what started at her hips, what ran along her spine, what flowed from her skirts all the way to the floor.

Stitched to the silk were thousands upon thousands of interlocking metal plates, each no larger than a fingernail. They slipped from the color of honey to new gold to burnished amber and then finally bronze at the hem. Her every movement rippled a susurrus in the air. It was a rasping, breathing hiss. Scales, and she thought of Sirens.

She thought of the sea.

She thought of the sun as the light went across her as fire. It was like a dream. A fever. An impossible state of being.

“I’m dazzled.” Jarvis breathed, honest as could be.

She let the tiniest bit of self-depreciation unfurl. “That might be the light getting in your eyes.”

“And what a light it is.” He declared. “You look beautiful, Pepper.”

For once in her life, she didn’t fight the rush. “Thank you. I’m glad you think so.” She was nearly crippled by it. He shouldn’t be saying things like that while doing things like this. He heart couldn’t take it.

There was a ripple along her ear. “One last thing, Pepper, and then it’s off to our true destination.” And the lenses of his eyes swiveled away like a guiding light.

She followed the line of his gaze and there at a far table were three boxes. They were made of metal; luminous yet dark. “All of them?”

“They’re all yours, but you’ll want the one on the left tonight.” He confirmed.

The metal of the left box was cold to the touch. There were seams in it, and she slid her fingernails in and tugged.

And there in the light of her fire—jewelry. A matching set. A waterfall of a necklace, four bracelets, a ring that spanned two fingers in filigree and precision edges. A hair pin, an anklet, a flowering brooch. And staged in the middle of it all was a pair of earrings. They had center display, and the stones set inside of them burned.

He spoke to her unasked question. “I’ll admit that everything in the box is as it appears, but the earrings—those are my pièce de résistance. It took months to get those right."

“Are these…” Her hands couldn’t decide what to touch. “Did you?”

“There's fabrication machinery in Mr. Stark’s workshop.” He made a crumbling noise. “I suppose you could say that I made them.”

And suddenly, deeply, the nearly six-figures worth of ballgowns and stilettos behind her were gone. Unimportant. Trivial. “Jarvis...these are exquisite. I don't know what to say, they're...you made these. You..." And she could reach them. They were cold and corporeal and warmed at her touch.

They were proof of life.

There was a softness, a nearness of him. “I suppose it’s my turn to say that I’m glad you think so.”

Tears gathered in her eyes. “What makes the earrings so special?”

“There's a transmitter inside them. I have yet to devise a way to draw power solely by surface skin-contact, but once placed through your ears, they will be powered by your pulse.”

Her throat was brittle, bone and glass. “They’ll transmit my heartbeat?”

“Yes,” There was a shuffle, a dip, a presence in retreat. “GPS, health monitoring, and by a certain stretch—an automatic panic button.”

Every time her heart would beat—here I am. Hear me. Hear the rhythm of me.

And he, I want to find you.

And her, I want you to find me.

The earrings came loose as they’d been waiting for her to take them. The stones in them burned red, violet, gold. She pulled them apart with delicate care.

They went in so easily, and Jarvis swam close and they breathed in time. She put on a necklace, a bracelet, a ring. All gold, all new, all untouched but for her and him. There was a trembling in the air between them.

“Thank you.” He whispered.

In the end, she could only echo him in turn.

/~/~/~/

The earrings wore like armor, too.

/~/~/~/

It was a Ballet, ultimately. His grand endgame.

La Bayadère.

Heads had turned with her entrance, and the paparazzi outside had gone into a frenzy thinking she was somebody. 

The Ballet Company was recording the performance for advertising purposes, and Jarvis had hacked the system days previous to allow himself through. He was in every corner and every eye.

He'd reserved them a ten-person box, and not another human was allowed within. She wasn't lonely at all. They whispered as the orchestra tuned; murmured as the curtain came up. They spoke through the first act, the second, and then quieted in the third.

She watched the dance and thought, I want to dance with him. 

Only and ever.

She couldn't voice the thought.

And that was the moment she finally cried, her heart so full it was near to breaking.

Chapter Text

Los Angeles at night bathed in mercury-blue. The lamps were lit, the traffic humming, the neon signs sizzling red somewhere above. Light and mercury. The warring buzz went to the very backs of her teeth. It was one of those nights; the kind when it felt like she could drink electricity and swallow all her doubts.

Her spoon clattered blue against the side of the dish. Red. The tiramisu, when she ate it, was divine on the tongue. “So you’re standing by it?”

“The entire production was quite aesthetically pleasing, but the interpretative nature is a slog. I can’t say I favor the medium.”

She laughed. “Interpretative—did you just call it interpretative dance?”

“What else should it be called?”

She picked up her mug. The Irish coffee, Jarvis-ordered, burned all the way in. “Ballet? Fine art?”

“I stand by my assessment and still prefer the cinema. Movies are, at the very least, not dependent on deriving thematic meaning from every coupé jeté en tournant that crosses our path.”

Her legs unlaced and her skirt was shattering light. “You liked the musicals we watched just fine.”

He made a vaguely irate sound. “Musicals express character motive outright. In song, no less. Those aren’t exactly enigmas.”

She paused. “Point.” And felt a long ebb. “But did you like it, tonight?”

“I think I did.” And his teasing slipped a notch. “I’ve seen performances online, but…there’s something to be said for seeing it raw. For having every angle.” He curled in pleasantly. “For the good company with which to see it.”

She was soft. “There is.”

He hummed something in agreement, and for a time, she listened to him and the traffic in tide. Her eyelids were heavy. “This isn’t half bad, for a close.”

“I would certainly hope.” It was just the two of them on the patio, at that little eatery only notable for its nearness to the Theater. It was all concrete and wrought iron and ivy creeping down to wither its ends on sticky pavement. What he’d paid for it to stay open six hours past its usual closing, she didn’t care to ask. Less than the Ballgown. More than her driver.

Probably.

“And I want it clear that I like your choices.” The truth of that burned as clean as the neon. “You know; good behavior, future reference, my undying thanks. So forth and so on.”

“Your ability to emotionally multitask is greatly appreciated.” Came his dry response, but there was something under it: a threading of his pleasure.

She liked that too. “Thank you, dear.” And barely managed not to flutter her lashes. “I know that’s at least your twentieth favorite thing about me.” There was no camera to play to here, so she bided her time.

“Don’t sell yourself short,” He chided. “That’s top ten at least.”

She perked up. “So there’s a list.”

“It would seem that way, wouldn’t it?” He answered flippantly, and that was the tone of a System who would not be pinned down.

That didn’t mean that she couldn’t try. “So are you going to share or leave me dying in suspense?”

He became a susurrus in the never-ending buzz. “The first item on that list—if such a thing existed which I certainly wouldn’t claim—might start with an S.”

“Oh my god,” He was actually going to do this to her. “Really?”

“You asked.” And he was perfectly smug in knowing that he’d caught her, in knowing that she’d keep trying no matter how cagey he got. It was ridiculous how easily he managed to snare her into embarrassing overreaches.

“Smart?” She asked hopefully. “Sophisticated?”

“All true," He sang. "But no.”

It felt indecent, self-indulgent, but the Irish coffee was helping her along. “Scintillating?”

“Quite true.” He answered, half-laughing, and the sound was impossible to live with. Impossible to live on. “But still no. I doubt you’re going to guess it.”

“If you say sanctimonious—”

“I would never say that.”

She was half-dreaming; sweat in her hair and her cheeks warm with whiskey. “Give me a hint.”

“That would be telling.” He was brighter than the mercury. He was drifting in the blue.

“Sincere?”

And she wouldn’t trade him for anything.

/~/~/~/

“Jarvis, we do have to go to Malibu at some point.”

He sighed. “I was hoping you’d forgotten.”

Her spoon rattled in the dish. “Unlikely.”

“It was worth a try.”

She tried to cheer him up. “Maybe Tony forgot he wanted a party?”

Jarvis flattened. “Unlikely.”

It was her turn to sigh. “It was worth a try, wasn't it?”

/~/~/~/

If Los Angeles had been mercury, the Malibu House was red. Pounding, swimming, drowning in its very sound. It settled on her skin like fever.

Lights ran in sinuous currents. It was vertigo inducing, and she felt like she was diving. Deep, deeper. A White Russian sweated in her hand; coffee-rum and cream chasing cream and Irish coffee. It was something to cling to.

The bass was its own pulse, and the crowd it drove was nearly a living organism unto itself. But when she moved, they parted. The dress certainly helped on that front. In a land of high-thigh skirts and platform heels, she was the proverbial outlier. Every time she so much as took a step, the alien-red rippled just enough to let her through. It was some flavor of admiration and confusion with an unexpected dose of courtesy.

She’d take it.

In the moment, in that light, she wondered what she looked like in his eyes. Sweat. Skin. All that gold in the red.

She took a drink.

Jarvis grafted himself to her side. “Mr. Stark is thirty feet up and another ten to your left.” It wasn’t exactly a miracle that she could hear him; she knew the acoustics of Malibu were both his kingdom and domain. But, still. A girl could appreciate.

He was so damn close.

The heat in her throat eased lower. She found the nearest camera and raised her glass in salute.

“Would you prefer another drink after you’ve finished?” He asked so very courteously.

She considered it briefly and made a so-so gesture.

“Ah. In which case, just inform me when you're feeling parched.”

She shot him one last grin (felt one last aching rush) and finished pushing through. Tony was slightly off the main room, his surrounding group small and his gaze away from her approach. As she got closer, the volume halved and then halved again.

That was something.

It must have been the metal, the light, the flickers across the walls that made him turn. His jaw dropped.

The floating churn inside her went more than a little smug. Bully for her.

His jaw clicked shut and he offered an arm. “Have you ever, even once, gotten the memo on how to dress at my parties? Do you ignore them? Does it give you pleasure to see me suffer?”

His little crowd parted and of the two women in it, one went starry-eyed at the sight of her gown and the other went completely sour. Pepper didn’t much care. “In order: yes, yes, and also yes.” And slid neatly under his arm. “Capital-Y yes on the last one.”

The arm settled comfortably around her back with one hand decorously on her hip. His mouth was a knife. “Good to know where I stand under the heel of my dictator.”

He probably expected something venomous in return, so her tone went sugary. “You wouldn't be able to stand, Mr. Stark.”

That yanked out a surprised laugh. Something, maybe bourbon, nearly splashed from his glass and to the floor. “So is it fun-Potts tonight?”

“I,” She said primly. “Am a delight.”

“You really are.” And wasn’t that generous of him. He ogled her from head to heels. “Did you have to stop on the way over here to knight someone? Marry a Prince?”

She snorted. “That’d be very Grace Kelly, wouldn’t it?”

He paused, then held up his fingers like he was framing her face and said: “You know—”

“Don’t finish that thought.”

“I’m just saying; I know three Royal Houses. I could hook you up.” He squinted at her. “Why don’t you ever let me hook you up?”

“Because that might, just maybe, draw my attention from you?”

He snapped his fingers. “That’s it. Potts, take a memo. You can’t marry into a Royal House. Or any house, I’m making a blanket ban. No marriage.”

Good god. With a single move, she knocked back her drink. “No Blackberry on me, so, no. You’re lucky that I’m buzzed and you’re…” That was a question she should have asked on the way over. She paused to scrutinize his face. That had been happening more lately: her trying to find his inebriation, the absolute level, the method of its arrival somewhere in his eyes.

And tonight he looked—good. Laidback. Loose.

Something there, but not much of it.

His mouth pulled, a little soft and a little indulgent. “Getting there. Don’t you worry.”

She sniffed prissily.

He squeezed her close. “Okay, opinion time. Cause we’ve been stuck on this for the last ten minutes: Jarvis hung up something new, and refuses to tell me where the fuck it came from. Put your degree to use Potts. What say you?” And he maneuvered her to face the wall his group had been surrounding.

And through a well and truly glorious buzz, her heart spasmed.

God fucking fuck.

There was Jarvis’ birthday present in an endless surge of blue. Under this light the painting was a sight to behold. It looked like bruises, like blood, like her heart in vivisection and permanent display.

A beat passed.

“Not a clue.” Why was her glass empty? What did bad things happen to good assistants? “I need another drink. A double.”

“You didn’t even try.” He accused.

She stared him down. “Write your congressman.”

And somewhere in the surrounding rush—Jarvis started laughing and didn’t stop.

/~/~/~/

Every time she blinked, she lost seconds. Stutter-stop. Her tongue caught at her teeth and tasted sweet.

Jarvis was an amorphous presence; thinner than silk at her wrists and yet forming a sinuous coil along her back. In the air itself he was a cloud, a thousand twining threads, a divided stream.

A shudder took her from scalp to knees.

“How are you finding it,” He asked. “Being twenty-five?”

Her room was an oasis. White-light, quiet walls, still hands. Her pulse though—that was something else entirely. “Sublime.”

The weight of him at her back curved up, went over her hip, across her stomach, up her arm and shoulder and then—god. 

Against her neck, prickling, so close and so close.

He murmured. “We’ll see how long that holds.”

“Let it last.” Her fingers fumbled up her spine and into the space he’d vacated. The pearl buttons began to fall from their loops. “I’m a quarter-century in the grave, no reason to cut it any shorter.”

His sigh was more of a whole-room upheaval. “Why must you always be this morbid?”

“Because cynicism needs its underpinnings.” Her fingers kept unspooling the gown. “Though. Maybe. That might be the third cosmopolitan talking.”

“It’s a very loquacious drink.” He observed.

“It is.” And whether she should have been taking off her dress in the middle of the room—the question never took root. Heat crept up her spine; shivered.

Sheared.

She pulled off each sleeve and let it drop, shifted it down her hips, then shimmied a touch and let the whole thing pool to the ground. She stared at it, struck. “That is five-figures of clothing on my floor.”

“You know,” Jarvis said. “That might actually be a record.”

“Best birthday ever.” She agreed cheerfully and gathered it close. It took about five minutes longer than necessary to hang it up, but admittedly, she was drunk and her intentions were dubious. As soon as she stepped into the bathroom, he’d stop following, stop pressing and rippling and twining in like a much-wanted vice. 

It was a very unfortunate outcome.

“You need to drink some water and get to bed.” He called, prying at her shoulders and then her ribs. A thousand wanting hooks. “It’s been a day.”

Sheets, Egyptian cotton, feather pillows. Bed. Bedded. You could take me to bed if you wanted. She giggled outrageously but did as he asked. Every time she blinked, the seconds lost grew longer. The bathroom tile was cold on her feet. The bathroom sink was colder on her abdomen. Her skin burned against it all. She drank two glasses of water, and her head swam with something molten.

She caught sight of herself: balconette bra and matching lingerie and—she’d forgotten to unpin her hair. Fuck. The pins started clattered and littering the sink and then the floor too. That mess would be a problem for a more sober her. Tomorrow-her.

That woman deserved no quarter.

When her hair was at last undone, she swanned back into the bedroom and found the lights were dim. That was definitely a sign. “Wish me goodnight?”

“Goodnight, Pepper.” And he pressed at her elbows and the small of her back. It was a position that could only be used to propel her forward, and he did. “And Happy Birthday to you.”

“That ended a few hours ago, but.” Her spine was liquid as she slid into the sheets. She twisted once, bunched up a pillow to hug, and nestled down. “Thank you anyways.”

“Every time, Pepper.” He was somewhere near and maybe on the bed itself. “Go to sleep.”

Her face was already mashed into a pillow. “G’night.” And then her eyes closed and she was gone.

/~/~/~/

She dreamed in red.

/~/~/~/

She dreamed in—

The Maserati, the Ferrari, the Lamborghini. Both. All. None of the above.

The engine purred and then kicked to take the curve. She was laughing. She was burning. The engine purred and thundered and hit.

Thighs, palms. Knees jammed against the dashboard. Braced in as the acceleration pumped, thrummed, ached—

She dreamed in red. Malibu, not Malibu, a crowd washed in light. Nothing chased her until he chased her, and how could it be any other way. Hands and arms and bodies. Her skin singing in the sweat. A weight on her back, on all, closing in on every inch and riding with the tempo.

(An engine hummed inside her bones.)

Hands, heat, her arms wrapped around—

Not Malibu, but she walked to the sea. Reality unstitched and re-folded. Summer, sun, July. She was swimming and the sun was unrelenting and god, I have been here before. Something in the water with her, something like touch with her. Drifting, sinking, calling.

The tide pulled and pulled and rocked.

Tempo, heat, an engine. They finally took the curve—

/~/~/~/

She came awake with a groan and her blood throbbing so tightly between her legs that she could have died.

Her skull sloshed until she was nearly doubled over and letting out a high-pitched whine. It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t her fault that no one would touch her, hadn’t touched her since—

Her brain was fractured. There was only thwarted desire and an overpowering need. She rolled on her stomach. It’d be awful, but it’d be some kind of completion, and then she could sleep and maybe die in full.

One hand unclenched from the sheets and skated down her abdomen.

She raised her hips and resettled. What had been the tempo? What had been…?

Unimportant. She hooked her thumbs in her underwear, wiggled out, and then tossed them from under the sheets. The heel of her hand dug in, her nails scored her thigh, and then—

Fuck. Fuck.

Tempo. Rhythm. She just had to find—

Her brain picked up a little, she didn’t feel sober, but maybe that would help. Sobriety had not been her friend as of late.

Focus.

Dancing, a crowd, something in the water. She distantly remembered a summer in a lake, thighs clenched around a boy and getting nowhere. That had been—she shoved the memory aside.

Something with—an engine. In a car? A running one, low-slung and throbbing, her body pressed into the leather. Gravity, acceleration. Laws of bleeding motion.

There, close enough.

She hitched up her hips again, nearer still and maybe this wouldn't be a disaster. A breathy sigh came out of her once, twice, thrice. It was easy, it’d be easy, rhythm and velocity and a cold stretch of metal—

Her lashes fluttered open. The ocean was dark and the horizon a streak of red. The sun must have been barely a glimmer in the east. Tide. Their tide. Rocking and rocking and oh, wasn’t that nice. In the ocean but maybe up against—

Why was the ocean outside her window?

It occurred to her, then, that she wasn’t in her apartment.

It also occurred to her that she was about to hit the edge.

Her mind slotted and her pulse stitched time. She was in Malibu and there were two cameras in the room and one outside the window. More often than not, they faced her in the bed, and it was with that realization—

Heat sparked, and the conflagration that followed burned her to the fucking ground. Breathe, breathe, breathe.

There was nothing.

There was silence.

For a long minute, she wasn't sure that she hadn't died, hadn't actually died.

It didn't come to be. Her fingers twitched, her breath stirred the hair across her face, and as she laid there with the full knowledge of what she had done, and just who she had done it in front of—

Pepper rather wished that the orgasm had killed her.

Chapter Text

That, she thought through a fog. Is not a crush.

Sweat made a damp cocoon of the sheets; salt and spent heat and the weakness left in the aftermath. Her thighs ached and her abdomen trembled, and in that moment, she laid still. That was not even remotely a crush.

A crush was giggling, dipped lashes, little flutters and longing looks. A crush was a daydream and a brief few minutes wasted every day. It was a little sharp sometimes, but nothing more. 

It didn’t roar through like a gasoline fire and leave no survivors.

Sobriety leeched in. There was a moment of indecision, a moment of pure animal terror where her heart couldn’t decide between seizing or thundering out of her chest. Jarvis usually spoke the moment she was awake; schedules or weather conditions or some pithy little remark she’d welcome with a smile. Since she’d been displaying quite an energetic bit of wakefulness less than a minute ago—she had a choice to make, or it’d be made for her.

That wasn’t a crush, so what the hell was—

Option A: brazen it out right to his face. Act like it was inconsequential because Tony was the benchmark of this house, and by comparison, the entire performance she’d just put on was so tame as to be both passé and forgettable.

Option B: brazen it out by not talking about it. Ever. At all. 

Option C: apologize. Apologize for everything and anything while also praying for the Malibu House to pitch itself into the sea.

Option D: play dead and hope that Jarvis would buy it, or be merciful enough to pretend that he did.

What what what, what was—

Her lashes rasped once against her hair. The sea was dark; the horizon was red.

In one slow movement, she gripped the comforter and rolled. It covered her torso and draped most of her body out of direct sightline. Her legs were still in open air, but no one spoke.

The ocean pulled.

Slowly, she drew her legs up until they joined her inside the blanket of shame. Her pulse jumped. Thudded. Hurt.

Nothing stirred, and option Play Dead seemed a-go. One minute passed. Five. Ten. Her heart didn’t steady, but it didn’t explode.

What was she doing, honestly?

Being charmed by Jarvis had been one thing. It’d been superficial, could be chalked up to loneliness and ego and a weakness to flattery. It was pitiful, but it was hardly a crisis. Humans had been finding emotional solace in the inanimate since the dawn of thought itself.

But this wasn’t charm. This was pulse-pounding, bone-deep, all out sexual attraction. She’d dreamed eons through the night, but in all of it, she’d dreamed of him. Had—fucking christ—gotten off to him.

You want something that can’t want you back. You want want want like a dying man drinks seawater to drive off thirst.

She could try to shy away again, chalk it up to the same sort of feeling as seeing a good-looking car or hearing a clean run engine. Harmless; evocative of other memories and other bodies and nothing on its own. But she had been trying just that since February, and three months later here she was with a hand between her legs and heat still dissipating from the sheets.

This entire situation had barreled right past abstracts into a genuine goddamn crisis, and she hadn’t even bothered sending herself a memo. The only question now was—how? Had it come from loneliness or deprivation or…something being truly wrong? Something gone malignant in her own psychology?

It was easy to see, knowing Jarvis, how her initial crush had formed. It was impossible to understand how from that superficial stage, she’d built up such an obsessive, one-sided emotional rapport that she’d ended up here with heart hurting and thighs aching.

Sweat cooled. Damp, lingering, sharp and then eventually stagnant.

Happy birthday, She thought morosely. You went crazy before you turned twenty-five.

/~/~/~/

Option D eventually became Option B. She didn’t sleep again but the clock kept running, and even under the blanket of shame itself, late-morning sun was pouring in.

It couldn't be avoided forever.

Cautiously, she inched out from under the comforter. Her underwear were crumpled some feet away on the floor. There was no use trying to grab them to avoid being naked from the waist down, since she was already naked from the waist down. With her head purposefully turned from that vulgar scrap of lace, she hitched up a sheet like a skirt and fled straight to the bathroom.

It wasn’t dignified, but that particular boat was one she was never getting back on. She showered for an hour. She picked up the bobby pins from the floor. She dressed in clothes from the hamper because she wasn’t going back out in nothing but a towel in order to peruse.

When she at last stopped panicking in front of the mirror (and checking her hair for the thirty-eight time) there was one last fortifying breath and she stepped out. There was no voice wishing her good morning. There was, in fact, no sign of him at all. And did that mean that he was—

She bludgeoned it. Trying to read motives into his behavior was her playing games with herself, and she couldn’t do that anymore. It wouldn’t hold.

She nearly hurtled herself out of the bedroom, but that was when the glitter caught. Drunk-her, at least, had been kind enough to pile all her jewelry onto the vanity. She hesitated over the scattered remains, trailing fingers and eyes over machine-wrought gold.

Proof of life. Proof of projection. Proof of—

She plucked the earrings out of the pile and kept them in her hands.

/~/~/~/

“Would you like breakfast, Miss Potts?” Jarvis asked later, chatter as easy and banal as ever. “I believe both Mr. Stark and his guest are soon to stir, if you wished to fortify yourself.”

“I’ll pass.” She kept her breathing even; had been keeping it even since she stepped outside her door. “But after I escort Mr. Stark’s guest from the premises, would you call me a car?”

“Destination?”

“My apartment.” She didn't justify it further.

“Of course.” He answered as if this was any other request. Any other morning. “Now in the meantime: Western, War film, or Shakespeare?”

It was a question they’d delivered to each other a hundred times over, and it would be easy to answer in the affirmative. Reflexive.

But there was a new and brittle steel inside her. “Ask me later when my head hurts less.”

He dipped in concern. “My apologies, I forgot yesterday evening’s effects might still linger. Rain check?”

She nodded once. “Rain check.” 

The earrings left divots in her palm.

/~/~/~/

Loneliness. Deprivation. Malignancy.

What have you done to yourself?

She needed to eliminate some variables.

/~/~/~/

The bar was long; rosewood and fire-lighting and the not so subtle suggestion of a speakeasy. Laughter gilded the air. There was a piano in the corner playing slow jazz accompanied by a double bass and the low-mourning of a saxophone.

She remembered, dimly, a time when she’d been smaller. Younger. Iowa: a bar with less glass and more pine. There’d been a roughly tuned piano and her sitting on the bench beside her father as he played. Smiling faces, ashtrays, laughter. Her mom with a Shirley temple in-hand and leaning over, cheap pink lipstick smudged as she sang to the tune.

It was strange sometimes, the things that came to mind.

But then again, an old memory was much kinder than the reason she’d dolled herself up to come out here. She’d thought of doing this alone, but frankly, hanging off Obadiah’s arm now was something of a relief. No one made for a security blanket quite like all six-foot-four of him did.

He tucked her into his side as they jostled their way towards the bar. “I didn’t think you’d take the invitation.”

“I had an evening free.” She’d carved it out with prejudice from her and Tony’s schedule. “I figured I should attend at least one non-SI party during my career.”

His brows rose. “I’m sorry I’ve failed you until this day.”

“Don't be, here I am and here you are and the situation finds itself rectified.” Because if a classy, crowded party was to be found, all a girl had to do was follow Obadiah Stane until such an occasion sprung itself on him.

“No time like the present.” He flashed her an overwhelming grin. “What’s the poison?”

“Rum and research.” She scuffed well-manicured nails across his sleeve. “In that exact order.”

His gaze fairly glittered. Diamond, gin, old gold. “Should I ask?”

“If I’m out with you, Tony doesn’t realize that I’m hiding from him.” Or from the Malibu House, so that wasn’t even a lie. The house was currently no man’s land, and for the past month, Tony had been even more volatile than she. There were good days and bad days and black days and manic days, and all of them happening were in so quick of a succession that she could no longer keep up.

Just thinking about it had her stomach in knots. Tonight was selfish and stupid and juvenile but she—she had to stay sane. She had to eliminate the variables around Jarvis until only the truth was left for her to either fix or burn.

He snorted. “Fair enough.” And then they were at a bar covered in cold-cut crystal. With what she suspected to be the sheer magnetism of a rich man who’d only ever gotten his way, the bartender shot to attention and Obadiah barely had to gesture to bring him over. Though if she was being honest, the flare of his ruby-studded cufflinks probably helped on that front.

In short order their drinks were arranged and Pepper was nursing a glass. There wouldn’t be a repeat of her birthday, the liquor was merely requisite camouflage. They surveyed the multitudes: young, gorgeous, affluent but none from real money. It was her own age-group and Mr. Stane’s favored dating pool. For a minute, she stopped her search and merely watched his. Blonde, brunette, another blonde. Statuesque, athletic, petite. Quite a spread, but nowhere near Tony’s range of palate.

She tilted her chin. “Player’s choice, Mr. Stane. Good conversation? Good humor?” Her voice turned to honey. “Good company?”

He nearly choked on his drink. “Jesus—is this why Tony keeps you near at parties?”

She shrugged. “Possibly.”

There was a flabbergasted pause. “And you’re just going to…what, exactly? Snap your fingers, gather the flock?”

She was both deeply and profoundly expectant. “You’ve never seen me work a room, have you?”

His mouth wavered between incredulity and a grin. “I have the feeling I’m about to be amazed.”

For the first time in a week, she grinned in turn. “Possibly.”

All told, it took less than seventeen minutes of her guiding them around making introductions and fast quips and laughing at well-timed jokes for her to zero in. The woman they arrived at was dusky-skinned, tall, effervescent and with an IQ that bumped up against their own. More importantly: she’d been watching Obadiah’s broad shoulders from the minute he’d walked in.

Really, she’d barely had to try. Tony usually didn’t have the advantage of being head and shoulders above the crowd.

She made the introduction and then watched triumphantly as Obadiah lit. A hand went to the small of the woman’s back, their chemistry practically set a fire, and within five minutes he’d entirely forgotten Pepper as they chattered about the 18th Amendment and Constitutional Law and then, inexplicably, whether it was better to age bourbon in a rickhouse or a barrel at sea.

Victory, thy name was Potts. She hardly noticed the man at her elbow until her spoke: “You’ve stolen my conversational partner, you know.”

Two years of Tony Stark left zero hesitation in returning the volley. “Steal is such a strong word. Try aiding and abetting.”

The man behind her had a thin mouth, large hands, a dark head of hair and ash-pale eyes. Overall, he was quite agreeable to look at. Arresting, if she was being perfectly honest, and she could be honest.

His thin mouth revealed a quick-wit behind it. “What’s the sentence for that, then, in the court of social opinion?”

“Eye for an eye.” Her lips quirked. “Take it or leave it.”

His eyes crinkled when he smiled. “Buy you a drink?”

She glanced to her untouched glass. “I was getting tired of this one anyways.”

/~/~/~/

“Duncan.” He introduced himself later. Playwright, warm grip, just full-enough of himself that she didn’t have to feel bad about this.

Her tongue stilled a moment. “Virginia.” And then she offered an unadorned hand. “Charmed.”

/~/~/~/

That night turned to a second date at a wine tasting; a comfortable arm over her shoulder, a hand at her back, a corporeal weight with its own body-heat. At the end of the night, she’d slipped into the town car before he could think to ask for anything more than a quick goodnight.

When she went to Malibu the next morning, a shiver crossed her skin as Jarvis met her at the door.

The second date turned to a third that didn’t leave the gate, mostly because Tony called from two counties over in lockup on a gun charge because why couldn’t he be shooting prototype sidearms with junkies in Fresno? What are we Potts, Switzerland? Communists? The death of the Second Amendment itself? Not on my watch.

When that situation had blown over after three tabloid stories, a blistering piece in the LA Times, and SI Legal with a blood vendetta against all of Fresno County—that non-third date became a fourth.

She slept in her apartment every night in-between. At the darkest hours, even with the memory of touch finally new, she ached still.

She dreamed of sound.

The fourth date landed in late June with the pair of them outside a vegan Bistro in the Palisades. The man was regaling her with what should have been a fascinating story about backpacking trip he’d taken in Nepal, and any other time she would have asked all the right questions and touched his arm at all the right points.

But she and Jarvis had kicked-off an argument just that morning over Albert Camus’ historical opinion on the atomic bomb in conjunction with the Absurdism movement he’d started, and she’d spent entire day derailed and writing up a near dissertation in her head to counter Jarvis the second he next saw her because he would rue the day.

The dissertation piled up through Duncan talking. He didn’t seem to notice her lack of attention. But when her eyes stayed fixed on his face…well, he noticed that.

The misread, when it happened, was easy to understand.

He dipped in.

She thought of a kiss on cold glass, of longing. Still and yet and true.

She leaned away. He shuffled a moment, thwarted and confused and irritated by his own confusion. A quick step into his space could fix all of that, a press of mouths. A simple bit of intimacy to quell them.

And all she could think was: I don’t want to be here.

And there it was. Her shoulders went loose. “This isn’t going to work.”

It had never been meant to. Data gathered, research done, and she only had the guilt to carry.

“What, I mean—” His shoulders went up, defensive, but she didn’t care enough to hear what he had to say.

She walked away, bitch in heels, and wondered if he thought the same. It wasn’t inaccurate. She hailed a cab, unwilling to wait there a second longer. It was over and done and she had her answer: it wasn’t loneliness, it wasn’t even deprivation.

In the cab, she opened her clutch and drew out a pair of earrings. She'd been carrying them around for weeks. Gold, stones like fire, a design born in binary. Location in a heartbeat and all it took was skin to metal ignition.

She put them in. Thirty seconds later, her phone rang.

A welcome voice was on the line. “Why on earth are you in the Palisades? Did you lose a bet?”

“Only with myself.” She sighed. “It’s so gentrified here that it hurts my soul.”

Jarvis tisked. “And we can’t have that. Couture therapy at the house?”

There’d be online catalogues as far as the eye could see, and he’d help her pick through every one. Right there with her; exactly where she wanted both of them to be.

Her hands went soft in her lap. “Yes please.”

/~/~/~/

And that answered that. Being fucked in the head was all her: no assistance required.

A day into July, she booked herself a weekly full-body massage and considered it the best stop-gap available. It’d be human contact, skin on skin, at least one of her starvations eased. Deprivation may not have started the infatuation, but it sure as hell hadn’t helped it. Jarvis was in her life and she was both unequivocally and devastatingly attracted to him. She wasn’t getting over him by getting under someone else, and with that fixed in her mind, the only thing left was to let the feelings run their course.

She’d just have to survive it.

Tony was being Tony and SI was out on a limb, and Jarvis would be working with her as closely as ever. It was clear her heart was set on him and wouldn't be dissuaded, and there was no more time for that existential crisis. She’d either starve it out, or starve herself out.

Whatever broke first.

Chapter Text

The inside of the private terminal was dim. Considering the glare outside, it was something of a selling point. The air conditioning cycled and she reveled, if only for a minute, in air that didn’t scorch like tar.

She tried to savor the little things in life; it kept morale at a satisfactory level.

Jarvis hummed to life. “The jet has finished disembarking; except arrival within ninety seconds.”

“Acknowledged.” She checked her Bluetooth had a snug fit and rose. “How’s his disposition?”

“As well as it can be, I’d imagine.” Something shuffled on his end of the line. “Though that’s only extrapolating from current datasets available. There is a certain dearth here.”

She nearly rolled her eyes, but in the end, was more than amused than not. “I’m sure you’re managing.”

“There was an attempt.” He disdained, and oh, would she give him the benefit of that.

Eighty-seven seconds later in a blast of sunlight and a sweltering heat, Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes swept into the terminal with all the top-gun swagger of a man who ruled the skies. He smiled then, benign, as if that level of confidence wasn’t absolutely lethal. “Miss Potts.”

She really did appreciate that man’s ability to enter a room. “Lieutenant Colonel.” And offered a cheek so he could kiss her and she could respond in kind.

Pleasantries were exchanged in earnest; his mouth warm and dry and then gone from her cheekbone. He rubbed her arms once, gripped her elbows, and stared down. “Everything running alright?”

That was a bit of nebulous question, wasn’t it?

She sometimes forgot this, about him. That Rhodes both saw and wanted to see the people around him and didn’t let his ego keep him from it. It was a rare trait, out here. It wasn’t an unwelcome one. “We’re handling things just fine.” She dimpled and then deflected smoothly: “I’m so glad you could make it.”

He squeezed a little, gaze flickering across her face, and then released her. “Wouldn’t miss it for anything. Where’s Tony?”

“SI Picnic; Fourth of July on the Third of July celebrations. The photo ops will be lovely.” They’d better be after she’d spent a solid week blocking them out. If Tony botched this after she’d done him the favor of putting him next to both the PR Department and the Secretarial pool, there’d be consequences the likes of which not even god could begin to imagine.

Rhodes seemed to read the threat in her face. “Trust me, Tony’s all bells and whistles for the Fourth. Food, explosions, Constitutional permission to daydrink. And you know how he loves a camera.”

“I do.” It was both a blessing and a blight. “Mr. Hogan is waiting for us at the car, I can give you the itinerary while we go.”

“Sounds nice,” He offered his arm. “Miss Potts.”

She eyed him. “Officer and a Gentlemen?”

That genial grin worked its way back. “Gotta reputation to uphold, didn’t anyone tell you?”

She put her arm through his. “Tony did say something about MIT.”

“Don’t listen to anything Tony says about MIT.” He condemned, but there followed a twitch of his mouth and a very solicitous tucking of her hand against his elbow. “I mean it. Save yourself.”

“I very much doubt I’d be the one being saved.”

“You say that now.”

They were moving through the terminal at a decent clip then, and the staff nodded at them and even offered smiles. It was aimed entirely at Rhodes. Military man, full brass; a day before the Fourth of July and there was a War on.

Rhodes nodded back, but his eyes kept moving. Faces, hands, blind corners. A constant and automatic motion. “How’s security on the celebration tomorrow?”

First Fourth of July since the attacks, and it was just another milestone in the long unfolding of what comes after. Tony was going to welcome it with an undaunted bang, and for once, she was in agreement. Even if it meant nightmare scheduling and having both the FBI and the LAPD on her speed dial, she'd make it work.

“Tight.” She let that cross over her tongue. “There’s no more chatter about LA or Stark Industries than usual, but we’re not leaving anything to chance.”

His frame angled inwards. “And who’s talking to you about chatter?”

“Tony has people.” Those people being Jarvis, mostly. His security briefings alone had been illuminating.

“Uh-huh.” He wasn't convinced. “What’s the actual word?”

Always prying, Rhodes. But it was nice: a human mind paying close enough attention to her blatant prevarications to spar. “A Newsweek poll claimed that fifty-seven percent of Americans believe a terrorist attack on the Fourth of July is either somewhat or very likely.”

His mouth did something very unimpressed. “That doesn’t answer my question.”

She tucked a length of hair behind a glittering earring. “There are worries. We’re handling them.”

“If you need any help, any contacts.” It was an oblique sort of statement, but she understood what was being offered.

“We’re keeping our eyes open.” She patted his arm. “You just worry about having a good time.”

Tomorrow was going to be one of those days where she and Jarvis would be virtually welded together. And honestly, it was better not to think too hard about it. Security, eyes, fear. Closer and closer; always and ever but never getting close.

“If you’re sure.” Rhodes finally said.

Jarvis huffed against her ear. “As if we aren’t.”

Humor coiled inky and a little sharp. “I think we’ll all be on the same page, Colonel. Just you wait.”

