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sideways (further from our origin)

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Pepper's initial reaction to Tony's Afghanistanian misadventure was annoyance, pure and simple. She hadn't put all her eggs in that particular basket - no one not born to power got as close to the top as she had with a sense of strategy that poorly developed. However, she had put far too much time and effort into cultivating Stark to be willing to give him up as lost, and particularly not on Obadiah Stane's say-so.

And anyway, she'd gotten used to having Tony around.

In Tony's absence, Obie controlled the board at Stark Incendiaries. Pepper paid attention to who threw their allegiance to him readily, who needed to be wooed, and who stood aside to see how things shook out. Pepper herself approached him obliquely, all wide-(and red-)eyed concern for her job now that the person she was personally assisting was dead.

"Don't worry, my dear. There will always be a place at SI for dedicated employees." Obie's body language - from lean to leer - clearly suggested a method she might use to establish said dedication.

In the absence of any signs of suspicion that she was anything but a pretty piece with barely the ability to work Tony's calendar, Pepper demurred with a grief-shaken but grateful smile and a coy final glance back as she swayed out of the room. The possibility of conquest should be enough to keep Obie interested, if it proved necessary.

She hoped it wouldn't prove necessary; she'd cleaned up after Stane as well as Stark, and neither of them was particularly careful with their toys.


The Malibu house seemed emptier than usual. "JARVIS."

"Yes, Ms. Potts."

"I assume you've been informed that Tony has been... misplaced."

"Not directly." But of course, JARVIS would know from his constant monitoring of media mentions of Tony Stark and Stark Incendiaries, and this news had been both.

"I'm sorry," she replied.

"And you are not here to inform me now." The AI emulated a tone of amusement.

"No," she replied. Honesty and brevity were always best when dealing with JARVIS. One never knew how much JARVIS might record - and bring to Tony's attention at an inconvenient moment. "I'm here to ask you to find out who is behind it. It is, of course, possible that his convoy was attacked at random."

"However, it is not likely, I agree. Where would you suggest I start?"

"Internal sweep of SI. Start at the top and exclude no one, not even Obadiah or myself." JARVIS would have included her anyway, but she wanted her thoroughness noted for Tony or his successor, should it not be Obie. "If you don't find anything conclusive, move on to competitors."

"If we don't find him today, it's over."

"No," Pepper replied calmly.

Over the satlink, Colonel Rhodes frowned. "He's been MIA for almost three months. No one's happy about the number of men I've left in the desert, no matter how potentially valuable Stark is. Eventually, I'm going to run out of expendables. I don't know what kind of miracle you're expecting me to pull out of my ass, but if the Air Force calls off the search, I can't keep looking."

Pepper raised an eyebrow at him. Given the leverage she had on him, he most certainly would, even if it meant going out and getting shot himself. "That won't be necessary."

An actual flicker of surprise crossed his face; the warning had been a bluff against her resolve. "You're giving up?"

"James. Surely you don't think you're Tony's only military asset. No one is calling off anything until I see a body." She tipped her head slightly. "Though, to be clear, I would still prefer you bring him back alive."


Rhodes contacted her before either of her generals had the chance - and even arranged for her immediate transport to the medical facility via military plane. No need to alert Obie to her exact movements by using an SI jet, even if he was presumably preoccupied with a persistent smear campaign, unrest among the SI rank and file within and investors without, and a sudden disruption in his finances... all of which could be traced to a rogue computer program, not Tony's pretty assistant.

Tony had been found - not rescued, because he had rescued himself - in more or less one piece. She sent the colonel a brief thank you and made herself a note that she should really see about accelerating his career advancement as a reward for his loyalty, now that her blind was being restored. She hated having to operate in the open.

Unfortunately, Pepper acknowledged she might have to continue to do so, at least in part. The Tony who was returned to her was not the same one she'd lost. Pepper had spoken to a number of the nurses and orderlies before going in to see him. She possessed all the paperwork required to view his medical records, of course, but knew that barely half of what the staff saw or heard was ever written down. She'd expected changes, naturally. But the focus that drove him back to work from his hospital bed, rather than taking advantage of either the very-available nurses or the opportunity to laze about uninterrupted - that was unexpected. Inconvenient. (Terrifying.)

No one was ever supposed to know how capable she was, but Tony had never been a stupid man - just a predictable one, easily distracted by a pretty face or a flash of cleavage or one more drink too many. He was supposed to look at her, not see her.

Pepper stood outside his room (private, because the Air Force knew what an asset they had recovered in the Merchant of Death and had he even hinted that he wanted it, they'd have happily cleared the wing) and reconsidered her approach, but there was nothing for it. If he started paying attention, he would soon realize that she was much more formidable than anyone had imagined when she'd been granted direct access to Tony - and through him to Stark Incendiaries. Better that she seem to allow him to see it than for him to think she was trying to manipulate him and, worse, failing at it. She'd fastened the top couple buttons of her suit already (it was still more low-cut than strictly professional, but the buttons made a point), so after a final steadying breath, she strode in without a knock, heels making sharp sounds against the tiles.

"Welcome back, Mr. Stark."

Tony looked up from a mess of metal and wires strewn across his bed. His chest glowed through the t-shirt he wore in place of hospital gown. He smiled, sharp and unbroken. "Good to be back, Miss Potts."

Pepper had not thought she'd particularly missed Tony, but his presence hit her a way his absence had not, and she was horrified to feel her expression crumple. Only for a moment, but long enough for Tony to catch it and go wide-eyed.

"Pepper, Pep, no, don't -" He started shoving detritus aside, apparently with the idea of coming to her. She immediately stepped forward, put her hands over his to settle them. They were warm, knuckles swollen from heat or bruising or both, newly scabbed and scarred in ways she associated with those times he could be corralled in to a few hours' (or days') work in fabrication. "Rhodey told me everything -" Pepper rather doubted that "-and JARVIS filled in the details. You got me back."

"I have never been so scared," she said, and it was more maneuver than admission, and his wry expression said he knew it. His hands turned to grasp hers and said that that didn't matter.

"You have no idea," he replied.

Her gaze dropped to the blue glow emanating from his chest. His fingers tightened slightly, so she let her eyes travel further down to the scraps scattered across the bed and now floor. She looked back up and met his eyes. "So, what are you building me to apologize?"

He laughed, a startling sound. "You're going to love it." He unearthed a tablet and opened a folder of blueprints. Even without a formal degree, she'd picked up enough engineering over her years with him to be impressed by the sheer firepower. "First, we finish taking back my company, and I make an example out of Stane. Then I'm going to privatize world governance."