Pepper’s mother meets an American when she is 13. The man is balding and slightly overweight but he has an unglamorous office job and a glamorous American accent. Pepper is not sure what her mother sees in him, but after a whirlwind romance, Pepper’s mother decides that they are moving to America for her mother’s “happily ever after.”
Pepper hates Adam for it. There’s no use his denying involvement - nothing so meet-cute happens in real life, so she knows he arranged it. She’s seen enough films to know that they are approaching the hormonal phase of their lives where friendships go to die, that the Them have already begun waffling over whether to treat her like a Girl or not. She supposes Adam weighed the odds and decided it was better to be rid of her preemptively than for the rest of the Them to fall apart from puberty. He chose the rest of the Them over her.
Her last night before she goes to America, the Them throw her a farewell party, and Adam asks her if there’s anything she wants, anything at all, his eyes dark with promise as he asks.
Make me not be going to America , she wants to say, Let me stay, I promise I’ll be good .
But Pepper knows better now, knows that Adam has no loyalty to her, apparently, and she refuses to show weakness. “I’ve got everything I want,” she told him, the implied I’m glad I’m leaving you behind unsaid, the lie falling from her lips like frogs and snakes from the lips of the wicked sister in fairytales.
Next morning, she moves to Virginia.
Pepper leaves Lower Tadfield behind her, sheds her British accent, and right before college, she sheds her name. The day she turns 18, she marches to the registry and changes her name from Pippin Galadriel to Virginia and thinks, There, it’s all behind me now .
She studies art history in college, with an emphasis on modernism, a fondness for Impressionism, and an unquashably perverse interest in Medieval art. She stares at the pictures of Biblical tales, and sometimes she thinks the figures look almost familiar, reminiscent of hazy memories and games she used to play.
Didn’t she used to play at being warriors with some of the boys back home? There was a woman, perhaps, with the reddest of red hair.
She shrugs, and dismisses the thought. She doesn’t really remember her childhood, doesn’t think about it much. Sometimes, she thinks she might have had a different name, something silly and frivolous. She asks her mother about it once, when she’s home for break, and her mother laughs, says, “Of course your name’s always been Virginia. Why would I ever name you something as ridiculous as Pippin Galadriel? What would I have been thinking?”
Virginia graduates from college top of her class, is elected to give a speech at commencement. As she spouts platitudes about the future lying before them, as she looks out upon the throngs of graduates and their families, as she tries to spot her proud mother and father in the crowd, she stumbles in her speech only once. “And now,” she says, and then she thinks she sees someone familiar out of the corner of her eye, someone lean and lanky with golden curls and an impish smile, but when she turns there is no one there. She coughs. “And now,” she repeats, and finishes her speech without any further incident.
Art history is a practical major provided museums are hiring. They aren’t. Virginia works as a temp instead, filing away with brutal efficiency, and then she’s promoted to full-time receptionist, to floater secretary, to-
Her career progression is interrupted when she runs into Tony Stark one day, though she doesn’t realize it’s him. “Watch where you’re going,” she snaps, and those four words decide her fate.
Later, she’s not entirely sure if it was the way she treated him or the way she looked in her new heels, but something about the encounter inspires Tony Stark to turn to his freshly-fired-PA and say, “Oh, and before you pack up your desk, hire her to replace you.”
Virginia hadn’t exactly been broke, but had been living close enough to paycheck-to-paycheck that when told Stark Industries would offer her a six-figure salary to be a personal assistant, she jumps on the opportunity.
She makes it through the first week out of sheer bewilderment, unclear what is normal Tony Stark behavior and what is not, uncertain when she can push him and when she can’t. She keeps his life organized but doesn’t push, doesn’t make him do anything he doesn’t want to. He’s happy, he ignores her except for when he’s absentmindedly hitting on her, he calls her Carolina or Georgia or Dakota because he forgets her name, and he doesn’t fire her. Apparently he fires 41% of his personal assistants within a week. At the end of the week, Obadiah Stane comes by and makes it clear in so many words that if Tony Stark misses any more important meetings, her new job will be very short-lived indeed. Apparently Obadiah Stane fires 22% of Tony’s personal assistants for failure to corral Tony.
Virginia makes it through the second week by dint of sex appeal. She does a substantial amount of research on Tony Stark over the weekend (this was back when she had weekends, before she realized that corralling Tony would be a 24/7 job) and quickly determines how best to incentivize him. She flashes a little leg when she needs to catch his attention, reminds him about important meetings in a throaty purr. By the end of the week, Tony has made it to 86% of his important meetings, which is apparently enough that Obadiah Stane does not follow through on his ultimatum. She has started taking long showers twice a day after which she looks herself in the mirror and wonders if she would really be willing to sleep with Tony Stark in order to get him to meetings on time and keep her job.
