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The Courting of Tony Stark

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1996

For Virginia's twenty second birthday, her boyfriend presents her with two bus tickets to New York, a hotel booking, and two passes to the NY Tech Summit, which might not sound like such an exciting prospect, but for the fact that Tony Stark is the main attraction this year

She's wanted to see him in action since she was eighteen and had a crush that rivalled her friends' love for Jason Priestley and Luke Perry. As she worked her way through college, the crush had abated but her interest in Stark Industries grew. The company was doing incredible things, and the more she read, the more she wanted to be involved. It was almost impossible to get a job, though, and since, at the time, she hadn't even have completed her degree yet, so she tried to write it off as a stupid teenage dream.

But the convention is so loud and flashy and spectacular, how could it not reignite that desire in her? She's been dating Brian for four years – they're planning to go backpacking around Europe in the summer, planning to move in together in the fall, and her mother loves him – but she barely sees him the whole weekend. She gets swept up into the crowd and she doesn't look back.

On the first day, Stark gets up on stage and it's... amazing. She's transfixed from beginning to end, even though he's talking so fast she can barely understand him. She hears people saying that he was clearly high, but she honestly doesn't care; she could listen to him talk all day.

At some point over the weekend, a volunteer hands her a pamphlet about interning at Stark Industries. It's an incredibly competitive program that mostly takes graduate and doctoral students studying one or more of the sciences. Virginia majored in Accounting and minored in Art History, there's no way they'd look at her once, let alone twice.

And yet.

And yet two weeks later she gets on a bus and rides it the three hours back to New York, changes into her best pair of heels in a 7/11 restroom – her best friend says her ass looks fantastic in them – and walks into the waiting room at Stark Tower.

She's sure she's the youngest person there, and certainly the most poorly dressed. She sticks out like a sore thumb, really, with her short red bob and her patent leather red heels. A few of them glance at her, but for the most part everyone ignores everyone else as they wait. And wait, and wait, and wait.

A little over three hours later, the doors are shoved along with a voice saying, “Look, I don't have time for this, I have an engagement in half an hour. Cynthia, don't nag, Obi said I could do what I wanted with the interns.”

Tony Stark sweeps into the room followed by a middle-aged woman holding a stack of folders.

He claps his hands together. “Okay! Everyone who's just coming to the horrifying realisation that they might have to deal with me on a day to day basis, there are five emergency exits: two in the back, two in the middle, one at the front.” He frowns. “Actually, four of those are windows and unless you want on the evening news, I'd suggest you use the front exit.”

There's a low murmur and a lot of uncomfortable shifting, but no one gets up to leave.

“Guys,” Stark says, “there's at least one person here who already hates my guts, not including the wonderful Cynthia. Would it help if I closed my eyes?” He squeezes his eyes shut and starts counting back from ten. There's some more uncomfortable shifting and then, to her surprise – because why would you get this far just to give up? – a few people get up and sneak past him.

He seems to know as soon as they leave, because he smiles as he continues to count. “...five, four, three, two, one. Bye!” he calls over his shoulder, before looking at the group again. “Fuck, I thought I'd be able to thin the herd a bit more than that.” He turns to his assistant and asks, “Five people, right? Okay.” He points to a severe looking woman wearing glasses. “You look clever.” Cynthia quickly flips through her stack of files to find the right one as he turns his attention to a guy who appears to have an unfortunate inability to control his sweat glands.

“Kirk or Picard?” he asks.

The guy squirms. “Um, I- uh... Kirk.”

Stark grins and goes back to studying everyone's faces. He skips several people altogether before his gaze falls to her. He tilts his head, and she pushes her chest out, just a little. Her friends had suggested that she could probably get hired by shoving her tits in his face, and although she knew it was a joke, she'd kept it in her arsenal, just in case.

His eyes drop to her feet. “Nice shoes,” he says, and then he's indicating vaguely to two other people. “You and you. Okay passengers, thanks for flying Stark Airways, please put your trays in the upright and locked position.” With that, he spins on his heel and breezes back out of the room.

His assistant clenches her jaw, watching after him for a second. “You five, come with me. Everyone else, thank you for your time.”

Virginia does not go to Europe in the summer.

-
1998
They put her in the finance department for the length of her internship, then move her to HR, R&D, and Public Relations in quick succession, until, two years later, she's back in Finance and has a better working knowledge of the company than most of the managers. Her first week back, she catches a huge accounting error that could have cost the company millions – she's pretty sure that her department rep takes the credit for it.

Her relationship with Brian fizzled out quickly after getting hired. Really, it was destined to failure the moment she started looking for studio apartments in New York, and she only mourned the loss of her first serious relationship for a couple of days before she was swept up in the intern orientation week, which was at least twice as wild as orientation had been at university.

She only gets to see her family every few months, but... she doesn't miss them. Sometimes she feels guilty about that, but everything is just so... so much that she finds that she can't even hold onto that guilt for long.

If only it weren't for some of her co-workers, she wouldn't have any complaints at all. Most of them are okay: she makes a few friends, though no close ones. Acquaintances that she can go out for drinks with on a Friday night, at least. Then there's Jerry, who never asks her out but makes it clear that he thinks that she should want to. She ignores him quite effectively, smiling blandly when he makes jokes, talking about nothing when they're stuck in the copier room together, until he thinks their relationship has progressed to the stage when he can tap her on the ass while she's leant over the copier, attempting to fix a paper jam. It has not, and, well, she does what her grandmother taught her to do in situations such as these: she hits him.

It's really more of a love tap; with years of volleyball tournaments under her belt, she could have made him hurt. She doubts her supervisor sees it that way, though. She's told that there's going to be an investigation, and that she'll have to attend a hearing next week; she keeps her head down and starts looking for a new job.

She's in her cubicle, doing glorified data entry work when someone pops up over one of the thin walls. People have mostly been staying out of her way; she cringes at whatever this is going to be. “Miss Potts, I presume?”

Any interest in her spreadsheet dies when she hears that voice; of course she knows that voice. She looks up. Tony Stark looks back down at her.

“Hi!” he says and grins.

“I--” She pushes her chair away from her desk and stands. “Good afternoon, Mr Stark. Sir?” she adds as an afterthought, uncertainly.

“'Sir'? Yikes. So, I hear you, like, saved the company a squillion dollars or something.”

“Well--”

Annnd that you hit someone.”

She bites her lip. “That's, that's true.”

Stark looks at her with big eyes for a moment, then peers over the cubicle wall again. “Can you collect your things and come with me? Yeah? Good.” He's already turning away before she's so much as moved. She grabs her bag and her one lone personal item, a plastic potted plant, and follows him through the maze of cubicles. Heads turn as they pass, and the whispers start like a Mexican wave; her cheeks burn and with her complexion it's a neon sign that says: I fucked up and now the guy whose name is on the door came here personally to fire me.

He stops abruptly as they pass the copier room and she bumps into his back. He flashes her a sly smile. “The scene of the crime,” he says. And of course, of course, Jerry is in there, harassing one of the temps. “You're Jerry, right?” he asks, hanging around the edge of the door. “The, uh, victim?”

“Mr... Mr Stark? Ye-yeah, I'm Jerry West, it's an honour to meet you.” He extends a hand that Stark ignores.

“I know,” he says. “I hear you're on track for a big promotion at the end of the year. Supervisor position, that's pretty cool.”

“Well, there are lots of great candidates, but I'd-- yes, sir, it would be really cool.”

“Again with the 'sir', you guys are really polite around here.” Stark looks at her, then back at Jerry. “Shame about what Miss Potts did, huh?”

Jerry does his best to look solemn. “I think that maybe our wires just got a little crossed, there's blame on both sides.”

“Mm,” Stark hums again, and it's all she can do to not get in there and really cross Jerry's wires.

Stark starts to move away, then stops again. “Oh, one more thing. Um, what was it...?” He snaps his fingers a couple of times then nods. “Right, right. You're fired.”

Virginia maybe squeaks a little with surprised laughter at this. Stark looks at her approvingly.

“Ex-excuse me?” Jerry stammers. The way his face turns from smug to shocked in the blink of an eye is delicious.

Stark shakes his head. “Dude, it's the nineties, sexual harassment isn't cool any more. Come along, Miss Potts.”

She manages to make it into the elevator before she starts laughing in earnest – she tries to contain it, because she's standing across from the boss of the company, but he just grins and there's that sudden feeling welling up in her again, the infectious, overwhelming presence of Tony Stark.

“His face,” Stark says. “Fuck, I love a well-executed prank, no better feeling in the world. Well. Maybe a few...”

She clears her throat, and wipes her eyes as much as she can without smudging her mascara. “This was a prank? Does that mean I'm not fired? I can go back to my desk?”

Stark counts off on his fingers. “Sort of, yes, and... no. Did I get that the right way round? I think I did. Anyway, yeah, no, you're not going back to your desk.”

“I'm not?”

“You're not. Miss Potts, I'm in the market for a new PA. What do you say?”

“I- What?” She tries to rewind the conversation in her head but it keeps catching after 'new PA'. “Me?”

“Yeah.”

“Why? I don't have any of the necessary skills for that.”

He raises an eyebrow. “Are you trying to talk me out of this? Because that's kind of assbackwards. You're never gonna beat the Jerrys of this world if you don't show off what you've got.” He doesn't even turn his last sentence into innuendo; she's shocked. “If you must know, I see from your file that you're extremely overeducated for butt monkey cubicle work, you caught that accounting error that Obi said was kind of a big deal – and yeah, I know it was you and not your rep, because that guy is a fucking idiot, I don't know how we're still in business with employees like him – and you obviously don't mind dealing out some rough justice when needed. You very well may need to do that if you work for me.”

He speaks so quickly, it's difficult for her to absorb the words. The elevator doors open, but one glare from Stark sends the people wanting to get on away. “Who would I be... hitting?” she asks slowly.

“Not me, don't hit me, Miss Potts. Pretty much anyone else, though. I'll expect you to defend my honour at all times.”

She can't help but smile. Damn it, he is incredibly good-looking. “Okay.”

“But most of all, Miss Potts, I'm hiring you because I've had it with boring old people telling me what to do, and you wear incredibly inappropriate shoes for work, which suggests to me that you've got a little bit of fun in you under that atrocious pantsuit.”

She glances down at her open-toed purple heels. She really can't argue with him about the pantsuit, it's quite awful. “They're all I can afford at the moment.”

“That won't be a problem with your new salary,” he says. The elevator doors open on the ground floor and he reaches out to hold them. “Just promise me something.”

“What is it, Mr Stark?”

“Promise me that not a single pair of sensible shoes will turn up on your expense report. I don't think my heart could take it.”

She bites her lip, and can't help but notice how the action draws his eyes to her mouth. “I promise.”

“Cool.” He steps out of the elevator and she follows, still clutching her plastic plant. “So... You know I live in California, right?”

“I...” She thinks about it. She does know that. “Yes.”

“Plane leaves in two hours, can you make it?”

She stands in the lobby of Stark Tower, people passing all around but never bumping into them, like Stark has a five foot buffer zone around him.

She's never been to California.

“I can make that flight, Mr Stark,” she says.

-

The first time she meets Rhodey, all she sees of him is his foot, sticking out from underneath a blanket on one of Stark's vast couches. She's been working for Stark for a month now, and she's already had to escort a dozen people from his house, but they've never been on the couch before. She debates with herself for a moment over whether she should just come back later, but a cursory glance around the room and its littered beer bottles makes her think that it might be wise for her to check that this guy is even breathing.

He is, and in short order he's scrambling off the couch, clutching at the blanket, and leaving very little to the imagination.

“Um,” she says.

Tony!” he yells.

“Um,” she repeats, and he looks back at her like he wants nothing more than for the ground to open up and swallow him whole.

“Could you, uh,” he grimaces and waves vaguely across the room. “Pants?”

“Oh, yeah, right. Yes.” She looks around the room until her gaze falls on a crumpled pair of pants caught around a chair leg, then quickly picks them up and blindly shoves them at him.

“Thanks,” he mumbles while she keeps her back resolutely turned to him. “Tony!” he yells again, when he's got them on. She hazards a glance at him: it's not a bad view. “Get your fucking ass down here!”

“I don't think Mr Stark can hear you...” she says.

“Oh, he can hear me.” He pauses, frowns and extends a hand. “I'm Jim, by the way.”

She takes it. “Virginia.”

“I take it you aren't his girlfriend,” Jim says.

“Oh, God, no,” she says, and he grins. “I can't imagine what it would be like to be his girlfriend.” Although, really, yes she can. She'd fantasised about that enough when she was younger.

“That is perilously close to defamation of character, Potts.” Stark stands in the doorway, just a touch too long hair mussed and falling into his eyes, wearing nothing but jeans that she can't help but notice are extremely flattering, scratches on his hips that look like they were made by delicate fingernails.

“Mr Stark,” she says in greeting, proud that her voice comes out steady, despite feeling like her entire body is flushing with embarrassment. She really hadn't thought that this job would entail her being in a room with two extremely attractive shirtless men.

“I guess formal introductions are in order,” he says. “Rhodey, this is my new PA, Miss Virginia Potts.”

Jim raises his eyebrows like this means something to him; Stark ignores him, “Miss Potts, this is Major James Rhodes of the United States Air Force. He just came off an eight month tour of duty. We were celebrating him not being dead. He's, like, my best friend, or whatever. You'll probably be seeing a lot of him.” He looks Rhodey up and down. “Though, hopefully not too much.”

