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The Addition of a Variable

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Chapter 1: The Unexpected Variable

Sunday, 26th November 2000

The shabby table in the small apartment’s kitchenette was full of half-finished bottles of hard liquor. Virginia Potts raised one of them without even checking the label and poured a glass generously first to her roommate, Jessie and then to herself.

“C’me on, Gin, you can’t tell me you don’t want to shag him!” Jessie exclaimed with a high-pitched giggle.

“Anyone who is even moderately attracted to guys would love to. Hell, one of my gay friends, Andy once told me that if she ever tried laying with a man then it could be only him,” she continued. Virginia – or Gin as Jessie usually referred to her – just rolled her eyes.

“He is not even that impressive,” she replied before she gulped down the content of the glass.

Whatever she poured so generously was as strong as she hoped but tasted like nail polish remover. Currently she didn’t care much, instead she poured another glass. However, she mentally reminded herself to be the one to restore their alcohol stash next time, as something less acidic would go down easier. Her attention was drawn back from the alcohol by Jessie’s baby blue eyes looking at her in horror laced with fascination.

“Wh-WHAT! Virginia Potts, have you seen your boss naked? I need your job,” Jessie practically shouted her roommate’s name but ended up hardly muttering the end of the sentence.

“You can have it,” Virginia replied with a half-smile. “I don’t want it myself anymore. Stark is nothing more than a privileged man-whore.”

When those words left her mouth, she was already regretting them a bit though. After a year of working for the man, she knew that he was much more than that. However, it was surprisingly hard to describe someone as eccentric and brilliant as Tony Stark to people who didn’t know him personally. Describing her job as his personal assistant was even harder. No one quite understood how close and distant he was at the same time with those who worked directly with him.

“Woh-ho! What did the douchebag do now?” Jessie asked pressing her lips together as if she was trying not to show her amusement.

As if on cue with a loud shrill Virginia’s mobile started ringing. Without even checking the caller (knowing that after midnight it was either Happy Hogan begging for his help or a drunk Tony Stark ordering her around) she picked it up.

“Miss Potts, I’m right outside your apartment complex. Could you come down? I need your help with the boss,” Happy asked and she replied swiftly. “Yes, of course.”

Jessie looked at her strangely. Her roommate was an aspiring movie starlet who on most nights was either doing some odd jobs that were supposed to help her get famous or out in the nightlife of LA ‘making important connections’. So Jessie never noticed if her roommate wasn’t home either because she was needed by her boss.

“So, tough job?” Jessie joked, but a look from her roommate sobered her up.

“Very tough. It certainly was not in my JD.”

Though she supposed that was not entirely true. Her job description did contain a comment or two that should have forewarned her of what was to come. A year ago, though she was wide-eyed and so damn happy at the possibility of moving up on the corporate ladder from a low-level administrative assistant who hardly did more than copy some documents to the personal assistant of the CEO and owner himself that she hardly cared.

Now she sometimes questioned herself if she made the right decision. On one hand, she got a glimpse of the real business world and got to be involved in cases with more zeroes on the paper than the amount of money she could even imagine. On the other hand, her current job was just as eccentric as her boss.

Hell, the worst part was that she only had such dark thoughts in the hardest moments when she hardly slept in days and she couldn’t remember having a non-work-related talk in weeks if one did not count Tony Stark’s extensive flirting. On most days when her mood turned sour, one nice or even slightly thoughtful comment from Tony could change it all. Honestly, it was the fact that he had such an effect on her that frightened her the most.

As she made her way down the stairs it was again that thought that made her decide that she was going to resign. It was most certainly not normal that she accepted having an undervalued position for some flashes of appreciation from her boss. She felt a fond irritation for him, but she suspected that just a bit of nurturing would result in unrequited feelings. She has known for a while that she had to get away from Stark Industries to protect her heart, but the time it took her to go down the four flights of stairs that was between Tony Stark and her apartment strengthened her belief.

One of his less flashy Audis was waiting outside. The windows were tinted so she could not make out the figures. She easily slipped next to Happy Hogan not surprised at all that Tony was behind them, though the lack of a female partner was indeed astonishing. Tony was in a flashy suit with a freaking sunglass on, no matter the fact that it was the middle of the night. She was a practical woman, so such a thing greatly annoyed her.

“Miss Potts tell Happy to take me back to the party,” he ordered surprisingly fluently for someone who was most probably drinking from sundown. She looked at the driver slash bodyguard who remained silent. Happy rarely called her during the night, so whenever he did, she knew it was better not to question him.

“Mansion,” was the only thing she said, and Tony, of course, started complaining about being kidnapped by his own staff and whatnot.

She needed but a week to learn to tune him out though. The journey from downtown Los Angeles to his mansion in Malibu was more than half an hour long and during that time Tony did not shut up for even a moment. The few times she cared to listen she learned that unsurprisingly before her there was another woman in the car (‘a leggy blonde’ as Tony put) who received a call from her nanny that her kid was sick, and she had to go home.

