Disclaimer: if I owned Iron Man or anyone associated with it, I'd probably still write fanfic, but then it wouldn't be fanfic. It'd be canon. Lucky for the Iron Man 'verse I'm on the outside looking in. Credit Stan Lee, Universal, Marvel, and whoever else for intellectual property. Credit Jon Favreau, Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby, Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, et al for bringing them to life.
Author's Note: see the end. I don't want to give the game away. Just know that there's a good dose of tongue in cheek in here, and a lot of it is pointing right back to 4persephone and I.
It had started as a furtive, slightly guilty way for Pepper to keep her mind occupied on something SAFE while Tony was away getting shot at. Something that contained the cadence of the business day without necessitating her to actually care about schedules, appointments, or expectations. It was – should have been – a largely harmless way of keeping her hands busy and her concerns out in the open where she could keep an eye on them. The enemy you know, and all that, after all.
She had no formal training, nothing besides personal history to fall back on, combined with a highly unmanageable imagination that expressed itself in those silent hours when she was waiting for Jarvis to report back the results of Tony's latest scramble with the "bad guys." What she had was a laptop, and a surplus of worry and adrenaline that wouldn't let her sleep. And the aforementioned overactive imagination, of course.
She hadn't meant for it to actually BECOME anything, and certainly she hadn't meant for it to become a habit. But before she knew it, Pepper had a routine for keeping herself sane while her boss was trying to get himself blown to bits. It involved her, and her laptop, and occasionally when the writing was going very badly, a game or twenty of Minesweeper.
In her sane, rational, balanced moments, Pepper could look at the file folder on her desktop – labeled "Accounting Division Minutes" to keep Tony's nose out of it – and tell herself that what she was doing was JUST on this side of wrong, and probably even some sort of invasion of privacy issue because it wasn't as if she were ONLY writing stories. Anyone could write stories, and from a glance at the New York Times bestselling lists, "anyone" usually did. No, what she was doing was potentially far more depraved than that and certainly far more embarrassing.
She was writing fanfiction. About her boss, for god's sake. And her "stories" often contained the sort of day to day he said/she said that they had both actually said for realsies…but only that. There was nothing more…titillating to it than why hadn't she admitted that she needed him to take care of himself, or she'd miss him – and had missed him – while he was gone? Or, very occasionally, what she thought was a very well deserved – on her part, not necessarily his – kiss. But her vignettes still more often fell to the side of fantasy than fangirl in some weird amalgamation of fantastic non-fiction. Fiction that could have been true if Tony ever pushed a little harder or she ever resisted a fraction less.
In the beginning, before she'd started getting in over her head, the exercises had helped to relieve the stress. Every time Tony disappeared over the horizon, she'd pull up a blank Word document and start tapping away furiously, usually without having to consider where to start.
Where she should start was always the same: it's everything that's being screamed but not heard in those silent moments before Tony lowers the visor on the Ironman suit and leaves her behind. It's an outlet that allows her to say all the things she knows better than to say out loud, not just to Tony but to ANYONE. All the things she should've said have become less of a hypothetical since they're now written down, and more of a practical primer of what she might consider doing if she ever manages to set aside fear and professionalism in order to be selfish. No matter if it's dressing Tony down for being such an idiot, or confessing that she's slowly falling in love with said idiot, she's SAID it, and there's nothing that can erase the reality of that even though no one has heard her say anything.
But what is helpful in the moment is a detriment in the long term. Now that she's finally taken some sort of sideways step forward and to the side by pouring herself into these stories, she's becoming a little consumed by them. She starts going home closer to five o'clock, not necessarily because her workload has lightened so much or because Tony drives her from the house, but because she obsessively goes over each and every one of them, polishing every word and phrase until each story has the kind of taut neatness characteristic of bedsheets in the military. The stories are coherent to the point where a metaphorical quarter could be bounced off them.
