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The Right Thing in the Wrong Way

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Pepper tells people just enough about her past to make them feel like they know her, but never so much that they actually do. She grew up on a little farm in a little town in Iowa. Her father worked at the factory because he couldn't make a living working the land, and her mother ran a daycare in the bottom of their old white farmhouse. Her childhood was chickens and pigs and little kids running around everywhere, and she loved it -- but not enough to stay.

She doesn't mention her brother Sam, who burned too bright for their little town but never did manage to leave. She went to Vassar on a full scholarship; he stayed behind and fought and drank. Her freshman year, she forgot to call, and her sophomore year, he wouldn't answer the phone.

He died in a car crash when she was twenty years old. She went on being Pepper Potts as best she could.

1.
On the fifth anniversary of her brother's death, Tony Stark is bouncing in front of Pepper's desk. Her Visine bottle is hidden in the bottom of her purse, the coffee is brewed, her pens are perpendicular to her blotter, and there is no trace that today is different from any other. It is exactly what she needs -- except that Tony Stark is literally bouncing in front of her desk in a ridiculous leather jacket that clashes with his Converse sneakers.

"What do you want to do today?" he asks.

"Where's your suit?" she counters. "There's a news conference at --"

"Cancelled. There is a news conference at cancelled o'clock."

"What? Do you know how many hours I spent --"

"Sixteen. And a half. At the office, anyway. Probably more at home."

"And that means nothing to you?"

"It does, actually. That's why I cancelled the conference."

"Your logic is... Your logic is not logical, Tony." She leans back in her chair and closes her eyes, breathing in and out like her yoga teacher taught her.

"You don't get it?" Tony asks, and for a second, Pepper thinks he looks hurt. Then she remembers that Tony Stark does not have feelings.

"Stop looking at me like that," she snaps.

"Like what?"

"Like...like you're being totally sincere. It's creepy." She's been here for eight months, and already she knows that nothing good comes from Tony looking sincere.

"I am being sincere," Tony says. "I cancelled the news conference so we can do whatever you want to do today. You deserve it. What do you want to do?"

"I want to get the news conference back." She grabs for her phone, but Tony snatches it first.

"Do not put that down your pants."

"Would you get it if I did?"

"I think you know from experience that I will not," she says. The yoga breathing isn't helping anymore. She can call the police and report it stolen. The phone is her property, exactly for that reason. "Do we have to do this today, Tony? Could you just save your bizarre attention-seeking shenanigans for, say, Thursday afternoon? Or even tomorrow at breakfast. I could handle tomorrow at breakfast."

"I know you could. You can handle anything, Pepper. Even putting together an international news conference on the day your brother died."

"What? You know that?" Pepper blinks hard against the tears filling her eyes. She's not going to cry in front of Tony Stark. She doesn't cry in front of anyone, but especially not Tony Stark.

"Well, yeah, I know that. I know your first boyfriend's name was Ryan Minty. You were in junior high, but he was a year old than you. Also, I know that you had a dog named Sam and a cockatoo named Willy. Do you want me to go on? I kind of have a boundary issue, so I know a lot." He waves a hand airily, as if knowing her entire personal history is no big deal. "Or you could just tell me what you want to do today, and we'll do it."

Her eyes are dry now; her cheeks are aflame. "You know my whole personal history and you think you can just call it a boundary issue and make it okay?"

Tony does not look the least bit contrite. "If you had a problem with it, you would've left a long time ago. Eight months is like a century in Tony Stark personal assistant years."

"So this is a thank you? For sticking around?" she asks. Her knees feel weak even though she's sitting down.

"Yes, you could call it that. If you were determined to express emotions in an open way, which I was trying to avoid."

Pepper does not look at Tony. She puts her folders in her briefcase, shuts down her computer, switches her phone to voicemail, and watches Tony watch her with a wary, hang-dog look in his eyes. Then she cocks an eyebrow and says, "Mr. Stark, I would like to go skydiving today. Thank you for asking."

An hour later, she is falling through the air, the wind is howling in her ears, the ground is rushing toward her too fast, and a genius billionaire playboy is falling by her side. She knows then why she stays: because every day she's with Tony Stark, she feels alive.

2.
One year later, Pepper comes into her office at 7:45, and Tony is already there. That does not bode well for the day.

"I have something for you," he says, and Pepper flinches automatically.

"If you tell me to close my eyes, I'm not going to do it," she says.

"Fine." Tony pulls whatever it is out from behind his back and sets it gingerly on her desk, where she stares in disbelief.