“She just left!”

She couldn’t help but roll her eyes at that. She knew that Tony had as hard time accepting not getting something he wanted. Sometimes she wondered if that restlessness was the reason why SI has become such an unstoppable force in the industry in his hands. One way or another Tony Stark always got what he wanted.

“Generally, parents care about their children’s health more than about a quick shag, Mr. Stark,” she couldn’t help her sarcasm at the formal address.

No matter how brilliant and influential the man behind her was, he often reminded her of a little kid. She supposed the saying that there was a fine line between genius and insanity was based on Tony Stark.

“But what am I supposed to do now?” he asked like he couldn’t imagine a night without a woman in his bed.

She didn’t even try to answer that. In the year she had been working for him she also learned that there were just battles she shouldn’t even engage in. Tony had a way of words, and while she usually enjoyed their verbal wars, she was too exhausted now to bicker. When Happy parked the car in front of the beautiful Malibu mansion, that still took her breath away every time she saw it, he looked at her seriously.

Dealing with Tony after a party was something Happy usually did alone. On most nights out he shadowed the billionaire, then took him and his escorts home. Her job usually started early in the morning when she had to make sure the girls left, and he was ready to work. She looked at the man next to her who had dark circles under his eyes. She supposed he called because he was simply too exhausted to deal with Tony anymore.

They could have just left Tony in the house, but even with alcohol blunting her mind, she knew his schedule perfectly. He had a very important meeting at nine o’clock, so he had to be presentable by then. She feared if she just left him here now, he would not be in the state to attend the meeting the next morning. No, knowing him he would drink all night instead of sleeping. She couldn’t ask Happy to babysit him even more, but someone had to stay at least a bit to make sure he got into bed.

“Just go home, you need some rest,” she told Happy.

She seriously needed resting too but she didn’t add that. She knew even when Jessie suggested a bit of girls’ night with drinking that it was a bad idea on Sunday. However, it didn’t occur to her that she couldn’t just fall into her bed when the alcohol knocked her out. Plus with both of their schedules being so packed, it rarely happened that they got to spend a night just hanging out, so she agreed. It was a mistake.

“You sure? How will you get home?” he asked uneasily.

“Don’t worry, I’ll call a cab,” she replied simply.

There were also six guestrooms in the house if she was too exhausted to go home. She even kept some emergency clothing in his house just like in her office because in her line of work, one couldn’t look bad. She prided herself of always looking ready to conquer the business world.

Happy shot her a thankful look. She needed only about five minutes to convince Tony that he should just go inside the house and not call a cab to take him back somewhere in the city. She was surprised that using the card of tomorrow’s meeting worked. Tony cared about the project happening it seemed. He was sitting already on the beige sofa when she entered the house after saying good-bye to Happy. Tony reached for a glass bottle on the coffee table full of rich amber liquid she didn’t know the exact content of, but she was sure it was something strong.

She sat down next to him. The sofa was surprisingly comfortable, it was not the type where the design was more important than the function. Though she supposed for a certain price the two could go together. On the sofa her mind wondered, and she came to the conclusion that this was the first time she wasn’t completely sober when she had to deal with Tony. She didn’t possess the same patience just now as she usually did. So she decided that letting him drink a few more glasses was an easier solution than taking it all away from him and forcing him into his bed just yet.

She couldn’t help but close her eyes for a moment. A loud “Potts!” made her open them. A glass full of the same amber liquid he was drinking was right in front of her eyes, as Tony was shaking it in front of her. She needed only a moment to realize that her boss wanted to share a drink with her. She took it with a small smile. These little moments were the reason she hadn’t resigned after a week like most in her position would have (and had done in the past).

“Thanks,” she muttered and took a sip.

The liquid was so strong it burned her throat, but the ache was a welcomed one because the taste was so rich. She wondered how much a glass of whatever it was, costed. Knowing Tony Stark, it was better she didn’t know, she decided even if she would have loved to have this stuff at home instead of whatever cheap liquor Jessie bought. Her musings were interrupted by the said delinquent.

“So, Pepper, what were you doing before Happy called you?” he asked conversationally. She couldn’t help but laugh out.

“You mean before you ruined my night?” she asked, and Tony grinned. “Oh, and my name is still not Pepper,” she added as an afterthought.

Indeed, it was an afterthought as Tony was right when he said she would get used to it when he gave her that nickname. Most of the people she directly worked with at Stark Industries were referring to her as ‘Pepper Potts’ by now, many not even knowing that Pepper was nothing more than a nickname made up by an irritating boss. She supposed she even liked it, simply because she was never fond of the name Virginia as she didn’t like being named after a state she had never lived in, especially one which was named after a virgin English queen. However, one of the first things she learned about Tony Stark was after she started working with him that fueling his ego was a bad idea. Oh no, she always made sure to remind him that she was not called Pepper.

