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On The Care and Feeding of Superheroes, by Pepper Potts and Alvin Draper

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It starts, of course, with the press, as most of Tony’s harebrained schemes do.

The New York Times goes and calls Iron Man heroic, and of course the Daily Planet just has to one-up them and add a ‘super’ to the front. The next thing Pepper knows, she’s accepting deliveries of long cardboard boxes from places like Rick’s Comic Book Emporium and Tony’s everyday conversation has degenerated into acronyms and absent-minded references to people named after improbably colored animals.

About three days after Pepper’s life turns into ComiCon (which, incidentally, she now also knows more about than she ever wanted to), Happy shows up at her apartment at two in the morning, looking grim and unamused.

“Mr. Stark would like me to escort you to his house,” he says, sarcastically over-formal, and only scowls when she tries to get him to elaborate.

In the car, Pepper weighs the probabilities. There could, of course, be something really wrong. Tony also could have just finally succeeded in making a functioning freeze ray. It’s always a toss-up.

She starts to lean a little more heavily towards the disaster side of the spectrum when Tony runs out to meet her, disheveled and clearly sleep-deprived, and greets her with “Pepper, thank God you’re all right!”

This is fairly dramatic, even for Tony.

“Okay,” Pepper says, bracing herself. “What’s wrong?”

“You’re my damsel,” Tony says, as if it should be obvious.

“I beg your pardon?”

“My damsel!” He grabs her hand and tows her over to the coffee table, which has been consumed by an avalanche of comic books, and gestures at them. “I’m the superhero, and you’re my damsel!”

Pepper eyes the covers of the comic books. They are full-color and not at all reassuring. “Wait, like ‘damsel in distress’? You... expect me to die?”

“I’m not letting you die!” Tony says indignantly. “You’re too well-trained. No, I’ve discovered that sidekicks have a slightly higher rate of survival, so I’m going to teach you to be my sidekick.”

Pepper allows herself a moment to let the horror of that statement sink in.

“No, Tony,” she says, as calmly as possible. Negotiating the Terrible Twos, which is the book she’s found to be most helpful in dealing with Tony’s more expansive moods, says that clearly communicating one’s expectations is very important.

Tony frowns at her. “I admit there are some hiccups to work through, but you can’t possibly want to be fridged, Pepper.”

Pepper doesn’t know what that means and decides, after a millisecond of contemplation, that she has absolutely no desire to be illuminated.

“I don’t want to die, Tony,” she elaborates, using the same firm, even tone. “I also don’t want to dress up in a metal suit - “ with probably very exaggerated built-in breasts, she mentally does not add “ - and get shot at.”

“Oh!” Tony’s expression clears immediately. “That’s okay. You can be my witty best friend sidekick instead. You don’t need a costume for that.”

Because Pepper is witty and - by process of elimination if nothing else - also Tony’s best friend, she is not lulled into a false sense of security when he lets her go back home and doesn’t bring up the subject of sidekicks for several days. She also does not start to think his attention span has shifted and begin to relax.

Therefore, she is mostly unsurprised to show up to work and find Tony waiting for her with a dark-haired teenage boy and a smug expression.

“This is Alvin Draper,” Tony says. “He’s going to teach you how to be a sidekick.”

Long practice allows Pepper to keep the smile on her face. “Oh,” she says, devoting a considerable amount of effort to not saying what, exactly, is running through her mind. “It’s very nice to meet you, Alvin.”

Tony beams at them both. “Well, I’ll leave you two to get started,” he says. He leans in towards Pepper as he passes and whispers, “Keep an eye on him. I don’t think his name is really Alvin.”

Pepper grits her teeth. The corner of the boy’s mouth twitches.

Pepper waits until Tony is safely out of earshot, and then turns to the boy. “Just to be clear, I think this is ridiculous and I’m just humoring him.”

The boy nods. “Fair enough.”

Pepper sighs. On the one hand, she’s totally within her rights to kick the boy out and go yell at Tony for a while.

On the other hand, Tony will certainly sulk about it, and if Pepper’s learned anything it’s to pick her battles.

“So, where do we start?” she says resignedly.

