Tony hit compile on the latest batch of code, reminded DUM-E not to touch anything on pain of dismantling while he was gone, and headed up to Pepper's office to take her out to a late lunch. It was only when he stepped out of the elevator that he realised his mistake. He turned a full circle, taking things in: there were assistants heading to their desks with to-go cups of coffee, coats slung over their arm, the waiting area was full of people clutching portfolios, and the light slanting in through the window was at distinctly the wrong angle.
"It is not Tuesday afternoon," he said to himself.
"It is 8:37am," JARVIS said. "Congratulations on being early for once, sir."
"That was snide," Tony said, "I detected a tone there."
"Ms Potts is currently engaged," JARVIS said, and not for the first time, Tony rued the day he'd created an AI with a blithe setting. "But if you would like to take a seat, she should be free by 9:30."
"Has it really come to this?" Tony asked no one in particular, dropping into the one free seat in the waiting area, between a tall, dark guy who looked pretty nauseated and a petite redhead who was scrolling through something on her phone. "Having to wait for an appointment with my own girlfriend while she's off being a captain of industry?"
The guy to Tony's left said nothing; the redhead snorted.
"Ms Potts is interviewing for a permanent replacement for Ms Rushman," JARVIS said. "She has a number of candidates to see."
"Oh," Tony said, because yeah, that was a pretty significant hiring decision. Then he leaned into the guy next to him, whose shirt collar was now turning damp with sweat. "You know, if you get this squirrelly just because you're sitting next to a billionaire superhero who's been to outer space and is currently having a conversation with an intangible AI, this isn't going to be the job for you, FYI."
The guy bolted.
Tony felt pleased.
He looked to his right. The redhead hadn't made a move to leave, even though some of the other candidates were looking uneasy, and Tony was pretty sure one of them had just tweeted a photo of him. "Hi, I'm Tony."
The redhead rolled her eyes. "Weak."
"Yeah, see, I'm going to have to class that as a non sequitur," Tony said.
"That too," the redhead said, looking up at him for the first time. Her voice was light and soft, she looked barely old enough to have graduated college, but there was a defiant set to her jaw that made Tony think of his Aunt Peg. "Subtlety isn't your strong point, Mr Stark. It might help you winnow out the weakest candidates, but you'll need something more than that with the rest of us."
"Generally," Tony said, "I've found the weaponised exoskeleton does away with the need to be subtle."
"Well," the redhead said, putting her phone back into her purse, "the Iron Man suit may be an engineering feat, but believe me when I say that I was entirely over alpha male posturing by the time I was sixteen. It doesn't intimidate me or impress me."
"And I'd need to impress you?" Tony said, squinting at her.
"If you want me to work here, yes," the redhead said coolly.
Tony's eyebrows rose. "Confident, huh?"
"No, I'm confident that I'm going to win the Fields Medal this year. This is assurance."
"The Fields Medal?" Tony frowned. "What's your name?"
It took him a moment to recall, but then— "You wrote that paper, on scalar-tensor theory."
"Hence my confidence."
"Huh," Tony said, leaning back in his chair. Jane had liked that paper. He thought a moment and then asked her, "Can you fight?"
"I can use a gun," Lydia said, "and I once threatened a grown man with a lump hammer." Her tone never wavered from the matter-of-fact. Forget Tony—he thought Natasha might be impressed with that.
"Good enough for me," Tony said. "You should probably lead with that on your résumé. Wait here. The rest of you can leave, chop chop, but you know, if you want to stop off in the break room on your way out there should be doughnuts or whatever."
The other inhabitants of the waiting area stared at him, wide-eyed.
"As it's Tuesday," JARVIS chimed in, "I believe there are doughnuts and bearclaws."
"Let no one ever say Stark Industries did nothing for you," Tony said magnanimously, "except for, you know, giving you a job," and the job candidates must have been a pretty smart bunch overall because almost all of them got up and left at that.
Tony ignored the hiss that Pepper's receptionist shot in his direction and poked his head around the door of Pepper's office. "Pepper, my love, light of my life, we're hiring the redheaded spitfire who's waiting outside."
Pepper cast her eyes up to the ceiling. "Oh my god, Tony, you can't just walk in here and say that—"
"I said that about you, didn't I?" Tony sidled into the room, picking up one of those weird little stone tchotchkes that Thor had given them all for New Year's saying that they were an Asgardian tradition. Pepper seemed to be using it as the world's most expensive paperweight. "And I was right, I try not to hold my role in your success in the position over you often—"
The balls of a lesser man would have retreated in self-defence at the look Pepper shot him. Tony cleared his throat, put down the alien dust-gatherer, and said, "We can call her Mini-You. Pep Jr? Pepper 2.0. She's got the same thing going on: red hair, aura of irritated and unassailable perfection. Very pointy shoes, the kind with the... thing."
