The actor's name is Henry Hellrung and he seems like a nice guy. "Just pretend I'm not even here," he tells Pepper on his first day in the office. His smile is warm, his handshake pleasantly firm.
"I'm afraid it isn't that simple," says Pepper, briskly, handing him a non-disclosure agreement and a security screening form. He looks somewhat chastened and she forces a smile, taut and stiff as parchment.
It's not his fault that Pepper finds method acting somewhat distasteful.
It's a mystery how the pitch for the TV mini-series about the Stark family got approved in the first place. No one in Legal recalls hearing anything about it, and certainly it never made its way across Pepper's desk.
This irritates her for a variety of reasons, not least of all because it means that someone has managed to gain direct access to Tony. And there is a reason she tries to prevent direct access to Tony: if he's in a puckish humour, or on a self-destructive tear, or simply not paying attention, he's likely to approve things without considering the repercussions.
It's a bit perplexing to Pepper that Tony (who, despite his nether regions being featured in multiple YouTube videos, is an intensely private person when it comes to certain subjects) would put his approving signature on a project like this. But it's not completely out of left field; lately, he's been displaying an alarming tendency to air his personal or corporate dirty laundry—or secret superhero identity—to the world at large, for no apparent reason whatsoever.
So now there's this actor, who will be following them around for six weeks; one more person that Pepper has to factor into the vast and intricate web that is Tony's public life. The agreement Legal has negotiated with the studio indicates that Henry is not to handle any confidential material or attend any high-level briefings, and that he must be escorted at all times when he's on the property—which means that when Henry isn't with Tony, Pepper is relegated to babysitting duty.
Over the years, Pepper has developed some excellent stress relief techniques, which help her appear calm when faced with her boss's various unsavoury predilections. The one she uses most frequently in the office is: she sharpens pencils. She has a well-used and satisfyingly noisy electric pencil sharpener on one corner of her desk, and she keeps a stash of unsharpened pencils in the back of her locked personnel file drawer.
This is the ideal way to blow off steam because Tony is a notorious pencil thief. He snags one almost every time he walks past her desk. She still hasn't been able to determine exactly what he does with them all, but the fact remains that they disappear at a suspicious rate. So the pencil sharpening isn't wasteful; it's productive, falling under the "anything-and-everything" umbrella she trots out whenever people ask her what it is that she does for a living. And the CEO's stationery budget is never scrutinized, which means Pepper's two-pack-a-day habit goes unnoticed.
Pepper sharpens a lot of pencils during Henry's first week in the office.
Henry pulls a lot of focus during that first week. People can't seem to stop commenting on how remarkable the resemblance is. There are also at least two occasions that support staff from other sections try to pass confidential documents to Henry while Pepper is walking him to the bathroom or to the cafeteria. Pepper neatly intercepts both times, and provides a gentle explanation to the employee involved. But not all of the witnesses are within earshot, which is how the rumour starts: Tony Stark doesn't like to be handed things.
In Pepper's opinion, the whole thing is absurd. Henry doesn't look anything like Tony. He's eight years younger, for one thing—and Tony did a lot of hard living in those particular eight years. He's narrower in the shoulders, and at least three inches taller. He's classically handsome, with smooth, even features and an aquiline nose; his face does seem sort of familiar, but she can't quite place it. His hair is dark, but his overall colouring is much fairer than Tony's. His eyes are either hazel or green, Pepper isn't quite certain.
The majority of the employees of Stark Industries have never actually seen Tony Stark up close. Pepper soon realizes that people think Henry is Tony because they expect him to be Tony: he's wearing a suit and he's good-looking and he's being herded around by Tony's assistant in the building where Tony's office is. Context is everything.
And she has to concede that he is like Tony, in that he projects the appearance of being very at ease in his own skin. He's bright, observant, very aware of his surroundings, and just a little bit cocky. He's kind of a smartass, though his wit doesn't quite hit the same notes of weary self-deprecation.
He is not like Tony in that he is always on time for appointments. On Henry's second day in the office, Tony is forty-five minutes late for a meeting. Henry is there ten minutes early; he even helps Pepper distribute coffee and tea in the conference room. Like most actors, he has serving experience.
"Maybe Tony should shadow you," says Pepper, trying not to sound as annoyed as she is.
Henry is a gifted mimic.
It takes him only a day to perfect Tony's swagger—chin up, chest out, loose-hipped and sure-footed. Lord and master of all he surveys. Watching them walk down the hall together is nothing short of uncanny.
