Her first week of unemployment was likely one of the worst weeks of her life.
(She begrudgingly allows her subconscious to admit that the weeks Tony was missing take precedent over the horrors of this particular week, but only just barely and she chooses not to dwell on it for any great measure of time.)
Her moods alternate wildly between absolute and all encompassing fury for her former boss and a pervasive melancholia. The anger feels good. She slams things down on countertops and end tables and calls her sister who listens patiently to her lay into every flaw Tony Stark has ever shown evidence and plenty of speculative and wildly outlandish accusations concerning his moral character past and present.
The sensation of melancholia is less preferable to rage. It savors strongly of bitterness and she's too young to be as jaded as she feels. Unfortunately for her, the fire that fueled her impassioned hatred of Tony Stark and anything related to him is slowly burning itself out and she spends more time listless, unhappy, and indulging in more doubtful ruminations.
Sometimes she cries a little, in the moments when the self doubt is strongest. She's bitterly ashamed of it and every tear down her face is in spite of herself. She'll never tell her sister, never tell anyone, because wouldn't that be something he'd just love? Pepper Potts in tears over Tony Stark.
Not today, she thinks as she wipes them roughly from her face.
Not ever again.
In the mirrored medicine cabinet over her sink she takes a long look at her face. She's never had the talent of beautiful tears. Some of the girls she's shooed from Tony's bed with fresh dry cleaning have managed the loveliest crocodile tears she's ever seen. Their pale long fingered hands resting disbelievingly against pouting lips and single crystalline tears sliding down sculpted cheeks. Each one a beautiful statue in their artificial sorrow. Pepper is red and swollen and scoop-shouldered, resting trembling arms against her white porcelain sink. The image of herself in contrast with the graceful women of her memory upsets her and splashes a little cold water against her fevered brow and turns from the mirror without a second glance.
The close of the first week finds reluctantly venturing from the safety of her apartment to the grocery store her in dirty sweatpants and a tank top, hair disheveled and unkempt, not a hint of makeup gracing her fair and freckled face.
Emotion has wearied her and her normally pale complexion is more sallow and translucent that glowing and porcelain. She catches a glimpse of her reflection in the glass doors of the freezer section, right in front of the Ben and Jerry's and that was all the wakeup call she'd could ever ask for.
This is not how her mother raised her.
This is not who she is.
Her second week of unemployment isn't as bad as the first. The disparity between the weaknesses has been indulging in for the last week and the inner strength and poise she knows she possesses is enough to motivate her to productivity. She catches up on housework, schedules lunch with her sister that she knows won't have to be rescheduled. She transplants her houseplants, starts an herb garden in her kitchen window and learns to cook a very fine risotto.
She keeps the lunch date which is a seemingly inexhaustible source of amazement for her poor sister who has put up with the scheduling whims of an eccentric billionaire for far too long, in Pepper's estimation.
It's very good to see her sister, and she's very careful not to bring up the previous week's primary conversational topic, instead choosing lighter subject matter. She sees her sisters raised eyebrows, but distracts her easily enough with questions about her young niece and brother-in-law.
She comes to realize that time has done more than physically separate them; she doesn't have very much in common with her sister and by the end of the lunch they have exhausted all possible conversational topics they could share common ground on. Her sister has a family.
Pepper has—well—Pepper isn't exactly sure what she has anymore. In the past she might have mentioned her exciting job as personal assistant to one of world's most fascinating minds, frequent world travel and a reputation of extreme professionalism and competence. She's been complimented in the past by random colleagues on her ability to maintain a professional demeanor in the face of such… temptation.
But that's all over now. She can no longer cite job, travel or professionalism amongst her possessions. As she watches her sister walk away from the restaurant, back to her life and her family, she realizes in addition to her other recent losses; she doesn't really have any friends either.
So she joins a local jogging club and finds herself running more mornings than not. The people she runs with are genuine and effervescent, receiving enough sunshine and endorphins to maintain bizarrely consistent levels of happiness and social grace that she is unaccustomed to. She's unprepared for the lack of sarcasm in her conversations, but over the span of a month she learns to adjust to the lack of subtlety in small talk and joins a few of the other women her age for breakfast after their run on a regular basis.
