Disclaimer: Yah. Scary fan-girl. Fanfiction. These two things are the clearest indication on earth that I own nothing.
On one of the many days that Anthony Stark is busy at work in his lair, Pepper Potts discovers a grocery list on the never-used island in the kitchen.
She is both mystified and amused by this, being that her boss is not known for being a cooking man, or even a man who eats much beyond the usual pizza and whatever he can scrounge from his Stark Industries office and benefit banquets
But there is proof that Mr. Stark is trying the impossible – an attempt by the domestically-challenged genius to really write a grocery list. It is not automatically issued by Jarvis, sent to Pepper via her cell phone or placed in an obvious place she will be quick to notice. It is actual writing by a human being, with barely discernable (but of course she can read it) handwriting, the large tag of STARK INDUSTRIEStaking up a large gap of the top of a post-it and the small choppy writing (which indicates he's in engineer mode) taking up whatever space resides beneath the company name.
Tony's order is innocuous and somewhat tame, and Pepper is instantly suspicious.
Pepper, it orders: Garlic, Angel-hair pasta, whole milk, Lucky Charms (and Frosted Flakes is scribbled out – he's decided he's not in the mood for that this week) Bananas, Kiwis, and those square watermelons.
There's a five-centimeter space where Tony paused. You can find square watermelons in the states, right?
Ellipses, and then Actually, some cantaloupe would be great. And maybe some rasberries.
Do we have meat?
Yes, Tony – there is always meat in this house.
Well If we dont, can you get some? Steak or something, you know...
Another stretch of space.
Thank you. :) accompanied with what takes Pepper a minute to realize is supposed to be a smiley face.
She stares at the list for a long second, trying to figure out if he's actually joking or not, and then sighs. The list is too absent-minded and Tony-ish to be a joke; for once in his life, the man is actually serious about writing a grocery list for Pepper Potts to go take care of.
She is not quite sure if she should be frightened or pleased by this.
It's only when Pepper passes the vegetables that she realizes she knows the blonde woman who's slowly but surely moving to flank her.
Maybe it's the click of high-heels that gives it away, or the peripheral that identifies a Gucci purse and Vera Wang suit, but suddenly Pepper is on high alert and she realizes, with growing dread, that she knows this blonde.
The voice gives it away.
Christine Everheart directly moves to stop Pepper's shopping-cart migration, plastic bag in hand as she reaches over to grab at a lemon. Glancing over like she has no idea whose traffic she's blocking, she abruptly stops in mid-grasp of the fruit.
The tone drips disgust and contempt and oh, how Pepper Potts would kill right now to have something heavy and dangerous in her hand.
"Ms. Everheart," Pepper finally greets, thin-lipped.
"The Infamous Pepper Potts,"Christine retorts, voice like ice and blue eyes dangerous behind the ever-present gloss of makeup. The two women openly regard each other, fighters circling the ring and waiting for an opening to throw the first punch.
Christine Everheart, damnable bitch reporter that she is, is first to attack, claws unsheathed and fangs bared. She notices the wad of paper crumpled beneath Pepper's right hand, braced against the shopping cart bar, and she notices the suit and heels (which obviously indicate that this is not Pepper's day off).
And then Christine Everheart smiles. "Funny. You're still picking up groceries and running errands."
Pepper would feel the blow if the truth wasn't that she'd made the observation dozens of times and grudgingly reminded herself that it was better this way than that way – being a one-night stand for Tony Stark, who would never even remember your name or even what you'd been doing in his house. She had an identity to Tony, and she would take being his secretary any day over being a one-night fuck he didn't really care about.
Pepper knows what Christine Everheart wants, but she won't give it to her.
"Is that all?" And she's proud of herself – her tone is cool and professional, a far cry from pissed-off sensation she's really feeling and an even further cry from the action she wants to resort to.
Christine takes a stuttering step back on her three-inch Kenneth Coles and Pepper notes (definitely with satisfaction) that the lemon once loosely held in Everheart's grip is now in a vise as the woman tries to regain the upper-hand she held just seconds ago.