“Ah, Miss Pepper Potts, doesn’t it sound delightful?” he asked leaning a bit closer to her than was necessary. Tony Stark was a flirt. However, a drunk Tony Stark flirted even more.

Her breath hitched. The thing was Jessie was not exactly wrong – there was something fundamentally charming about Tony Stark. He was far from the most handsome man she had ever seen, but there was something about the way he held himself that made pretty much every woman drop their panties without a thought as nothing more than an automatic reaction. She supposed being a genius and a billionaire did great things to one’s ego and confidence.

She always denied being one of ‘those women’ but her liquor-induced mind couldn’t help but come up with some fantasies. The fact that her ex had broken up with her more than six months ago (for ‘choosing her work over their relationship’) and she didn’t even have the time or the chance to go on a date let alone for more to happen certainly did not help those fantasies.

“Not something I’ll hear often soon enough. I’m resigning,” she replied off-handedly. Tony stiffened but then a lazy smile appeared on his face.

“Well, good for you – cannot do it though,” he said as if she was just making a stupid joke. Anger fueled by alcohol boiled in her.

“Of-of course I can!” she replied, and she abruptly stood up.

However, she was obviously at the point of alcohol consummation, where without any forewarning the booze suddenly affected her making the world spin. Tony stood up too and he put his hands on her waist steadying her. Now the world was spinning less, but Tony was directly in front of her. As usual, she was in high heels, so she was a bit taller than he was, but his dark eyes bore into hers directly.

“What’d I do without you, Miss Potts?” he mumbled, and she let out a high-pitched chuckle that she would have never made was she completely sober.

“Die, probably,” she replied because honestly, she found it surprising Tony had never forgotten about basic human necessities for long enough to die before she met him. She supposed Happy kept him alive though she wondered about the pre-Happy times. Has there been always a trusted employee around who made sure he didn’t forget to eat or sleep?

“Exactly! You don’t wanna have my death as your fault, do ya?” he asked, and she just shook her head fondly. It was a bad idea though because now the world around her was even shakier. His arms snaked around her waist pulling her closer. She swallowed to stop herself from reacting to his proximity.

“You know, Miss Potts, you are more beautiful than that blonde,” he muttered and now she couldn’t help but shudder as he ran a hand down her right thigh. 

This was where she should stop him. Tony was a flirt from the worst kind, but he was no jerk when it came to consent, he would get the memo if she just stepped away from him. However, Jessie’s words rang in her ears: “Anyone who is even moderately attracted to guys would love to shag him.” Standing in his arms she knew that no matter how deeply she had been denying it to herself and everyone around her, she was not an exception to this universal rule.

“I wasn’t kidding about quitting,” she replied shakily.

“Tomorrow, Potts,” he mumbled as one of his hands found its ways into her hair tugging the hair tie that held together her stiff ponytail. The result was her long strawberry blonde hair flowing freely around them.

“I’m quitting, you can’t order me around,” she replied with no intention of stopping whatever they were doing.

This was not professional at all and she often prided herself for being able to remain professional in dire situations as well. However, she easily stopped that annoying guilty little voice in her mind by reminding herself that she would no longer be Tony’s PA. Surely, using probably the last chance to do what most women would love to do was not a bad decision. She would be just another name on his long list of women but to her, it would be more than that – the Tony Stark, genius, playboy, billionaire and more importantly, the man that has plagued her mind for the last year.

“You sure of that? Potts, into my bed – now!”

In the end, she was right as they never made it to his bed. He kissed her first right after that, but they didn’t get further away than the sofa (knocking over the carafe filled with the alcohol in the process, but hardly even noticing it).

***

Monday, 27th November 2000

She was used to sending home the women he arrived with to the mansion. She never would have thought that one day she would be one of those girls though. She woke up to pounding headache completely naked on his beige sofa that was surely worth thousands of dollars. He was still out cold next to her snoring peacefully looking more innocent than she ever had seen him.

She quickly picked up the pieces of her clothing from the floor and dashed into the guestroom where she had stored her stuff. She then had a quick shower and in about half an hour she looked as professional as ever in a just above knee-length dark grey dress and her hair in a perfect bun, the make-up hiding the signs of an alcohol-filled night and not enough sleep. She quickly started the coffee maker and once the coffee was brewed, holding two cups of it she sat down on the sofa hoping to wake her (ex-)boss.

“Mr. Stark, you have to wake up – Happy will arrive in about ten minutes to take us to the office.”

Slipping back to the formal boss and employee roles was easier than should have been after what happened only a few hours earlier. She supposed no matter that there was no woman to escort outside just now the setting was still very familiar and this was part of her everyday job and routine. It took her another fifteen minutes (while sipping on her cup of coffee) to have Tony wake up.