"It's a box," Pepper says. It's a nice box, made from mahogany with just a bit of gold inlay, tasteful and oddly subdued. She frowns. "What are you trying to distract me from, Mr. Stark?"

"Nothing. It's a box. For things you might want to put in boxes. Dried blueberry?"

"No thank you. Did you put a thing in the box already?" She gives it an experimental shake.

Tony puts down the packet of dried blueberries, holds up his hands. "None of my things, I swear. It's for your things. Important things that you want to remember. Things that should go somewhere other than a Payless shoebox in the back of your closet."

"Oh." Pepper sits down hard on her chair, the world going blurry in front of her. "Oh.."

They don't talk about this; they never talk about this. They've both lost people. It ties them together so obviously that it's unnecessary to acknowledge. Both of them pretend it's Tony who doesn't want to talk about it, so Pepper never has to admit that she can't talk about it. She reaches for a tissue.

"Wait." A Payless shoebox in the back of your closet. "Have you been in my apartment?"

"Well, how else was I supposed to know what you needed?" Tony says matter-of-factly, like everyone in the world breaks into their employees' apartments in order to ascertain their needs.

"You could try asking," Pepper snaps.

"Boring," Tony says. "Also, it presupposes that you would answer honestly, which you wouldn't."

Pepper buries her face in her hands. "You do the right thing in totally the wrong way. You have to stop."

"I could do the wrong thing in the wrong way," Tony offers.

"Stop. Just stop. If you don't say something real this minute, I am walking out this door and not coming back."

"Okay. I will learn. I will figure this out," Tony says, and Pepper still doesn't look at him. She doesn't want to know if he looks honest or not.

"Figure what out?" she asks.

"Whatever I have to do to keep you." He grins, the same Tony Stark grin that makes supermodels drop their panties. "That's a Tony Stark promise."

Pepper keeps the box on her desk and fills it with little mementoes of good things Tony has done: the opera tickets he bought her the time he actually remembered her birthday, and the tickets to the museum gala he gave her when he thought her birthday was in March. The Payless shoebox stays in the back of her closet because it was where her brother had stored his baseball cards and airline-sized tequila bottles, and she hasn't touched it since the day after his funeral, when she filled it with small souvenirs of his life.

Tony never asks why she keeps his box on her desk, and that's another reason she stays: he lets her pretend she's the functional one.

3.

"I'll accept your resignation on" -- Tony makes a show of checking the date on his Rolex -- "Thursday."

"When I leave your employment is not your choice." Working for Tony Stark has made her something of an expert on employment contract law. "Without appropriate notice, you can dock my pay, but you can't keep me here."

Tony is silent in the dangerous way that means he's thinking, so she adds, "Keeping me here against my will is a federal crime. It's called kidnapping, actually."

"I know. I know." Tony looks down at his shoes, which probably cost more than some people's mortgage payment and are splattered with oil. "Just, you have somewhere to go on Wednesday, right? You called a friend? Or you're visiting your family?"

"Oh god." Pepper sinks down in her desk chair. "I forgot. I forgot."

Tony's standing in front of her desk now, close but not touching her. "It's okay. It's been a long time. It happens. To me, sometimes, I mean."

Pepper looks up because she'd forgotten -- actually forgotten -- that both of Tony's parents are dead. She wants to talk about that more, either because she wants to hurt him or because sincerity is the only real gift he's ever given her, but he's already talking again, machine gunning out solutions that mostly involve money.

"You can take the jet to Iowa if you want. You know, see your family. Or go to Raratonga. You said you wanted to do that. With a girlfriend, of course, or six. Girl's trip, if you want. Private plane or first class tickets, you know, whatever."

"I don't even know where to begin dissecting all the things that are wrong with that statement," she says, except no, she does know where to start. She knows exactly what the problem is. "Maybe it's the part where you said to call a friend. I don't have friends. I have this job. It's all I ever think about, all I ever do. Congratulations, you have somehow made two people in the world who have no room for anyone in their lives but you." She snaps open her briefcase and starts packing it, personal items only, no Stark property. No reason anyone can sue her, no reason she'll have to walk back in this office, no reason Tony can come to her apartment and ask for something back.

"That's fair," Tony says. Somehow he manages to look her in the eye when he says it, and it breaks her heart a little. "That is totally fair, and it's why you want to leave. I get it. I just...nobody wants to be alone on that day, okay? So don't be."

"What do you do on the day your parents died?"

"Get drunk and go shopping. For Lear Jets and expensive cars. So not actually distinguishable from the other days, I know. " He looks down at his shoes, then up at her again. "We could do that if you want. I'd get you a Lear Jet."

She smiles. It's an accident, but at that moment, they both know Tony's won.