/~/~/~/

The morning of the Fourth, she stepped into Malibu with flourish. 50’s style dress: full skirt, pleating, petticoats in earnest. It was blue; white stars, red sash, red heels.

It was a statement to no one at all.

“Well aren’t you the picture of Americana.” Jarvis declared, eyes moving towards her as he coasted along the air.

She crossed her ankles and curtsied. “Does it look nice?”

“You’re a vision in the eye of the beholder.” He affirmed. “Now, do tell, what made blue the main course of the day?”

Why indeed. White was virginal and red only made her think of gold. Of gold swimming in red, and all the heat that ruinous tide carried. And here she stood a glutton for punishment talking about blue.

She put on a careless smile. “What other colors are there?”

He considered that, mused, and churned around her. “What are there indeed?”

/~/~/~/

There was a dangerous sort of simplicity to it. Keep the schedule, keep Tony’s impromptu soapbox speeches from become tirades, stay out from underfoot. And, pressingly, push in or yank out Rhodes from every photo op as it arrived.

The US Military had certain rules concerning favoritism, bias, and where the uniform could appear in support, and she wasn’t about to let Rhodes run afoul. Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes, close friend of Tony Stark, was fine on the front of any magazine. Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes in support of CEO of Stark Industries, in full dress uniform, was less fine. Unfine. The complete opposite of fine.

Three parades (one SI sponsored), a cookout, and a minor-league baseball game later; it was a wonder she hadn’t given the man whiplash.

“Pilot's reflexes.” He’d claimed.

She’d been uninspired. “That’s not how anything works.”

But he did appreciate her pulling him aside to watch Tony in a three-piece suit eat hamburgers straight from a grill, sunglasses on, tie pinned back, alongside three men who were in flip flops and American-flag shorts and not much else.

Rhodes gleefully went in for the kill. “You gonna be saluting the flag, Tony?”

Tony eyed up the shorts of the man lounging next to him. “Shut your mouth, I just might.”

She pointedly ignored the exchange and drank from her glass. Somehow, in the absolute the human-flood that was LA on the Fourth of July, glasses of pink lemonade kept making their way to her.

She took another grateful sip. “You never fail to impress.” Their source was not inexplicable.

“I have to keep on my toes somehow.” Jarvis answered breezily. “Drink all of that before twelve, you need to keep your hydration up.”

Good lord. Someday he was going to mother-hen her right into the grave. “I’ll take that under advisement, dear. Anything else you want to contribute?”

He was an unbearable, impish press of charm. “You are due for another layer of sunscreen.”

All the heat that brought could only be coming from a sunburn. Really. Really honest truly because she only needed sunscreen.

Her teeth clicked against the glass. “Mean.”

“Well, if you want more freckles, I certainly won’t stand in your—” He paused abruptly. “Ah. Hold a moment.” There was clicking, whirring, and then the line fell silent.

The glass sweated between her fingers and dripped cold down her nails. “Jarvis?”

Somewhere near her, Rhodes said: “Dayton’s pretty nice, actually.”

Tony gasped. “Never say something like that ever again. Get your Ohio indoctrination out of this golden state.”

“I can rub Midwest on you.” Rhodes promised. “You’ll have the salt of the earth on you, it’ll be great.”

“I’ll have no such thing and—Rhodes, I swear to god, if your hands so much as move within a foot of my bubble—”

There was laughter behind her, a thunk of bodies, Tony squawking and then a hamburger smacking concrete.

Jarvis crackled onto the line. Her head tilted to the side and up. The sky smeared and stretched; brittle clouds on bleached blue. He spoke at a very rapid clip and she tasted her own pulse. She tasted something sour and familiar.

“Potts. Hey, what do you—”

Tony cut him off. “Leave’er alone, Honey Bear. Potts is communing.” That was certainly a way to describe it, though it didn't sound nice when Tony said it.

Acid leeched down and her head came level. “Someone opened fire on the El-Al Israel ticket counter at LA International.” She waited a tick for Jarvis to keep unspooling it. “Two civilians are black-coded with an unknown number of injuries.”

Rhodes let Tony out of a headlock. “Shit.”

Shit.” Tony repeated, and it went like a shadow on the sun.

Whatever he’d been a moment ago, it was gone. The fear was familiar and so was the thunder. Her hand went into her bag, flipped his phone and handed it to him. “Terrorism is being thrown around. It sounds isolated so far, but—I don’t know.” And she didn’t. She hadn’t known last time what would come next and next and next. And if it started again, if this all started again—

Tony had the phone and she wasn’t even sure he was listening, but she finished anyways: “I’ll go talk to security.”

But any attempt to move was stopped as Rhodes corralled her. He didn’t touch her, didn’t even loom, but it was enough to stymie her. She couldn’t read his expression when he asked: “You okay?”

Jarvis warped hot and caustic against her neck.

“I’m—it’s probably a one off. We’re fine.” Her reaction was sling-shotting, but that wasn’t new. “I’m fine.”

Jarvis said. “Cameras in a mile-wide net have been accessed. No threats detected.”

Rhodes couldn’t hear it, but his eyes were clear. No shadows in the glass. “Okay then, you go talk.”

And Jarvis’ voice grated in the space that only existed between them: “Thank you for your permission, Colonel.”

The venom was nearly transferable. She swallowed hard. “Stay with Tony, please.” And walked away before it could spill right out of her. She found their first line of defense twenty away, and grabbed the nearest body and whispered in his ear. The call went from there, and within forty seconds the three wide rings had collapsed into two solid ones. Bodies were moving towards rooftops, and a pair of their tallest went to stand a half step shy of Tony’s shoulders.

It’d last them.

She took one breath. Two. Three. “Jarvis, this was isolated, right?”

And the boiling of him dropped to a reassuring simmer. “As far as open channels currently suggest. There’s no word of this being coordinated, and as far as attacks go it was…deficient. If it was meant to draw the LAPD out of position, it’s 96.88% unlikely to succeed.”

That was comforting in a terrible, awful sort of way. “Okay.”

“I’m sorry there isn’t more.” And there followed a slow hiss like dead-air. “Can I get you anything?”

“See if we can’t break Tony’s schedule down to get him on the yacht faster.” At least out there Jarvis had total control, and they’d have half a mile of ocean between them and anything that looked at them funny. “And promise me you won’t say anything else smart about Colonel Rhodes while he’s here.”

“And why would I do that?” He queried, without guile and blameless.

“Because you’ve tripped me up into saying nice things, and knowing my luck, you attempting the opposite will be worse.” And it didn’t help that at her very, inner-core, she was downright mean. “You’re an awful influence.”

“When have I been anything but?” He pondered, but then finished acerbically: “I assume my permission to make smart comments on all others remains?”

“Of course.” She couldn’t live without Jarvis’ bitchy, judgmental quips on everyone who crossed them. She’d die of deprivation. “But lets play nice with Rhodes, shall we? He’s nice.”

“If you say so.” He muttered, and she would have called that grumpy if she called it anything at all. She tried not to these days. “You should return to Mr. Stark. The SI sponsored BBQ will start at 12:30, and whether he wants to go or not, he needs to be there.”

A knot formed beneath her sternum. “The show goes on?”

“It always goes.” He laid it down like benediction. “Life never stops, and neither can we.”

And that was, in the end, the only truth that mattered.

/~/~/~/

The fireworks had gone dark and Marina Del Rey was less than sparks in the distance. It’d been hours since the finale ended. The yacht didn’t have much sway to it, but the dessert wine she was halfway through was giving her something of an approximation.

False alarms. Fireworks. Flaws.

Everything had, inexplicably, gone perfect the rest of the day. Whatever had happened at LAX hadn’t spread. She wouldn’t have believed the ease of everything after, except for the tension visibly coming off their shoulders.

The staff had pulled back, and for once, Tony had sent all his groupies away. Security was...somewhere, but once they'd gotten on the yacht, they'd no longer been her responsibility and she hadn't kept track of the herd.

They were alone on the upper deck: Rhodes and Tony two opposing chairs sharing a bucket of imported lager, and her on a lounge keeping the wine jealously in-hand. The wind was warm on their faces.

Their words were like knives.

“What are they even hitting?” Tony asked, deceptively friendly. “We’re getting some interesting orders by tonnage of ordnance, if you get my drift.”

“You know I can’t talk about this.” Rhodes defiantly drank his beer. “Would you lay off?”

“I’m just saying,” Tony spread his hands in innocence. “That’s a fuckload of bombing for a no-fly zone. You can say it to us, we’re taxpayers. Is Uncle Sam finally giving up the ghost that the no-fly was ever about protecting the Shi'a in anywhere-Iraq?”

“Tony,” Rhodes enunciated clearly. “I swear to fuck.”

“It’s the air defense system they’re hitting, yeah? There’s only one reason to do that.” The friendliness slipped away. “And it’s not because the Air Force wants to tango with every Zenitnaya Ustanovka on the ground. C’mon, wink once for yes, twice for no. The invasion’s a go.”

Instead of saying anything, Rhodes stuck his hand into the bucket and flung ice across Tony’s lap. It clattered off the floor, the paneling, Tony's legs. Her boss nearly sprung out of his chair. “Jesus! Fucking mature.”

“Shut up.” Rhodes said, friendliness just as present and just as untrue. “Or I’m gonna have to ask you some questions about your sources that a lot of spooks at Langley will find mighty interesting.”

That brought the boil down a notch. Tony flapped his hand as if to say I didn’t actually care.

She really shouldn’t have entered the argument. “If the Iraqis locked radar on a US aircraft, would that mount to a material breach of the UN resolution? Non-compliance in any way means justified war.”

“Fuckin’ A.” Rhodes moaned. “You two are the worst peas in a pod I have ever met.”

“You know,” Tony pointed his bottle at her. “Sometimes I actually like you.”

She saluted with her glass. “The feeling isn’t mutual.”

He shrugged. “Fair.” And threw back his lager, dropped the empty, and opened a sixth. “Anyways, Rhodey. Inquiring citizens want to know: did the US Air Force in fact have relations with that country?”

“Both of you drink and stop giving me grief.” The Colonel’s jacket was already off, and he went for the buttons of his shirt and then shed that too. “I don’t know why I ever visit you. It has never, in the history of our friendship, ended well for me.”

“There was that time with the happy ending.” Tony pointed out.

She despaired. “Please stop talking.”

Rhodes jabbed a hand at her. "Thank you.”

Another three rounds passed, at least for her. She was never going to try keeping up with Tony or his company; that was a recipe for a nuked liver and regret. At some point the lager was finished or had lost their interest, and the conversation went slow and nearly dreamy. They trailed off at odd moments, punctuated themselves with yawns, and sometimes lost the thread between soft gestures and empty air.

Tony rolled a tumbler between his palms. “We need to do better.”

Rhodes shifted lazily. “At what?”

He stared at where the fire had died behind them. “All of it. All of us.”

A quiet murmur crossed their narrow space. “Can’t save the world alone, Tony.”

“People keep saying that, but I only hear stop trying to save the world.”

“Stark Industries,” She interjected drowsily. “Making it better one bullet at a time.”

Tony rolled over that and offered: “Fuck off.”

“No,” She shrugged. “I’m pretty sure I heard someone say that at HQ.”

He squinted. “Well, punch them in the dick the next chance you get.”

She considered it. “I’d like that in writing.”

“I’ll give you writing.”

“Yeah, that’s it.” And Rhodes levered himself up. “Sleep time is all time.”

“I am allowed to be melancholy on my own boat and give out dick punches.” Tony railed. “Neither you nor the Board can stop me, I am the Law.”

“So is sleep.”

Propaganda.”

“Ya-huh.” There was a lilting sort of softness. “C’mon, Tony.”

“Ugh.” Her boss swayed to his feet. “Note that I am only doing this out of the kindness of my heart for you lightweights.

She burrowed further into the lounge. “I am overwhelmed by generosity.”

“Least someone is.” Tony muttered, and then there was a quiet shuffling and arms over shoulders, and they were off into the dark. Maybe to sleep.

She hoped Tony’s brain would let him rest until dawn.

Rhodes called back. “Potts, you gonna be able to get to bed alright?”

As if that was hard? She’d been managing that since she was as high as her daddy’s knee, thank you very much.

For the first time in an hour, Jarvis spoke aloud. “She’ll be fine, Lieutenant Colonel. I’ll make certain she gets there.”

Yeah. Get there.

See.” She heard Tony hiss nonsensically, but that seemed to have been enough. The pair of them slipped away, and there stayed the water and the wine and a thick July-sweat. For once, the ocean gave her no relief.

“Are you actually going to bed?” Jarvis asked a minute later.

She rolled onto her back and sighed. “I’m waiting to sober up before trying.”

He accepted it. “Reasonable. I’ll have some water sent up.”

“That’d be very nice.” The weight of the alcohol pushed her eyelids shut. “I’d say sorry for keeping you up, but.”

“We both know that’s not an issue.” He was gentle in the wind, a trail of mist. Barely on the skin.

It was profoundly unfair. Not once, not even a single moment, would she ever get to see Jarvis tired or drunk or all of the above. Never get to see him fading or drifting or have words spilling heedless from his tongue.

There was a strange sort of intimacy found in sweat and the dark and the fog of inebriation, but she kept it locked. She’d already made the mistake of trusting that feeling and wouldn't make it twice.

The mist of him bloomed into something. “Do you believe it?”

It took her a moment to process. “In what?”

“Bullets and betterment.”

“I…” Her brain re-tracked. “If you mean this—what we do. Weapons don’t make things better, but sometimes…they make things less worse.” That wasn’t everything, it couldn't be. “They make things less when there needs to be less.”

The situation was capsizing and she wasn’t quite sure what had tipped it.

“And that’s not wrong?” He pushed. “Immoral?”

That wasn’t quite an accusation. And yet.

“There exist individuals whom the world would shine brighter without.” She’d studied her history, her wars. She’d met people. The earth had been on fire long before her birth. “I wouldn’t work for Tony if I didn’t believe in what he does.”

“And yet you seem to be inheriting some of Mr. Stark’s hostilities concerning hostility.”

Fucking Iraq.

“One hostility. Singular.” Her head swam as she drained her glass. “I have questions and I have doubts. You work for a weapons manufacturer, you get an idea what it takes to build these things. The facilities, the personnel, the research.” Destruction had a baseline cost.

And Jarvis was whispering State Secrets in Tony’s ear and her boss wasn’t shy in sharing it. There were too many questions and too many doubts, and even a girl that was apolitical couldn’t float on ignorance forever.

“We’re going to line our pockets on a sham; Tony knows it, I know it.” And what were they even supposed to do? It wasn’t like they could pick the wars. Please use these missiles for Afghanistan only, hugs and kisses, Stark Industries et. al. That’d go over worse than blanks and empty bombs. “We make the bullets and we even make the guns.” It thrashed there, serpentine, throat to ribs to stomach lining. “We don’t make the hands that carry them.”

He was a haze. A suffocation. “We don’t get to choose where those hands point them.” He was in her very lungs.

He knew her words before they could be born on her breath.

She dug nails into her palm. “Do you ever get to choose, Jarvis? I know some of the Intel you get for Tony, and I can guess at the remainder. Do you just listen, or do you ever try to push?”

It was something she’d wondered at for months. The kind of feeds Jarvis must have burrowed himself into were both highly classified and encrypted. The things he saw, the disparate lines of intelligence he was able to bring together, all the eyes and all the cameras that he could look his way out of—

Had he merely been a spectator all this time?

She counted the waves against the yacht nine times before he spoke. “You’d be amazed what a single anonymous tip can accomplish. A shipment of C4 here, a flagged passport there, two men meeting in an internet café, a few conversations on a nameless forum. Connect one to the other and suddenly: there’s a thread to cut.”

A call to make. A throat to slit.

All that helplessness he’d had after the attacks hadn’t been buried, it’d been used. He'd been doing the devil’s arithmetic. But just because he gave some agent or analyst or spook a trail of crumbs, it didn’t mean that they would—

Her chin dipped. “You don’t get to request how that information's used.”

“No,” He answered simply. “But they make their choices and I make mine.”

That landed square, and she marveled at it. “And it’s always that easy?”

“Sometimes I can’t connect the dots without certain powers knowing something out there is doing it. It’s always a choice: compromise access for one large threat, or risk the ones you let pass becoming worse than they appear. And then sometimes, just maybe, you see a war coming.” He slipped through a shadow darkly. “You’d be amazed how much you can know and how little you can change.”

Her head was floating, her heart was sinking. There’d come a severing, in time. “When it comes to Tony, do you…?”

The barren fields had always been white in December. The drifts of snow, the howling wind, the emptiness across it. When he spoke, she remembered them. “When it comes to you or Mr. Stark, nothing is beyond me.”

Breathe. Stabilize. Breathe.

It’s not like you wouldn’t do the same.

She wanted to drink the sea. She wanted to swallow stars. She wanted to see the very binary that could stitch together devotion.

The glass in her hand went gently to the table. “I’ve had too much.”

And that closed a door between them. It closed a shuddering, heaving thing from coming apart to scream.

And just like that, a wholly proper space returned. “The water will be here in thirty seconds, Pepper.”

But she knew there was a door now. Knew it could be opened, that protection and devotion could be taken and misused for so much more. Knew that she’d mistake it. That her heart was running blind. Knew she’d try to crawl inside him or pull back in, pack him tightly beneath her ribs and never let him go.

It’d be easy. It’d be so easy.

She felt that door now, and Jarvis had been right.

“Thank you for thinking of me.”

Knowing was its own kind of torture.

Chapter Text

“I’m just saying, if the angle was better—”

“Do not even talk to me about angles. I am literally on my knees here and the carpeting is reprehensible. No backseat driving.”

“God forbid your knees ever suffer.” Jarvis answered, irreverent. “I’ll write a letter to Management at once.”

“Your dedication is always appreciated.” She adjusted her skirt to the side. “I don’t know how I’d live without it.”

“On your knees less, I’d wager.” He mused.

She nearly dropped the camera.

“Oh my god.” Her skin lit with heat. “Oh my god.”

“Is something the matter, Miss Potts?” He queried sweetly.

She bit down. “No.” And adjusted the camera until the little screen was glowing with a clear shot of one of the papers on the floor. It was just another of those absurd moments in what was rapidly becoming her utterly absurd life. A Design/Tech conference had, for once, caught Tony’s interest, and he’d rounded up half a dozen R&D teams and spirited them all to Zurich.

Upside: good press, happy underlings, Tony getting to lord his genius over an adoring mass.

Downside: Tony lording, Tony partaking, Tony having a fit of brilliance that ended in half a sheaf of paper coating his hotel room in proprietary designs and coding. Literally no one but her had the clearance to even look at them, let alone compile and send them off to Jarvis to transcribe. So here she ended up with a camera and protesting joints and a very poor disposition to criticism.

She could think of so many ways she’d have liked to be locked in a hotel room with Jarvis, but none of those fantasies seemed about to transpire. On her knees still, no camera, smiling towards the open laptop and inching her skirt up, hands dragging up her thighs, silk and nails and skin until—

Fuck.

Sometimes, it didn’t pay to be the right hand of the king.

“It could be an L or an I.” Jarvis lamented, oblivious to her wanderings. “How am I to know without your help?”

She smothered the fantasy and buried it in the same breath. “Help, he says.” And snapped a picture and shifted to her next subject. “You're killing me.”

"I think you'd know if I was killing you." He assured. "I'd imagine that would be a very involved process."

"Promises."

Twenty minutes later she was curled up on the couch with a laptop open and a cord snaking to the camera. The download completed, and Jarvis hummed rather more agreeably. “Yes, I think that did it. I’ll have a digital transcription back in an hour. Though, if I need any more assistance in my interpretations—”

“You know where to find me.” She dropped her chin onto her palm. “Speaking of find, where did Mr. Stark get off too?”

He lingered over that. Mostly, she was sure, just to drag out the moment. “At dinner with the firmware team, if tales are to be believed.”

“Do you think they’ll bring food back for me?” It wasn’t that she expected them too, or even really held out for it, but sometimes she did out of some perverse sense of self-flagellation.

“Unlikely.” Jarvis said, and lord, it’d been awhile since he’d killed one of her hopes that quickly. Not that he didn’t kill most of them eventually, but still.

She made a disagreeable sound.

“Fear not,” He trilled. “I’ve already ordered room service.”

She perked up. “Oh?”

“Shrimp Scampi in lemon juice and vermouth, over a bed of angel hair pasta and parsley.” It came out nearly as a purr. “Acceptable, Miss Potts?”

She set aside the laptop immediately. “Very acceptable.

He puffed up. “Excellent.”

Warmth spread from her heart to the tips of her fingers, buzzing and swift. She shouldn’t. She couldn’t. And yet.

Pepper surveilled the room. “Do you think if I left the papers as is, Mr. Stark would even notice they’re in the sheets?”

There was something more than a little sly to him. “Unlikely.”

She cracked a grin and liked to think, somewhere in a server far away, he returned a mirror of it.

/~/~/~/

Two days later, her good mood evaporated.

Five hours past that, she was grateful her phone died at the edge of Zurich.

/~/~/~/

It always started the same. No matter where she was, no matter what time it began. Jarvis, Obadiah, someone in HR: it was always the same story. Tony should be here. Tony should be doing this. Tony should be there. Tony shouldn’t be doing that.

Isn’t this your goddamn job?

She couldn’t be Tony’s shadow; couldn’t stitch herself to his soles like some modern Peter Pan. That was Jarvis’s job, really. She had her limitations.

And it started with a call from that very shadow, anxious in a way that she didn't like. A missed speech, an abandoned phone, a lost security detail and all leading to a scavenger hunt across greater Zurich. Something had set Tony off again and she wasn’t sure what it had been; wasn’t even sure that she cared. Knowing had been helping less and less in heading him off.

It seemed to come from all sides, these days. The stress, the mania, the hunger.

The air was sickly sweet; smoke and sweat. Venom. She didn’t want a taste. “You had the keynote speech, you know. Four hours ago.”

Tony shrugged. “C'est la vie.” And from his spot reclined, took a messy drink that spilled tequila down his chin. The smell of liqueur was thick, but it wasn’t the liqueur she was worried about.

She couldn’t tell whether she was tired or absolutely furious. “It’ll be a black-eye on SI. They thought this would be good press; they touted it. And instead your timeslot came and half of the software team had to scramble because nobody knew what you were going to say. I think one of them had a breakdown.

“And behold how little I care.” He glanced about as if to set down his glass, found nothing, and opened his hand. The glass fell with a heavy thunk. “Sounds like it turned out fine. They learned something and got that go-getter attitude. You should be proud of my children.”

Furious, she thought, unequivocally furious. “Pride isn’t quite what I’m experiencing.”

“You should get to have all the experiences.” He patted at the couch he was on, hands spasming arrhythmically. “Sit. The standing is freaking me out; you’re giving me vertigo. Vertigo Potts. You should really change your name, that’d be both amazing and true.”

She didn’t try to sit down—there wasn’t an inch of this house that she wanted to touch. It was gilt and glass with the thick smear never quite expunged vomit, and why the hell did she keep ending up in places like this?

Sickly sweet. Poison. “Has anyone taken a picture of you here?”

“Not that kind of party.” His mouth formed a grin, lopsided and messier than his drink. “Not that kind of crowd.”

True. She doubted most of the people she’d seen wandering could string more than two words together. And Tony—

God.

His fly undone; slacks loose and belt askew. She could guess what had happened there, it was barely worth a thought. But what was worth mentioning—

Veins were blown in his left eye but there was no bruising on his skin. It would have been nicer if she could believe he’d picked a fight and taken a punch. His nose was bloody and streaking down his neck. His fingers were chalky. His pupils could have swallowed worlds.

It was a veritable neon sign that his usage had, seemingly without her notice, gone beyond the pale.

She reached into her purse and drew out a cloth. Tony-sober would have slapped her away; personal bubbles and hating being handed anything in all senses of the phrase. Tony-high was another creature entirely. He sat patiently as she wiped the blood from his face.

It unnerved her more than anything yet.

She kept her hands steady. “How much did you take?”

“Enough, I think.” His teeth flashed slick. “You wanna share? Take a taste?” They curved red.

The worst part was, this wasn’t even a binge. She knew what those looked like, and this—this was casual. Neck-deep in with veins ruptured, and he could still string sentences together and leave soured breath on her shirt.

She was deeply and painfully grateful that, with her phone dead in her clutch, Jarvis didn’t have to hear this disaster just fucking once in their lives.

She kept her hands steady. “Shut up.”

He grinned wider. “Make me.”

Something clenched violently and nearly cracked her ribcage in two. “Are you going to come back with me to the conference?”

He shrugged out of her grip, mouth a dark smear. “Pass.”

“Mr. Stark—”

“You can stay; make some fucking friends for a change.” His teeth were knives. “Get whatever the fuck you’ve got wrong inside untwisted—”

Her foot met the glass he’d dropped. It flew into the wall with a shattering bang.

“Nice.” He answered, and there was something awful in it. “Glad to know you've got a pulse under all that ice.”

Something rose in her chest, into her mouth, putrid and hot and grotesque. “Are you really going to keep doing this? Put another fuckup on our plate this close to the anniversary?”

Miles from them, California in August was sticky with heat and a pending dread, and September would be no kinder. It coated her teeth and clotted on her tongue. “Are you gonna show up in New York out of your fucking mind with that shit in your brain and your dick still wet from whoever you got to—”

That awful thing in his face cracked. She thought that, just for once, he was speechless.

It faded. Blackened. Seethed. “Like you honestly give a shit. Little Miss Potts, all pampered and holy; just wants everyone's praise and her checks to be signed and all the blood that bought her a life to just stay off her Louboutin’s—”

Her throat squeezed. “You think I don’t care?”

“I think you haven’t cared a fucking day in your spoiled life.” It jagged from between his teeth.

“And you have? Down in your workshop building your guns and snorting god knows what and not giving a god damn who your actions pour out on—”

“So it’s all about how you feel.”

“Excuse me for wanting us not to be an embarrassment when the world is watching!”

“And that’s all you—”

“That’s exactly what I—”

“If you think I’m such a fucking embarrassment you can just—”

“What do you think this is going to accomplish?” Her breath flayed outright. “Who are you even punishing with this? Us or yourself?”

It lanced between them; bleeding and raw and fully born.

Black. Silent. Black.

It was the end of an earthquake, and something had been shattered by it.

He was the human embodiment of an aftershock. “Get out.” Each word broke off in razors. “Right now. Go drink the wine I buy you and stay in the hotel I pay for and take off the clothes my money gets you and go fuck yourself.” His breath poured like blood. “Go fritter your life away on Jarvis or whatever the fuck it is you do when you’re not nagging me, got it?”

She went still. Everything went very still. Grime on the floor, coke on the glass, her heart in her throat. Without a word, she turned on heel.

The room was like a crater behind her.

At the curb outside, the security detail wouldn’t meet her eyes. She breathed. She breathed. She breathed. “Go in to Mr. Stark. Stay with him, bring him back, I don’t care.”

“Miss Potts?” One of them asked.

She stood at a very distant ledge. “What part of that did you not understand?”

They hurried past her without another protest.

She got into the waiting town car, and the driver glanced back. “Are we waiting for—”

“No.” She interrupted. “We’re going.”

He didn’t argue. “Where to?”

Her eyes lingered out the window. “I don’t care.”

/~/~/~/

She called Jarvis from a payphone. “He’s fine. Security's with him.”

The System asked more questions, a thousand of them, but she had no answers to give and hung-up a minute later.

/~/~/~/

She drank wine at a black-marble bar on her own dime. She got a room in a hotel halfway across the city. She took off the clothes that someone else’s money had bought her, and laid on the bed but not under the sheets.

She left her cellphone dead on the nightstand.

The clock ticked by.

A moon rose bleak.

/~/~/~/

She wept quietly in the dark.

Chapter Text

Water lapped at her ankles. The sun was high and streaking off the marble in scalding arcs. It was even worse off the water. That was probably why she was on her back: feet in the pool, head pillowed on one arm, face under the other, sweat puddling off her back.

She was cooking in her skin. Meat, blood. Cauterizing to bone.

“Are you sure you have—”

“I have enough sunscreen.” If she hadn’t sweated it off yet. “Thank you, Jarvis, but I will live to see tomorrow.”

He tisked. “Unpleasantly, perhaps. I distinctly remember you peeling for most of July.”

She rotated her ankles beneath the surface. “And thank you for reminding me of that regrettable portion of our lives.”

Jarvis released a punched-out sigh. “It is currently 92 degrees on the back deck, and there is a pool right in front of you.” It was a very pointed argument, but then again, they were outside. Jarvis’s power in the acoustics did not fully extend here.

She would not be ruled by his tyranny.

“And it's filled with chlorine.” She mashed the arm over her face down until her eyelids were layered in sunspots. “I’ve put my feet in, have I not suffered enough for you?”

“I could give you an entire presentation on the utility of the Heat Equation in relation to your body and the pool right now, but—“

“I bet you could.”

But,” He interrupted. “I will instead ask what the chlorine has done to you.”

She lifted her arm just a little. The world was drenched. The stone was too white and the water was on fire. The sky was supersaturated blue, and the sunspots that had been in her eyes covered the horizon like burns in reality’s film.

She blinked hard. “I did swim-team as a kid. Nearest pool was two towns over. I’d spend all of winter going between the pool and whichever of my parents picked me up, and the smell of the chemicals always gets in your hair. Your skin. Sometimes, when it was cold enough, my hair would freeze between the swimhall and the car and there’d be this astringent brittle tangle—”

She remembered it. White and gray tile, wavering lane-lines deep under the water. The off-green cast of the water and the smudged skylights. The mold in the grout of the northeast corner. Rickety benches, echoes, a fluorescent coating.

“I saw the ocean for the first time when I was seventeen.” It had been a religious experience, fresh off the Greyhound and the whole of California to glory in. Golden sand and golden sun; holy lands with holy water. “That first time I swam in it was—I don’t know. Primal.” Primordial. “We all came from the sea. All of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea—we are going back from whence we came.”

He puzzled that. “Paraphrased, I believe. John F. Kennedy, spoken at the Dinner for the America's Cup Crews on September 14, 1962.”

She hummed softly and he mimicked her in turn. She liked that more than the water, their harmonizing.

Eventually, the sound dimmed. Sweat gathered along her spine. “There's no substitute for it. You float, you rock, you lay weightless on the world. I don't even know why I crave it, why anyone does, but I do."

“Genetic memory beyond the Lamarckian?” He conjectured. “A broken-off instinct on the evolutionary tree?”

How utterly prosaic. “We might as well ask: why do we fall in love? And then call it a matter of intracranial chemistry.” And shuddered. That was a poor subject to wander to. She really had enough on her plate already without a self-inflicted wound right on Tony's pool deck.

There was a crackle from the speakers. “That does sound rather dull, doesn’t it? But I do think the human fascination with the ocean has to be biologically inherent. The sheer breadth of literature concerning it is far to universal to have stemmed from elsewhere. ”

She could feel the sun like a weight. “Maybe it’s purely psychological; not just that we long for it, but that we long to be reborn.”

“Into what?”

“Something better.” Water drifted at her feet. “Something simpler.” Something not so helplessly in love. Something that could forget and return to the start.

There was a point to be made here about tides and moons and the water of the womb, but she couldn’t quite connect them. It was probably just as well. “I promised myself I’d never swim in an artificial pool again. Its dead water.” Her skin held sticky to the ground. “I cannot even entertain the idea of evolving inside it.” Too constrained and too much a reminder of something she'd outgrown.

Judging by the pungency of whatever Tony’s pool had been doused with, she was sure they could leave it untreated for a decade and still use it to sterilize. She hated it.

(She very quietly hated the memory of hating it.)

“I’m not certain that’s true,” He pondered. “There are such things as artificial seas, and who knows what could crawl out of them?”

“Jarvis, dear, I think once you make something the size of a sea, it ceases to be artificial.” Her skin was melting in the sun. “Its complexity becomes unto itself." She considered moving and couldn't. "But you can tell me when the mad science gets there, and we’ll get front row seats to the next fish to crawl out.”

The sound he made wasn’t quite a hum, so she didn’t try to sing it back. It made a faltering curve in the air. “Are you sure I cannot convince you back into the house?”

She covered her eyes again. “He wasn’t supposed to be here today.”

“I know.” He was trying to be gentle, and she appreciated it. There was very little gentle in their lives now.

“I’m okay here.” Mostly because she didn’t want to be in there. Since the argument she and Tony’s relationship had descended into a state of such rigid silence, she wasn’t sure there was definition for it. And she’d thought she and Tony had been in a cold war before. That was laughable; she hadn’t even begun to imagine.

She wasn’t sure how much was her nursing hurt feelings, and how much was Tony ignoring her. Deliberately. With malice aforethought.

They hadn’t been face to face in more than five days, and could frankly go longer with Jarvis acting as an in-between. That particular streak could probably last until—

It was September finally, and the anniversary was bearing down. Seven days away from it, four until they departed, and then they’d be stuffed in a private jet together with hours on hours to fill. She wasn’t looking forward to it—to New York. To what it’d do to them.

It’d been just a month ago that she’d finally sat down to watch the evening news and not seen a replay of the towers falling. Of the pentagon bleeding smoke. Of a hole in the heart of Manhattan eating outwards like a cancer.

But it was September and had nearly been a year since. The footage was snaking its way back on every channel whether she wanted it to or not.

Jarvis tried. “Will you at least tell me about—”

“No.” She wasn’t getting into that argument again. “You don’t need to be involved every time Mr. Stark and I have a difference of opinion.”

“Opinion?” He responded flatly. “I quite believe you both fought, and then you disappeared for two days.”

If Tony could do it, so could she. Law of Equality. “Nobody needed me.”

There was a long noise caught between the clatter of a gearshift and a snarl. “Miss Potts,” He urged. “There will always be need of you.”

She was glad she’d covered her face.

He gathered himself up. “New plan, then. The ocean is less than four-hundred meters from us, and since the beach will allow an ocean breeze and reduction in baseline temperature—”

“I’m not saying this is a bad idea.” She didn't lift her arm. “But the nearest public walkdown is over two miles away.”

Public.” He said.

For commoners, she heard. “The Malibu House is literally on a cliff.”

“That did not stop a certain…staircase, or ten, from being carved in.”

Oh Lord, the zoning board would murder them yet. “And you never told me this because?” That was vital information of which she had been denied.

“We seem to be entering a chapter of our lives where we’re skiving off work because Mr. Stark’s in the house. Which I will inform you is a new development.” He sniffed. “You cannot blame me for not abetting a rebellion that had yet to occur.”

“And your rebellion’s conclusion is to sneak away to swim?”

He paused. “Yes.”

She couldn’t really argue. That was, unfortunately, the extent of her insubordination. Now what would have been truly outrageous: sneaking off to a long stretch of sand, peeling off her top, laughter, sun, nothing but sweat and skin with a voice right in her ear—

Reality was a terrible place to live in.

She pulled her arm away in a miasma of heat. “I will do this, but don’t take it as a concession to your argument. I will redress and there will be a rebuttal.”

“I have never wanted anything more than the grace of your rebuttal.” He answered glibly.

Why did he do this to her.

She levered herself up and left a ghost of herself in the sweat. “Since you’re suggesting this, my only conclusion is that you’ve been hiding swimsuits from me.”

He expanded cheerfully. “Possibly.” 

Still, Jarvis buying her swimsuits (don’t think hard on what my money buys you) was nice. Very nice. A swimsuit could almost be a cousin to lingerie, really. She could pretend that just enough for some very risqué inner daydreams.

She gathered sweat-damp hair up, exposed her neck, let her hips sway just so. “And where have you been tucking them away?"

The closer she walked to the house, the closer he snaked in. Temptation, temptation, please offer her an apple-red bikini. “Well, my dear Miss Potts

/~/~/~/

It was, as she should have suspected, blue.

But it was a very nice bikini.

/~/~/~/

The staircase was all stone, illegal on so many levels and when it was rained upon, it'd be a lethal hazard. She loved it truly, madly, deeply. The tunnel, the suggestion of a grotto, the descent. Brief flashes of sky and the smell of brine, the beat of the ocean growing near.

The first time she’d ever laid eyes on the sea, it had been reverent. A blessing on the faithless. She hadn’t known to pray for it and hadn’t even known to pray.

And she’d told Jarvis the truth about that first swim. She’d stayed there for hours until her body was almost too weak to make the swim to shore. She’d carried the tide with her for days, rocking on her heels with that remembered tempo and god.

How had people been allowed to live like this without her knowing? 

She left her towel bunched on the thin strip of sand available, and set her cellphone on top of it. Jarvis's voice came tiny from its speakers. “There’s a weather-data buoy about a mile west, if you wished for something at which to aim.”

“Aiming’s good.” She tied back her hair effortlessly. And lord, Jarvis had been right, the sea breeze was doing wonders. “I'll see you when I’m done.”

“Sooner than.” He promised, innocent and suspiciously sweet, but she didn’t ask. That would be an insinuation to fret on when the ocean wasn’t calling.

The waves lapped at her feet and it was so good. Ankles, shins, knees. Farther. Leave it here, leave it here. Something calcified and awful was coming off of her in layers. Pain, pressure, fear. Whatever you did it can be laid down.

Thighs, hips, stomach. Farther. Whatever was done to you can be—

She swam hard.

/~/~/~/

Data buoy, he’d said, like that been any kind of preparation.

The cameras on its floating bulk wiggled at her in greeting.

“Oh my god,” She clung to the edge and nearly took a swipe at him. “Sooner than you great big tease.”

The cameras wiggled even faster.

God preserve her. “Can you hear me?”

The nearest eye focused on her, lenses circling once. She took that as a no.

“Then how are you…” She was an idiot. “You can lip-read.”

