DUMPSHOCK - PROLOGUE
"Pepper... Pepper, please," Tony Stark begged now, his voice cracking as his body trembled uncontrollably.
The woman shook her head tersely, cool and collected, like a true personal assistant should in times of great PR crisis, distancing herself from any emotional attachment with a cool disdain. "Mr. Stark, I highly recommend that you both quickly and quietly kiss your control over Stark Industries goodbye and check yourself into rehab."
Tony shook his head fiercely, feeling tears rolling down his cheeks. "No... Pepper, please, you've got to believe me."
"I don't have to believe anything, Mr. Stark, except that you have a serious problem," the woman replied curtly and almost matter-of-factly as she skillfully averted uttering the truth, that her employer had become nothing more than a washed out drug addict. She folded her arms across her chest, looking down her nose at the pathetic creature before her, aloof as a pagan goddess. "It's not in my job description to believe anything."
Tony reached out and grabbed her pale wrist, squeezing hard enough to feel her bones and muscles strain under the pressure of his hold, to feel her stillness constrast so sharply against the shivering and shaking of his own muscles. "Please, Pepper. I can't..."
It wasn't in Anthony Edward Stark to beg. In fact, Pepper had never seen the inventor beg in his entire life. Even in the video she'd secured from the ghost drive of Tony in captivity, so badly injured and held at gun point, he never begged. Not for his life, and not for death. No. Tony had always been a problem solver, searching a way to avoid anything as demeaning and costly as begging. However, now, ashen and shivering, his body ravaged by whatever poisons he'd been putting into himself and however frequently, Tony Stark desperately begged for her help. He plead with each and every fiber of his being, right down to his eyes, wide and fearful.
It almost worked on Pepper Potts, but she knew Tony Stark too well. His personal assistant had seen him blow through fast cars, hot women, and hard liquor like they were nothing. Over his years of debauchery, Tony had grown quite accustomed to saying what women wanted to hear in oder to get in their pants. However, his assistant had seen him in action with her own two eyes, and she wouldn't let Tony con her like all of his one night stands that she'd escorted from the house on so many occasions.
In truth, Pepper Potts had already danced this number before, many times. Stark wasn't the first celebrity or business man Pepper Potts had worked for as a personal assistant, nor had he been the first to succumb to a vice of some form. The woman had tried so very hard to help those previous employers of hers before they self-destructed completely. With his glaringly obvious symptoms of PTSD including insisting on parading around in a prototype exosuit to fight crime like something out of a cheap and poorly written comic, it hardly surprised Pepper that the millionaire industrialist would turn to narcotics and alcohol. If anything, it bothered Pepper that she hadn't figured it out sooner, if only to have more time to prep for the upcoming media onslaught that would no doubt hit as soon as anyone knew the great Tony Stark, weapons manufacturer, sex symbol, and the fabled "Ironman," was in rehab. Damage control, that was how Tony always worded it. At this short of notice, though, there could be no recovering from this PR disaster for Tony. If she was a smart PA, Pepper would jump ship and fast to avoid tarnishing her own reputation.
Pepper shook her head, thinking of the few kind and dear moments he'd given her, the tiny little things he'd done for her. "No." He blinked at the simple word, as if stunned, his mouth hanging open but unable to form words; the woman just looked down, suddenly gravely interested in the tile beneath her feet. "Tony, I can't just sit here and watch you do this to yourself."
"Pepper." Her name was barely audible as it spilt from his lips.
"I have sat back and said nothing this whole that you've been running around as Ironman out there night after night, wondering if, one of these days, you're not going to come back. I can't keep doing this, Tony." The woman gave another shake of her head, firmly this time, much more resolved. "No. Not this time." She put her hand to his cheek, feeling the warmth of his skin and the fever, knowing she only had one bargaining chip against Tony Stark and all his millions. "I'm going to walk out of here, and, if you don't come with me to go get yourself the professional help you really need, don't expect me to come back."
She stood abruptly, taking just enough of a step back to be out of his reach; Tony gave one small effort to move for her but slumped back against the wall. "I can't... I just..." his lips pursed together in a childish pout, quivering slightly. "She did something to me, Pepper...but..." His voice caught at the word at the admission. "But it's my fault."
But his personal assistant didn't seem to notice his words; instead, Pepper took another step back, swallowing as she did. "I'm going, Tony."
"Don't leave me," he whimpered in a pathetic voice.
Pepper backed away a bit further, her steps a little less sure. "Tony, I'm serious."
The woman felt a tear forming at her cheeks and a lump rising in her throat. Tony looked so utterly pathetic, covered in a sweat sheen, his eyes febrile and glassy. He barely seemed able to even look at her. Whether he lacked the energy or the nerve to do so, Pepper couldn't tell. Tony was coming apart at the seams, and he was just too stupid, too arrogant to know it. Potts knew she couldn't just sit back and watch him throw his life away. Not this way, not this time.
She was at the door to the steps leading up to the main part of the house from the shop. The door and walls felt cool, smooth, and glassy to the touch, but Pepper knew it wasn't really glass. Another one of the great Tony Stark's inventions, a super strong, clear material that served as both a physical barrier and a touch screen computer.
"This is your last chance," the woman breathed, taking another hesitant step back. "I mean it, Tony."
The inventor looked to her, a profound sorrow in his eyes. It was something she'd never seen in him before, something she could never have expected from Stark. However, the man refused to move. He just sat there, with his back to his work desk, staring at her blankly, as if looking for some answer in his brain as to how to fix all his problems with some simple gadget or invention. Tony's jaw hung open in a surprised 'o,' but suddenly unable to form any coherent words or pleas, let alone summon up his practically trademarked humor. His lip moved, but only ever so slightly, as though there were things he wanted to say but couldn't.
Finally, he closed his eyes slowly and uttered her name again in a barely audible whisper. "Pepper..."
His personal assistant took one, last hard look at the man before her, knowing that the image would be permanently fixed in her brain as one, crystalline moment of human suffering. The shop stood in shambles, parts of various machines and tools scattered this way and that. One of the ancient robots lay on its side, struggling to right its self. Wires tangled on the floor where they'd been strewn. And, in the middle of all that, slumped against his work desk. In what was the worst part of it all, silent tears streamed down Tony's cheeks. He was, perhaps, the saddest sight Pepper had ever laid eyes on, a far cry from the super hero he thought he'd become since Afghanistan.
Pepper let out a heavy, lamenting sigh, rubbing her forearms before turning and curling her hand about the door handle. "Good-bye, Tony."
Author's Note: Yeah... I know... seriously OOC, amiright? Just wait. I promise. Just wait. I'm a few chapters ahead of you, and, I assure you, it's a strange, wild ride but one worth it, IMHO.