Rhodey narrows his eyes. “I'm not entirely clear that I'm not dead, after last night.”

Stark makes a dismissive sound. “Lightweight, you've been away too long. I'll toughen you up again.”

“Sure, Tony,” Rhodey says with a level of affection that Pepper has yet to hear aimed at Mr Stark. They look at each other for a quiet moment.

“Miss Potts,” Stark says eventually. “There are a couple of ladies in my bedroom, could you please give them the complimentary gift bag and escort them out?”

“'A couple'?” Rhodey says.

She takes this as her cue to leave, cheeks beginning to burn at the thought of Mr Stark and these two ladies. It's not as if she hasn't considered the possibility of a threesome before, but Brian was kind of straight-laced and since then she's barely had time to sleep, let alone have sex. Really, though, it's just the idea of Stark, those scratches on his hips, and...

She really shouldn't dwell on stuff like this.

“Well, after you sacked out,” she hears Stark say, “I had to take two for the team.”

-

Virginia quits for the first time after she's kept up for three straight days negotiating Stark getting released without charges from a jail in Mexico. He gives her a fifty percent raise and sends her a new pair of shoes. They're her first Christian Louboutins.

She quits for the second time after he disappears right before a crucial meeting with President Clinton and she has to explain to Clinton's aides that Mr Stark had an 'emergency'. He gives her another fifty percent raise and a pair of Manolo Blahniks.

She walks out of the mansion and doesn't return to work for a week after he crashes his car at the Daytona 500, sustains a concussion and a broken arm, and goes right back to drinking and fucking the next day. He gives her another fifty percent raise, tickets to the opera, a pair of Dolce & Gabbana boots, and brings her along to watch the car get crushed into a cube.

-

At the beginning of the Stark Gala '98, she meets Bill Gates. He tells her that Mr Stark used to beat him at Donkey Kong when Stark was ten.

At the end of the Stark Gala '98, she's holding Stark's shoulders while he dry heaves over a toilet.

“Fuck,” he groans. “Fuckin' poison, fire those caterers, Potts.”

“Yes, Mr Stark.” She tugs him back a little. “Do you think you can get up?”

He groans something but is pliable under her hands, and she manages to pull him up and get him over to the sinks. “Just stay still,” she says, and he mumbles something that she doesn't catch. She grabs a handful of paper towels, wets them, and begins cleaning his face. It's mostly blood: he got into a fight with a guest staying at the hotel the Gala's being held at, when Stark and the guest's wife tried to... move festivities to her room. Mr Stane broke it up pretty quickly, practically picked Stark up by the scruff of his neck and hauled him out like he was a child.

The fight had destroyed what was left of his delicate equilibrium, though; she's been in this restroom with him for a good twenty minutes already.

“Ow,” he says quietly when she runs the paper towel over a cut on his lip.

“Sorry.”

“'sokay,” he mumbles, staring at her hands. “You've got nice hands,” he comments after a moment.

She can feel her cheeks begin to warm. “Thank you, Mr Stark.”

“Tony,” he corrects.

“Mr Stark,” she repeats. “You should really try to sleep the worst of this off. How about we go home?”

He bobs his head. After a couple of minutes of confusion, she manages to get a comfortable grip on him without it feeling too inappropriate. She leads him out out of the restroom and his bodyguard, Hogan, trails after them.

Stane stops them on the way out, looking huge as he places a hand on Stark's shoulder, especially in comparison to Stark. “We've got a shareholder meeting tomorrow,” he says in his deep rumble. “Remember?”

“Yep,” Stark says.

“I expect you to be there, son,” he says. Stark's expression flickers, with guilt, she thinks. He's never so open as when he's drunk, she's coming to realise. Any other time, his face is constant sneering mask.

“I know,” he says.

“Good. Take care of our boy, Miss Potts,” Stane says, and smiles. She wills herself not to be intimidated.

“Of course, Mr Stane.”

-

She gets a couple of hours sleep at home that night before she's back in her car on her way to the office. There's a hundred different things she needs to do, a hundred meetings she no doubt needs to reschedule after Stark's performance last night. She needs to run interference with the media, make sure the wronged husband isn't going to be an issue, and check that Mr Stark hasn't bought any new businesses in the last week.

It takes her all morning, and it's only at one in the afternoon that she's able to go over to check on Mr Stark. Honestly, she's a little concerned that she hasn't heard from him. He had really wanted her to stay, whined at her about it in a tone not unlike a child until he passed out in his bed, still mostly clothed. She covered him in a blanket and left.

The sun is burning hot as she drives with the roof of the convertible down (“Can't go showing me up, now, Potts,” Stark had said when he presented her with the keys.). She makes it there in good time and takes a moment to appreciate the incredible view of the ocean. Mr Stark says he doesn't care for it.

There's another car sitting outside the garage when she gets there to park. She's never seen it before, but it has a Stark Industries logo on the back. Probably Mr Stane, she decides, here to see that Stark's okay. The man's like a father to him. She can't imagine how much wilder Stark would be without him.

She gets into the house and drops her bag in the hall. The place looks like a tornado's torn through it, which is just how Mr Stark left it last night once she finally managed to get him out the door. She sighs; it's really for a maid to do, but Mr Stark is 'off maids' for the moment, while he's going through one of his paranoid phases. She sets about clearing away empty coffee mugs in the lounge from where they're scattered all over schematics for something completely unfathomable. She considers rolling the drawings up and taking them back down to the workshop, but thinks better of it. He tends to freak out if she moves his stuff. She heads to the kitchen with an armful of mugs in varying stages of mould sentience.

“Oh, you're finally up. I don't see what the point is of inviting me over if you're just going to pass--” a female voice starts, then stops when Virginia steps into the room. “You aren't Tony,” she says.

“You aren't Mr Stane,” Virginia replies. The woman is fantastically beautiful, even with her hair scraped back from her face, not a hint of make up to be seen. She has long blonde hair and long tanned legs, and Virginia stares a little longer, clutching at the mugs like an idiot.

“Agreed,” the woman says, then steps forward and relieves Virginia of some of her burden. “Let me help you with that. Ugh,” she says, wrinkling her nose as she peers inside of a mug. “Tony is such a pig sometimes.”

“Thanks. Do you mind if I ask...?” Virginia begins, and the woman laughs.

“Oh God, you probably think I'm some kind of crazy stalker, I'm sorry. I'm Joanna.” She holds out a hand and Virginia takes it. It's slightly damp, and Joanna smells faintly of chlorine. Must have been using the pool, Virginia realises. She's never gone in it herself, though she has vigorous permission to do so.

“Joanna...” she repeats. She doesn't know any Joannas.

“Joanna Nivena?” Joanna tries again, and frowns at the lack of recognition of Virginia's face. “I'm Tony's... fiancée.”

“Oh,” she says. Fiancée? Mr Stark definitely hasn't mentioned anything about that. “Oh, right, yeah. Miss Nivena, I'm sorry. I had a long day yesterday.” She cringes at the excuse, so pathetic, but the woman doesn't call her on it.

“I heard. Tony called me this morning and wheedled until I came over. Already unconscious by the time I got here, though. He's a class act. You must be Virginia Potts, I take it?”

“Right, yes, I am. Sorry, I guess now it's your turn to think I'm a crazy stalker.”

Joanna looks her up and down. “I don't think a suit and three inch heels is the stalker's wardrobe of choice, somehow.”

“It could just be a clever disguise.”

Joanna nods. “Could be. Pretty helpful stalker though, 'cause I'm pretty sure that the beginnings of the plague were being cultured back there.”

“Yeah, not exactly in my skill set,” she says. “Did... Mr Stark mention me?”

“Obi did.” Joanna's eyes flash with something. Not anger, but... something. Virginia thinks about the woman last night. The woman a few days before that. The women he and Major Rhodes brought home. “He said you were keeping Tony in line.”

“I really don't think that's true.”

“Well, nevertheless, you're doing the world a service, Miss Potts.” The smile she gives doesn't quite reach her eyes. “I'm gonna hit the showers.”

-

Through some careful research (typing 'Joanna Nivena' into Yahoo), she finds out that Miss Nivena is the daughter of Andrew Nivena, a corporate lawyer based in New York who worked for Stark Industries in the seventies and eighties. Apparently the two families were close in a high society sort of way. There's not a hint that Joanna and Tony are even dating, though.

Mr Stark doesn't really say anything about her beyond asking if she's still there when Virginia rouses him from his bed in the late afternoon, having completely missed Stane's important shareholder meeting. He seems relieved when she tells him that Joanna had to get to work.

The next time she sees Joanna is a couple of weeks later, in the office. Stark hasn't been in at all, and the last she heard from him he was in Las Vegas; she's working at clearing his schedule and signing a stack of documents that have been marked as urgent for the past week. She's getting pretty good at forging signatures.

There's a knock at Stark's office door where she currently ensconced. He hasn't quite seen his way fit to getting her her own office, yet. “Miss Potts?”

She looks up. “Yes? Oh, Miss Nivena, hi.”

“Is Tony here? He isn't at home, and he's not picking up his cell.”

“No, he's...” When she called him this morning, she heard a woman's voice in the background. “...in a meeting.”

Joanna smiles. “Of course. Such a hard worker. When you see him, could you tell him that the Nan Goldin exhibit opens tomorrow night at the museum. I thought he might like to come with me. It has the word 'sex' in the title, so...”

“'The Ballad of Sexual Dependency'? I've been trying to get tickets to that for weeks!” Virginia says, already feeling herself begin to blush. It probably isn't appropriate to chat with the boss's fiancée like this especially when you're aware that said boss has been sleeping his way around the West Coast since you were hired.

“Perk of the job, I'm a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art.” She pauses and cocks her head. “Would you like to come with me, Miss Potts?”

“Oh, I--”

“Tony has zero appreciation for anything that doesn't explode. Come on, you'd be doing me a favour. I just know my co-workers are going to laugh at me for going out with such a philistine.”

“Well, I mean, if it's for a good cause...”

“Tomorrow, seven o'clock.”

-

Virginia had wanted to major in Art History, she'd chosen a small liberal arts college for that very reason, and she'd been on track for it until midway through her second year. Then, her parents filed for divorce, and suddenly fees were a problem, loans were a problem, and she was working nights at the local coffee shop.

Once her room mate discovered that she'd been a Mathlete in high school, she started to pick up a couple of extra bucks a week tutoring first her friends, then everyone on her floor, math for their science requirements. She was the only one in her dorm that knew her way around a quadratic equation, and her time became highly prized.

Logically it followed for her to declare her major in Accounting at the end of the year. It set her up for a good job when she graduated and it came easy to her, easy enough that she could take on extra shifts at work through her third and fourth years and still come out of it with 3.8 GPA.

The Museum of Contemporary Art, though, is still a great deal more interesting than an end of year budget report.

“How long have you been working here for?” she asks, after she's been around the exhibit three times and looked at every photograph at least twice. Joanna is incredibly patient, following her around, introducing her to the VIPs (Virginia gets several job offers after they hear that she works for Tony Stark), explaining the significance of this angle or that.

“About eight months. I was at Tate Modern before that.”

Virginia thinks back to when she met Major Rhodes: eight months is about how long his deployment was, and he'd asked if she was Mr Stark's new girlfriend. She'd thought he was joking, at the time.

“Me and Tony have been together for six months,” Joanna says, “In case you were wondering.”

“I... was,” she admits. “That's not very long to already be engaged, if you don't mind me saying.”

“No, it's fine, you're right, it isn't long. Tony sort of... took me by surprise one night.” Joanna snags a couple of drinks off a tray as a waiter passes by them, and hands one to Virginia. “We've known of each other since we were kids, but Obi reintroduced us at a party earlier this year. And what about you, Miss Potts?”

She takes a sip of her champagne. It's divine. “Virginia, please. Not a lot to say, really.”

“Well, you seem to know a lot about Goldin and I noticed that Tony's acquired some new art. I don't think Gary Hume is really his speed.”

She shrugs. “He gave me a three million dollar budget and told me to do what I wanted with it. I studied Art History in college.”

“I'm glad he has someone to teach him about culture.” Joanna sips her glass very slowly, eyes tracking various people milling around the room. At length, she says, “He likes you.”

“I think Mr Stark likes everyone,” Virginia replies. He's certainly friendly enough with everyone.

“No, his feelings for people normally range from casual disinterest to 'will they let me fuck them?'.” She clears her throat politely. “You, he likes.”

“I-- okay. I like him too.” She instantly regrets saying this, but Joanna only smiles.

“You're one of the few, Virginia.”

-

She gets four days' holiday over Thanksgiving, and takes it to go home and see her mother and little sister. And her mother's new husband, Roger.

“Tell me everything,” Julia demands the moment Virginia gets out of the taxi. “What's he like? Is he cut? I bet he's cut. Oh my God, does he sleep in the nude? Have you seen his junk?”

“Hi, sis,” Virginia says.

Her family quiz her all afternoon about Stark, about her duties, and which famous people she's met.

“So, how are you really?” her mother asks later, after turkey has been eaten and Roger has been appointed washing up duty. “We've heard so little from you lately.”

“I'm good, everything's good.”

“Really? Because all I ever hear about this Stark man is how he has sex with everyone and gets drunk a lot.”

“Not all the time, he does occasionally sleep,” Virginia says. Her mother doesn't laugh. She forgot: humour like that doesn't fly around here. “But he's not that bad. He's actually kind of... sweet, in his own way.”