Perfect, and polished, and doing absolutely nothing. They mock her. All her action has led to nothing and nowhere. Deleting them doesn't help. She's tried it, and ended up restoring them an hour later. But she doesn't know what else to DO with them. Further action on her part notwithstanding, she still can't bring herself to stop and the stories keep accumulating, each titled not with words, but with dates. Chronological evidence that her boss is driving her INSANE.
It's in the midst of trying to figure that out what to DO with the things she's created that Pepper has what is potentially her worst idea ever: just about anything can be posted on the internet. It allows her the option of confession without actually admitting anything to anyone. Completely personal anonymity.
Still. She wavers, making half-hearted searches on Google for the appropriate site to…disrobe, so to speak.
There's a heck of a lot of sites. When she simply types in "Ironman," 7,790,000 site results come back. A good few of them are ones she's already perused for PR purposes. A measly 150,000 come back once she works up the audacity – during which time she cleaned her bathroom and kitchen, including all surfaces, even the floors – to add the word "fiction" to the end of her search. There's a healthy part of her that doesn't even want to know what kind of fantasies people have woven about her boss. She's heard more than enough already, thank you very much. Adding herself into that number is just about enough to make her melt into a puddle of shame, but the urge to do SOMETHING that will let her pass a night without endless revisions overcomes all other reservations.
She starts clicking links.
She finds the site she wants on the third page. Not too big – or at least, not too many entries. But, still enough to tell her that anything she posts should be buried in a day or two. Her hand trembles a little as she navigates over to the login button, making the cursor jump around a little. Still, after several deep breaths and a break to make a fresh pot of coffee, she actually hits the button and processes the request for a username and password.
Well, might as well be hung for the sheep as a lamb. With that encouraging thought, Pepper Potts signs up for the site "StarkNet" with the semi-ironic handle of "number1fan."
"Oh god," she moans to herself as she opens up Word and the first chronologically ordered document, and starts combing through it with a fine tooth comb for anything that might mention her dearly depraved's glowing blue bullseye or anything specific about what happened in Afghanistan. Or anything about Stark Industries for that matter.
Just because she's risking every ounce of pride she has was no reason to risk anything else, like her job or Tony's life.
Tony's bored. It's a feeling he's unaccustomed to, and therefore displeased with. Normally, he had plenty of things with which to fill up his day – between being CEO, mad inventor, and superhero, he didn't have a whole lot of time set aside for sitting around on his hands waiting for something to do. However, in the last couple of months Pepper had been scooting out of the house earlier and earlier, though always well within the technical terms of a work day. It makes him uneasy. It makes him suspicious that Pepper was getting a life; suspicious enough that he's checked in on her a couple of times through the chip in her cell phone. She always goes straight home, only stopping to maybe get groceries or her own dry cleaning. And the few times he's calls with a completely spur of the moment request, she's dropped everything to comply.
Though, the way she usually shows up on his doorstep – a little flushed and avoiding his eyes – only makes him MORE suspicious.
Suspicious and alone at night with nothing to do.
It's frustrating as hell.
Tonight for example. It's a perfectly good Friday night and he's shut in like a recluse. There's no parties going on that have caught his attention – or at least, Pepper hasn't brought anything to his attention. ('If she wanted to ensure uninterrupted PERSONAL time, she'd make sure I was distracted, wouldn't she?') The suit was about as upgraded and polished and buff as it could be, there were only so many times he could take the cars apart and he didn't have everything he needed to fix the Cobra… With a heavy sigh and a feeling of having nothing else to do, Tony spins around in his chair and pulls up an internet browser in order to find SOMETHING to entertain himself.
A few games of Bejeweled would even be entertaining at this point.
His non work (read also as "fun") email account is all but barren. A few spam posts of inappropriate jokes...a mailing list on the Farsi language (he was attempting to retain at least a portion of the lessons he'd been give by Yinsen, but the knowledge was fading for lack of real use) and a few shout outs from Rhodey. The latter tended to be amusing so he scrolls through them with genuine interest.