At the end of the week, Tony Stark hits on her with an intensity he has thus far reserved for his machines, and issues a blatant invitation to his bed. Virginia Potts looks him in the eye, and she suddenly knows the answer to the question she has asked herself all week - there is no way in hell sleeping with Tony Stark would help at all in getting him to meetings on time.
So she draws up herself up and says, “Mr. Stark, you have slept with so many of your personal assistants that Human Resources has put together a special sexual harassment severance package slash release of liability for your personal assistants that offers them a substantial sum upon termination of their employment in exchange for release from all liability. I’ve looked at what the package offers, and while it is indeed attractive, I find that I would prefer to retain my current position than seek a new job.”
And then she waits, to see if he will fire her.
Instead he laughs, a genuine laugh unlike the brittle, fake one she’s heard him use in two interviews and three conversations with Board members this week. “I knew there was a reason I hired you,” he grins at her, and she knows that Tony Stark is an obnoxious asshole but he would never pressure her into sex or fire her for turning down his advances.
Something uncurls at the pit of her stomach, a tense knot that had been there since her first flirtatious smile earlier that week. Tony is still laughing, and Virginia turns to leave the room.
“Spicy! I like it!” He calls to her back. “I think I’ll call you Pepper.”
Virginia does not slow, though she throws Tony a middle finger as she walks away, which only make him laugh harder.
Later that night, as she lies in bed, however, she turns the name over in her bed. Pepper … now why did something about that name feel so right?
When Pepper overloads the reactor and kills Obadiah Stane, there is a woman in the crowd outside with flame-red hair and a wicked grin. Pepper sees her briefly, in passing, when it is all over. She looks vaguely familiar.
When Pepper coordinates the evacuation at Stark Expo, one of the evacuees is a woman with flame-red hair and a faint smile. Pepper watches her for a moment, wondering if she has seen her before, but there are more important things for her to focus on.
When Pepper kills Aldrich Killian in a burst of violence she didn’t know she had in her, she does not know that there is a woman watching her from a distance, a woman with flame-red hair and a serious expression.
After the whole Extremis fiasco, Pepper spends a lot of time in hospitals rooms and labs, which Tony designs to look like bedrooms so they feel less sterile. She has to learn to control the fire burning in her veins, as the scientists race to cure it.
She learns control - barely.
The scientists make no progress.
Tony, and Bruce, and Stark Industries’ best scientists spend night and day trying to fix her before she burns up from the inside out. It does not help that none of them have the right specializations - Tony’s always been more focused on mechanical engineering, Stark Industries has never done much by way of biological research and even Bruce’s work on the super soldier serum has revolved almost exclusively around gamma radiation to the exclusion of other approaches.
Tony puts a bright face on it, but Pepper knows in her bones that she is dying, that her days are numbered. She insists on spending her nights in the hospital room cum science laboratory disguised as a bedroom, alone, because she refuses to risk Tony’s life if she should spontaneously combust in the night after a nightmare. (They have multiple arguments about this. She wins. It has been a long time since she has lost a fight to Tony when she set her mind to it.)
Days pass, and the scientists are no closer to a cure and Pepper’s days have quickly become a routine of blood tests and chats with visitors and twice-daily updates with Tony and Bruce (because of course there’s no way in hell Pepper’s not an active participant in the search for her cure) and running her company remotely with a laptop and a Blackberry. Each night, the lights go out, and she sleeps alone. Next morning, it all begins again.
Pepper’s a light sleeper these nights, prone to starting awake at the slightest sound. One night, Pepper wakes and would go back to sleep without a second thought except that when she opens her eyes, she sees a blond Michelangelo at her bedside.
“Who are you?” she asks sharply. “JARVIS?” She sits up hastily, reaches out to her cell phone on the bedstand. But if JARVIS has been disabled, there’s no one she can call in time to be of any help.
“He won’t respond. We’re a bit outside time, for now,” the man says quietly. “I wanted to speak with you privately. Do you remember me?”
“I don’t know you,” Pepper says automatically, but that’s a lie. Pepper looks into the eyes of the most beautiful blond man she has ever seen, and sees in her mind’s eye what he must have looked like decades ago as a boy.
