I have been involved in a collaboration fanfic – a Marvel/Hunger Games combination – and it has taken me away for far too long. If you are interested, it is called "In The End You Always Kneel", by the Freelancer Collective, and I was pleased to write for Dr. Bruce Banner.

But now, back to Pepper.


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The Next Mission: Monaco

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"So?"

Pepper settled back into the couch and looked at her friend. "Ariel, I don't even know where to start…"

"But this secret bodyguard person. She's okay? Is she going to be your assistant full time?"

"Her name's Natalie. Or at least, I suppose that's the name she uses… and I assume she's temporary, from what Phil said. She's great. Really. She's got this sense of humor that simmers just below the surface, and she's very sharp. I don't know what her background is, other than some kind of secret service, but she's just…"

Ariel lifted her glass and sipped, her eyes darkening thoughtfully. "Well, I'm glad it's working out. She feels… well, sounds, interesting."

Pepper's eyebrows furrowed slightly, but she smiled and lifted her glass as well. "Interesting is a good word. You should have seen her in the gym…"

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"Pepper." Tony was staring at Natalie in rapt fascination. Pepper rolled her eyes.

"What?"

"Who is she?" Pepper did her best to sweep away his curiosity.

"She is from legal. And she is potentially a very expensive sexual harassment lawsuit if you keep ogling her like that."

He stared at the svelte redhead in the ring with Happy and spoke from the corner of his mouth. "I need a new assistant, boss."

Pepper nodded emphatically. "Yes, and I've got three excellent potential candidates. They're lined up and ready to meet you".

"I don't have time to meet. I need someone now. I feel like it's her."

Pepper pursed her lips critically, trying not to smile. "No, it's not."

In the ring, Happy was humoring the lovely woman across from him. Pepper, having spent more time with her, recognized her calm responses as sarcasm and worried for Happy's ability to father children if he kept it up. Tony's voice interrupted her thoughts.

"How do I spell your name, Natalie?"

The woman glanced over from the ring, barely distracted as she watched Happy.

"R-U-S-H-M-A-N."

Pepper watched as Tony typed quickly on one of his omnipresent screens. "What, are you gonna Google her now?"

"I thought I was ogling her." Pepper refrained from smacking his arm, and blinked as a flood of information appeared about her assistant. She wondered how much was legit. Tony paused on some lingerie poses. "Wow. Very, very impressive individual."

"You're so predictable, you know that?"

"She's fluent in French, Italian, Russian, Latin. Who speaks Latin?"

"No one speaks Latin."

For a moment he looked seriously confused. "No one speaks Latin?"

"It's a dead language. You can read Latin or you can write Latin, but you can't speak Latin." He stared at her thoughtfully.

"Well...I need her. She's got everything that I need."

Pepper opened her mouth to respond as a flurry of movement from the ring made them both look in that direction.

Happy was abruptly flat on his back, and Natalie was standing over him, looking barely winded.

Pepper jumped up. "Oh, my God! Happy!"

The chauffeur shook his head as he tried to get up. "I… I just slipped."

Tony chuckled. "You did?"

"Yeah."

With not a trace of effort expended, Natalie left the ring and walked over to Tony, picking up the tablet she had left near Pepper. She opened a document with a quick swipe and held it out toward Tony.

"I need your impression."

Tony looked at her thoughtfully, and a little nervously. "You have a quiet reserve. I don't know… you have an old soul."

Rushman frowned for a moment, then blinked at him, holding out the tablet. "I meant your fingerprint."

"Right." He pressed his thumb against the tablet, his eyes searching hers.

She nearly grinned. "Will that be all, Mr. Stark?"

"No."

Pepper broke in easily. "Yes, that will be all, Ms. Rushman. Thank you very much."

Natalie walked away, her pace like a panther on the prowl. Tony pulled his gaze away and looked at Pepper. "I want one."

She pulled her lips into a calm, slightly amused grimace. "No."

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"Good grief! Was he serious?"

"Oh, I know if I'd said 'sure', he would have been."