“Mm,” is her mother's final comment on that.

The next day, Virginia borrows Roger's truck and drives herself and Julia over to their father's. It's a five hour drive; Julia settles in with her Walkman and Virginia resigns herself to listening to the radio the whole way there.

“Gin?” Julia says after a couple of hours. Her headphones are hanging around her neck.

“Run out of CDs?” she asks.

“Yeah... Hey, so, I kinda got early acceptance into Columbia.”

“You did? That's great! When did you find out?”

Julia shrugs. “Last week. Haven't told Mom and Dad yet.”

Virginia glances at her; Julia's been going on about Columbia for months, ever since they visited it together over spring break, just before Virginia got promoted. “Wasn't it your first choice? Is there somewhere else you'd rather go?”

“No, it's just...” Julia rolls her eyes and shifts her gaze to the window to stare out of it despondently. “Dad got demoted and everything. I don't think we can afford it. Like, you got through college by working every hour you weren't in class, but you're a genius or whatever. I'm not going to be able to do that.”

“First, that is not true. You got into Columbia, clearly you're doing something right.” Julia shrugs again in response. “Second... don't worry about money, okay?”

“Yeah? How do you suggest I do that?”

“By being a very grateful sister. Let's just say that Mr Stark has been very... generous to me.”

Julia turns in her seat and stares at her. And continues to stare until Virginia begins to smile.

“A good person would say that this is way too much,” Julia comments eventually. She bites her lip. “Thanks, Ginny.”

-

She gets back to California on Monday and immediately picks her car up from the parking lot and drives over to Malibu. She hasn't heard from Mr Stark for the entire Thanksgiving break and that worries her. Usually he calls her three, four times a day, to get her to pick his dry cleaning up, order in Chinese, or just ramble about whatever it is that he's working on at that moment.

Joanna's car is in the drive again when she gets there; she parks alongside it and quietly lets herself into the house. She should have thought, maybe they've been holed up here over the holiday, maybe that's why Stark didn't feel the need to call her incessantly.

Joanna, Joanna, please, I'm sorry, come on.

She freezes at Stark's plaintive voice drifting in from upstairs.

It's not that, Tony.

I promise I won't ever... I won't ever cheat on you again. Please. I'm sorry, it didn't mean anything.

It's not that,” Joanna repeats. “This... it was never going to work.” There's a lull in the conversation, and then she says, “Tony, let go of me,” in the saddest voice Virginia's ever heard. Soon there are footsteps on the staircase and she backs up, looking for some handy shadows to hide in. Too bad Stark's house is all bright lights and open spaces.

“Virginia,” Joanna says as she makes it to the ground floor. All she has with her is a small travel bag. It's probably everything that she's ever kept at the mansion. A toothbrush and a couple of changes of underwear. “Look after him.” She strides out with more grace than Virginia could ever even imagine having.

She edges around the banister and looks up the staircase, where Stark's standing barefoot, in sweatpants, with lipstick marks on his neck. “So, how was your Thanksgiving?” he asks viciously. “Mine was awesome.”

-

She pours him two fingers of scotch; he swipes the bottle from her and takes a pull from it. “Fuck,” he says.

“What happened?”

He hasn't thought it necessary to put a shirt on, and she can't help but mentally tell Julia that he is, indeed, cut.

“Got caught fucking someone I shouldn't have been, didn't I?” he says. He takes another swig from the bottle.

“Mr Stark, Mr Stark.” She tugs at the bottle and it comes easily from his grip. She sets in down out of his reach. “That's not helping.”

“Beyond help,” he mumbles, rubbing at his face.

“That's not true.” She pats tentatively at his shoulder. There's really no appropriate place to touch him when he's in this state of undress.

He peers at her from between his fingers. “Yeah?”

“Yes,” she says. She rubs a little more at his shoulder and can't help but notice the way he leans into her, just a bit.

He drops his hands to his lap. “I really fucked everything up. She was, like, the perfect woman.”

“Well,” she says. “Why did you?”

“Dunno. Something to do.” He grins, though there's nothing humorous about it. “How's that for an explanation?”

“I think... If you don't mind me saying...” He nods for her continue. “I think you weren't that interested to begin with.”

“You think I didn't love her?” he asks, but it's weak and she notes that it's already in the past tense.

“Mr Stark, I have no idea what goes on in your head, but I think that when you put your mind to something, you follow through with it.”

“So, you're saying that I need to find my true love?”

She frowns. That's slightly more of a leap than she was aiming for. “Maybe? Or maybe just put a little more thought into your relationships?”

She wonders if she's gone too far. Lecturing the boss about his love life can't be a sensible career move, but he just ducks his head and smiles. “You're like my fairy godmother and Yoda all rolled into one, Potts.”

“Cinderella, the ball go to, you will,” she says.

-

She quits for the fourth time after she drives over to his house two weeks later. He hasn't been answering his phone all day, and she tells herself she isn't worried, that it's hardly unusual for him to ignore the phone when he doesn't want to be hassled, but he's been so delicate since Joanna left that she gives into her desire to check up on him. He hasn't been out clubbing at all in the past two weeks, doesn't seem to have been drinking, has even attended some of the meetings he was meant to be at.

Last she saw of him was late yesterday afternoon. Stane was about to take him out for dinner. He'd confided in her, in a rare show of openness, that he was worried about Tony's state of mind. Joanna, he told her, had accepted a job at the Met and was leaving for New York on the weekend.

“I think they really could have had something,” he said. “I don't know how he's going to take it.”

They left around six, Stane's arm around Stark's shoulders, and she felt relieved that he had someone else on his side, especially since Major Rhodes was away in Colorado training.

It's been a good twenty four hours since then, and Stane has no idea where he would be. Last he saw Tony, he was dropping him off at home.

She hears the music before she even gets into view of the front of the mansion. There are several cars in the drive. She parks where she can find a spot and walks as quickly as she can in her heels to the house. The front door is open.

The music is deafening when she gets inside; he's incredibly lucky that he doesn't have any neighbours. She weaves as best she can through warm bodies, occasionally having to slap at a wandering hand.

“Mr Stark?” she yells.

“Upstairs,” someone yells back.

There's not so much of a crush by the staircase, and she gets upstairs easily enough. The closer she gets to his room, the more her heart drops. She can hear things being smashed, voices and laughter. It sounds like Mr Stark. She forgoes knocking and pushes his door open.

Several things hit her: the amount of people in his room, the amount of open bottles on the floor, the amount of broken furniture, and, more literally, the bra that's flung in her face.

“Pottsy!” Stark shouts, falling out of the bed. “Join us, won't you!”

She takes the bra from where it lies across her shoulder and drops it to the floor. “What... is going on?” she asks slowly.

He stumbles into a wall. “Impromptu party!” he says loudly and several people laugh.

She clenches her jaw. “I see. The reason being?”

He stares for a couple of seconds, squinting at her. “You talk really clever, Potts,” he says at last.

“Really,” she says.

He nods, eyes and pupils wide. And yes, he does sleep in the nude. Or not sleep in it, more accurately.

“You realise that your house is being destroyed, don't you?”

He shrugs.

“Great,” she says. “Since you're obviously fine, I'm going to go home and sleep.” She turns to leave, but only gets a couple of steps before a hand on her arm stops her. She looks back over her shoulder, and his face is right there.

“I-” he says, and presses his face into her shoulder. “Stay,” he mumbles.

She looks down. Of course, of course, he has an erection. “No, thank you,” she says, pulling out of his grip.

“Please, but, if you... the others could go.” He reaches for her arm again, and she easily evades his hand.

“I don't even know what you're saying, but this is incredibly inappropriate, Mr Stark.”

He glances down. “Oh, I can... deal with that.”

It's all she can do to not slap him. “Goodbye, Mr Stark,” she says instead, and turns on her heel.

“...bye?” he calls after her pathetically.

-

When a FedEx courier turns up at her door late the next afternoon, she refuses to sign for the package. When a mysterious fifty grand appears in her bank account, she ignores it. When she finds tickets to the ballet in her mailbox, she sends them back.

She gets several interviews set up in the next couple of weeks, by working some of the contacts she made at the museum, and by just trying her luck shopping her résumé around different companies. Being formerly employed by Tony Stark turns out to be a huge benefit to her.

Two weeks in, he stops bombarding her with gifts, and she begins to think that it's over. It was her six month adventure that, really, was never going to last. Stark goes through PAs faster than he does toothbrushes, she never should have expected job security. It kills her that she won't be able to pay Julia's fees, though. She still hasn't told her family that she's quit.

She's hoping she won't have to until she's got a new job, though: Hammer Industries contact her in the second week of December and offer her an interview. The starting salary is a lot less than what she was making, but then again, it's a far more reasonable sum of money than what Stark was giving her. The position is in their Accounting department, as a junior manager. It seems almost perfect: a job that actually fits the skill set she has, nine to five workdays, a week off for Christmas and two in the summer. She gets more and more excited about it as the day of the interview approaches and as a treat, she decides to get her hair done before heading to the supermarket. It's just a trim, a little more shaped around her face to make her look older, but she's pleased with it. Her previous bob made her look like a teenager.

“Can I help you with those?” someone asks when she makes it back out to the parking lot, several plastic bags in hand. As always, she knows that voice.

Stark is wearing an oil-stained hoodie and jeans with the fabric worn away around the knees. Under her scrutiny, he shoves his hands in his pockets and looks at the ground.

“How did you find me?” she asks as calmly as she can.

“Uh, your cell.”

“There's a tracker in my phone?”

He glances up. “All corporate employees have them. Didn't Obi tell you?”

She sets her jaw and fishes around in her bag for the offending item. “Take it out,” she says, handing the phone to him.

He frowns at her, but flips it over and slides the back off with quick fingers, pulls the battery out, and removes the SIM card. There's a tiny... something attached to the card that he picks off with his fingernail, flicks to the ground and crushes underneath his shoe. He reassembles the phone and hands it back to her.

“I really thought you knew,” he says.

“Uh huh,” she says. “What do you want?”

“I heard you've got an interview with Hammer Industries. You can't go to it.”

“I can't?” she repeats.

He shakes his head. “No. Justin Hammer is the actual worst; you can't work for him. I won't allow it.”

“You won't allow it?” she repeats, and by the look on his face, he's just starting to pick up on the dangerous undertone in her voice.

“I mean I--” He spreads his hands. “Hammer would be a sucky boss. He's, like, twenty three.”

“And?”

“And...” He bites his lip and stares at her with wide eyes. It doesn't look like he's shaved, or slept, in a few days. “Do you want to hit me?”

She blinks. “What?”

“I know I said before that you shouldn't hit me, but I think you should hit me.”

“Hitting you is not going to make me feel better, Mr Stark.” Well, she doesn't know that for sure, but they're in a Safeway parking lot, and he's already drawing curious glances.

“It'd make me feel better. I mean--” He backs up a step at the look she gives him. “Not in a kinky way. Just... if it'd stop you being angry at me. You're a really good PA, Miss Potts, I want you back.”

It's his hands that do her in, clasped in front of him, fingers twisting together; it hits her that, God, he really is so young. “Do you understand how inappropriate what you did was?” she asks.

“Yeah, no, I know. I'm sorry you had to see my... That. It won't happen again. Scout's honour.” He raises his hand and gives her a Vulcan salute.

“I could sue you for sexual harassment,” she continues. “I'd probably win.”

“I know. Do you want a, um, a raise? Another raise?”

She thinks about it. She believes that he's sorry, but she doesn't believe for a second that something like this won't happen again. She doesn't believe that this is going to be the last time she quits. “My sister's going to Columbia next fall,” she says.

“Okay?”

“I want the company to give her full ride scholarship. Whether or not I remain with you.”

“Oh, yeah, sure, definitely.” His gaze flickers to her, then away, then back again. “So... will you be back tomorrow?”

She takes a deep breath. “No,” she says, and hopes she isn't pushing her advantage too far. “I'm taking a long break over the Christmas holidays. I'll see you in January.”

He narrows his eyes at her for a moment, then his mouth starts to curve into a wide grin. “Well played. Merry Christmas, Miss Potts.”

“Merry Christmas, Mr Stark.”

-

She does quit again, after Stark accidentally blows up part of his workshop, but he follows her out of the house, hair singed and sweatshirt slightly on fire, and by the time she's put it out and cleaned his burns, the matter is forgotten.

-
1999
“Miss Potts,” he says, flopping down across from her in the lounge. He's been down in the workshop for days, toiling away on something or other that he won't let her see. Not that she really wants to see it; seeing things leads to very long, very complicated explanations, and occasionally demonstrations that warrant a call to the fire department.

She glances up from her laptop. “Yes, Mr Stark?”

“Potts,” he repeats. “Potts, Potts, Potts.”

“Yes?” she tries again, but he's staring up at the ceiling. Maybe cabin fever has finally taken hold.

He throws his arms wide. “I'm getting so bored with Potts.”

“I'm... sorry?” It's been at least eight months since she last threatened to quit. Is this him finally getting revenge?

“What do people who aren't me call you?” he asks.

“Oh,” she says. “Well, my friends call me Ginny.”

He rolls his head to one side to look at her. “Like the character from that kids' book? No, I don't think so.”

“I have been considering changing my title to 'Ms',” she says. “If that helps.”

“It doesn't.” He slumps down further into the couch, his t-shirt riding up a little. “Why?”

“'Miss Potts' makes me sound like I should be a character in Beauty and the Beast.”