His friend, on one of his better days, had found a perfect penance for Tony's press conference announcement. He delighted in locating and finding Tony links to the most cheesy Ironman apparel to be had on the net.
The worst yet? A miniature red and gold romper with the words 'Iron Baby' inscribed on the front.
"Emphasis on worst YET..." Tony murmurs under his breath as he clicks on one of the links Rhodey sent. It leads him to a page full of flashing graphics and screaming text that - once his eyes adjust - turn out to be really BADLY drawn portraits of him. In one about halfway down the page he looks more like a turkey than anything else.
He debates with himself when the link at the bottom is accompanied by a warning message for 'Erotica content.'
Clicks. Snorts coffee out of his nose.
'Note...make sure to remind PR to highlight in my next interest archive that the Starks are JEWISH in descent.' Though he can't fault their...generosity...really. Thanks to Pepper, it's been years since he's been caught naked in public, so he supposes reference pictures are hard to come by.
Tony closes the window and goes back to Rhodey's e-mail. There's several more links and he can only imagine what's on the other end of them. And more so, they almost certainly guarantee that he's not going to be bored.
The next few are more of the same - really bad fan art and some eyebrow raising comics. Though, honestly a few of the comics are right on target to the point where he prints them out. If nothing else he can leave them somewhere for Pepper who he knows will get even more of a kick out of them since it's not her ego being skewered.
It's the fifth link that promises the most entertainment. It's a website titled "StarkNet" - which in and of itself is enough to make him rethink drinking anything at the moment. It seems to be some sort of blog based fiction site with a standard layout and very little in the way of bells and whistles. It's clear that this site is focused on... Writing, Tony deduces after scrolling through the first page. Exclusively focused on writing. He blinks at some of the headers. 'In EVERY possible variation, apparently.'
Each posting has a list of information with it: title, author, rating, summary, etc. They also have a rating system of sorts, stars and numbers. 'Which seem to be an overall rating and…number of reviews.' Tony doesn't know what he's looking for exactly, but he clicks on something that's rated highly and well reviewed and reads what other people think of the fic.
The long list of "great jobs," and "I loved it" don't tell him much.
Tony snorts and hits the back button and clicks on the fic itself. A half hour later he's alternately cracking up and truly being entertained. At the moment his metaphorical – or is it allegorical? – self is in the midst of rescuing some sort of heiress from the bad guys.
And he's a closeted master chef of Italian food, apparently.
A few other stories reveal a great deal of the same - some better some worse. He ends Googling 'Mary Sue' after reading some more vitriolic comments. And then he just admits defeat and looks up all the other slang and abbreviations used on until he's figured out how to read the headers - making sense of labels such as 'slash' 'pwp' 'crackfic' and het.
It's a good waste of time, and for the most part has him alternately preening and shaking his head in bemusement. The characterizations of him when they aren't "generic male machismo" are laughable, caught wildly between angst and animal lust, barely recognizable as human, and at worst, based entirely on past behaviors that living in a cave for three months had forced him to outgrow.
And that's just him. The women involved - and there's almost ALWAYS a woman involved...or an attractive man - are even worse. Hollow excuses to allow someone to get off... Okay, that part might be a little too close to the truth to be comfortable.
Tony goes back to the main page and starts searching for something NEW. Something original that's not Ironman plus damsel in distress equals nudity. That's when he runs across the first of them. 'Who came up with the term Pepperony?' Honestly - it made it sound like he worked in some kind of pizza joint.
He clicks on the first link, eyes going very, VERY wide as his brain finally makes the connection...
Pepper. Tony. Pepperony.
Him and POTTS? Was he THAT obvious? He really had been trying to be good about NOT drooling in public.
He wants to know what people are thinking - if the fairly harmless are thinking it then who knows who else may be - but it only takes him a few seconds to realize that this particular author knows NOTHING. Their handling of Pepper is painfully sympathetic, not that his devoted PA isn't capable of behaving sympathetically but it's also not the first word that springs to mind when he thinks of her. So he goes back to the main page, browses through all the tags until he finds the one listed as "pepperony," then clicks on it. There's a modest list, apparently it's a niche coupling - or "ship" - as opposed to all the fancifully named and faceless women in the other fics.
