The day the incident occurred, Virginia "Pepper" Potts had been part of the Stark Industries family for just over nine months. Approximately six of those months had been spent covering for her boss while he systematically drank himself into oblivion.
It was Pepper's first time around the block as an executive assistant: after having spent the first few weeks of her career at SI in the Finance and Administration pool, she'd found herself being snapped up by Jason Ward, deputy section head of the payroll department. Jason was impressed by Pepper's capacious memory and her facility with both diplomacy and details. He thought she was wasted as a receptionist.
Pepper thought so, too. She'd moved across the country to study art history at Stanford, but had ended up graduating with an MBA, which she'd pursued with the aim of managing either a museum or a gallery. She was ridiculously overqualified for the job at SI, but it was the only one she could find that offered sufficient compensation and was even remotely related to her education and skills. In other words, she wanted to stay in California, but the rent needed paying, and she didn't want to be a night baker or form part of a Marine Mammal Stranding Response Team.
Pepper was the only one of her cohort from Stanford who still bought her shoes at the outlet mall. The most upscale brand name in her closet was "Sears," and she did her own tailoring. However, she had a roof over her head, a car that worked and had air conditioning, and she could afford to go out to lunch on Fridays with the rest of the F&A gang, even if she sometimes had to order from the starter menu. Paying her way through school had taught her how to live frugally; no matter how grim things sometimes seemed, Pepper knew she was unlikely to be the first person in recorded history to die of couture deprivation. She volunteered at a small modern gallery called the Tune-In Institute on weekends, which kept her centered and helped her focus on her long-term goals.
Upon transferring to Jason's office, Pepper committed the classic rookie mistake of making herself indispensable. She wanted to prove that she was willing to work, and capable of getting the job done. Apart from which, while Jason was charismatic and charming, it became apparent within five minutes of meeting him that the man was on the razor's edge. Pepper had been around enough drinkers to recognize the signs.
Pepper tried to be supportive, and gradually began to pick up the tidbits of work that were in danger of sliding off Jason's desk. She and Jason never actually discussed this; it just sort of… happened, and Pepper allowed it to just-sort-of-happen because she could tell that if she didn't, things would get very out of control very quickly. She suspected that if heads were to roll, hers would be first on the chopping block.
Jason started to cut out early on Friday afternoons. Then he began calling in sick on Mondays, and sometimes Tuesdays too. One day, he simply stopped calling altogether, leaving Pepper to stand alone on the deck of a burning ship. Work started piling up in his in-tray, and before she knew it, Pepper was delegating assignments to the entire section, just to keep afloat. She was careful to maintain the pretense that she was acting under Jason's direction.
Like most of the underlings in the payroll department, Pepper had never seen the great and powerful Anthony Stark in person. She knew what he looked like, of course; like many celebrities, he'd existed in the dim reaches of her pop-culture consciousness for as long as she could recall. When she'd first started working at SI, she'd devoured every scrap of information about Stark-the-company that she could find—none of which told her much about Stark-the-man. The few times he'd sent out all-staff video messages, she'd noted that he was good-looking and relatively articulate, but that he seemed to talk a lot without ever really saying anything. She knew that the outlandish tales about his escapades had to be mostly exaggerated; surely no one that smart would be caught doing that many stupid things. In any event, her lowly section was far enough away from the executive offices that Pepper figured she was safe.
So on that fateful day, nine months in, when Janice at the reception desk called and whispered frantically into the phone that the Big Boss was headed in her direction, Pepper laughed, told her "Give him a big kiss for me," and hung up. After all, she had work to do—hers and Jason's. She didn't have time for another one of Janice's juvenile pranks.
Ten minutes later, however, the mythical figure himself appeared in the doorway of Jason Ward's office, to Pepper's utter astonishment.
He was clad in faded jeans, white t-shirt, red leather motorcycle jacket, and sunglasses. The effect was, quite honestly, a bit disappointing; she'd heard tell that Stark was unconventional, but she'd expected a suit at the very least.
"Hello there," he purred, leaning against the door jamb like a man who had all the time in the world. "I don't think we've met, have we?"