“Mm, you'd need a little anthropomorphic teacup to really bring it together. I could probably make that, wouldn't be so hard...” He frowns. “Does this make me the Beast?”

“If you're really going to insist on keeping the facial hair, maybe.”

He crosses his arms over his chest and huffs. “I like it, makes me look like a grown-up.”

“Sure,” she says, and looks back down at her laptop. Tony squirms a little, picking at threads coming loose from a cushion. She makes a mental note to get it replaced.

“But, really,” he continues after a moment. “I can't keep calling you 'Potts' for the rest of my life.”

The rest of his life? She looks over at him again, but he's carefully inspecting his dirty fingernails.

“I must return to the Starkcave,” he says suddenly, practically vaulting himself off the couch and heading for the staircase at speed.

-

He tries a number of different nicknames over the next couple of weeks, ranging from the obvious, 'Red', to the ridiculous, 'Smurfette'.

“Flower!” he yells from the workshop one day. She's been putting out vases of freshly cut flowers for months, to make the places look less totalitarian – all he's ever said about it is that it makes the place look like a hospital.

“Flower Potts!” he yells again, “Come down here!”

“Oh God,” she mutters, and makes her way down. She keys in her code and steps in. “You are not calling me 'Flower'.”

He spins around in his chair a couple of times. “Yeah, you're not really a 'Flower'. I'm onto something here, though. Your surname is rife with potential.”

She knows, as did the everyone in high school.

He waves his hands dismissively. “Anyway, anyway, that's not why I called you down here.” He grins. He looks positively deranged. “Jarv, do your thing.”

“Virginia Potts,” a disembodied voice says. She jumps. “Aged twenty six. Born in New Hampshire, New York, May 5th 1974. Attended Concord High School, graduated magna cum laude from Bryn Mawr, 1996. Five foot nine inches, one hundred and thirty pounds, strawberry blonde hair, green eyes, size eight shoe.”

The voice ends abruptly and Tony does a couple more spins in his chair. “So! What do you think?”

“'Strawberry blonde'?” she repeats.

“'s just what's in the file,” he says, deflating slightly.

“Who put it in there?”

He shrugs. “Dunno. But it's cool, right?”

“It's very cool.”

He punches the air. “Ask him a question!”

“Um.” She glances at Tony, who makes an encouraging gesture. “When was Mr Stark--”

“May 10th, 1971,” the voice supplies tonelessly.

“He can anticipate over a thousand different questions! Go on, ask him something else.”

“When did I graduate--”

“1992,” it says.

Tony looks extremely pleased with himself. “High school, right? Isn't he the most awesome thing ever?”

“Well,” she says, and looks down into his wide-eyed expression. “Yes. Maybe just a little bit creepy, though.”

His eyebrows jump up. “Creepy?”

“I mean, being anticipated is a little... creepy. Off-putting.”

He taps his chin. “I hadn't thought of that.” He spins back round to his keyboard and starts mashing away at the keys.

“So... its name is 'Jarv'?” she asks after a couple of minutes silence only broken up the frenzied tapping of Tony.

His name, Honey Potts, please! His name is Jarvis. Say hello, Jarvis.”

“Hello Jarvis,” he repeats.

Tony grins. “That was on purpose, gotta start the humour subroutines off slow.”

“'Honey'?” she says. “No way.”

“I'll get it in the end,” he assures her.

-

The dinner in honour of Governor Davis is possibly the dullest event she's ever attended. She's surrounded by people at least twenty years older than her, whose eyes skip over her easily when she speaks and look away pointedly when Tony does. He's all nervous energy and irritation beside her, his shoulder bumping into hers every few minutes. It was a performance getting him to come tonight at all, and she was cast in at the last moment to come with him. She'd been all set to stay in the mansion and work while Tony and Stane went to the function, but Tony's plus one was... hardly an appropriate choice and Stane quickly vetoed her when she arrived in her fur coat and high heels.

For some reason, the mansion has a wide selection of women's clothing, and with a couple of strategically placed safety pins, she was able to fit quite nicely into a black dress, though it did nothing for her sad lack of a cleavage.

“Mr Stark,” she says quietly. “Stop fidgeting, we won't have to stay for much longer.”

He huffs. “This food,” he says in a stage whisper, “tastes like cardboard.”

She can't really disagree.

“Hand me the pepper,” he says, gesturing vaguely across the table. He's already on his fourth glass of wine, and his aim is a little wild. She grabs his hand and pulls it down, placing it carefully in his lap. He squeezes her fingers briefly before she extricates her hand.

She passes him the pepper and he shakes it over his food a couple of times, huffs some more, then pops the ceramic lid off and pours a small mountain of the stuff onto his plate.

“You're going to give yourself a stomach ache,” she warns as he starts mixing it into his food. People are beginning to look.

He shrugs. “I like pepper,” he says, then tilts his head to the side. “Hey...”

Stane is glaring daggers at them. “What?” she asks.

“Pepper. Potts. Pepper Potts. I like it. I really like it.”

“That doesn't even make sense,” she says.

“Yeah, it does. You've got red hair and, uh, sorta get freckles when you let your skin see the sun.”

“Pepper isn't red.”

“Cayenne pepper is,” he says, and waves his fork at her. “Ha.”

“Mr Stark,” she says.

“Yes, Pepper?”

“No.”

“Yes.”

“No.”

By the time they pour him into the back seat of the limo, he's made up an impromptu song that mostly consists of yelling 'pepper' in a somewhat musical manner. The Governor's aides suggest that Tony turn down any invitations he might receive from them in the future.

-

She has a room in his house to work. In theory she's meant to do her administrative work at the office, but Tony is putting increasingly ridiculous demands on her time that require her to within walking distance of him whenever he's awake, and his office in the mansion has gone unused for years, as evidenced by the thick layer of dust on the desk and the tops of all the shelves.

He stays in his workshop or his bed most of the time when she's working in there, making and breaking appointments, and perfecting her Tony Stark signature. She's even started writing 'personal' emails from him to people who want to consider themselves his friends; she's getting pretty good at his unique style of writing.

When he's not sleeping or tinkering, though, he invariably hangs around the office, 'keeping her company', poking and picking and passing comment on every little thing. He's been talking inanely for the last twenty minutes while she works on untangling the snarled mess of all the things he's promised to do without a thought as to his schedule.

“This is a nice pen,” he says, holding one of her pens up to his face. “Hey, it's engraved and everything, 'To the indispensable Miss Potts'. Is this from me? It seems very formal.”

“It was a gift from Mr Stane for my birthday,” she says, keeping her eyes trained on her computer. Eye contact only encourages him.

“It was your birthday?”

“At one point, yes.”

He twiddles the pen between his fingers. “I mean, don't get me wrong,” he continues, picking up the conversation thread from wherever he likes, “it's a cool gift, it's just kind of stuffy. Impersonal, you know? I've been given a lot of pens in the past, and all of 'em got lost or broken, and you have to refill them and stuff, way too much effort. But, I don't know, you are kind of stuffy, no offence, I don't know what I'd get you for your birthday-” As if that would ever be an issue, she thinks darkly. “-maybe a new organiser? Hm, Pepper, you're going to have to tell me what to get you for your birthday next year. Or... has it not come around yet this year? Jarvis, when's--”

“Mr Stark,” she snaps, “will you please... will you please shut up?”

The pen stills between his fingers. He blinks and frowns, and she has a moment of cold horror, replaying her words. Their relationship may be somewhat closer than most working relationships, but in the end, he's still her boss; he's still her immature, prone to hiring and firing people on the basis of their shoes, boss. He can be breathtakingly petty and mean, and if he fires her right now, it won't even be petty, because everyone knows better than to speak to their boss like that. Everyone but her, apparently.

“Uh,” he says, and she forces herself to look up at him and not spill apologies that are just going to make everything a hundred times more awkward. “I'm sorry. I'll be quiet.” He places her pen back on the desk carefully, and slumps down in his chair, giving particular attention to his fingernails.

She stares at him for a moment, but he doesn't look at her again, and the corners of his mouth of turned down. “I-- Okay,” she says eventually, and goes back to her work.

-

His 28th birthday party goes smoother than she expected it would. He doesn't get naked in her presence, doesn't come on to her, doesn't do anything that would cause her to turn in her two weeks' notice again. She leaves for home at four in the morning, when the guests are dwindling and it becomes obvious that Tony wants some alone time with those remaining.

When she returns at eight, the house is in its normal state of disarray after a party, and she sets about dealing with the most immediately dangerous debris: smouldering cigarettes, glass, and suspicious white powder; they've lost more than one cleaner this way.

“The weather in Malibu in sixty degrees, humidity at fifty eight percent,” Jarvis's monotone, modulated voice begins. “The sun rose at 5.55am and-”

“Yes, thank you, that's enough,” she says. Tony has programmed Jarvis to recite all sorts of useless information and it's becoming a little trying.

“Um,” a voice says behind her. She turns around to find a blond guy clutching a collection of clothes to his chest.

She takes in his tousled hair and the beard burn on his smooth face, and says, “Would you like me to call you a car?”

“Um,” he says again, and she pulls out her phone to ring Happy.

The man, whose name she discovers is Jason, is the only loiterer in the house, and once he's dealt with, she finishes her preliminary cleaning downstairs quickly, and moves on to the always delightful task of Tony's bedroom.

“Hey.” Tony pokes his head around the bathroom door as she begins to collect various items of clothing from the floor. “Is, uh, is everyone gone?”

“Everyone is gone,” she confirms. “I sent your friend home with Happy.”

“Okay, cool.” He steps into the bedroom and nudges a pair of discarded pants with his bare foot. “Uh, I'll help,” he says, and picks the pants up awkwardly with his toes. He stumbles to one side, and bumps into a wall.

“Why don't you just sit, Mr Stark,” she says.

“Okay,” he says, and hands her the pants.

She can feel his eyes on her as she moves around the room; she's starting to get used to how often he watches her, but it's still a little disconcerting, mostly because she doesn't know why. It isn't leering, or, at least, it isn't just leering. It's... watching, cataloguing, with a kind of sincerity that he never displays at any other time.

“I need to tell you something,” he says eventually.

“You're finally shaving the beard.”

“Ha ha. No, um...” He pauses long enough that she turns round to look at him, sitting on the end of his bed, one knee drawn up to his chest. “I'm--” He pushes his shoulders back and looks her straight in the eye. “I'm bisexual.”

“I know,” she says.

His eyebrows shoot up. “You do?”

“You flirt with anything that has a pulse, Mr Stark.” She smiles. “It was a safe bet.”

“I've only ever told Rhodey,” he says. “I mean, he kind of got a live action demonstration, but... I haven't, like, come out.”

“I know,” she repeats.

“It's not that I'm ashamed,” he continues, “but I don't think that Obi would appreciate the media shitstorm it would cause.”

“I know,” she says again.

“Is there anything that you don't know?” he asks, but he's smiling.

“Nothing.”

“Man, you really are wasted on making my coffee runs.”

She tilts her head in agreement, and holds his gaze for a moment. “Black, four sugars?” she asks.

“How did you know?”

-

Tony's New Year's Eve party makes the gossip pages before it even happens, which is something of a first. It's billed as the party to be at to say farewell to the 20th century, and everyone who's anyone is invited.

“If the end of technology as we know it isn't a good enough reason for a party, I don't know what is,” he says, skimming the guest list that she's prepared. “Ugh, not George Lucas, The Phantom Menace was an insult to humanity.”

“I thought you said that Y2K was bullshit,” she replies, and neatly crosses out Lucas's name. She seems to recall a long, rather drunken rant on the matter that he delivered just a couple of months ago.

“Did you miss the part where I said it was a good enough reason for a party?”

“Evidently,” she mutters.

Her sister desperately wants to come. So desperately that she calls every night for a week to put the hard word on Pepper about family and loyalty and 'did I mention that you're my favourite sister?'. Eventually Pepper agrees on the conditions that Julia will stay by her side the entire night (lest she be initiated into the tawdry lifestyle of Tony's friends while Pepper isn't looking), that she won't drink, and that she will not, under any circumstances, tell their parents.

The latter two conditions aren't that hard to enforce, but the first one? Julia's practically as slippery as Tony, who for his part is immediately taken with her.

“My God, Potts, your gene pool, seriously,” he says, turning away from Brad Pitt mid-conversation. She does her best not to flush, and focuses on Tony.

“This is my sister, Julia,” she says.

“I can see that,” he says, and takes a step towards her. Pepper slips in and blocks him.

“She is off limits, Mr Stark.”

He frowns. “I can't even shake her hand?”

“No. I am completely serious about this.”

His mouth turns down at the edges. “Fine. Nice to meet you, Julia.”

“Nice to meet you too, Mr Stark,” she replies, and he flashes a grin.

“Call me Tony, please.”

Pepper crosses her arms over her chest, and he backs up a little. “Go find someone to flirt with,” she says, and smiles sweetly.

She hopes that will be the end of it, but Julia manages to slip off every half an hour or so, and Pepper always finds her talking to an increasingly inebriated Tony. Each time she drags them apart, she tries to introduce Julia to someone else, but apparently in the house full of movie stars, Tony is still the most interesting person there. Pepper does her best to get around and talk to people while dragging Julia along after her, but the whole affair gets more and more stressful as the night wears on.

When she catches Mr Stane talking to Mel Gibson, she's relieved; she's less so when she sees that he has his son, Ezekiel, with him, but Stane is still one of the few sane people that she can rely on. “Come meet my other boss,” she says to Julia. “And his son. Be nice.”