“Ah, just another minute, Pepper.”

She rolled her eyes and gave the other cup to Tony not caring about his usual “I don’t like to be handed things” response. He was still utterly naked, and he didn’t seem to care at all that his assistant was sitting next to him fully clothed ready for the day. This was part of the job she never could explain to anyone.

“So, about last night Mr. Stark...”

She was usually very good at controlling her emotions, but she was nervous to bring up what happened between them. She felt hot and knew without a doubt that her pale skin was betraying her again, a blush creeping up her cheeks. Tony was until now staring in front of him as if studying the mug in his hands but now he turned in her direction.

“You cannot quit, Miss Potts,” he simply replied with his usual arrogance that made everything he said sound like an order. She gaped at him.

“That is not what I meant Mr. Stark. I wanted to talk about what happened between us thanks to the effect of alcohol we both consumed. I just wanted to apologize for losing my sense of decorum.” To her immense irritation, he started to laugh.

“Oh, come on Potts! We are two adults here who had a bit of fun. If you don’t sue me for sexual harassment and intimidation based upon power relations, we can just forget about it,” Tony easily replied. She nodded hesitantly. She was of course not planning on any lawsuits as nothing happened without her consent, but she still thought that having sex with her boss should warrant more than a simple laugh from the said boss.

“Of course, my plan of resigning from my position and quitting Stark Industries is still in motion. You will have the papers on your desk today,” she added in a rather detached tone finding a bit of strength in herself to slip back into her business persona. Tony frowned and put down his mug.

“I told you that you cannot quit, Miss Potts. Plus, I thought you didn’t want to talk about that but the sex. Maybe all you need to change your mind about this nonsense of resigning is a second round?” he simply asked, and she pressed her lips together not even thinking about answering his question. She stood up and took her mug to the kitchen, making her way to his bedroom only to come back with a stock of clothing for him.

“You reek of sex and booze so shower and then dress up,” she pointed at the clothing. “We will talk afterwards, Mr. Stark.”

To her surprise, he didn’t protest, and he disappeared in the general direction of one of the many bathrooms. She let out a sigh. They were only half an hour behind schedule which was pretty good by Tony Stark standards, better than most mornings, really.

She quickly picked up the pieces of the glass they broke, and the clothes Tony left behind and tried to clean their mess up while waiting for Tony. Happy found her in the middle of her stress-relieving cleaning, but he was smart enough not to comment on her mood or ask what caused it. Tony – probably the biggest genius on the planet right now – was not as smart of course.

“Happy, tell Miss Potts, she is being stupid. She wants to quit just because we had sex,” he ordered his bodyguard as he approached them while buttoning up his shirt.

She stiffened and felt the anger boiling in her. How did he dare to announce that to the world like it was nothing, and like it was not something completely private? She didn’t think of herself as a prude, she was most certainly a modern woman, but she certainly did not like her sex life being brought up in front of one of her colleagues while she was doing her job – especially if that sex life included her boss.

“I announced my resign before that happened actually,” she said completely emotionlessly and straightening her back.

She crossed her arms and met his eyes. Happy seemed like he wanted to be anywhere else than between the two of them and honestly, she felt bad for the bodyguard. It must have been uncomfortable being in the crossfire of a one-day surely legendary battle.

“Come on, Pepper! If I fired all the women I had sex with at my company only fifty-year-old greying ladies would remain, or I would be accused of sexism,” he replied with his usual acuteness and she once again felt the fond irritation she now associated with Tony.

She wondered if he really slept with so many of his employees or he just thought he was being clever with his response. She believed he was just being a smartass again as according to her observation, he usually found his one-night stands at parties and rarely had he appetite for anyone other than actresses or models. There had been a few reporters, scientists and even business partners in between, but that mostly only happened if there weren’t any models around.

“Great, then you should be happy as you haven’t fired me, I’m quitting. According to my contract, I have a month-long notice period, so don’t worry Mr. Stark, you will have time to find a replacement, she can start by the new year,” she answered promptly and gesturing towards Happy to get to the car.

There was a schedule to be maintained after all even if Tony was being an ass. She composed his agenda always leaving some leeway knowing that Tony Stark couldn’t follow any schedule perfectly, but if she never prompted him to hurry, even with the added flexibility nothing would come out of it.

“Utterly irrational, Miss Potts – how could I find a replacement for you in so little time? How can anyone replace those legs?” He pointed to her legs which she knew seemed endless in her new high heels she put on for the first time the morning before. This time her eye rolling was good-natured.

“J.A.R.V.I.S., look up the legal regulations of the company and find a way to make sure Miss Potts can’t quit,” Tony said to the air, but she knew that the A.I. was probably already doing what was asked of him.

“Of course, sir.”

