"I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go."

- The Waking, by Theodore Roethke

Secondary Highways

She wakes up to the sun, the blinding slant of light fraying the lace of her curtains, the fabric billowing against the soft breeze. Her bed is pushed beside the wall so that she can see the sky from her open window when her eyes flutter open. She likes the white blindness that surrounds her, a honey warmth coiling into her room with a teasing decadence. The strange brightness pierces her conscious, and she curls into her blankets in sweet desperation for stillness, losing herself in this realm of barren sheets. Today was not built for her breath, and she would not challenge this.

She wakes up to the scratched recording of the old folk song, "Red River Valley", the tune curling up through the adjoining fire escape from the record player in the apartment beneath hers. All she needs to see is Audrey Hepburn with a ukulele singing Moon River, and then she'll know that she has truly drifted away. A small smile escapes her lips; this song is her constant lover, awakening beside her every morning and whispering into the soft skin of her ear. The vague chords fluttering upon incandescent threads and plaiting themselves into spider-web patterns in her sleepy consciousness.

She wakes up to the thumping of basketballs in the courtyard down below, the jeers of young boys distantly echoing in unison.

She wakes up alone, again. No surprise there.

His face pops unwillingly into her mind, inciting a groaning scowl, and reflectively she throws her covers away from her and swings her legs over the bed, her bony knees bumping the guitar leaning against it. The battered thing is older then she is and certainly held the appearance of it. The dark wood is scratched to hell and beyond, the strings yellowed and in bad need to be replaced, and all of this only made it more infinitely dearer to her. She sighs, blinking away her sleep. Stares blankly at the wall as she unconsciously makes the effort to collect her willpower.

God she doesn't want to go to work today.

She gets up and leaves the bedroom, padding barefoot across the hardwood floor and resting the guitar by the doorway. Her apartment always seems to hum, a tickling energy of current that spills into her skin and eases the tension from her body. She stands at the kitchen sink, wearing her ratty boxers and a grey tank top, staring solemnly as the smoky light peeking from the blinds creates parallel stripes upon the countertop.

She knows he's the reason of her reluctance. She enjoys his company, yes, but something has changed. She has slowly begun to grasp the fact that her entire world seems to revolve around him, her actions, her relationships, even her thoughts. She rubs the leaf of the potted plant between her fingers, still staring emptily as she thinks of him.

He's different now, broken and stronger all at once, she finds herself regretting this change. She knows how to handle Old Tony, how to protect herself from him. She's afraid of him, and though part of her understands why, she prefers to ignore it. She swiftly turns on the kettle, and waits.

She draws herself backwards into her big, faded armchair, curling her legs over and into its massive arms. She lovingly strokes the midnight blue dress slung over the chair, its folds rippling in luminescent swells.

Tonight was the benefit for the California Hospitals Fund, hosted by Stark Industries. As P.A. to the C.E.O, it was her responsibility to attend these events, and she reveled the opportunity to participate. Slipping into a silk dress that hugged her curves, it was her only opportunity to truly be feminine and not worry about her professional reputation.

She couldn't wait to wear it tonight, hoping the evening would provide a cool respite to the month's heat wave. This was another basis for her reluctance to leave her apartment. It was bloody hotter than hell outside, and she was vaguely afraid of the guttural noise her air conditioner was spitting out as of late.

She sighs. She cannot be late for work. Not unless she wants all hell to break loose, which is often the case in the wake of her absence. His face emerges in her mind yet again. She can't understand why her skin instinctively crawls uncomfortable at the thought of him.

She's already annoyed with herself today, for breaking her resolve to not think about him, the last thing she needs right is the incredible urge to strangle him. On a normal workday he's cooped up downstairs, she's typing away on the couch, and occasionally she'll convince him to attend a meeting in between. Every day since the funeral of his old mentor the routine has changed in highly irritable ways. For one thing he cannot leave her alone. For the most part she usually enjoys his company, however when someone asks the same mundane question over and over again as a pretense to check up on her, needless to say it's a tad annoying.

She knows that the majority of today will be spend counting down the seconds until she can go home. This is also a new development, work used to be her entire life, often working long enough that she just steals a guest bed and starts it all over again in the morning. Now she just wants to finish her tasks and get the hell out of there.