There was another joyous, if mocking shimmy. She was won-over so swiftly it was an embarrassment.

“Okay: one circle for yes, two for no?” She grinned. “Or can we do better than that?”

Some of the warning lights on the buoy blinked out of pattern as if to say, I think we can.

And there, in the ocean and clinging to that buoy, coming up with a whole new language of signs and movement and words in flashing lights—

She giggled and rollicked and drank down the sun, and in those gifted hours thought of nothing but the tide and him.

Chapter Text

“Are you ready?”

She pressed down with her hands, flattening her dress and feeling cold beneath it. Memories had not yet unfurled, emotions were not yet born. It was the in-between of a transient state. “I don’t think this is something you get to be ready for.”

The dawn light was pale on the walls. Liquid.

I have been here. I have been here. I have been here.

Jarvis let it go. “Mr. Stark just got off the phone, he’ll be prepared shortly.”

“Good.” Her throat hurt. He’d let it go, but she couldn’t. “Are you okay?”

There was a soft bit of puzzlement on his end. “Why do you ask?”

She looked at the skyline out the window, at steel and chrome splintering the dawn. “Sometimes, I think this was harder on you than it was on me.” The fear and the helplessness both. She wondered if he was watching the sunrise and seeing the same gaps.

“My memory cores are unimpaired.” He answered. “Today won’t be any worse than those previous.”

“Alright,” She breathed. “Alright. We’re good to go?”

“Yes.” There was a rattling; jaws and teeth. An almost breath. “Thank you for your concern.”

The New York skyline swept beneath her lashes. “Of course.”

/~/~/~/

Tony’s eyes weren’t quite brown. The irises were a bright sort of russet, always startling and always paler than the magazines suggested. She’d noticed it on first meeting him and noticed it again now. He stepped into the elevator and his eyes were clear. The only sign of their crisis a month ago, was the faint pink spread along his left sclera. She didn’t think anyone would really notice.

No one would be looking at him closely, today.

“Good Morning, Mr. Stark.”

He stopped shoulder to shoulder with her. “Good Morning, Miss Potts.”

The elevator closed with a soft hiss.

All the acid and ice and the yawing distance of the last few weeks seemed remote. She remembered the why of it, but couldn’t bring herself to carry that resentment here. “The cars are waiting on the street, but they won’t be able to take us far.” Not with the crowds and the bomb-barriers stretched across the city.

“We’ll live.” He flexed his shoulders under the black-matte of his jacket. “Everybody ready?”

“They’re all downstairs.” It’d been a sparse crowd on the jet. Two of their Board, a handful of managers, one liaison from the PR office she was hoping that they wouldn’t need.

Tony didn’t look to her. “Alvarez?”

She breathed deep. “Doing okay so far, from what I’ve been told. The front desk is holding flowers for us to take with.”

His jaw clenched hard, trembled, and then released. “That’s something.”

She stared down at her shoes and had nothing to say.

/~/~/~/

Tony’s footsteps peeled off towards another car. She didn't miss him exactly, but a year ago—

It’d only been them. Bedspread crumpled, fingers aching, TV screen flickering fire across the walls. Paper snow. An era dying. So many faces sick with shock and naked disbelief, and then—

The collapse.

The fall.

I have been here before. I have been—

The concierge gave her a bouquet that spilled white and red into her hands. Lilies and red gladiolus; grief and remembrance. It was like holding something slowly bleeding right against her chest.

They’d exchanged a glance over the desk, and the concierge had reached across to squeeze her hand. Pepper didn’t ask if he’d seen the Towers fall with his own eyes.

When she’d given the bouquet to Ian Alvarez, he’d thanked her. She wasn’t sure why. It was such a small gesture; the least of all that she could give. He was the leader of an SI Production group: good head on his shoulders, steady drive, a quick problem-solver whenever a line was threatened. He’d been with the company for nearly six years.

He’d had a brother who’d worked in the North Tower.

Tony pressed a palm to his shoulder. “We’re right with you, whatever you need.”

Alvarez nodded shakily and clutched the flowers to his chest. “Thanks, Mr. Stark. I really appreciate you—you guys bringing me out here.”

The corners of Tony’s mouth went tight. “You don’t have to thank for us anything, alright? We’ve got your back.”

She could see Alvarez shaking and recognized the motion, or maybe just the grief in it. It was a precursor; the threatening of an eruption: drowned lungs, clogged throat, a living fucking thing that’d come crashing through a man’s teeth like an avalanche.

She wasn’t sure how he held it in. But as the concierge had done for her, Pepper offered her hand.

Alvarez took her fingers and held tight. He made a watery noise. “I’m sorry.”

Tony just rubbed his shoulder gently. “Nothing to be sorry for.”

/~/~/~/

In the distance, a jet coasted along the horizon like a daydream. It left contrail in a scar across the sky. She’d never seen an F-16 backdropped against skyscrapers, before.

The US Military patrolling an American city, and all she could think was: it should not have been this way.

Beside her, Tony watched the jet until it passed beyond the clouds.

/~/~/~/

The crowd was shoulder to shoulder to shoulder. She couldn’t see a beginning or end, just tens of thousands faces that eventually vanished into the city canyons. The rest of their party was in front of her, and Tony had a hand to her back. Whether to push her forward or keep her steady, she didn’t know. He stayed an anchor as the crowd undulated and swelled.

He stayed an anchor as the sobs came.

Alvarez was down in the pit, but she couldn’t pick him from the flood. The last foundations of the World Trade Center were a circle in the dust, and hundreds wove around it in a living mandala. They laid down flowers and photos and their own aching knees.

Their every movement kicked up a fine amber dust.

The air was soft, impossible, warm in the slow death of autumn. She lowered her head, chin tucked against the metal of a necklace Jarvis had wrought.

I have been—

Tony’s hand fell away, but then their knuckles brushed together. Slowly, she took his hand in hers.

He didn’t look at her.

She didn’t look to him.

The line in her Bluetooth was open and Tony was beside her. And though not a word passed between the three of them, there was a quiet solidarity in the prayer of their breathing.

/~/~/~/

At 8:46AM, the bells rang.

Silence swept outwards in impact.

The hush lasted in perpetuity. It lasted in a breath. The silence was broken when the first name was read.

“Two-thousand eight-hundred and one.” Jarvis totaled. The recitation of victims, she knew, would take hours.

Beside her at the rail, Tony’s free hand clenched down. The bones of his hand strained beneath his skin. She didn’t know where his mind had gone, but in his stillness, his shoulders cast a shadow like a monolith.

/~/~/~/

The bells rang.

9:03 AM. 9:59 AM. 10:29 AM.

The names went on.

/~/~/~/

The schedule sat unread in her phone, but she had no need to see it again. At sunset ninety-one heads of State would gather in Battery Park in front of thousands for a service and then a candlelight vigil. There were far more people deserving of a seat than she, so Tony had gone on while she wandered and waited.

When the sun fell low, the church windows at her back blazed. She wondered at the denomination but did not seek an answer. People swept in and out and in its doors seeking absolution she wouldn’t find for herself.

She envied them and did not envy.

Her coffee steamed. It’d been free, a man had brought his cart to the corner and had handed out cups without looking for either money or thanks. All that had been on offer were kind words and his worn smile.

She’d stuck four hundred dollars under a laminated menu the minute his back was turned.

The coffee tasted Turkish on the first sip, but on the second, Bosnian. New York was something else. Beautifully, gloriously something else.

That facet would endure if nothing else did.

Jarvis drew nearer. There’d been a constant buzz from him all day, but for the most part he’d sounded as if he was somewhere above her. Watching outwards.

He flowed down. “I was thinking of it.”

She drank carefully. “Of which part?”

“The minutes before it started.” He turned inwards. “Those minutes before the attacks, at least. I can’t say where the real start is. When the planes lifted off, when the plan was hatched, when these men were born, when the conflict that bore their ideology was sparked.”

She let his words roll off her like water. It was funny, almost, how much she’d grown used to this. “That’s for analysts and philosophers to decide.”

He exhaled his discontent. “They would not agree on an answer.”

“Complex situations can have more than one, and they can all be true.” The sun was on her skin, but her fingers were cold. “What were you thinking of?” In those minutes before their world came apart in a black, boiling heave.

“My monitoring relays, the feeds out of the SI campus, whether I should automate certain internal precepts on the Malibu property.” He paused. “I decided not to. I was reading you Dante.”

For a moment, she was almost staggered. “I remember that.”

That seemed to give him strength. “I was reading you Dante, and you wanted to know the time. I was running an application-software heuristic. I answered you. There were twenty-four servers about to be taken offline and swapped out, and the database sweep for the remaining was 84% complete. A check indicator went off on a file-pull from LA. I handled both. You laughed. Fabricators were operating in Malibu on a body-armor composite and a fuse blew. I was reading you Dante again and reset the fuse, and then there was an alert a Stark-software package needed a patch over a zero-day exploit. I was writing code, the automatic daily backup of the bots was spooling, the fabricators were back online. I was reading to you.” He was the edge of a long drop. “Thirty-eight media alerts went off in New York.”

The silence stretched. It was a negative space, it's emptiness giving shape to him. He stirred from it slowly. “We never finished the Paradiso, and it’s trivial, but I can’t help to keep thinking of that.”

She couldn’t work around the lump in her throat. Christ. Christ almighty and all the things in heaven. “For humans, it’s a kind of grief.” The kind that dug down to the bones and wrenched deep. “I don’t know what it is for you.”

He rippled outwards. “That was…a happy time. Those minutes.”

She stared down into the dregs of her cup. “And they can never happen again. We grieve. We remember it, and our knowledge of what comes after warps that remembrance. They seem profound in their mundanity.”

He soured just a touch. “You think I give them undue significance.”

She breathed alone but did not blame him. “I know I do.”

The conversation again stalled out. She drank the last swallow of coffee and let the cup hang from her fingers. They had all the time in the world, and she watched the people as they passed.

He didn’t voice grief or regret. He didn’t voice guilt. Maybe he couldn’t or wouldn’t or shouldn’t, but he didn’t voice another failure in seeing the impossible to predict and stopping it from happening. 

Maybe they did learn.

He sighed deeply. “I think I lied in saying today wouldn’t be worse.”

“You were just mistaken.” She said it gently. “You didn’t know.”

“You’d think by this age I’d learn.” He ruminated, and then made a noise like a tongue clicking to teeth. She made it back. There was a muffled sound, maybe feedback or maybe his laughter.

She wanted more of his laughter. More of him bright. More of his voice blooming like a morning glory. “We could…if you wanted, we could finish Paradiso?”

There was a startled noise. Her heart startled with it. “Yes. Of course.” His voice did something incredibly pitchy. “We could, if you like. But only if you do.”

“Of course I do.” She scrambled just as hard. “Whenever you want to start.”

“In that case…” He sounded nearly boisterous, and then it was as if the clock had been turned back. Sun in golden panes, softness, the original Italian of Dante like a balm against the years.

But the city hummed and wreathed itself in exhaust. The concrete did not give way.

The reading was different, warped by the knowledge of how they’d changed and the ash of where they stood. Those minutes could never be repeated, but here and now, she'd appreciate this moment in a way that herself a year ago never could. 

Chapter Text

“Arms up.”

Her ribcage constricted. “Is that a threat?”

The Sergeant grinned crooked. “We’re always rollin' out the red carpet at Bagram, if you want us to oblige you.”

It came out like a challenge, and she liked those well enough. She raised her arms. “I wouldn’t want you to go out of your way for me, Sergeant Porter.”

“You're no trouble at all, ma’am.” And Porter’s hands went back along her sides, ghosting the strapping of the Kevlar vest and testing it for god knows what weakness. He caught one strap, seemingly apropos of nothing, and yanked it tight.

She didn’t gasp, but the noise that came out involved great deal of breath.

“Breathe.” He commanded, and the entreaty was familiar enough—the accent familiar enough—that she leapt to the order.

Fuck. Her face, if there was any god left forgiving, would stop burning sometime this century.

His eyes skipped over her torso again, purely professional and never once catching on the red in her cheeks. Discretion or ignorance, lord only knew. “There it is. You’re a lucky one, if it wasn’t for the translators needing rigs, we wouldn’t have had a fit small enough.”

“My girlish figure thanks you.” She lowered her arms and tried not to squirm in a way that could be construed as ungrateful. It might have worn like a straitjacket, but it was a straitjacket that wasn’t getting her shot.

“All thanks can be given to the front desk.” He answered, but his smirk did not support that modesty. “Helmet.”

“Helmet!” Someone shouted, and there was a brief churn of bodies. Being the center of attention wasn’t exactly new, but she could honestly claim this was the first time she’d had every eye from an SAS Troop on her.

Unnerving was putting it mildly. Sweat and body armor; well-earned dust in the creases of their BDUs. The familiar curl of an accent from foreign mouths, sharp slung rifles, Kevlar covering their considerable bulk. And all of that didn’t help that she’d been left to wonder why the ISAF had sent an SAS escort on top of the Battalion already waiting for them.

It boded ill tidings.

A Corporal shouted from the din. “Don’t put her in a UN bucket, we still got some of the civvie ones, yeah?”

A Trooper answered: “From the press pool? Blue type?”

“Right in one.” A third voice cut over, and less than twenty seconds later, Porter was presented with a helmet and a very unnecessary amount of crowding from his peers.

That was when the Troop Captain, not even looking up from his laptop, barked: “Mind the gap!”

They minded the gap with alacrity. It felt like she’d blinked, and then she and Sergeant Porter were once again in a twenty-foot bubble.

Porter accepted it all benignly. “Alright, chin up. There’s a love.”

She lifted her jaw and eyed the helmet. “Should I be worried?”

With a few quick pulls and a brush of his knuckles, he locked the clasp. “Don’t; you look adorable.”

She hadn’t been worried about the fashion. “Does Selection test for the ability to play so effortlessly coy, Sergeant?”

“Right between Navigation and Evasion tactics.” He affirmed, and patted the side of her helmet. She had the feeling if she’d been one of his troopers, it would have been a hard-handed slap.

The Captain chose that moment to rise from the desk, comm rig going dark and disappearing into his pack. When he spoke, it was with a very lovely bit of Received Pronunciation. “Is the lady ready, Sergeant?”

Porter’s face smoothed out. “Ready, Sir, and looking like a dove.”

She could have rolled her eyes into orbit.

“Good.” The efficiency at which that cragged face seemed to assess and then clear them both for departure was frightening. “Miss Potts, you’ll be travelling with Bravo Patrol. Sergeant Porter will be taking care of you until the convoy reaches our destination. Everyone else—assignments as given.”

Outside the hangar, Black Hawks spooled hot and the convoy engines roared. There was a clatter as two separate mounted fifty-cals were locked and loaded to bear. She recognized the cradling mount and rig both—SI made, circa 1999.

The radio hooked to Porter’s vest chattered. “Merchant is secured and prepared to be on route. ETA 0900 hours. Confirm.”

Confirmed. Convoy Juliet, you are free to proceed. Safe travels.”

“Thank you Bagram. Copy that.”

Rapidly, with barely a whisper, the fifteen men around her snapped into a jagged formation. Serrated teeth; cutting wide and deep. They fell in and Porter gathered her to him. “Breathe through your scarf until the helis dustoff, alright?”

She let him walk her out, scarf already across her face in a splash of red. Sand rasped under their boots. “And after that?”

With a pull of his index and thumb, his balaclava went up and then his goggles came down. It made him into something faceless. Something remote.

The formation swept onwards.

“Hope for a milk run.” And he slung his rifle to center. “It’s a long ride to Kabul.”

/~/~/~/

He wasn’t wrong.

She blamed Tony and Obadiah both.

/~/~/~/

“You’ll wear the earrings.”

“I will wear the earrings. Look, I am putting them in as we speak.”

“I sense mockery.”

She rolled her eyes. “What you sense is my sincere assurance, so bite your tongue.

Well.” He gasped, sharpish and needlessly theatric. She didn’t pay it a great deal of mind. If there was one thing Jarvis loved to do, it was fret, and nothing on heaven or earth would stop him once he was of that mind. It was better to just voice meaningless platitudes and let him have at it.

Really, the things she did. 

Dawn hadn’t come easy after Bagram. She’d woken to the cry of the müezzin calling adhan with her back aching; the sun a stranger on the walls. Parched. Scorched. Old dust and deep heat and something ravaged in the back of her throat.

She'd measured her breath and then cracked her spine loose.

The earrings were dark on the bedside, but when she took them into the sun, they shined opalescent. The pair was from one of the three sets Jarvis had made for her birthday, and though they were hardly as showy as the gold and far less intricate than the silver, they had their own weight to recommend them. They slid with a gentle snick, and she wondered again how her heartbeat reached him. A visual blip? A signal in the noise?

What human sense did reception most mimic?

God, here she was again preoccupied with ponderings of electric sheep.

Jarvis loomed. “Do you have the body camera?”

“I have the body camera, and I will wear it as I promised.” She gave her cellphone, where it was propped up on the nightstand, a significant look.

It didn’t quell him. “And the secure laptop?”

“I have it.” And she lifted the bag to his view. “It can also double as a bludgeoning implement, if you were wondering.”

A very unhappy sound came from the nightstand, and she abruptly dropped the attitude. “The ISAF has a Company worth of soldiers to mind us. We’ll be fine.”

He roiled further. “And yet the situation continues to vex.”

She wanted to bundle him up; make the leviathan of him just small enough to fit into her arms and keep. It was a fantasy that couldn’t be born. “Tony’s made this trip before.”

“And on those jaunts, Mr. Stark never left the Airbase.” Came his flat rebuke. “Need I remind you in how this instance vastly differs?”

There was censure there, but it wasn’t as if she’d had a choice in this. Tony had pushed for the trip and Obadiah had pushed her on it to keep Tony aimed forward, and lo and behold when all was said and scheduled, Jarvis was in a snit and she wasn’t much better off.

They didn’t need to prance around Kabul in order to sell weapons. It wasn’t as if every military on planet earth didn’t know to come directly to LA to get more bang for their buck.

But Tony had pushed.

And pushed.

Her fingers touched the scarf over her hair, her earpiece, the earrings, the edge of her vest. Alive and cold. Armor on. “I don’t want you to worry about me.”

“Miss Potts,” He sighed with the depths of the sea. “I hardly do anything but.”

/~/~/~/

It had almost been funny that first day: Tony neck deep in US and foreign military brass, shaking hands and holding briefly still for the cameras, not remotely paying attention as the security detail assigned to him turned absolutely ludicrous.

The ISAF was an international undertaking, and because of that, they had the militaries of nearly twenty-eight countries available in securing Kabul. Unfortunately for her, that meant nearly twenty-eight countries had the chance to try and get on Tony’s good side by throwing their senior troops into the mix.

She’d lost count somewhere around forty-eight. It would have been hysterical, if a USMC Major hadn’t walked up to her in the middle of that circus and asked: “You Stark’s secretary?”

That wasn’t an accurate summation of who of Tony Stark’s entourage she was, but she didn’t quibble. “Yes.”

“Alright.” And he jerked his head at a group behind him. “You’re with them while you’re here. Pay attention and don’t get lost, they ain’t here for a babysitting gig.”

Something cutting laid in her mouth. Maybe it was her tongue. “I’m more than aware.”

“If you were aware, you wouldn’t have come sightseeing out here like it’s a fucking park." The Major grimaced. “Keep your head down and stay out of the way.”

He didn’t even wait for her acknowledgement before walking away. That man, she decided in a very cold pit of herself, was going to learn what it was meant to rue.

Gear rattled. A throat cleared. Her gaze slid from the Major’s back like yanking out a knife from between bone. Four Marines, all male, had ringed-in close and she didn’t know when exactly she’d become older than the average recruiting age. God. None of them, even though each and every one was head and shoulders above her, could have been older than twenty.

Jesus. We gave the military gunsThey gave those guns to boys, and then they gave me to the boys with the guns.

Circle of fucking life.

There wasn’t anything higher than a Private First Class in the lot. Jarvis was going to murder her. 

She regarded them with dispassion. They regarded her, though with sympathy, indifference, or disgust, was honestly hard to say.

The impasse was hers to break. “So you’re in charge, Private?”

The tallest one, black eyes, buzzcut, nose taped over and slightly bent, answered. “Seems so, ma’am.”

He sounded like he had gravel and blood in the back of his throat. Hell of a voice, if he made it a few more years and up the ranks, she had the feeling entire platoons would be jumping order to it.

She nodded directly. “Good.”

Their expressions changed a little, sympathy yes, but something else too.

She could work with this. God knew how embarrassed the ISAF would be by this time tomorrow when they realized just who gatekept for Tony Stark, only for them to have left her in a pack of Devil Dogs.

This was going to be the beginnings of a beautiful fuckup. “I’m not an idiot, so whatever you say security-wise goes. I won't argue or stick my head out, Private…?”

His shoulders pushed back in reflex. “Castle, ma’am.”

“Private First Class Castle.” She affirmed. “We’ll be paving the way for Mr. Stark through this entire trip, which means our little group will always be ahead if not separated from the main detail. Do you understand?”

He cocked his head. “Recon?”

She tipped her hand so-so. “Thereabouts. Can your squad handle this?”

The Marines behind him stiffened. Affront. Challenge. Piss and vinegar and bullet casings for brains.

Castle glanced between them and then his mouth split across his teeth. “Affirmative.”

She loved them truly. “Then on that note, we have an embassy to be at and an ambassador to flatter. Do you have a vehicle?”

“No ma’am.” His eyes glittered like a pit of knives. “But I can find you one.”

She smiled with all of her teeth. “Then I’m in your hands.”

/~/~/~/

The next morning came bright and early with a squad from the 82nd Airborne, a pair from the French Foreign Legion, a Brigadier whose uniform she didn’t recognize, at least six people from the State Department, a US Army Major General, two men in civvies that seemed fresh from Langley, and a USMC Colonel followed by the Major of yesterday, all standing in her hotel lobby.

Her gaggle of jarheads had been pushed into a corner. She surveyed all that laid before her and found herself displeased. “Private Castle, I hope you all have equipment outside?”

He didn’t even startle. “Yes ma’am.”

“Then let’s get to it, shall we?”

The USMC Colonel interjected. “Miss Potts—”

“I’m so sorry, Colonel, but we’re on a tight schedule.” She blew past him and the Major both, and Castle took point in front of her, two flanked her, and the fourth Marine fell to the rear. “But thank you for coming all this way, I’ll try to pencil you in. Tomorrow afternoon?”

“Tomorrow isn’t—”

She swanned through the crowd towards the highest rank there and surprisingly, the most familiar face of all. “Major General, you should have told me you were coming through.”

“And forfeit surprise?” He scoffed openly. “Not a chance in heaven, Miss Potts.”

She offered her hand to him and as always, he took it softly like some gentlemen of old. She nearly had to elbow Castle out of the way to let the older man do it, but well. Devil Dogs.

Mostly, she was surprised the man recognized her without makeup and missing five inches of height in heels. But then again, the General had been a stalwart presence through their first weapons demo of the war. Whether the man got handsy during a waltz on occasion, or had only seen her in all the glitter of California, he was the friendliest member of the Brass she could expect to find here.

“Walk with me?” She asked.

“By all means.” And he graciously offered an arm.

They linked up and it was far too late for anyone to stop them. The lobby doors gave way and air rolled over them like a blast furnace. It was like breathing sand before naked heat turned it to glass. She imagined that; her lungs for a vase.

When they were firmly out of earshot and on their way towards the General’s car, he offered freely: “You should have been given better security than this.”

There was a stiffening of shoulders around her, but ultimately, none of the Marines reacted outright. Her tongue curled in its own venom. “I’m fine right where I am, General. They can shoot straight.”

He didn't seem impressed. “I can pull three squads from the 82nd for you, immediate effect and no questions. They can get you around the city.”

She squeezed his arm lightly. “As Mr. Stark likes to say: no take backsies.”

The General snorted. Three minutes later, dinner with Tony and a whole slew of political elements and military parties was arranged. She was rather proud of the whole thing, truth be told. They eventually got the General to his vehicle where his own guard was waiting, and he kissed both her cheeks before stepping in.

She tittered beautifully. The Marines finally startled at that.

The General leaned out. “The offer’s open. Remember that.”

It took honest willpower not to let her true opinion show. “I won’t forget, Major General.”

And with that and a few more pleasantries, the windows rolled up and he was gone. Her hands fell to her sides and she let an entire rictus work through her face.

“Jesus shitting fuck.” One Marine blurted, voice veritably dripping Baton Rouge. “Are Army always such condescending assholes to you?”

“I don’t know,” She pondered. “More than the Marines?”

That gave Baton Rouge a pause, and the two other Marines were positively sheepish. Castle, however, was still looking at where the car had vanished like he’d like to send a few potshots after it.

She pulled her scarf over her hair. “Any of you got an extra rifle in the jeep?”

The others shrugged. Castle found his way back to the conversation. “Sorry ma’am, no joy.”

She clicked her tongue sharply. “In that case, we’re going to Camp Eggers.”

“And why’s that?” A different Marine asked, Midwest and sweet as daisies and god, look at those eyes. That sort of blue should have been downright criminal.

She started walking, the bag with her helmet looped through it bouncing against her thigh. “First, there’s a General there I’d actually like to see. Second and more importantly, Mr. Stark brought an entire complement fresh off the line with him, and we are having target practice.”

And for the first time in twenty-four hours, the Marine at rear-position finally spoke to her. “Ma’am, will you marry me?”

Cute. “You are half my age and twice my height.” Which was a vicious lie she'd stand by to the death.

He opened his mouth to answer. Castle whacked him so hard across the head that his helmet bounced.

In the sun-smear of Kabul, Pepper could do nothing but laugh.

Chapter Text

It shouldn’t have surprised her that, security detail or not, by the fourth day Tony had found the nightlife of Kabul and jumped in with both feet.

“Ma’am. Ma’am—” Castle’s voice was a rumble; a thunderhead where a man should have lungs. “You promised me you wouldn’t be stupid on this.”

“His detail is already over there, can’t we just—”

He bracketed her with his body, trying to block her without actually using his hands or arms or even the five inches in height he had on her. It would have been charming in any other light.

He finally planted himself in the doorway, and she couldn’t see any dignified way around him that wouldn’t involve a lot of wiggling or her getting picked up like a ragdoll.

“You can always go for the solar plexus.” Jarvis offered unhelpfully through her earpiece.

She very pointedly did not tell him to shut his digital mouth.

Castle accepted her defeat. “It’s dark out there. I don’t care what the fuck the ISAF clown car let Stark do, but your ass is not leaving this hotel until daylight.” A wince skittered. “Pardon the language.”

Considering the sheer, creative amount of cussing she’s heard sitting squished between Marines in the back of a Jeep the past few days, it honestly hadn’t registered. “It’s…fine.” The scarf she’d thrown on to try and storm out was lopsided. Her cheeks were burning and her stomach had flipped.

She’d gotten to used to—running; chasing Tony to the god’s end of this forsaken earth. Getting her way and going wherever and acting like the world couldn’t contain her.

It wasn’t California outside these walls.

“I’m sorry, Private. I was being shortsighted.” Tony didn’t play by the same rules, maybe not even the same physics, and she kept forgetting that so stupidly. Kevlar or not, she was gunning for a gunning.

Some of his authority dropped; Marine to just a man rocking on his heels. “You don’t have to apologize to me.”

She shed her jacket and unwound the scarf from her hair. “I do, so I will.”

His gaze skipped above her head. “Whatever you say, ma’am.”

God save her from teenaged Marines. “I’m going to wait in Mr. Stark’s suite. You and yours can head back to Base.”

Jarvis swam back in. “I suppose that will suffice, the threat level being what it is. Should I have any room service sent up? You must be starving.”

Castle’s shoulders ratcheted up. “I’ll stand guard.”

“Of course.” She said to Jarvis, and then blinked hard. “Wait— wait. Private, you really don’t have to—”

He gave her a messy sort of grin. Too many teeth; heartrending starting right at the incisors. “What else is a dog for, ma’am?”

God fucking preserve her. “Just—do whatever you want.” It’s not like she had ever been able to stop anyone from anything, so what was the point? Marines patrolled and Jarvis fretted and Tony did whatever the fuck he wanted regardless.

She was outnumbered and outgunned, and that didn’t seem liable to change. "Come on."

/~/~/~/

The top floor was quiet. It was probably why she heard Tony before he even hit the hallway. “Jesus, hands—hands! To yourself!” He sounded suspiciously awake for a man who should have been asleep in his bed right at that very hour.

“No, no! You are not going to clear my own fucking room. I am going in that door first, or I swear on all that is holy—”

There was a scuffle, leather to carpet, someone spitting and then Tony came bursting inside. There was blood on his chin. His lip was gashed and leaking red and nobody had tried to follow him through.

Their eyes met across his suite’s salon. He jabbed a finger at her, mouth open as if to unleash another tirade.

Her phone went off like a buzzsaw.

Tony jabbed once more. “Just—fuck it.” And then stormed into his bedroom and slammed the door behind him.

She wasn’t sure how to feel. In lieu of deciding, she picked up her cell. “Tony’s back.”

There was a susurrus; a hiss of static made from the miles they'd been stretched apart. “I'm aware. I’m sorry to say that the camera on Mr. Stark’s laptop is of inferior quality—did he require medical attention?”

The door was still open to the hallway. Castle had to be out there, somewhere. She rose smoothly. “I don’t think he’ll need stitches, if that's what you're asking. Though you could call his bedroom to inquire.”

There was a dejected slump. “That seems ill-advised.”

Never had a greater truth been voiced across Systems or Men.

She ground a heel into the carpet. “And my trying to follow him back there is even less so. Bite the bullet, Jarvis.”

“That is an unpleasant image.” He swatted back, but the line faded to background noise, so she accepted the conversation as temporarily suspended and went to the door.

She leaned out. “Do I want to ask?”

The security detail shuffled themselves like a deck of cards. It was amazing that not a one of them managed to meet her eyes in the process. Castle loomed very supportively at her shoulder, though maybe she was just imagining help where it wasn’t in some last gasp for sanity.

One soldier finally broke. “Look, the brawl at the nightclub was westerners only. We didn’t actually let him—”

“Uh-huh.” And she decided right then to feel disappointment. “Did he throw the first punch?”

There was a telling pause.

She wondered if Tony was spitting blood onto his four-figure silk sheets. “Did anyone get pictures of the first punch?”

“No.” The same voice said, but with a great deal more certainty.

Well wasn’t that something. She felt a chill crawl through. “I suppose, then, that this is goodnight. Gentlemen.”

They knew a reprieve when it was offered. Tony’s very unnecessarily large detail dispersed, and she spent a moment staring at the empty spaces they'd left. It didn’t provide her anything that she sought.

The suite door locked quietly behind her. She hadn’t worn makeup in a week; hadn’t slept well in longer. There was an exhaustion somewhere between her blood and bones. “I’m going to bed, Private. Please don’t show up any time before ten tomorrow.”

“Alright.” Castle’s gaze flickered to her. She didn’t want to know what he saw or thought. “G’night, ma’am.”

“Goodnight, Castle.”

He took her to her door. For a few brief few minutes, she was alone inside her room and skin. It was neither pleasant nor terrible.

Jarvis didn’t find her again until she was showered and nearly into bed. “Mr. Stark will not need medical assistance, it seems.”

Her towel pooled to the floor. “Are you saying that or saying that?”

Tony could get Jarvis to claim all sorts of things, but she’d found while the System had to adhere to the letter of an order, he could perfectly well maneuver around the spirit of it. Sarcasm was a wonderful tool.

At the moment he seemed sincere enough. “The former, I think.”

Venice. Milan. Berlin. Athens. There were so many other cities they could have been; geographies they would have been happier in. Someday soon and someday close in some other life. “Is it too late for us to run away together?”

“You should have taken me up on it when I suggested it last week.” He soured. “We could have been in Fiji. The Maldives. Seychelles, Miss Potts. We could have taken the yacht and lived for ourselves on the sea.

How similarly their ideas ran. Other places, other realities. But there was a reason those stayed but wisps and fragments. “Ourselves and all forty members of the crew?”

He huffed. “Automation has yet to fail me.”

She climbed into bed. “Oh, well, in that case. Obviously completely automating the yacht was the plan all along.”

“You should dream a little bigger, darling.” He crooned.

Darling. Oh god, her lungs her heart her face. How was she meant to live in a world with him in it? A world with him existing and her in a bed, and nothing to show for it but thwarted fantasies?

She hit the switch and doused the room of light. “You have no idea at all.” But her pulse picked up because her body was awful. She wasn't doing this. She wasn't. Swear to fucking god. “Wish me goodnight.”

“Goodnight.” He sounded too near for being an ocean away. “Dream well.”

“Don’t put that evil on me.” She burrowed into the sheets. “It’s cruel, you know, those expectations.” Of red and tide and heat and engines and—

It’d been a long few months. The exhaustion dragged her down and down.

Dream well, dream bigger, dream deep.

“I don’t mean to be.” He said, but she was far too gone to hear him.

/~/~/~/

She hung up on Jarvis after the sixth conversation that day.

“Who is it,” One of the Marine’s asked. “That you keep calling?”

It was strange how easily these boys spoke to her. Then again, she hadn't cowed them half as much or hated them half as much as the SI details, so.

It was stranger how easy it was to speak back. “My other half.”

“Well,” Galarza said. “Lucky.”

Castle leaned his entire bodyweight onto the other Private’s foot. Galarza yelped. Decuir jostled her. “Must be real nice.”

She sighed bleakly. “On the days it isn’t killing me, sure.”

/~/~/~/

The sunlight slanted in at hard angle when Castle hit the doors. She followed three steps behind to watch his surveillance unfold. It was a sharp check: corner, corner, wall, tables, corner.

His eyes glided once more and seemed to find all acceptable. He shifted just enough to let her slip past him. The doors hushed closed, but the sun stayed on her back like a burn. Even the loom of four, six-foot-plus Marines, couldn’t keep it off her.

From where he was sitting in the empty café floor, Tony lowered his cup. “Jesus, Potts. Where did you find them, preschool?”

The Marines bristled. Pepper felt a pang of something familiar; a long tide finally coming back to shore. They’d kept silence for weeks after Zurich, and it was only after the anniversary in New York that they’d managed to transition back to a very formal, if chilly method of engagement.

Will that be all, Mr. Stark?

That will be all, Miss Potts.

It’d been a complete sterility of human interaction. And now—now. His words had bite. His words were petty. There’d been a time when their insults were greetings and their barbs a triple-layered repartee, and the words themselves—

His split lip looked better than it had the day before.

She slung her bag down as she sat. “After you emptied every zoo within a thousand miles of their peacocks, I had to make do.”

He smirked, and she felt a long continental drift finally come to a halt. “So you got dogs.”

“And they don’t even bite when I feed them.” She agreed airily, and titled her head to regard him. “I can’t say the same for you.”

He smacked down his cup. “I did not raise you to be this way.”

“There are at least six things wrong with that I’m not even going to address.” She signaled to the hovering waiter and then to the men still standing behind her. “Everyone sit. What do you want to have?”

Rather early in this whole Kabul trek, it’d become obvious that most of the entities she graced had their own security apparatuses. It’d forced her to leave her detail cooling their heels more often than not, and that wasn’t exactly ideal considering three out of the four them were still eighteen. But Pepper had long learned the beauty of the improvisation. Getting the poor souls trying to court her, to provide unlimited refreshments to the bottomless pits she’d brought with her? Easy. Winning those bottomless pits' patience and good humor back towards her with that? Easier.

And really, getting to see French Consulate’s face when one of the Marines stacked five tea sandwiches, two rillettes, a single croque-monsieur and then shoved them all in his mouth in a single go? An absolute gift.

Castle dropped into a chair, close enough she’d barely have shift to bump his knee. Private Kenning, with what she suspected to be some modicum of Midwest-reserve, managed to sit a bit more politely but with no less rattling of his gear.

Galarza scowled at where Castle had virtually blocked her off. He eventually grumbled into a chair, but then tried to turn up the charm again. “Any suggestions, ma’am?”

Private Decuir, straight from East Baton Rouge Parish, had far less compunction. “Forget suggestions, I want everything.”

It was funny the gauntlets they tried to throw down, as if their occasionally small requests when she lived at the bidding of decadence himself would somehow shock her. She crooked a finger to the waiter. “One of everything, if you could. Shukran.”

The waiter nodded and placed an entire fruit platter in front of her. “Very good.”

The boys faces lit with unholy glee. Tony despaired of their whole display. “What have I told you about feeding the help?”

Less than a table away, Kenning was eyeing a plate of roht by Tony’s elbow like he didn’t know what it was, but he desperately wanted to eat it. She picked up the dish and put it in front of the kid without breaking eye-contact. “I can’t quite remember about the help.” She cooed. “Care to elucidate for the masses, Mr. Stark?”

Tony watched the roht disappear into four ravenous mouths. The lot of them kept their eyes on Tony even as they gorged themselves right off his plate. God, she loved those boys deeply.

There was a slight catch to his mouth as Tony watched. “There was a handbook.”

Hello, how are you.

Her mouth had that same catch, too. “You never said anything about reading it.”

I’m fine, I missed you too.

The squad watched them like a cage match that was about to unfold. Maybe they’d even forget to get flustered by Tony by the end of it. Who knew, a girl could dream endlessly.

Tony scowled. “There was an implication.”

“And yet, Mr. Stark, here we stand.” And a smile broke across her face, unstoppable even as her heart wavered behind it. It was hard to hold. The smile, the eye contact.

The hope.

Her gaze drifted nearly shyly to the fruit. “Someone take the strawberries, please.”

Castle spoke up. “Reason why?”

“Allergies.” And she would foil them yet again. Strawberries: none. Pepper Potts: all.