With a huff, she exited the mansion and didn’t stop until she reached the car. She was more than ready to pen that notice after Tony’s stubbornness though she had to admit that somewhere deep-deep down she was touched by the fact that Tony still found her work essential even after she showcased such unprofessionalism as sleeping with him. She was somewhat surprised that he didn’t want to get rid of her as he usually did of his one-night stands in fear of them getting attached. She hated her heart for beating so rapidly at the idea that he thought more of her than his usual conquests even if it was for professional reasons. It still meant that he appreciated her more than any of those perfect Victoria Secret angels.

“Even an A.I. won’t find a way to stop me from quitting, Mr. Stark as I have the right to change jobs. I am also familiar with the content of my contract,” she reminded him once they were all seated in one of the many cars he owned. He looked thoughtful for a moment.

“I could just double your salary,” he said, and she couldn’t help but shake her head.

“You already pay me a lot of money – you were pretty out of it when you signed my contract, tripled the sum saying the original salary was too little for dealing with you,” she replied. Yes, her salary was never a problem. It was ridiculously high, really.

“I did? Huh, I always knew that there is never enough money to pay for people to handle me.”

She was surprised to hear a dull bitterness in his voice as if no matter the money he had and was willing to give away people kept leaving him. She suddenly felt sorry for not only him, but for doing the same as well, becoming one of the many. If he said the exact same thing but the night didn’t happen, she surely would have just withdrawn her termination, but how could she continue being his PA when they had sex? That memory – even if it was rather hazy thanks to the alcohol – would always stand between them and a real professional working relationship, wouldn’t it? Honestly, she was not sure as she had no previous experience with such a situation. However, if she was afraid of her heart’s state before yesterday, after the sex, she was even more worried. Obviously, she couldn’t trust herself when he was around.

“I am really sorry Mr. Stark, but after what happened between us last night, I do not believe I am the right person for this job. It was very unprofessional of me. Please, accept that,” she said with clear determination in her voice. “I will handle finding the right replacement, of course, you will just have to choose from the selected candidates.”

She hated job hunting, but she knew that she needed a new workplace just now before her heart was permanently taken by someone who would never want it. She needed a job where she could keep the three feet distance and where she wouldn’t get so emotionally attached to a playboy billionaire genius.

***

Wednesday, 20th December 2000

Between her usual work, trying to find her replacement, looking for a new job, keeping Tony out of trouble when everyone was in a party mood thanks to Christmas and getting him to accept that she was quitting for real Virginia Potts was truly exhausted. Currently, she was sitting in her office with another candidate in front of her. The girl, Sarah, was about the same age she was. She had dark brown long hair in perfect curls and big brown eyes, she was also skinny and curvy, with her blouse being just a bit tight emphasizing that she was very talented in the breast department. She even had those pouty lips the playboy billionaire seemed to love. Virginia was pretty sure that the girl would be hired on the spot if Tony saw her. She couldn’t help being a bit judgmental of Sarah because of that.

 “You do not have any previous experience as PA.”

It was no question, but of course, the girl already started on a lengthy explanation. She leaned closer to the desk as if the physical closeness meant that Virginia would understand her lack of experience better and the PA was hit by the girl’s strong perfume’s scent. It was the sickeningly sweet type of perfume she never liked, but now it was more than that. Automatically she reached for the bin just under her desk, but the moment she had it in her hands she was already vomiting in it. The girl abruptly stopped talking.

“Are you okay?” she asked awkwardly. “I could come back later if you are not feeling well,” she offered, and all Virginia could say was: “Please.”

Sarah stood up and grabbed the folder she came with and left abruptly with a half-wave and while saying that she was going to call to set a new interview up. Virginia had half a mind to call the sushi place where she had her lunch, but then a more important problem came into her mind. She had lunch with Tony – she had to check if her boss got food poisoning too. If he was sick, she would have to reschedule his appointments after all and set up a completely new agenda for the upcoming days.

The office right next to hers belonged to Tony. She didn’t knock knowing that Tony currently was not supposed to have a meeting, and as his babysitter slash personal assistant she often checked up on him, so it was not unusual for her to appear unannounced. When she walked in, he was sitting by his desk watching something on the screen of his computer.

“Ah, Miss Potts, I did not expect to see you just yet. Mrs. Smith said that you were interviewing your potential replacement. Complete waste of time though, because no one can compare to you,” he said with his usual confident grin. Before she could reply there was knocking on the other door which led to the reception area and after a “Come in!” the secretary, Mrs. Smith appeared with a cup of coffee.

“Mr. Stark, Miss Potts,” the elderly woman greeted them and put down the cup on Tony’s desk before turning to the PA.

“A coffee Miss Potts?” she asked but just as Tony was raising the cup Virginia was once again assaulted by a strong smell, this time by Tony’s black coffee.