It's gone, though, and after a nanosecond of working her jaw, Christine can only come up with an almost-grunted, "yes" in response to Pepper's question.
Pepper's smile grows wider.
"Excellent. Have a good night."
When Pepper "accidentally" runs over Christine Everheart's exposed toes with her cart shortly thereafter, she tells herself it was totally non-intentional, even if Christine's muffled curse and her limping stride away create an enormous sense of gratification.
Three hours later Pepper is sitting in a jail cell, butt uncomfortably numb from the cold steel of the bench.
"I hate you," Christine Everheart mumbles from across the jail cell, one heel snapped and the other holding her foot awkwardly, as if wounded. The bandage they've taped on her nose is slightly pink from the blood periodically leaking through and her voice would sound furious if it wasn't so nasally from the fractured nose.
Pepper Potts holds an ice pack to the side of her head and only shoots Christine a glance, refusing to rise to the bait or respond in kind.
Both of them snapped a heel. Christine's once fashionable clothing now look absurd, dirty and bloody in the bleak grayness of a jail cell and Pepper's own black pencil skirt and (ripped) white blouse seem to scream of how wrong this picture looks.
A redhead and a blonde are sitting in a jail cell...
Pepper tries to recollect exactly how this happened but she only sees the whole thing in a few fuzzy, blurred snapshots, all of which don't say much except that whatever occurred landed Pepper Potts and Christine Everheart in a jail cell. It definitely happened in the parking lot – Pepper had been trying to get to the Audi, hands full of groceries, and realized suddenly that goddammit, her car just had be three spaces away from Ms. Vanity Fair. She tried to ignore this fact, fumbled with the trunk and dropped in the milk, cantaloupe (and why, Tony, did you have to ask for all the ungainly fruits?)but it was at this point that no matter how much she ignored Christine Everheart, Christine Everheart would not ignore her.
Pepper is almost certain that Christine Everheart was off whatever psychotic medication she should've been on.
She's also positive that Christine threw the first blow, and after that Pepper simply reacted, originally trying to get in her car for protection but then deciding that someone needed to lay the hurt on Ms. Everheart.
The fight probably didn't last longer than a minute – what originally had sparked some amusement in passerby quickly changed to realization that the two women might actually try to kill each other, and a woman (too strong for her small size – she had to lift weights or toddlers or something) broke them up.
Five years of a cross between hapkido and taekwondo resulted in a fractured nose and multiple bruises on Christine Everheart's Vanity Fair face and body. Similarly, six years of weight-lifting and that bullshit known as kickboxing lead to a black-eye, bruised cranium and a slightly chipped tooth for Pepper Potts.
And both their clothes and the hair now looked like shit.
"I just bought these heels," Christine says, more to herself than Pepper.
Pepper's eyes flicker over only briefly before she brings her focus back to the wall five feet above Christine's head, attempting to decipher in the grimy flourescent light what exactly someone meant when they wrote in "Cooper Harim" and trying to ignore the constant stream of profanity scrawled indiscriminately around the entire cell.
She'd find it funny that they seem to frame Christine Everheart perfectly except that she has a stinking suspicion that she is probably haloed by an equal amount of obscenity.
Footsteps sound, far away at first. She doesn't pay too much attention to them until they get closer, and heavier. The sound thuds its way up the corridor and seems to slow for a minute before stopping directly in front of the holding cell.
There's a loud beep that bounces around the almost-deserted jail hallway, and a slightly insignificant click as the lock on the door snaps in the opposite direction and the heavy metal door swings open with a groan. Pepper finds herself looking (in what she hopes is indifference) up at the harsh silhouette of a police officer.
"Yes?" and though she still sounds professional, Pepper hears the slightest chord of hope in her voice and tries to smother it.