“Why wouldn't I be nice?” Julia asks.

“He's a little...” The word that comes to mind is 'unpleasant', but she goes for 'different', instead. She tugs Julia through the crowd; Mr Stane turns and smiles when he sees her approach.

“I didn't know you were coming to this, Mr Stane,” she says, holding Julia in check.

“Well, the kid wanted to come, and I think you probably understand why letting an eighteen year old come to one of these things alone might not be a great idea.”

“I do, sir,” she says, and manages a smile for Ezekiel, who peers at her suspiciously. “How's MIT going?” she asks him.

“It's fine,” he says.

“This is my sister, Julia. I think you two are about the same age.”

Ezekiel grunts something while Julia murmurs 'hello' and raises an eyebrow. Mr Stane slaps a hand onto the back of his son's neck and jostles him slightly.

“Be a gentleman,” he warns, his smile not reaching his eyes.

“Pleased to meet you, Julia,” Ezekiel mutters.

“Same to you, I guess,” she replies.

Mr Stane tuts and gives Ezekiel a light shove. “Kids.”

By the time midnight rolls around, Ezekiel has sloped away somewhere while Stane was talking to Tony, and the party moves out onto the deck to watch the fireworks that cost Tony untold thousands for the technicians and for what might be seen by some as bribes to the officials of LA County.

“One minute!” Tony yells, holding several bottles of wine in his hands. “Peppeeeer, come over here!”

“What's up with this 'Pepper' thing?” Julia asks. She accepts a glass of wine from a passerby, and Pepper neatly relieves her of it.

“I don't know, it has something to do with cayenne pepper. Mr Stark likes to test out just how aggravating he can be.” She takes a sip from the glass. “This is good stuff.”

Peppeeeer!” Tony yells again, and she rolls her eyes.

“Yes, Mr Stark?” she says, moving towards him.

He grins stupidly at her and thrusts one of the bottles at her.

“Why are you giving me this?” she asks, taking it from him and reading the label. It's a good vintage: Latour, 1928. It certainly shouldn't be passed around like an unwanted child.

“'Cause I need my hands free. Are the fireworks ready?”

“Of course, Mr Stark.”

“Pepper,” he says again. She's beginning to think that he just likes repeating her name as often as he can get away with.

“Yes, Mr Stark?”

He smiles at her and points up at the sky. She glances up, frowning, before the assembled crowd start counting down from ten.

“Since it's already January 1st on the East Coast,” he says over the crowd, “I guess you've officially survived into the new millennium with me. Welcome to the future, Ms. Potts.”

He takes a couple of steps closer to her until they're practically nose to nose. The crowd is down to 'four' as she reflects on how long his eyelashes are. “Happy New Year,” he says, or at least she thinks he does, but she can't actually hear him over the crowd yelling 'one!' and cheering. He leans in – and up, since she's wearing her three inch heels – and kisses her. She's shocked by how chaste it is, mouth closed, no tongue, no wandering hands, just a press of dry lips to hers.

The fireworks drown everything else out, the explosions replaying behind her eyelids when she closes her eyes, and by the time she regains her equilibrium, Tony's moved back into the centre of the party.

“Well, that was interesting,” Julia says. She's holding a new glass of wine.

-

The party finally, finally, comes to an end at five in the morning when Tony passes out on the couch.

“Is he okay?” Julia asks. She doesn't even look tired.

“The dangers of drinking,” Pepper says, looking down at him as he drools onto his twenty thousand dollar couch. “He's fine. I don't know if I can say the same for the rest of these people, though.”

There are a good sixty or seventy people in various states of consciousness still in the house, and as much as she desperately wants to go home and at least change her clothes before coming back and handling the clean up, she can't in all good conscience leave the house full of strangers while Tony is unconscious.

“We're going to have to stick around until everyone leaves or Tony wakes up, whichever comes first.”

“Not a problem for me, sis,” Julia says. She's sitting on the end of the couch next to Tony's feet (and where are his shoes?), looking inordinately pleased with herself.

“If I may, Ms. Potts,” a clipped voice says from seemingly nowhere. “Fire alarms tend to be a good motivator for clearing people from an area.”

“Jarvis?” she asks, looking up at the ceiling. “You sound different.”

“Yes. Mr Stark undertook major adjustments to my program after you identified me as 'creepy'.”

“Oh. Well, it wasn't personal.”

“Of course not. I do not have a 'person'.”

“Are you having a conversation with the house?” Julia asks.

Pepper shrugs. “I don't even know any more. Jarvis, where did the voice come from?”

“Mr Stark specially synthesised this vocal track to be pleasing to the ear. He is aware of how much BBC America you watch when you are here.”

She feels her cheeks begin to flush. “Please set off the fire alarms now, Jarvis,” she says.

“Very good, Ms. Potts.”

-

2001
She realises ahead of time that she shouldn't let him have the party, not that she really has any power over him, when all is said and done. He tells her it's just a Christmas party, a totally normal, everyday happening for the season, and Stane doesn't seem especially opposed to the idea.

It's not that she's against the idea of a party, per se; Tony's parties are always memorable, at least, and she'll admit to having enjoyed one or two of them. This year is different, though, there's something wild in Tony's eye, more than there normally is at this time of year. Every magazine cover she sees and every news program she watches reminds her of the cause: the ten year anniversary of Howard and Maria Stark's deaths.

Tony doesn't even look at the newspaper when she nudges it into his view, just turns his head to read the display on his computer.

“Would you like Legal to put a stop to this?” she asks. Every year there's an article or two about the anniversary, but this year is an all out assault of ghoulishness. No stone is being left unturned in the media's quest to mourn the great Howard Stark, and compare his playboy son to him.

“They gotta get their fun somewhere,” he says. “Have you ordered the alcohol yet?”

After a couple of weeks, she gives up fighting with him over the timing of the party. It's falling on December 16th, no arguments, and she dreads what the papers will make of him having a Christmas bash on the day of his parents' deaths.

“Just look out for him,” Major Rhodes tells her. She feels like a traitor calling him, somehow, but he's out on manoeuvres and unable to make it back in time. “I know he might say otherwise, but he doesn't have a fucking clue what he's doing.”

There's an air of desperation about him all evening, from when the guests arrive to when Obadiah leaves after an hour (“We all grieve in our own ways,” he says, and hugs Tony), to when, ultimately, Tony throws everyone out at ten to two in the morning.

“Mr Stark,” she says, once he's finished yelling and the last of the stragglers are gone. She catalogues the damage to the place as he stumbles a little on his way to the liquor cabinet. In the tens of thousands, at least. “Please sit down, I think there's been enough excitement for tonight.”

The glass doors on the cabinet have long since been smashed, and he cuts himself as he reaches in for a bottle. It's not deep, not deep enough for her to use her considerable first aid skills, and he brings his hand to his mouth to suck on it for a second before replacing it for the bottle and taking a long draw from it. “I'm fucking grieving here,” he says eventually, “can't you tell?”

“Tony,” she says, stepping forward. She risks resting her hands on his shoulders, feeling how tense and bunched his muscles are, and he slumps under her touch, allows himself to be guided over to a couch.

“This was a bad idea,” he mumbles, and takes another long drink from the bottle.

“Well,” she says, and leaves it there.

“Dad would be so disappointed,” he continues. “He had some real crazy parties when he was young. He was an alcoholic, you know, high-functioning, always ready for the day in a crisp suit and a tidy fucking moustache. None of this sleep till the afternoon and turn up drunk to conferences crap. Never trashed a hotel room, or threw up in the men's restrooms. His hookers were always real classy, didn't kiss and tell. America's golden boy. Everyone loves a warmonger.” He salutes the air with his bottle, spilling some of it on the couch.

“Okay, that's enough,” she says. She pries the bottle from his fingers and sets it down on the floor.

“Pepper.” He stares at her, eyes studying every part of her face like it's going to tell him something. She doesn't have any answers for him. “I don't want to be him.”

He doesn't stop studying her when she speaks, eyes roaming all over. “You're not,” she says.

“Yeah, I am: Howard-lite. Got a little mangled in production, maybe. Not quite as good as the real deal, but still a damn good try.”

She puts her hand on his knee. It's just another of the many mistakes she's already made tonight. “You're not your father,” she repeats.

“Mom tried to help him,” he says. He's leaning in, just a little. “He treated her like shit.”

“Tony,” she says, and it comes out quieter than she expects, quiet enough that it barely seems to register with him. He's slowly drifting closer to her, and when he licks his lips, her eyes are drawn to the action. Something aches in her chest. “Tony,” she says again, more forcefully.

He rocks back. “Right, yeah, sorry. Fuck, I'm not that guy, I don't-- Inappropriate, totally. I'm gonna...” He pulls away from her and stands. Or, tries to stand. He wobbles, stumbling forward and she reacts without thinking. She leans forward, puts her hands on his waist to steady him and draws him back down. He almost falls into her but manages to catch himself. It still leaves him inches from her, though.

“I don't want to be like this,” he whispers.

She moves her hands up to his shoulders, then, after a moment's hesitation, presses one palm to the back of his neck, her fingers brushing over his hair. “You're fine, you're fine.”

She'd like to say that it was Tony; it would make everything so much easier to be able to pin this on him and brush it off as another one of his fruitless passes at her, but her hand is in his hair and then they're kissing and she doesn't think he started it. She knows that this isn't going to make him better but he's pressing against her, mumbling and whining and her fingers just keep tightening in his hair.

“Pepper,” he says, “just...” He traces his fingers along the hem of her shirt, turns towards her and folds his legs underneath him. She goes with him, leaning back as he presses forward, until her head is against the armrest and he has one hand flat against the couch cushion by her shoulder. “I just... Oh, God,” he groans.

She can taste the liquor he's been drinking, can smell smoke on his clothes and in his hair. He's shaking where she touches him, kissing her messily on the mouth before moving down to her throat and chest where the collar of her shirt is unbuttoned. She curls an arm up his back and around his shoulder blade, bends her knees until she's bracketing him, holding him together with her embrace. He's half hard against her hip, rutting shakily against her, his attention back to her face, mouthing her jaw for a minute before kissing her again. She sinks both hands into his hair.

“Is this-- Pepper, I...” he stammers out between kisses. “I love you,” he whispers.

She opens her eyes. Love. She's never heard him say that to anyone, and nobody's said it to her in years, not... not like this. With a supreme amount of effort, she pushes him away. He tries to follow her as she drags herself up into a sitting position.

“I think you should get some sleep, Mr Stark.”

“Pepper,” he says, his voice rough. His eyes are wide and searching and bloodshot; it's painfully obvious how drunk he is. He reaches out and takes her wrist, thumb rubbing against her pulse.

“Mr Stark, please.”

“I'm sorry,” he says quietly.

She pats his hand. “It's fine, come on.”

He comes easily enough, trailing after her up the stairs. He's more pliable than normal, usually when she undresses him after he's been on a tear, he whines and squirms and generally makes everything as difficult as it could possibly be. Tonight she gets him down to his boxers and under the covers of his enormous bed without much of an argument. When she steps away, though, he grabs her hand.

“Pepper,” he says.

“Mr Stark.”

He tugs on her hand. “I don't...” He frowns and drops his gaze to the floor. “I don't want to be alone.”

She almost, almost runs her fingers through his hair. His fingertips knead her skin. “Okay,” she says. “Lie down.”

“Pepper,” he repeats.

“Lie down.”

He nods and flops down. She pries his fingers from her hand, kicks her shoes off, and walks around the other side of the bed to climb on. “On your side,” she says. He rolls over and she lies down behind him, rests her head on her arm, bends her knees to match his.

“I'm sorry,” he says, and she's lost count of how many times he's said those two words tonight. More than he has in his entire life, she wouldn't be surprised.

“Go to sleep,” she says, and, after a moment's hesitation, rests her hand on his arm.

It doesn't take long for him to drift off into a fitful sleep, and once she's sure he isn't going to wake up again, she gets up, closes the bedroom door over behind her and walks downstairs in her bare feet, heels in hand.

She gets home at close to four in the morning, doesn't even try to get any sleep. She washes up, shampoos the smell of smoke out of her hair, rubs moisturiser into the irritated skin around her mouth.

At seven am, she gets a text message from Obadiah. It tells her to take the day off, that he'll look after Tony.

When she sees Tony the next day, he smiles and makes some sarcastic comment that she quickly forgets. He doesn't say anything about the party, and neither does she.

-

Getting Tony to come to the Hammer Gala is like pulling teeth. Worse, even, because at least the pain of that is short lived, while she's sure Tony's going to make this as painful as he can, for as long as he can.

“Get out of bed,” she says as she collects various articles of clothing for him.

“Uh uh,” comes the answer from underneath the covers.

“It's six pm,” she says, “and the car is coming in an hour. Get up.”

“No.”

She drapes a shirt and pair of pants over her arm and sighs. “Yes.”

“Can't make me,” he mumbles.

If he really thinks that... She deposits his clothes over the end of the bed and takes hold of the edge of the cover. “You are getting out of this bed,” she says, and pulls it off to reveal his bare ass.

He rolls onto his side, cradling his head in his hand and stretching out. “If you wanted to see me naked, all you had to do was ask.”

She throws the shirt at him. “Put that on.”

He sits up and pulls the sheets up to cover what might laughingly be called his modesty. “I don't wanna go,” he whines. “I don't like Justin, he's a douchebag.”