He sorts them by rating, only to end up with an entire PAGE of fics that are short by some standards - there'd been fics on the front page long enough to qualify as novels. Most of these are approximately 1,000 words or less. 'And apparently VERY well received.' High ratings, lots of reviews, and when he browses through the reviews they actually have something say other than, 'I liked it.'
There are seven authors total in the ship, but approximately 80 percent of the fics are written by one - named simply number1fan.
He clicks on the oldest one – titled only with a date – mostly out of curiosity.
He's ignoring me. Smugly.
I know the two concepts are essentially a contradiction of terms, but our Mr. Stark revels in being a contradiction, along with being other words that rhyme with the sound "dict."
Don't judge. A personal assistant is allowed to make personal observations, including:
1) Your tie is crooked
2) There's food in your beard
3) You're being an ass
It's just that generally the last of those observations are saved for a PA's last day of work, and dickish behavior notwithstanding, I like my job.
His attitude shouldn't even be a surprise. It's the end of the fiscal year and he's got to get rid of it so he won't get shortchanged next year, just like all the other departments. I knew his behavior was going to be playfully contrary and generally irritating because he hates the paper side of running a business and he's impartial when it comes to sharing that distain. The paper side of a business is nothing but dry facts and figures that don't build up to an explosion of any kind. There's nothing living to it in the way that there is when he looks at blueprints and schematics. Expense reports and vouchers and annual reports are the chaff leftover from the act of creation.
When it comes to closing out the fiscal year, I've learned from experience that if excitement isn't provided, he'll generate it and either I can go along with it and clean up the mess later, or I can stay behind and do the paperwork.
Well, I already do my fair share of paperwork without doing his as well.
He's still ignoring me, which is good. It gives me time to glance down and adjust the plunging neckline of my blouse before bending low over his desk to plant both hands to either side of his.
'There we go.' Eyes snap to and start to dilate. Adam's apple bobs. Hand curls around conveniently placed pen.
"Mr. Stark, I need you to sign all of these papers where I've indicated before we go to lunch."
"Of course, Ms. Potts."
Oh, that tone has gotten a lot of women in trouble, but not me. Instead I straighten and slam him with the double whammy, so to speak. He gets to watch my perfectly fitted pencil skirt stroll out of his office.
I'll get those papers back in record time, just so he can spend the lunch hour trying to get another glimpse down my shirt.
It's too bad restaurants are always so cold – I probably won't take my suit jacket off the entire time.
This is…nearly perfect. This is not the Pepper Potts Tony knows so well, but it's…close. The humor is right, the understanding of what he finds BORING is right. But there's something blatant to this Pepper that Tony doesn't recognize, and that's somewhat comforting. Otherwise he'd have to wonder about more than what the rest of these stories are like. These stories are amazingly accurate in their emotional quotient - something he didn't run across in those other stories he'd taken a glance at.
Tony reads another, then another, and another until an hour has gone by and Tony's once comforting sense of alien recognition has been overwhelmed by a feeling of familiarity.
He honestly doesn't know whether to be scared or amazed. There's no OVERT cause for concern. For the most part, the settings and situations are generic. There's no mention of anything that people outside this house should know. And yet...in almost every story there is some turn of phrase or personal detail about appearance or tone that's just...creepily accurate.
He looks to the ceiling, chewing his lip thoughtfully a moment. "Your code doesn't allow for creative writing, Jarvis...correct?"
"While I am capable of sustaining a fictional narrative, independently creating scenarios outside of battle simulations is outside of my current operating parameters." There's a pause of several seconds that makes Tony instinctively uneasy. "Though, I have been informed my attempts at Haiku form are...improving with practice."