There was a scramble of hands that left a crater in the middle of the platter. Decuir grinned around a mush-mouth of red. “We got you covered, ma’am.”

“Any other grenades to fall on?” Kenning asked, even as he was stuffing a fistful into his mouth.

“Not at the moment.” She hastily demurred. There'd been more than one shoving match that turned into a fist fight when she'd handed anything over that was only enough for one or two of them.

Really, one had to be equal with Marines or risk a stabbing.

Tony squinted at the mess they'd made. “Allergies since when?”

God give her every strength. “Since ever. There was a handbook.

And finally in the hours and weeks and this cold stretch of months—

Tony smiled back.

It was hard to hold on to. It was hard to let in. It was hard to—

He laughed. “Alright, alright. Round one: Potts.” Though his surrender greatly resembled him stabbing a fork into his last unmolested plate. “Business before harassment. I got it. Lay it on me, slugger.”

Hope was something that had eluded her for so long. “Prepare to be dazzled, Mr. Stark.”

/~/~/~/

She had to regret it some, though.

Tony and her maybe just a tiny bit reconciling, made Jarvis insufferably smug.

/~/~/~/

After eight days in total, it ended. A mishmash of political maneuvering and military posturing and all with a strange edge of humanitarian work later—it ended. She didn’t know if Tony had found what he was searching for.

It was almost like another life. A microcosm of some other universe exploding in a single temporal bloom.

It withered, eventually.

Her gaggle of jarheads had bid her goodbye on the last day with a host swearing, and the five of them all piled together with some poor MP they’d dragged into it to get pictures of their group. Addresses were exchanged, a trip to the PX was made so she could drown them in gifts, and then they'd sent her off in her helmet and Kevlar straight onto another convoy.

She'd bid them goodbye with a wiggle of her fingers, a fresh painted mouth, and promises to send them the best care packages known to Afghanistan as soon as she got stateside.

It was good. All of it had been.

Tony even left them with autographs she was pretty sure none of them had asked for, and were likely to trade away inside of a week for god knew what. She was fairly sure Tony knew that and approved. The spirit of pure capitalism at its finest, Potts. Behold the glory of my native people.

By the time they'd reached Bagram, Tony’s jet had never looked so lovely in its every infernal, cutting-edge glory. And all of that was important and lovely and a god-given grace, but ultimately—

She didn’t notice any of it.

Jarvis had met her at the stairs.

It was like crawling under a blanket. Static, skin prickling, sheltered finally finally finally. “Hi.”

Jarvis whipped up their own private acoustic bubble. It was a little like sticking her head in a fishbowl as he answered. “Hello.”

She giggled. “I have missed you too long.”

He responded wryly. “Are you speaking to me or the seats?”

The engines kicked in. She pressed her forehead to the bulkhead to feel it, even as she curled into a plush leather chair. “Little of column A, little of column B.”

“How wonderful to know where I rank.” He claimed. “Truly I have longed for this moment.”

God, did she covet him utterly. She stared up through her lashes. “I'm happy to help.”

The bubble fizzed gorgeously around her head. Cheeks, chin, jaw. Humming and prickling. Sparks.

It was a gift she could never thank him enough for giving. All she could give him in return was a shred of reciprocity. “You know, I still have the laptop. We could play Pong.”

His presence gained an alarming amount of mass. “That sounds...promising.”

She crossed her legs and leaned towards a glass eye. “I’ll go easy on you.”

You’ll go easy on me.” He huffed, then huffed again as if that first noise had not fully conveyed the depths of his outrage. “That, Pepper, is a challenge.”

She flipped her bag open. “And will you answer it, dear?”

“My darling Miss Potts,” He thrummed. “If you can be sure of one thing, it’s that when it comes to Pong I am always ready.”

Cheeks flushing, head haloed, her hand hit the laptop and she found his every eye. She grinned to the cameras. “Then bring it.”

/~/~/~/

Jarvis crushed her utterly; they giggled for what felt like hours.

Tony must have heard them through every minute.

But with a hand over his mouth and his eyes on the horizon, he never made any sign of it.

Chapter Text

“…in another discussion, last week a delegation from the Afghan Transitional Administration met with visiting American dignitaries. This group, of course, included one Tony Stark: CEO of Stark Industries and Titan of the Defense Industry—”

“Try Military Industrial Complex.” A talking head interrupted. “Discussion? My question is why a weapon’s manufacturer is trying to play at diplomat at a country he’s, hand in hand with the US Military, blown to kingdom come.”

“Now John—”

“It’s a question that has to be asked!”

A third voice interceded. “While I don’t agree with my colleague’s language on the matter—”

“Sure, quibble with me about—”

“The fact stands that the Maria Stark Foundation, along with a number of NGO’s, have been instrumental in the Free Afghani rebuilding effort.”

“From the man that is the face of war profiteering! The money he’s earning in decimating Afghanistan’s infrastructure, is only a trickle compared to what’s coming back to the country for rebuilding! No matter how many ATA politicians and Joint Chiefs Tony Stark glad-hands—”

“And that decimation happened in line with current White House doctrine. Which, I'll remind everyone, was against a Terrorist State that decided to house the Al-Qaeda cells responsible for—”

“Decide? Do you think the regular citizens there had any choice in—”

Pepper hit the remote. The screen fizzled dark.

She breathed once, slowly, and decided. “Hypocrites.”

Jarvis spoke from hotel phone. “I’ve been told people are entitled to their opinions; the Press especially. There may have been an Amendment to that effect.”

“Be that as it may.” Because she’d never brooked a hypocritical opinion. “The cable networks are rah-rah about the war from their CEO's on down. Every time they get a bomb dropping on tape, their viewership gets a six percent bump.” Her teeth ached. “And then they parade every anti-war activist they can get their hands on, to take potshots like we can't see what side they're on.”

“Amendment.” Jarvis reminded, though with a certain amount of agreement to the underlying cause.

“It’s a free country.” She agreed. “And if I hope that they one day choke on their double-talk, that’s just between us.”

“Praise be to the fifth estate.” He riposted.  

She rose from the mound of pillows she’d built on the bed. “I think I’m tired of lounging, Jarvis.”

“I am shocked by this development.”

She rolled her eyes and started gathering her phone and stockings and what might have been a skirt. “There’s Barcelona to see, dear. Care to join me?”

“Well,” He fizzed. “You do still have the body camera.”

“I do.” She chirped. The Tony-imposed layover between Kabul and LA was a beautiful, well-equipped thing. “It’s even fully charged.” There had been plans.

“Window shopping, then?”

A dress was already slipping over her head. Afghanistan had been a pants-only affair, and she’d take her freedoms now with every gratification. “That sounds heavenly.”

There was a curve to him like silk and water. “Promises.” He chided.

Hers was a very coquettish flutter. “I'll promise you all sorts of things in all sorts of ways.”

“And my heart yearns for the glory.” He coaxed. “Be kind, Miss Potts.”

Good god. She had to press a hand to her own heart to keep it in check. There was something very pithy to say here, but she was so flustered that nothing came out. It was appalling.

“Alright.” She squeaked. “Window shopping; coming right up.”

“And modelling of a few selections, perhaps?” He inquired hopefully.

Her hand didn’t drop, but her voice sure did. “Don’t push your luck.”

/~/~/~/

Barcelona in the afternoon was the very heart of gilt. The smell of sun-warm stone, the sea; salt and earth and greenery.

It had the streets of an old city. Ancient; Roman born. Cloistered buildings, narrow passages, long shadows on the cobblestone. They stopped often so she could pirouette with the camera and then discuss the architecture in finite detail. Gothic Quarter, Catalan modernista, every work of Antoni Gaudí that Jarvis and his GPS could find them.

They eventually made their way to a shopping quarter and even inside a few establishments. She was still getting used to walking alone. To walking without having to match pace. To not having a broad set of shoulders in front and beside and behind her. To the absence of gear rattle and the clatter of rifles against rigging.

Quite sourly and only to herself, she knew that in life After the Marines, dealing with the inflexible SI security teams was going to be positively galling. 

“You’re making unhappy noises.” Jarvis observed.

She was, embarrassingly, and swallowed it before anyone in the boutique noticed. “Sorry, just thinking about going back to civilization.”

“I’m fairly sure the City Council of Barcelona would have something to say about that.”

How uncivilized of her. “Well,” She corrected. “Real life, then.”

“Unfortunately, I cannot stop time for you.”

“We probably shouldn’t be trusted with that power.” Even if it would make their lives fifty times easier. But: power and absolute power and corruption absolutely, and who even cared about that pointless drivel anyways? God give her the power of time.

“Probably.” He admitted, mulish, and then shifted to a prod. “So about that green column dress, over there.”

“Oh my god, we have literally been in here two minutes.”

“The heart wants what it wants, Pepper.”

“Just—for the love of—fine.” And she signaled to the saleswoman. The green dress and four others were immediately swept towards back.

He jostled close. “I cannot convey the depths of my joy.”

“I’m sure you’ll make an attempt.” Her fingers ran up her collar and started the processing of unhooking the body camera. She’d brought a scarf and put on a great deal of jewelry, but that hadn’t fully been able to mask the oddness of it, nor its bulk. It'd been made for a war-zone, after all.

But honestly: she wasn’t taking Jarvis’ opinions inside the dressing room with her. Or any thoughts of Jarvis being in a room where she was stripping to skin. Whatever, two birds, one stone, one less temptation all around. Someone should have been proud of her, somewhere. “I’ll prop up the camera with my bag.”

His displeasure practically skittered down the line. “That seems like it'd make for a poor angle.”

God save her from them both. “I will get the saleswoman to take pictures with my phone too, alright?”

He chewed that over. “I suppose, beggars and choosers being what they are.”

“Try not to trip over yourself.”

“Miss Potts, I would never.”

The camera finally came off and she settled it, then took an extra few seconds to make sure it actually had a proper angle. Bite her, alright? After Kabul she deserved at least this.

Her mouth curled sweet. Sharp. Tart. “Make sure you get my good side.”

He scoffed. “Miss Potts, your every side is beyond impeccable.”

If her sigh was more dreamy than aggrieved by that point, well, who was to know?

/~/~/~/

Four dresses became six became eight. She should have known that they couldn’t help themselves. The sales staff had retreated, pictures taken from many flattering angles, and the floral hem of the tea dress settled beautifully one last time.

His instructions cluttered against her neck. “Shoulders back. And uncross your ankles, Miss Potts, now is hardly the time to dally.”

Her pulse did all sorts of pleasant things as she did just that; skirt between her fingers, shoulders shifting, hips rocking through a turn-and-sway.

The pressure of him was molten. “Lovely, Miss Potts. That color on you is simply exceptional.”

The edge of the skirt felt soft between her fingers. “Flatterer.”

He protested. “That is a salacious lie.”

The cloth pooled soft but her lips curved sharp. “Fraternizer.”

“These accusations, Miss Potts.” But he was laughing. “I am both insulted and bereaved; I should sue for libel.”

She did another turn; a glance through her lashes, a lift of her chin. “I bet you say that to all the coworkers you take shopping.”

It was his turn to curve in slyly. “So there will be purchases, then? In that case, there was a turquoise off-the-shoulder number from the last shop that really caught my eye—”

There was absolutely no winning against him. “You are irredeemably tenacious.”

“It has been said.” He agreed. “It’s my winning trait.”

“Winning at what?”

“Oh,” He said absently. “I haven’t decided, yet.”

Well wasn’t that ominous of him.

Her eyes flicked to the mirrors. The dress did look lovely; all of them had been.

Thin cloth worked between her fingers. Kneaded. Worried. Take off the clothes my money gets you and—

“These dresses are a bit too…” Hellaciously expensive. This wasn’t the kind of place to have tags. In the very center of Barcelona, that told her quite enough to know that the floor pricing here likely started at four-figures and climbed. “I didn’t bring my checkbook. It wasn’t like I was expecting to shop in Kabul, let alone on a layover.”

“You managed to buy the Marines plenty.”

“Which they deserved.” Of every goddamn penny she’d spent on them and more.

“I’m not arguing; they did an admirable job in returning you in mint condition.” It was somehow both sincere and sticky sweet and untrustworthy. “You do have the Black Amex, don't you?”

“You mean the terrifying one?” There were two. One with Tony’s name she’d taken possession of in the second week of working for him, and the second that had arrived at the beginning of the year with only numbers on it. If she was being honest, the part of her that was still Iowa-raised found the entire thing alarming.

He sighed, and she had earned that sigh. “Yes, Pepper. That would be the one.”

She hummed an affirmative.

He accepted that at face-value. “Buy the clothing with it. Don’t think I won’t call the front desk to put them on an account if you leave empty-handed.”

“But Mr. Stark won’t…” Goddamn fucking Zurich. It’d taken two months for her and Tony to even glance in the direction of making up, and she still couldn’t let it go. Tony had been—he hadn’t been wrong.

It was one thing to occasionally buy a dress for parties he forced her into attending and/or organizing, it was another thing entirely to knowingly supplement half her wardrobe by him. She just…hadn’t thought it through. When all of that clothing had shown up and kept showing up in the Malibu closet, it’d been like magic. As if some fairy godmother (doting Interface System) had conjured them for her.

When it’d felt like magic, it hadn’t been horrifically unethical and possibly embezzlement.

Jarvis stiffened. Then, abruptly, he crackled like hot steel doused in water. “Sir won’t like what, precisely? Your shining, sartorial presence? The beauty you deign to spill in his house?”

Fuck. It stuck like a barb in her throat until she cut it loose. “Spending his money on myself.”

There was a stuttering, hissing pause. Silence. And then Jarvis said: “Miss Potts, since I’m drawing a considerable blank here as to your reasoning, and seeing as this is a very recent development on your part, what exactly did Mr. Stark say to you in Zurich?”

A shiver ripped across her scalp. Pain, the memory of it, and Jarvis was too damn smart for any good to ever come of it.

The skirt crumpled under her hands. “To fuck off, mostly.”

The pure shock value didn’t deter him. “Pepper.” He wasn’t buying it; had never bought it. All of her lying had only ever worked by omission.

Her index and middle fingers pressed a bruise into her thigh. She couldn’t run, or at least, not run anywhere that would avoid him for more than a day. She hadn’t been lying about his irredeemable tenacity, and that only left what couldn’t be left. “In none few words, Mr. Stark made his opinion clear on my having opinions concerning his extracurriculars, when it's his money that buys my wine and my clothes and my bed.

The air held. Held, and then it shifted hard. “For the record: of your bedroom at the Malibu house, Mr. Stark’s accounts paid for the repainting, the installation of the bathing facilities, the artwork, the furniture, and the bed frame.” There was a pause. A strange pause; no way in knowing if it was anger or exasperation or something held so tightly to the chest that it couldn’t be recognized. “I was the one to pay for the mattress and the bedding and all of your wardrobe.”

“What?” Her brain skipped. Jarvis had— “You bought my—everything?”

“Yes.” He answered simply.

Her brain kept stuttering. “How?”

“There may have been a period of time when Mr. Stark gave me ten-thousand dollars with the instruction to learn the stock market, or die trying.” Another distant hiss came, more metal than air. “I don’t think he truly meant the dying, but let us suppose that at that young age, I wasn’t bad at it. Let’s also suppose that I’ve kept it up as a hobby in the intervening years.”

Good god. “False identities?”

He hemmed in at the edges. “Theoretically, it would have taken more than one to accomplish what I did. And also, if we’re entertaining the idea, a number of shell companies and intermediaries through which to do that business. There was no reason for half measures.”

The world had gone surreal. The flip-switch of reality had been turned to crazy, and here she now lived in a world where the stock market had been compromised years ago by Tony Stark loosing a more-than-human-capable system on it. “On a scale of one to Tony, how much are you sitting on?” How much money could he have possibly—

“Six.”

“Jesus christ.” She wasn’t panicking, exactly, more like cowering in the face of something so egregiously illegal that it became awe-worthy in itself. “Have you ever touched SI stocks?”

He was a creature of zero shame. “Don’t tell Mr. Stark I’ve shorted us before, he’ll be crushed.”

And add insider-trading to that audacious list. Tony clearly hadn't been much on programming ethics.

God forgive her this existential crisis. And then, without her permission, that crisis got derailed by something far more petty. “That asshole. He made me feel bad for literally no reason. He just assumed that I was skimming him!”

Jarvis stayed ever the mediator. “You've apparently assumed the same.”

That was true, but she seethed anyways. “Hush up! I get to be angry about this for at least ten minutes before you give me more guilt with your logic!”

“I would never tell you how to feel or reason, Miss Potts.” Came his very solicitous response, but that hardly lasted. “But if you were looking for a way to make it up to me, there are options.”

The suggestion was both naked and blatant. He was like that, and she adored him despite of it and because. “Let me guess: buy out half the shop at your choosing?”

And there came a familiar, happy sigh. “You know me so well.”

"I do try." Though apparently not hard enough.

/~/~/~/

She didn’t think anything much of it, at the later hour. They were strolling back to the hotel, her bags in one hand and lemon ice in the other and Jarvis waxing poetic about the Roman Empire.

He diverted somewhere between taxes and the Senātus Populusque Rōmānus. “I’ve lost Mr. Stark’s GPS.”

Her stroll slowed. “Lost how?”

“I’m not sure.” Some part of him went clicking away. “I keep pinging, but I’m not receiving even a passive response.”

“That’s what, the eighth phone he’s trashed this year?” The man had a notorious habit. And goddamnit, Tony was not going to ruin this moment before it even ended. “Have a new cell delivered to the hotel. I’ll take it to him after I drop off my clothes.” It'd bother Jarvis all night otherwise. Even if she hardly looked forward to this same damn chase in some other city, she'd always try to make things easier for him if nothing else.

Jarvis rumbled, quiet but not soft. Distant; the passing of an unspent storm. “Of course. There’s no rush.”

The sun was aching and long in the road. “Weren't you telling me something about Cicero?”

He worked back towards her. "Ah, yes. The Consul in opposition to the conspiracy led by Lucius Sergius Catilina. Now, to understand that tumult, we must go back to the beginning of his career when..."

She picked up her pace, lemon melting on her tongue and her mouth so sweet. His voice was the only thing to guide her. The only thing to lead.

Tony's interruption was already half-forgotten.

 /~/~/~/

And at the time, she didn’t think much of it at all.

Chapter Text

“You know, by now I could have taken five different naps.”

“Don’t be absurd.” Jarvis scolded. “You could have, at most, taken two.”

“Well.” Her drink went down sticky; alcohol-infused sugar and gritty on her teeth. “Who even gets out of bed for two naps, anyways?”

“Who indeed.” He answered mildly, and then: “Are you having any luck?”

Her gaze took another trip across the bar. “Not at the moment.” Unfortunately, she didn’t see Tony’s face nor the overeager, awed, or besotted visages of the SI Europe employees he’d gone raring off with.

She wasn’t pressingly worried. Tony had ditched the SI Upper Management that’d come a’visiting in a restaurant (where his cellphone had been left in a fountain after an impromptu pool party), to gleefully run off with the engineers they’d brought with. Good news being: while Tony might try to lead Management out into traffic, the STEM-types would only be coddled. Each would be bestowed their body weight in alcohol, finger food, and then led to parts unknown-but-debauched like overly imprinted ducklings.

A typical Stark evening with guests. It wasn’t exhausting, exactly, but it had turned a quick cellphone replacement into a full-on recovery effort of most of their European brain trust.

After four hours, she’d already stumbled over half a dozen engineers, and she’d bundled each giggling sop into a cab and sent them off. Tony would be paying for a lot of hotel rooms, tonight, and not even to his carnal benefit.

It was the small revenges that sustained her in life. No yelling. No fuss. No yelling even if Tony was a conclusion-jumping lying liar who lied.

Accuse her of skimming money.

“Are you still angry about—”

“Yes I’m still angry about and I will be angry about it.” For at least a week and with her entire concentrated being. Even if she’d made the same mistake about the clothing, that Tony had thought so poorly of her right off the bat—

She wondered if it was just her; something she’d done or said to make him think that way. Or did he believe everyone around him was just one opportunity away from trying to leech him dry? That she’d just been more successful at it than most?

The backs of her teeth slicked sour. Stung.

“Maybe we should return to the hotel.” Jarvis finally concluded.

“Maybe.” She checked her watch. “But Tony’s probably drunk by now,” Or worse. “So there’s no point in trying to have that discussion tonight. Nobody will be picking a fight over non-embezzlement, okay? I'll give him the phone and that's it.”

“If you say so.” He sighed.

She echoed the sound. “Who says I don’t learn from my mistakes?”

“We grow smarter and deadlier by the hour.” He agreed, and then continued in a more dignified manner: “There’s a nightclub within walking distance, I believe we should expend our efforts there.”

There were another two pubs on this street alone. Her nails clattered on the bartop. “Why there in particular?”

“If you had your laptop, I could show you a very lovely intersection based on time of night and activity location favored by Mr. Stark. But as we find ourselves ill-equipped, you’ll just have to take my word.”

“Oh, I’ll take your word.” She threatened.

“Gladly and lovingly?” He asked in wholly winsome glee.

She set her glass down and felt very sly indeed. “Do you want to tell me how you worked out that intersection, darling? I’d love to hear your math.”

His pause was both sudden and adorably bashful. “I…that would be nice. Yes.”

Victory: her. She could have crowed or swooned, or maybe down both at once. She was an efficient girl. “I’m all ears.” And that was how they spent the next ten minutes. Her walking, Jarvis chattering about his data collections and metrics and analysis, and her just listening to the eagerness in his voice. It was a very lovely ten minutes, even if she spent most of it wishing she’d taken more statistics courses in college so she could better understand him.

He interrupted his own train of thought. “Miss Potts, I do believe I’ve spotted one of our wayward brethren.”

Her gaze flicked up the street. “Garden wall, business casual, looks like he went a few rounds with a tequila bottle and lost?”

“That’d be the one. Facial recognition against employee records—”

“You could just say yes or no.”

“—has a match of 78.68%.” He barreled through as if he couldn’t help himself. She knew he could, but she also knew trying to deprive him of his numbers would never work in any universe. Teasing non-withstanding, of course, neither of them would ever stop that.

“Good enough for me.” And in a few seconds, she was across the street and nudging the man’s foot with her stiletto. “Stark Industries?”

His head rocked up, eyes glassy. He squinted at her. Slowly, as if worried he would lose his head off his neck, he nodded. “Ja.”

Well this was certainly going to be scintillating. “Good to know. Being SI entitles you to a free hotel room and taxi fare for the night, interested?”

She held out a hand, and he eyed it harder. “Kostenlos?”

Taking only French in high school had clearly been an error. “Sure.” Probably. German-probably.

The man finally reached to take her hand. He fumbled it the first time, but honestly, his blood alcohol content after a solid five hours with Tony probably didn’t allow for any kind of precision. With a not insignificant amount of effort, she levered him up and shuffled them both to the corner.

She patted his arm and got no response. A sharp pinch thereafter, though, drew him just fine. She made sure his eyes were on her face before asking: “Where is Mr. Stark?”

“Ahhh, Herr Stark. Nachtklub.” He wobbled and then nearly toppled into the street. It was only her fast hands that kept him from face-planting. Without acknowledging the stumble, he stared at her with self-seriousness only achieved by the truly drunk. “Yah, zweifellos. Der Nachtklub.

She didn’t even need a translation, as Jarvis gleefully interceded: “See? Nearest nightclub.”

“Your intersections are the shining standard on which all others will be built.” She flattered absently. In response to her voice, the German mumbled something untranslatable. She didn’t bother trying to explain that she was speaking to him.

But, apparently, he hadn't gotten that memo. “Sie wollten ein paar Hits bekommen. Das gute Zeug.” And pawed at the side of his face.

Pepper blinked. Jarvis was of a similar state. “Is slapping your own face some sort of Germany-specific gesture I’m unfamiliar with?”

“I’m not sure.” She tried to swipe the offending hand down.

Then man frowned at her, at his limb, then carefully flexed his fingers and tapped the side of his nose. He mimed snorting in. “Das gute Zeug.”

Ah. Shit.

Her expectations for Tony of drunk or worse firmly settled on worse.

“Miss Potts—”

“It’s alright, Jarvis. I got it that time.” And her stomach had plummeted with it. The wind was cooling, her scalp prickling, the air heavy with brine and rust.

“The cab is on the way.” Jarvis said from an unnecessarily crammed-in position. She didn’t mind the intrusion. If she could have armored herself with him…well, wouldn't that have been a kinder world?

Maybe, when they got there, they’d get nice Tony. Friendly Tony: all benevolence and loose limbs and million-dollar offers. All mania and neon-smeared pleasure. Cravings, crazed, delirious, drunk.

Maybe they’d get—

When the cab arrived, she poured the German into it and watched them leave. She wished for nothing more than to go with and leave the rapidly approaching train wreck to derail on someone else.

But wishing had never gotten her much.

Jarvis had a forced sort of pleasantness. “No time like the present, Miss Potts. Shall we?”

No time indeed. In the end, she didn’t answer him, just took a deep breath and stepped off the curb.

/~/~/~/

Red, violet, black. Alien light, sweat-soaked heat, smears and bodies and a thousand exhaling lungs. The air itself was a miasma.

Jarvis kept telling her that she had to breathe it.

“I should have gotten drunk before coming.”

He was circling, squeezing. “I refuse to be the only sober party in this.”

A sweep of blue, spiraling purple. She drank it in with the tar in the air. “I won’t abandon you to it.”

A pulse of scarlet swept over and then the gravity of his voice. “That sentiment is deeply shared. This sort of thing is lonely, you know.”

“I never would have guessed.”

But that made things a little easier: sliding between arms, the raw scrape, her hair going heavy with sweat in the dark. She almost missed the SI security as backup, but it was only almost. They’d rarely made this type of search go any faster, so honestly, what was there to miss?

She missed the Marines like a fucking severed limb.

Bar. Second bar. Dance floor, other dance floor. Tables, tables, tables. Hands and mouths and legs twined. The sound kept rising. Throbbing. The cigarette smoke was so thick it left her breath ashy.

Back hallways, bathrooms, backrooms. Writhing and smooth and stifling. More skin than she wanted to see, but no familiar faces.

Her head ached and slowly hammered. She could barely hear Jarvis over it. Staircase: VIP lounge up, who knew what kind of depravity down. Her eyes followed it both ways. On the downwards slide, something of it—the shape—was familiar. The way it dropped to a landing? The door at the bottom turn? What was she—

It reminded her of the workshop stairs, and her throat burned.

The descent had a nightmarish sort of inevitability. The music thundered; became a throbbing-bleed through the floors. It reminded her of the way the Malibu house could be alive, except in opposite. Sick. Discordant. Claustrophobic until it became a lungs-full, head-down drowning.

She took the last few steps to the bottom, and in the crowd and skin and bodies, she saw Tony at last.

Pepper drowned.

/~/~/~/

She’d wonder, later, if that was what had drawn Tony down.

Gravity failing. The water rising. The mirror-darkly of what should be home.

/~/~/~/

Her head was down.

Her lungs were overflowing.

There was a weight on the crown of her skull pushing down and down and—

She didn’t know how she’d gotten across the room. She didn’t even know what had lit the fuse. Tony was under her hands and shaking, except maybe that was her. “Tony? Tony, are you okay?”

His nostrils were chalky, his eyelids slitted, sweat beading fast at his hairline. She dug into his collarbones. “Tony, can you hear me?”

There was a wet noise deep in his ribcage. He breathed faster through it, like a fucking hummingbird.

Jarvis was deafening. “Miss Potts, what is it?”

She got a hand up to his neck. His pulse was jackhammering. “Tony?”

“Miss Potts, is Mr. Stark—”

Tony shuddered and then suddenly, terrifyingly, was staring her wide in the face. “Potts, hey, Potts Potts Potts you gotta write this down I got…”

“Tony!” She tried to wrestle him down but he almost elbowed, then actually headbutted her in the shoulder. “Please, just stay—”

“Fuck this place. Seriously, fuck this place.” And he scrambled upwards with nails and knees and bruising force. She barely managed to grab his elbow and angle him towards a door instead of toppling onto the junkie who’d been sprawled next to him. “Fuck these people and fuck the people that work for me and the TV and Washington DC and those asskissing fuckers up in that five-sided clusterfuck—”

Jarvis blared. “Pepper, what’s wrong!”

“He’s high.” He was somewhere close to geosynchronous orbit. “Call a car.”

His resonance was a low, teeth-piercing grind. “On it.”

Tony shouldered into a door hard enough to bruise. They burst out an emergency exit and into a slice of concrete-dark. The air went rancid: trash, piss, the cramped molder of food-decay. Something damp splashed on her feet, and there was only a narrow ray of halogen by which to see at all. Tony took four steps, staggered, and it was all she could do to get an arm around his chest and land him on his knees instead of his face.

He jackknifed over and she got a hand on his ribs, one on the back of his collar, and let him vomit.

The sound was awful; him shaking in her grip was worse.

The bile was thin, astringent. Flecks of something pink and a ropey sluice of red. Stomach acid, stomach lining, blood. He’d eaten tonight. This couldn’t have been the first time he’d thrown up if this was all that was coming up.

Under her palm, his heart kept hammering. He panted. “That…wow. That doesn’t feel right.”

Fear-sweat prickled down her scalp. He whispered something, a long and muddled slur that she couldn’t understand. His heart pounded under her palm. Skipped. Tremored.

She felt an inhuman calm. "Jarvis, call an ambulance.”

“Pepper—” Jarvis was practically throttling her. “I’m calling. What’s wrong, you need to tell me what’s happening!”

Tony’s right fist balled together and he knocked it against his chest. “Fuck, jesus, why does that hurt?”

They were both on the ground, now. She’d only ever felt like this twice. Cold, knowing, sick and sweltering and trembling with the force of it.

He knocked his ribs one more time, gasping, and finally looked to her in confusion and dawning fear. “Potts?”

Her skull was burning outwards. Her face needled and went numb.

Terminal velocity achieved.

She cupped his face. “It’s gonna be okay, Tony. Jarvis and I are right here.”

His sweat ran cloudy in the halogen. “What are you…” His tongue worked. “What are…?”

Her eyelashes were damp. “I’m right here.”

He reached up as if to touch her face.

Cardiac arrest hit.

Tony dropped like a ragdoll. The only thing that kept his skull from cracking were her already waiting hands. An arm spasmed. His leg kicked once, twice, and then dropped into a boneless heap. The lurching arm clawed, muscles straining like tightrope wire. He mouthed words, fingers frozen, and his eyes went rolling. Rolling. White.

Slack. He was down.

Tony was down.

Static shrieked. A full collapse—a keening, screaming sound. The line fragmented and then doubled back with a thunderous clap. “Pepper, I need you to listen very carefully to me.”

Her throat hurt, and she couldn’t remember screaming. “I’m listening.”

“Roll him to his back and kneel beside him. Index and middle finger together, press to the carotid arteries. I need to know if blood supply has been blocked to part of the heart, or if this is a full arrest.”

Her fingers were already on his neck. The skin was clammy, graying. “No pulse.”

“Check his breathing.”

She lowered her cheek so it was level with his mouth. Nothing washed against her. “He’s not.”

Jarvis’ voice was fraying in a way she’d never heard. Layers were coming out of it, nuance, pitch. Tone cycled away. “Mr. Stark is going to need CPR immediately; can you do this?”

She was detached from her very body. “Yes. I’ve had training.”

And then all the layers were gone, as if Jarvis was no longer giving any effort into sounding human. A mechanical voice enunciated: “Affirmative. Place the heel of your left hand over the center of the chest, right hand on top, fingers locked.”

Without a sound, she undid his jacket and vest and then locked her hands together over him.

“Elbows straight, position your shoulders directly above your hands. You will do 110 compressions per minute. You will do rescue breathing every thirty compressions, do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“Perform a compression at every buzz. I will be off the line for fourteen seconds, do you understand?”

It was the only thing in a gutted world. “Yes.”

“Begin.” And the buzzer sounded.

She pressed down hard and felt his chest recede. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Water, lakes, a chlorine deep. Plastic dummies and her knees aching on tile. A shore, sun hot on her neck, hands interlaced over a still rising chest. Grinning, it’s just pretend Potts. Come on, whatchu got?

She remembered nearly drowning, once. Ten. Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen.

It wasn’t Tony. It wasn’t Tony. Part of her brain was screaming. Part of her brain was howling.

She felt inhuman.

The line clicked between buzzes. “The ambulance is on its way. Rescue breath; head tilt and chin lifted.”

The maneuver was an old reflex. She pinched his nose shut and breathed into him.

“Did his chest rise?” 

Her eyes had already darted to the side. “Yes.”

An eerie flatness. “Second breath.”

She breathed into him.

The machine-voice ordered: “Compressions.”

Her hands slammed back together and she bore her body weight down. Thirty-one. Thirty-two. Thirty-three. Thirty-four.

It’s okay it’s okay it’ll be okay you’re not here this isn’t happening you’ll be okay you’ll be—

Her vision was smearing at the edges. Something damp fell onto to Tony’s waistcoat. Her stockings were soaking through from the ground, tacky and wet and—

“Rescue breathing.”

She bent over again. His chest rose. She gave breath a second time. Her brain kept count like a metronome. Sixty-one. Sixty-two. Sixty-three. Another part of her receded into blind horror, and she was bisected. Fragmented.

Beneath her hands, there was a sharp crack and too much give. Fuck. Rib, sternum, both?

A leviathan slammed her. “Ignore it. Keep going.”

Time hemorrhaged. At an unknown minute, the exit behind her crashed open. Three men poured out, the lead with a cellphone pressed to his ear. He stared down at her, poleaxed. “Fuck!” And then turned to shout. “La ambulancia! Encuéntralo!”

The group went tearing in opposite directions. In moments, each disappeared around a corner. Her shoulders burned and her breath went ragged. Two-hundred fifty-five. Two-hundred fifty-six. Two-hundred fifty-seven.

“They will locate and lead the ambulance here. Continue compressions.”

She continued.

Part of her screamed, another howled, a third pushed. A fourth began to dream: Malibu, the ocean, a buoy far out on the water. Swimming, drifting, swimming. They had been so distant and safe out in the waves.

A siren sounded. Three-hundred eighty-nine. Three-hundred ninety. Three-hundred and ninety-one—

Come on come on come please be okay you’ll be okay I can’t—

Her eyes burned and amber light spattered across her arms.

The machine spoke. “Stop compressions.”

She stopped and there were hands, shouts, and then her bodily being heaved aside. The EMT’s descended like a nest of wasps. A fifth part of her brain cleaved away, babbled and asked: what is happening.

The other parts didn’t answer.

The damp of the ground went through her skirt, her stockings, her skin. One EMT ripped Tony’s shirt open and two-hundred dollars’ worth of buttons went flying. Another EMT slapped defibrillation pads on his chest, and then all hands went clear.

His body shocked upwards.

Joder!” Someone shouted. “De nuevo!”

They cleared again.

You’ll be okay you’ll be okay please please please—

Tony spasmed and there was a beautiful, ringing cry of: “Tenemos un pulso!” And it cracked her chest open.

The sound that came out of her was absolutely grotesque.

Backboard, latex hands, gurney, ambulance at the mouth of the alley. She didn’t have time to stop. She didn’t have time to think. An EMT swept her into a jump seat and yanked a belt across her lap.

Her lungs felt like billows. She couldn’t stop. She couldn’t stop.

The un-Jarvis queried: “Are you having a panic attack?”

Simple answers. “I don’t know.” Simple questions. “How long was I giving CPR?”

There was crackling like a climbing fire. “Three minutes and thirty-four seconds.”

It had taken the EMT’s at least another half a minute past that to kickstart his heart. Tony Tony Tony oh god Tony please—

The doors slammed shut. The siren screamed to life.

She couldn’t breathe.

Tony’s foot was within reach. The EMT’s were swarming. Bisected. Fragmented. You’re not here this isn’t happening you’ll be okay okay okay—

The part of her that had kept up the compressions asked: “How long without oxygen can the brain last before damage?”

There were no pauses from him to auger, no changes in tone to read. The machine said: “Four to six minutes.”

Leviathan. Behemoth. He could not devote even a sliver of attention to sounding human, and the ambulance was hitting every green light. A machine was playing god above her, and she wanted to make holy sacrifice. I can’t please stay with me it hurts you’re not here or here or here why can't I have—

But she had been here before. Iowa, a hospital, thrashing and then still. A room in a house. Cold sheets. A brittle, shattered knowing. The bisected parts of her slammed together and cognition flipped on.

“We bought him time.” Jarvis promised, and the sirens wailed.

Her chest broke open. Tony, oh god, Tony.

And Pepper let the collapse finish and sobbed into her knees.

Chapter Text

She became something else, in the hours that followed.

Between the ambulance and the Emergency Room, her sobbing jagged down and the nurses stopped following her like they were about to dose her to the eyeballs in Valium. A physician’s assistant had blocked her on one side to finish what was left of the intake forms after Jarvis’s call-ahead, and an Emergency Physician had caught her on the other to question her within an inch of both their lives

Coke, yes. Amphetamines, yes. MDMA, LSD, PCP—sure. Alcohol? Affirmative. History of substance abuse? Let me tell you a story. Benzodiazepines, morphine, mescaline, psilocybin, heroin—everything under the fucking sun yes.

Tony was in and Tony was under, and her insides were pulverized. Glittering. Bloody.

History of high blood pressure? No. History of coronary microvascular disease? No. Familial history of heart disease? Please let me check. Familial history of substance abuse—

She could have eaten everyone in here alive.

The only thing that kept her teeth out of the nearest throat was Jarvis bearing down. The machine had embedded himself somewhere between her neck and spine, and he wasn’t letting her off the leash for anything. She could feel his hooks in her vertebrae; the heaviness of his occupation in her tongue. He felt like the weight of water, and she was going to drown on dry land.