"But… "

"Don't get me wrong, Ari. He knows she's my assistant, at least for the time being. He just…" She paused, sipped her wine and smirked a bit. "I know she's temporary. And I think he knows she's mine."

"Oooh. Gin's playing the boss card?"

"Hey, it's about time, isn't it?" They both laughed and clinked glasses, happy that there was no screen between them for once. "I tell you, Ari… it's almost nice."

"Being the boss?"

Pepper managed to look smug and embarrassed at the same time. "Yeah." She sipped her wine and reached over for a salted caramel chocolate. "It is."

Ariel nodded, smiling. "Well, good for you. You deserve it. What's next?"

"Next?"

"Well, I assume there's always something next for the CEO of Stark Industries…"

Pepper laughed as she shook her head. "Well… there's a lot of business stuff… Tony's managed to alienate the military…"

"There's a shock."

"Right. I think we'll be okay, though. There's a lot of new technology that will be of public interest."

"Well, that's good, even if you sound like a brochure." Ariel tore off a chunk of the rosemary garlic bread and smeared it with brie. "So what's next that's not business?"

Pepper sighed. "We have to go to Monaco."

"Monaco?" Ariel nearly choked on her wine. "For what?"

"The Grand Prix. Tony's got – well, the company's got – a car in the race. You know how he loves cars and tinkering with engines. And evidently it's a thing that the CEO and all come to watch." She took a long swallow and shook her head, her voice flat. "I'm ever so excited."

Her friend giggled, although she tried not to. "Oh, I'm sure. Really, really expensive NASCAR, eh?" They both laughed, and Ari refilled their glasses. "At least Monaco is beautiful. Maybe a little vacation will be nice."

"True." Pepper swirled her glass and looked thoughtful. "Very true."

"Will you be taking your secret temporary assistant?"

"No, I don't have any legal reason to have her there…" She hesitated a moment. "I wonder who'll be there watching him if she isn't."


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The jet was streaming through a sky the color of the Mediterranean Sea at noon. Pepper stared out the window, completely failing to notice the beauty of it.

"This is a bad idea."

"So you've said. Multiple times."

She glanced over at Tony Stark, who was beginning to look a bit put out at her negativity. "I'm sorry, but as CEO –"

"As CEO I went every time. It's a weekend on the French Riviera, damn it. Just try to enjoy it." He stood up abruptly and walked angrily towards the back of the plane.

"Tony-" she started, but he was already gone. "Fine, now he knows how I felt all those years." She sat and frowned until her mind made her stand up, roll her eyes, and head back to where he was now sitting – in the back of the plane in a small crew seat, staring out the window. He looked, for all the world, as if he had been told to go sit in the corner. For a moment she watched, then walked past him to the kitchen.

Three minutes later she walked out with a two bottles of iced tea and a chlorophyll protein shake. She held the shake out to him. "Here."

He looked up at her, sulkily. "I had one before we left."

"Don't care. You're grumpy, and I know they help." Dark eyes darted up to hers, near anger. "Come on, Mr. Stark. You know we can't both be grumpy at once. We might cause some kind of temporal rift."

He didn't smile, but his eyes lost some of their defiance. "Fine." He took the shake, drank half of it in one go, and noticed she was still watching him. "You don't have to babysit me, I'll drink it."

"I know. I just wondered why this trip seems so important to you this year." She looked down uncomfortably. "Is it because I'm the CEO now? I know this is our first international outing, the world is watching… Are you having second thoughts?"

For a moment he looked confused, and then startled. "No. No, no second thoughts. Not about you. I just… well. It might be the last time." He paused, swirling his shake thoughtfully. "You know, finances, if the company had to sell off the engine division…" She frowned, and he shrugged. "I like racing. I like working on the modified engines."

"You just like fast, wherever you can get it."

"True."

She watched as he tapped a rhythm against the glass with his fingers, and wondered. "I noticed there was no suit on the manifest. Is it strange to travel without Iron Man?"