Alvin suggests that he could shadow her for the morning, just to get an idea of how she and Tony operate, and watches patiently as she fields calls, fields Tony, organizes some meetings and cancels some others, and tries to keep an eye on him as she does so.

Finally, when she’s run out of stalling tactics, she takes off her headset and says grudgingly, “All right, what now?”

Alvin smiles. “Have you ever taken any self-defence?”

Pepper has, in fact - in college, for two of her six required PE credits. The instructor showed them how to throw a punch, and where to kick, and for the last class he put on a heavily padded suit and they took turns trying not to feel bad about hitting him.

Alvin does not consider this adequate.

Alvin, Pepper is rapidly discovering, can be really mean.

An hour and a half into their “warm-up session, just to get an idea of where you are,” Pepper collapses and refuses to get up. Her muscles are screaming, she can’t feel her legs at all, and she’s pretty sure if she tries to sit up she’s going to vomit. There is no way fridging could be worse than this.

“Well, it’s a start,” Alvin says when she uses unprofessional language to respond to his request for her attention. “I guess it wouldn’t hurt to take a little break.”

Pepper groans. She’s pretty sure Alvin’s idea of ‘taking a break’ involves actually breaking things.

“We can go to the mall!” He suggests brightly.

Pepper opens one eye and glares at him, because he may look like a teenager but there is absolutely no way he actually wants to go hang out at the mall, and if she’s learned anything in the last ninety minutes it’s that Alvin is a sneaky little bastard.

He laughs. “No physical exercise, I promise,” he says. “We’re just going to people-watch.”

Pepper is unmoved.

“I’ll buy you a milkshake?”

Pepper sighs. “Fine,” she says. “But come over here so you’re in range if I have to throw up.”

Bewilderingly, once they get to the mall, Alvin solemnly buys her a chocolate malt and then sits down on a bench and earnestly begins to people-watch. Pepper stares at him for a moment, then figures that even freaky little sidekick trainers probably need to relax sometimes and hey, chocolate malt. She sits.

It’s surprisingly pleasant. They don’t really talk, besides an occasional “I didn’t know they had those in red,” or “Doesn’t that shirt count as indecent exposure?” Pepper’s just steeling herself to ask how the hell a teenager gets into the sidekick training business when Alvin beats her to the punch.

“Your boss is wrong, you know,” he says conversationally.

“Wrong about what?”

“Sidekicks don’t really have a better rate of survival than significant others. It’s about even in terms of actual deaths, but the injury and insanity rates are a lot higher for sidekicks.”

Pepper swallows hard, the last sip of milkshake going sticky and sickeningly sweet in the back of her mouth. “I...” she says intelligently. “Well. That’s... not reassuring.”

“It isn’t meant to be.” He looks at her sideways. “This is a tough business, Pepper. It will almost certainly chew you up and spit you out. You’ll hate it and you’ll probably hate Mr. Stark, too, a lot of the time. You’ll hate Iron Man even more.”

“They’re the same person,” Pepper snaps back automatically. Alvin just gives her a dry look.

“If they are, he’s one of the few.”

Pepper’s hands are tight around her cup. “So this is what, a sidekick intervention?Talk the newbie out of joining the biz?”

Alvin shakes his head. “No. You and I both know walking away isn’t an option. Being a sidekick... It’s not about the costume and the training and the ‘Golly gee, Captain Super, those bad guys sure were tough!’” He gives her a wry look. “Remember, I watched you this morning. You already are a sidekick. All of this stuff that I’m starting to teach you is just a little bit of an edge that might wind up keeping you alive.”

Pepper scowls. She’s not sure that’s any better. “Still not reassuring.”

Alvin laughs a little. “No, I suppose not.”

“How did you get into it? How old are you?”

“It was necessary,” Alvin says vaguely. “And I’m not telling you.” He smiles to take the sting out of it. “One of the things you’re going to learn, Pepper, is that pretty much everybody in this business is completely paranoid.”

Pepper sighs. “Fantastic, when’s that lesson?”

Alvin’s smile gets even bigger. “Oh, it’ll come when you least expect it.”

