The next morning dawns as bright and clear as any morning in Los Angeles can be, the specter of smog clinging lightly to the horizon.

Pepper arrives for work, square shouldered; bright eyed and more determined than ever to make her new life work, to establish herself as independently successful, forever out of the shadow of Tony Stark and her role as his hapless girl Friday. Her makeup is flawless; her demure French is twist tight against the back of her head, her suit impeccably tailored and modest. She's even wearing a low heel today (low for her, anyway): vintage architectural heeled plain black leather pumps.

Her smile is cool and professional at the front reception and she takes the opportunity to breathe deeply as she strides through the atrium.

Tony can be ridiculous all he wants but she refuses to play along with his coy little temper tantrums. She's a big girl now who won't pout and stamp her feet just because she can't have him in the way she wants him, won't cry because she could never call him her own and really believe it. She's bitterly embarrassed by her own behavior last night at dinner.

She hoped for something that couldn't exist and that could only ever be her own fault. She had wanted to believe he could change so intently that to be face with the disparity between what she had imagined and what really happened was too much. So disappointing that petulance she felt couldn't be contained, spilling out over her, manifesting in speech and action. For just a moment she allowed herself the privilege of being a woman scorned and couldn't regret it more. There are rivers of regret, great wide oceans of regret.

Want can color the world all sorts of interesting and misleading colors and Pepper admits she was dazzled, taken in by the possibility of a life with that man. And now, after feverish hope and intoxicating belief she is Dorothy, back in Kansas, back in black and white after dreaming in Technicolor. She feels every year of her life acutely this morning. She won't pout, won't cry—in public, at least.

She contemplates briefly as she walks, her shoes echoing noisily in the expansive space, waiting another six months then asking Mr. Brennan if there were any openings in the New York office. The weather would kill her, undoubtedly, but she could see herself being successful there, lost amongst the vibrant, writhing throng of the big city. A place tailor made for reinvention; who knew here there, and furthermore, who really cared? It may, in fact, be just the thing for her, distance and closure all at once. She's never going to get a chance here, not with him so close.

And though she imagines this last separation, the final disseverance would undo her entirely; it would give her a chance to build herself up again, start from the ground up. How she thought she could start over on such unstable ground, every square inch riddled with the ghosts of memory? She can't have him, she reminds herself bitterly, so why torture herself with the constant specter of his presence?

It is almost entirely settled in her mind by the time she reaches her floor, almost written in stone by the time her feet leave the tiled atrium and hit the carpeted hallway before her desk. A few months to further establish her usefulness here then she'll broach the subject of transfer to New York. She may even use Deirdre to this effect. She promised herself she wouldn't after she got the job; it'd be wildly unprofessional and she didn't want to get the reputation as the woman who made her way through the professional world on connections and not the quality of her work and the extent of her abilities. This would be the means to an end and that alone; it wouldn't be like abusing the connection would even be possible in New York. Starting over isn't a choice at this point; it's imperative and surprisingly, Pepper finds herself willing to burn a few bridges to get what she wants.

Pepper is always calmed by a good, well organized plan and as she settles her purse atop her desk she feels very well comforted indeed. Make peace with Tony and cut ties with her old life. It's perfect, or as perfect as abandoning a sinking ship can be.

Her good mood doesn't last.

Mr. Brennan pokes a meaty shoulder out from his office and gruffly requests her presence inside. He seemed summoned by the sound of her possessions hitting her desk top, as though he'd been specifically awaiting her arrival. He's never requested her presence in his office before, nor has he ever been in the office this early before. The newness of the action triggers a warning bell within her. She follows him within with no small amount of trepidation.

"Close the door, Virginia."

As she moves to close the heavy door, she happens to glance at Yvonne across the hallway and even at the distance her smirk is evident.

Shit.


It only takes five three and a half minutes.

A hot, sick welling of humiliation emanates from deep with her chest, a liquid, violent, churning thing that lives and breathes and eats away at her. She doesn't say anything, can't say anything, and so only the click of Mr. Brennan's office door shutting behind her as she leaves and the strange shock of seeing a pockmarked security guard already present, waiting for her to collect her things and escort her off the premises herald the unexpected and lamentable milestone: the first time Virginia Potts has ever been fired. Ever.

Yvonne, it seems, cannot help herself, and walks across the hall to offer Pepper an empty copy paper box in which to place her belongings. Pepper wordlessly accepts. In goes her umbrella plant and the framed picture of her mother. She doesn't really have much of herself here after all, she realizes. She doesn't know where she's left herself, where to put herself anymore.