Her new friends are exactly the type she'd never have envisioned herself getting along with: pampered Malibu housewives who've never had a day of work in their lives. Pepper, who worked and scraped for everything she's ever gotten is tempted to be repulsed by their easy extravagance and carefree leisure, but she finds them shockingly self aware and delightfully funny and she begins to very much enjoy their company. They think she's charming and naïve and whisk her off to expensive facials, hair stylists with exotic accents and appointment only shopping trips, determined to transform professionally demure little Pepper Potts into the breathtakingly lovely ingénue they are convinced resides somewhere beneath her conservative button up blouses and monochrome wardrobe. It's the shoes, they tell her laughingly. How can you have such fantastic taste in shoes, and not be just a little bit daring?
Her new friends make a significant improvement on the first and second weeks.
Her severance package from Stark industries was incredibly generous.
Too generous. (A little guilt, Tony, hmm?)
But regardless of the reason or motive, the bottom line is that she can live a quite comfortable life of leisure for about the next three or four years before it would become imperative that she re-enter the workforce. She doesn't think she'll make it that long without some sort of purpose in her life, despite the pleading protests of her new friends. We'll find you someone fabulous, they insist. You'll get married and never have to worry about anything ever again. Though Mr. Stark's final act of generosity
(and when she's feeling especially bitter and more than a little bit nasty she calls it his only act of generosity)
has set her up quite comfortably, it's nowhere near enough to keep up with the spending power of her new friends. She would indeed have to get married to keep up with them, but she always shakes her head and laughs at them when they attempt at matchmaking. Not for her, she insists and every handsome face displayed via Polaroid. But he'd be perfect for you, they whine.
And while this has been an excellent vacation after almost ten years of bending over backwards to cater to someone else's whim, she knows she's incapable of living with the same sort of careless irreverence for the world as her temporary comrades. It's a taste of the other side and that's all it will ever be: a taste. No one could begrudge her the vacation, excepting of course the man himself, but that's irrelevant.
It's irrelevant because it's been three whole months now. Three months since he came back with a bullet in his shoulder. Three months since the screaming, though in retrospect it was mostly her own voice echoing angrily throughout his cavernous workroom.
Three months since she threw part of his suit at him and three months since he said something to her that she's pretty sure she'll never forget (or forgive).
Three months since she said those fatal two little words.
It certainly wasn't the first time she'd had occasion to say them. Tony Stark was a man who'd given her plenty of opportunity in that department.
And perhaps it wasn't the first time she'd really meant them. She can think of at least one instance in recent memory where she really would have walked out on him. But he called her back to her own unique place at his side and she'd come, strangely honored by his unusual candor and frank, refreshing honesty.
But it was definitely the first time she'd ever acted on them. She won't kid herself, she expected him to call after her, to say something to stop her in one of those rare moments of utter honesty between them, no flirtations or sarcasm or games of any kind.
But he didn't say a word.
Not one word.
The silence was deafening with only the tattoo of her stilettos up the stairs to fill the empty space growing between them.
She didn't look back. She'd never wished for eyes in the back of her head more than that moment, viciously wishing to see some sign of regret on his famous face, but she held strong. So did he, she supposes. Both of them were stupid and stubborn and raring to prove a point.
It all feels rather hollow now. In retrospect, she wasn't sure exactly what point she was trying to prove. A small, but not so silent part of her insists that she still is very proud of him, proud of the direction that his life has taken, proud of the strength of his convictions. When she takes the trouble to admit it to herself, she finds herself admitting that he's the strong one of the two of them. She didn't feel strong or composed at the sight of bullet holes, or the deep black bruises, or the worst sight of all; seeing his blood on her hands after helping him out of his work room and into the safety of his bed. He never tells her where he's going, or when, and dismisses her pained inquires when he returns with a clever retort.
Every time she hears him leave without a word, not knowing if he'll make it back, another little strain against her already taxed nerves. Pepper Potts is no stranger to high stress situations, but this is cruel and unusual punishment. She feels truly weak for the first time in her life, and it's terrible.
So without any warning, one cloudy afternoon in Malibu, Pepper Potts erupts. She is irrational and emotional and nothing of the image she has successfully presented to the world for the past nine years.