Pepper laughs. She has to admit that she walked into that one.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Over the next few days, the mall trip becomes a part of their routine. Pepper answers phone calls and schedules meetings until noon, Alvin makes her wish she’d never been born from noon until two, and then they go to the mall and people-watch. It actually becomes some twisted kind of fun, much to Pepper’s surprise.

Alvin ruins that completely on Thursday, the little bastard.

“How many rings was the woman in the red dress wearing?” he asks, completely out of the blue.

“What woman?” Pepper asks, still focused on the tail end of her malt. “And why do you care?”

“The woman with the shoes that had, like, six-inch heels - remember, you said you’d found a pair of them under Mr. Stark’s couch once?”

Pepper stares. “That was on Tuesday, I don’t remember.”

“We’re going to have to work on your observational skills,” Alvin says, and that’s when she notices his tone. It’s the cool, detached voice he uses during their training sessions.

“The people watching, that’s one of your tests?” Pepper asks. A weird sense of betrayal is sitting behind her breastbone, making it a little hard to breathe.

“Sharp observational skills will be one of your biggest assets, Pepper,” Alvin says. His voice is clipped and professional, as if he hadn’t just been trash-talking the skanky housewife by the eyebrow-threading stand for her amusement.

“Fine,” Pepper says, slipping on her Executive Administrative Assistant face in retaliation. “Your question is flawed. The woman wasn’t wearing any rings.”

Alvin matches her, tone for tone. “Your recollection is incomplete. She wasn’t wearing any on her fingers, but she had two strung on a chain around her neck - a gold one made of twisted wire and a claddagh with a green stone. We’ll try something easier - the man in the yellow shorts with the three young boys, from this morning. What color were his shoelaces?”

Pepper doesn’t know, and she doesn’t know if the man with the toy poodle had highlights in his hair, or if the little girl in the red sneakers was accompanied by her mother or her grandmother, and she doesn’t remember the teenager with the old-school walkman at all. Panic rises in her throat - she feels like a freshman in college, the first (and only) time she failed a major test. Alvin’s questions go on and on, past when she stops listening and just says “I don’t know. I don’t know,” over and over.

Finally he leans back, eyeing her. “All right. We’ll work up to long-term memory. Look around - in ten minutes I’m going to start asking you questions again.”

Pepper tries, but there’s so much to see - there are so many details around her and she never realized how many there were until this moment. She has no idea what’s important and what’s not.

“Time’s up,” Alvin says, and Pepper nearly cries. “How many steps are there in the flight of stairs down to Mr. Stark’s workshop?”

Pepper blinks, because, what? “Thirteen.”

“What kind of shoes was Mr. Stark wearing today?”

“His second-oldest black motorcycle boots.”

Alvin’s starting to smile a little. “How many phone calls did you have today?”

Pepper can feel the panic starting to recede. She knows all this. “Nine outgoing, seven received.”

“Where did Mr. Stark put his keys when he came home last night?”

“In the potted plant by the door.”

“What did the bumper sticker on the car to our right in the parking lot say?”

“‘Save the Whales’!” Pepper says, triumphantly.

Alvin sits back, looking satisfied. “You’re a lot more observant than you give yourself credit for, you know. You just need to learn to apply it to everything you think isn’t your problem.”

Pepper rolls her eyes at him, out of habit more than anything else. “Because everything is my problem?”

“Because everything might become your problem,” Alvin corrects. “You never know when one of those little details is going to come in handy. I once convinced someone who had me at gunpoint that I worked for the FBI and had access to his official file just by noticing that his wedding ring was too shiny.”

“He was having a long-term affair and took it off so his mistress wouldn’t know he was married?” Pepper guesses.

Alvin raises his empty cup in a mock toast. “Precisely. Now - while we were talking, a boy in overalls walked by with his mother. What cartoon character was on his t-shirt?”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“Where’s Alvin?”

Pepper looks up from her spreadsheet (managing Tony’s social life does, in fact, require both statistical analysis and visual aids) and discreetly slides the latest copy of US Weekly (“Iron Man Eating Disorder Scare!!!”) under a stack of more professional correspondence.

