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i.

Being Iron Man’s PA is both better and worse than being Tony Stark’s PA, in that people like Iron Man more than they like Tony Stark but, on the other hand, there are even more – and somehow, even bigger – explosions to try and explain away with that confident smile Pepper practices in the bathroom mirror in the mornings, while Jarvis judges it on a scale of sincerity. Apart from that, it’s exactly the same: a tiring combination of herding cats and babysitting, all while wearing five inch heels and make-up specifically designed to last at least twenty-four hours.

However, the nice thing about Tony being determined to force his way into SHIELD’s Avengers Initiative is that for several hours on Thursday afternoons, he becomes Phil Coulson’s responsibility. Pepper likes Phil a lot; he’s smart, he’s professional, and he’s got that wry, self-deprecating twist to his smile that only comes from working way over the legal number of hours a day with the unstable-yet-charming megalomaniacs that are becoming known these days as superheroes. She has yet to meet everyone that SHIELD has collected into its arsenal, but there are occasional evenings where she and Phil meet up in exclusive bars, drink scotch on Tony’s credit card, and discuss their frankly insane charges.

(Pepper’s willing to admit that she wants to meet Clint Barton, even if he apparently doesn’t often get out of the aircon ducts and is therefore virtually impossible to track down when needed. At least Tony’s ostentatious, and therefore really terrible at going missing. He tries, of course, and his hangdog expression when Pepper shows up with Happy, a venti Americano and a first aid kit is, despite everything, still just about endearing.)

Still: Thursday afternoons are her time when she doesn’t have to worry about Tony ending the world because even if he does she won’t have to do the clean-up, and so Pepper spends them having long baths, visiting art galleries, drinking wine with magazines, or going out for cups of coffee that she’ll actually get to finish. Simple pleasures, yes, but her life is crowded and overexcited enough, and these days anything that involves not having to get up and go rush-organise a press conference counts as a luxury.

Pepper sips her soya latte, resting her chin on her hand while she idly watches New York rush past the Starbucks window, hundreds of people who are probably only alive because of Tony, hundreds of people who could never comprehend just how ridiculous her life is. There’s the occasional woman who looks loosely familiar, and Pepper finds herself flicking through her internal rolodex of underwear left in Tony’s bedroom to try and identify them before she reminds herself, somewhat forcibly, that it’s no longer her problem.

Phil tells her that it’s not her problem in the first place, but then he’s never had to deal with stalkers, faked pregnancies and newspaper sex scandals, so he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Christine Everhart, Vanity Fair reporter, black panties, a determined ruthlessness even when barely dressed that Pepper was forced to admire; Pepper blinks twice, shakes her head a little, and then thinks: oh.

While Christine orders her coffee and taps industriously away at her blackberry, Pepper discreetly checks her lipstick in her compact and tucks a couple of strands of hair back into place. She was always a naturally neat person even before she started having to be the presentable face of Stark Industries, and now it’s second nature to arm herself with manicures, pressed blouses and straight stocking seams.

She can’t stop herself from levelling her favourite the last time we saw one another, you were hardly wearing any clothes expression at her, because, well, it’s frankly irresistible.

Christine, to her credit, doesn’t flinch, just comes clicking over on expensive stilettos, smiling a smoothly false smile that Pepper’s seen at a dozen different functions before.

“Miss Potts,” she says, all composure and shark eyes.

“Miss Everhart,” Pepper responds, and doesn’t blink.

There are a dozen ways that this could be awkward; this way is preferable to a lot of the others, imperfect as it is.

Christine slides onto the stool beside her, uninvited, and Pepper says: “if you’re looking for a quote about what it’s like to work for Iron Man, you’re not going to get one.”

“I’m not some gossiping hack,” Christine responds, prising the plastic lid off her coffee and tipping a packet of sweetener into it, mouth an even twist of Maybelline.

Pepper considers it a moment. “It was a nice article,” she allows at last.