Pepper froze, blanching behind her freckles. "No," she squeaked.
Tony Stark was even better-looking in person: tanned, windblown, and nonchalant, with eyes that were dark as anthracite and twice as smouldering. Despite his relative youth—he was, all told, only a few years older than Pepper herself—he carried himself in a way that suggested he was well acquainted with the full and varied catalogue of pleasures this earthly life had to offer.
In short, he didn't look like the type of guy who had ever done a day's honest work. He looked exactly like the type of guy who did some of the other things Pepper had heard about.
He propped the sunglasses up on his forehead, and glanced at the nameplate on the desk. "Jason?" he inquired, in a cavalier deadpan that suggested he didn't particularly care, one way or the other. "Pretty name for a pretty girl."
Was he trying to pick her up, or making fun of her? It was hard to tell. "Virginia," she corrected, absently adjusting her tortoiseshell glasses.
"Even better," he replied agreeably. He was surveying the room with a proprietary air, as though taking stock of his possessions—including Pepper.
"I'm Mr. Ward's assistant." Her voice was hoarse. She tried to swallow, but her mouth had gone completely dry. Her tongue seemed twice its normal size. "And you're… you are, aren't you?"
He smirked. "Yes, Virginia. There is a Santa Claus."
Pepper bit back a weary sigh. Every guy she met thought he was the first one to make that stupid joke.
He offered his hand; Pepper noted that there was dirt under his fingernails. Even so, she reached out, forgetting as she did so that she was still balancing the tower of paperwork she'd gone into Jason's office to collect. One of the middle files slipped free, causing the entire stack to destabilize and spill through her arms.
"I see you're busy," he remarked, grasping her hand firmly as painstakingly organized reports fluttered to the four corners of the office. His fingers were rough, callused; they belied her suppositions.
"Excuse me," she said, and he relaxed his grip—making no move to assist her as she squatted down and began to assemble the mess of papers into a pile.
Jerk, she thought. Aloud, she said only, "How can I help you, Mr. Stark?"
"Is your boss kicking around?"
Pepper took a moment to riffle her mental Rolodex of excuses before replying, quite truthfully, "I'm afraid he's not in the office today."
"Okay." Before she could offer any further assistance, Stark receded from the room, and continued on down the hall without so much as a goodbye wave. Being ridiculously brilliant and obscenely rich obviously didn't breed good manners, or even basic courtesy.
It took Pepper a full ten minutes to collect every last scrap of paper from the floor; ample time for her to mentally update both her to-do list for the next month, and her CV. She considered stopping off at the bakery on her way home to drop off an application.
She was down on all fours, tucked head-first under Jason's desk, trying to retrieve the last wayward sheets, when she sensed, rather than heard, a presence in the room.
She straightened up—too suddenly, cracking her head on a corner of the desk so hard that stars blitzed across her field of vision—and turned around to find Tony Stark propping up the doorframe again.
Pepper rubbed the top of her head, blinking back tears of pain. "Um, hi," she said dazedly.
"Hi." He drew the word out, smiling like a shark. He seemed to be waiting for something, but she couldn't for the life of her figure out what it might be.
"Is there… anything in particular you're looking for, Mr. Stark?" she asked, adjusting her glasses.
He shook his head. "Just admiring the view."
The urge to slap the smug right off his face was so strong that her palm actually itched. Instead, she smiled serenely, and replied, "Okay then. Have a nice day, sir."
He frowned, apparently nonplussed, and she seized the opportunity to slip past him and escape down the hall to her own office.
It wasn't until about an hour after the fact, as she replayed the conversation in her head for about the hundredth time, that it occurred to her: Stark had actually expected that line to work. In fact, she strongly suspected that it frequently did work. Pepper felt offended, both personally and on general principle.
She wished, not for the first time, that she someone that she could talk to about this kind of thing. Someone who could be there to support her, inspire her, and give her the occasional pat on the back (as opposed to just ogling her backside).
That night, on the way home, Pepper did stop at the bakery, but only because it was on her way to Neiman Marcus. She'd decided to give herself a little pat on the back—a chocolate bear claw, and her very first pair of Manolo Blahniks.