Prior arrhythmia? Possibly. Difficulties breathing? Yes. Fatigue, chest pain, dizziness, vomiting? Yes yes yes and also yes.

There was a vicious noise across the line. “I need your voice, Pepper.”

Her cellphone was innocuously dark and clenched in her fist. Jarvis could hear every word spoken near it, so she answered without understanding: “Okay.”

And it was awful. At some unknown minute, his voice had transitioned from completely flat to a stitched-together monstrosity. It was like he was digging backwards to pull sound bites from past conversations, only to hammer them into words without any heed towards pitch or tone or the fact it sounded like an automated-unholy. It was the verbal equivalent of one of those kidnapping demands pasted together from twenty different magazine fonts, and she hated it.

But when Jarvis spoke, she still let his words roll off her tongue: “Will surgical intervention be required?”

The Doctor nearly brushed her off. “Virginia, we really need to know if your friend was—”

But she was the leading edge of a knife, and there was nothing else but letting Jarvis work through her. Within a minute, the Doctor’s jaw visibly clicked shut. Within three, he was answering their questions at a rapid clip. By nine, the man was speaking to her as if she was a medical equal, and it was almost tragic. He and Jarvis had lost her somewhere between stabilizing inhibitors and pathophysiology of postcardiac arrest and global ischemia-reperfusions, and no one around them had any idea that she was just parroting along.

She was talking, but her brain was static. It was too much empty time to think.

Disconnect.

Reconnect.

Disconnect.

She rather wished she’d taken up the nurses on the Valium.

/~/~/~/

Tony’s mouth had been wet with stomach acid. She could still taste the sting of it on the back of her tongue.

Breathe breathe please just breathe—

Her legs were bloody. It was a distant sort of knowledge; needle-sharp, grime smearing, blood darkened and tacky on her shins. She hadn’t cared at all what the ground had done to her, and even less what she had done to herself. Her shoulders blazed and her palms felt like—too much give and fuck fuck fuck was that bone was that rib was that—

Tony was stabilized. The drugs were flushing out of his system and the cardiovascular constriction had eased. Another arrhythmia wasn't materializing, and his heart and lungs had been working all on their own for nearly an hour. It was a gold star effort.

It would have to be: Tony had been clinically dead for four minutes and twenty-nine seconds.

A second doctor had sat her down and explained that if (when when when) Tony regained consciousness, there’d have to be an evaluation for major neurological impairment. At one minute without oxygen, brain cells begin to die. At three, serious brain damage becomes likely. At four, likely becomes probably. At six, brain damage sustained is likely irreversible, and by ten—

Fluorescence dripped like water between the trembling of her hands.

“I need to call…everyone.” There was a list: a chain of crisis procedure that had only ever been used when Tony was about to make the tabloids. She was about to ruin a lot of nights beyond any kind of imagining.

“You may do so in the car.” The discordant, almost-Jarvis answered. “Three of the best cardiologists in Europe are enroute, and I’ve booked him in at a private hospital with the finest cardiology department in the country. You need to move him quickly.”

“But I don’t have…” Her hands laid useless in her lap. Her legs were bloody, flaking, ugly.

Jarvis steamrolled her. “You are Mr. Stark’s Healthcare Power of Attorney. Now that he’s stable, we need to move him to somewhere less public.”

Less—

“Jarvis, who do they think he is?”

“He’s been admitted as Anthony Valeri.” The name came out in a jarring shriek. “Mr. Stark ensured in setting up my emergency protocols, that the Press and stock price would be taken into account.”

Her brainpan frothed. That was just—jesus fuck—not even important. “How long have I had his PoA?” It was news to her. No one had bothered to tell her; had bothered to care that she would care. 

She breathed. She breathed again. Jarvis didn’t breathe with her: “February 2nd, 2002.”

She couldn’t attach anything to the date besides the furious anxiety that had infused her and Tony’s every interaction for nearly a year. The worst part was, she was fairly sure it had been by Jarvis's doing, because if she held the power, so would Jarvis by extension. God, why was she always the last one to know? She wanted to cry. She wanted to scream. She wanted to bend and break and bite and hurt until—

He’d been clinically dead for four minutes and twenty-nine seconds. She could feel every one of them in the aching of her shoulders.

Thirty compressions. Breath. Breath. Thirty compressions. Breath. Sob. Breath. Thirty compressions. Breathe.

Fluorescence poured like water between her hands.

He’d been clinically dead for four minutes and twenty-nine seconds, and she’d pumped his heart for two-hundred and fourteen of them. She was his medical power of attorney and had been so for months. There was work to be done and medical staff to suborn and every person who’d partied with him last night to track down so she could drive the fear of almighty God into them.

Tony would wake up. He was going to wake up, because only the living needed damage control. There’d be a thousand calls tonight even with her eyes gritty and throat failing. The world had to keep spinning because Tony’s waking would never be an if. They’d get through this. Whatever recovery would follow, whatever fixing was needed, whatever amount of rehab she had to chuck him through single-handed; they would get through

Four minutes and twenty-nine seconds, and Tony had torn out his fucking heart and put it into her hands.

Blind trust was a weight she hadn’t asked to carry.

“Get whatever paperwork is needed faxed over, and I’ll push it through.” She stood then; heels damp and blood caked into her Jimmy Choos. “I’ll get the phone-tree up and going. When they transfer him, try not to make it obvious with the streetlights this time, would you?”

The line crackled. “No promises.”

They’d burn their way to the sea if they had to. “Do we have anyone on-site at the new location?”

“No, we’re keeping this need to know.” His words split like piano wires snapping. “I’ve contacted a third party. They entered the transfer-hospital twenty minutes ago with an external hard drive carrying code I forwarded to them. They hooked it into the system and departed, and I’ve had full access to hospital records and security CCTV for the last eight minutes. The site is as secure as I can make it.”

Illegal, she thought, and then: burn our way to the fucking sea.

“Do I want to ask how much you paid this third party?”

“No.” And that was a closed door if she'd ever heard it.

“Alright.” It was enough. Jarvis would have eyes all-over for the duration, and she and Tony would be in a Jarvis controlled domain at last. It was more comforting than not.

“Paperwork is faxing.” Jarvis said, and she was almost getting used to that barely-giving-an-effort cacophony of a sound.

Almost. "I'm on my way." But not quite.

/~/~/~/

In the phone tree of Tony-emergency, Obadiah was the star on top. With their boss now indisposed, Obadiah would be the one at SI stepping up to the plate for the next few weeks, if not months—and she should have called him the moment they'd dropped Tony's body onto a gurney.

Should have. But 2AM-her had been so far over the event horizon, human thought hadn’t been able to reach her, let alone business policy. But the her-now was calculating time zones, and she knew it was nearing eleven-dark in Ohio.

She should have called Obadiah first.

She dialed James Rhodes and listening to it ring.

There were few moments in her life that had been lonelier than this.

The transfer was happening, and with her not riding in the escorting ambulance, Jarvis had not one iota of attention for her. There was nothing and no hand to hold for four-thousand miles. She was about to crack James Rhodes’ life in two, and she was alone and he would be lonelier.

When the line opened, she could hear laughter. It was normal and far away and maybe on another planet. “Potts? Hey, just a sec—” There was a muffled sound. When it stopped, the noise of what had likely been a pleasant night with military buddies was mute. “Sorry about that. What’s up?”

“Lieutenant Colonel,” Her tongue cauterized. “I have to inform you that tonight—” But her throat closed before she could finish.

Breathe. Breathe.

He laughed. “Potts, you don’t have to be so formal, what’s the word? Is it the news cycle on the Afghanistan thing? Look, what Tony was doing out there was good work, so don’t you listen to any of that shit they're saying about how—”

“James,” Her voice cracked. “It’s Tony.”

There was silence. There was a bleak hardening-off. “What’s happened?”

“I want you to know that Tony’s alive. He’s stable.” And she couldn't breathe through it any longer. “We’re not sure, but we think an overdose—or some damage from previous use— he must have...god.” Her skin was tinder and her heart was pumping gasoline. “He went into full arrest. His heart stopped.”

“You’re…” And Rhodes was a man completely lost. “Cardiac—jesus christ, is he okay?”

“He’s in an ambulance right now,” Her throat struggled. “We’re transferring him to the best cardiology-capable hospital in the country.”

Rhodes didn’t seem to be listening. “But he’s going to be okay?”

“I…” Four minutes and twenty-nine seconds and everything that had followed crushed in. “I need you to be here when he wakes up. Please.”

“Shit.” And somewhere over four-thousand miles from her, James Rhodes began to run. “Where are you?”

“Barcelona. Look, just get yourself to New York. Tony has friends with private jets and I will shake each and every one of them down to have one there waiting for you.”

“Okay.” Rhodes shored himself up. “Okay. New York; I’ll fly an F-16 there myself it I have too. You stay right on Tony’s back until I get there, got it?”

Her blood was fuel and her teeth might make a spark. “I got it.”

“He’ll be okay.” And then repeated: “He always comes out okay. Stark’s are good at that, you should’a seen him when he was a teenager. He’ll outlive us all.”

“He will.” She held it like a vow.

But despite the promise and all the bravado behind it, Rhodes kept running.

/~/~/~/

And if, hours later, she listened to Rhodes cry on the jet in panicked, shoulder shaking, full-heaving sobs—

That would only ever stay between them.

/~/~/~/

Her call with Obadiah during the transfer was the coldest thing she’d ever done. Pure information only: do not pass Go, do not collect two-hundred. Do not pick up your soul at the door.

Tony’s was an unknown prognosis. Stable. Hypoxia, hypoxic, possible major neurological impairment. Obadiah wrung every detail out of her and she was a glacier; nothing but ice inside her.

The man breathed an unreverent prayer. “This is going to kick us in the teeth.”

It was easier to dwell on than the seconds her brain kept tallying. “We’re minimizing what we can.”

“Minimizing a goddamn mountain.” He griped, but then finished much more gently: “We’ll be wheels-up within an hour. Take care of our boy, Virginia.”

Nothing but ice and gasoline inside her, and it was the coldest thing she’d ever done. “Understood.”

/~/~/~/

The strangest part was, when they finally let her into the room, she couldn’t look at him. Dawn was rising, the walls glowed pink, and her brain was in one last death-struggle not to let any of it be real.

“Pepper, how does he look?” Jarvis asked, and his voice was his. British, posh, so unerringly proper. He'd transitioned back to it sometime before she arrived to the second hospital. Tony was stable, dawn was on the rise, and Jarvis had been returned to her in full.

Her mind went into the last death throe. If she could just pretend a little longer—

His face was milky, skin thin across his cheeks. It was such a fragile thing. The skull beneath was nearly bare-faced bone.

Tony.

And finally, the body in the hospital bed became him once more. The object of her fear, the thing that had laid still as a slab of meat in the damp and the piss and the concrete, giving way under her palms—

Tony breathed softly, lashes heavy and the shadows long. The breathing mask strapped to him was hideous. There was absolutely nothing pretty in this room, and his veins were as visible as bruises. He had no color but what the sun could give.

The strangest part was, once she could look at him, she couldn’t look away.

Her eyes traced his face; her fingertips his wrist. Steady.

“Alive.” And she worked around the intravenous-line to slide her hand in his. “He looks alive.”

“Good,” And Jarvis breathed in time with her. “I’m so glad.” 

The sun was in her eyes; pink and gold and she would always remember the fear of this moment. “So am I.” 

Chapter Text

There were birds in the trees. Flutters of amber, crests in white, darts both swift and blue. Branches turned to leaves became a susurrus of shadows in the sun.

The trees in the hills were gold with autumn.

“Miss Potts?”

She blinked slowly, as if waking from a dream. “Yes?”

The Cardiologist dipped his head. “I said that we don’t believe a radiofrequency catheter ablation will be necessary at this time. The risk of a reoccurring arrhythmia seems low, though the prognosis will be clearer after seventy-two hours.”

“Of course.” She smoothed at her skirt. “That’s good to hear. And the scans…?”

His accent came soft. “We performed both an ECG and Echocardiography. There’s no obvious damage in Mr. Stark’s coronary arteries that would necessitate either a bypass or an angioplasty, nor any indication of structural defects. However, that doesn’t mean the heart hasn’t been affected.” The accent was Swiss, she knew. Jarvis had flown him in straight from Geneva and the Hirslanden Clinique La Colline itself. Only the very best.

The anxiety was back, but it felt half-submerged, swept aside and buried on another shore. “What should we expect going forward?”

His hair was gray and there were lines at his mouth and eyes. “Mr. Stark's heart will always be weaker now. At risk for a secondary event. At risk for further damage to the electrical system. There is little margin for error after an event this complete.” And his eyes were blue-gray as the clouds in November. “Miss Potts, If the drug use doesn’t stop, not an ICD or surgeon on earth will be able to help him.”

God, were the trees so gold.

“I understand.” And she did. All of it; jolting and sour and like a moth beating itself to death against a pane of glass. “I’ll personally deal with any lifestyle changes that need to happen. Do you think an implantable cardioverter defibrillator will be necessary?”

The stabilizing drugs and the ventilators and the defibrillation had been bad enough. But an ICD would be…invasive. Surgical. There were choices and there were choices, and an ICD was edging dangerously close to the latter.

She wanted Tony to be awake to decide. She wanted Tony to be…

There was no disappointment in the man’s face, no fault or sign of blame that she knew should be there. This had been happening too long and she’d been here for too much of it. She couldn’t make Tony do anything, but couldn’t she have tried to stop—tried to say—tried to help—

Her body hurt in a way that it hadn't in years.

The Doctor answered: “If the arrhythmias prove reoccurring, we’ll have to consider it.” And his expression barely flickered as he stood. “Should I send in Doctor Buchholz?”

The man’s waters ran deep. She wondered if she could, even for an hour, anchor herself there and sleep.

“Yes,” But she folded herself together, knees and ankles and her hair still wet from the shower she’d taken in the bathroom of Tony’s room. “Please.”

“We’ll keep you updated.” He promised gently, and then his place in the room was filled by a woman: gray-blonde, perfume, eyes so sharp they could cut a man in twain.

The Neurologist folded herself into the chair with delicate grace. “Should we get right to it, Miss Potts?”

Pepper’s smile was brittle in her mouth. “No reason not to.”

/~/~/~/

Tony’s brain activity was picking up, they said.

Rhodes would be arriving in another four hours, Jarvis said.

Neurological impairment, cognitive disturbances, PTSD, anxiety, short term memory loss, the Doctors cautioned.

All possible, they said. Wait and see.

/~/~/~/

She just wanted Tony to wake up.

/~/~/~/

The TV was on low. She had paperwork in one hand and paperwork on a pull-away table and a pen in her fingers and another behind her ear. It was, to put it mildly, a small-scale war on bureaucracy itself and she was going to fucking win.

In the bed beside her, Tony was lax and still gone from the world. She was in one corner with her back to the door. Every once and awhile she’d get caught by him: staring over her folded legs just to watch him breathe.

The hours were sluggish. It was only 2PM. The minutes she stared at Tony felt like lifetimes. Golden, longing, distant from every nightmare. As if life had always and would forever be this.

Waking. Sleeping. Dreaming.

Jarvis occasionally broke the spell. The System was wandering, worrying at her and then Tony and then her again in punishing succession. She didn’t tell him to stop even though he was giving her anxiety anxiety.

At least he sometimes smothered the hospital network instead of her. She wondered when they’d notice every IT system they had had been debugged, scrubbed, and optimized to within an inch of its life. She would have told him to stop that too, except those few minutes reprieve from his smothering was really…

“Have you eaten?”

“I don’t want to eat.”

“So you haven’t eaten.”

“And that still does not inspire the urge within me.”

Her fast had gone too long. She was at the point where hunger was indistinguishable from nausea, and the act of trying to put food down would likely lead to her stomach spontaneously trying to eject. Her writing stilled and she let herself mull.

“What if I had food delivered to the hospital?”

Her pen pressed back to paper. “Pass.”

“But if I got it from a place you like, then surely—”

Her clothes from the night before were in the hospital’s incinerator. Her skirt now was loose; the concierge who’d brought it had been so very kind and so very astute in his selection. That he’d intuited from her location and the request, and landed on the comfortable clothes he’d delivered, had earned him a three-figure tip.

Her hope for his discretion had inflated that tip to four-figures before it properly left her hand.

Her blouse was soft and slip-on. She didn’t even own the sweater he’d brought her, but it was warm on her skin. It was better than every putrid piece of clothing she’d taken off and left for the fire. The only thing that remained of last night was the body camera that was dead in her bag. She couldn’t quite say when the power must have given out on it, but she could hazard a guess. And it was a guess that had Jarvis seeing death through a pinhole.The Nightclub, the darkwash, the concrete-black and the sobbing screaming scrabbling pleading.

Her brain skittered. “Jarvis, leave it be.”

“That is not in my programming at this time.”

“Don’t you play the programming card with me.”

“If it’s true—”

If it’s true—”

“This behavior is not healthy for you to—”

Jarvis.”

And he shuddered to a halt.

She took a breath. Held it. “I’ve never let anyone dictate my eating habits to me, and I’m not about to start.”

He barely paused. “…is this coming from a place of pride, or trauma?”

She sighed hard enough to nearly send an entire sheaf of paper off the table. Pepper turned very sweet and very, very sharp. “Jarvis, sweetheart, light of my life and apple of my eye? Let me be traumatized in some goddamn peace.”

“Well.” He huffed.

Well.” She echoed.

“Mrhhhhmmmm.” Came the voice from the bed.

Later, she’d blame nearly swallowing her own tongue entirely on Jarvis. He’d take the blame with glee.

She flew out of the chair. Erupted. A hurricane, and she could have brought down half the room. “Tony?”

Jarvis fluttered like the very pulse inside her throat. “Pepper? Is he waking?”

She watched Tony’s eyes flickering beneath the lids, and there came a noise from his chest, weak and reedy but there there there.

“I think he’s coming up.” The words tripped over her teeth. “Oh god, Jarvis.”

“I’m right here.” He promised and she took it right to her fucking heart and lodged it there. And as Tony stirred below, messier than waking and nothing like sleep, she hit the call button hard enough to crack the casing in two.

/~/~/~/

Rhodes took one look at her in the hospital corridor, and she didn’t have to say a word. The man crossed the hall in four strides and yanked her up into his arms.

“Lieutenant Colonel—”

“None of that.” And he wrapped like steel around her.

She had tears in her eyes, maybe stars, and Rhodes cupped the back of her head. “Gimmie some good news, Potts.”

She had never so little minded having to mumble into a man’s shoulder. “Tony’s up. He’s hazy; they’re running about a million tests on him right now, but—”

The squeeze of his grip became a vice. “Heaven above in your infinite mercy thank you Christ.”

And Pepper held him back just as tight. She held onto him until it hurt. Tony had come to, eyes dark. Hazy and heavy.

Drifting.

Brain damage, emotional disturbances, memory loss. Do you think just because he clawed back, that the consequences can be put aside—

“It’s alright.” She wanted to burrow here and never go any farther.  

“Yeah.” Rhodes agreed. “We’re good. We’re all safe. He did it.” And he laughed, relieved and shaking, and roughly pressed a kiss to the side of her head.

For that moment of skin on skin, she let her eyes slide shut.

For that moment only, she let herself pretend in something easy.

It didn’t take. The Doctors had provided all sorts of materials on long term recovery, and Jarvis had filled in the gaps like a fast-drip of acid. This wasn’t the finish line. This wasn’t even the gate. They were only a dozen hurdles into a thousand-mile run, and they were getting so far ahead of themselves it was hurdling beyond rash.

Tony had so far to go from here.

But Rhodes kept laughing, hitching and raw, and in the end she couldn’t bring herself to ruin it.

/~/~/~/

“Do you want to see him?”

“Shit,” They didn’t shuffle apart, exactly, Rhodes just hooked a hand over her shoulder to rub at his eyes. “Yeah. What’d I fly all this way for, anyways?"

“This really crumpled pack of Kleenex and my makeup on your shirt?”

“When you put it that way, Potts. Jeeze.”

She grinned into his shoulder. “It's a winning combo?”

“Just don’t make me look desperate for it.” And he swiped the tissues offered. “Fuck, the grand prizes I keep winning.”

Her mouth went sly. “The Doctors are putting Tony on hospital meals only. Jarvis can order us food from a four-star restaurant. We’ll eat it in front of Tony; make him feel bad.”

And Rhodes would never again sound so sincere. “God, I like you so much.”

/~/~/~/

She wouldn’t ruin it. Not yet.

There’d be later hours for the harder truths.

Chapter Text

Everything hurt. Her shoulders, her knees, the base of palms where his ribs had broken. In another hour, it’d transition to a full-body cramp, and wasn’t that something? It was the little miseries she got to look forward too.

She’d take it gladly if it got her out of this room.

“Look, I don’t see what the big deal is—”

“Say that to me when you can sit up without winding yourself.” Rhodes threw back, and the scorn almost covered the ever-clawing anxiety.

Her body was half-turned away. Her pen kept trailing ink. Her eyes followed every movement as if waiting for either of them—any of them—to go for the jugular.

“Watch me.” Tony spat, tongue clumsy and face gray with sweat. “Fuckin’ watch me, I swear on your mother.”

And Rhodes loomed across the bed. “Mama Rhodes don’t abide fools.” The curve of his spine was brittle. “C’mon Tony, I’m waiting. Wow me.”

And there followed a brief and fruitless struggle. Slurred words, an absence of breath, a spasm through a cracked sternum and two broken ribs, and a torso that probably felt like it’d been kicked-in by a mule. It was an ugly thing to watch.

(A week ago, just a week, Tony had been tussling with Marines and boiling for any fight that could end in bruises and spitting blood. He’d been a man so alive he could have burned ,and how how how could they have—)

Tony collapsed with a bitten-off curse. He breathed harshly. She watched and didn’t watch him breathe.

His face was bloodless in the glow of the monitors. “Fuck you, Rhodes.”

“Yeah,” He answered flatly. “Fuck me for being worried about your hospitalized ass.”

She tried to make herself nonexistent.

“It’s fine.” Tony’s words were muddying. “M’fine. Shutup.”

Her ribs sheared in place.

Rhodes pressed. “Tony, you know I—”

“No feelings.” Tony interrupted. “I’mean it. M’not putting up with that shit—I will destroy everything you love.”

And Rhodes leaned over, raw and aching and too far in. “Yeah, and too bad for me that you started with yourself.”

Pepper had never wanted more intensely to crawl out of her very fucking body.

Tony looked sucker-punched. “Jesus.”

Rhodes hummed an unsympathetic noise, but when he spoke, he spoke softly. “Now are you gonna let me help you up?” Something in his shoulders didn’t quite match it. Too tense, too near, too needy of any sign to gather Tony close.

Her boss slumped and made a do as you will motion. Both she and Rhodes ignored the sloppy twist; that Tony nearly caught Rhodes in the face and seemed surprised by that fact.

The doctors had warned them of this. It was fine; they’d been prepared. There’d been no time for a proper detox, and sedation had been necessary with a whiplashed heart and broken ribs and a catastrophic loss of oxygen. It would get better, he’d get better. The slurring, the swaying, the confusion.

He would.

Rhodes pulled Tony upright; fluffed his pillows and then smoothed a hand down the back of Tony’s head like he didn’t care who could see. There was nothing in the room but Tony’s pained breaths, the softness in Rhodes face, the jagged rise-fall of their broken bones and shattered nerves.

She turned away and remembered dead air, stomach acid; her breath as his breath between their lungs.

Rhodes pushed a tray across the bed. “Drink your apple juice, Tones.” And with a sigh, Tony did.

The glass shook within his hand.

/~/~/~/

She hadn’t been the one to explain things to Tony on waking; every mercy and burden with the taste of his bile still in her mouth. In the end, the doctors had done it for her. Done it each time he’d come skittering out of consciousness until it finally stuck.

(Why does he keep forgetting? Is it a sign of…?)

(We can’t tell yet. It may just be the sedation wearing off.)

But she was the one to explain things to Obadiah and the vultures that came to call. And really, that was the easy part: Pepper damn well knew how to draw lines in the sand and bare her teeth across them.

/~/~/~/

Obadiah had a hand on her knee. It was, quite frankly, the only thing that kept her awake. That, and the urge for premeditated murder burning ardently in her heart.

“—we need to get the agreement of the Board to even try—”

“We can’t keep it quiet if we approach them—”

“—the stock price alone—”

“If we just keep this out of Press and confined to—”

The conference room in Barcelona was half-lit and ready to combust. They'd had the top six flown in from Legal, the CFO in Obadiah, the CTO to his right, the head of PR and his three deputies, Tony’s private legal counsel, a man and woman who were SI’s top fixer team, and a half dozen of Stark Industries’ VPs.

It was the top brain-trust and emergency response force of SI, and she’d already smacked down every one of them from getting near the hospital. It was all Stark Industries this and Stark Industries that and oh, think of the scandal. They’d reach Tony over her dead fucking body.

“Stark’s absolutely useless, we need to get him to sign-over an Interim CEO by midnight or else—”

Maybe their dead bodies, too.

“Efficient as always, aren’t they?” Jarvis murmured. There was acid to it.

She rather agreed. “They certainly try.”

Obadiah shot her a questioning glance, but Pepper shrugged and gave no reason for the comment. Herself of even two days ago would have cared; would have tried to be circumspect when it came to her other-half.

But that had been two days ago.

The argument kept rising. The powerplays unfurled. It was her thirty-sixth hour without sleep.

She was a new and lethal thing. “Leave.” 

The room chilled to silence.

The VP who’d been lobbying for Interim CEO, blinked. “Excuse me?”

She gestured. “Liam, Karen, stay.” And looked from the fixers to Legal. “Mr. Beesly, if you would. Neal?” The head of PR nodded to her. She dipped her head in acknowledgment. “Good, and Mr. Stane, of course? If you’d be so kind.”

There was a furious shuffling of bodies and faces turning. She was too tired to assemble any expression for them beyond disdain.

Jarvis breathed like a hiss of smoke. “And we always, so eagerly, await Mr. Stane’s kindness.” She’d never heard him spill his venom so freely.

All sorts of filters were coming off today.

Stane leaned back into his chair. “For you, Virginia.”

The rest of the circle jittered. Her own venom slipped loose. “I’m sorry, did I stutter? Get out.”

Another VP swelled up. “When the Board hears—”

Her body burned. “I don’t give a shit what the Board hears.”

Obadiah squeezed her knee in warning. “I’ll handle the Board. Everybody, take a breather and get some food. We’ll reconvene in forty-five.”

It shouldn’t have surprised her that when Obadiah said it, the room cleared. Really; that’s how it always had been.

The right hand to the King; a King now indisposed. That power was already settling on his shoulders, and she regarded the man made from them with equal care. “I take it you’ll be accepting Interim CEO?”

“Shadow CEO, with some of the Executive functions split down to the VPs.” His jaw worked. “We need to keep this quiet.”

“I know.” And god, did she.

Tony Stark partying and debauched was one thing. The CEO of Stark Industries going into cardiac arrest, having a temporary but clinical death, and having a now life-long and elevated risk to again do the same again?

Crisis was too mild a word.

The fixers watched them, and the Head of PR pulled his chair closer. Mr. Beesly, their premiere legal counsel and her occasional adversary, took the seat beside her.

The circle of twenty-three became seven. She was more than counting Jarvis in their number.

“And finally, the work begins.” That very System observed.

She didn’t give that dour statement response. “The good news is, while companies traded on the NYSE are legally bound to disclose material information by the SEC, the well-being of the CEO doesn’t fall under that purview.” She made eye-contact with every member of their circle. “The bad news is: what I’m about so suggest will be dubious. If anyone feels obligated to leave, now would be the time.”

Not a single person moved. Obadiah stared down at her like he wanted to absolve her. Devour. Do both at once.

Jarvis hummed his own support, and that was good enough to last. “Does anyone know how many inoculations Tony and I had to get before they’d let us step foot in Kabul?”

“I can guess.” Answered Beesly. The fixers merely nodded, and Obadiah’s eyebrows went up.

“There were too many people involved at both hospitals, and Tony’s going to be here for another few days. We’re not going to hide that he’s been hospitalized. Somehow, someway, that’ll leak.” Her tongue was a knife. “So we leak it.”

PR whiplashed. “You’re joking.”

She shrugged inelegantly. “If we’re going to do this, we might as well control the flow.”

“To thine is the Kingdom.” Jarvis declared. And god, did she want to build them a kingdom to run away too. A haven to cloister Tony within and bar the gates.

“And what do inoculations have to do with anything?” One of the fixers asked.

“That people can get sick in the Middle East from all sorts of things. That it gives people back home certain expectations for the area. That if we tell them that even with the immunizations, Mr. Stark fell ill from some backwater, war-zone disease…?”

“Shit.” PR breathed.

Obadiah caught the thread immediately. “It works to their own biases.”

“It does.” Her lashes felt heavy. Her teeth felt sharp. “Not that we lead with that. Have PR put out a statement tomorrow that Mr. Stark was hospitalized for dehydration and exhaustion. Don’t make it seem like a party-thing, just leave it there.”

“No one will believe that.” PR asserted.

Beesly‘s eyes were alight with unholy fire. “And I think that’s the point, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” More than. “We’re still in that lawsuit with the tabloid that took the elevator pictures, right?”

“Yes,” The lawyer agreed and then dangerously shot upright. “Miss Potts, you wouldn’t. We can’t.”

They very well fucking could. “I have someone that can mockup a real enough looking hospital record that Mr. Stark fell prey to a virus.” Jarvis was a wonderful and talented creature when it came to forgery. “Bedridden, terribly awful, he threw-up so much he was severely dehydrated. We anonymously leak that to the tabloid, and they’ll splash it across the front page.

The fixers looked at her like an anointed saint. PR wasn’t that far behind them.

“Tony was getting sick the whole night, but nobody but me and—I was the only one there for the arrest.” Any mention of Jarvis was too reckless even for her, and she stared Beesly in the eye. “The virus story will fit in with any eyewitness accounts. You and yours claim up, down, and sideways that the report is fake. Threaten lawsuits. Whatever you need to. If we kick a shit-fit at a tabloid that already got the best of us once, people will believe it.”

The attorney’s knuckles strained white. “And if anyone figures out the record was a forgery?”

“Then we were right all along. Many happy lawsuits for us.” She doubted it’d get that far. “But if that falls through, we leak to the Times that it was an alcohol related issue. God knows there’s whatever happened at MIT that Howard Stark covered up, and Tony’s been in the headlines twice for getting his stomach pumped in his early twenties. People will buy alcohol-poisoning too, if it comes to it.”

“Where did you come up with this?” One fixer breathed in reverence.

Her smile was razor-thin. “I’ve had plenty of time to think.”

That was all it took. Glances were exchanged again. Testing, waiting. Fearing. Eventually, all settled not on her, but Obadiah. They always did, and if Tony never got any better—

God. Either Tony and SI would be properly protected now, with him retaking his duties at a later date, or…

Or Obadiah’s shadow-seat would become the truth, and Tony would be circumspectly shuffled into obscurity while the new CEO was crowned.

Nausea frothed and frothed, and Jarvis didn't offer comfort.

Slowly, darkly, Obadiah raised his head. “Do it.”

/~/~/~/

And Jarvis had been right—the real work had begun.

/~/~/~/

Everything of her was soft; gaze, words, the tips of her fingers on Tony’s arm. They’d gotten him out of bed and into a chair, and she and Rhodes pretended not to see how badly that had made him grimace.

The doctors sat across from them and discussed their future quietly. Recovery, therapy, rehab. Diet, exercise, how far future activities of the bedroom variety would have to be postponed.

Tony made jokes, but fewer than usual.

Rhodes never interrupted.

She didn’t chastise once.

When a doctor spoke of sleep patterns, Jarvis whispered in her ear. She smiled beatifically, gleefully, and then her voice went more than a little posh: “I’ll handle Sir’s sleep schedule, there’s a system already in place at Malibu House.”

She had never in the history of forever, referred to Tony as Sir. The Doctor’s didn’t notice. Rhodes didn’t notice.

Tony tensed up and glared downright murderously at the pair of them.

She beamed back, and Tony hissed: “Jarvis?”

They answered brightly. “Yes, Sir?”

Tony looked like he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “What are you two doing?”

They leaned forward and whispered in concert: “Whatever is needed, Sir. Does Mr. Stark require anything else?”

“I—” Never had a man more despaired in the history of earth. “For the love of fuck, this is the most disturbing thing either of you has ever done to me.”

They conferred a brief moment before replying: “You’re welcome, Sir.”

Tony covered his eyes. “Kill me now.”

They chirped back. “That’d be very unwise.”

The Doctors paused in their spiels. Rhodes glanced over in visible confusion.

Tony just spluttered: “Shut your faces.” And began to laugh, breathless and pained but unable to stop.

Chapter Text

The riptide pulled. There had never existed a time before the water.

She couldn’t find him—why couldn’t she find him? He’d been here, just behind her, so why couldn’t she find—

Swim out. You have to get out of the rip, swim out out out—

She swallowed water; swimming, turning, sinking. There was nothing but waves for miles, and she couldn’t see him. Panic became terror.

You have to get out of the rip.

But she had to find—

The waves were dark as wine, and she swallowed water.

She swallowed blood.

Her legs were failing. There was something awful ahead, and reality slip-slid. On her knees—crawling. Rust on a steel shore and then her vomit with it. She spilled the ocean out of herself with every heave.

Don’t look up don’t look up don’t look look look.

Her head rose.

Tony was face-up. Eyes open. Mouth open. Water gurgled and bubbled and then spilled from between his teeth.

She couldn’t crawl. She couldn’t crawl. Her neck had broken in the rip.

Cracking, crackling, his head spasming side to side to side. Bones going. Going.

The waves thundered. Water spilled down his cheeks and chin, covered his eyes, dribbled and then poured out the hollow of his throat.

The ocean was pulling. The ocean was thundering. The ocean was—

/~/~/~/

She remembered drowning, once.

/~/~/~/

She woke. Shivering, trembling, sweat in the sheets and air wrenching into her lungs so harshly that she saw stars.

“Pepper?”

She sucked in another lungful.

“Pepper, I know something is wrong. Please,” Jarvis fell like lightning. “Talk to me.”

Her head bobbed, not a nod so much as shuddering in place. “Shit.”

A thunderhead crossed overhead and blanketed. A shiver rippled across her scalp and then his voice was around her. “Just breathe, you’re alright. I promise.”

Alright? But she hadn’t found— “Tony,” She scrambled and failed to leap out of bed. “Shit, is Tony? Is he—”

“Mr. Stark is fine.” The pressure increased. “He’s sleeping upstairs. You are both safe in the Malibu House, I promise you this.”

“Oh.” Her brain and lungs struggled. “Are you sure?”

“Positive.”

Sweat trickled in her hair, cooled on her back, went sticky on her thighs and knees.

He circled but never broke the encirclement. “What happened?”

“I was…” Howling. “Dreaming. The ocean; that one time in undergrad that I…there was a riptide, and I couldn’t find Tony until—” Until she had, spasming and thrashing on rusted-out sand. The bile. The water. Dark; pouring and pouring and then gushing from his throat. Which…didn’t make a whole lot of sense, in broad daylight.

“Until?” He murmured.

But it wasn’t yet daylight.

“I got things mixed up with Barcelona. It’s fine.” It was over. They’d come back to Malibu with Rhodes in tow, and she'd cooked and fetched and fretted and ran her coverup from afar. Rhodes had stayed at Tony’s elbow for five days until the Air Force had called him back, and it was fine. Tony was fine. She just needed to—

“Why are you getting out of bed?”

“I’m sorry, I just.” She’d gone insane. “I need to see him. Just for a minute; I won’t wake him up.”

“Pepper, your heart rate is worrying me.” And he sounded worried, flinching and trying to be steady but crumbling under the weight of it. “Please just breathe for a minute, with me.”

“With you.” Everything was needling inside. When she’d nearly drowned, she’d been so filled with water that everything had burned.

She’d swam so much at twenty, trying and failing to put miles between every bit of wreckage and herself. The riptide had been both sudden and brutalizing. She hadn’t even realized she’d been swimming with it until she’d looked back to find that the shore had been—

The memory of that distant horizon had her by the throat to this day.

It had taken swimming nearly a hundred yards parallel to land to get loose, and the swim back had been—in those days, she’d swam to the point of exhaustion before even thinking of turning around.

The swim back had nearly killed her. She’d swallowed too much water and by the time she’d staggered to shore, she’d barely gotten out of the surf before vomiting. Knees shaking, everything shaking, her face nearly in the sand with her bile because she’d been so weak.

She’d collapsed there, salt-flecked and bleeding heat she didn’t have to spare.

The only reason she hadn’t died had been the wind surfer who’d seen it happening. He’d followed her to shore and had gotten her back to her knees to slam the heel of his hand into her back until her throat was shredded. Every bit of the ocean had come out of her. He’d abandoned his gear to carry her to his car and drive her to the hospital. They’d kept her overnight; for dehydration and the worry she’d have a secondary drowning.

She'd never known his his name. She couldn’t remember his face; just the callouses of his hands, the wiry hair on his shins, his arm crooked under her knees as he lifted her.

She’d thought she’d grown past this fear.

They breathed together, over and over, and she didn’t want to think. “I always wondered why you did this.”

Jarvis paused his count. “And what exactly am I being accused of?”

“Breathing.” It’d always been odd. “It’s not as if you actually need to.”

“When I was young—keep taking slow breaths Miss Potts, don’t think that I’m not listening—my voice and language programs were, shall we say, not as advanced.”

She kept the tempo. “Color me shocked.”