Strangely she doesn't feel any sadness. She doesn't feel regret. At first she feels nothing. As she reaches for the her spare change jar, almost forgotten with how neatly it is tucked behind her computer monitor, she knocks it clean off the table and thinks for a moment that she might actually lose herself. The security guard looks on impassively. She wants to break something else. She lowers herself awkwardly to her hands and knees and picks up broken glass, nickels, dimes and pennies. Yvonne is silent as she files her nails, pretending not to watch, but not quite managing to hide her satisfaction as well as she conceals her notice. Pepper wants to shout, scream herself horse. But she doesn't. She picks up every last cent, deposits the broken glass of her former change jar into the trash, and passively informs the security guard that he may want to alert the building's janitorial staff about shards of glass that may still linger in the industrial beige carpeting.

And then, all that is left of this disaster is the long, shameful walk down the hallway.

Deirdre's voice catches her before she reaches the atrium. "Pepper! Pepper, wait!"

It takes a moment to process.

She turns around slowly, but everything feels strange, like she's swimming in molasses. She's fixated on the strength of the emotion she feels at being fired. She shouldn't be upset. She feels utterly ridiculous for feeling anything but grateful for the separation. It was a shit job and a demeaning waste of her time. But it was something, wasn't it? God help her, it was something. After she'd left Tony, she lost everything. Her self-respect, her career, and the biggest, best, most aggravating part of her life; the man himself. But the shit job was something. Not much, but a little bit of something. Forward momentum, a change to get reoriented, get her bearings on life, and get back onto her feet. Pepper Potts doesn't know which way is up. Pepper Potts doesn't know where she is.

Oh, god. She can't breathe. She can't breathe. She can't—

"Jesus Christ, Pepper. Come on!"

Deirdre links arms with her and tugs her down the hallway, her eyes shooting daggers at the hapless security guard who seems to know better than to follow them.

They are out of building and across the street hurrying to the parking structure two blocks down where Deirdre has parked her car when Pepper stops allowing her friend to lead her and speaks.
"Dee—what was that? What was that?"

Deirdre has the grace to look ashamed.

"I tried to talk him out of it, I really did, Pep. I did. But you know Eugene, when it comes to business," she laughs a little, but somehow Pepper fails to see the humor in the situation and the sound falls flat on her ears. Deirdre starts again, but her speech is faltering and awkward, unsure how to proceed

"He got a call last night—a call from Tony Stark. Some deal or another, I don't know. I should have asked. He's a real dick, I don't care how handsome he is."

The air carves straight from Pepper's lungs in a rush.

"Tony?"

She pauses, unable to wrap her mind around the concept.

"Tony had me fired?"

Deirdre only nods and repeats her earlier affirmation.

"A real dick."

Deirdre re-takes Pepper's arm and drags her down the sidewalk. "Come on, I'll drive you home."


She's always prided herself on her industriousness, her adaptability, her determination to rise from every situation and all of her effort, all of her work ethic, everything last bit of clawing and scraping to earn a bit of respect is gone on the whim of some petulant man-child.

She's sick with disappointment. She knows he's better than this. She knows it just like she knows she's done nothing to deserve this. Her sorrow for him takes the fight out of her for a moment.

The events that have transpired in the course of a day (transpiring since the devastation of two little words) are so beyond her, so utterly unfathomable that she finds herself at a loss to describe the texture of her own heart. This latest cruelty, a sharp and devastating retaliation, so unlike the slow ache of exclusion she is accustomed to, stacked upon so many other swift changes and shifts in the natural order of things---it's too much. It seems her heart is not made for such; it cannot continue in such extremity.