"Oh, have no fear, Iron Man is here." He waggled his eyebrows at her and they shared a quick grin, glad that things were slowly normalizing. "And so is the suit. Case in point." He chuckled and finished off his shake.

"I don't understand." Pepper sat down on the bench seat across from him and waited, holding out one of the bottles of tea.

His eyes were sparkling again as he took it and looked at her. "I finished it. It works."

Her frown lasted only a moment until it registered. "Oh! The mark… what mark are we on?"

Tony shook his head. "You never studied."

Her head tilted as she glared at him, but her eyes were bright. "Come on. I know we didn't buy thirty suitcases just so –"

"Twenty-seven."

"-fine, twenty-seven suitcases just so you could call it, oh, I don't know… the PSCSU." A brief giggle escaped before she repeated it phonetically. "Piskisoo."

His eyes widened. "The what?"

"Portable, Self-Contained SADIE Unit."

They watched each other carefully and narrowly avoided smiling outright. When he finally spoke, his lips were pinched rather tightly around the words.

"It's the Mark V. And the final suitcase was made by me, I'll have you know."

"Ah." She stood and picked up his glass to take to the galley, glancing back with a smile to add one more comment. "I'll make a note of that, Mr. Stark."

"Pepper?" His voice called after her, and she stopped, turning.

"Yes?"

Tony opened his mouth, closed it, and opened it again through a smile. "Thank you."

The warmth in his eyes made her tingle. "You're welcome, Tony."

Minutes later, as she walked back to her seat, he watched with a bit of a smirk, shaking his head. "Piskisoo." He looked thoughtfully toward the window, and then shook his head again, dismissively. "No. That's just silly."


oOo


It was the night before the race began, and they finally arrived quietly under a starlit sky. Traffic had swelled in the city for the race, not to mention the barriers that were up for the circuit itself. They checked into their rooms at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo and Pepper stood wearily as the valet opened the door to her suite, deftly carrying in her bags. "If you need anything, Ms. Potts, please don't hesitate to call. You are our valued guest."

Pepper smiled, and thanked him as she walked into the elegant, old world suite. A bottle of red wine, a tiered tray of fruits, chocolates and pastries, and three vases of red roses were arrayed beautifully in her living area. "Thank you. I'm sure everything will be lovely. Right now I just need a shower and some sleep."

After the valet left, she kicked off her shoes and fell backward onto the bed. But first, I need a couple minutes to decompress…

Abruptly the door opened, and she jerked up, resting back on her elbows when she saw who had brazenly invaded her privacy.

"You could have knocked, you know."

"I need you to see this."

"I mean, I just want a little rest before tomorrow-"

"This is important. Happy, bring that-"

"I could have been naked."

That caught Tony's attention, and he paused, looking at her as she reclined on the bed. "Well. My loss. Should I go out and come in again?"

She rolled her eyes in unison with Happy, who was walking in behind Tony, carrying a metallic suitcase in a familiar shade of red. With a sigh, she sat up and waited.

He paused, his head tilted to the side. "By the way. This is… classified."

Her heart lifted a bit. I'm still the confidant, no matter what else is going on. "So? What's so important that it couldn't wait until morning?"

Tony took the suitcase from Happy and put it on the floor in front of him. "This."

With a deft move and a smug expression on his face, Tony opened the case, thrust his fists down into gauntlets and stood, pulling the case up with him. It rapidly blossomed to cover his chest, and scales ran down his arms and legs, forming a version of the familiar armor. Iron Man stood proudly, and looked expectantly at Pepper.

"Red and silver?"

The armored man seemed to wilt a bit. "Yes, red and silver. It's the sports model."

Pepper nodded, walking around him slowly. "Is that strong enough? It looks thinner… will it protect you like the regular armor?"

Tony sighed. "Yeah, yeah, it's a lighter weight, but still, it's strong. It's impressive, right?"

"And how heavy is that case? I mean, it's got to be-"

The face shield swung up and Tony stared at her in exasperation. "It's got miniaturized repulsors. In the case. Activated by a key. Happy carries it." Happy reached into his pocket and took out a keychain, dangling it in the air. "So?" It took a moment for her to meet his eyes. "Could you be just a little impressed, Miss Potts?"