“He said he had something to take care of and he’d be back tomorrow.” She’s mostly sure that Alvin will be proud that in between her daily tasks she’s been trying to see if she can track him down. He’s started teaching her the beginnings of what she thinks of as hacking and he steadfastly refers to as computer forensics, and which is actually quite a lot of fun.

“Oh,” Tony says, and then falls quiet.

Pepper enters a few more items into her spreadsheet. Tony shifts to lean against the other side of the door.

“Do you need something?” Pepper asks after a moment.

“Hmm? Oh, no,” Tony says, but after another pause he wanders away from the door, flops down on the nearest armchair, and leans back, staring at the ceiling.

Pepper adds a column for ‘Breakups Caused’. Tony sighs loudly.

“Okay, what’s wrong?” Pepper asks.

“Nothing?” Tony says unconvincingly.

Pepper frowns and double-checks her spreadsheet. Tony’s last one-night stand was Monday, his last period of protracted sulking was the week before that (he and Jarvis had a fight, which Pepper probably shouldn’t think is as funny as she does), and he hasn’t caused any major property damage in nearly six days. There aren’t any meetings scheduled that raise any warning flags and the media hasn’t been any more vitriolic than usual...

Hmmm. Pepper brings up the latest invoice from Rick’s Comic Book Emporium. The last thing Tony ordered was a book - sorry, graphic novel - called Watchmen, which the internet tells her is a ‘gritty, unflinching discussion of the dark side of superhero ethics and the dangers of absolute power’.

Oh, boy.

“So, Watchmen may not have been the best choice of bedtime reading,” Pepper says when she can’t think of anything wittier to start the conversation with.

“That’s very impressive,” Tony says, but he still doesn’t sound quite right. “You came up with that so fast, that was like sidekick telepathy.”

“Are you worried about wielding absolute power? Because I hate to tell you but I think you might need an Ironmoile or something first.”

Tony sighs again. “I don’t want an Ironmobile, I can already fly. Maybe I could have pop-out wheels and use my boosters for propulsion, that might be fun,” he adds, with a little more spirit.

Pepper is immediately assailed with visions of cliffsides all around the world neatly punctured by Iron-Man-shaped silhouettes. Rhodey’s going to kill her.

“I don’t know, it doesn’t seem very badass,” she says when she’s regained the power of speech.

“I don’t think you’re supposed to use words like ‘badass’ around me. It seems very unprofessional.”

“I beg your pardon,” Pepper says, falling into the rhythm as easily as breathing. “I should have said that it seemed unoriginal.”

“Ouch,” Tony says, smiling a little at last. “Rules that out then, I guess.”

“So what was it about Watchmen?” Pepper asks.

Tony’s gaze immediately slides up and to the right. “The art was terrible,” he says, too nonchalantly. “I’m depressed by the low standards of the comic book industry. I have delicate sensibilities, you know.”

Pepper waits. After a moment Tony starts fidgeting with the hem of his shirt.

“I’m not really a superhero,” he says finally.

Pepper blinks. “By whose definition?”

Everybody,” Tony mutters.

Pepper waits again.

“That silence thing is really unfair. You have to stop doing that,” Tony complains. “Fine. Typically speaking, superheroes are, I don’t know, better than normal people.”

Pepper frowns. “Tony Stark, are you trying to tell me you’re average?” she demands.

“Of course not, don’t be ridiculous!” Tony snaps. “I’m brilliant, I’m handsome, everybody wants to be me. They did a poll and everything, it’s been scientifically proven.”

“So, you’re saying you’re better than normal people?”

“I’m not supposed to think so!” Tony explodes, frustrated. “I’m suppose to be, I dunno, humble about it.” His voice drops. “Arrogance is more of a super villain thing,” he says, so quietly that Pepper almost can’t hear him. “So’s arms dealing.”

Pepper holds her breath.

“You’re not supposed to do the silent thing anymore,” Tony reminds her.

“I’m thinking,” Pepper says. “Okay, here - let’s go back to the source material.” She gets up and stands in the doorway with an air of extreme patience until Tony scowls and follows her down to the lab, where the comic books are slowly but surely expanding to take over an entire quadrant. Pepper plucks a booklet at random off the top of a pile.