“You mean I didn’t bother putting in any references to Stark’s penis,” Christine shrugs, briskly stirring her coffee anti-clockwise and fitting the lid back on again. “I’m a professional, Miss Potts.”

Tony and Jarvis are the only ones who know just how professional she really was, but Pepper suspects she can imagine; there’s a formula by now.

Christine laughs when Pepper doesn’t respond, a real one, uninhibited. “I guess it’s the only part left of him that doesn’t run on batteries these days,” she remarks.

Well, that’s a thought. “I wouldn’t know,” Pepper shrugs, managing not to sound as catty as she could. She knows how to play these games; Tony forces her to go to entire functions made of them.

Christine arches an eyebrow while she studies her. “Jesus, you don’t,” she breathes after a moment.

“I wouldn’t have lasted as long as I have if I did,” Pepper points out.

She sees the I could write an article about this flicker in Christine’s eyes, and decides she doesn’t want a spread in the back of Vanity Fair as Tony Stark’s tragically unfucked Miss Moneypenny, the one thing holding an eccentric billionaire together if you don’t count all that circuitry. It won’t be flattering, whatever anyone claims.

“I should be going,” she adds swiftly, sweeping her untouched kindle into her purse.

Christine’s mouth twists, but it’s not entirely unfriendly. “Until next time, Miss Potts.”

She only nods in reply; for all that her world keeps getting bigger, certain aspects of it are only getting smaller.

ii.

“I bought you shoes,” Tony announces.

It’s never a good thing when Tony randomly decides to buy people things; he doesn’t remember birthdays and only notices Christmas if Jarvis chooses to blast festive music into the lab or Rhodey turns up to hold some kind of intervention, so random gifts are essentially a sign of impending doom.

“What did you burn down this time?” Pepper asks, not looking up from her tablet. “And are we insured for the fallout?”

“I’m wounded, Pep,” Tony complains. His jeans are torn and covered with an unidentified substance that will probably turn out to be either radioactive or acidic, and his fingertips are shiny with burns. He doesn’t exactly look like the world’s most trustworthy man right now, even if you take his history with these things out of the equation. “Can’t I buy you shoes without anything being on fire?”

“You haven’t so far,” Pepper points out, enlarging a chart on the screen. “Are they at least my size this time?”

“I checked your confidential SHIELD file,” Tony says dismissively, waving a hand and just about avoiding spilling whatever disgusting energy drink he’s going crazy on this month.

“That’s reassuring,” Pepper murmurs, resigning herself to some kind of phone call from Phil this afternoon about how Tony has got to stop hacking into things; it doesn’t matter that she now runs Stark Industries and is technically no longer Tony’s keeper, she will always, always get the bitchy calls. “Hang on, my shoe size is on file at SHIELD?”

“They have everything on file,” Tony says cheerfully. “I might even do my own Christmas shopping this year.”

Pepper makes a mental note to make sure that that doesn’t happen, if only because it’ll only end in crying or impregnated shop assistants and probably several fires, and sighs. “Give me my shoes.”

As it turns out, they are not only her size, but actually very nice. Pepper is taken aback, to say the least.

“See?” Tony says, simultaneously pleased and smug, and Pepper forces down an eyeroll. “I’m not as hopeless as you think I am.”

“You still haven’t told me why,” Pepper reminds him, because she’s spent most of the last decade living and breathing Tony and his whims, and he pretty much always has an agenda. Frankly, she’d be worried by now if he didn’t.

Tony makes a screwed-up pouting face that wouldn’t look out of place on a five year old, and says: “it’s the shareholders’ ball tonight.”

Pepper is aware of this, and has already picked out a different pair of shoes to wear. Shoes not as nice as this, admittedly, and-

“You are not skipping out on this,” she says firmly. “Tony, you are not.”

“I bought you shoes?” he responds, smiling that half-earnest half-sleazy smile that gets pretty much everyone into bed. It shouldn’t work, but somehow it always does.