And then suddenly, she remembers. She remembers what she hasn’t in years, remembers an idyllically pastoral childhood, remembers frantically pedaling through fresh-cut grass, remembers violent games in the mud and larger-than-life schoolboy pranks, remembers how fun everything was and remembers when the worst thing in life was being bored.
Most importantly, she remembers a boy who was her sun and moon and stars, who was the be-all and end-all for all of them- for all of the Them. He was their leader and they hung off his every word, obeyed his every command.
“Adam,” she breathes, and her heart - or maybe it’s her brain - aches for a moment with the force of how much she had forgotten, for suddenly there are an extra thirteen years of memories, an extra thirteen years of emotions, that she is remembering and feeling all at once, thirteen years in a millisecond. She can’t breathe, she is so overwhelmed with sensation, and her skin glows red, and she knows that means but she can’t calm herself down right now, she can’t, and knowing what the red glow means makes her panic which of course makes it worse-
“None of that, now,” he says, not to her but to the Extremis, and she can feel it settle down at his tone. “It’ll be better in a bit,” he soothes, this time to her.
And he’s right. Three heartbeats pass, and she can breathe normally, can feel normally, can think normally.
“Adam,” she says again. “It’s you.”
“Yes, it’s me,” he says with a faint grin. The grin that had been impish on a boy was heartbreaking on a man. This grin could charm the pants off any woman or man, and she could feel it working at her now, making her let down her guard.
But if there’s one thing she remembers now, it’s how angry she is at him.
“You got rid of me,” she hisses. “You made me forget.”
“I had to,” he says seriously, the grin disappearing.
“Why ?” she demands. “I thought I was one of you! I thought-”
“Your mother was dying,” he says, and Pepper clenches her cell phone reflexively, realizing a moment too late that she has broken it with her unfamiliar strength. “She was dying, and you begged me to save her.”
Pepper has a wisp of memory of this, of late nights at the hospital, of learning for the first time what the word “cancer ” meant, of riding her bicycle to Adam’s, late one night in the rain, and demanding that he fix things.
“You told me that it was not possible,” she says slowly.
“There are many things I can do, but overruling Death is not of them,” Adam says seriously. “But I asked certain … beings of my acquaintance if there was anything I could do nevertheless. And there was a way forward proposed. They said your mother could live only if she lived someone else’s life, as someone else, became someone else.”
“So- the whirlwind romance, the hasty wedding, the sudden move,” Pepper says, thinking it through. “It was all to give her a new life.”
“Yes,” Adam says. “And for the new life to take hold, she- and you - needed to cut all ties with your previous life. You needed to leave behind your old life and your old memories.”
“And my name,” Pepper says. “I became Virginia Potts.”
“And Pippin Galadriel Moonchild never existed,” Adam confirms.
“Don’t call me that,” Pepper says reflexively, then blinks at her reaction. “Is she still- my mother? Or is she someone else? Am I someone else?”
“You are you and she is her,” Adam shrugs. “Beyond that, it is not for me to say.”
“And so first I forgot that she was dying,” Pepper says, trying to sort through the haze of her memories, “and then eventually I forgot that I had ever been anybody but Virginia.”
“Well, inasmuch as it was possible for you to do so,” Adam says with a faint smile. “I’ve been keeping tabs on you through the years, to make sure you were alright. Imagine my surprise when you went from respectable Virginia Potts, art historian, to Pepper Potts, CEO of the world’s largest weapons manufacturer.”
“We don’t make weapons anymore,” Pepper says automatically.
“And War is not pleased with that, let me tell you,” Adam says. “War says hi, by the way.”
“I think - I think I may have seen her,” Pepper says, recalling flame-red hair.
“She’s kept an eye on you,” Adam says. “It’s hard not to - you are her legacy and her antithesis at the same time. You literally took one of the most powerful instruments of war and have been trying to turn it into an instrument of peace. You haven’t stopped thwarting her yet.”
Pepper smiles, but as she sorts through the influx of information, her brow furrows. “It’s nice to see you again, Adam, but I’m guessing there’s a reason you’re here?”
Adam nods. “You’re dying, Pepper.”
Pepper had known this, but hearing the words makes it feel so much more real. “It’s the Extremis,” she says, staring at her hands and wondering how her skin could hide something so volatile underneath. “I can control it most of the time when I’m awake, but when I’m sleeping …”
“Yes,” he says. Then, “I can fix it.”
At his words, hope surges through her- as it has so many times at so many stages, each time Tony or Bruce comes in to give her an update on the latest tests that they’ve run. But.
“What’s the catch?”
