“Come on, Pep. Please.”
You remembered sitting in this exact cafe, in the exact same spot. Pepper sitting across from you, hands underneath her chin in the same way she had them now. Except she was doing the talking, leading into pleading, this time, and you were a million miles away.
“I don’t know… I’m not really- I can’t just do that. I can’t just setup a meeting like that-”
“You’re his personal assistant.” You had to make her see. “Just… slip it onto his docket. By the time he’s in the room with me, he won’t even know what hit him.”
She scoffed. “He’ll know exactly what hit him, and then it’ll hit me . -bite me in the ass, more like it. I need this job just as much as you think you need yours, you know.”
Sitting back you let out a more dramatic than you meant sigh. She wasn’t going for it. And if she didn’t do you this one solid… you weren’t sure where you’d be sleeping come next month. This was the only thing you knew you could do. The only thing you’d set yourself up for. Maybe that saying about all the eggs in one basket was proving too true.
“This wasn’t how it was supposed to be, was it?” Pepper caught you off guard in saying that. Something about that phrase…
“What did you just say?” Your attention snapped back to the present.
She laughed derisively with a shake of her head. “You two- I swear. It’s like I’m invisible. But that’s what I’m saying. You were made for this. For him.”
You couldn’t help the grimace. “I get enough as it is now. I don’t know that I can handle what you do.” It was exactly what she’d been doing that had gotten her to where she was now.
Begging you to take her job. You almost couldn’t believe it. Pepper never quit on anything unless it was severe. And Tony-… well, he was more than a handful. More than she could handle these days, it seemed.
“Yeah, well… whether or not you do it, I’m handing in my resignation tomorrow morning. Preferably not while also telling another one of his one night stands to get out.”
“Maybe you could get her to take your goodbye letter to him?” Only slyly offered, definitely more joking. And you felt at least a little better when she couldn’t hold back a little snort. But at the mere thought that that’s what he’d had her doing for the past few years, “It’s that bad, huh?”
She drooped back in her seat. “Worse, if you can imagine. Every morning I’m on the maid’s end of cleaning up his bedroom, women included. And today- today one of them said something really… really...”
You had the faintest idea, “True?”
Her eyes rolled up and then closed. “Yeah. About this being the height of my potential. About being more his mother than his secretary. I might as well start wiping his ass while I’m at it.”
“I’d heard he has a fancy toilet robot that does that for him.”
“No that’s just what you tell people.”
The laughter you shared in that moment was at least genuine. When the air slid back to silence, her hands came down atop yours.
“Pep, please.” You were almost willing her to at this point, clutching her hands in yours.
“I… oh- alright. But if I get fired, I’m living with you rent free for a year- two. At the minimum.” Successfully managing to persuade her to your cause.
Now if only you could do the same to Tony Stark.
The meeting got off to a rocky start the next morning. You could tell he was hung over and more than just a little annoyed at having to sit down with you. As you went to try and shake his hand he held his up.
“Five minutes. That’s all I’m wasting on this. My time is very valuable. As Ms. Potts seems to have forgotten.” So you sat, and he crossed his arms. “Why should I hire you?”
For all you’d rehearsed, words seemed to leave you. Stumbling, you said the only thing you could think, “You need me.”
His grin almost got you believing he was on your side until the laugh came out of his mouth and the wave of his hand, “We’re done here. Nice meeting you.” Standing up he offered his hand for a shake, “Oh and just a little tip, next time try bringing a resume instead of a line
use when I’m shilling weapons. Not as effective on people who hear it every day.” He rounded the corner of his desk,
“Ms. Potts will see you out, and on her way back I’d suggest she also thinks about her position as assistant- not talent management.”
So, that was it.
You blew it.
And got Pepper in trouble.
All that fuss for nothing.
No. No of course that wasn’t it. Whatever confidence you had you built like a tornado, propelling you to your feet in front of him. What else did you have to lose?