“You know that smile doesn’t work on me,” Pepper tells him, and: “I think you need a reminder of how people work.”

“I also bought you a dress,” Tony says, and Pepper kneads her temples, feeling a migraine coming on.

“It had better be very, very expensive,” she says.

That night, she drinks the driest martini the bar can make her, smiles a smile that she doesn’t mean in the slightest, and looks down at the beautiful new shoes whenever someone asks her where Tony is to remind herself why she puts up with this.

It’s not really about the footwear, it’s about the recognition, but she’s damned if she’ll ever tell Tony that.

“I still need a quote for our Powerful Women issue,” Christine says, appearing at Pepper’s left elbow with a refill. There’s four cocktail olives pierced neatly on a toothpick in the martini. She’s good; Pepper will give her that.

“Some days, I almost don’t want to stab Tony Stark in the face,” Pepper responds smoothly, because it’s been that sort of evening, and bites off an olive.

Christine laughs, one that looks actually natural, and the front of her dress is slit low enough to be eye-catching while still being modest. It’s a good combination, Pepper thinks, and then reflects that she should probably have eaten something today other than vodka-soaked olives. That’s how Tony always spent these parties, and for the first time Pepper realises exactly why.

“Where is he tonight, anyway?” Christine asks.

“Saving the world,” Pepper says dryly. It’s a good martini, even if someone should probably cut her off. She needs Natasha to go back to temping instead of neck-breaking; Pepper’s been a PA for so long she doesn’t actually know how to keep one.

“I suppose it makes a change from supermodel orgies,” Christine muses.

“I thought you weren’t a gossiping hack,” Pepper says mildly, because holding onto people’s words and then reminding them of them is something she learned a long time ago from sheer necessity.

Christine’s mouth twists. “People magazine has really suffered since Stark cleaned his act up.”

Oh, Pepper knows.

“What about you?” Christine asks. “Do you ever think about engineering a scandal?”

Pepper’s accidentally a little drunk – she really hopes Phil took her up on her invitation, if he isn’t busy trying to stop Natasha or Clint from doing something stupid, because she really needs some black coffee and to sit down for half an hour while someone else takes over – and she can’t work out if that’s the reason it sounds a lot like Christine Everhart is flirting with her.

“Tony keeps us in the papers,” she says, choosing to stick to something like dignity. “Someone needs to make this company look stable.”

She can’t read Christine’s expression; she can’t tell if that’s deliberate. “I still want an interview,” she says, slipping a business card into Pepper’s hand with a practiced slickness, “call me.”

Pepper’s ringtone is still stuck on Call Me Maybe because Tony is an asshole, and in the moment it takes for Pepper to blink and shift that thought from her brain, Christine’s gone.

iii.

They meet for dinner in a restaurant with reservations that Tony made, because the world isn’t trying to end at the moment and Clint and Natasha are off doing something secretive and probably murdery in Europe and Tony is bored. It’s never good when Tony is bored, because it means that he either starts creating incredibly dangerous robots that have to be dismantled for the good of humanity, or he starts paying actual attention to Pepper’s life. It’s much, much easier when he’s only dimly aware of things that she’s doing, making references to things that happened several months ago as though they’re still current. When he starts using phrases like “lady-date” and suggesting underwear styles, Pepper mostly just wants to strangle him.

It’s possible that Tony is also sulking because he’s the one used to being interviewed for magazines.

“I’m not overdressed, am I, Jarvis?” she asks, smoothing hands that would probably be shaky if it weren’t for the fact Tony trained her out of shaking a long time ago; it doesn’t get anything done, after all.

“I really couldn’t say, Miss Potts,” Jarvis replies, sounding half-smug and half-bemused.

Some days, Pepper worries a little that her best friend is an artificial intelligence created by her boss, and then other days she worries that she was also made by Tony solely for his entertainment. Neither of these are good thoughts to have, though, so she always sweeps them aside.