Pepper disregards the burning glare that Christine Everheart directs her way and attempts, with as much dignity as possible, to rise to her feet with the ice pack in hand and walk – partially heel-less – out the door. The officer moves to the side to let her out and then, with a quick motion, pushes the door on the cell shut again. Christine makes a muffled sound of indignation that is quickly swallowed by the clang of the lock.
The walk back to the lobby of the building is silent, interrupted only by Pepper's uneven-clicks on the floor and the angry buzzing of dying flourescent bulbs. She looks over once at the officer, but his face remains blank and devoid of any emotion.
She has a feeling this is a poker face, and inside the man is probably laughing and making up the story of how he once saw a Vanity Fair reporter and the secretary to the notoriousTony Stark in the same cell as each other because they had a cat fight in a grocery store parking lot.
Inwardly, Pepper is groaning in embarrassment and slapping herself on the forehead.
Outwardly, she keeps trying to remember how to walk gracefully with one severed heel and one good heel and remind herself to keep as professional as possible.
This might be why when she sees that it's actually Tony – not Rhodey – who has busted her ass out of jail she almost turns and runs back towards the cell to go hide.
The worst part is that Tony Stark is grinning and that the officers surrounding him all look like they've been laughing for the past five minutes at whatever (probably crude) joke Tony was telling them.
He came in -- of all vehicles – the least obnoxious.
She finds that disturbing above all things – to her knowledge, she had the keys to her car and only made one extra, which she hid in a tiny compartment right above the license-plate panel.
Maybe it was a stupid thing to do in Los Angeles, but Pepper Potts always had a feeling that there would be one dreadful day when she'd forget her keys or lock herself out of both house and car and she'd desperately need to get into her Audi. So far, the car hadn't been stolen, manhandled or trashed, so Pepper cautiously told herself that the license-plate compartment was a good hiding spot.
...until Tony somehow managed to find it.
They drive in silence for a good five minutes before Pepper lifts her head off the side of the window and opens her mouth to speak.
"Yeah, the license-plate thing wasn't the best place to hide your keys," Tony says, without lifting his eyes off the road. He drives her Audi like it's his Audi, and though they're the same brand, they are certainly not the same car. She feels the G-forces nudge at her as he takes the on-ramp to get to Malibu and fights the urge to tell him that, for starters, this is not the R8 and please, for the love of God, use the breaks on that turn.
"How did you get my car?" she asks.
"Rhodey." he responds. Pepper shoots him a look, and it's at this point that he slowly takes his gaze away from the sea of red lights and looks over, sheepish.
"I – um – kind of damaged mine." he says.
"You have six other cars." Pepper says.
He shifts in the seat and clears his throat. "Had."
"I had six other cars."
The realization hits.
"But yeah. Decided to take your car instead. We get your car back to you and get me back to my house in one fell swoop. Kill a couple of birds with a stone, you know?" and he smiles that almost child-like grin that's goofy in its nature but strangely awkward in its complexity.
Pepper is almost at loss of words.
But before she can come up with anything, Tony quickly jumps in.
She wants to glower at him, but the truth is that he did pay her bail and he was respectfully quiet for the last five minutes instead of mercilessly teasing her like she has a strong feeling he is going to do now.
"Yeah?" and the resignation in Pepper's voice is palpable.
A slow smile begins to pull at his lips, and she can see the mischievious glint already kicking up in his eyes.
"Am I really such an attractive man that you actually fought over me withChristine Everheart?"
Pepper Potts glares unblinkingly for a good ten seconds before shaking her head and bringing the unpleasantly warming ice pack to her right eye.
"She attacked me first," she says, and the sensation she gets that she's back in kindergarten, pointing a chubby little index finger an arch-nemesis is uncanny.
Tony raises an eyebrow, and the smirk on his face grows wider. "Do you want to know how often I used that one?"
She shoots him a glance.
The engine growls as Tony shifts into fourth to slingshot past a semi; it takes all of Pepper's restraint not to grab the sissy bar or take the wheel from him.
"So who won?" he asks as soon as they're clear.
The ice pack is lifted just enough so that Pepper can stare at him with two eyes instead of one.