“Let’s see,” she says, flipping briskly through it. “The villain here is... ew, super ugly. Very not you.” She tosses the book aside. Tony makes a distressed noise, which she ignores, grabbing another book. “This one... tortures people, ugh.” She tosses it and grabs another book. “Mmm... world-conquering alien.” Tossed. “Uh... borderline disturbing fixation with petting white Persian cats while plotting.” Tossed. “Insane and given to cackling maniacally.” Tossed. “No fashion sense - “

“Okay, I get it,” Tony says, rescuing the last book and holding it protectively. “Iron Man’s not a villain.”

“Certainly not,” Pepper says briskly. “I should also mention that the heroes in those books were: handsome, a genius, a reformed ne’er do well with a goatee, rich, and compassionate.” She ticks each point off on her fingers as she goes.

Tony’s smiling a little. “You think I’m compassionate?”

Pepper does not dignify that with a response. “They also all have either sidekicks or witty best friends. The villains only have minions. Mr. Stark, I respectfully refuse to be a minion.”

“Very well, Miss Potts,” Tony says. “You may add your choice of either ‘sidekick’ or ‘witty best friend’ to your resume and business cards.”

“Thank you, Mr. Stark,” Pepper says. “Do let me know if you decide that you require a white Persian cat - I shall set up an appointment with your allergist.”

Tony laughs.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

True to his word Alvin reappears the next day, moving stiffly and sporting an almost perfectly concealed black eye.

“Do you want some ice for that shiner?” Pepper blurts out the moment she sees him.

Alvin hesitates briefly, looking as surprised as he ever gets, and then smiles. “Very observant,” he approves. “No, thank you, I’m fine.”

Pepper eyes him for a moment over her coffee mug, and then decides what the hell. “Okay, here’s the thing. I know I’m not a computer forensic scientist or the world’s greatest detective or anything like that, but I know how to work a search engine like nobody’s business. You’ve clearly been in a fight. Nothing like that’s been in the news - I’ve been looking.”

“I do go to high school like a normal teenager, you know,” Alvin says, amused. “Bullies are a chronic problem.”

Pepper gives him a flat look. He grins.

“Fair enough. My particular branch of sidekicking is... underground, as it were.”

“Like black ops?”

“More like undercover police work.”

Pepper rests her chin on her hand. “So how did Tony find you?” She asks, genuinely curious.

Alvin actually looks embarrassed. “He caught me hacking his system.”

Pepper stares. “You tried to hack Stark Industries?”

“His personal system, and for the record I came very close.”

“Yes, it was adorable,” Jarvis says, computerized voice dripping condescension in the way only a program designed by Tony Stark can. Alvin just smiles.

“So he blackmailed you into this,” Pepper says, nodding.

“Oh, no, that just opened a dialogue. This is a reciprocal agreement - I’m being compensated.”

Pepper narrows her eyes. Alvin doesn’t seem like the kind of boy to be motivated by money, and in any case nothing more suspicious than usual has shown up on any of Tony’s accounts (and Pepper does, in fact, know about all of Tony’s accounts). “Compensated how?”

Alvin’s face takes on the kind of dreamy look that Pepper usually associates with Tony spotting a gorgeous woman with a welcoming smile and a very small dress. “Half an hour of brainstorming, in his workshop.”

It’s really probably a good thing that Alvin spends most of his time with her instead of with Tony.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

A few weeks after this conversation, Pepper actually manages to hit Alvin during one of their sparring sessions. She’s so surprised by it that she forgets to follow through and ends up on her butt anyway, but still. Alvin rewards her by introducing weapons work to their sessions, and not incidentally later teaching her some very useful tricks for concealing visible bruises.

A few weeks after that, he tries to take her down unexpectedly while they’re at the mall and Pepper tosses him into a potted plant. They giggle like children and then have to dodge security.

“Pepper, you’ve come really far. I’m proud of you,” Alvin says in the car back to Tony’s house.