"No Lear Jet. I mean it, Tony. Don't buy me an airplane." She pauses, swallows hard. "But I'll take you up on the drinking."

When she comes back to work on Monday, there's a new contract on her desk. She signs it and doesn't look back.

4.
One year later, Pepper's walking to her apartment with a full bag of groceries when she sees a limo. If only she could ignore it...but no, if she ignores Tony, he'll just start honking the horn over and over again until the neighbors call the police. Or until he pays the neighbors not to call the police, which would be even worse.

"What are you doing?" she asks. Tony doesn't roll down the window, but she imagines he can read her lips; she only asks him the same thing twelve times every single day.

The door swings open.

"Get in the car," Tony says.

"It's Saturday. I don't work on Saturdays anymore. It's in my contract. Oh, here, look, I have it with me." She puts down the groceries and fumbles in her purse; she always has her contract with her. The most frequently violated clauses are highlighted in yellow.

"You're not working. I'm getting you a present."

"Is it shoes?" she asks. "I like shoes. Love them, won't buy them for myself. It's a perfect gift."

"It's not shoes, but I can get you shoes. Happy, remind me to get Pepper shoes this afternoon. Do you still wear a size eight?"

"Don't touch my feet." She dances out of his reach and brandishes the contract in his face. "I'd like to remind you that this also says strippers are not an acceptable present. Male or female."

"I'm sorry you didn't like Candy. Actually, you have no idea how sorry." He gets out of the car and holds the door open. "There will be no strippers. No sex toys, no fire arms, laser pistols, absolutely nothing I think is cool."

Pepper checks to make sure Tony isn't crossing his fingers behind his back. Then she picks up her groceries and gets in the car. Sometimes it's simpler not to resist.

In the limo, she declines champagne -- it's only eleven in the morning, after all -- and munches on a banana from her grocery bag. Bickering with Tony only requires half of her brain power, so she devotes the other half to looking warily out the window, trying to guess where they're going.

"UCLA," Tony says. "That's where we're going."

"Is there a jell-o fight?"

"No. Well, maybe. I haven't checked. But there is an MBA program starting next week."

"And you think sixteen years after being Stark Industries' CEO is time to finish your professional education?"

"No, I think four years of being my personal assistant is time to finish yours."

"When did I say I wanted an MBA?"

"Uh, let's see. Forbes Gala last July, you mentioned it to Happy in April, you had a brochure for one on your desk in January, and also I think last week when you were making small talk with that reporter at the news conference."

"I didn't know you were listening."

"Well, I was, and I happen to think you should have an MBA, so I applied for you -- you had a killer essay, by the way -- and today we are going to enroll in your classes and get your books."

"Tony, I don't have time for this. You're speaking at the G12 summit, and there's the expo --" And she's not ready to quit this job. Maybe she should be, but she just isn't. Being kicked out of Tony's life is not actually a good present.

"Yeah, about that, I already blocked off likely class times in your schedule, and homework and study time too. Also, I hired a second assistant until you're done. A man, so no sexual harassment lawsuits, and he's gay, actually, so no wild nights on the town that will attract media attention. He'll stay as long as you need him."

"And afterward? If I get another job offer?"

"I hope that you will stay at Stark Industries. I value and respect your judgment. But if you go, you'll do it with my recommendation."

"Tony, I don't know what to say. Thank you. Just thank --"

"No, no don't say thank you. Just say 'I deserve this for putting up with Tony Stark.'"

"Oh, I definitely deserve this for putting up with Tony Stark. And shoes. Don't forget you promised me shoes."

That night, she doesn't take her brother's photograph out of her nightstand drawer, and she doesn't listen to a playlist of his favorite songs. Instead, she reads business school textbooks while she drinks champagne, and she thinks that it's okay to be happy. It doesn't mean she loves her brother any less.

5.
On the fifteenth anniversary of her brother's death, Pepper stumbles into her office at 9:15 p.m. with her high heels in her hand and a drink on her mind. Her to-do list is done: she's hired a company to clean up the wreckage of the Stark Expo, wrapped a news conference, processed three damage settlements through legal, and quashed awkward questions about why Ivan Vanko might bear such a powerful grudge against Tony Stark.

Tony is standing in front her desk, but Pepper replaces her smile with an exasperated grimace before he even sees her walk in the door. Nothing good can come of making Tony Stark think you're happy to see him, and Pepper doubts that's changed just because he's her boyfriend-on-probation.

"I brought you some things," Tony says. By now, he knows Pepper finds statements like these ominous, so he holds up his hands and adds, "Paper things. Non-pornographic paper things. You can put them in your box later."