The smile is full-on now – he's not even trying to disguise it.
"You gave her a fractured nose, she gave you a shiner. It's hard for me to know who was victorious."
She shakes her head again, rolls her eyes.
"Unbelievable," she mutters, more to herself than him.
"Apparently, that's enough to get you fighting."
She has to laugh, and she does, a short, choked spurt of disbelief.
"Christine Everheart," Pepper finally says, trying to be serious, "has problems that extend far beyond my control; I was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Tony looks away from the road for a second, and though there is that split-second of grave intensity that fills his eyes, it's gone just as quickly as it came.
"Aggressive as hell, isn't she?"
Pepper purses her lips, knowing where he learned about Christine's drive and fully not wanting to acknowledge it.
"Yes," she says after a minute. "She is."
He looks like that cat that ate the canary and already moving towards a more violent disposition, Pepper Potts refrains from adding anything further, to save both her job and maybe Tony Stark's existence in her car.
"I paid for Christine's bail," he says.
She stiffens in the seat, slowly turns her head so he can get a complete glare. Unmoved by the look, he merely shrugs.
"What? You both screwed up."
"But she attacked me."
"And you kicked her ass," he reminds her, almost scolding. "I have to keep a somewhat respectable reputation as a sexist pig who periodically can be a courteous bastard, too. You seem to forget that she's been in my house before."
Not really, Pepper thinks.
He looks over. "You say something?"
"No." she says.
"Okay," he says, concentrating back on the highway and weaving with frightening ease between afternoon rush-hour traffic.
"You know," he says, flexing his hands lightly on the steering wheel, "this isn't a bad car."
Grudgingly approving of a vehicle that is less than three-quarters the cost of all of the cars that are (were?) in his garage is a new step for Anthony Stark; everything has to be obnoxious and expensive to appeal to him, and the fact he's complimenting a car that is – in the grand scheme of things – not nearly as flamboyant or beastly as his normal fares is flattering. Pepper understands this quite clearly and therefore takes his reluctant compliment as it's offered.
"Thank you, Mr. Stark." And she can't help the barely-there smile that starts growing.
They're back to the usual banter, and Tony embraces it whole-heartedly, glancing over as he responds, "you're welcome, Ms. Potts."
Thirty minutes later (it seems like only twelve minutes, maybe due to Tony's driving), the exit ramp to Malibu is less than 1/4 a mile away and they've still only spoken sparingly.
As usual, Tony starts off.
"Are you going to stay the night or go home?"
The question is loaded with unspoken creatures that Pepper has avoided for as long as she's known this man. The temptation is there. The offer is out on the table.
But Pepper is going to say no. Even if she doesn't want to, she's going to thank him for bailing her out and tell him that she'll see him tomorrow, bright and early.
One day she won't have to say that. But for now, that's how it will be.
"I think I'll go home," she says, glancing down at her ruined heels and her mangled blouse and feeling the bruise that is going to be a big purple tattoo come tomorrow.
He looks over and the disappointment is barely veiled.
In many ways no, but in one way yes.
"Yeah, Tony," and she smiles, trying to soften the blow. "I still need to take care of some of my own errands."
His eyes flicker down at the heels and an eyebrow raises an inquiry, bullshit radar beeping wildly. Pepper has never been a good liar and the man has the unnatural tendency to read her well, but he's keeping quiet, respecting the boundary she's drawn in the sand and letting her make her own decision.
"'Kay then," he says, and they take a left out near the coastline towards the house. Pepper hears a muffled thud emanate from the back as he takes the turn, and suddenly groans.
"There's a cantaloupe and gallon of whole milk in the trunk," she says, unhappily.
"Today was in the nineties, and the food has been in my trunk for three hours."
"Hmm," he says. "Does that mean the cantaloupe's bad?"
She shoots him a look and he grins.
"Don't worry about it." he says, still smiling. "As long as my Lucky Charms are still there, I'm happy. I was almost out of cereal."