Not wanting to destroy another perfectly fine bin and not feeling like getting sick in front of her boss, she put her right hand on her mouth and practically ran out of the office directly to Tony’s private restroom. Luckily, she reached the toilet just in time. After the bin incident she didn’t think there was anything else to throw up, but she still spent awfully long time bending over the loo.

Leaving the toilet was awkward though. She noticed that Tony didn’t have the cup in front of him anymore. He was already working again but he looked up once she reached him.

“Do you feel okay, Miss Potts?” he asked surprisingly nicely. She nodded half-heartedly.

“I think the sushi we had didn’t agree with me. Do you feel well?” she questioned him, and he shrugged.

“Told you that you shouldn’t eat that shrimp nigiri sushi, it looked strange,” he replied, and she nodded easily. Her attention then was caught by the table of numbers on his screen and she swiftly asked after his impression of the report he was studying. She later noted with satisfaction how the food poisoning she had was quickly over.

That night was probably the first time in weeks she was at home the same time as her roommate, Jessie. While she felt better after the sushi-incident (as she labelled it), she decided to cut her usual ludicrously long hours a bit shorter. The said roommate was currently parading around the living room of their shared apartment in a ridiculously short red dress that highlighted her perfect curves but left about nothing to the imagination. Her blonde hair was in a classic updo and if Virginia was not so damn exhausted then she would have felt a bit jealous of the blonde who looked like she stepped out of a fashion catalogue while she looked like a complete mess.

Jessie popped down next to her on the couch abruptly. “Uh, I so don’t want to go,” she said miserably which surprised the other girl.

From the little conversation, they had recently most of it had been about this party. Jessie scored an invitation to a Christmas party hosted by some hotshot up-and-coming movie director and she had been telling Virginia how this was her big chance to get a life-changing role. Honestly, Virginia had heard the same being said about other events before, so she wasn’t sure about that, but she didn’t voice her opinion. Instead, she happily listened to Jessie rambling about all the important people in the show business who were bound to show up at the party.

“Why?” she asked incredulously. Jessie frowned.

“I’m dying,” she said and the added, “Period pains.”

Ah, that certainly explained just about everything. Virginia froze though because a thought occurred to her. Jessie’s period always happened about two weeks after her own, but no matter how much she was trying to remember her own period in December, she just couldn’t. She paled at the thought as thanks to the birth control pill she was taking every day ceremoniously her period was supposed to occur just about precisely in every twenty-eight days. The only reason for missing it would be…

No, she wouldn’t even entertain that thought, it was not possible. She was taking the pills perfectly, always making sure to have them the same time every day. Still, no birth control method was a hundred percent safe, she knew that much, she was the type to research such a topic thoroughly. Surely, she was not the unlucky one of the statistics though? To make it worse the only man she had been in months was her soon to be ex-boss who was one of the most well-known playboys of the country. She wasn’t even sure she knew what to think about the ridiculously ‘wealthy, smart and eccentric’ part.

“You okay, Gin? You look deathly pale,” Jessie stated, and Virginia slowly nodded.

She was surely just exhausted and that was the reason why she couldn’t remember her period. Not to mention that she had a highly stressful job, she could have easily just missed it because of all the problems she recently had. Yes, there was no reason why she should suspect such an unlikely explanation as pregnancy. She was too wasted that night a month ago to remember such detail if Tony used a condom but knowing her boss who hated responsibility and who as a playboy billionaire was always in paternity lawsuits (everyone and their mothers wanted to have his kids for the sake of fame and money) she couldn’t imagine him being so careless.

“I’m okay, just a bit tired, lots of work, you know. Tony has disappeared for the night in his workshop and business is slow thanks to the upcoming holidays so I might actually get some sleep today,” she simply answered with a faint smile.

There was no way of course that after so many women who wanted to get pregnant with Tony’s child turned out to have kids with other men instead, she would be the one who ruined Tony’s perfect childless record. No, she was just being paranoid, she was sure of it.

***

Thursday, 21st December 2000

The next morning, she was less sure of her supposed paranoia as she was woken by severe nausea which screamed ‘morning sickness’ even if all she knew about pregnancy came from romantic comedies and trashy books. This time she couldn’t even reach the toilet soon enough instead she had to vomit in the kitchen sink.

Luckily, Jessie’s party must have been a real blast because she wasn’t yet home. Honestly, she had no idea how she would have explained this to her roommate. After cleaning the sink, she sat down on the cold tiles of the bathroom as she was not yet over the nausea.  She decided to stay close to the toilet as she still felt quite sick to the stomach, though this time she was close to crying as well.

Her right hand slipped to her belly automatically, but there was nothing there to feel. As she was sitting there on the floor with her hand around her flat belly, she was quite certain that it was not the shrimp that caused this. As if taunting her a box of unopened tampon was sitting on the top of the washing machine, the brand she used and not Jessie.