Later, there’s a recorder on the table between them; a shield, a barrier, an excuse. Pepper sips her wine and curls her toes in her shoes and reflects that she has no idea what she’s really doing here, and maybe this is how Tony feels all the time. She gains a little confidence when she looks Christine in the eye and sees the same level of uncertainty staring back at her: this should be simple, but it really, really isn’t.

Pepper gives an almost-true answer to a question she isn’t really listening to, and reminds herself that, on a scale of Tony-Feeling-Bored to Actual-Aliens-Attempting-To-Take-Over-The-World, the slow blush rising in Christine’s cheeks isn’t anything worth worrying about. It isn’t, and yet her fingers still shiver a little around the stem of her wine glass. It’s not that she isn’t willing to allow this to happen; it’s just that it’s ridiculous, it’s ill-advised, it’s entirely possible Christine slept with Justin Hammer sometime last year, it’s unprofessional, and it’s breaking the one and only rule Pepper has just about managed to keep whole throughout her entire time with Tony.

(Don’t ever sleep with anyone Tony Stark has slept with. Simple, yes, but very effective. She’s thinking about writing a lifestyle book.)

Pepper doesn’t even like Christine much, for all that she admires her unerring ability to get to a decent story. Besides, this will be the first time she’ll appear in a magazine in her own right (and not as Tony’s nursemaid attempting to patch over yet another very public indiscretion), so she should probably approach all of this in a discreet, adult fashion.

And then Christine asks her a question about her plans for the future of Stark Industries, voice clear and steady for the recording, while under the table she presses a bare foot to Pepper’s calf. That, well, that changes the odds.

Pepper’s given speeches drunk, given speeches with Tony hanging hysterical off her shoulder, given speeches with a sky-rocketing temperature, given speeches hungover, given speeches with barely two minutes’ warning and a really bad hair day. So she can spout a dozen positive soundbites about clean energy, a positive future, new technology and fresh blood, all while letting Christine play footsie and making a decision that she might regret, but then again might not.

She’s an expert at damage control, after all.

They split another bottle of wine, Pepper spills out another handful of phrases that don’t mean a lot but that sound very, very good, and waits until the recorder’s been turned off before she says: “do you do this with everyone you interview?”

Christine flickers her a look from under her eyelashes, lips twisting at the corner. “Pragmatic even while you flirt,” she says, “the rumours about you really are true.”

Pepper doesn’t make rumours; she’s there to quash them, actually, but things trickle out when you live a life as publicly as she does.

“And the rumours about you?” she asks.

“Mostly spread by Justin Hammer before that awkwardly public arrest,” Christine responds on a light shrug and, well, yes, that makes sense too.

“All of them?” she asks.

“Are you vetting me?” Christine asks, then shakes her head a little. “Sorry, I forgot, you probably did that before we even met tonight.”

Pepper did it eighteen months ago when she slept with Tony, actually, but there are some things you don’t bring up or think about when you’re on the careful knife-edge of negotiation.

She allows herself an enigmatic smile; her favourite one, the one she doesn’t get to use very often.

“And nothing I say will turn up in the article?”

Christine rolls her eyes and twists in her chair, signalling for the cheque. Her foot is still between Pepper’s, a placeholder for later. It makes something in Pepper curl, and she bites into her lower lip.

“My turn,” Christine adds, “since I am supposed to be the one asking the questions.”

Pepper waves a casual hand.

“Am I going to wake up with most of my clothes missing to be greeted by a cheerful British robot and your completely implacable personal assistant?”

“I’m between personal assistants, actually,” Pepper tells her, and Christine arches an unimpressed, get-to-the-point eyebrow. “Maybe if you play your cards right,” she adds. “I make no promises.”

Christine grins, and Pepper thinks about biting into it. “Okay,” she says. “Okay, I can work with that.”

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