And then a question pops into her head that she's been pondering about ever since this very strange day started.
"Why did you write a grocery list? Jarvis usually takes care of inventory."
A mildly disgruntled expression crosses his face.
"Jarvis also keeps stock of the healthy and unhealthy foods in our house," Tony says with some distaste. "Cereals are one (of the many) weaknesses that also constitute as bad food in the inventory list. So I never get them unless I write out something myself."
He shrugs. "I hadn't needed a cereal fix in a while. Been busy with everything else downstairs."
Yes; since the press conference from doom (and that is how is shall always be remembered in her mind), the insistence by both Pepper and Rhodey that the man gets to work on that Arc Reactor he promised he'd build has been painful.
Board members are getting restless. Stock is screaming on the last downward spiral of a roller coaster. People aren't quite sure if Tony Stark is certifiably insane or pulling some kind of twisted prank, and the media paparazzi have made their own wild (and sometimes disturbingly true) speculations as to what is going on with the great Anthony Stark.
Pepper is fully aware that her spat today might very well end up on the cover of a magazine tomorrow, but she didn't quite realize how Tony fit into all of this until he was driving her car and picking her up in an unusually discreet manner.
"You drove the car to avoid attention?"
He appears sheepish for half a nanosecond.
"Um, yeah, kind of."
She'd sigh and say something snarky but at this point she's too tired to do much of anything; the front gate is approaching with a gorgeous smog-induced sunset, and all Pepper wants to do is go home and sleep.
The car rolls to a stop, the e-brake cranked and the engine turned off. A door slams and just as Pepper is getting ready to open hers, Tony is there, acting suspiciously like a gentleman as he offers a hand.
She wouldn't take it except that he pointedly looks at her broken heel and almost smirks.
"Thank you, Mr. Stark," she says, carefully stepping out of the seat and trying not to balance on him like she should.
"Never a problem, Ms. Potts," he says, gently leading her around the car to the driver's door. "Especially after you fought for me."
She grunts in exasperation, shaking her head. "You're incorrigible."
"But amazing, nonetheless," and as she jabs him with an elbow he grins.
She stands crookedly when he finally gets to the door and opens it. This time he doesn't give a hand (and one part of her is actually disappointed) until she's getting ready to sit down, and then he stops her.
Pepper looks up.
"What time will you be here tomorrow?"
He shakes his head, gingerly touches the side of her face with a finger. She fights the urge to shiver.
"Make it ten. Sleep in a little bit."
She jokes to break the tension. "Can you actually survive until ten without me?"
"That depends." Too close, crowding her space. She wants to lean back, to pull out but she can't without giving him the satisfaction of ruffling her.
They're both frozen, waiting for someone to make the first move, softly inhale and lean forward.
Surprisingly, it's Tony who takes the tiny step backward, giving her just enough room to swing her legs into the car. He waits for her to adjust the seat and steering wheel, arm braced on the top of the car, and then he clears his throat.
She glances over again.
"I might need you to take another grocery run," he says, straight-faced.
She rolls her eyes and turns the ignition, starting the car. After a roar that quiets down to a purr, they face each other again.
"Thank you, Tony." she says.
"Of course, Pepper." He moves to let her slam the door, and walks to the back to knock on the trunk. She opens it, waits while he takes all the groceries (and one part of her is guilty because there are a lot of bags) and then pulls out of park.
He waves. She waves.
And then Pepper cruises down the driveway, trying to ignore the fact that the seat is still warm from its previous occupant.
Next morning she walks in at nine-thirty with a Fight-Club worthy black eye and various bruises indicating that Everheart actually hit her more than she thought (and when did Christine Everheart manage to punch her in the ear?) and she's shocked to find that Tony's actually upstairs, eating Lucky Charms and an orange.
There's already an ice-pack waiting on the island.
"Thank you, Mr. Stark," she says, trying to remain the picture of the perfect, unmarred secretary.
He talks around a spoonful of Lucky Charms and smirks.
"You're very welcome, Ms. Potts."