Pepper sighed. "This is—I'm sorry, I've forgotten your first name."
"Joshua," said the kid with the buzz cut and aggressively polished shoes who was sitting in front of Pepper's desk.
"This is Joshua," Pepper said with a bright, saccharine smile. "Joshua has an MBA from Harvard, holds a blue belt in Krav Maga, and he's just spent two years helping to run an orphanage in Haiti."
"Mini Pep sassed me," Tony said, spreading his arms wide, with what he thought was an air of great finality.
"Well, Joshua," Pepper said, "thank you for coming in, it was nice to meet you, Anne-Marie will show you out."
"But I didn't get to—" Joshua said.
Tony clapped him on the shoulder. "Don't think of this as au revoir, Josh. Think of this as farewell forever."
The door closed behind him and Pepper smacked Tony in the chest with a file folder. "I spent a lot of time prepping a roster of suitable candidates, and you just march in here and—"
"It was intuition! I can have intuition—"
"Intuition?" Pepper said, voice pitching higher.
"That's why I hired you, right? Textbook example of me knowing the right person when I saw her."
"Stop trying to charm me when I'm irritated with you."
"That would easily cut off 90, 95% of our interactions right there, and a good percentage of our sex life, so—"
Pepper flung up her hands. "Okay! But send her in first, I'm still going to interview her. We don't want a repeat of the Daphne fiasco."
"Fiasco's such a strong word," Tony said. "What's a little lawsuit between friends?"
Pepper ignored him and was already buzzing Anne-Marie, asking her to send in the last candidate. Lydia entered the office a few moments later.
"Lydia, Pepper. Pepper, Lydia," Tony said graciously.
Lydia ignored him and held out her hand to Pepper. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Ms Potts."
"And you, Dr Martin," Pepper said. "Won't you have a seat?"
"Is no one going to offer me a seat?" Tony said plaintively.
"No," Pepper and Lydia said simultaneously, and though Tony could only see the back of her head, he was pretty sure Lydia had rolled her eyes at him. He beamed. He knew they'd get along.
"You have an extremely impressive résumé," Pepper said, flipping open the folder in front of her, "but I'll be frank with you and admit that I was a little puzzled as to why a woman with a doctorate in mathematics and several publications under her belt would be applying for a job as my personal assistant. It seems a little out of your area of expertise."
"I'm a woman with a doctorate in mathematics," Lydia said. "I'm an extremely smart and petite woman with a doctorate in mathematics whose gender presentation is conventionally feminine. Let's just say that after a while, academia grew tiresome. I could stick out the tenure track and make full professor, but I would have to put up with an awful lot of dick-swinging along the way. I don't need tenure to do math."
Pepper cocked an eyebrow. "And you chose to come to Stark Industries?"
"I like challenges," Lydia said. "Also the ability to afford Louboutins, that was another area in which academia wasn't working out."
"I think," Tony said, as he tugged his phone out of his pocket and ran a search for Lydia Martin, "that what Pep was trying to say is I have a reputation for a lot of dick-swinging. I mean," he hurried to clarify when Pepper shot him a look, "I had back in the day, not so much anymore, monogamy yay."
Lydia shot him a look. "You're not the CEO of Stark Industries, Ms Potts is. During her tenure, SI stock price has doubled in value, she's increased annual revenue by almost $750 million, and she's spear-headed the company's expansion into cloud computing and green energy. What you choose to swing is not that important or particularly... significant. Over-compensating armour or not."
"See," Tony said solemnly to Pepper as he scrolled through Lydia's CV, "I like her. She once threatened a guy with a lump hammer."
Pepper looked startled; Lydia shrugged. "I don't make a habit of it, but believe me when I say he had it coming."
Behind her back, Tony mimed walloping Aldrich Killian with a length of girder. Pepper hitched one shoulder as if conceding his point.
"But more importantly," Lydia said, "I'm intelligent, I'm focused, I'm good with cross-referencing multiple busy schedules. I have good interpersonal skills but I also have no problems with giving people bad news. Crisis management is an area of expertise of mine, I'm particularly skilled at seeing really big trouble coming, and I think I could be extremely useful to you when it comes to liaising with academics. You'll need to be able to talk to a range of diverse audiences if Stark Industries wants to maintain its position as the nation's top provider of green energy."
Pepper was silent for a moment, then she looked up at Tony. He shrugged and pointed at her in a way that he hoped conveyed it's up to you, honey without sounding patronising or whatever. Pep rolled her eyes, which, okay, maybe not as successful as he'd hoped but then she smiled and held out her hand and said, "Welcome to Stark Industries, Lydia."