She can't say that the result wasn't what she expected because she hadn't been expecting anything. She hadn't even indented to say anything, more like couldn't help it. Words were pouring out of her faster than she could think about the ramifications of her self-righteous diatribe. But she wasn't prepared for what was said to her in return. The sting of his words followed her up the stairs, every angry click of her shoes against the floor replaying some hurtful comment or salacious barb he'd uttered. Her anger helped her gather her things, helped her open the door and helped her slam it behind her without pause. She'd spoken out of frustration and concern, but she'd left out of anger.
So she does whatever she can to fill all the places in her life that Tony Stark took up for nine years.
It's no small task.
The third month finds her taking plenty of long walks. She takes her time. She patronizes restaurants she's never been in before, but never had the time to visit before. She doesn't feel self conscious in the slightest about eating alone. She spends long hours sipping espresso in cafes and reading subpar translations of classic Russian literature that she buys at the used bookstore seven blocks west of her apartment complex.
She becomes strangely obsessed with food. Her diet makes quite the transformation under the leisurely influence of free time. The food she now eats isn't a hastily prepared piece of unbuttered toast. Or a microwaved lunch in carefully partitioned plastic sections, the glazed carrots rubbery and saccharine. Or even Tony's leftovers, cheekily presented to her in brown paper bags, white takeout boxes or tinfoil swans. True, her former employer dined at some of the finest restaurants across the globe, but the remnants Tony presents to her with his air of careless condescension are stone cold, half eaten, or worse: both.
But as she sits in a very fine restaurant of her own, conversation flowing as easily as the wine, eyes sparkling with merriment, a dinner is placed in front of her. The presentation is exquisite, the china fine
and the smell intoxicating. The intimate lighting catches the highlights of her hair as she throws her head back in laughter, reflects off the gloss of her manicure as she clutches at the thin stem of her wine glass.
The steam rises in delicate, sensual tendrils from her plate, curling transparent fingers around her fork as it hovers above the meal. Pepper pauses to appreciate the significance of this moment.
A meal, not in part, but in full.
As her lips close over that first perfect bite, she by no means reflects on how much more this moment would have meant if he were sitting across from her. In the image she does not have in her mind he does not look at her tenderly, doesn't tease her until a hot blush reaches her delicate face, and most definitely doesn't lay his left hand across hers when their waiter is serving their dessert.
But luckily for Pepper Potts, this idle flight of fancy doesn't take her over the main course, so she is spared the sudden and encompassing sensation of hollowness. The food doesn't lose its sweetness on her tongue and the sense of triumph she feels as her teeth tap the metal of the fork in her mouth doesn't dissipate as easily as the steam rising from her meal.
If her companions notice her far off expression, they do not comment on it. If they perceive the sudden absence of color in her cheek, they don't send each other sidelong glances across the table. And if they should be so extraordinarily perceptive as to discern the loneliness behind her eyes, they don't make it the subject of their conversation the next day.
Thankfully for all parties involved, the moment that was not a moment passes. Dinner resumes unhindered. Pepper smiles, laughs and savors every bite. A well dressed man from a table full of men in expensive looking suits sends her a drink and she demurely accepts it. She considers the evening a total success, a triumph of the new and improved Pepper Potts, even though she'll never admit that she only reason she ever wanted a meal like that was because she wanted to share it with him.
When the door of her apartment clicks behind her it is by no means a good thing. She doesn't relish the silence because she had a few drinks at dinner and the solitude leaves her too much time to remember that it's been three months without Tony Stark and the alcohol inhibited enough to remember that she misses him desperately.
He told her once that he could make it a week without her. He's managed to prove that several times over, just how small her place in his life really was.
Despite all her feelings otherwise, she still keeps her tabs on him, still worries. She isn't sure if it's less because she isn't presented with the direct evidence of him in harm's way or more because it leaves room for her active and rather morbid imagination to fill in the blanks. She watches the news, clips the articles from the paper and prays. Despite everything she still cares about him. She's not sure that any amount of time or stupid things she's done or terrible things he's said will teach her how to not care about that man.
Three long months and not one phone call.
The longest three months of Pepper Pott's life.
Can you tell I can't write dialog? It's pretty obvious! I need constructive criticism here guys, I've been away from writing for a very long time. Very, very, very long time. I have only the vaguest notion of where this is going, so please suggest at your leisure. More chapters to come.
E. M. Stevens