“Tell me the top ten recent polls of American opinions in your involvement with the war in the middle east- and how that effects your bottom line?”
For a moment, brief, it seemed Tony was stunned. His mouth opened but closed quickly and he shook his head with a few quick blinks of disbelief. “What?”
“Tell me just five things you know about the burgeoning social web market and how to advertise effectively on it.” You let only a few seconds more of that beautiful stunned silence sit between you, not leaving his gaze for a moment. “How about telling me what you think your average worker gets paid versus what public opinion thinks?” Counting out a brief pause before finishing, “Okay, easy one. Can you even tell me what MySpace is for?”
“It’s-...” Lingering on the hiss of the ‘s’ as he angled back in his stance, waving his hand lightly. “-a place where people post pictures no one wants to look at and music no one wants to hear-” Said extremely quickly, trying to bolster himself like he knew what he was talking about. No one put Tony Stark out of his element, after all. “What was your name again?” Craning his head closer to you, squinting.
“Don’t even know that one?” Grinning. Trying to be as compelling as possible. Tony Stark was the world’s biggest confident jackass. Being his reflection would only entice him, right? For all the doubts you’d had all last night and walking in this morning, it seems like you’d actually won. He had this dumb little impressed half-smile. So you decided to finish strong, “You need me.”
“I need you.” Sounding like he was hypnotized, repeating you mindlessly. Something you were almost ready to cheer over until he shook his head again. “I need you? I’m my own marketing campaign. My own spokesperson.”
“You’d have a lot more free time if you weren’t. And a lot more market share.” Tony might have been a genius, and inventor, but he was also a rich kid. Silver spoon in his mouth from birth. What other language would be more effective than money?
You need me… you need me… you thought it as strongly as possible, confidence brimming over the top.
He seemed to be more considering the idea than dismissing it, but you couldn’t help the brief sink of your heart when he stepped around you, head shaking yet again. Once he was at the door he turned, pointing a finger, “Fine. You start next week.” Turning around you heard him mutter, “I need you.” sarcastically. But he hung back one moment more, “Pepper can get you your papers. And seriously mull over that this is the last time something like this happens. And if it goes sour it’s on her head.”
Pepper had looked so ecstatic for the both of you then. Now she looked distraught. Tired. “Why now?” There had to be more here than just an angry blonde spitting venom at her. Regardless of how long she’d had to deal with them by now.
“I’ve got a few offers… from… some places. Promising stuff. Not like- not like what I’m doing now.” The fact that she didn’t want to say where these places were was more than enough for you to know. Competitors. If she didn’t want to share, it was none of your business. Better that, too, since she was trying to saddle Tony on you. The less you knew the better.
Even though it wasn’t like he couldn’t find out.
“But if you’re so keen on going, why even ask me to do this?” Why burden you with all this? Your job was demanding enough. He put enough fires in the world that you already had to put out. Sometimes daily. Why even bother you with being more responsible for him?
Her eyes dropped. “Look, I know this isn’t the greatest sales pitch. And… I can’t say he’s the best guy. He’s only forgotten my birthday every single year and he treats me like just another one of his machines that he can order around. But… underneath all of that… I don’t know… I thought I could help him. But things are starting to line up elsewhere for me. And I’m clearly not having any effect on him.”
Sometimes you wondered what she thought that was. What she’d hoped for.
“And you think I can?” Trying to keep your tone as gentle as possible. Non-assuming. Non-accusing.
Her lips pressed together, thinking before she spoke again. “If anyone has a chance, it’s you. I know he’s a jerk, but there are moments where he’s not . Where he’s more than… more than this image of Tony Stark. I don’t want to leave him without someone. He won’t make it. But I can’t do this anymore.”
And bless her heart for trying, although it wasn’t something you thought you should say. She’d been through more than enough.
“You already know almost everything. His schedules, his habits, his needs, his expenses… and you’re you. How many other people won Tony over the way you did?” Now she was just trying to butter you up.
The truth was, you’d already decided.