“Two roads lie before you. One path - a magical cure. No more Extremis, no more superpowers, no more spontaneous combustion. The catch: you would have to leave behind this life, move onto a new one.”
“And forget everything about who I am now? No,” Pepper says firmly. “If I lose my memories, I lose me. And what of the others that were experimented on, that have Extremis running through their veins? They would all die, while I live? No.”
“The other path… there is a formula that will counteract the effects of the Extremis to a certain extent. You won’t be at risk of exploding any longer, but the effects that Extremis has had on your body will remain.”
“The effects being …?”
“The Extremis powers will remain.”
“That doesn’t sound like a bad thing.” She waits for the other shoe to drop.
“The virus draws on your - well, in pop culture terms, it draws on your life force. It draws on your cells and their potential for life. You will have powers, but each time you use them, it will draw from this well of potential - and every human has a limited well. In short, each time you draw on the powers that Extremis gives you, it will take minutes, hours, even days off your life.”
“So I just won’t …” Pepper thinks, and imagines being put in a situation where her powers can save someone’s life, imagines justifying inaction because it means that she will die sooner - or taking action anyways, each time she finds herself in such a situation, again and again until one day her choices catch up to her …
“Yes.” Adam says, watching her. “That.”
Pepper shrugs. “In the end, there’s no choice,” she says simply. “The first choice would turn me into something- that is no longer me. The second makes my life difficult, but not unrecognizable. It would still be my life.”
Adam nods, as if he had anticipated her response.
“Will I- will I remember this?” she asks in a low voice.
Adam’s smile is sad. “No. How I wish you could- but no. It’s the only way to make it all work.” He gestures vaguely, encompassing her life, her mother’s life, her miracle.
“How- how are Brian and Wensleydale?” Pepper asks, voice soft, as she remembers the boys that had been her constant companions for so long.
“They are doing well,” Adam says. “Wensleydale is an accountant, is married, has two kids. Brian is a scientist, of all things. He hasn’t settled down yet, but things are getting serious with his boyfriend. They are both happy.” She is sure that Adam does everything in his power to ensure they are happy.
“Do they-” remember me, she doesn’t finish.
“They remember we had a fourth,” Adam says, “they remember that there was a girl who was the fiercest of us, who could win any fight. They remember that you had to leave, that it was serious. They don’t remember more beyond that - some days they remember more, other days they remember less. It is the same with-” Adam gestures, encompassing himself. “Some days, they remember taking a stand against the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. But they can’t remember every day - it’s too much knowledge for the human brain to hold.”
“And you?’ Pepper says, leaning back against her pillows, growing weary. “Are you happy? Are you lonely?”
Adam smiles, the first genuinely not-bittersweet smile all evening. “I am fine, Pepper. Don’t worry about me. The world is my oyster. I do whatever I want to do, explore whatever takes my whim.”
“Do you have a girlfriend?” Pepper teases, “or a boyfriend?”
Adam shrugs. “I’m not quite human,” he explains. “I don’t feel love the same way humans do.”
“Plenty of humans don’t feel love the same way other humans do,” Pepper rolls her eyes. “Enough with the self-pity.”
Adam smiles. “I suppose. I love my parents. I love my friends. And that, I suppose, is enough.”
Pepper smiles, but the exhaustion can no longer be fought back. They may be outside time, but it doesn’t mean the time is any less wearing, especially if her internal organs are taking the beating that Adam describes. “Will I ever see you again?” she asks.
“War’ll be watching over you for me,” Adam promises. “I won’t always be here to help, but I’ll be here if you really, truly need me.”
Pepper looks up into the eyes of the man she might have loved, if things had been different, and feels no regret. Feels no bittersweet pangs. Feels only a simple contentment. Her life would be better if she could remember this conversation tomorrow, but it’s good.
“I’m happy,” she tells Adam, because she knows it’s what he really wanted to ask.
“Good,” Adam says. He bends down to kiss her, a brush of the lips, and like the opposite of Sleeping Beauty, she falls asleep.
(She doesn’t see him fix her phone before he leaves.)
Pepper wakes from vague dreams of a blond angel, to excited noises from Tony, who comes into her hospital room cum science lab all aflutter. They’ve finally found a cure! It’s not a magic fix, there’s still a long road ahead, but the thought that she no longer needs to worry about exploding in a pillar of fire and killing everyone near her sends waves of relief rolling through her.
As she hugs Tony, as she kisses him and cries with joy, any memories of her dream slip away.
“You told her I’d do what ? I’m the manifestation of violence , not a fucking guardian angel!”