“Do not call me ‘Grasshopper’, I swear to God,” Pepper says, but she’s smiling. She has come far. The trick of noticing things that Alvin started teaching her at the mall has spread to the rest of her life. She can defend herself, if not to Alvin’s level, then long enough and capably enough to fend off an attacker and buy herself time to get help (and in any case she’s pretty sure that ‘Alvin’s level’ involves either genetic engineering or a childhood spent in some sort of mystic training camp in Tibet). She can even get herself out of almost every form of restraint Alvin can produce, up to and including a straightjacket (Tony had been pointedly evicted from the house during that lesson for the sake of all of their sanities).

Alvin officially graduates her in a small ceremony at which Tony tries to spike the sparkling grape juice and Alvin delivers one last lesson by pitching his coaster at Pepper’s head from behind. Pepper deflects it neatly into the spiked bottle, deftly solving both problems at once except that then they have to clean up the spilled juice.

“Last thing,” Alvin says, handing her a small bit of cardstock with an e-mail address and two phone numbers on it, “this is in case you need help. The e-mail’s mine, and so’s the first phone number. The second phone number is for emergencies only - if you or Tony are in serious trouble and you need backup, call that. Somebody will come.”

Pepper takes it, feeling both reassured and a little unnerved. “Undercover superhero cops?”

“More like black ops,” Alvin says, with a little half-smile.

Business concluded, Alvin finally gets his half hour with Tony in the workshop. It lasts for two days, but Pepper was expecting this and cleared Tony’s schedule accordingly. Jarvis reports that by the end they have broken three containment units, one welding rig, Tony’s back-up arc reactor, and co-authored a paper that four months later will end up causing a fistfight at the International Conference on Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Although Pepper has learned her lessons well, dutifully keeps in practice, and has been well-trained by life with Tony to expect the unexpected, it still comes as a shock when six goons in black-market tactical gear storm the mansion and try to grab the Iron Man suit.

They’ve got some sort of electrical pulse device that knocks out the mansion’s power and backup generators (Tony later declares this to be more upsetting than the attack itself), so the first indication Pepper’s got that something’s wrong is when Jarvis goes silent in mid-word and the lights go out.

That suspicion is reinforced when the cliff-side windows blow out, the front door slams open, and part of the ceiling collapses.

Three goons vanish down the stairs, leaving one on guard at the top, and two go for the office, probably thinking that any kind of planning or documentation will be kept there. Pepper hides behind the door until they’re inside and then takes out the first one from behind with a sharp strike to the side of the neck. He goes down, dazed but not out completely, and the second one throws a punch at her. It’s instinct to step aside, lock his arm, and dislocate his elbow. It makes a nasty wet popping sound that will make her throw up later, but for now there is still a guy at the top of the stairs and three downstairs with Tony, so she nails them both with their own tasers as they try to gather their wits (the first one) and stop screaming (the second one), and runs for it.

She makes it out into the living room in time to see the guard leave his spot at the top of the stairs and come towards her, followed by one of the goons from downstairs. Both of them raise their tasers and Pepper realises that she has no distance weapon to hand and nothing to hide behind, and Alvin’s going to be so disappointed in her.

That’s when someone comes in through the cliffside window behind her and screams. The sound goes on and on, reverberating painfully. The two goons collapse, something shatters, and then strong, gentle hands are helping Pepper to her feet.

“Miss Potts?” It’s a stunning blonde woman in a black leather jacket. “Are you all right?”

“Ye- Tony!”

There’s a very complicated crash from downstairs and Tony’s unmistakable voice shouting “Suck on that, assholes!” The woman smiles.

“Sounds like he’s taken care of. Your butler sends out a very effective distress call - SHIELD’s pulling up as we speak. You did a good job.”

She presses a kiss to Pepper’s forehead, so fast that Pepper almost doesn’t believe it happened, and then she’s gone back out the window.

“Pepper!” Tony shouts, charging up the stairs with a delicate statuette swinging from one hand that Pepper sincerely hopes hasn’t already been used as a blunt instrument. “Pep- holy shit.”

“Just call me Iron Girl?” Pepper tries.

Tony’s eyes light up with unholy glee. “Iron Maiden!

“No!” Pepper wails, horrified, and of course that’s right when SHIELD storms in.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Pepper keeps it together through the SHIELD invasion, the debriefing (Agent Coulson treats her very gently, but it’s still traumatic), and the realisation that Tony can’t stay in the mansion while it’s a shambles. She gets him a hotel room and then realises that she’s going to have to go home alone, and maybe freaks out a tiny bit.