"Figures," Tony mutters under his breath as he rubs his eyes and stares at his computer screen. 'Haiku. Numbers and syllables pleasing arrangements that DON'T sustain a narrative.' "Jarvis, I need you to track down the IP address of...number1fan. There's something about their stories that just doesn't add up." In the past there have been women who've thought that just by looking at Pepper they could figure out what made her valuable, as if her unique flexibility and steel bear trap of a mind – not to mention the way she turned tomato red whenever she tried to lie to him – could be replicated. Pepper's value lay in a complex interaction of strengths and weaknesses that would be impossible for anyone to duplicate…
But this person has come close enough to make him wary.
"Very well, Sir. Would you also like identity and address if possible?"
"Yes." Tony pushes back from the desk and goes over to the kitchen area. He's got everything in the blender when he realizes he's out of orange juice for his shake. "Be right back, old man," he calls as he trots up the stairs to the kitchen.
When he returns downstairs Jarvis beeps. "Sir, I've located the information you asked for. Display on monitor?"
"Yes." Tony dumps the bottle of orange juice into the blender, turns it on until he's got a sludgy mess of deliciousness, and wonders if he should call Pepper and ask her to go pick some up right now as he wanders back over to his computer. He hopes this is just something he can route through to the legal department along with a cease-and-desist letter. If he has to involve the police, Pepper's going to find out about it.
When he sees the picture on the monitor he nearly drops his glass.
Red hair, big, baby blue doe eyes, humoring smile while she allowed him to take another photo for "security purposes."
"No way in HELL," he mutters under his breath. "Jarvis, you have to be smoking something..."
"I must disagree, Sir. None of my components are overheated."
"There is no way Pepper could have written these..."
"On the contrary, Sir. The style employed matches well with several other short pieces of prose she keeps on her laptop."
"Pepper writes short stories?" Tony pulls up the author profile for "number1fan" and predictably finds nothing at all. But then, if this is Pepper, she wouldn't want to leave any tracks. In fact, the stories are so free of any detail that he's probably the only one who would have gotten a weird read off them.
"Occasionally during her breaks and lunch hours. Do you wish me to decrypt the security code to her personal file folders for a more thorough comparison?"
Ohhh...that's a dangerous question. Tony's tempted. Highly so. He wants to see everything Pepper's written, especially the things she hasn't felt comfortable letting the rest of the world read. But that's just it. It's not as if he's actually invaded her privacy by reading any of these. By getting her IP address, yes, but not by reading what she's posted. If it weren't for Rhodey's perverse sense of humor, he probably wouldn't have ever found them. But breaking into files she'd protected on a server only they two of them had access to…?
"Not right now. Find everything you can that's been written by 'number1fan' and save them to a folder on my personal server, password 'fangirl.' Try to keep it out of the areas Pepper frequents. Cross reference the dates mentioned in the titles with dates involving Pepper or myself."
"Yes, Sir. Estimated completion by 8 am tomorrow."
Tony nods, sitting back and steepling his fingers contemplatively. The way he sees this, he has two options. He can get indignant at the format of this – she is, after all, essentially spilling their lives out for the public to gawk over – or he can use the power of free speech against her.
A smile curls up his lips. "Option two. DEFINITELY." His own personal privacy has never been high on his list of priorities anyway, and it's not as if Pepper's going out of her way to embarrass him.
"Download the stories from this website and save them. Then close the browser and delete the history." Tony picks up his shake and carries it upstairs. "Shut down the workshop for the evening." The rest of the evening is going to be taken up by rereading all of Pepper's stories. He'd skimmed them the first time through - this time he really wanted to absorb what she'd written.
There was a key to something important hidden somewhere in all the things she wasn't saying to him.
A/N Con't: I admit that this one is all my fault, though 4persephone is being a real sport by joining me in this adventure. I know that other stories in the fandom have explored Tony and Pepper's reaction to fan generated fiction, but I wanted to explore each of their reactions to finding out PEPPER was generating fiction. For Pepper, it's a sense of "dear god, what have I done?" For Tony, it's more along the lines of "I solemnly swear I am up to no good." Let us know what you think.