She stood up and swiftly crossed the tiny bathroom. In the highest bathroom cabinet, Jessie and she had a calendar, she grabbed that and started studying it. She noted that this month held no signs at all – probably Jessie hadn’t marked her period just yet and she was reminded of the fact that she had missed hers. Turning back to the previous month she found her own writing with red on 12th November. She had to close her eyes when she saw that – it meant that she was about two weeks late. Worse, thanks to all the paperwork required on her part she knew well that she officially handed in her notice on the 27th November meaning that the night before when she had sex with Tony was circa two weeks after her last period. If she remembered anything at all from all the SexEd classes she had in her life, she very well could be like – she did the math quickly – six weeks pregnant. She closed the cabinet door on the calendar forcefully like putting it away and getting rid of the evidence would just stop this from potentially happening.

It was a workday, but she was not sure how she was supposed to go to work after such thoughts occurred to her. How could she look into Tony Stark’s eyes and not break down crying?

“Honey, I’m home!” She heard Jessie’s cheerful voice. Virginia couldn’t reply instead she was silently sobbing on the cold bathroom tiles like the hot mess she was. Their apartment was not big enough to hide so she wasn’t surprised when Jessie opened the bathroom door only a few minutes later.

“Ah, there you are!” she said enthusiastically but one look at her roommate’s face was enough to ruin her mood as well based on her changing expression.

Jessie sat down next to Virginia in that tiny piece of clothing that was her sexy red dress putting her arm around the other girl who now had tears running down her face. They were sitting on the floor for about ten minutes before Jessie spoke up.

“Do you want to talk about it, Gin?” she asked softly, and her roommate shook her head. It was another few minutes later that Virginia decided that it would be better if she talked about it.

“I think I’m pregnant,” she muttered, and Jessie stiffened.

“I didn’t know you had slept with anyone recently,” she said cautiously. It was indeed true. Virginia convinced herself that having sex with Tony was a good idea with such arguments as to how great of a story it would be, but the truth was, it was something she didn’t feel comfortable sharing – not even with Jessie.

Maybe it was the professional personal assistant part of her, or her loyalty towards Tony and the Stark Industries was still strong but now that there might be a baby involved the idea of telling anyone who the only candidate for the father post was, had made her even more uncomfortable.

If she really was pregnant and the story leaked, no matter if she decided to keep the baby or not, it would be all over the media. That was not something she wanted, not for herself, but not for Tony or the company either and especially not her baby if she was to have it. If she was pregnant it had to be something between the two of them only, she decided. It was not that she didn’t trust Jessie, but she decided that repeating the same story to everyone (except for Tony who obviously would know better and Happy she supposed) would be safer.

“Adam from Legal asked me out for a drink last month, we got drunk, had a good night, I thought that it might turn into something but the next day I learned he was married, so that was all,” she simply said though she was not sure how believable her story was because she was always a bad liar. Tony even told her that he wanted her as his PA for that exact reason when the whole story with the pepper spray happened.

She supposed if she really was pregnant, she would have to practice telling her little tale so it would sound more believable. However, just now she had the pass of being upset, so she didn’t think Jessie suspected that the story was made up on the spot. Honestly, she had no idea if there was a married Adam at Legal as Stark Industries had thousands of employees. She didn’t feel bad for naming anyone though because she knew that her reluctance to provide further details would discourage people to investigate the story and look up the supposed father as she obviously didn’t want to do anything with him.

“Remember my pregnancy scare a few months ago? I brought home like a dozen pregnancy tests, but used only two or three, so I just stashed all the remaining ones in one of the outs of the way cabinets. I think you should check – maybe you’re upset over nothing.”

Virginia was eternally grateful then for having a friend like Jessie who even knew what she was going through having the same happening to her not too long ago. She nodded while wiping away her tears. Jessie opened first one cabinet door and then another. She needed only about two minutes to turn around with like five long boxes in her hands. She was thoroughly studying them.

“Okay, so none of them has expired, but as all of them are different brands we should check the description of all, there might be some differences and we don’t want faulty results.”

Virginia nodded through her tears. Between the two of them, it was not a long process. While some of the brands varied in the length of waiting time and had different methods to show the results, all were the very basic ‘peeing on the stick’ kind. Once she had four of the sticks on a piece of toilet paper on the sink Virginia sat down on the floor again with Jessie following her suit.

“What if – what if they are positive?” Virginia asked softly. Jessie started stroking her roommate’s hair as if Virginia was a small kid in need of comfort.

“Well, then there are all three options available still – keep, adopt or abort. It wouldn’t be the end of the world.”