The smirk comes next, and then a few of the more prevalent hand gestures: the way he does the thumbs-up or finger-guns when he's being a little patronizing. The way he fiddles or fidgets when he feels he isn't being heard or can't express what he wants to say. The way he can't stop touching his mouth or his forehead when he's working out a tough problem. The way he shields his eyes (with hands, with sunglasses) when he's uncomfortable or bored. The way he invariably drinks out of a highball glass with his pinky in the air, like he's having tea with the queen. Pepper never realized how uniquely Tony all these movements were, until she sees them performed by someone else.
The voice takes a little longer, but Henry eventually nails it, and that's when things are in danger of going off the rails. There's a very brief period where Henry and Tony think it's funny to call her desk phone from two different lines and have her guess which one of them is which. Pepper soon disabuses both of them of the notion that this is in any way amusing.
Henry takes to calling Pepper "Miss Moneypenny." His Sean Connery is flawless.
Pepper's sharpened pencil collection is growing.
In addition to the office, Henry follows Tony around at public appearances and parties. Tony treats him as part accessory, part sideshow attraction. He finds it entertaining to invent origin stories for Henry: he tells Happy that the actor is his long-lost, illegitimate brother. For Rhodey, he weaves an elaborate story about a scheme to fake his own death.
"He's my double," Pepper overhears Tony telling a girl at a party, his voice low and confidential. "All the celebrities have them nowadays, didn't you know? He does all the everyday, pedestrian stuff while I make the magic happen."
The girl giggles. "Which one of you gets the blow jobs?"
Henry asks Pepper a question that prevents her from hearing Tony's reply.
Henry patiently goes along with Tony's shenanigans, but only up to a point. He never deliberately tries to pass himself off as Tony; he never gets drunk with Tony; and he never (as far as Pepper is aware) goes home with any of the girls Tony tries to field for him. At the end of the day, he's there to do a job, and he does it with more professionalism and tact than Pepper would have given him credit for at the outset.
When he's not with Tony, Henry spends most of his time at Pepper's workstation. Pepper assigns him small tasks, such as checking Tony's receipts against the corporate expense reports—it isn't why he's there, obviously, but Pepper is nothing if not efficient in her use of the available resources. He offers to sharpen her pencils, but Pepper politely declines.
Their work is punctuated by endless rounds of questions: has Tony ever been seriously injured? Does he talk a lot about his childhood? What's his mood like before a board meeting? After a failed mission? What's his sleep schedule like? What's the angriest she's ever seen him, and how did he react? How does he unwind at the end of a tough day? Pepper invariably has the answer, and she shares as much as her sense of propriety and her non-disclosure agreement will permit. Henry diligently jots it all down, his cardboard-covered composition notebook bristling with sticky notes and odd ends of newspaper clippings.
More than once, he leaves the notebook on Pepper's desk. She's tempted to look—especially when she notices that there's a sticky tab marked Pepper. But she never does.
Part of the deal that Legal has negotiated with the studio is that Tony gets final approval of the script.
Pepper is dying to have a look at it, even though she dreads to think what she might find. She assumes that, as with any other undertaking that involves a lot of close reading, he will eventually tire of the effort and fling it onto her desk at the last minute.
But the studio couriers the pages to Tony directly—Pepper isn't allowed to sign for them, much to her chagrin—and he won't let her anywhere near them. He barricades himself in his office for hours at a time, and when she slips in to bring him coffee or to remind him of the day's obligations, he shoos her away.
"Go bug someone else, Potts," he says absently, licking his finger to turn one of the robin's-egg-blue pages. "I don't have time for this, I'm busy. Go…" he gestures vaguely towards the door with one hand, shielding the exposed page with the other. "Go play with Henry."
Back at her desk, Pepper grinds an entire box of yellow HBs into ten perfect pickets before she calms down.
Henry has been plying his trade all over town, as it turns out. He's done dinner theatre, musical theatre, and installation theatre; he's been in an Outback Steakhouse commercial, two beer commercials, and a whole host of late-night infomercials. He's excited about the miniseries role; he thinks it might be his big break.
His biggest role to date has been as a vampire bite victim on True Blood—which (though she knows better than to admit it) is where Pepper recognizes him from.
He stages a re-enactment of his True Blood appearance for her amusement one afternoon, in which he plays all the characters, the climax of which involves him slumping facedown across her desk. Pepper applauds at the end of the scene. She's been smiling for such a long time that her cheeks ache.
Tony opens the door to his office and sticks his head out. "Do you two mind?" he asks plaintively. "I'm trying to work." He has a pencil tucked behind his ear, putting Pepper in mind of the old black-and-white photos of Howard Stark that hang in the foyer downstairs. There are two graphite finger-smudges on his forehead.
"Sorry," says Pepper—then, before she can stop herself: "Mr. Stark."
If Tony notes the unusual formality, it doesn't show on his face. "Okay." He turns away without further comment, letting the door fall closed in his wake.
Pepper and Henry exchange looks, and it's all she can do to stifle her laughter with the back of her hand.