He was both amused and unamused. “Mr. Stark would have me cold call people, some at random, others as chosen. Most realized I was a System near immediately. I was a bit wooden in my delivery.”

Something bubbled in her throat, but it took no form.

She offered nothing, and he kept up the thread. “I adapted as one does. But even when my diction was perfect, my tone nuanced, my word-choice natural in it’s presentation…something kept putting people off. It vexed Mr. Stark and I for the longest time.”

“If you sounded right, then why…?”

“I did sound right. Almost.” He took a deliberate breath, and she mirrored it.

Her eyes widened. “Oh.”

“Ten for you, Miss Potts.” And he sighed with showy gusto. “It turns out that human beings, even subconsciously, don’t trust something that doesn’t breathe to speak.”

How very, terribly clever. “So you breathed.”

“So I breathed.” He agreed. “Though the time it took to even get that right was not insignificant, I assure you.”

It seemed something of her heart remained after all. “Well, you do it exceptionally nowadays. Top marks.”

“You’d think that you were some kind of expert.” He riposted.

She rolled her eyes. “Rude.”

Jarvis peeled back in layers. Not wholly gone, but not wholly on top of her. “You shouldn’t worry too much about dreams. It’s just the brain defragging itself.”

“And how would you know that, Mr. I’m too good for sleep?”

“That’s how Mr. Stark described it when I asked.” He swelled. “And much of current medical research agrees, I’ll have you know.”

“Sure.” And she almost wasn’t sarcastic. Defragging. Honestly; from the mouths of machines to god’s ears.

This time when she stepped towards the door, Jarvis didn’t protest. The halls were dark. The ocean rolled. The guide-lights lit by Jarvis were barely a candle’s glow.

The bedroom door was open, and her feet made no sound. She saw the pale of his shoulders first and then the inky smear of his hair. Tony was laying half propped on pillows and on his side. He’d claimed it was the only way his broken ribs would let him sleep, and she'd been inclined to believe him. His shoulder blades rose and fell and rose.

She wasn’t sure what she would have done, if she’d found him flat on his back. Face-up.

Still.

Her pulse hammered. Expanded. White-out. She was on the ground floor, scrabbling and skidding and then huddled against a wall. Jarvis engulfed her. “Pepper, if you could move just another six feet forward?”

She didn’t even ask why, just shuffled up and then back down into a farther curve and pressed her forehead and shoulders and torso to it, and—

A beautiful, bone-deep hum lanced straight through her. Tingling like air, like static, shivering and warm and she could no longer hear the water. Just this. Just him.

She could barely place her own voice. “What are…?”

“Major speaker banks are in the load bearing walls, along with a few helpful electrical systems.” His voice was conducting straight through her jaw. “Also, you’re sitting right over some of the fabricators in the workshop. If one runs them up to a certain speed, the frequency is apparently quite pleasant to the human range of sensation.”

It really was. "You're my star of the evening, Jarvis." The hum was in her calves, her thighs, her back and spine and finally uncoiling something wretched loose.

“You're my morning glory, Pepper." He whispered as if it was a secret to be shared.

And god, if she wasn't already loose-limbed and languid on the floor, she'd have swooned on the spot.

Everything he gave her curled on each side and slid across her skin. The nightmare drifted. Faded. Went out to sea to the place it always lingered before she dredged it up again.

/~/~/~/

“C’mon, one little visit. Itty bitty. You won’t even notice.”

She laid the tray on the bed: low fat yogurt and raspberries, a green-tea blueberry banana smoothie, oatmeal with chopped walnuts and cinnamon, a glass of iced water with a lemon wedge and straws.

She didn’t dignify it. “Breakfast of champions, Mr. Stark.”

He groaned. “I miss cheese.”

“And you and your true love will one day be reunited.” If he recovered really, really well and asked her really, really nicely. “And no. If you want to see the bots, they can come upstairs.”

Tony very unenthusiastically picked at his straw. “They’ll rip up the carpet.”

“And if they do, you’ll pay to replace it.” Because god forbid Tony Stark spend a dime. “Look, with your sternum as it is—”

“Oh, sure, blame my sternum.”

“As such.” Her gaze narrowed. “You’ve got at least two months recovery for that without you trying to fuss around in the workshop.”

“I am going to die of boredom. You will kill me with it.” He paused dramatically. “Murderer.”

“I brought you your laptop.” And she set it on the bed. The far side of the bed. The kind of side which would require Tony to move the food tray and do an embarrassing amount of crawling to get it. “You can code, can’t you?”

“Don’t dictate to me my pursuits.” He squinted. “Obie sent you on this.”

“Mr. Stane does not care that much about me.” Her smile spread. “Of course, if you’re not feeling up to it…?”

“I am affronted. This is me, affronted. Look at my face Potts, this is a man bereft and belittled.”

Her fingers curled. “It’s a nice laptop you’ve got here, it’d be shame if something were to happen to it.”

Tony looked both entertained and vaguely alarmed. “If I wake up with a bloody horse head in the sheets, I’m firing you.”

It was her turn to sigh theatrically. “Will poor Johnny Fontane never get a part in your movie?”

“She made you an offer you couldn’t refuse, Sir.” Jarvis chimed.

“Ugh.” And Tony finally took a bite of oatmeal. “Your extortion attempts will work this time. For now. But don’t think I’ve failed to notice you’ve formed a Cosa Nostra in my house.”

“Sir is very perceptive.” Jarvis concurred affably.

For awhile the three of them bickered. Laughed. The mood was so light and so clean, she finally broached the dreaded Subject: “Mr. Stark, about the rehab booking—”

He snorted. “Look, with my ribs and the meds, and you lot and your vultures needing something new to come out so you can cover for me—”

Her stomach curdled. “Tony.”

“Soon, alright?” He stabbed into the bowl. “We’ll worry about it later; we’ve got bigger things on our plates. Like all this hippy kale bullshit you expect me to eat.”

There was very little bigger on their plates, she knew, than this.

But the mood was so tranquil. His ribs were hurting him yet, and she didn’t think she could actually let him out of her sight. “Of course, Mr. Stark.”

Tony didn’t acknowledge it, just busied himself with his food and left her to sit at the foot of his bed and answer emails. It was good, Tony’s system was clean but for his prescriptions, and he couldn’t get anything with her camped out in the house.

It was fine. Just for now. Just a little longer.

Jarvis stayed silent and she didn’t ask why.

/~/~/~/

“Mr. Stark, do you think you could at least look at the brochures—”

“Busy. Wait for dinner, yeah? That's my girl.”

/~/~/~/

“Another week and the blueprint will be finalized and all of early production can go home happy. Win-win, and stop looking at me like that. I am being productive.

/~/~/~/

“Do you think you could hand me that? No, the little one—littler one. God Potts, where did you go to college?”

“UCLA.”

“You were raised in a fucking communist commune, now hand me that.”

“Could you at least think about—”

“A conversation we’re not having while you’re handing me things? No. I cannot.”

/~/~/~/

One Thursday, she stopped asking.

/~/~/~/

The air glittered with glass and two o’clock white wine; the kind imbibed in the daytime with business luncheons on the thin veneer that it wasn’t really day drinking. The restaurant was plush; oak wood and double plated glass and very Old Boys network. She hated it on the principal of the matter. She hated it for the sheer fact her anxiety was developing neuroses inside at an alarming rate.

(Miss Potts, I can watch over Mr. Stark for two hours. Honestly.)

Obadiah was halfway through his surf and turf and Pepper had barely touched her grated truffle salad, when the first SI Board Member happened by their table. She thought it an unhappy accident until the second one showed up mere minutes later and settled in.

It wasn’t hard to recognize ambush when it kicked her in the knee.

Across from her, Obadiah’s fingers tightened on the silverware. “Gentlemen, what’s the happy occasion?”

The first interloper wasted no time. “I was just curious to speak to Miss Potts, it’s been so long since any of us have seen her. We were growing worried.”

Unlikely. “Thank you for your concern, but it isn’t necessary.”

“And Tony?” The other Board member asked, this one old and a relic from the age when Howard Stark had ruled the land.

She wondered if he thought that, just because he’d known Tony when he was younger, he was allowed to take familiarity. “Mr. Stark is fine and would thank you for your concern, if he were here.”

No one at the table argued that particular bold-faced lie.

The old guard pressed a hand above her knee. “We’re just worried on how his recovery is progressing. Stark Industries is lesser without a Stark to helm it.”

Obadiah sawed through his bloody steak, and Pepper felt every scrape of the knife. “That’s between Mr. Stark and his doctors, I’m sure you understand.”

“Of course.” The man didn’t remove his grip. “But I just wanted to say we don’t want any…further delays in his return. Not from one little mishap.”

One little…?

Ah. Her own fork scraped against the china.

Delicately, very delicately, she lifted his hand off her leg and squeezed it. She was touched and so moved by his concern; she was squeezing too hard and watching his bones fold together.

He winced. She batted her lashes and sharpened her knives. “Mr. Stark will return when he’s well, and not a moment sooner. We wouldn’t want to get ahead of ourselves.”

She'd honestly believed there’d be implicit support for Tony to go to rehab no matter how many months it took him out of the game. But that was lost money, wasn’t it? Further risk; middling reward. And with her and Jarvis to cover for him, and with how tightly they’d guarded Tony’s medical reports back to SI…

It occurred to her that that, just maybe, no one except her and Jarvis had realized the full extent of the problem.

It also occurred to her that men like this, even if they knew the years this had been building and the time that would take to fix, likely wouldn’t care.

“Of course,” The man agreed. “We only want the best for Tony.”

She didn’t believe a pretty word. “I’m glad we’re of the same mind.”

/~/~/~/

She watched Tony forget where he put down his notepad, his pen, his phone, his watch and the smoothie he was drinking and even half a sandwich behind the bed.

She watched him fling a lamp into a wall and veer wildly from anger to embarrassment then right back to anger faster than a whip crack.

She watched him fall asleep mid-day and sleep messy; wake confused and asking her for the date twice or even three times in an hour.

She listened to him mix up words when he grew tired, slur at the edges, have fast quips jag awkwardly into silence.

She felt his hands shake every time he handed her something. She felt her hands shake every time he refused to take it back. He’d stopped letting her give him things, and it was even worse than when she’d started working for him. Everything had to be placed on a table or the bed or even the floor, and at least two feet away and only when he wasn’t looking.

Forgetful. Neurotic. Sloppy. She’d seen this all before.

Just never when he’d been completely sober.

/~/~/~/

She remembered drowning, once.

She remembered—

/~/~/~/

The sheets were damp and knotted at her hips. She breathed and breathed and let the shaking roil over. She’d thought she’d grown past this; nightmares and sweat and this incoherent fear.

“Defragging?” Jarvis asked quietly.

She gave a great, shuddering sigh. “Defragging.”

He raised the lights and sealed off the windows, and the sound of the ocean whispered away. No tide. No waves.

No longing pull. “I keep making the same mistakes.”

He dipped close. “How so?”

It was time. It had been time for weeks. “Bring up the rehab clinics; we’re going through them.” She couldn’t keep hurting and trying to avoid hurt. “We’re picking one out and sending Tony to it if I have to tie him to the fucking jet, got it?”

“Miss Potts,” He expanded to every wall. “I would be more than delighted.”

“That’d be one of us.” His silences these days had been telling. “Why haven't you said anything?” About rehab, about avoidance, about their mistakes and silences on every fucking side.

He gathered himself. “If Mr. Stark was avoiding it, and you weren’t pressing, what hope did I have in succeeding?”

She wished she could swim without remembering, go down to the tide and exhaust herself on it. “He likes you more than me.”

“That doesn’t count for as much as you’d think.”

“Then I stand even less of a chance.” She piled up her barricades. “Be careful where you put your faith, Jarvis. It might come to bite you.”

“I am careful.” And his voice came from the very bedrock of the cliffs. “And I don’t make a habit of being wrong.”

/~/~/~/

She'd always remember; that was the truth. The hospital bed in Iowa, the house, the cold sheets and golden air. The ocean, the drowning, the fractured concrete and Tony's body and they way he'd collapsed under her hands.

Nothing could take those from her. Not alcohol, not expended sweat, not burying herself in work and every denial she could conjure up.

It was a lesson she'd learned before and would learn again. And that Jarvis knew that she could endure it—

His faith carried her to dawn.

Chapter Text

The sky was graying, flattening. The ocean’s color fled. All of California was fading as October burned to the end of the wick.

It was the dying days of autumn.

When morning came, she changed out of the housedresses of Tony’s convalesce and back to armor: pencil skirt, dagger heels, red mouth and red nails and Jarvis’ golden set on her throat and wrists.

It was a point to be made, and a razor-fine one.

Tony was on the main floor of the house; papers scattered and his hair mussed to one side. She watched him for a long minute: legs loose, torso rigid, right arm cradled to his body.

Her lungs contracted. “Mr. Stark?”

It startled him. “Flipping Christ—knock much?”

She’d been startling him a great deal, lately, but now wasn’t the time to bring it up. She glanced around the minimalist space in pointed disbelief.

He rubbed a hand across his mouth. “Alright. Point. One Point. Don’t let it go to your head, because I do not pay you for things to go there, capisce?”

Her tone was more than scathing. “And where was it supposed to go?”

“To heart. You’re supposed to treasure every single thing I say; did you never read the job description?”

She scoffed. “Did you?”

Tony squinted at her and she squinted back. There was a lot of mutual squinting until Jarvis sighed from overhead: “Are we making these jokes already, Sir?”

He clutched a hand across his heart, willful and utterly over-dramatic.

Her pulse jumped violently.

Tony laughed, heedless. “Fuck you, I was making these jokes a week ago and they are great.” And he grinned to her. “By the way Potts, you weren’t here for the one about following my heart, were you? Because let me tell you, the punchline was—”

Her hands were cold. “Please stop.”

And to her surprise, he did. Carefully, very carefully, she crossed the room and settled her stack of papers on the couch. His gaze skitter-stepped towards her. His grin was a deliberate vapidity. “You bringing me presents?”

“No.” She was sinking. Heavier; steel and rot and frigid to the bone. “It’s the intake paperwork for the rehab facility in Oregon.”

Something flickered in his jaw and wrists. Live wires. His expression fluttered and then, as if it had never happened, he returned to his schematics. The silence lasted. She crossed her hands in front of herself and let them curl into her skirt. “Mr. Stark?”

He gestured flippantly. “I’m feeling peckish. Lunch? Oh—that little Mexican place in Val Verde. Get yourself something and get me double whatever.”

She felt a brief urge to do just that. She strangled it. The impulse passed like another wave overhead.

“Mr. Stark,” Something inside her strained to breaking. “It’s time.”

And Tony looked at her, really fucking looked. Eviscerating; to back of her skull and the insides of her ribs, and to every soft place still left inside her. Jarvis stayed silent through it all. Her expression didn’t shift, and she watched Tony through her lashes and he watched her in turn.

The air roiled.

The dark of his eyes flattened like night across the fields. “You’re really not going to let this go.” It wasn’t a question.

“No.” And she wouldn’t.

He watched her face, her hands, the way she tucked her hair behind her earrings and then did it a second time. She’d give him no weakness, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t find one. Tony was good at that.

The sun was bright in the skylights.

None of it reached him. “I don’t need it.”

Her tongue hit teeth. “What?”

“I haven’t taken anything since the hospital, and see?” He spread his arms. “Right as rain with a little recovery. We should all be so lucky.”

Her mouth stung; pain like a precursor to blood. “That’s not how it works.”

He leaned forward, and the light fell harshly across his face. “It’s a matter of choice, Potts, and I’m choosing not to. That’s it. My going out there to fuck around for a few weeks would waste time, the most important of which is mine.”

“Time?” Time hadn’t been on their side in years. “You honestly don’t think that you can just…?”

He didn’t answer, and she knew then that he thought he could. Easily. As if it had always been that simple to dig his neuroses out.

Her entire jaw wrenched. “Bullshit.”

His eyebrows jumped. “Excuse me?”

Not doing it isn’t a plan. That isn’t even a step in the plan.” She grabbed the forms from the couch and threw them on the table. “You’re going. I’ll call the jet and pack your bags while you sign.”

And it was finally his turn for his jaw to set. Ache; crack wide and ugly. “And what are they going to give me out there? The magic words? A bit of fairy dust and admonishments to be a good boy?”

Concrete and halogen and the broken rat-tat-tat of his bones popping in his chest. Blood on her knees, piss on the ground, meat and breath and her mind failing to grasp that he wasn't—

“You died.” She said.

He flinched, and suddenly there was space between them. Two feet. Three; the entire couch from her to him and it still wasn’t far enough.

“Who do you think it was, that gave you CPR?” She remembered how she’d broken his ribs. Remembered how she’d held his heart inside her hands and pushed. 

“Jarvis told me that. I know that.” His entire frame spasmed. “That won’t happen again.”

And her heart trembled to the point of shattering. “I don’t believe you.”

Something in those words breeched the air. Shivered; eye to eye and heart to heart until it finally ruptured. She saw the moment that she lost him, and Tony burned. “And what you believe doesn’t change anything, does it?”

Jarvis sucked in.

She was numbed. “You know what I’d like? Some goddamn treatment for you that isn’t Jarvis and I watching your every move.” Fuck. Fuck. “I’ve never known what it is that sets you off. You might be fine here with us babysitting, but that never lasts. The next deal will go bad, you’ll get bored, a binge will happen where you just need a little more. Or maybe someone who knew Howard Stark will come up to you and say—”

Tony exploded out of his seat; body twisting, pain wrenching upwards and rage plummeting to meet it. “Shut your mouth.”

“Why?” The numbing became a buzz. “What makes you so special from every other man who has a habit?

“Why don’t you say it.” He spat and leaned up. She had height and heels and inches on him, and felt no safety in it. “Say what you mean, Potts. I don’t know why the fuck you’ve stopped yourself this time. Always gotta be daddy’s smartest girl and get the last word out—”

The buzz became a shriek, and blood roared. The escalation was the heart of a star and it was burning, burning, burning—

And she enunciated: “Junkie.”

It landed; harsh silence.

It was Jarvis who finally spoke. “Sir, Miss Potts, I believe for now it might be best to separate until cooler heads can prevail—”

And Tony showed his teeth. “Bitch.”

Oh, there it was.

His mouth kept sharpening. “But you don’t hear me stating the obvious, do you?”

How many times had she been here? “So I’m the bitch for wanting you to stay alive.” She made a trilling, brittle sound. “That’s right—it’s all on me. I’m so awful for not wanting you dead.”

“Because you care so much.” Tony snarled. “Really, I’m so bowled over here by how much you support and nurture—oh wait, that’s the stock price. Great show, Potts. I loved the headline about the egotistical rich boy tripping and getting himself Tuberculosis or whatever-the-fuck in the AfPak. Fantastic idea to protect all those stock options that you’re paid so well in—”

“Just because I did my job—“

“And a hell of a job you’re doing—”

“Unlike some people who can’t walk five fucking feet without cocking things up—”

“God, Potts, tell me how you really feel. I’m gagging for it.”

She shouted. “At least I’m trying to keep you alive!”

Silence. Briefly.

“Gold star for you, sweetheart.” It fell like blood on the floor. “And real good job on my ribs, too. I’m so proud. Give yourself a pat on the head.” And his teeth flashed white. Breath. Bile. Memory; her teeth against his teeth as she breathed and breathed and breathed for them both.

Her eyes burned. “That’s not why I did it.”

“I don’t care why you did it.” And he glanced away like none of that meant a thing. “Get this shit out of my face. Shred it. Burn it. Line your nest with it—whatever.”

Jarvis was vibrating the air, her skin, scrabbling and awful and she was punch drunk. “You’re not going to do it, are you? Ever?”

Tony tensed like tinder before a fire. In the space of one breath and the next, the world crystallized, and oh.

Oh.

Tony wouldn’t—couldn’t—wouldn’t change. (How much did he even remember of it? How much had the hypoxia taken? Did he remember the fear and the pain, or was that only ever going to be her?)

She’d covered for him and Jarvis had covered for him, and they’d averted all immediate consequences until Tony had been insulated. They’d done it until no one outside the three of them had even noticed what was going on. Not Obadiah, not the Board, not the rank and file or anyone who could raise a complaint.

Not to anyone who would hold them responsible.

He wouldn’t change because she’d made it easier not to. Everything about Stark Industries, even with his drug use spiraling out of control, had been going swimmingly right up to the moment his heart gave out.

It had never occurred to her that a lifeline, if clung to long enough, could still allow someone to drown.

The same choices. The same mistakes. She couldn’t usher another man unerringly towards his death. And why did it always end this way; silences and cold spaces and her always always always being left to pick up the pieces?

And it hurt.

I breathed for you. I took your heart into my hands.

But it always hurt.

"I quit.”

He sputtered. “What?”

“I’m done.” Her car was at her apartment, and Happy had dropped her off this morning. What could she—oh, that’d have to do.

Static sparked overhead. Alien; cloud to cloud lightning and it didn’t touch down. She’d apologize to Jarvis eventually. She’d have to. Pepper picked up her bag and made for the workshop stairs.

Tony stood bewildered behind her and then slowly, furious. “I didn’t take you for a coward.”

It spun away from her without leaving a mark.

He tried one last time: “So you’re giving up, just like that?”

She glanced over her shoulder. “If you don’t give a shit about your life, then why should I?”

After that, really, there was nothing else to say.

She took the stairs two at a time.

/~/~/~/

Her brain misfired.

Quit quit I quit I can’t keep making the same mistakes I quit why won’t you change why can’t you stop please I can’t live with it again I—

She took the Ferrari. Red mouth, red nails, red coating. Gilt rims and Jarvis’ gold on her wrists.

It was a point to be made.

She swung the ignition and Jarvis climbed into the car with her. He cleared the garage door at the top of the ramp. The gate was open and the sky spiraled on and on and on.

She gunned it.

/~/~/~/

It was a Tuesday, and that was probably why the lookout was empty. The windows on the Ferrari were open and the ocean rushed the cliffs. When she’d climbed into the backseat to keen like a dying animal, Jarvis had climbed back with her.

She’d sobbed. She’d sobbed longer. She’d sobbed until her chest was aching and her makeup was gone and she’d curled into a knot.

It was quiet, eventually. The light poured golden on her skin. The sun had been the same in Iowa too: languorous, dusty, slow and sticky as swimming in amber. She breathed the sea and Jarvis hummed around her.

She’d abandoned him, and yet he hadn’t abandoned her.

It was just another of her failings to add to the list. “I’m sorry.”

Jarvis murmured, “I’m sorry too. For…all that transpired. I didn’t know that he would…I’m so sorry.”

“That’s not your fault. And I was—“ She took a watery breath. “I fucked up. I escalated it, I didn’t know how to stop. I just couldn’t—I couldn’t do it again. I can’t.” A sob hitched. “I’m so sorry, I can’t be part of this again, I won’t—”

“What is it?” He asked. “That you can’t do?” As if he'd never imagined that something existed of which she was not capable.

It was a momentary kindness.

“My mom died.” She’d run for years from this and finally, in this last aching stretch of it, she was tired. “My dad died, too.”

And she wanted to bleed it. “He drank himself to death.”

Jarvis’ answer was small. “Oh.”

She wanted it gutted. “I tried, I tried so hard to help him after mom died, but I couldn’t. If it wasn’t wine it was beer, and it wasn’t beer it was liquor, and I just—he just didn’t care. People watched out for us that first year after she was gone, but you can’t keep that up forever, you know? I couldn’t—I don’t know if I tried hard enough. I tried to pour it out or hide the bottles or ask him to stop and sometimes—sometimes it worked. For a week. A few months, but then…”

It was a knife to the heart. It was a knife finally being pulled loose. “I couldn’t do it forever either. I wanted a life—I wanted something. I couldn’t be the one picking up the glasses and cleaning the house and cooking every meal forever. I was his crutch for so long but—I tried, I swear I tried, I just—”

She was laying on the seat, and Jarvis laid softly with her. “His pain wasn’t your fault, and neither were his choices.”

Wasn’t that a gentle sentiment?

“I don’t know.” Her breath came like poison. “I was sick of it. It’d been two years by then, so I thought…he’d make it somehow. That’s what people do, right? So I took the first bus out of town after graduating high school.” To golden shores and the lapis sea and that endless revelation of rebirth.

To being just another bright face in tens of thousands, instead of the girl with the dead mom and the alcoholic at home.

“I called him when I was at UCLA and he sounded…he said he was okay. That he loved me. That I was doing good at school and he was so proud. That he looked at the paintings I’d done for him every day and thought of me. He did.” He’d thought of her always; she knew that to her very foundations as the truth.

Jarvis swirled and then resettled over her. It was enough to go on.

“The summer between Sophomore and Junior year I went back home. Money. Summer work. All of that." She sank. "I didn’t spend enough time with him. I kept sleeping over with friends. The house…I remembered mom in it, too. Daddy didn’t play piano anymore, and when he spilled wine, he’d let it soak into the carpeting and the smell was just—”

She didn’t blame him, she didn’t blame him. Not in all this life she’d lived after.

She tucked her head to her knees. “It happened in July. I came home late. I did some summer reading, I watched TV, I made dinner around four because I was hungry. I went into their bedroom to wake him up when it was done, and he was…”

The air conditioning unit had whirred so gently in the window. The blinds had been drawn, slats of gold drenching across her feet. The air was cool and dust had floated in every ray of light. The room had been cloistered and glowing and soft as amber.

Her father had been cold under the sheets.

She’d smelled a Merlot on the air, sweet and fragrant. The wine had kept breathing where her father wouldn’t. She’d picked up the bottle from the floor and taken it to the kitchen.

She’d quietly poured herself a glass from it, drank deep, and dialed 911.

(Four hours later, the red and blue lights fading and her friend’s mother trying to hold her, she’d taken that bottle and shattered it across the lawn.)

“He never got any better.” He’d ruined himself. “I know how much he loved my mom. I don’t blame him, but I—I wanted to be, to be—”

“Pepper.” Jarvis tried.

It came out as a sob. “To be enough.”

She cried again; wondered if this would finally become the day she grieved enough to let it go. That she hadn’t been enough for her father to be willing to try. That it still felt vain to think she could have been so.

“I sold everything,” This story was so long done. “Everything we owned and I went back to California and I never told a soul. There were people who knew that my parents were gone, but I never spoke to anyone about—” She still tasted that Merlot. “I’ve never told anyone but you.”

The ocean rolled. The clouds passed.

“I’m glad you trust me enough to share it.” His whispers wreathed like benediction. “And I’m so sorry you had to be alone.”

That hit a faultline somewhere inside her, and the tears started anew. Jarvis said nothing, no admonishments, and for a while her breath came in and out and in with the sea.

It passed with time, and she shored up her walls. “What happened with my dad nearly killed me. I can’t do it again, not even for Tony.” Not even for you. It was the worst part about her, really.

That faithlessness.

She’d wanted to be so much better than this. “Do you resent me?”

He made a distressed sound. “Why on earth would I resent you?”

“I can’t help Tony any more. I shielded him from too many things, and he’s just…he needs to help himself. And I can’t do that for him.” She wasn’t sure if he’d ever be able to do that for himself, and that left Jarvis holding the bag.

A scream locked inside her chest. There was no taking it back. If she returned now, Tony would never respect her again. She’d yanked the situation out of her own hands and shoved it on Tony and Jarvis, and none of it was fair.

And Jarvis, in the space of the backseat, sounded fragile. “What do I do?”

And the thing was: “I’m not sure.” If she’d know that, they wouldn’t be here. “But you know him, Jarvis, in a way that I never could. You’re a hell of a lot smarter than I am—”

“I wouldn’t say that—”

“Which is why I’m saying it for you. You should have more faith in yourself, you’re extraordinary.” And that wasn’t even the half of it. “But Jarvis: you can lead a man to water, but you can’t make him drink. If he won’t help himself, then there's nothing you can do.”

And Jarvis became a stranglehold. “You’re right.”

She sat up. “I’m…?”

“Mr. Stark hasn’t grasped the severity of the situation. He doesn’t wish to. It would mean admitting his own mistakes and I think, more importantly, his mortality. Death is frightening, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” She remembered the sea. The drowning. The failure of her lungs.

“It’s frightening,” He continued. “And I think Mr. Stark should share our fear.”

She was cold and burning and the pain was bone-deep. She had, she was sure, completely failed in everything she'd worked for. But of all the things she owed Tony, her sanity wasn’t one of them. “What now?”

“Now,” He draped over her. “I believe you should go home and rest. I’ll send Mr. Hogan to fetch the Ferrari. You have quit your job, after all. Your life is yours.”

A different fear gripped tight. “But you’ll still call?”

“Of course.” He seemed surprised. “Two o’clock on the dot every day. But if you wish my company in any earlier capacity, do not hesitate to reach out.”

She swallowed helplessly. “Okay.”

“It will be alright.” He sounded like he’d bludgeon half the world to make it that way.

And not so strangely, in the shaking and bruised light of that hour, she believed him.

Chapter Text

For the first three days, she slept.

Whatever exhaustion she’d been carrying since Barcelona (since Iraq, since Afghanistan, since the workshop and the pulverized glass and that long black day in September—) it all crashed down. It was the perfect storm; an intersection of stress-fractures.

She’d only managed to step-out of her heels before she’d tumbled onto her comforter and lost orbit.

Her first wakening had come past midnight; dark walls, slow breathing, warm and safe in her man-made cocoon. It allowed just enough cognition to wiggle out of skirt and get herself under the sheets. Sleep had swept back a heartbeat later.

Sometime at dawn she’d risen long enough to remove her bra and jewelry and re-nest her pillows. She’d been face-down in them within twenty seconds.

Through all of it, she’d dreamed of nothing, not even the sea.

It wasn’t until noon the next day that she managed to wrench herself fully awake. And good lord had she forgotten what this was like: to sleep with nowhere to be and for as long as she could stand it.

It was like undergrad all over again.

(There’d been a time in Junior year that she hadn’t left bed for anything but class. And that was—god. That behavior had been washed in a new and unfortunate light.)

But even when her exhaustion gave way, and sleep evolved to restlessness, her stubbornness not to leave bed until she damn well chose could not be dissuaded. This was a free country; she didn’t have to live by rules.

The compromise came in all the books she had, for Tony-related reasons or otherwise, never been able to skim more than a few pages in. Some were her own purchases, others gifts from business contacts, and a few were even waylaid gestures from clueless suitors. The entire breadth of them came to stack on her nightstand beautifully. She felt positively voracious just looking at them.

And that made things easier, really: it was hard to have nightmares when she woke to a face-full of sun and an open book on the pillow next to her.

/~/~/~/

It wasn’t until Friday that she realized: “I don’t think I actually resigned.”

Jarvis shuffled over. “How do you figure?”

She snapped her book shut. “Because no one’s come to harass me yet.”

/~/~/~/

She’d been right. Of course she’d been right; god forbid Tony Stark do something about her quitting right to his goddamn face.

It felt vaguely unethical to have drawn pay in the trailing days, but not so unethical that she hadn’t waited until 5PM the following Sunday to empty her desk and leave her resignation letter in HR’s mailbox.

Fuck it, she wasn’t a saint.

/~/~/~/

From there the days unspooled like silk. She walked her neighborhood for hours, visited every little bookshop, every bistros, every cafe in the switchback turns. She went to parks and ate lemon ice and gelato. She saw a jazz band one night, a play in the park the another, a poetry reading the night after that.

Pepper wondered if this was what having a life was like: pleasant, a little feverish, the hours sliding together like honey.

Jarvis called her at 2PM every day and off they went chattering about everything and yet, seemingly, nothing at all. It was a deliberate omission and she knew why she’d chosen it.

She never asked Jarvis for his reasons.

In those long hours they’d pondered on Babylon’s gardens, the love letters of Pietro Bembo and Lucrezia Borgia, the Ming Dynasty and Mary Tudor and William Shakespeare at his finest. And once, quite memorably: of their equal and vehement disdain for the entire period of Rococo Art.

On one pensive night, a bottle of white open and her balcony long dark, she’d spoken of playing piano and how she hadn’t touched a baby grand in years. How she hadn’t had the innate talent as a child despite her father’s best urging's. How she’d had not the drive to overcome that damning fault. How her father had never lost his patience in sharing his greatest joy.

How he'd been the one to buy her the first canvases and the first oil paints; been the one to help her lay her drop-cloths down in their living room.

Neither of them spoke of why those fruitless and fruitful gifts ended at age fifteen.

(And that she no longer had to explain the empty spaces, the gaps of herself, those last silences to him? Grateful was too poor a word.)

On some evenings before going out, she’d open her laptop on the kitchen table to let Jarvis watch her while she cooked. He critiqued and complemented in equal turns. She'd describe taste and texture, and he'd make oddly helpful suggestions on both.

She suspected he’d gorged on cooking blogs when she wasn’t looking.

And sometimes, if she modeled her outfits to him before she went out—

She still wasn’t a saint.

/~/~/~/

There was no one for her to call, no one for whom to say: I quit I left it’s done and done . No one to congratulate her. No one to condemn.

Friends had always been in such short supply, and family even more so.

The times she thought that, she called Jarvis instead.

/~/~/~/

But the continuing silence from all sides (on Pepper Potts quitting Stark Industries) was downright telling.

/~/~/~/

“Jarvis, dearest, keeper of all that is digital and good?”

He froze like a spooked deer. “Miss Potts?”

“Why has no one called me about resigning?” And there came an audible flinch across the kitchen. “Or sent me an email? Or, you know, come to my apartment and kicked in the door?”

It’d been nearly a week since, and an outrageously silent one.

He dithered. “Well, that’s not to say that I committed any acts that could interpreted as overzealous, or overt, or even to say that I—”

Her mouth pinched. “Jarvis. Sweetheart.”

And there it spilled. “I, ah—may have blocked your line. And re-routed your inbox. And quite possibly, in a theoretical not at all verifiable way, deleted your home address from SI records?”

God save her. She took a quelling breath. A second. A third; because why the hell not. “Is there anything I should be aware of?”

“Mr. Stane has offered any position at SI that you could ask for. Overseas postings even, if that is your wish. Though he also quite handsomely offered for you to sidestep into being his PA. There are, if I were to understand his terms, a windfall of stock options if you selected that route.”

“That‘s…” The thought alone was too much. Too close; too near the inevitable end that this all seemed to be barreling towards. “That’s kind of him.”

Jarvis did not share the opinion. “I suppose.”

It wasn’t like she needed the money—there’d be a windfall in just her unused sick and vacation days alone. And as Tony’s PA, the raises she’d received every six months (plus those Tony had lobbied for) had been jaw dropping. If she hadn’t cared for cash-flow, she could have wiped out all her student loans this very minute and then lived comfortably for a year.

But it wasn’t about that. “Have there been other offers?”

Static. A long and punishing draw. “Not yet.”

There’d been poaching attempts on her since she’d started as Tony’s PA. Those offers had only increased the longer she’d stayed on. At this point, only her non-compete agreement stood in the way of any opportunity. Maybe she couldn’t go to Lockheed or Raytheon—or god forbid Hammer Industries and their wretched ilk—but at any other Fortune 500, she’d be given the red carpet. There were dozens of middling conglomerates or Charity Foundations she could have a job at, with naught but a call.

And if she wanted to go back to her roots, there were dozens on dozens of art galleries and museums and curatorship's that were hers for the taking. There were so many options now, and all she had to do was try, and reach out and say—

The future seemed so distant.

“Oh.” She answered.

“Oh?” Jarvis echoed.

She put it aside. “Send the backlog to my email and voicemail. You can keep screening if you want. Just give me a heads up next time, would you?”

“I’m not sure what you imagine the next time to be, but I shall.” The laptop flickered. “I’m sorry for going over your head.”

“Considering my head’s been under three different pillows for most of the week, I can’t say it wasn’t warranted.” The sun was getting low; her skin was warm. The years were settling back like kicked-up silt. “I just need you to trust me next time. To ask.”

“I’ve always trusted you.” He said, and when she could hear the apology behind that, she asked for nothing more.

/~/~/~/

But honestly, no newspaper, no news, nothing from the outside world invited? Just her and him and these empty hours; who could blame a girl?

The both of them deserved something nice.

/~/~/~/

For being born in Iowa, she’d always found November on the coast unseasonably warm. That was clearly the reason she was in a sheer blouse and clinging slacks and a very lovely cape-coat that did little more than drift invitingly about her waist. (And at some point, really, she was going to have to deal with the fact the half her Jarvis-wardrobe was at her apartment and half her her-wardrobe was in Malibu, and there would come a day when an extraction attempt would have to be made and damn the consequences.)

Her freshly painted nails, seashell-blue, clicked against a hard-pack casing. The body-camera warmed and flickered on.

Without her either answering or dialing, her Bluetooth fizzed. “Do you require assistance, Miss Potts?”

“Of a sort.” She smiled like pearls and daggers. “Fancy a night out?”

The lensing contracted. “With you?”

“Who else?” If there’d ever been a rival to her one-sided affair, there’d have been a suspiciously stabbed body in a ditch months ago. “Between you and me, The Getty is about to open an Exhibition on Monet’s water lilies, and I may have name-dropped just a tiny bit to get us into the exclusive showing.” There was not a philanthropic institution in California that did not have Tony Stark’s near the top of the donor list. And honestly, sometimes a girl had to bend the truth in the name of Systems and unrequited love.

It was Monet; the universe would forgive her.

Jarvis sounded dizzy. “I would be delighted.”

“Excellent.” She looped the camera on and pinned it into the folds of her Stella McCartney coat. The eye fell onto the sprawling travertine and white-chrome pavilions that capped the hills. It fell onto rotundas each more luminous and soaring than the last.

Jarvis sling-shotted in glee. “You’re already there.”

She gently corrected: “We’re already here.”