"Well of course I'm impressed. That goes without saying."

"It certainly seems to these days."

"I'm just worried about you… you know. Being safe." She reached out and ran a finger along the smooth scales of the Mark V, and the concern in her blue eyes got to him, as it always did.

"Pep, I'll be fine. This is just for emergencies. I'm probably not even going to need it here."

She looked at him, and then behind him at Happy, who shrugged. "Well, I hope not."


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The next morning was a series of press interviews, including one that required Pepper to practice her little-used French. It was well after noon when they returned to the Hotel de Paris and a flurry of activity. They stepped into the lobby, which was humming with excitement over the race.

Tony looked into the crowded room and turned rather abruptly to Pepper. "You know, it's Europe. Whatever happens the next 20 minutes, just go with it."

She stared at him and spoke softly, trying not to frown as she was aware of cameras all around them. "Go with it? Go with what?"

"Mr. Stark? How was your flight?" They both turned to see Natalie Rushman standing in front of them. A slight frown creased Pepper's brow as she opened her mouth to ask why she was there – but she never got the chance as Tony answered.

"Hey. It was excellent. Boy, it's nice to see you."

Pepper felt her jaw tighten as she realized what was going on. She spoke under her breath to Tony, through clenched teeth.

"When did this happen?"

Brown eyes claimed absolute innocence. "What? You made me do it. You quit."

All the closeness she had imagined in the last twelve hours drained out of her in a rush. "You are so predictable."

Her heart tightened in her chest as she watched Natalie doing her job. What had been her job. Before he promoted her… just to get me out of the way? So he didn't have to deal with whatever we were? Would he do that? She heard him compliment his new assistant, and bit her tongue. I wonder just how far Natalie is willing to go to keep her cover intact. A bit of flush colored her fair skin as they were led to their table. Unexpectedly, Tony was at her shoulder.

"You want a massage?"

"Oh, God. No, I don't want a massage."

"I'll have Natalie make an app-"

The words came out a bit sharper than she wanted them to. "I don't want Natalie to do anything."

For a moment, he looked at her with the guilty, anxious expression that made him frustratingly adorable. "I didn't mean to spring this on you."

But this time, it didn't work. Little frost crystals seemed to form in the air as she spoke. "Thank you very much." She avoided making eye contact, and he lifted an eyebrow.

"Green is not your best color."

"Oh, please."

Dinner passed in frosty silence for Pepper, at least until she couldn't stand keeping her act up anymore and excused herself for a moment. She was sitting at the vanity in the elegant ladies room, unnecessarily fixing her makeup, when a figure appeared behind her. She looked up into the mirror and saw the still eyes of Natalie Rushman.

"He didn't tell you."

"No."

Natalie sat down on one of the beautifully upholstered chairs and stared at her in the mirror. "He can be a real ass, you know." Their eyes held quietly until Natalie let a near grin escape, and Pepper ducked her head.

She chuckled as she took a deep breath. "I know."

"But you're still in love with him."

Pepper nearly dropped her mascara wand. "I never said that."

This time, Natalie looked away. "No. No, you didn't." Looking back, she said, "I'm sorry it was a surprise. I would have let you know. It'll be easier to keep an eye on him this way…" She shook her head minutely. "I wasn't trying to go behind you."

Pepper stared at her for a long minute, and finally nodded. "I believe you. I think what, well, what hurts, is that he went behind me. I just…"

"I know." Natalie stood, and squared her shoulders. "We okay here?"

The first sincere smile she had felt in an hour spread across Pepper's face. "We're good, Nat. Thank you."

With a military nod, the gorgeous redhead left her to finish getting herself together. Pepper stared into the mirror, shook her head, and glanced at her watch. "The race starts in half an hour… three more hours… I can do this for three more hours, right?" She thought of the woman who would be keeping an eye on Tony and couldn't help a resigned grin. Phil was right.


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