A/N: Post IM2.

"Who can you trust when you can't trust yourself?"
-Home by Kelis

Tony sat in the same S.H.I.E.L.D. warehouse where he had been a few weeks earlier, discussing the events that had occurred at the Stark Expo. Nick Fury had asked him to meet with him again to discuss the matters of his position with the Avengers and recent findings of other possible recruits for said team.

"Thanks for sending Stern, by the way," Tony said to Director Fury. The man smirked (he rarely ever smiled) in return.

"I thought you might like that," he replied. "Now, as to the matter at hand, Natasha will be staying with you for a little longer. Since you're returning to your original position as CEO, she'll assume the position of an assistant PA of sorts—to help Miss Potts during the transition, among other things."

"Assistant personal assistant? Did you just invent that position?" Tony asked, amused. "And I'm not so sure Pepper wants help—she hates it when people mess with her flow. She'll start to rant, and believe me, you don't want—" he was interrupted by Natasha, who was standing in the corner of the room.

"She doesn't mind when she's receiving good help," she said, obviously making a point that his version of help was a little different than everyone else's. "Besides, she will be needing help—the media is already all over this, when they find out you're switching positions again, they'll be absolutely crawling for information."

"Natasha's right—plus, Pepper deserves a little break with all that she's been through," Fury said, nodding his head in agreement. Tony chuckled.

"Hey, I'm not that bad!" Tony joked, but faltered at the somber look of the two agents.

"I wasn't just talking about you," the Director said, but before Tony had time to ask what he meant, Fury had already continued onto another subject matter entirely. Tony made a mental note to investigate the comment later.

Tony picked up a piece of the Hot Rod engine that he had dismantled yet again, observing it for any potential flaws. He let his mind wander while his hands did the work they knew so well—what had Fury meant earlier? 'I wasn't just talking about you,' he had said. What did that mean? What else was going on with Pepper?

If it had been recent, he would have known—granted, he had been wrapped up in himself for quite a few months, but if anything drastic had happened to Pepper, he would have noticed. He wasn't that self-absorbed. That left one option: something had happened to Pepper a while back, maybe even before they had met. Now that he thought about it, he didn't know much about Pepper's past; he had hired her on a whim, and never questioned her loyalty after the first week he had employed her.

"Jarvis, pull up a search on Pepper's history, would you? Family members, health records; whatever you can find, really."

Jarvis didn't need to respond as the search took place in front of Tony's eyes. Tony set his gaze back on the engine while Jarvis completed the search.

"The search is complete. Which would you like to hear about first?" Jarvis' cool voice inquired.

"Surprise me," said Tony.

"Miss Potts is an only child, born to Jack and the late Michelle Potts—"

Tony stopped tinkering with the engine. He had always assumed both of Pepper's parents were dead; she never spoke of any family members, and she never went on vacation to see them.

"What happened to her? And where's her dad?" Tony asked his AI.

"Jack Potts is currently being held in California State Prison in Lancaster—"

"What?" Tony asked flatly. Had he just heard correctly? "On what charges?"

"If you'd let me finish, sir, you might find out," the AI said, sounding as sarcastic as it could. "Jack Potts is currently serving a life sentence for second-degree murder at California State Prison in Lancaster. He was convicted in 1993 for the murder of Michelle Potts while intoxicated."

Tony's heart went cold, and he sat down slowly in the chair that sat behind all the glass tablets where the information Jarvis had just rattled at him was displayed. He thought he had it bad—Pepper's own dad killed her mom; he killed his own wife. And he had always wondered why Pepper rarely ever drank in excess—he always figured her aversion to him doing so was simply because she had to clean up the messes he made; he never would have thought it was because of something like this.

"Holy shit," Tony whispered.

"Michelle Potts was pronounced dead on arrival at Anaheim Memorial Medical Center—cause of death is listed as severe blood loss and a collapsed lung caused by a gunshot wound to the chest."

"How old was Pepper when this happened?" It was the only thing Tony could think to say; he had been floored by this new discovery. Why had Pepper never told him anything?

"Miss Potts was born in 1977, so we can assume that she was about sixteen at the time of her mother's death," Jarvis said; if the AI could sound sympathetic, it would have. Tony put his head in his hands—he had been sixteen when his parents died, too, but his situation was nothing compared to hers.

"What did Pepper do after her dad got sent to jail?"

"She was emancipated and lived on her own for the rest of her high school career. She obtained a degree in accounting, but worked as a model for several years until she began her job at Stark Industries, was fired, and then re-hired by you."

"Jesus, Pep," he said to himself. "Jarvis, locate Pepper."

"Miss Potts is currently in the kitchen, sir. Would you like to see the video feed?" Jarvis asked faithfully.

"Not this time, Jarvis," Tony said. With that, he ascended the stairs. By the time he had gotten up the stairs, Pepper was no longer in the kitchen; she was sitting on the couch, going through what Tony was sure was his inbox. He walked up to the spot where she sat.