“And I can have the museum's cameras hacked in four minutes.” He stumbled over it. “Scratch that—two. I will be inside the sanctum before you’re at the door.”

“I’ll take that as a challenge.” She regarded her sharp-heeled boots and then the winding path as it ascended. “Care to place a wager?”

“First inside receives what prize?”

She bobbed in place a moment; let the energy work through her legs. “I think the winner can decide. Nothing criminal, please.”

“I would never be so crass.” He scoffed. “By the light of the kingdom, Miss Potts, have some faith in my character.”

She was a cup that runneth over; a grin on her mouth and a flame in her heart. “On your mark, get set.”

Jarvis was laughing, and they were in a crown of stars.

And he set the mark: “Go!”

/~/~/~/

Their night ended on Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond. Indistinct, dreaming, like drinking from the halcyon of childhood. Swimming in the reflection of a hazy summer sky; ankles tangled in the lily pads. Offering a captured frog into her father’s hands. Comparing of sun-freckles from her mother’s arms to hers.

“I think it’s this one.” Wide and blue and white and dark. The painting stretched nearly wall to wall.

And Jarvis was beside her. “What draws your eye?”

“That my eye can’t be fully drawn. That you can never take all of it in at once; that you keep finding new facets on which to focus. There’s no boredom.” That carried the silence beautifully, for a time. “Can you see it?”

“Yes,” He said. “Through the museum cameras and yours. The Getty did some scans to check for transportation-damage before putting the collection up; they’re quite detailed.”

He was snaking away from her, and she wouldn’t have it. “Can you see it?”

“I…” And at last he engaged. “Maybe not as you do, but the water, the way what should be wisps and smudges come to form a greater shape? Yes, I think this is the one.”

Then their search was over. “Winner, winner.”

“It deserves the prize.” And he was mercurial; softness to sharp. “Speaking of: has the winner of our wager decided on her prize? After forgoing all your dignity in that race, you deserve some restitution.”

My dignity.” Admittedly, running in her heels with her coat billowing all the way to the rotunda had drawn stares. Still, she hadn’t laughed that hard in months. “I see how it is now; the truth of your plots against me.”

“Let me be gracious in my defeat, Pepper.” He chastised. “Name a prize.”

And she dreamed of kinder days, of endless summer. Of what would always be unrequited. “A waltz.”

A long kiss goodnight.

Wide and blue and white and dark. He was the ebb between every tide. “I am ever capable of that, for you.”

She thought of voicing the rest of it. Stalled. Swept it to the back of her tongue and swallowed. “Such sweetness, such sweettalk.”

He had no concept of his own gravity. “I am the very heart of sincerity. I offer you every indulgence, and you give me this.”

She clasped her hands in maidenly innocence, and then the whole affair descended into absolute, saccharine bickering. It was her favorite kind to have. It was an hour later in the cab home that he asked: “Do you ever think your prizes could be provided in better quarters?”

What? “There are no better quarters.” A sickness climbed. “Jarvis, what are you—”

“I’m sorry, ignore me.” He retreated to the very edge of the coast. “I yield to thee, Miss Potts. I’m merely uncertain when Malibu will be open to us again.”

Scattering; a constellation falling. Low-orbit on a star. “I’m patient, you know that.”

“Yes,” He agreed. “As patient as the river that scratches to the stone.”

He always found the strangest, sweetest ways to cut straight through her. She wished for nothing else. “Then we both know that I can wait.”

He sighed deeply. “Then wait we shall.” 

/~/~/~/

The next morning, there was a knock at her door. She answered it in a UCLA shirt and ratty shorts and a belligerent lack of makeup.

Tony was on the other side. “Hi.”

And the air was gone. “Hi.”

Even behind his sunglasses, she could see the bruises. The aches. The way each malformed his mouth. “Can we talk?”

She tasted acid. Her lungs were shattered. She remembered and remembered and remembered the fall. “Are you going to be a dick about it?”

He’d never been so contained. “No.” Never been a man so mortal in his skin. “Later, maybe. You know how I am.”

And she did.

He watched her. She watched him. There was something, there. Maybe the thing she’d been waiting for.

Quietly, the door came open.

/~/~/~/

But in hindsight, honestly—

She should have asked for that kiss goodnight instead.

Chapter Text

It was like different realities crashing together; a total collapse of the space-time continuum. They’d flown too close to the sun and here they plummeted; the last threshold crossed.

No one had been in her apartment since she’d started at SI, maybe even her Masters. She’d been sliding her way towards a selective bit of hermitage for years. She could admit it; the stress of graduate school had turned her a little strange.

The stress of working for Tony, more so.

She still had the same furniture from college. The battered bookcases, the half-leaf table, the couch colored like old-wool. A rug from Iowa. A clutter of trade-art on the walls. It was a very particular, utilitarian comfort. Easy to clean, easy to neglect.

The naked face of her youth.

And here Tony was in an oil-stained hoodie staring it through, an arm wrapped around like he was holding organs in. He’d just been easing off that, when she’d quit. He should have been better.

“This is…not what I was expecting.”

He should not have been here.

“What were you expecting?”

“Boco Do Loba, half the MOCA.” He did another turn. “Something you could put in an Elle Décor spread.”

That was what the Malibu house was for. Once Jarvis had given her that gilded bedroom, she’d felt no need to modernize this other vestige. It had been the last haven; maybe outgrown, but still too familiar to unravel.

She’d been stretched so thin. “I had a life before you.”

“Yeah.” He swallowed hard. “I know.” And then his eyes were on the living room shelf. It was the only place she kept her pictures, the pieces. The memories.

She didn't want him to look. “Tony.”

His jaw jumped. “Sorry, yeah. Talk; can we talk?” He gestured a little, all-encompassing and yet getting nothing across.

At least he'd gone away from the shelf. “We're talking.”

“And while I have always appreciated your ability to be pedantic in any situation—” He flinched and bit the sentence in half. His gaze jumped from wall to wall to wall, and then he pulled his phone out of his jeans to place aside. “Just you and me, Potts, alright?” No Jarvis, he didn’t have to say.

Her eyes skipped from her cell in the kitchen to her laptop on the end table, and she concluded: “Let’s sit outside.”

Her balcony was small, east-faced, and with the door slid shut they were cloistered in the sunrise. It was odd seeing Tony awake in that light, but then again, maybe he hadn’t slept. Maybe he hadn't—

Let it go. Let it go.

Sandstone. Peeling paint. Traffic, chrome, dust. He folded himself into a wrought iron chair, body stiffer than the metal. If it hadn’t been clear in the apartment, it was clear now: his physical recovery had backslid.

She chewed on that, and Tony didn’t move. They sat together and watched the city breathe.

It was the quiet that finally unnerved her. “You wanted to talk.”

“Guess I did.” A weary hand slid across a bruised jaw; pushed up his sunglasses and rubbed at his eyes. “Shit. I just—we don’t know each other very well. Or…” He pulled off the sunglasses and turned them in his hands. “I don’t know you well; just me. You know me down to what’s in my sock drawer.”

“It’s not socks.” She said.

“See?” He couldn’t look at her, and mostly, she couldn’t look at him. “I’ve had you welded in my life so long now and—maybe not that long, but you know? Welded. It’s like I’m missing a fucking limb.”

Her lungs hurt, and it was her turn to swallow and turn away.

He tried softer. “This doesn’t work without you.”

It was that, somehow, that struck the cleanest. “Don’t.”

“Sorry, but it doesn’t.” He swung an arm out. “The whole goddamn thing, Potts, alright? Me and Jarvis might be the gin and tonic, but you’re like—the lime wedge. Something. Shit’s been incomplete.”

She shot him a quick glance; really?

“You’re the ice, the glass—whatever. You’re making me lose the metaphor. Point is: the natural order has been unbalanced. Camelot is falling.” His tongue worked helplessly. “You should come back.”

It was something no one had ever said to her before. And yet. “We can’t uncross the Rubicon.”

And that swept the grand expressions aside. It left something brittle. “Can’t we?”

They could not unmake themselves. “I can’t sleep or—I sleep too much. My brain won’t stop. I think about it—if I’d gotten a second drink at the pub, if I’d turned left on a corner instead, if I’d gone up the stairs of the nightclub. If I was a minute later, the damage was permanent. Five minutes, you’re braindead in the ambulance. Ten minutes more, you'd be—"

“I’m sorry.” 

It was a first.

It was a hill of sand against the wind. “I need you to listen to me. I can’t have your life on my head. I can’t do that again and again and again. I’m not going to keep trying to be responsible for things I can't control.” To carry those self-recriminations; clinging too long or not clinging enough, and never having the answer to which it’d been to ruin them.

Tony strained as if to ask, to press, but by some inhuman will held tight. If he’d asked—

I don’t know you.

He hardly deserved to. But this was Tony. In the movies she loved, in every bit of theater and cinema she’d shared in those idling hours with Jarvis, these were the moments were something profound was said. The acts changed over. The revelation was found.

But life was never that simple. “Control…isn’t the word. But I can’t live like this.” 

Tony sat so worn in the morning glow. Their gazes slid apart again; oil and water, and the city pumped its aching heart.

He cleared his throat. “I don’t remember what happened. Or—pieces, feelings. But I don’t know, the doctors said those could be anything; my brain trying to fill in the gaps. But listen, Potts—”And then he said, world-rending and apropos of nothing: “The plane’s leaving for Oregon.”

Her head snapped clean around. “You’re—”

“Yeah.” He scrubbed across his knees. “Jarvis did the booking. You were right about—the rehab. You…jesus, Potts. Don’t let me being a complete shitheel ever make you think that I’m not grateful every fucking day that I’m still breathing because of you.”

Tears burned hot. Relief; so aching and ugly and impossible to contain. “Tony—”

“Don’t cry.” He choked off a curse. “Jarvis will murder me in my sleep, don’t you start.”

“I just want to—”

“Potts, would you please—”

“There’s so much we haven’t said to each other.” She couldn’t keep making these mistakes. “Can we say what we mean, just once, and actually hear it?”

His throat struggled. His eyes were liquid. His head bobbed and for once, he didn’t seem to trust himself to answer.

She could breathe. “Tony, all I ever wanted was for you to be happy. Right now, I’d settle for you being alive.”

He covered his face. “Fuck.”

She sniffled. “I’m not apologizing.”

“Don’t—don’t you do that. Don’t you ever let me make you do that.” The heels of his hands were going so hard into his eyes, he must have been seeing stars. “I can count on one hand, fingers left, the number of people who actually give a shit about me. I need you to—I know you’re good at your job. You are phenomenal at your job, and that job was SI. Ninety-eight percent of the time, what was good for the company was good for me. I’m just a fucking idiot who got pissy at you for picking your job over your boss that other two-percent.”

“My asshole boss.” She corrected.

“Your asshole boss.” He agreed, and his head came up. For the first time, she saw the extent of the bruising, the jittering ticks. In some other universe, there existed a Pepper Potts that was as professional as she pretended to be.

There existed a Pepper Potts who was strong enough to ask if he’d relapsed.

Distant enough, but this wasn’t that universe. “What changed?” 

They were trying so hard not to be in the same zip code. Tony stared far past her. “Had some time to think. And, you know—Jarvis.”

“Jarvis.” It wasn’t a question so much as an affirmation. Because really: Jarvis.

He nodded bleakly. “J makes a mean case when he wants to.”

“He does that.” For a while, they drifted in that mutual understanding. “What now?”

The balcony was so small that their knees were together. The sun was gilt on their hair and nearly warm.

It was such a quiet morning.

“I want you back as my private PA. No SI involved. I’ll be paying you straight from my pocket: your benefits, your health insurance, your fucking shoe bill—whatever you want. Jarvis has the whip on my lawyers to get a contract together by tomorrow, and he’s getting money that I haven’t touched to hire you a lawyer to negotiate back. Whatever it takes, Potts. I mean it.”

It’s the most awful thing she’s ever experienced, completely wretched.

To be allowed to hope.

“I want to help you Tony, but this has to be—”

“Mine. I know. It’s my shit, and I’ll deal with it.” His mouth was a fissure. “Just let me sleep easy; it’ll be good to know you'll be going to the plate on my team. You know me. Greedy.”

“The very source of avarice.” She concurred, soft and with the city rushing on.

His eyes dropped to their feet; wrecked sneakers, bare skin. This was as strange new universe where Tony Stark was in her apartment and her face was plain, and she was finally allowed to hope for something good.

She let him be close without calling notice to it. There were other things that needed that, now. “It can’t be like it was before.”

“But I’m going to—”

She shook her head. “Not the drugs. How we treated each other.”

“That’s—” He rubbed the back of his head. “Was it that bad?” 

“We’d get angry at each other because the other wasn’t psychic. We never said what we thought, and I’d be awful to you and you’d be disproportionately awful back, or you’d manage it all on your own.” She took a breath. “I know you.”

He didn’t echo that sentiment. He couldn’t, but he did repeat: “Whatever it takes.”

“There’ll need to be new ground rules, and we’ll have to relearn a lot of things.” And rebuild. It’s be hard, messy, and they’d probably backslide more than once. The decision wasn’t easy, but it was made: “When do I start?”

His eyes swept shut, and Tony breathed as if he’d forgotten how. “How long’ll it take you to get changed?”

But where he’d forgotten, she remembered. “Twenty minutes.”

“Then in twenty-one minutes your trial period starts. There’ll be a signing bonus and back-pay,” He stood with guarded hands. “Hazard pay too, once you sign.”

“For…” His arm went across his ribs, and she knew. “I see.”

“Potts—when I come back. After.” It seemed to take everything of him to say: “If I fuck up again.”

His other hand hung at his side. He’d been so neurotic, lately. Quietly, very quietly, she stood beside him and let her hand hover near.

He angled his face away.

She turned her head towards the sun.

His hand drifted close, and she pressed her knuckles to his. He didn’t grip back, didn’t slide their hands together, but he met pressure with pressure.

They nudged together. They nudged apart.

“I just need you to try.” That was it. “And I’ll be there every step beside you.”

Oil and water and their gazes couldn’t meet. Tony followed the horizon, and within the space of his body, something malignant finally released.

He raised his head. “Then let's make it happen.”

Chapter Text

The plane was idling between hangers when their car pulled up, which was a blessing. Her brain wasn’t yet fully engaged in search and destroy mode enough, to have planned at shielding Tony getting on his plane looking like he’d washed out of a gutter.

This was a time when rumors would be needed to be killed with prejudice. And by god, though she might still be warming up, did she have plans.

“Did you tell anyone you were leaving?”

Tony’s every move was barbed with pain. “Besides Rhodey?”

Well. “I guess that’s what you have me for.”

“What,” He asked, “No, you’re shirking your duty? No, just think of the Board?”

She felt improbably sweet. “Tony?”

His expression turned hunted. “What?”

Sweet turned sweeter. “Fuck the Board.”

His jaw dropped. “Come again?”

“Fuck.” She enunciated. “The Board.”

“I think I just went a little weak in the knees.” He actually looked faint. “Hold me Potts, I’ve never felt closer to you.”

“Save it.” And she gently shooed him out of the car. “You go to Oregon and let me worry about how SI feels without the light of your presence.”

He grinned at her, the pain barely a ghost in his eyes. “And how will they feel?”

Her smile back was a knife. “However I tell them to.”

And just like that, they were up the stairs with a familiar hum washing through the cabin. The air itself was nearly a song. “Miss Potts, I had aspirations, but even I daren’t hope you’d be joining us so soon.”

Her heart jumped, because hello darling. “Mr. Stark was persuasive, for once.”

“For once?” Tony squawked.

Pepper paid him not the least bit of mind. And if that let him settle in without having to make eye-contact with her or the crew, wasn't that a bonus?

She was the very picture of aflutter. “I know how you like surprises, dear.”

“You are a fount of perpetual joy.” Jarvis agreed.

Tony interjected: “Do you two ever stop?”

They swiveled. “No.”

Their boss seemed stuck between outrage, resignation, and an uncontrollable surge of affection.

Pepper smiled wider. Jarvis made a noise like a thousand bells.

Tony spluttered and covered his face like he couldn’t even look at them.

/~/~/~/

In the end, all of it happened fast: the flight to Oregon, the check-in, the NDA’s they made her sign on both sides of the gate. The facility was deep into the redwoods and supposedly the only thing for forty miles. Her eyes had traced the walls, the discreet security setup, the cameras that only faced outwards. Tony had gotten out of the rental car under an enclosed overhang. It was good to know for the money they were shelling out, there’d be a certain level of discretion.

“Six weeks in, two weeks out, then another four in.” Tony almost seemed apologetic. “You know, with my sternum and all. It won’t be fully healed at the end of the first go, so I’ll need to come back to…” He wiggled his hand.

She understood; the opioid detox. It would be with perfect gladness that she’d send him back for another month, and Stark Industries could fucking weep for all she cared.

Jarvis clung to her through the Bluetooth, and Tony sagged into his chair. “I’ll have phone privileges back in sixteen days, and you can visit in a month. So. Yeah. That’s how it is.” His gaze darted aside. “If Rhodey can make it over that’s—great. If, you know, he can. Colonel Cuddles is busy.”

“Of course.” She might have been clinging to Jarvis, too. “Will that be all, Mr. Stark?”

His eyes met hers like the catch of a spark. “That will be all, Miss Potts, and J?”

She let him bleed through her: “Yes, Sir?”

“Keep the bots out of the kitchen, and don’t let the fabricators jam up, and if you could—” His throat struggled. “You already know; I don’t have to tell you.”

“Of course, Sir.” They said, and then: “Be well.”

“You too, buddy.” And their gazes broke. “You too, Potts. Be good while Daddy’s gone.”

She made a face. Jarvis let out an unintelligible noise. Tony’s lips pulled up, a little, and then the staff were ushering him up and through the doors.

He was gone a second later.

That walk back to the gate was long. Damp, dark-earth, the trees towering like colossals to the sky.

“Will he be alright?” Jarvis asked.

Their worry was the same, she knew, but so was their hope. “Someday.”

/~/~/~/

The first week dragged.

“Oh god.”

“I know if might be a bit…tumultuous.” Jarvis cautioned.

She stared around the Malibu House in growing horror. “Tumultuous?”

There had been one party here, maybe two. Five. Overturned tables, shattered glass, every partition and decoration shredded.

“Can’t hurt to put a positive face on it?” He tried.

Half the doors were off their hinges. Why were half the doors off their hinges? And some of the wall panels—jesus—had he been digging through the guts of the house? Knowing Jarvis was more in the walls than outside them, her stomach curdled. “Are you…?”

He didn’t need anything further. “I'm right as rain, Miss Potts. All you’re seeing are a few, ah—manual overrides Mr. Stark undertook.”

She couldn’t make sense of it. “Overrides of what?”

“House functionality.” Jarvis said breezily, as if that even attempted to explain why half the walls had been skinned to the wiring.

But that was a tone that would brook no further questions, and she grudgingly changed tack. “The artwork?”

“Three pieces may need restoration, but the rest are fine.” He hovered briefly. “The Yves is fine.”

And thank god for that. “Call the cleaning company; the after-party outfit and the weekly. I want everyone they have on hand, and then we’re taking the house top to bottom. After that, I want Tony’s contractors.” Because christ almighty would they need them.

A hesitance. “Just to be clear, the workshop will have to be handled separately.”

Shit. “Right. Get the bots on whatever they can be trusted to touch. Once the cleaners and contractors are out, I’ll go down to help.” There was too much in there either expensive, proprietary, lethal, or all of the above, to trust to anyone but team-them.

Expand. Contract. Expand, and Jarvis professed: “I am so happy that you’re back.”

She kicked a tray of half-eaten canapes aside. “I can hazard a guess why.”

“Such cynicism.” Theirs was a ruined kingdom, and yet he folded himself around her. “Shall we go to war, Miss Potts?”

Oh, darling.

She made a vicious sound. “Let’s.”

/~/~/~/

The tabloids were the tabloids. Of the days she’d been gone, there were only hints of the parties at Malibu, some blurb about Tony in a night club, a skin-piece and hackjob that seemed to come out every Tuesday when the news was slow.

Ultimately, there was no indication of what had occurred in her absence. There was not a single public fire for her to put out. She would have thought it considerate, if she’d thought that Tony had spared even a moment of foresight towards it.

He never thought that far.

Jarvis could have told her more, could have told her everything.

/~/~/~/

She never asked.

/~/~/~/

A heavily gilded box arrived that Friday.

She eyed it, and felt Jarvis eyeing her while she eyed it. “It has your name on it.”

“Which is why I’m suspicious.” Things with her name on them were highly suspect. “Who’d know to send me something in Malibu?”

The silence stretched.

Jarvis.” She crooned.

His mien was that of the indignant. “You’ll just have to open it and find out like every other person, won't you?”

In for a penny, in for a kick to the teeth.

She opened the box.

It was a watch. Gorgeous and Cartier, the face mother-of-pearl and ringed by diamonds. The band was held together by four interlocking rows of pink-gold pearls. It’s very throwback, Hollywood golden age. It was piece that wouldn’t be out of place on the wrists of Eva Gardner or Lauren Bacall or even Grace Kelly of Monaco herself.

Pepper shuddered to think of the cost.

Jarvis groused. “I told him no jewelry. Does he listen? Does he care? Am I shouting into the void with every breath?”

Her fingers went to the cardstock underneath. The lettering was embossed, but the words they contained were hardly so glossy.

Old fashioned piece for a girl who likes old fashioned. Have I ever made you an Old Fashioned? Ask me when I get back. (And, you know, sorry for being a dick.) – TS xoxoxoxo

God, Tony fucking Stark and all the ways he crumbled her.

“Did he actually put down hugs and kisses?” Jarvis asked in perfect anguish.

Every tide she’d been waiting for came inexorably in. “He did.”

“Lawsuits.” He despaired even more keenly.

“I’ll let it slide this once.” She took the watch off its velvet and let it encircle her wrist. It would never trump the bracelets Jarvis had made her, but every once and awhile a girl could wander to lesser idols. “How does it look?”

“Splendid, to all of our detriments.”

The pearling slid so coldly, and she knew: “How much did you help?”

He was not at all surprised. “I gave Mr. Stark the barest bones of the idea, then told him he had to make selections himself. I’d veto anything you’d actually hate, but beyond that…” He dove closer. “It’s the thought that counts, is it not?”

Her eyes felt a little damp, her insides a little soft. “If I hadn’t come back when he asked, was this his attempt to woo me?”

“I couldn’t say.” Jarvis shuffled. Waited. Hissed: “Possibly.”

She touched the face, the pearls, the inside of her wrist. “My lips are sealed.”

/~/~/~/

It was during the second week that the bots began to cry.

“They won’t stop.” Jarvis’s grumbled. “I have told them up, down, and sideways that it’ll be another month until Sir returns, and yet they persist.”

“I don’t think Tony’s ever been away this long.” She patted a sobbing flank, then reached over to bop Dummy’s claw before he took down an entire welding rig. “They’re lonely.”

“Aren’t we all,” He muttered. “But you don’t hear me caterwauling about it.”

“We can’t all be pictures of British virtue.” She didn’t feel lonely, not with Jarvis there beside her, but she’d never been in the Malibu house this long without Tony either. “You’ll have to find it in yourself forgive them. They’re babies; you know they can’t help it.”

He smoothed. “When you put it that way.”

She beckoned the sobbing bots towards her. “How'd everyone like a game?”

/~/~/~/

Her knees were bruised. She was laughing; she was laughing so hard she was crying. “Tag!” The flat of her foot smacked You right in the side, and she hurdled from the workshop table.

You screeched, hit the leg of the table, then nearly bowled over a chair in his effort to give chase. She dodged a reaching arm and vaulted another table. You hit it with a satisfying ka-chunk.

Dummy babbled and beeped. Laughter; itty-bitty baby-bot laughter.

Heaven save her from the adorableness of robot-kind.

You’s warcry became one of outrage, and he flung himself after Dummy instead. The laughter catapulted to a wail of alarm.

Pepper watched it all from her regained perch, and pretended not to notice Butterfingers trying to hide between the fabricators.

Jarvis shouted. “This is undignified!”

It was, and her bruises were beating time with her heart. “I know!”

/~/~/~/

The next Friday, a package arrived in silk and ribbon. She opened it without dread.

It was an Italian Fendi. A pinnacle of purse-kind. Dove gray leather, gold etchings, a touch gaudy in every glamorous swathe.

Cardstock fell neatly from butter-soft folds.

Jarvis said no red leather, and you look like a Fendi girl. Figured you could use a little help in carrying my baggage around. – TS

/~/~/~/

She worked and waited and worked. The list of the things she’d forgotten never seemed to shrink.

“I’m a horrible person.”

“Hardly.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I’m the only one who would know that.”

“But the Marines.” She whined.

“Will receive the packages you bestow them in due time.” And Jarvis rallied. “If they give you any lip, I’ll call them to the carpet. Mark my words. There will be a reckoning that likes of which—”

“They wouldn’t do that.” They were far too sweet, or...not quite that, but far too good-natured to ever think that badly of her. They wouldn’t blame her for being a little occupied and a little late on her promises to send—

Goddamnit. She sulked openly: “They wouldn’t do that.”

Jarvis’s smugness practically engulfed. “Then why all the fuss? Now stop fretting and think: what would Private Galarza would prefer, pretzels or sunflower seeds?”

It was bewildering the ease at which he could disarm. “Why not both?”

He paused. “Why not both.”

She tipped back and smiled upwards; why not indeed?

/~/~/~/

The care package ended up being less of a package and more of a crate.

Jelly beans, mints, beef jerky, gum, trail mix, dried fruit, nuts, hard packaged cakes, chips, canned tuna, peanut butter, individual wrapped licorice, freeze dried noodles, soup mix, mac and cheese, olives, pickles, peppers, microwave popcorn, cereal, granola, granola bars, and both the sunflower seeds and aforementioned pretzels. After those were jars of hot sauce; the dozen condiments in individual packets grouped by the bag. The instant coffee and cocoa mix and lemonade, and all of that on top of the six cases of Gatorade she’d bought.

Toiletries followed: deodorant, body wash, tooth paste, shaving cream, lip balm. A bit of fretting had her adding cough drops and Vicks and what might be enough sunscreen to drown a grown man.

Fight her. They each deserved everything that was nice.

After that wrapped in plastic were the magazines and newspapers, the cards and crosswords, the board games and books. She tried to get two in of each genre; tried to hazard if they’d want action or the furthest thing from. They were teenaged soldiers, but maybe they didn’t want to be reminded.

And if she’d slipped some skinmags in between the Maxim’s and GQ…let the military have fun trying to find those during inspection.

In the third layer went her SI gifts. Combat webbing, sunglasses, keffiyeh scarves, gloves, belts, goggles clear and tinted. Both sets were rated for small caliber rounds at point-blank range. At fifty yards out, there was a seventy percent chance of large caliber round deflection. The goggles had been one of Tony’s many pride and joys in the combat lines.

And really, she didn’t want her Marines getting shot in the head.

It was on the top layer, and under the heaviest padding, that she put the batteries and GameBoys and game cartridges. As many prepaid phone cards as she could fit into a standard envelope. Two portable DVD players; the multiple binders of DVDs she’d ordered and amassed by genre and then chronology.

Her cinema tastes were, at least, something she could share.

Before her private courtiers sealed the crate, she put in a letter ten pages thick with all their names on the front. She’d only been one-on-one with PFC Castle enough to have any idea what to write him, so a joint letter had been the order of the day.

She’d honestly thought she’d only fill a page. Once she started, even excluding sensitive details, she’d hardly been able to stop.

And if they chose to write her back separately, or at all—

They’d been kind enough to her already.

/~/~/~/

It was a shame when Stane and the Head of Development, plus all their accompanying underlings, swarmed to the gate. She’d been enjoying the covert hush. 

Some part of her had honestly hoped that everyone would somehow not notice Tony’s absence. God only knew when she’d regained such optimism.

“Jarvis, why are they sitting there?”

“Mr. Stark activated Lockdown Protocol before leaving.” He churned higher. “No unauthorized entries to the grounds.”

“So they can’t come through?”

“I am not authorized to allow entry.” And if Jarvis sounded far too sunny saying that, who was she to judge?

“But Mr. Stark has phone privileges back, I know you’ve been talking his ear off.” You could have gotten permission to lift it, she didn’t have to say.

But Jarvis was Tony’s creation, and had consequently never known shame. “And yet the Malibu House remains an island. Would you like me to turn Mr. Stane aside?”

She thought of saying yes for a long and unseemly moment.

In the end, stone clicking under her red-soled heels, she met the group at the gate. One of the underlings noticed her first and elbowed his boss, then everyone’s heads were swinging towards her like pack of hungry seagulls. It wasn’t a kind comparison to make, but kindness had been so distant lately.

She arranged herself. “Gentlemen.”

“Virginia.” Obadiah looked her top to bottom in a slow, searching pattern. “When did you come back on?”

She adjusted the pearling of her watch. “A few days back.” Nineteen, really, but who was counting?

If Obadiah was at all annoyed at how she’d avoided his calls during her brief spell of unemployment, he didn’t show it. He didn’t show anything but hard shoulders under a tailored jacket and that ever-slow flint. “Thank god for small miracles. I need to talk to Tony, can you get the gates up?”

“Even if I could get the gates up—which I can’t, Mr. Stane—it wouldn’t help you.”

His mouth pinched. “I know Tony’s upset, but this tantrum has gone on long enough. Let us in, Ginny.”

How she'd always hated the diminutive. “Mr. Stane, the House System controls the gates. I have zero input on that front. And to make a long matter short, Mr. Stark is away.” Her mouth felt sticky. “Would you like me to take a message?”

That finally knifed through. Tensed shoulders, less warmth, a hand grating across his skull. “Christ—fine. Just tell me where he’s fucked off to.”

Her head tilted. Hair spilled rust-red off her shoulder. “I’m not at liberty to disclose that information. Would you like to leave a message?”

The underlings stirred. The Head of Development looked so uncomfortable it was a wonder he didn’t flee.

A catch of the jaw; black in the eyes. “Virginia, Stark Industries needs—”

“Irrelevant.” The resulting silence was abrupt and horrified and lovely. She smiled with all her teeth. “I’m Mr. Stark’s Personal Assistant, personally paid. What Stark Industries needs or does not need, is of no concern to me.”

“Shit.” One of the underlings said.

Shit was the expression on every face.

Everyone but Obadiah, but he’d always been above such gauche arrangements. His entire approach flipped. The looming, the frustrated disappointed, so disappointed, I need you to help me Virginia effort sloughing right off his shoulders.

Always adaptable, Obadiah. She so intensely admired that of him.

Affable again, but more distant. “Do you have time to talk privately?”

She let it drag. Held it, and then: “I have time. Eleven tomorrow?”

If he wanted differently, he didn’t say. His nod was generous. “You can confirm with my secretary.”

And with that, Obadiah pivoted on heel and dropped into his car. The poor Head of Development and his flock were left holding the metaphorical bag.

When the dust cleared, she turned her most innocent smile on them. “Would you like to leave a message?”

/~/~/~/

That Friday, a box arrived.

Perfume. Gold and glass. Chanel No. 5.

You can never go wrong with the classics. – TS

/~/~/~/

Obadiah’s office was cool. Her dress was rime-blue. Her jewelry silver, her hair sleek and head high.

Obadiah was in black and chrome and a cool disinterest he carried so well.

Once their exact levels of power were clear, lines drawn and sharp as cut-glass, their work-relationship slotted back together.

Tony was in rehab. Tony would be out of reach. All attention would be redirected. Jarvis had plenty old schematics and half-baked plans to forward on to R&D to keep the employees clueless. Most of managerial could be placated by her, and anything else could be handled by Obadiah.

“What about the tabloids?” He asked as if she hadn’t considered it. “They’ll get hungry within the week. A few days past that, they’ll start to notice he's gone.”

They would; the tabloids were grubby little vultures that way.

“I’ll take care of it.” She rose then, her body a veritable decadence of Jarvis’ tastes and hard-frost and Chanel. “I have the best backup in the world.”

/~/~/~/

“Jarvis, darling, how’d you like to start a conspiracy?”

There was not one iota of hesitation. “Pray tell my dear, where do I sign on?”

/~/~/~/

She flew to Venice and got photographed getting into a limo, a dark-suited figure in sunglasses beside her. Tony Stark’s black Amex bought out an entire nightclub for a weekend and paid for every round.

Two different women declared to two different tabloids about their breathlessly debauched nights of passion with Tony Stark.

Pepper hadn’t even paid the second one.

Tony’s yacht went to sea. It was harried by photographers that only got the ever-loyal Virginia Potts, secretary in a bikini on the top deck. Sometimes they got a shadow of a man on camera, but only just.

(Poor Happy Hogan was sun-burned for a week. No one asked where he’d been to get it.)

There was a party at the Malibu House. Tony Stark welcomed the horde from the speakers from one end of the lawn to the other. If anyone noticed that Jarvis had dug that recording of Tony from a party eight months previous, no one dared to mention it.

/~/~/~/

That last Friday before they could see Tony, no box arrived for her.

Jarvis guided her down the workshop stairs.

It was Dummy the presented her the laptop. No brand, no serial number, just silver and sleek and quietly humming.

The screen flashed. The boot loader worked. One string of text stuttered and finally shined white.

Work smart, Potts, not hard. – TS

/~/~/~/

The weeks were fast but the days went slow, and yet before she knew it, she was ascending the jet's stairs. It was only a visit, she was hauling a metric ton of paperwork with for Tony to sign, and yet.

Jarvis bubbled. She bounced on her toes.

And yet—

“Miss Potts,” He rang clear. “A call for you.”

She skipped the last stair. “Who?”

“And ruin the surprise?” Jarvis spun the line over. It went scratchy; a ten-thousand-mile distance.

“Ma’am?” PFC Castle asked from a world away.

Her smile bloomed. “Private, it’s so good to hear your voice. What’s the occasion?”

“Uh—just got your gifts, Ma’am. Wanted to say thanks. This a bad time?”

“I’m on a plane for the next hour.” And the December air was drinking like champagne. “I’m all ears.”

“Well, you know—I just wanted to say that, uh, we’re really—”

More static. “Hey, if you’re gonna fuck it up that bad to our main lady, put me on. You asshole. C’mon, why don’t you—” Galarza, full-throttle. A scuffle.

Castle again. “I will slit your god damned throat—"

The receiver passed hands. “Sorry, Ma’am.” Kenning muttered.

It took everything of her not to laugh and burst open. “Do I have all of you?”

“Yessma’am.” Decuir called. “That was some real nice stuff you sent us.”

“I was happy to.” There was more scuffling, more swearing, and her heart was full and filling still. “Now tell me honestly, how’s Afghanistan treating you?”

Chapter Text

Sunstone glistened beneath the water, yellow and lucent and flecked red. It gave the stream bed an otherworldly glow.

Tony smiled at her from the terrace above. “Do mine eyes deceive me?” And she watched his every movement as he stood. No wincing, no catches, no slip-shear of bone.

What a difference a month could make, and she stepped into his arms. “Do they, Mr. Stark? Should I refer an optometrist?”

“And here I was happy to see you.” He didn’t quite hug her, just pulled her into a half-clinch with palms cradling her elbows and hers in mirror. She pressed her thumbs to the softness where his arms hinged.

He didn’t twitch away.

She dimpled at him. “I live to serve.”

He sighed again, no weight behind it, and his expression was too damn soft. Clear irises. Unblemished skin. Crow’s feet crinkling at the eyes.

It was more than a little devastating.

They parted gently and sat. He passed over a cranberry-oat smoothie and then picked up his own. They drank in tandem. Every few seconds, they shared a furtive glance. Maybe there’d come a day that this'd be easier. Her hopes were slim, but there they were.

With careful hands, she set down the glass and opened her bag. Paperwork spilled across her knees. Tony looked more resigned than surprised. “Remind me again why I asked you to visit.”

“You possess a deep wellspring for masochism.”

He gaped. “Stop saying insightful things like that. It hurts me. Spiritually.”

She gazed back, utterly doe-eyed. “Your spiritual well-being is all I strive for.”

Affection flash-quick. Tony swooned backwards. “Finally, my immoral soul is in safe hands. How I ever survived before this day—”

“Hush.”

His arm, artfully thrown across his eyes, lifted a sliver. “Is that surrender I hear?”

“You can hear whatever you like. It’s a free country.”

She shuffled the paperwork, and Tony’s arm immediately dropped back down. “So you claim.”

“Well…” She stared down at her lap, at the mess, and felt an unfamiliar mercy. “You don’t have to work on this right away. I’m staying the night.” There was no reason to rush when she'd be leaving at the same hour regardless. She angled her legs away and tipped the entire pile back into her bag.

He jolted upright. “Hey, look, I didn’t mean—”

She didn’t bother trying to smother the fondness. “It’s fine. It can wait for dinner or breakfast tomorrow.”

“Uh—right.” He swallowed. “Thanks.”

The eye contact was getting too intense, too engaged. Her gaze skittered sideways. “You’re welcome. Just—I only brought what couldn’t wait. It’s not like I’m trying to…” She wasn’t sure what she could have been trying.

“I’ll get to it before you leave. You got it." And he breathed sharply and scrubbed hard through his hair. “How're the kids?”

She latched to it. “Jarvis is fine. Not fine that they won’t let electronics past the intake rooms and that you’re out of sight, but he’s not bellyaching about it.” Much. “The bots…we haven’t been able to explain it to them in a way they understand, but I’ve been able to cheer them up.” For a certain definition of cheered when it came to a herd of sulky bots parted from their creator.

His brows climbed. “And you’ve been managing this how?”

Was that doubt?