Sighing, you scratched the side of your face. Let a moment of silence sit. And then, “How do you want me to break it to him?”
There was a gentle light in her face, and you felt the relief wash over her. Unfortunately that didn’t help you at all. “I have my resignation. And all the things- my planner for the next two years, all the stuff-” She seemed winded very suddenly, digging in her bag to get everything. “Sorry. I didn’t think you’d actually say yes.” Confessed in a small voice under the table as she continued to root around before producing a stack of journals, papers, and various other oddities that were probably important. “He’s out at a party tonight. Happy will drive him home. Tomorrow morning… that’s when you can hand it to him.”
You took the thin manila folder that no doubt housed a paper with less than a thousand words of goodbye. Succinct and beautiful, if you had to guess. But you wouldn’t read it.
“Tomorrow morning,” You repeated wryly, “after I kick out another sexcapade of his, yes?”
She smiled bashfully with a raise of her shoulders. “Well it’s best to get some on-the-job training early.”
The meeting didn’t last too much longer than that. Pepper seemed eager to get on with her new life. It ended with a hug, a sincere thanks, and a promise to keep in touch. She’d be moving soon. To New York. It seemed she really had been intent on getting out of there no matter the cost.
All the more reason you had to pick up the slack. Even if you didn’t really want to.
Talking for Tony was already more than you could handle. Cleaning up his mistakes, purposeful or not, on television and in articles, singing his praises no matter the cost. And now…
“Good morning, Ms. INY.” JARVIS greeted you as you let yourself in to Tony’s cliff side manor.
“I’ve asked you a thousand times not to call me that.” Not really angry at the program. After all… he was only just that.
“My apologies, ma’am. Mr. Stark has not updated your name in my files.” Or given JARVIS permission to call you anything else. Of course.
Heading upstairs, “That’s alright. Tony’s in the workshop?” You had to head to the bedroom, first. New duty called.
“Yes. Shall I call him for you?”
“No, that’s alright. Thank you.” You let him fall silent as you opened the bedroom door, unsurprised to see pillows, blankets, sheets, and clothes tossed everywhere in a haphazard mess. Glasses of half empty alcohol on almost every surface, too. Walking over to the sleeping brunette (a surprise to be sure) you nudged her. “Morning. Get up. Get dressed. Get out.”
She grumbled something, swatting her hand at you. All you could make out was, “Go away.” Oh- no, a second thing, “Where’s Tony??”
“Tony’s out for the day and you need to leave or I’ll be happy to call the cops. Out. Now.”
Looking up she cast a dark gaze your way, “You’re not Pepper.”
“You’re right, I’m not. I’ll call you a cab or the cops. Either way you’re leaving in five minutes. So which will it be?”
It took her less than four to get up and put her clothes on, all the while getting louder and louder about how angry she was, that Tony better call her, that this was not how you treat a person. When she was gone you left the bedroom, heading down the winding core stairwell of the house.
“Ms. Potts is usually a touch gentler with Mr. Stark’s evening guests.” JARVIS chimed in. For what reason you couldn’t say.
“Yeah, she is, isn’t she?” Which might explain why that one had been hoping to see her. Much less of a rude awakening. Then again, it was just very common knowledge that Pepper Potts oversaw all of Tony’s affairs. Lewd or otherwise.
But today was a new day. And Tony now had a new personal assistant, whether he or the world liked it or not.
You keyed yourself into his workshop with your personal code , finding him sitting on a crate , hand underneath the hood of some old vintage car. He didn’t even look up at you.
“Pepper’s gone, huh?” His tone was dead and quiet.
But you felt the trickle of sadness hidden behind a river of disdain. You placed the folder down on the counter nearest. “Yeah.”
Of course he knew. He’d probably known for months. There was a pang of abandonment that shot through him that almost got you to wince but you held steady.
“Don’t leave trash in my lab.” He knew exactly what you were delivering. “Throw it out.”
Stepping around the corner of the table, you got closer. “You’re supposed to be on a plane in an hour. Will you be ready by then?”