“I don't think you're cute, you know.” She grabs a can of deodorant from the bottom drawer of his bedside table and begins to spray him with it. He should really have a shower, but she knows that if he does, it'll just be another way for him to drag this whole thing out even longer.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, you trying to choke me here?” he says, waving his hands in front of him.

“I'm trying to make you smell halfway decent.” She drops the can on the bed and grabs one of his arms to force it through the shirt's sleeve.

“And you totally do think I'm cute,” Tony mutters, struggling against her as she tries to get his other arm in the second sleeve.

“I don't.”

“You do,” he insists and stares hard at her for a second.

She stops fussing with his shirt, leaving the sleeve caught around his elbow. “Tony,” she says softly.

“Because my mom always said I was the most adorable kid in the playground. Hey, give me a pair of boxers, I've gotta hide my thunder. Do I have to wear a tie? I don't wanna wear a tie, it stifles me,” he rambles, covering the awkward moment.

She sighs with relief. It's been a couple of months since the incident, and the more space between her and it, the more she realises what a mistake it was, both professionally and personally. “I'll get the boxers. If you haven't buttoned that shirt up by the time I'm back, I'll be fetching a bucket of ice water next.”

“Yes, ma'am,” he says, saluting.

He does end up wearing a tie. Justin sneers at him as he breezes past with a tiny champagne flute.

“Nice hair,” he says, eyeing Tony's hair that Pepper couldn't quite get under control.

“Nice face,” Tony replies.

“Settle down,” she mutters once Justin has moved on to new prey. “We're here for a reason.”

“We are? I thought I just here to bestow my beauty on these people and get blinding drunk.”

“Later,” she says. She points across the room. “That is General Thaddeus Ross. You need to convince him to give us the Army's weapons contract.”

“Do you mean to say that I'm here to work? Pepper, you tricked me!”

“Hammer wants it,” she says.

He nods once. “Lead the way.”

Ross is, simply put, a windbag. He's holding court with a couple of other army officials, talking about something called the 'bio-force enhancement' project. She and Tony tag onto the end of the group and listen in as he goes on and on. Tony keeps pulling faces and shifting from foot to foot, but she holds him steady, and eventually Ross looks up at them.

“General Ross,” she says, tugging on Tony's arm to get his attention back from the caterer in the tight shirt, “I'm Virginia Potts, and this is Tony Stark. He'd like to talk to you about your weapons development contract.”

“I know who he is,” Ross says. “I knew his father.”

“My condolences,” Tony says.

Ross's face becomes pinched. “Your father was a hero.”

“Yeah, sure,” Tony mutters. “So my beautiful assistant tells me that you need weapons. I make weapons. Seems like we're well suited.”

“We're in negotiations with Hammer,” Ross replies, and Tony pretends to gag.

“Hammer's a dick and a hack. Anything he builds will blow up long before it hits the enemy, guaranteed.”

Ross takes a step towards him. He has at least four inches on Tony, and uses every one of them to force Tony to tilt his head back to look him in the eye. Pepper has a creeping feeling that this is not going to end well.

“Frankly, Mr Stark, you're the one that everyone says is a hack, and with your track record you're probably too much of a liability for the US army. How about you have Stane call me tomorrow and I'll talk to him about it.”

Tony rolls his shoulders. “I've told bigger, richer, and uglier guys than you where to shove it, so I'm gonna tell you something.” He puffs his chest out and sneers. “Fuck off.” He takes a smooth step back and turns to Pepper. “Hey, I bet the Air Force would appreciate my genius, how about we give Rhodey a call tomorrow?”

Ross is already turning away from them, shaking his head.

“Yes, Mr Stark,” she says.

-

2005
In March, Tony goes to the World's Fair in Japan. He's meant to be there for five days. He stays until September.

“I've met someone,” he tells her breathlessly on the phone two days in. “Her name's Rumiko...”

Without Tony around, there's not a lot to do. Once she's cleared his schedule and Obadiah thankfully steps up to shoulder the brunt of Tony's forgotten responsibilities, Pepper is left at a loose end. And she's not the only one.

“I feel like I'm taking advantage,” Happy says, when they're putting her groceries in the trunk of the limo. May as well use it while she can, she thinks.

“Why?”

He shrugs. “Well, I'm being paid, and I'm not even doing any work. Makes me feel kind of itchy.”

“It's hardly your fault that Tony decided to run away, is it?” she says. She slams the trunk shut and turns around to lean against it. “I'm sure you've had enough sleepless nights to warrant a little paid downtime.”

“We still talking about me?”

She laughs. “Yeah, maybe not. I should probably be used to the unexpected with him by now.”

“I don't know if that's possible with the boss. Y'know, I've been working for the company since I was twenty five. Stark Sr wanted someone nearer the boss's age to look out for him. He was eighteen at the time, and man, that kid did everything. Especially... after. I'd been boxing professionally since I was fifteen, but I think some of the scariest times I ever had involved Mr Stark. And he keeps thinking up new and better ways to send me to an early grave.”

She knows exactly what he means. “How about you just keep driving me around? You can earn your keep that way. Say, Friday at eight?”

-

Their dates start off pretty low key. Or, no key, really. They pick up Chinese, the first time, and eat it sitting on the hood of the limo (well, Pepper sits on the hood, heels kicked off; Happy expresses doubt about whether it can take his weight). By Tony's third missed flight home, and her realisation that he very well may stay out there for months, she's been back to Happy's apartment once, and been kissed by him twice.

Obadiah seems to know, or at least suspects. He smiles at her when she comes into the office in the morning, dropped off by the limo, maintaining eye contact for seconds longer than normal. He lets her leave early on Fridays, with a wink and a nod. He doesn't burden her with all the little disasters caused by Tony's running away.

It's really a holiday for her as much as it is for Tony: six months free of him. She enjoys it.

-

In July, Happy (Harry, he says, Call me Harry, okay?. She doesn't tell him to call her Virginia) takes her to visit his mom in Queens. They take advantage of Independence Day falling on a Monday and make a long weekend of it, booking a room at a hotel, one king size bed, breakfast included. They split the bill.

“It's been a while since I've shared a bed with someone,” she tells him. She thinks of lying with her arms bracing Tony's, once, even though she only stayed till he fell asleep. It hardly counts as sharing a bed, and she's certainly had more intimate encounters since then.

“Yeah, me either,” Happy says, thumping their suitcases down on the comforter. “Boss has all the fun for us, huh?”

They have dinner in some little hole in the wall, go for a walk afterwards, holding hands. She almost laughs at the idea, but catches herself. Why shouldn't she go on a date? Not everything has to be an anonymous encounter after Tony's squared away; one night stands have their benefits, but she doesn't have to limit herself to only that.

Happy's mom is nice. She orders in pizza, shows Pepper every photo album and tells her every embarrassing story, until Happy is bright red and makes his excuses to leave the room. In the late afternoon, she sends them on their way with a wink, a smile and an invitation to visit any time. Happy rolls his eyes skywards and apologises for his mother when they're out of earshot.

“Don't apologise,” Pepper says, and takes his hand. “This is nice.”

They have sex for the first time that evening and the next morning, they stay in bed until midday – it's the longest lie-in she's had in years. True to his word, Obadiah doesn't contact her the entire weekend, and when she returns on the Tuesday, he just smiles and nods.

In August, Tony asks her to get him Japanese citizenship. 'Can't be that hard, right? -T', he signs the email. It occurs to her that he used to write 'love', even though she told him how inappropriate it was.

As it turns out, it is that hard, despite him having 'more money than God', and after she's stayed late a couple evenings looking into it, Obadiah tells her to forget it.

“I think we both know his track records with this sort of thing,” he says, and smiles. “How about we just let it simmer for a couple more weeks?”

She agrees, more than a little relieved.

On September 2nd she gets a call from Tony's cell which is almost impossible to understand, and an hour later there's an alert on her computer that says that a Stark Industries plane has taken off from Chūbu Centrair International Airport.

Twelve hours later she stands on tarmac, holding a cup of coffee, and watches the plane touch down on one of their private airfields. There's no sign that anyone's in there besides the pilot for a very long time, until her phone rings and Tony says roughly, “Are you bringing that coffee up here, or what?”

A set of stairs are pushed up to the side of the plane, and she walks up them carefully in her heels, steps through the hatch, and comes face to face with a very washed out looking Tony.

“It's cold,” she says, and hands him the cup.

“Yeah,” he says, looks at it for a while, then puts it down on the floor.

“Do you want to get out of the plane?”

He shakes his head.

“What do you want to do, Mr Stark?”

He shakes his head again. “I don't know.”

She glances out of the hatch, and sees Happy waiting by the car. She raises her hand, and he waves back in return, then opens the driver's side door to settle in for a long wait. She pulls the hatch closed and turns back to Tony.

“What happened?”

“I happened.”

She nods. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“No,” he says, and then, “I missed you.”

“Yes,” she says, “I would too, if I were you.”

-

It's hard to find time to go out, once Tony's back. When Pepper's free, Happy isn't, and when Happy's free, Pepper isn't. Most of the time, though, neither of them are free. She spends a lot of time in the car with him, but Tony's almost always there too. When he's not, it means that they're waiting for him, and neither of them want to get caught in a compromising situation.

It's something of a relief in November when the International Trade Convention in Chicago rolls around and Obi insists that Tony attends it. Pepper cries off it, citing too much work, and Obi tells Tony to stop being such a baby.

She and Happy go to see Doom the evening after Tony leaves for Chicago. She spends most of the movie covertly checking her phone, scrolling through the numerous texts from Tony, most of which amount to 'why do I have to be here?' and 'why don't YOU have to be here?'. Happy probably notices her inattention and the glare of her cell, but he doesn't call her on it.

They go back to hers afterwards, finish off the leftovers in the fridge, and go to bed. She's beginning to get used to sharing a bed again.

At two in the morning, her phone rings shrilly, flashing and skittering across her bedside table.

“Leave it?” Happy mumbles, knowing full well that she won't.

She picks up the phone and answers, “Yes, Tony,” not having even looked at the caller ID. Who else would call her at this hour?

“Pepper, can you, um... Fuck.”

“Can I fuck?” she repeats. The mattress moves as Happy shifts around to look at her, and she waves him off, sitting up. Tony isn't responding, which means he must be either extremely drunk or extremely hungover, because he'd never pass up a line like that if he were in his right mind.

“I need to get out of here,” he says quietly. “Obi told the pilot not to listen to me, but I blew up the prototype and I don't want to go back out there tomorrow and can you book me a flight out this morning or somethin'? I need to get the hell out of dodge. I just wanna go home.”

“Okay,”she says, and reaches for the lamp. She can't even count the amount of times he'd pulled this stunt when he's wanted to get out of a commitment. His 'plaintive and whiny' act is spot on. “Just sit tight, and I'll text you the details.”

“Thanks, Pepper,” he mumbles. “Don't tell Obi, okay? I just... a lot of people saw that thing blow up. He's pretty angry with me.”

“You have my strictest confidence,” she reassures.

“Good,” he breathes.

-

December is as traumatic as it normally is; Tony gets drunk, gets in the papers, and gets into several fights that only end when she pulls him off. He isn't exactly the best fighter in the world, so it isn't that hard to break these sorts of scuffles up.

“You ever think about quitting?” Happy asks as they pour Tony into the backseat of the car after one such night.

“Frequently,” she replies, and Happy gives her a funny look.

In January, there's a conference in Bern to contend with, and although, incredibly, Tony makes it through his lecture on integrated circuits with only a couple of stumbles, she still has to all but hold him up at the meet-and-greet afterwards. She gives him more leeway than she normally would because she always feels more kindly towards him around the holidays. This time, Obi had held a private memorial on the anniversary of the Stark's deaths, just for close friends and family. The whole thing had hit Tony pretty hard.

All of this leaves very little time for anything that isn't Tony-related, and that includes going home for the holidays, or spending significant amounts of time with Happy outside of the limo.

She starts to lose patience with Tony by the end of January, though. Normally by this time his behaviour has evened out to a steady, low level carelessness, but this year he seems hell bent on being as stupid and reckless as possible. Obi talks to him and talks to him, but nothing seems to help.

Happy plans some kind of surprise for Valentine's Day; she knows this beforehand because she catches him having whispered conversations on his cell, he books time off work, and because he's just not very good at subterfuge.

Tony promises that he'll be good for the night and that she doesn't have to babysit him. He keeps to his word for, oh, ten hours, before he calls her at eleven to inform her that he's been arrested.

“But don't worry about it,” he says.

She snaps her phone shut, sighs, and excuses herself from Happy's apartment. He's been on edge all evening, and he offers to come with her, but she says it's late, she'll see him in the morning. They kiss at his front door, and she feels his eyes on her all the way down the hall.

Tony smells like a liquor store when the guard lets her through to see him. He's been put in the drunk tank, although he has it to himself because the cops around here know that they'll get their asses sued from here to eternity if he's hurt.

“Don't you dare tell me you were drunk driving,” she says through the bars.

“Just soliciting,” he says, resting his chin on a vertical bar. “You look nice. Am I ever going to meet the future Mr Potts, or what?”

“There's no 'future Mr Potts',” she replies, focusing on her phone. Soliciting charges are hardly untrodden ground, but she'd prefer to get ahead of this before the media find out.

“I gave you time off tonight for something,” he says, “and you know that if you switch teams I'm the first person you've gotta tell, that's in your contract.

She shakes her head, already turning away. “No, it isn't. Have you considered that maybe I just don't want to get married?”