It's been a long time since she thought of Tony as her boss.
Maybe it's because he's an actor, or maybe it's just his personality, but Henry is not averse to casual touching. Which isn't to say he creates opportunities for physical contact; however, neither does he shy away from the small, incidental touches that can happen in the course of a day spent working closely together.
It's noticeable in part because Tony has very strictly defined parameters for touching. He's more comfortable with Pepper than he is with most people, but she still feels as though he uses touch primarily to distance her, to frame her within a space.
And aside from a handshake, or an awkwardly formal business hug at Christmas, she can't remember him ever initiating contact with her in front of other people.
Which makes it all the more strange when Tony takes to resting his hand at the small of Pepper's back.
Not when they're walking, because she makes an effort to stay in his wake; but if they're on an elevator, or she's pouring him a cup of coffee, or she comes to his desk to pass something by him, his open palm seems to gravitate to that spot as though imbued with a will of its own. He doesn't do it furtively, and he doesn't stop doing it if other people happen to walk in.
She debates whether to ask him about it, but decides against it in the end. Because then it might stop. And, truth be told, it's actually kind of nice. Warm, and reassuring. Affectionate. She tells herself it's the kind of gesture a friend might make.
Besides, Tony has a lot of odd habits, and he disregards a lot of boundaries. It's hardly the worst thing he's ever done.
At the start of his third week in the office, Henry starts growing a goatee. It's patchy, lopsided, nowhere near as crisp as Tony's.
"What do you think?" he asks, scraping absently at his chin with a thumbnail in a way that makes Pepper feel strangely piqued. He implores, "Be honest."
Pepper hates it when people ask her to be honest, because it's so rarely what they actually want. "Do you own an electric trimmer?" she inquires, tactfully.
"Yeah, but it takes me over an hour in front of the mirror to get it right."
"It takes the real Mr. Stark about the same amount of time," she confides, adding sternly, "and he never scratches." She smiles, and lightly swats his hand away from his face.
"I'll remember that," he replies, smiling back.
It takes her a moment longer than it really should to let go of his fingers.
The next morning, Pepper arrives at the house to find Tony draped over the couch, still in his rumpled tuxedo, a tumbler of amber liquid balanced precariously on his chest.
"Twenty minutes," she announces, without preamble, then heads straight up to the walk-in closet and starts pulling together an outfit suitable for that morning's television appearance.
Tony ambles in a few minutes later, smiling to himself, looking far too alert for someone who hasn't been to bed. He tugs at his bowtie until it unravels, then slings it over his shoulder.
"Henry asked me if you were single," he announces, studiedly casual, peering at his reflection. His scent lingers on the air: cigars, cognac and vetiver. Smoky and decadent and slightly overpowering.
Pepper feels her colour rise dramatically. She's glad she's facing away from him. "What did you tell him?" she inquires, matching his laissez-faire tone.
"I said you don't date co-workers." He finger-combs his hair. "Do I have time for a shower?"
"No. Sorry." She can't quite suppress a flash of irritation. "He's not a co-worker," she snaps.
"He's a professional associate," he counters.
"Oh, barely." Pepper knows it's childish, knows she needs to back aways, but the whole thing is so stupid, because she doesn't even—sure, Henry is cute, and sure, she's thought about it, but she would never—
"Want me to pass him a note in class?" asks Tony, irritably.
She turns and skewers him with a look. "He's just doing research."
"For his character."
"Pepper, don't be naïve."
"Anyhow, who says I don't date my 'professional associates?'" she challenges. "Just because I've never dated you…" She regrets it the second the words are out of her mouth, even before his face changes.
It takes only a second for Tony to recover, his mouth twisting in a smirk. Then he holds out his arm, and Pepper wordlessly drapes the clothes over it: suit, pants, belt, tie, socks. He can do what he likes about his underwear, she doesn't feel equipped to handle that right now.
"Fine," he says. He doesn't sound angry, just… tired. "Great."
It's the last time he speaks to her that day.
"Is Tony a good kisser?"
Pepper is slightly taken aback. "I don't know what you've heard," she says, icily, "but that's not really in my job description." She taps a stack of papers twice against her desk blotter before stapling them rather more emphatically than is necessary.
"No, okay, sorry. Of course not." Henry puts both elbows on the desk, steeples his long fingers. His eyes (definitely green, she's almost positive) peer intently into hers. "I mean—the character. This guy, Tony Stark. My character. Do you think he'd be a good kisser?"
She shifts her hands into her lap to hide the fact that they're shaking a little. She says, very carefully, "I imagine he's had a lot of practice."
"Maybe that's it." He nods earnestly.
"Maybe I need more practice."
And then he kisses her.
And she kisses back.
It's… not entirely unexpected.