They wind up in her apartment with Happy, who’s taken it very personally that he wasn’t there to help, watching old reruns of MacGyver on late-night TV so Tony can explain how badly the fields of physics, engineering, and life have just been disrespected. At some point Pepper falls asleep with her head on Happy’s shoulder and Tony’s on hers, and MacGyver blowing stuff up with paperclips and chewing gum in the background.

The next morning is spent back at the house, supervising cleanup (Pepper) and mourning the demise of the electrical system (Tony). At lunch Pepper hands Tony off to Rhodey with instructions to let him play in one of the Air Force labs until he’s stopped being so maudlin about inanimate objects, and takes herself off to the mall.

She sits down on one of the benches, chocolate malt in hand, and is utterly unsurprised to glance away at a very nice-looking young man in tight jeans and turn back to find Alvin sitting next to her.

“So that was black ops, huh?”

Alvin nods. “Black Canary. Fortunately she was already tracking those guys for something else, so she was right in the area. She said you were very impressive.”

Pepper smiles. “She was pretty impressive herself, please tell her thank you. Oh, and Tony says he would be interested in discussing sonic theory continuum mechanics with her at some point.”


“Yes, but he’d also like to discuss sonic theory continuum mechanics with her.”

Alvin smiles, then sobers. “You didn’t tell SHIELD about her.”

Pepper shakes her head. “No. I... no.” She’s still not sure why she didn’t, actually, and isn’t convinced that it won’t come back to bite her later somehow, but it seemed... separate. Not SHIELD’s concern.

“Alvin,” Pepper says, looking down at her malt. “I don’t think I did very well.”

“Hero’s alive,” Alvin says, shrugging. “No one but the bad guys were hurt, and there was very little collateral damage. I’d say you did fine.”

“I ran out of the office without thinking it through. I left myself open to attack.”

Alvin sighs. “I’m going to tell you a secret, Pepper - we’re always open to attack. Nobody can protect themselves completely one hundred percent of the time, it’s just not possible. Instead of asking yourself if you could have done better, think about this for a moment: what would have happened if you weren’t there?”

“Black Canary would have shown up - “

“If you weren’t there from the beginning,” Alvin corrects. “Black Canary was there because I gave you a phone number because Tony asked me to train you. So - if you take yourself out of the equation, what would have happened?”

Pepper swallows hard, and thinks. “It would have been six against one. SHIELD didn’t show up until after Black Canary got there. They might have had time to get into the lab, and Tony probably would have... would have fought or, or died rather than let them take the Iron Man suit.”

Alvin smiles, gently. “Sidekicking isn’t just about being good in a fight, Pepper, remember? It’s about everything else, too. Don’t forget how much else you have to share.”

Pepper nods. She doesn’t feel entirely better - Alvin’s ‘what if’ game only works if she doesn’t turn it against herself (what if they’d had real guns instead of tasers, what if Tony hadn’t been able to defend himself, what if it had been a kidnapping), but it’s enough to hold on to for the moment. And she can always learn more, for next time.

“So how old are you?” she asks. She doesn’t for one minute think that Alvin’s going to be thrown by the change in subject and answer the question truthfully, but it’s better than talking about That Night any longer.

Alvin laughs. “Sixteen, I’ve been doing this actively for about three years, and I’ve been peripherally involved for a lot longer than that.”

Pepper stares. “Bullshit.”

“When I was ten I used to sneak out of the house at night and follow vigilantes around the city with my camera,” Alvin says fondly.

Pepper blinks. “You scare me,” she says finally. “And I’m pretty sure that’s illegal.”

“Stalking for the greater good,” Alvin says cheerfully, getting up to go. “Oh - I almost forgot. Think of this as a merit badge.” He drops something in her hand and saunters off.

She watches him go, trying to figure out how much of the last few minutes was truth and how much was fiction, and then remembers to look at whatever it was he gave her.

It’s a tiny golden pin, tastefully and beautifully made. It’s also shaped like a grasshopper.

Pepper laughs. At least it’s better than ‘Iron Maiden’.