The cops say that they'll release Tony in the morning, once he's dried out, no charges. She has to wonder who swung that one but she isn't complaining. She 'donates' a significant lump of money to the police station and they agree to not file any paperwork. Tony gave the name 'James Roads' when arrested, taking special care to specify the spelling of the surname, and they took it on face value, despite his face being one of the most recognisable in California.

She gets back to her apartment at three in the morning, has a shower, and drinks some coffee, knowing that she'll be back in her car in a few hours and that trying to sleep now will probably just make her feel more tired later.

Happy calls at five, and she thinks he probably hasn't got any sleep either. He did seem extremely jumpy all night, long before Tony reared his ugly head. They've been spending less and less time together, but it feels like he's been asking her out even more than usual; he wants her to come with him to Queens in March for his mom's birthday. His entire family is going to be there.

“How's the boss?” he asks.

“In for a killer hangover.”

Happy chuckles softly. “Nothing new, then. Wanna try date night again tonight?”

She begins collecting her things to head back out to the police station; may as well get Tony out of there as soon as possible, even if he could desperately use the punishment. “Oh, I can't, I'm going to have to stick around with Tony all day to make sure he doesn't get himself in any more trouble.”

“Okay. What about... the weekend, we could see a movie or something, go to dinner afterwards. You could stay over.”

“Tony's giving a lecture at MIT on Saturday, I have to be there.”

“Okay,” Happy repeats. “How about any night this week?”

“I don't know.” She grabs her keys and heads out. “I don't know when I'm going to have time. Beginning of the year is a busy time for the company.”

“Sure,” he says. “Just... let me know.”

-

The lecture doesn't exactly go off without a hitch, but it goes okay, and the students certainly find Tony's generally recklessness and air of degeneration charming. He's practically mobbed afterwards.

The engineering faculty arrange a get-together, which mostly has in attendance professors that taught Tony, and professors who were classmates with him. None of them have particularly good memories of their time with him.

“You two are still friends? Man, you were inseparable, back in the day,” one of the assistant professors, Ian, says to Rhodey and Tony. Despite Rhodey's assertion that everyone at university had hated them, Tony managed to convince him to come by pointing out how satisfying it would be to show off how handsome and successful they'd become. He told her earlier that Ian had the room next to him and Rhodey, and that he could never get over the fact that their grades were always better than his, despite the fact that they both partook in some pretty heavy drinking, and Tony was known for being absent for class a lot because he'd broken a limb drag-racing.

“When he's not out saving the world,” Tony replies pleasantly, sipping out his drink. “Rhodey joined the Air Force. Just been made colonel.”

“And you joined the arms race,” another guy says. 'Tree-hugger', Tony had identified him to Pepper earlier.

“Someone had to,” he says.

“Still Rhodes's sidekick, then?” Ian asks with a smile. Rhodey rolls his eyes and mutters something behind his drink that makes Tony laugh.

“Sure,” Tony says, “at least I've got a friend.”

“Yeah, you have one friend.”

Rhodey visibly bristles at this while Tony continues to smile pleasantly. She's never personally seen Rhodey stand up for Tony, but judging by some of the fights she's seen and heard the two of them get into, she imagines that it wouldn't be pretty. Definitely not the kind of thing they want getting in the papers, not after Tony's lecture went so well. She does the first thing she can think of, short of just hauling the two of them away; she puts her arm around Tony's waist and looks at him.

“We need to get back to the hotel,” she says, takes the glass from his hand and gives it to Ian.

He settles an arm around her shoulders and nods. “You heard the lady,” he says, tipping his head at Rhodey. “See you next time you need to get asses in seats,” he calls to the room.

Once they're out of the room, Pepper lets go of him, and after a delay Tony follows suit. “I feel like my honour has been thoroughly defended tonight,” he says, listing slightly to one side.

“Fuckers can't insult you,” Rhodey says, and ruffles his hair, “only I get to do that.”

“Fuck yeah,” Tony responds, grinning.

When they get out into the parking lot, Pepper starts digging around in her bag for the rental car keys, Tony and Rhodey moving ahead of her as she slows down.

“Ginny?” someone calls behind her. Her hand stills in the bag, and she glances up, first at Tony and Rhodey, who have stopped and are now looking at her quizzically, then around, at the source of the voice.

“Brian?” she asks. His hairline is starting to recede, but it's him, same smile, same tall, lean body.

“I didn't think I was going to catch you,” he replies, taking a couple of steps closer. “I asked around inside but they said you'd left.” He looks behind her, and his eyes widen a little. “Christ, that really is Tony Stark.”

“Pep?” Tony calls, “are you gonna introduce us or are we going to have to guess?”

“We... we dated in college,” she says, frowning at Brian. “All through college, actually. Why are you here?”

“Ouch,” Tony mutters loud enough for her to hear.

“I heard about the lecture Mr Stark was giving. I teach at Harvard-” Tony whistles at this, “-and I thought I'd try my luck, I guess. I wanted to catch the lecture, but traffic thought otherwise.”

“Well,” she says, feeling herself flounder. She's used to having a response on her tongue at all times. “It's... been a while.”

“Do you wanna hang out with us?” Tony asks, and shrugs when she whips around to look at him. “I got the whole top floor of the Ritz-Carlton and these two are hardly party animals.”

“Um.” Brian glances at her, and she smiles wanly. “Sure.”

“Shotgun!” Tony shouts.

-

“Still can't believe it. I knew you worked for him, but I guess I didn't know know.” Brian swirls his glass of wine, eyes skimming over the gaudy décor of the room. “I mean, how much did this wine cost?”

“You probably don't want to know,” she says, and sets about topping them both up. Tony spent several hours harassing Brian about what 'baby Potts' was like, to which Brian was as polite and diplomatic as she remembers him to be; boring, a little voice in her head says. Rhodey has since dragged Tony off to 'get you into your jammies', leaving Pepper alone with her first and only serious boyfriend.

“What's it like?” he asks.

“Working for Tony? Like slow torture ninety percent of the time that makes you live for the precious ten percent of the time when he manages to act like an actual adult male.”

Brian laughs. “Well, you've been with him twice as long as we were together.”

“I'm not 'with him',” she mutters, her statement punctuated by a crash and Rhodey shouting 'Tony!'. “What about you, are you seeing anyone?”

“Not recently. Kinda been married and divorced, so I'm taking things easy for a while.”

“You got divorced?” He's the last person she imagined would ever get a divorce; she'd had the very vivid feeling when she was in college that twenty years down the line, they'd still be together. It just seemed... like that was probably what would happen.

“It was a rebound thing,” he says with a shrug. “What about you, anything serious?”

“I--” she starts, still taking in his 'rebound thing'. It probably shouldn't come as that much of a shock to her, a four year relationship is a pretty significant thing. She was never on the rebound. “Not really. Nothing... like, well, like us.”

“That's nice to hear. I thought you'd find someone else straight away, but I should have known that you'd end up marrying your job.”

That conjures up some terrible thoughts of what it would be like to be Tony's wife. “Thanks?”

Brian doesn't stay much beyond his welcome – he always was able to read situations pretty well. She knows that Tony has been spying on them every now and then, while Rhodey is hanging around the edges, coming and going from Tony's suite to his. He's probably been roped into doing recon.

She exchanges numbers and emails addresses and promises to keep in touch with Brian, knowing full well that the likelihood of the latter is very low, at least on her part. He lingers by the door a little longer after they say their goodbyes; she offers to come downstairs and wait with him for his car – it's near three in the morning, it's cold and it's dark – but he says it isn't necessary.

He sighs, looking at her with bright eyes. 'Lightweight', she thinks. “I was going to marry you, you know. At least, I thought I was.”

“Oh,” she says. “Yes, well...”

“But you'd've been miserable.”

“That's not true,” she says by rote. It seems like the thing to say.

“Yeah, it is.” He leans forward and kisses her. She drops her hand to his shoulder and draws him in for a moment, then lets him go.

“Bye, Ginny,” he says.

“Yeah,” she says.

In the morning, she calls Happy and tells him she doesn't think things are going to work out between them. He says very, very little in return.

-

Tony groans from under a pillow when she begins opening the curtains of the hotel room and loudly collecting his things.

“Plane's leaving in two hours,” she says.

“...'ll wait...” she catches from Tony's cocoon.

“No,” she says simply. “Get up.”

“Five minutes,” he bargains.

“Stop fucking around and get out of bed,” she snaps before she's even managed to process what's coming out of her mouth.

Slowly, Tony pulls the pillow away from his head and pushes himself enough to squint at her. “Someone got out of the grumpy side of the bed this morning,” he says, then squints at her some more. “Are you okay?”

She sighs. “If you must know, I broke up with my boyfriend.”

“Wait, which boyfriend is this? I'm starting to lose count.”

She turns away, muttering under her breath, “Why do I bother?”

“Hey, no, I'm sorry.” She hears his feet thump onto the hardwood floor, and turns back around to find him standing in front of her, tangled in a sheet. “Do you want to... talk about it?”

“Are you wearing anything under that?”

He shrugs. “Probably not. Pepper, tell me what's up?”

“I broke up with my boyfriend,” she repeats.

“And?” he prompts.

“That isn't enough?”

“I don't know, is it?” He stares at her with big eyes and twists his mouth in a way that he probably thinks is sympathetic.

“I--” She sighs. “I broke up with my boyfriend because I was pretty sure he was going to propose, okay?”

“Huh,” he says, shifting a little from foot to foot.

“And I basically cheated on him last night, but I guess that's really here nor there, now,” she continues, avoiding his gaze.

“Oh, Pep,” he says, taking shuffling steps closer to her. “I'm sorry.”

“Why? I'm not the one you should feel sorry for.”

“Because you're my friend and I love you.” He smiles easily and puts his hands on her shoulders having cinched the sheet around his waist. “And because you might not be aware of this, but I've fucked some relationships in the past too.”

He kneads his fingertips into her skin, holding her gaze steadily. She can't help but smile: it's times like these that she remembers why she likes him. “I'm not hugging you,” she says.

“Yeah, don't flatter yourself,” he replies, and darts in for a scratchy kiss on her forehead.

-
2009
She allows herself a sharp intake of air, not exactly a gasp, when Tony utters those words, “I am Iron Man.” She watches the television screen and the way Rhodey's eyes widen, then shut, then open again.

“Did you know he was going to do that?” Coulson asks, having rematerialised in the room.

“I don't think he knew he was going to do that,” she replies. But yes, she was pretty sure he was going to do that.

Rhodey yells at him the whole limo ride home while she begins hacking through the mess he's created that's blowing up her inbox. Tony grins throughout.

-

Pepper's rarely been accused of being naïve. She's had other insults levelled at her: stuck up, smartass, try hard, bitch, but never naïve. When it comes to Tony, though, she guesses that she is, because she honestly felt that things were going to change. She honestly felt that he wanted to be a better person, but as she watches him slide back into his old ways just weeks after the press conference, all she honestly feels is like an idiot.

He has his good days and his bad days. On good days, he helps out the military, the LAPD, the emergency services, and keeps an ear out for any big disasters. On his bad days he goes to clubs or invites random people back to the mansion and drowns himself in expensive alcohol. He's always been like this, minus the suit, but his moods are becoming increasingly erratic and difficult to anticipate

She tries to get him to talk to someone about his kidnapping. She'd been worried when he first got back, of course, but it seems so much worse now; he seems so uncaringly reckless all the time. At first she just mentions it off hand: 'Do you want to talk about... it? It doesn't have to be with me', then she starts leaving pamphlets lying around, then she 'accidentally' leaves her laptop open with websites about PTSD in the browser. Nothing makes a dent in his consciousness.

Today he's been drinking steadily for hours, banging around in the workshop, and she just cannot take it any more.

“Tony,” she calls, “Tony, we need to talk.”

“Hm?” He's staring vacantly at a holographic projection when she gets to the glass doors.

“We need to talk,” she repeats.

He sways slightly and lifts a bottle to his mouth. “Hit me.”

She very well might, she thinks. “We need to talk about Afghanistan.”

“Don't think we do,” he says.

“You have to stop pretending that nothing happened, Tony. I know you're in pain, anyone would be.”

He takes another draw from his bottle. “Can't exactly pretend nothin' happened,” he says, words beginning to slur. He looks down at his chest and taps the reactor. “Proof's right there.”

“I know...” The memory of that video on Stane's computer hits her like wave. She's been doing her best to tamp it down for the last few weeks, but God, he comforted her. He told her Tony would be fine. He came over to her apartment and sat with her the first night. She presses her hand to her mouth, feeling suddenly sick. “I know how much it hurts,” she says quietly, “what Obadiah did. He betrayed all of us.”

Tony's attention is finally wrenched away from the hologram. “Shut up,” he snaps, and despite what many might think of their relationship, he has never spoken to her like that before. “Shut the fuck up.”

“Tony,” she says.

“No, I don't want to--” He covers whatever else he was going to say with more alcohol, and waves his hand, collapsing the hologram. “Leave me alone.”

“I've left you alone for too long,” she replies.

His cheek twitches, and his eyes are red rimmed with inebriation. “You don't know anything,” he mutters and turns to leave.

“Then tell me.” He tries to pass by her in the doorway, and she catches him by the shoulders. “Tell me.”

His shoulders draw up to his ears as he cringes away. “Let go of me,” he says. “Pepper, let go of me, let go.” He has never reacted like this to her touch, and she lets go more out of sheer surprise than anything else. He continues out of the workshop, and then up the stairs, taking some of the steps two at a time, although he stumbles on most of them. She watches him go for a moment, then follows.