God she loves this place. It's such a change from the cold perfection of his mansion, the humming of her place so much more endearing then the lonesome pounding of that pointless waterfall wall he has in his living room. This apartment is a frayed reminder of the life she left behind, a life of hand-me downs and no-fixed addresses, and the only evidence of the woman she truly is. She cannot see him ever fitting in here, his billionaire-self gawky in this crooked frame of hers, the life she hides from him.

She grew up a wanderer, and for the first time in her life, in the incredibly materialistic society of Malibu, she doesn't want to leave. She half-suspects that it's his fault that she hasn't yet ditched the land of the Barbie's years ago, and she hates him for it.

It was obvious to all he was acting slightly overprotective of Pepper since the incident with Obadiah Stane, and it was also clear that his constant supervision was beginning to irritate the hell out of her. The most common sight as of late was the image of Pepper staring at the ceiling, eyes rolled heaven-wards, as he has yet again interrupted her on her blackberry thus overriding the current caller. Needless to say he had become... preoccupied... with the personal safety of his staff, narrowing in on one in particular.

She knows today he will track her down and stare at her in that way that makes her shift uncomfortably, burning warmth infusing the tips of her ears.

Something has changed. He's different now, she's already realized this, and subconsciously she begins to change too. She fears he wants to pull her out of this shell, her secret safeguard, and bring her fully into his life. He wants her in his world, and this scares her.

Tony could never ever understand why she can't. He couldn't. He understands nothing about her.

What he knows is this.

Virginia, well, Pepper (as far she is concerned, and despite popular belief, he does not and will not receive credit for this name) Potts, was born sometime in the early 70's, grew up in some part of the country that he certainly never visited, caught his attention merely for being the only red-headed employee in the whole of Stark Industries staff, and to top it off he has now noticed that Ms. Potts is quite attractive. She doesn't know it yet, but he thinks her to be beautiful. And he knows that only those who genuinely care for him would willingly stick their arms into the "pus" filled cavity in his chest and freak out over the possibility that they may have killed him. She knows he thinks it's just a matter of time that she'll realize her pent up desire for him and jump his bones.

Think again Mr. Stark.

He doesn't know that it will take the shudder of heaven and earth to weaken her resolve against him.

He doesn't know she likes popsicles in summer or that she once kissed a blueberry in lieu of a boyfriend in the elementary playground of her youth.

He doesn't know that her mother was an eccentric artist who plainly forgot about her children when they still needed her, dragging them off state to state whenever she wanted a different view of the stars. And how for the longest time Pepper would be driving down the interstate with her whole life in the backseat and would have to pull over, scared shitless when she realized whom she was turning into. The girl with the nowhere eyes. A girl with no father and a mother whose vision only held a century of hardships.

He doesn't know that the stick-figured drawings taped on her office wall were lovingly drawn from the Ortiz' small daughter who lived upstairs, whom Pepper positively adored, and on her 31st birthday she had realized how desperately she wanted funny pictures from her own child.

He doesn't know that she can play the guitar, and play it well too. It was the only possession of the father she didn't know, and if he ever looked closely he would see the calluses in her fingers.

He doesn't know that the scuff marks on the dark hardwood floor was the evidence of three weeks Pepper once spent teaching 12 year old Rob Walsh the ever-so classic waltz, so he could impress his crush at the school's winter formal.

He doesn't know that she has the name "Frank" tattooed on the small of her back right above the band of her underwear, evidence of a boyfriend she wouldn't have even remembered if it weren't for the inked evidence, her one and only attempt to do something to defy the stereotype of herself. And yes, she regrets it.

He doesn't know that she didn't move to Malibu for her career, but rather because even though her mother dragged her across North America in a tiny van for her entire childhood, she had never once seen the ocean.

He doesn't know that on every Saturday and Sunday morning she goes jogging on the beach trails with a man considerably more attractive then Tony could ever dream of being, more witty, very single, very straight, who remembered every birthday for the past 3 years, and quite frankly the exact opposite of a womanizing playboy asshole.

He doesn't know that for three months, three very still months, she cried every day, and lost it completely. She couldn't breathe, she couldn't sleep, and she came to realize that maybe he was a bit more then a 'boss'. It was with a shuddering comprehension on that evening where she found herself sobbing in his workshop, that she understood. He was the one who grounded her. She didn't stay for the nice weather, the celebrity sightings, the life of the rich and famous, she stayed for him. She used to think the reason she didn't pack up and leave was because it was nice to be needed, to have someone so dependent on her that they couldn't manage without her, without even seeing that she needed him too. He doesn't know that even though she loves him...loves him wholly and dearly, she will never tell him this. She will never cease to be Ms. Potts and their relationship will continue on as it had been from the beginning. He'll get bored by her unwillingness to play his games and will revert to his old ways, leaving a trail of clothes of whichever new conquest of his in his wake. She was a child raised by an interstate, a wanderer of secondary highways. Tony, however, was raised by 13 different nannies.