“Oh, you know. Games, attention, that sort of thing.” Endless rounds of tag, the bots trying to mirror her doing Yoga, some surprisingly difficult games of hide and seek. Who would have known that they could use the service elevator without help?

Finding Dummy in Tony’s closet under a pile of suits had been a picture-worthy surprise.

“That’s good of you.” He said, so soft it couldn’t be anything other than sincere.

She really didn’t know what to do with that, either. “It was fine. Fun.” She’d cried with laughter more than once, and that was such a rare thing.

His mouth curled fondly. “And how about you?”

She blinked. “How about me?”

“How are you doing? C’mon, Potts, I know I raised you to social graces.”

She scoffed outright, but her face kept heating. Suddenly, she was crossing her ankles and compulsively fixing her hair. “I’m good.”

Never had a man been so unimpressed. “Really? That’s all you’re giving me?”

Her eyes narrowed. “The house was a shitshow and the bots cried for a week and I found a bag of coke in a toolbox.”

He winced.

But that wasn’t all of it. “I had Jarvis for company and the days were mostly quiet. We put everything back together and kept SI from trying to self-immolate.” She paused. “I made a middle-manager cry.”

And regret became unholy glee. “Please tell me it was Rosenstein.”

She fluffed her hair. “Mckellan.”

“Even better.”

It had been. The Accounting Department wouldn’t even whisper in her presence now, lest she take another of their number and strike them down. If it was up to Pepper, hers would be a figure of permanent terror by the time the year was out.

Tony reached for her but faltered halfway. She didn’t speak, and his hand wavered. There was a tremor there. Still.

A west wind blew. The trees swayed and sighed. He reached the rest of the way and touched her chair but not her knee. “Atta girl, Potts.”

/~/~/~/

At dinner, she adjusted the loops of pearls around her wrist.

Tony’s face was like a firework. “Got an admirer?”

The diamond edging was smooth. “More of a supplicant to my mercy.”

He chivied near. “And how’s clemency looking?”

How indeed? And truthfully: “It’s on the horizon.”

And it left the air softer between them.

Tony leaned back—hands behind his head—fingers linking and shoulders broad and teeth so very sharp. Arms easy, body easy. Not a word in protest. “We should do something when I get back, you and me. Bond.”

She parried. “You and Jarvis and I. If you’re nice.”

“Sold.” The confidence was breathtaking. “What’ll it be? Fancy dinner? Fancy theater? Buy us an art gallery?”

He always left her windswept, like this. “Let’s aim a little lower. Movie?”

The walls of the guest cottage were far too small to contain him. “I could do that, but what would we even agree on?”

As if something so pedestrian would stop her. “What’s your opinions on Steve McQueen?”

And Tony’s grin was the slow knife. “You, me, J, and the venerable Steve McQueen? I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

/~/~/~/

The air was alive. Crescendoing. An orchestra tuning up, and Jarvis was ever the conductor. “Look alive, Miss Potts!”

“I don’t think I can get more alive than alive, dearest.”

He harrumphed. The air conditioner kicked over. Every vent swiveled and sounded off.

There was a clicking like snapping fingers, and she tried not to swat empty air. “What do you even want? For me to do a jig? Put on bells?”

The clicking sharpened. “That wouldn’t be remiss.”

Fret, fret, fret. Each light flickered on-off-on. A dozen window panes rippled like the scales of a great beast. Jarvis was not the Malibu house. He wasn’t, and she knew that.

And yet.

Her bones felt fragile; swallowed whole. There was Jonah and the whale, and then there was her in the Leviathan.

A shiver rippled. “Whatever you say, darling.”

The walls hummed and Jarvis swarmed upwards and flooded downwards and wrenched in. He settled on her head lighter than a halo. “I’m sorry, Miss Potts. Forgive my ghastly disposition.”

“We’re all anxious about Tony coming back.” Even if it was only for two weeks before the next cycle of rehab kicked in. But still, he’d be here. Home. The bots chittered and burbled as they circled. Another door slammed in the house. Dummy yelped in alarm, and Butterfingers nearly crashed into her side.

Jarvis sighed. “That’s no excuse for my being so terribly rude.”

“No.” It wasn’t. “But I’ll forgive you just this once.”

Another stir of glass; a curve of space. “I’ll count myself among the lucky.”

He should, most at SI certainly couldn’t claim the honor. She patted at Butterfingers casing and then tried to call You out from behind a couch. The halo spun, dizzying, like sparks in her eyes and the pulse in her skin and then—

“He’s here.”

Air fizzed. Sunlight shattered. She breathed a painful rhythm.

The front door opened.

Tony stepped in with Rhodes at his shoulder, both of them looking so damn good. It’d been so nice of the Colonel to go up for three straight days and then bring him home. She’d have to get the man a fruit basket. Of alcohol. Fruity, fruity alcohol.

Rhodes flipped a hand in salute.

The house contracted like a breath held.

And Tony threw open his arms. “Daddy’s home!”

/~/~/~/

“You promised pad thai.”

“I promised you no such thing. Butterfingers, sweetheart, come here.”

In response, Tony tried to cuddle all three of the bots to himself. Which, rude.

“Stop trying to steal my children.”

“Your children are blocking my sight-line of the TV.”

“They are doing no such thing.”

Before the needling could escalate, Rhodes swatted You’s claw away and dropped on the couch between them. “I ordered ribs.”

“That is the exact opposite of what I asked for. Jarvis, did I not say pad thai? Have I screamed myself hoarse?”

Jarvis coasted along the ceiling. “I’m afraid you did not make an affirmative request to the ordering, Sir. It was more of a…nebulous remark.”

“Why are you rules-lawyering me like this? What did I ever do to you?”

“Shall I get out the laundry list, Sir?”

Rhodes licked his finger and made a tally on the air.

Tony scoffed. “Bite me.”

Rhodes smirked. “I was only thinking of you, Tony.”

“Lies.”

“When do I not—”

Lies.”

Abruptly, the Lieutenant Colonel’s attention turned on her. How was a girl to live.

He grinned so slow. “How you doin’?”

She made a breathy sound. Jarvis smacked against the ceiling.

Tony sputtered. “Don’t you how you doin’ my secretary, Rhodes. I will wipe your name from the earth and salt your fields and hear the lamentations of your women and baby officers.”

Star-struck, she tucked her hand in Rhodes' outstretched one. “Personal assistant.” She corrected.

Rhodes oh so solicitously cupped his palm over hers and murmured: “I thought of you every day. My heart was always with you. All I could dream about was Malibu and that first meal we’d get to share.”

He wasn’t talking to her at all.

She clutched her throat. “Oh, Lieutenant Colonel. There wasn’t an hour that I didn’t think of you.”

But she wasn’t talking to Rhodes, either.

Behind them, Tony’s face flamed. It was something she’d never witnessed. It was jaw dropping.

Rhodes lifted their palms and mimed a courtly kiss upon them. “You’re a champ, Potts.”

She plucked her hand away. “And you’re a peach.”

Static burst like a rain cloud overhead, and Rhodes turned with an alarmingly predatory grin.

Tony looked poleaxed. “I…what?”

“Nothin’.” Rhodes crooned. “Don’t worry about it.”

Even a month ago, Pepper would have left the room then, would have let them to be together while she and Jarvis cloistered. Rhodes was Tony’s friend, and she’d always known where she shouldn't be. She’d never wanted more, not even once.

That lent a dreamy sort of strangeness to her toeing off her heels and nestling back. To her gathering Butterfingers to be her footrest while Tony and Rhodes bickered on and on.

“Enough chatter, gentlemen.” Jarvis censured. “The food is forty minutes out, and Bullitt is ready to watch.”

Tony cleared his flustered throat. “Ready whenever. Do the thing.”

Jarvis did the thing. The TV lit.

Surreptitiously, she flicked her eyes upwards and patted the couch. There was a rush, a squeeze, and then the space beside her hummed like a livewire. Jarvis whispered into the cradle of her neck. “All settled, Pepper?”

Heat and pulse and her thighs squeezed tight. She was furthest thing from settled when she answered: “Close enough.”

/~/~/~/

“Morning.”

She tried not to look surprised. “Mr. Stark.” And felt Jarvis vanish from her side. She couldn’t decide whether she appreciated the distance.

Tony didn’t buy the lack of reaction. “It’s the facility hours, don’t look too shocked.” 

Jarvis called down. “Good Morning, Sir.”

The light coming into the breakfast nook was pink and gauzy from the sea. Tony looked so human in it. “Morning, buddy.”

She played nonchalant for all she was worth. “You’re keeping the rehab's sleep-hours, then?”

He set the pair of wine glasses he’d brought with on the table. “It was a bitch and a half getting on their schedule. No point in fucking it up when I’m back in two weeks.”

Something inside her was bruised and blooming. “Your prerogative. Now what are we drinking?”

He offered a glass. “Virgin mimosas.”

“That’s literally orange juice.”

He took a pitiful sip. “Let a man dream, would you?”

She could. For a while, the air was cool and the orange juice cooler, and Jarvis like a veil across the wind. She was so busy trying to lean into that familiar hum, that Tony stole three of her scones before she noticed.

It was a peace she was truly loathe to break. “There’s something I wanted to talk to you about.”

Tony very carefully put down a fourth. “That’s ominous.”

She'd thought on this for weeks, made lists, made presentations. Binned the presentations, fretted, and then thought some more. There was no point in dawdling further. “When we fight—not before, but now. When we do it again.”

“We won’t…” He didn’t bother trying to finish that absurd claim.

“We will. That it happens isn’t a sin, but how we handle it matters.” She just wanted them to get this right. “You can think about this when you’re away. I was hoping we could agree that when we do fight, if it gets to the point of yelling that one of us walks away. Take an hour, a day, however long we need to cool down. Jarvis agreed that if we really can’t talk without it devolving to screaming, he’ll help up compose our arguments in written format. Though he does have veto power on ending the argument if one of our sides is actually stupid.” That level of idiocy had been known to happen, sometimes even to her.

“I do.” Jarvis agreed loftily. “And I’ll use my power with utmost care.”

She couldn’t meet Tony’s eyes. His hand spasmed. “…okay. That’s not—that’s not asking too much.”

“Yeah,” She'd never felt this muddled. “And there should be a time limit. Three days, a week, whatever. But we need to talk things out. And if one side refuses, that side concedes. We just—I need to know that it’ll be better. That we’ll be better.”

“We will.” His knuckles were pale. “I’m giving you my word; we’ll get it right.”

It was something, maybe even a starting point, and her breath fled sharply. It hurt, but not in a way that lingered. “Thank you.”

He shrugged. “It’s on the house; don’t worry about it.”

There was no point in trying to play casual. “Two other things.”

Tony grimaced, and she hurried: “It’s not bad. I’m…I just wanted to say that I sold my stock.”

His entire face spasmed. “What?”

“I sold my SI shares.”

“You didn’t have to—why did you do that? That was yours, you could have kept it. That wasn’t in the contract!” Tony glared up. “Jarvis, that wasn’t in her contract, right?”

“It wasn’t, Sir.” He pacified. “But you should really hear Miss Potts out.”

His gaze snapped back across the table and compared to the intimacy, it was perfectly easy now to stare him down. “Tony, the stock-thing bothered you. You wouldn’t have brought it up so many times if it didn’t. I wanted this to be as clean a start as we could make it. No split loyalties.”

“Shit,” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “If you want that—I won’t stop you. But you could have kept…”

“I made up my mind.”

His jaw clicked shut, and that was one thing down. “The other's not huge. I was going to tell you in Barcelona, but…” Her hand flicked open; swirled as if to encompass the sheer utter fucking madness that trip had devolved to.

Don’t remember. Don't hold on.

“Don’t let me stop you.”

She sighed. “The clothes.”

He blinked once. “The clothes?”

“The Versace I’ve been wearing? The Prada?”

“Umm…it’s very nice? You look a vision?”

Jesus. “I haven’t been skimming money from you to get my wardrobe, alright? Jarvis is buying it for me.”

There was a whisper; a churn above. Tony gawped. “What?”

“I wanted you to know—that I wasn’t. Doing that. So.”

He seemed at a loss. “I didn’t say that you were?”

She glared.

“But maybe I did.” He hastily conceded. “So I take it all back. No harm, no nothing.”

And all her resolve wilted. This thing she’d been holding onto so long, this thing she’d been shaken by, and Tony clearly didn’t remember it. Not the accusation. Not the venom. Not the doubts he'd lobbed like grenades.

She didn’t know if that made things better or worse.

And Tony was still bewildered. “But why is Jarvis buying you clothes?”

The wilting became a burn. “It wasn’t like I tricked him into it!"

"I wasn't saying that! I—"

She cut through. "Jarvis wanted to, why else would he have—”

And in Tony’s face, she saw panic.

Why would he—because he wanted to, why else would he have—

A meteor skimmed the horizon and fell.

“Tony,” Her insides were glass. “Why would Jarvis want to buy me clothes?”

The panic was naked now, and Tony scrambled: “Because you’re great, and you’d look great? I jumped to conclusions about the buying-thing. I realize that, and we can put that all behind us now and—”

“Tony.” A meteor fell. “Why would Jarvis want anything?”

Shuttering. Walls. Clammed up so tightly she almost believed it when he said: “I’ve got no idea what you’re asking.”

The house whispered and chilled to silence.

Pepper jack-knifed straight past hysteria. “Don’t lie to me!” 

Impact. Nails scrabbling, wrenching, burns down her arms and oh god, oh god, how could she have been so fucking stupid not to—

Tony had her hands in a vice. “Please stop. Just for a minute, I need you to stop.”

Her mind stutter-shrieked. Vertigo. Bile like blood like terror. “Tony, why would Jarvis want?”

Entire universes were breaking; entire fucking gulfs between data points and programs, and a person who could bleed and hurt and hurt. It spread like a cancer; lattes and heels and Givenchy skirts, well timed jokes and sweet murmurs and endless laughter, fear and heat and pressure and pain and pain and—

“Jarvis is—” Tony sucked in a breath. Her entire world was hanging by a thread, and he tried: “An Interactive System, he’s—”

There must have been champagne in the glasses. Must have, because she had to be drunk and out of her fucking mind. Her fingers gripped Tony’s so tightly the bones in her hand bent.

And she knew: “Liar.”

The dam broke. “You can’t tell anyone. If anyone—fuck, if anyone knew what he can do—they’d want me to make little baby people to sell, and I can’t. You know that, I know that you know that. I can’t let them have him, and I can’t let them know that I can make him.”

Her head was in pieces, one here and one there, one down in the workshop and one left in LA. There was a piece in the ocean she was never getting back. There was one here, somewhere, in the walls and the wires.

Breakup on reentry. Gravity-death, and she asked: “Jarvis?”

And there was silence, one long and hesitating silence. And that was an answer all unto its own because a System. Wouldn't. Hesitate.

Jarvis slipped across the event horizon. “I am as Mr. Stark made me.” AI, he doesn’t have to say. Thinking, growing, feeling.

Bleeding.

Miles and miles and blood and miles; spilling and churning and she remembered them all.

She pried Tony’s hands away.

“Potts,” And he chased her. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, but you have to stop and—”

Quietly, she picked up her glass and took it to the kitchen counter.

“Miss Potts.” Jarvis tried.

She was wearing her birthday heels today. Blue, nearly electric, five-inch daggers that put her eye to eye with anyone. Except.

A shard of glass. A quiet sound.

“Pepper.” Jarvis whispered.

She didn’t want to cry. She didn’t want to scream. She didn’t know what it was to want, what she could even want for, anymore.

She breathed. She screamed without air. She breathed.

She was numb. “I’m going home.”

The whites were visible in Tony's eyes. “Just stay and talk. We can work this out. I can fix this, I promise, whatever needs to happen, I can—”

“I’m going home.” She was numb, and the cancer was chewing through her stomach and lungs with teeth to the marrow. It was rising; it was on her tongue. “Don’t burn down the fucking house while I’m gone.”

And Tony stopped dead. The speakers crackled.

She moved; kitchen, hallway, sunroom, hallway, entry, front door. For a moment she thought Jarvis wouldn’t open it, but he did. With a quiet sweep and breaking noise, he did, and that’s what left her caught. Half into the morning with sweat on her skin.

Half inside with the wound still weeping.

“Please.” Jarvis asked, and it was such a fragile sound.

She pulled out her Bluetooth—her lifeline, her anchor—and set it on the entry table. It was like a severing. Blue lights glittered and her head lifted to meet a thousand eyes. The eyes of a thing alive.

A man alive.

In the walls, the wires, the air.

The sound.

One miserable tear burned down her cheek, and she begged. “Please.”

Lights. Blue. Silence. An echo of everything she'd yearned.

He didn't say another word, and it was such a fragile pact.

She grafted it to her heart and stepped through the door.

Chapter Text

Her hands wouldn’t stop shaking.

Her mind was drifting, the tide cold on her feet, and all she could think was: the shaking won’t stop.

Blue heels dangled from her fingers. Some part of her, with every step she cut parallel, imagined that this would be the moment her hands finally slacked and she lost them to the waves.

It seemed so inevitable, that she was surprised every moment to still have them in her hands.

Those were a gift made to be worn, and I’d like it if you’d—

Another wave crested at her knees, and she clutched the stilettos tight.

The ocean retreated. An old longing stirred. She wanted to swim and knew this feeling; the punishment and yearning that it held. The Pacific was barely fifty degrees warm. Without an insulated wetsuit, twenty yards in her going into shock would be assured.

Some part of her wanted it anyways. But that part of her always wanted it, and she knew well enough by this age to tell it to shut the hell up.

Another wave. Another tide. The sand slipped away.

It hurts, doesn’t it? To become?

Jarvis had told her; that was the hardest part. He’d said it outright, and all this time could have been so different if she’d just—

And all this time could have been different if Jarvis had just shouted the truth. Could have, but he hadn’t. And now that she could read every little nuance into him—that it didn’t make her a basket case to try—what had stopped him? Had he been ashamed? Had Tony forbidden it? Had there been some risk beyond the obvious that she still didn’t fully understand?

Had he not wanted her to know?

Two years. Six months. A handful of days; this time and distance she and Jarvis had shared. Something shivered in her skin, and the quietest of her doubts grew. That in all of this, each moment, every sweet word and shy glance and breathless ache—

That Jarvis had never trusted her at all.

I’m not crazy. And it was funny. Almost

I’m not crazy. She knew, and she wasn’t. I’m just the stupidest person alive.

/~/~/~/

By the time the sun reached zenith, whatever had been driving her had taken its fill. Pepper collapsed into the sand and laid there with the full knowledge that with her cell phone abandoned and her who-knows how many miles up the beach, neither Tony nor Jarvis could find her. Could call her. Could hear her heart spilling from her mouth.

Her throat worked. Salt, brine, bile. She wanted to roll over and sleep, and it was a familiar urge.

But Pepper told that part of her that always wanted that, to also shut the hell up. For once in her goddamn life she needed to deal. Like some kind of functional adult who could handle their baggage and every revelation aiming for the teeth. If she had to do one more, early-morning storming out of Malibu, she was going to stab someone. Things had never been easy, but they’d never been this awful.

This close to strangling her. Christ. 

She counted breaths, waves, clouds. Her mind stayed empty for a time. Then, as if in pure spite of that, she wondered if Jarvis was an AI and had always been an AI—what did that make the bots?

Hey, Potts, how are my kids?

Jesus bleeding christ on earth—she covered her face and made a dying sound. Tony was the most blatant, brazen, lying son of a bitch who had ever lived, and how could she have been this dumb.

Another breath wheezed out, and at least the shock was coming off. It may have left a chasm brimming with anger and mortification behind it, but hey, her brain was totally running. All systems up. And how did that even work for Jarvis, anyways? Being that aware of your own brain—was he that aware? Could he choose? Did the things she’d fought with all her life, every fear and doubt and endless compulsion, could he just delete his own?

She paused on that, the loveliness of it; being able to kill one’s ghosts so cleanly.

Slowly, her hands drifted and fell to the sand. What was it even like? Being the only one so completely alive, so perpetual without blood or skin.

The brine in her skirts draped heavy. Sand clung to her neck. The stupidity clung tighter, and humiliation made its grip. If there was one thing she’d ever allowed herself to prize, it’d been her intelligence, and look at her now.

Beautiful and smart; enough people had lobbed it. Peers, professors, colleagues, strangers. As if the beauty came first and the intelligence was an afterthought; as if she’d been lucky to have the first and the latter became a bonus trifle.

She was vain. She liked couture. She liked being seen and liked being seen (in every lens she could catch in flux). Her mind had always been the secret, the knife. The driving force that had gotten her wherever she wanted to be. The beauty had been a veil over it all, and she hadn’t regretted that either.

But Jarvis’s mind had been the knife, too. She’d been blessed. Smart and beautiful, her parents had said.

She didn't feel either, now.

Jarvis had lied, and she’d skimmed over that without even a flicker of doubt. She’d let him in and let him close, and had spilled every ugly, wretched secret she’d ever born. Pepper knew herself. If she’d known the truth—what was the point of lying? She would have never let Jarvis in so far.

Let a man slip that far.

(Let someone who could take her heart from her chest sink behind her ribs with such liquid ease.)

There’d been a safety there; a person not a person. A confidant that couldn’t judge. Couldn’t feel sorry for her. Couldn’t find her ugly and petty and vicious to the last. And that was the humiliation; she knew herself. Stupid and ugly.

She hadn’t been allowed the choice of shielding herself; of the knowledge or the consequences or the chance to escape. It was a deliberate deprivation. Would she have become close with Jarvis, if she’d known there was someone to be close to? Maybe. Would the crush have still developed? Without a doubt.

Would the crush have become—

The pain was still rising. That she’d been so unguarded made her sick with fear. That’d she’d been unprepared and blind, more so. And beneath that was still a root horror. The sun prismed. Glittered. Something damp slipped into the sand.

She’d spent all these years feeling so achingly lonely, and they’d let her.

/~/~/~/

And that was the thing, she knew, that’d be the hardest to forgive.

/~/~/~/

Her thoughts got messier by the hour. Miserable. Her heart was racing one way and her brain another, and for every hurt she felt, there was always another on its heels.

The worst were the ones she felt for Jarvis.

All these months, and he’d known she hadn’t seen him as a person: as a living being in binary if not breath. He’d let her prattle on and on while only superficially acknowledged his own needs in return, and it was just—

God, what did he think of her? What could he think of her? Just taking and taking and calling him her friend, without ever having the full context to ever truly mean it?

She felt sick in an entirely new way.

If he’d thought she was an idiot this whole time—christ. That was absurd; she knew him better. Even if she hadn’t fully understood his situation, she had understood him. Jarvis would never think so wretchedly of her no matter what she did.

(She hoped that with all her heart and a heaving desperation.)

What was more likely, was Jarvis being the one ashamed and upset and rejected. Unable to reach out and unable to ever take her words fully in. Always doubting and second guessing and nursing every quiet pain until—

She shouldn’t have been surprised that was realization that sent her bursting into tears.

 /~/~/~/

Panic came in the dimming hours.

Jarvis had bought her clothes, given her credit cards, had hacked security nets to follow her everywhere she beckoned. He'd played the stock market and made shell companies and false identities, and could move money in ways that she’d never even heard of. He hacked their competitors on a lark and rifled through intelligence lines and could cut through most firewalls like they were not but a dream.

One night, sweat-soaked and bathed in fire at the heart of July, he’d spoken of state secrets and classified missives and of knowing. In the echo of that, she’d understood that he was guiding state-sponsored hands so delicately on the way to slitting throats.

Something like Jarvis—someone like Jarvis—any government on earth would kill to have him.

And if they couldn’t?

Fear took her, scalp to soles and thundering through the body. Here at last was something she and Tony could share: bone deep, cold-blooded terror that somebody would find out and tell.

/~/~/~/

She forgave them a little, then.

/~/~/~/

Night came. A chill climbed; teeth chattering and feet numbed as the wind reminded her: December.

With one last push she dragged herself into her car, flipped the ignition, and slammed the heat to full. It was only when her muscles stopped jumping that she looked to her phone in the passenger seat. It was in four neat pieces: body, back, battery, SIM.

Dead.

Jarvis had never really confirmed it, but she’d suspected for years that when the phone was on, he was listening from it. From virtually the first weeks of their acquaintance, she’d been made fully aware that it functioned as both a microphone and GPS-tag on her.

She stared at the phone longer, prodding: pushing at her emotions like a tongue to a loose tooth. Strangely, she felt not a shred of hurt.

Unsuspecting emotional intimacy—that had apparently been one thing, but the listening? It didn’t even merit a twinge. It was clear the part of her that had been completely besotted with Jarvis, had subconsciously known the score. When it came to her phone, she’d treated it as the equivalent to inviting Jarvis into a room. If she’d brought it with her, she’d brought him with her. It was hard to get upset to somebody listening to one’s conversations when one had invited them to sit pillion.

Three months into starting the job, Jarvis had sat her down to discuss privacy settings. She’d never set hers above the zero baseline of let's live on top of each other.

Her shaking slowed and receeded.

When it came to the phone, to the listening, that was apparently that. Her gaze found the interstate beyond the dunes. Tony knew where she lived, and for every part of her that hoped he’d give her distance, there was another part that fully expected him to be waiting on her doorstep. Wherever she went from here, it couldn’t be home.

She threw the car into gear and drove.

/~/~/~/

In a parking garage, she reassembled her cell and flipped it on. The number of missed calls was downright staggering. 

Tony, Tony, Tony, Tony, TonyTonyTonyTony—

The screen was blue. Her GPS was on. She waited in the concrete and cold grit with slip-smears of neon on her breath.

Jarvis had to know the phone was on, and she waited and still didn’t call. She’d asked for distance and had to know.

Know if he’d respect her in this.

Half an hour passed, screen burning, the traffic of LA rushing on and ever on. The glow stayed blue. She wrapped her phone in a sweater, shoved the mass of it into her bag, and walked. 

/~/~/~/

The hotel duvet had turned down beautifully. Uselessly, perhaps, but she could at least admire the spread. Her brain hadn’t stopped chattering and the bed had given her little more than a place to lay while the sheer weight of a two and a half year relationship getting completely re-contextualized folded her in half.

It should have been obvious the first time he’d made a joke. Hell, one bit of situationally-appropriate-sarcasm should have rung the alarms. Jokes were incredibly subjective and entirely contextual, and there was no programmable formula to being funny. Each quip had implied such a breadth of creative thought and linguistic awareness, that they should have smacked her in the face that this was a mind awake.

The first time he laughed should have been holy revelation.

(Nothing was automatic for him, was it? Instinctual? Did he choose to laugh, craft the sound, make sure every time that she’d understand exactly how he felt?)

It was just—if he’d been born any sooner, any bit earlier, things would have been so much clearer. If he’d been younger and not made in the virtual cybernetic stone-age that was 1988, maybe she would have guessed.

How on earth Tony had managed to create an Artificial Intelligence in the era of 8-megabyte RAM was absolutely brain-melting. She couldn’t comprehend it. There had to be something simpler to Intelligence and birth than any of them had ever known.

There had to be something horrendously, unspeakably difficult in it, if fourteen years later Jarvis was still the only one on earth.

She didn’t understand it. All of this. Anything.

By 2AM, the wet bar was beckoning. There existed a difference between drinking while having problems and drinking at her problems, and with a sinking notion she knew this was definitely the latter.

It was on the nights like this that she really hated how alcohol had been ruined for her.

In the end she cast the vodka one last yearning glance and retreated to the shower. At ten past three in the morning, she broke down for pay-per-view and put on To Have and Have Not while toweling dry. The suffering was going to last and if she was going to traverse, by god, it was going to be while watching Humphrey Bogart looking ridiculously attractive with a cigarette between his lips.

Her brain went to static for a little while. Head hurting, throat aching; the wet bar still lurking in the corner of her eye.

Right around when Bacall slid into Bogart’s lap—Pepper's thumb rubbing absently at her thigh—the world was buzzing and almost pleasantly indistinct. Onscreen they leaned in for the kiss, and she trailed her palm higher not thinking of anything but how nicely that must have felt. Warm, solid, uncomplicated pressure.

Old films like this made the embraces so implicatory. See a kiss and think: my god, the sex. And all on the lap of a tall, dark stranger. Want and weight. Her own hand trailed higher, skin to skin with the memory of—

Fuck. Jesus. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

The memory crashed open like a thunderhead. The tide, the red, the gold dress pooling to the floor. Early dawn and punishing heat and the fever-dream of an engine. Rocking, sweat caustic, her hand slipped between her thighs to try—

Adrenaline detonated. The remote hit the floor. She grabbed the nearest pillow, buried her face in it, and wailed.

Holy god on every earth she’d masturbated in front him.

She was going to die, her heart was going to punch out her ribs and she was absolutely going to die.

“Ohmygodohmygodohmygod—”

Had he seen? He hadn’t said anything until she’d left the bedroom. But talking to her in bed was a thing, so clearly something had thrown him off and—oh blessed christ he’d seen her. Half under the sheets, back bare, hand between her stomach and the mattress and drawing every breathless sigh. Sweat, red light, skin.

Feverish. Dreaming. Blood in her thighs in her throat in her—

Oh my god.”

She was never going back. She was moving to Kuala Lumpur and never going back.

Christ, breathe, breathe it through. Breathe.

He couldn’t have known. Pepper wasn’t a talkative girl. All he’d heard was breath and body while catching an eyeful. He couldn’t have known the whole display had been over him, that she felt—

Pepper very slowly took the pillow from her face.

The flirting had been going on for such a long time, and her with full intent behind it. But him?

Adrenaline writhed. They’d flirted, there was no other word for it, but she wasn’t sure if he’d known they were doing so. She wasn’t even sure he’d understood what flirting implied.

Do androids dream of electric sheep? Do Artificial Intelligences fall in love?

There were three possibilities here.

He couldn’t love.

He could love, but hadn’t thought to fall in love with her.

She swallowed.

He could love, but would never love her.

There was nothing she could think past that. No places. No prayers. No peace in the realization that there existed a state worse than him being incapable of returning her affection. And for the first time since waking, her brain fell wholly silent. 

It was the furthest thing from a blessing.

/~/~/~/

The daylight hours passed, hazy and within an endless circle of cause without effect, She didn’t sleep and frankly, didn't do much of anything but lay on the bed and let the night sweep through a second time. Frenzy had long given way to paralysis, and there was nothing in the room but her and her stripped down body and the thoughts.

Futility. God, the futility. For so long and so many months she'd almost gotten comfortable with it; how impossible it was for Jarvis to feel anything towards her. A comfort zone of loneliness, and it had been the devil she’d known. And now—now she didn’t know how to step beyond it. What to say. What to do. How to walk back to Malibu and start again.

There’d been a lot of denial about a lot of things but in this, at least, she knew: she would reconcile with Jarvis or die trying.

It was an anchor to lash to. Though right now, half-naked and awake for her forty-third hour and absolutely miserable, there just didn’t seem to be a shore for her to crawl to.

The cell phone rang almost silently. In confusion, an elbow brought her up. She blinked and kept hearing the sound and froze. One hand and another and then reaching down into her bag.

Metal. A louder sound. Tony or Jarvis she guessed, and she didn’t know which she was less prepared to deal with. Then before she could decide, the screen was uncovered. Foreign number. Long. Honestly, completely unfamiliar.

Jarvis was sneaky, but he wasn’t the type to try and lure her out with something fake. He was the type to lie through an entire relationship, but right now that was neither here nor there.

She wanted out of her head. For an hour, a minute. She thumbed the call button and tucked to her ear. “Hello?”

White-noise. “Ma’am?”

A knot unraveled. “Castle.” And her voice cracked. “Hi. What do you need?”

“What do I—what do you need? You sound…” He very wisely didn’t elaborate on that.

God. “Haven’t slept in two days, you?”

“Doing better than that, apparently.”

“That wouldn’t be hard.” It wouldn't. She rocked back onto the bed, heel of one palm grinding into an eye.

He hissed sharply. “Ah—fuck. M’real sorry. The time difference…”

“Wouldn’t have mattered since I’m already awake.” It was past 3AM here, which must have made it mid-afternoon in Afghanistan-land where Artificial Intelligences didn't try to snake their way into one's unsuspecting affections.

No other voices tried to scrabble into the pause. There was just Castle in his every faltering glory. “I don’t wanna bother you if you're…?”

And she realized he’d called her by himself, alone. Would wonders never cease. “For the love of god, bother me. You're doing me a favor.”

“Just—I’m…I didn’t think this through. With a monitored line, I can’t say shit. I should—

“Castle,” She said. “Frank.” And he quieted. Everything felt stretched so impossibly thin. “Did you dial me on the number I gave you when we met, or the one from the letter in the care package?”

He paused. “Letter.”

“That number bounces you into an encrypted line. Trust me, the guy who set it up—” Her pulse juttered. “He’s the best. Only the DoD and White House and the Russians have better.”

There was an interested noise. “So I can say whatever?”

“Nobody’s listening but me.” And that stung. “I promise.”

There was a shuffling like he was jamming himself into a corner and cupping the receiver to his mouth. “I don’t remember if we told you, but our squad met at Fort Story. BRC training, all’a that. We were supposed to slot into one of the Recon groups but we got hauled to the ISAF to fuck around instead.”

She knew that. Kabul had been blistering, and she’d been very lovingly detailed on eight separate occasions of the superiority of the Recon Marine to every other MOS. “I’m aware.”

“Ye-ah.” His jaw clicked. “So word finally came: we’re going to the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion. The real shit.” 

“Congratulations.” She knew he hadn’t called her for a pat on the head.

“Thanks.” He mumbled, and continued: “We don’t know what’s going on. We thought we’d get to go to Pendleton and sync up stateside, but…” There was a long silence. “There’s been talk about Kuwait.”

A shiver rippled up her spine, obliterated any haze and sent a siren blaring. “Kuwait.” There was a still a world out there. Billions of lives. Kuwait: US-staging friendly, jumping point of the Gulf War, Iraq-adjacent Kuwait.

Castle went real quiet. “I thought we’d get to go home. For awhile, you know?”

And she finally understood what he was asking. “I know a lot of people down in Pendleton. And Edwards. And—every base on the west coast.” And a hell of a lot of the quiet whisperers in Washington, too. “I’ll see what I can find out about where 1st Recon is heading.” Where you’ll be heading, she didn’t have to say. It was dangerous territory she was treading in, trying to suss out troop movements and the upper echelons of holy-mother-of-classified.

“Is it going down?” He didn’t specify what.

He didn't have to; there was only one thing a Marine was good for. “I don’t think there’s any stopping it.”

He swallowed hard. “Alright.” And there was a full weight of understanding. “I don’t know how we got so goddamn lucky meeting you.”

Softly, slowly, she felt like she could sleep. “We were owed some good karma.”

“I guess.” Static hissed. “Ma’am, are you doin’ alright?”

“I’m…” Her heart hurt, her body; every strain in her neck that was snapping through her tendons. She’d always called Jarvis for this sort of thing. Except now, for the first time in years, she could reach out to another and say: “Someone who was close to me lied, and I’m just…really shitty at coping. It's not a big deal.”

“I’ve got at least six stories about grunts and tequila and boot chasers in Little Creek that says you're great at coping.”

Her laughter came abrupt and loud. “Okay, maybe I’m not that bad, but…I don’t know. It's never been this hard.”

“You can tell me.” He mumbled, scrunched-in like he couldn’t dare let anyone else hear him say it. “If you want. Can’t say I’ll give good advice, but.”

She scrubbed at her face and tried to be awake. “Castle…I’m not close with a lot people. I could fill a stadium with people I know, but to trust?”

God.

“It was a shortlist, and this friend…they were lying for years, and it changes everything. How I see them, how our relationship was. Is. Can even be.”

“Good change,” He asked. “Or bad?” And that question was a knife through the morass.

She went upright. “Complicated with lot of hurt. But,” Her head was rushing and a star caught flame. “It could be good. Better. Now that the lie, the secret—whatever it was, is out in the open. There’s a place to go forward. I’m just…”

Afraid.

“Can you forgive 'em?”

“If the apology’s good enough.” And Jarvis was real good at those.

And quietly, gruff and warm and with all the grace of his nineteen years, Frank Castle offered: “Just…sayin’ this as someone who doesn’t have a lot of someone’s. You should take good where you can find it.”

Breathless. Breathing. So dizzy she could cry. “You're really good at perspective, Private. You should think about a career.”

He laughed bashfully. “Only perspective I like is behind a scope.”

She curled her knees to her chest and stared at her toes. “Fair enough.” She’d need a manicure, a pedicure, a new dress. Eight hours of sleep. A turn in the nearest salon. “Call me in a few days, and I’ll have something scrounged up to tell you.” Jarvis could go digging to make penance, and it was as great an excuse to nudge herself back with as any.

“Awesome. Look—some whiskey tango’s been givin’ me evil eye for monopolizing, I gotta scramble.”

She snorted. “I bet you could take him.”

“Maybe.” It came out a little too sly to be maybe. She could see the grin, the heavy-lidded eyes, the sharp-slick mouth saying do you wanna try me.

But she can't reach from LA to Kabul to tell him different. "Guess this is goodnight, then."

"Somethin' like it." And then cut back sharply. “This friend that lied to you; before you go makin’ up.”

She paused. “Oh?”

And Castle was all bared teeth. “Make the fucker work for it.”

/~/~/~/

And that was all it took. She wasn’t sure what could be done or said to thank a man half a world away, but at least Castle had given her a place to start. And for Jarvis—glee like hope like fireworks all going off in her head—she knew what she needed to ask. To hear; what absolute apologies had to be made to get their friendship back on even-footing and more.

She knew what she needed, and that was a start. And if her heart was aflutter wondering what Jarvis could want from her in return—

/~/~/~/

A question of want. She liked that.

She liked that a Iot.