Deirdre drives her home but she barely registers the journey, limp and pale, slouched despondently against the plush interior of her friend's car. Deirdre parks the car and follows her up the stairs and into the apartment, settles her on the couch, utterly ignoring Pepper's soft insistence that she'd rather be alone right now. Deirdre retreats to the kitchen and bangs cupboard doors raucously open and shut before returning with two long-stemmed wine glasses and a moderately expensive old vine zinfandel Pepper had been saving for a special occasion. A glass is forced into Pepper's hand and she obediently takes a small sip. Deirdre settles herself into the chair opposite to where she is sitting and urges her on several occasions with a comically serious expression on her face to "let it all out". When this suggestion proves fruitless, she nimbly switches tactics; attempting to goad Pepper into frenzy by uttering every slur against Tony Stark she can think of. In this application, Deirdre proves herself an agile and inventive operator, twisting a tapestry of rumor, profanity and blatant slander with the unnatural grace of a true savant. But try as she might, she cannot summon the tears or impassioned diatribe she had so hoped for. Pepper's weariness has settled in her into the very marrow of her bones, and though she is aware of Deidre's well intentioned, but otherwise utterly off base attempts to comfort her, she doesn't possess the energy to humor her, which seems to be the foundation of their friendship. Pepper unresponsive, placid demeanor seems to utterly unhinge her friend who is unequipped to synthesize Pepper's unfathomable reaction and strange pallor. Within ten minutes Deirdre is tripping over herself to get to the door.

(That night when Deirdre describes Pepper's unfathomable despondency to her husband, she uses words like 'weird' and 'creepy'. 'Lifeless eyes. Like a doll's eyes,' she intones lowly, doing her best Robert Shaw impression. Her husband only snorts in response.)

Pepper doesn't blame her. In fact, she barely even notices she's left.

She rouses herself from the living room after a long, empty silence and retreats to the bedroom, undressing mechanically, her mind a thousand miles away in some white and soundless place.

She's asleep as soon as she hits the mattress.

She doesn't dream.


The morning is a different animal entirely. As she rises, she takes careful note. She still feels tired, weary and aching. But unlike the evening previous, she is alert; no longer trapped in the misty haze of her own delirium. She dons a robe and walks barefoot into the kitchen. The tile is so cold under her that it almost stings the bottoms of her feet. She puts on the kettle and slices bread for toast. It is any other day. She glances at the digital clock set into the controls above the range of the stove and does her very best to suppress the rising and irrational panic that arises within the very core of her when she learns it is well past 11:00am. Pepper cannot remember once in recent memory that she has slept past 6:00am. She wants to cry for a brief moment, wants to scream and shake things, and wants to go running until she collapses. But, Pepper is Pepper and she doesn't do any of these things. She swallows it all like a ball of thorns, lets it sit in her stomach, tearing at her when she moves too sharply. She lets her tea steep and butters her toast liberally. She sits at the kitchen table until her toast is crumbs left on the table and plate and all that remains of her tea is a few stray leaves, wet and heavy at the bottom of her cup. She chews and sips and thinks very hard about what a mess she and Tony Stark made of two little words (I quit.)

She postulates helplessly at the table, alone amongst her crumbs and stray tea leaves, that if they made such a mess of two words (I quit.) what on earth made her think they'd ever be able to make sense of three?

(I love you.)

Something has to change. Not the limbo they've been listlessly occupying, both too proud or stupid or afraid to make it better. In fact, Tony has just made everything a thousand times worse, exponentially worse than it was a day ago. With that, she remembers her anger, and it takes hold of her cold toes and fingers, warms her with terrible purpose.

Today, Pepper Potts storms the castle and no matter the outcome (she's going to kill him) it ends today, this restless stasis. She doesn't want to go back, she doesn't know how to move forward, so maybe the best solution is to abandon her calculations, her careful, practical movement through life and jump blindly, trusting herself and her resolve enough to know that whatever happens after this, it at least won't the same.

Today is the day she goes to war.

The click of the apartment door behind her echoes a finality she's not sure she really understands.


Tony doesn't answer the door. Melanie does, or when she isn't around, Jarvis has the honors, which creates some difficulty in the latter case for those who have never been to the house before. However well mannered and impeccably polite the AI system is, a disembodied voice is never particularly comforting. Melanie has the day off, so he absently snaps at Jarvis when he is informed there is someone at the door.

"Just let them in,"

"You'll want to get the door yourself, Mr. Stark."

He looks up from his drafting table.
"What, buddy? Bum knee?"

"It's Ms. Potts."

He's up the stairs two at a time and nearly eats it when his foot catches the corner of a rug in the foyer. He didn't expect her so soon, but here she is and things are going to be okay again—he flings the door open wide, a cheeky greeting ready on his lips. Playful banter, light flirtation, the warmth of her smile, the graceful curve of her back, he's ready for it all.

He's not prepared for what he sees in front of him, a few steps down from eye level.

Her fine little shoulders are squared, her jaw set firmly, and her hands clenched lightly at her sides. She stares at him with hard eyes for a long uncomfortable second before she purses her lips and hisses, "You asshole," half between her teeth, half from deep recess of her chest.