More correctly, what he knows it this: Not a goddamn thing.

The kettle begins to whistle, a mournful wail of a noise, jolting her fully awake.

She has her tea, a drop of honey for good measure, and prepares for her day. Her work clothes are of the finest stitched material and bought in the most exclusive boutiques in Malibu. She shimmies into a $300 skirt, and becomes someone else entirely. The transition from grungy to professional never ceases to amaze her. If she had walked past her mother on the street, it was doubtful either could recognize one another. She couldn't blame her. After all, as she stares at her reflection in the mirror, she could hardly recognize the poised, elegant, stubborn woman staring tiredly back at her.

It often takes a great deal of effort in the mornings to compose her professional self, preparing herself for the endless hours it will take for her freckles to battle out from under her concealer. She places her address book in between her teeth as she weaves her hair into an intricate bun, her small figure engrained in the slanting light of the curtains as she stands in front of the scratched cheval mirror. As she pulls her soft-colored hair up, she gazes at an old Polaroid sticking out from the corner of its bordered edge, and memories began to flutter painfully in her minds eye.

It was old and faded, weary of years thrust into a bag or backpack or whatever, the stories it could tell just by the sight of its condition. Jaundice-stained of time spent on a radiator in Iowa, crinkled from her apron when she once worked as a waitress on a riverboat in B.C, the colored pigments cracked from the dry heat of Texas when she once took a wrong turn in the middle of nowhere. Water-damaged from an ocean of tears two years previous.

It was a picture of land and sky, daylight and laughter. She must have been 16 then, her brother just 17. She always felt old when she stared at the child she used be, the constant runaway. It was taken somewhere in the prairies, for the life of her she couldn't remember who had taken the picture. She remembered how the sky swept over her, endless and infinite, painting itself across the grassland landscape. The Chevrolet had been parked halfway into a ditch hidden by funny looking flowers; it's battered form seeping amongst the golden particles of rising dust. The filtered sunlight nearly blinded the lens, peeking from abstract shapes and encompassing the figures in a white haze. Cream-jeweled prairie grass as tall as the car rippled against the white scorching tide of sky, entangled in a lengthy weave. The cotton-ball shaped clouds were yellowed with age, blue-rimmed, sifting across the encompassing sky. The girl child and the boy child sat cross-legged on the top of the car, clinking 25-cent wineglasses high up into the expansive sky amongst the tall reeds. She peers into their faces and marvels at the happiness. She catches only a glimpse of her brother's face, as he was faced away from the camera, but she still savors the tiny glimpse of the grin that was there. She can't look at herself for too long. She couldn't remember having that same joyous happiness as in that moment. The girl's eyes were crinkled shut as she was bent over laughing, her red hair sweeping across her face and resting on the scarred guitar that laid on her lap.
Finally free, free of the burden of that tormented wayward woman. She often wonders if her mother would ever think back on them, telling the story of her forgotten children, with names like two hokey characters out of a Brothers Grimm tale, Pepper and Peter who ran off in a beat up Chevrolet and never looked back.

No, he couldn't understand.

She sighs, blowing an errant strand away from her face, and smoothes out her fringed bangs. Well, this was as good as it was going to get.

She does not want to go to work today. She does not want to see him. She closes her eyes, remembering she needs to pick up his coffee and his dry-cleaning and make sure he eats breakfast when she goes down into his workshop.

'Fuck. Just get through today, Virginia'.

She resolves to push past any of her conflicting thoughts and dwell on them later on in the evening; she will look at him in the same capacity of Boss and P.A. as previously done. She slides the blackberry into the pocket of her suit jacket, places the Bluetooth headset over the curve of her ear, grabs her purse, and leaves the remnants of Virginia Potts behind.

TBC.


I have to apologize for this kind of sketchy chapter, it's my least favorite and I just need to get it out of the way. The next chapters will probably be slightly better, lol. Also sorry for the past/present mix ups.

Reviews are always nice! :)