"What box?" Pepper says, and Tony angles his head toward the mahogany box he had given her -- god, had it been twelve years ago?

"The box of Tony goodness. That sounds wrong. I mean, the box of evidence that Tony Stark is occasionally a decent human being who is not completely absorbed with himself."

Pepper raises an eyebrow. "You know what's in my box?"

"Well, yeah. I mean, I assume you don't keep things on your desk that I can't open. Look, you're barely even indignant."

This is true. In the past ten years, Tony's boundary issue has stopped feeling like a violation, and if she's honest with herself, she finds it strangely comforting. He knows things, and she doesn't have to tell him. It's a good system for both of them.

"Maybe I'm saving my indignation for after you give me whatever is in your hand." The banter is part of their system too; it means neither one of them have to talk about their increasingly obvious feelings.

"It's an interview schedule," Tony says, offering her a sheet of paper. "You know, companies with high-level tech openings. I booked you some appointments, Google, Microsoft, Apple, all the heavy hitters. I thought about making you sign a non-compete, but then I realized that nobody can compete with Stark Industries, so off into the world with you, with my blessing."

"Glad I saved my indignation." Pepper wads the paper up and hurls it into the trash can. "You do not get to make decisions about what I do with my life. If I want to leave Stark Industries, I'll set up the interviews myself." Or not. At the height of Tony's insanity, she'd had her eye on a boutique firm in Palo Alto, but she never did find time to return the recruiter's phone calls.

Tony steers her toward her desk chair and pushes her gently down into it, which she allows only because she is exhausted and even the memory of her brother feels terrifyingly far away.

"Pepper, you and I are going to have a conversation. A real conversation, as it happens, so brace yourself." Tony looks at her meaningfully, and she wrenches her eyes away from the dim glow of the arc reactor on his chest.

"I am suitably braced, Mr. Stark," she says, crossing her legs primly.

"All right." Tony takes a breath. "It's fifteen years since the last time you saw your brother, give or take a day. You should move on."

Pepper opens her mouth, an indignant retort on her lips. If Tony thinks he is giving her mental health advice --

"No, no listen," Tony says, holding up a hand. "Don't look at me like that. I'm not stupid, Pepper. I'm actually the least stupid person you've ever met, although it probably doesn't always seem that way. I am your irresponsible, out of control brother you couldn't save. But look at me, Iron Man, I'm all saved now. Thanks in no small part to you. So it's time to go out in the world and be what you can be."

"Am I supposed to say thank you for that?" Pepper snaps. She stands up, and now she and Tony are only inches apart. "You want to have a real conversation. Let's have a real conversation. You're scared. You thought of Obadiah Stane as your father, and he tried to kill you. Some demon from your father's past just tried to blow up half of Los Angeles to get even with you. Now you're pushing away everyone else who matters." She graciously doesn't say that there's only one person who matters, and it's her. They both know it anyway.

She takes a step toward him, but he doesn't step back.

"I might die out there, Pepper. Or this might kill me." He taps the arc reactor on his chest. "I don't want to do that to you. You don't need to lose anyone else."

"You won't die." Pepper refuses to consider the possibility.

"How can you know that?" Tony asks. "I don't know that."

"Because I told you not to, and although you pretend not to listen to me, we both know you actually do. Are we done talking about feelings now?"

Tony sags against the wall, which looks like mock relief but is probably actually real. "God, yes, please. I don't know what I was thinking. Drink?"

"Only if you're buying."

Tony takes her to a bar by her apartment, somewhere small and quiet where they won't be seen. It's a Pepper place, not a place for Tony to show off, and maybe that's why she says it.

"I think it was my fault my brother died." She twirls her martini glass in her hand and doesn't look at Tony's face. She's thought this for fifteen years and never said it to anyone.

"No it wasn't," Tony says.

"How can you possibly know that?" Pepper asks, feeling the blood rush to her cheeks. "You know nothing about our history, our lives, our situation..."

"But I know you. That's enough. I mean, if you want to tell me more, I'll listen with a minimum of posturing and sarcasm," Tony says. "Here's the other thing I know: you can tell people over and over again to stop hurting themselves, and you can show them and tell them you care about them a thousand times over, but you can't save anyone who doesn't want to save themselves."

He looks her straight in the eye when he says it. No guile, no sarcasm, absolutely nothing that reminds her of Tony Stark.

"Well," Pepper says quietly, "after all these years, you got one thing right."

"Two things, actually. I got two things right."

Pepper raises an eyebrow. "Oh? What's the other one?"

"I figured out how to keep you."