He scoffed, sad smirk on his lips. “You know, it being a private plane and all, I was thinking it’ll wait for me.” Getting up he went over to the work sink to start washing oil and dirt off his hands.
You dared yourself about as close as you could get. You had to break him in or this would never work. Like being back at square one. And you’d gotten too far with him after all this time to start there now. “Listen, I know it sucks that Pepper had enough and had to leave, but she did. And you’re stuck with me now. And I’m not Pepper.” Determined to let him know right now you weren’t going to placate him just because he was the big boss.
Tony turned on you very suddenly, eyeing you up. He was hot with anger. So much so that it infected you just a quarter. “I could fire you right now. It wasn’t Pep’s call to just hand me off like I’m- ...” He mashed his lips together, gaze moving to a glare. “It wasn’t her call. And I don’t need you.”
I don’t need anyone.
You heard it as an aftereffect, but it didn’t need his voice to be any less true.
Tony braced the sink with his hands, half leaning over it, not looking at you any longer.
“What did you call me this morning?”
“Why did you call me that?”
“Because that is what Mr. Stark has designated your name as.”
“JARVIS what does INY stand for?”
“INY stands for I Need-”
“Alright, that’s enough JARVIS.” Tony’s ire had died down but he was still upset. “Do any more of her bidding and you may as well be her assistant.”
The next few moves were critical. Tony was like a caged animal. Wild and upset. You understood it. He felt like Pepper had dumped him off on someone that may be less qualified to handle the personal load that was his life. He had trusted her. And it hadn’t pa nned out . He was unused to making bets that didn’t pay off like that.
Letting some of him seep into you, you crossed your arms but still turned to him. “Tony… I know this isn’t ideal. But we’ve always gotten along. ...for the most part.” A few scraps here and there when he disliked what you had to say about him in a few interviews. Dropping in just a few inches closer, “I wouldn’t have said yes if I didn’t want to do this.”
He turned his head, eyes on you, expression still guarded but you could feel the anxiousness. The deep dissatisfaction. “And what is this? ”
“This is your life, Tony. It’s where you go, it’s who you talk to. Sometimes it’s how you get home at two in the morning. Sometimes it’s what you’re eating for breakfast or what you’re having to drink with dinner. It’s your business. It’s your livelihood. I’m not Pepper. But I think I’m the best you’ve got.”
A huff of snarky air escaped him and he dropped his head again with another shake. You felt him pulling himself together. Putting back on that perfect smarmy mask. The moment of realness was gone and no one else would ever see something like that. You imagined Pepper had seen more than a few. However, this was not that new to you. And it’s not like you thought he was any less than the human he tried not to be.
“Right, well.” He pushed away from the sink, wringing his hands dry on a nearby towel. “If that’s how you’re gonna be about it, I’m not changing your name.”
The whole time that had been established, you had known it as an annoying joke meant to get on your nerves. To throw it back in your face for even daring to say such a silly thing to Tony Stark.
You need me.
I need you.
He was halfway to the door of the lab before you realized he was trying to make an escape. “The plane, Tony?” Moving after him.
“It can wait. It’s my plane. That’s what I pay them to do. I need breakfast. Who serves the best bloody Marys in town?”
Stepping to his side up the stairs you fell in sync with him. “There’s this hole in the wall downtown that I know of.”
“Perfect. Hey, maybe you won’t be half bad at this.” At the top of the stairs he turned to offer his hand.
Grasping it firmly in a shake, you couldn’t help a smile. “If you’re lucky.”
Tony was firmly back to being Tony. Carefree, sarcastic, lovable jackass. But his hand in yours stayed longer than a normal handshake. Just a few seconds too long. Barely noticeable. It was more the look in his eyes. The glance you exchanged.
Pepper had handed you more than just a job.
She’d handed you someone else’s entire world.
And right then, right in that moment looking into his eyes you promised. You’d do everything you had to to protect it.