"Hmm?" she said noncommittally, obviously still focused on his e-mails.

"Pepper," he said again, hoping to gain her full attention.

"Yes, Tony?" she still sounded distracted, but the use of his name meant that she was halfway listening to him. He waited a few minutes before trying again.

"Pepper, look at me," he pleaded, and her head turned to him. She looked frustrated to be disturbed while she was in the middle of something.

"What is it, Tony?" she asked again.

"Pepper," he said softly, "why didn't you tell me?"

Tony watched as her blue eyes searched his, looking confused.

"Tell you what?" she asked, the confusion in her eyes seeping fully into her voice; he certainly had her full attention now. He sat down next to her on the sofa, and her eyes followed his figure.

"About…" he trailed off. What was he supposed to say? Why didn't you tell me that your adolescence was ruined because your dad tore your family apart by killing your mother and leaving you alone? He swallowed, mentally preparing himself for whatever reaction he might receive for asking. "About your parents, Pepper. Why didn't you tell me?"

Pepper's eyes widened in surprise, and the laptop nearly slid off of her lap and onto the floor before Tony caught it. Placing it on the coffee table, he looked back at Pepper. Her blue eyes were still wide and looking at him in a way that broke his heart. After a few more stunned seconds, she looked away from him, obviously trying to steel over her emotions.

"You never asked, Tony. So you'll excuse me if I never thought to bring it up as a cheerful conversation piece over dinner." Her voice was cold and hollow.

"Pepper, I didn't mean it like that," he said softly. "It's just that, I've always wondered why you hated it when I got drunk—if you had just said something—"

"Said what, Tony?" Pepper asked viciously. "What could I have possibly said? 'If you keep doing this, you'll end up killing someone like my bastard father did?' Honestly, what would you have said to that, Tony?"

He looked at her, at a loss for words.

"Exactly," she said. "It would have been completely awkward, you would look at me like—like you're looking at me right now, that sympathetic look that I got from everyone I knew for years after it happened—for a few weeks, and then everything would go back to normal. A pointless waste of time, Tony."

"It wouldn't have been a waste of time, Pepper," Tony said quietly. "It isn't a waste of time, this is huge—all this time, and you've never said a thing. You can talk to me, Pepper. You know that, right?"

"There's nothing to talk about."

Tony stared at her; her eyes were getting red, a tell-tale sign that she was holding back tears. He scooted in closer to her, placing an arm around her shoulders and pulling her thin frame against his own.

"There's everything to talk about," he whispered into her hair. That was all it took for her to break down completely; he could swear he heard his own heart breaking in two when a sob wracked her frame. It was absolutely heart-wrenching; he listened to her cry and felt her tears through his shirt as he rubbed soothing circles into her back through her black dress. It was the same dress, he noticed, that she had worn the day she placed the new arc reactor in his chest. It was ironic; that day, she had dug into his heart. Today, he had dug into hers.

After a few minutes, her tears had stopped flowing. She wiped her eyes, and looked up at him.

"I'm sorry," she said, not looking directly into his eyes.

"For what?" he asked. "Don't answer that. You don't have to be sorry for anything, Pepper. This just proves that—look at me, Pep." He grabbed her chin, forcing her to look at him. "This just proves that you are the strongest person I know. Stuff like that can ruin a person, but you pulled through it. You finished school, you became a model, you became CEO of a company, but most surprising of all—you've managed to put up with me for nearly ten years. That's a feat within itself, Pepper."

She smiled and giggled weakly, snuggling closer into his arms. He pulled her into his lap, letting her rest her head in the nook between his neck and shoulder. After a few minutes of silence, Pepper spoke.

"Thanks, Tony."

"For what?" he asked her, rubbing circles into her hips.

"For giving me a home when I thought I wouldn't find one again," she said simply. He smiled brilliantly, then kissed her full on the lips.

"My home is your home, Pep. Always."

A/N: Hiya, kiddos! Had a great time in England, but glad to be back at home-this idea struck me while I was over there one night, while I was in bed. Needless to say, I did a victorious fist-punch in the air. Some fun facts: 1) yes, I am used to writing depressing and abusive chapters. I'm a Joker/Harley shipper, ok? It's in the description. There couldn't be just fluff in this story, ya know. 2) I have no idea how old Tony was when his parents died. I just threw sixteen out there. 3) I did a lot of research for this chapter, some of it completely pointless. Jails in CA, public high schools in CA, the difference between manslaughter and murder. I'm obviously not cut out to be a lawyer. 4) There might be a part 2 to this chapter. Review if you want me to post it. Thanks for the reviews for the last chapter, I'm sorry I couldn't reply to them all! Hope this one doesn't disappoint you!

ONE MORE THING BEFORE I GO- For any of you that are interested, I have a writing challenge for all of you. Pepperony of course. A one-shot, more directed at the T-M rated writers. The prompt is a painting called "Game On" by Jack Vettriano. The link to said photo is on my profile, just go ahead and click it up. I saw it in England and absolutely fell in love with it. Now, off to it!