"Pepper, I—"

"You—you—dick !" Her voice rises tremulously, edging on the precipice of hysteria, eyes wide and a little bit crazed. He fights the urge to take a step backwards. Even so, he feels himself wither a little under her murderous gaze.

"Listen—"

She interrupts a second time.

"When have I ever, ever been anything less than a friend to you?"

"Shit," he breaths slowly, but stops himself from going further. He doesn't know what to say to her. He examines the door frame for a moment, looks away and then back again. He is suddenly painfully aware that she is bracing herself against the railing on the steps up to his front door, her wan face turned up to meet his searching look. The late morning sunshine glints on her hair.

He clears his throat.

"Do you want to come inside?

She nods jerkily and he turns quickly and walks to the living room without waiting to see if she follows him. She does.

They sit. He offers her something to drink, but she declines and fetches a red aluminum water bottle out her purse and takes a long swallow. When she speaks, it seems sudden and too loud for the quiet room.

"You got me fired, Tony."

Tony does his best to look contrite. Clever Miss Potts, of course you found out. The ruse is up. He makes a silent vow to never, ever, under any circumstance, ever underestimate her again. A disastrous oversight, but there isn't any time for new calculations. Still, he can't help but be curious.

"Dare I ask how you found out?"

She looks at him sidelong and takes another sip from her water bottle.

"I know his wife," she pauses then clarifies unnecessarily, "Mr. Brennan's wife, Deirdre. I know her. We belong to the same running group. She got me the job in the first place, actually. I guess you didn't know that."

"Well, no. Clearly."

"Stop stalling." Pepper puts the water bottle back in her purse and looks him full in the face for the first time since they've come inside the house.

"I needed—well, I needed to get your attention."

It's the truth of the matter, but she doesn't look pleased by it. In fact, quite the opposite. Pepper's eyes widen and she turns a very interesting shade of red, but save for these two tells, she is otherwise still and silent. Calm as a cucumber.

Tony holds his breath.

In a moment, Pepper speaks; slowly with unnaturally even cadence, each word carefully enunciated as if it cost her some great price to utter them.

"Okay. Okay—you have my complete and undivided attention," she pauses and Tony cannot decipher the look she gives him, except to describe it as 'pointed' and 'forceful'.

"What exactly did you so desperately want to say to me?"

Tony half expects tumbleweed to blow across the room. At opposite ends of the couch they are miles away from one another and he wants more than anything to stop talking (a first?) and close the distance between them, breath in the fragrance of her hair, hold her fair and fevered cheek against his own and just shut up for a moment. Drink in her presence and put a hold on all this shame, fear and the looming apparition of her probable rejection (immanent rejection, his mind inserts pessimistically). But he cannot move her without moving mountains, cannot shake the steel from her spine or wash away the firm resolve from her pale eyes.

He sighs. Pepper Potts in theory was so much easier than the real, flesh and blood woman sitting before him, expectant and irrational. Pepper Potts in practice was a whole other can of worms.

He voices the first real, true thought that comes to his head, often forgetting that the world around him isn't privy to his mile-a-minute inner monologue and cannot fathom the distance from point a to point b when it takes place entirely in his mind.
"We're too old for this," he sighs and Pepper's sharp, unbidden bark of laughter almost startles him right off his end of the couch. He looks at her in wonder and under his gaze her expression softens ever so slightly.

"We really, really are," she pauses for effect. "You especially."


I realize after waiting so long for a new chapter, I cut this one of in a rather lame, chicken-shit sort of way. Sorry! This chapter was getting out of control long and it simply had to be done. Fortunately the majority of the thrilling conclusion is already put to paper and the only thing that should keep a new chapter from you in the next week or so is some hesitation regarding the epilogue. I promised I'd finish and so I am. If I can't finish this, I'll never be able to finish my non-existent, hypothetical novel that may or may not one day exist some time in the very distant future, if at all. :)

I missed you all! I received, randomly two reviews in the last couple of days. To these people, I suspect you have some sort of thrilling foresight, a modern day Nostradamus, prophets for a new age! To everyone else who gave me reviews and love and whom I shamelessly mistreated by my lack of ability to deliver, I also would like to mention that I wuv you, too.

In conclusion, I am alive. Here is a chapter. I am going to finish this if it kills me. (It might. Like pulling teeth, this chapter!)

Contritely,

E.M. Stevens