“You have to deal with this,” she calls, quickening her pace until she catches up to him in the lounge. “You don't have to talk to me if you don't want to, but you have to talk to someone.”

He uncorks a bottle from the liquor cabinet with his teeth and pours himself a glass. His hands are shaking, she notices. “I don't have to do anything,” he says, with more venom in his voice than she's heard in a long, long time. “I can stay right here and drink myself into an early grave if I want to, and maybe I will.”

She holds her hand out. “Give me the bottle.” When he shakes his head, she repeats, “Give me the bottle now, Tony.”

“Make me,” he hisses.

Something just snaps inside her. Four months of constant gnawing fear. Eleven years of making him her number one priority at all times. “This isn't just about you,” she says, not exactly shouting, but not quietly, either. “The things that you do and the things that Stane did have affected everyone.”

He knocks back whatever was in the tumbler and drops it to the floor which, since it's carpet, thankfully doesn't shatter the glass. And she's still worrying about that, even now. “I'm sorry that the man who practically raised me tried to kill me, Pepper!” he shouts. “I'm sorry that I was tricked into thinking that someone actually gave a fuck about me, that someone could actually love me! I'm sorry if that fucking inconvenienced you so much, but I was a bit busy being betrayed at the time!”

He takes another drink from the bottle, and she thinks suddenly that this is the first time he's said anything even close to the truth to her in months.

“Why don't you just get out if I'm such a problem for you?” he continues. “Why are you always hangin' around here, anyway? I don't need you, I'm perfectly capable of looking after myself, I don't need a fucking babysitter!”

“Tony, please stop shouting at me.” How did she not see it? Looking at him now, it's so incredibly obvious how much pain he's in, all the damage that's been done over the years, and every time she thinks back to the things the Stane did and said, she sees it clearly, sees how he was always sowing seeds, chipping and picking away at Tony's wounds. “You need help.”

He shakes his head. “Fuck off,” he says, but most of the anger has drained out of his voice.

“What Stane did... I'm sorry I didn't realise.”

“Stop it,” he mumbles. She takes a step towards him and he backs up. He's one of the most tactile people she knows, he's never acted like this around her before.

“I just think you need to deal with what happened. It doesn't make you weak. Everything you've been through... you're so strong, Tony, but no one comes out of something like this unharmed. What Stane did... it's hard for me to even wrap my head around.”

Tony's shaking his head, taking more and more shots from his bottle. “Stop it,” he whispers.

She doesn't try to get any closer to him, but she doesn't stop. This has been bubbling under the surface for a month now, and she has to say it. “It's been going on for years. That level of emotional abuse... Tony, there's no shame in admitting that it effected you, that was why Stane did it.”

She doesn't know what she expected to happen, she's saying all of this more for her benefit than his, to accept that she didn't notice what was happening, and moreover, didn't care when Stane was openly abusive towards Tony, because he'd deserved it, at the time. She doesn't expect Tony to start crying though. She definitely does not expect that.

He turns tail and flees pretty fast, taking the bottle with him. She feels like she's stuck to the spot, watching him leave, and it's only when she hears his footsteps on the stairs that she starts to move.

“Jarvis, where is Tony?” she asks as she follows.

“He is locking himself in the second floor guest bathroom,” Jarvis replies.

She runs upstairs as quickly as she can, and comes to halt in front of the bathroom door. She puts her ear to the wood, and hears soft sounds, like muffled crying. “Tony, let me in.”

At first she thinks that maybe he hasn't heard her, and she tries the handle but it only turns uselessly. Eventually his reply comes, “Go away.”

“Please,” she says, “I won't-- just please let me in.”

“No.” She can hear him shifting around and she thinks that he's just on the other side of the door. She presses her hand to it.

“I'm sorry,” she says.

“Please, just...” There's a sound like a hiccup and then the sloshing of a bottle. “Please leave me alone,” he says quietly.

She withdraws her hand. “Okay,” she says, “I'll be downstairs.”

She stays up the entire night, sitting on one of the couches in the lounge, hoping that he might come back downstairs, but he doesn't. At four in the morning, she hears the door open, then another door slam shut, and Jarvis informs her that Tony has gone to bed and that he doesn't wish to be disturbed for the next forty eight hours, minimum. At seven in the morning, she goes home, defeated.

-

She does the only thing she can do in a situation like this: she calls Rhodey. Tony's been refusing to let anyone in the house for the last five days. Jarvis says that he is 'okay', and she thinks his choice of words is telling.

Rhodey offers to come over to her apartment, and she has to give him the address, even though they've known each other for eleven years, and she's lived there the entire time.

“I brought wine,” he says when she opens the door, holding up the bottle. “I stole it from the last Stark Gala.”

They sit out on her balcony with a couple of glasses, and Rhodey lets her drink in silence. He doesn't push and she thinks, as always, how lucky Tony is to have him for a best friend.

“Tony's not doing well,” she says at last.

“I know.”

“I tried to talk to him last week, but... he just couldn't. He cried. I've never seen him cry before.”

“Me either. Heard him cry once, though.” Rhodey stops and pours himself some more wine. “When his parents died. I was in Libya at the time, and I didn't hear the news until a week later. So I called him the first chance I got, and he was... totally out of it, God only knows what he'd taken, but he was just... sobbing down the telephone. I didn't even get to see him for another eight months. I was so glad at the time that he had Obadiah.” He laughs humourlessly and shakes his head. “Tony always said I was a bad judge of character. Guess he was right.”

He closes his eyes and takes a drink. Her exhaustion is mirrored in his face, not just physically, but emotionally. “Do you think--” She pauses, considering whether she really even wants to ask this question, but he's the only one she can ask aside from Agent Coulson, and the fact that Coulson might actually be able to give her an answer is more than she can bear. “Do you think that Stane killed Tony's parents?”

Rhodey opens his eyes. “I think Tony thinks so. On balance, I think... that he probably did.”

“Fuck,” she says.

“Yeah,” he agrees.

“I killed him,” she says suddenly. Rhodey sets his glass down and watches her. “Tony says he did it, but he wasn't the one who overloaded the reactor. I knew what was going to happen. I killed a person four weeks ago.”

He reaches over and lays his hand over hers. “You had to, he was going to kill you and Tony. Sometimes there isn't another solution.”

“That's the thing,” she says, “I don't really feel all that bad about it. At first I thought it was shock, but when I saw that video, when I thought about what Tony went through in Afghanistan, what we went through, I was so angry, I wanted him dead.”

“Can't say that I spilled any tears, myself.” He leans over and refills her glass, then nudges it toward her. She takes it.

“Why didn't I see it? All those years of abuse, and I thought it was just tough love. How the hell was I so stupid? I've spent practically everyday of the last eleven years with him.” She takes a drink to stop herself before the tears prickling in her eyes make good on their threat to fall.

Rhodey's hand is still over hers, and he turns them over so that they're palm to palm. “Pepper, I've known Tony for over half his life, and I didn't see it. I used to think that Obadiah was the only one who could get him under control. I was glad that Tony had him, because Tony was always such a mess. I didn't think about why he was a mess.”

“Me neither.” She looks out over the traffic below and drinks more of Tony's insanely expensive wine.

Rhodey squeezes her hand.

-

It happens slowly, and all at once. She starts calling Rhodey every few days, and he calls her too, and although they always talk about Tony first and foremost, other stuff slips in as well. She talks about her sister and her parents, he tells her about his first tour in Kuwait, sometimes they go out for drinks and he really is a lightweight. He'd always been 'Tony's best friend, Rhodey' to her, but slowly he becomes just 'Rhodey', and then 'Jim'.

“Okay, but don't call me Virginia,” she says over her cocktail.

“Why not? If we're going to take a step forward in our relationship, I feel like we should be on a first name basis.”

“Because my name is Virginia, and I was named after my grandmother who was, in fact, named after the state. Do you know how often kids at school called me 'vagina'? Vagina Potts. A pot of vagina.” She swirls her stirrer in her drink; it's actually kind of awful, she only got it because it was on the house. She pushes it over to Jim.

“Children can be so cruel,” he says, taking a sip. “This isn't bad.”

She shakes her head in disgust, biting back a 'you would like it' because it sounds all too much like something Tony would say. “What do you mean 'a step forward'?”

Jim shrugs. “I've known you for longer than most marriages last, and I didn't even know where you went to college until last week.”

“Well, I knew where you went,” she says, smiling.

“Well, yeah,” he replies. He smiles back at her. “Do you wanna... have sex sometime? With me?” He pulls a face like he's not really sure why he said it, but he doesn't drop her gaze.

She shrugs. “Sure.”

-

It never goes much further than that, drinking, talking, and having sex in her apartment. It's a welcome relief to just be able to vent and know that he knows exactly what she means when she says that Tony hacked into her computer and cancelled the appointment she made with a therapist, or that she found him throwing up at four in the afternoon the other day.

“I feel like we're a little hypocritical,” Jim says, waving vaguely at the half empty bottle on her coffee table.

“Yeah,” she agrees. “Refill?”

-
2010
Somewhere between the car with its sheared off doors, and the plane ride home, she goes into her hotel room and just lets herself cry for ten minutes. Happy and Natalie both tried to talk to her once the paramedics were done checking her over, while Tony ignored everyone and jumped in a car to follow the police that had taken that lunatic away.

She almost died; another inch and she'd have been cut in half. She almost died, and Tony didn't even stop to ask her if she was okay.

“Ms. Potts,” Natalie calls through the door. “We have to go, the plane is waiting.”

“Yes, I'm aware of that,” Pepper snaps back. She knows the schedule, she knows it down to the last minute.

“Do you want to... talk about?” Natalie's voice comes again, hushed, like she's leaning into the door. “I could get Hogan or... Mr Stark.”

Pepper looks at her one suitcase, not even unpacked. Two changes of clothes and her laptop, that's what she travels with. “No,” she says. “No, it's fine. I'm fine.” It's hardly Natalie's fault that Tony is more interested in grandstanding and frittering his money and belongings away for God only knows what reason than running his company and maintaining his public – or private – image. “Thanks.”

“My pleasure, Ms. Potts,” Natalie replies.

-

Rhodey manages to get Tony to come up from his workshop while she and Natalie are still fielding phonecalls. She has one eye on the television until Tony turns it off with a word to Jarvis.

“Why don't you talk to the senator?” she says, trapping her phone between her ear and shoulder.

“Which one?”

She indicates to her phone, then Jim on his and Natalie's departing form as she paces the room a little distance from them, talking quietly into her own phone. “Any of them.”

“No, thanks.” Tony sniffs and rubs his face. She wonders if he's caught her cold. “Maybe I should call Christiane, set the record straight.”

“Do not do that,” she says as the senator's aide takes her off hold. “Make yourself useful somewhere-- no, sorry, not you.”

For a little while, he does. He talks to some reporters under the watchful eye of Jim, and agrees to some interviews that he's going to need some major coaching for. A couple of hours later, though, and he drifts off... somewhere.

“He went to bed,” Natalie says.

Pepper checks the clock. It's a little after eleven. “He went to bed?” she repeats.

Natalie shrugs.

“Well...” It's hardly the first time he's walked away from an important commitment, but the flippancy of it rankles. The company is falling apart around their ears and he's sleeping. “I suppose there's not a lot else we can do tonight.” Save face, she thinks. Always save face. “Go home, Ms. Rushman.”

“Are you sure?” Natalie asks, but she's already reaching over to pick up her bag.

“Of course. See you tomorrow.”

Natalie clears out swiftly, as if worried that Pepper might call her back at the last moment. She remembers, distantly, what it was like to feel that once you left work, work left you.

“We may as well all call it a night,” she says to Jim.

“Actually...” Jim presses his knuckles to his eyelids briefly then stretches. “We need to talk. Not here.”

“There's something really wrong with him,” he says once they're in her car. He's left his in Tony's garage, and she honestly can't guarantee that it'll still be there, undamaged, when he comes back to pick it up, the way Tony's acting right now.

“Isn't there always?”

He lets out a long sigh. “I don't know. Have you seen the reactor lately? That thing is disgusting.”

“It's keeping him alive.”

“The thing – element? – was smoking when he took it out.”

She takes her eyes off the road and the endless line of street lamps to glance at him. “He let you see it?”

“Yeah, he was having trouble walking.” She sees his Adam's apple bob up and down when he swallows. “Monaco took it out of him.”

“Took it out of all of us.”

“He's got this rash, too, on his neck.”

Her first uncharitable thought is syphilis. “I'll pick up some more Benadryl.”

“Right.” He watches the road for a few minutes, hands worrying the material of his pants. “Pepper,” he says at last. “I don't think I can do this any more.”

“This?” she asks. She knows what he means.

“You and me. I thought it would be okay, because you and Tony were never gonna happen, but...” He sighs and looks down at his lap.

“But what?” she prompts.

“But he's my best friend and he's falling apart. Something's been different with him recently, and I feel like a complete shit for going behind his back. And let's be honest, I think half the time you're doing this to spite him.”

“That's...” She wastes a couple of seconds adjusting the A/C. “Maybe.”

“Maybe,” Jim repeats, a good-natured lilt to his voice. “Look, as the ideology of Tony goes: do it until it stops being fun. It stops being fun when you know your partner is thinking about someone else who they've never even dated, despite the fact that you are way more of a badass.”

“You are more of a badass,” she agrees.

“That's what I'm saying,” he says.