Virginia knew this of course. Still, on paper and in theory it was completely different. She always prided herself of being a feminist and she thought that if she ever faced an unplanned pregnancy the choice would be obvious. As someone exceptionally organized something that was not in her plans just wouldn’t do, it couldn’t happen. Yet, now on the cold floor with the tests on the edge of the sink, for the first time the choice did not seem obvious at all. She knew most certainly that if she carried the baby for nine months, she wouldn’t be able to give them up. So, there were just two real options – both frightening in their own ways.

“What would you have done if you were pregnant?” she asked so softly that she was surprised when after a long moment Jessie answered. She didn’t think her friend heard her.

“Go straight to an abortion clinic and then chicken out, decide to keep the baby only to realize what a failure I am and then give up the kid so a normal family could bring him up,” Jessie gave an oddly specific answer which suggested to Virginia that her roommate a few months ago had her thoughts running wild the same way she was experiencing now. She wondered if Jessie had ever spent dreamless nights wondering about ‘what ifs’ since the day she learned it was a false alarm.

“You’re stupid, you’d make a great mom,” she insisted. The only answer she received was a bitter chuckle.

“C’mon, between the two of us you are the mature and successful one, that’s a fact. Tony fucking Stark has been wailing like a kid for a month for losing you as his PA.”

Virginia wanted to point it out that if she were such a collected adult, she wouldn’t be sitting on the bathroom floor just now but be on her way to work, but she remained silent. The fact that if she was indeed pregnant it would be by the said boss kind of proved to Virginia too that she was not the perfect mature mother-material as Jessie thought.

“Could you really give up the baby?” she asked instead imagining signing away a baby she had just given birth to. No, no matter what the test said she decided adoption just not for her. She looked at Jessie who pressed her lips together.

“If I knew that the baby would be cherished? Yes. I barely make enough money for one person, Gin. I can hardly pay half of the rent, if it wasn’t for you, we would’ve lost this place a long time ago. I’m a mess. Sure, if the baby daddy was a billionaire and I didn’t have to give up my dreams for some underpaid nine to five monotonous job while not being afraid that my kid won’t have anything to eat the next day it would be different, but you know that the potential father was Danny, never more than an extra, Andrews.”

Virginia nearly stopped breathing at the ‘billionaire baby daddy’ part. To her so far, the fact that if she was pregnant it was Tony Stark’s baby seemed like an added obstacle, a problem and not a solution. Really, she thought ‘Adam from Legal with a wife’ as the father would be a simpler situation. It was strange to hear Jessie talking about such an outcome as a positive one.

“Isn’t it time?” she asked awkwardly not knowing what to reply.

She was not sure if she was ready to know the result, but she knew that sooner or later they would have to get up. Jessie had some fizzy drink commercial to shoot at twelve if Virginia remembered correctly and she should have already been on her way to work. She was still not sure how she could survive this workday no matter the outcome, but that was a problem for later.

Jessie checked her watch. “The quicker ones should surely be ready by now and the longer ones might be too.”

Virginia nodded hesitantly. She slowly got up from the floor feeling not only nauseous but dizzy as well. As the world was spinning around her, she grabbed the edge of the sink to support her. She closed her eyes for a moment before she dared to look.

She saw the tests but honestly at first, they made no sense to her, her mind was completely blank. Then suddenly the information shown reached her mind: ‘pregnant’, plus sign, two lines. From the four sticks, she ended up using there was not even one that didn’t imply in some ways that there was a baby growing in her tummy currently. She suddenly felt violently sick and dashed to the toilet hugging the cool white porcelain as if it was the only thing holding her together. While she was retching Jessie must have checked the results herself, because once Virginia flushed the toilet her friend just silently hugged her while she wept.

“It’s going to be okay,” Jessie repeated like a mantra. Virginia was not so sure. “We are just going to book an appointment for you to an OB/GYN and go through the options.”

Options. That one word made the whole thing a lot more real for Virginia than all the plus signs together. Options meant that as an adult she would have to make a mature decision over life and death because there was a baby growing inside her that a few weeks ago was only a few cells but in a few months’ time, would be a functional human being. Well, a human being that would need to be looked after, but the same was true for Tony freaking Stark, so she supposed it still counted.

“I-I can’t go to work today,” she muttered into the fabric of Jessie’s dress which she probably ruined with her tears. She hoped that the dress didn’t cost Jessie too much.

“You should text your boss, write that the sushi wasn’t bad, but you have a stomach bug and you are terribly ill today,” Jessie suggested, and Virginia nodded lifelessly.

She felt too upset to even react to the irony in Jessie’s ‘stomach bug’ excuse. In the end, she was shepherded into her room to take a nap and Jessie took her phone and wrote the text instead. Virginia couldn’t even imagine ever facing Tony Stark again and she was glad Jessie took it upon herself to alert him of the absence of his sick PA because even the idea of writing something that he was to read seemed frightening for now.

She spent hours in her bed silently weeping, sometimes even shaking from the endless flow of tears. She was laying in the bed in a fetal position hugging her pillow as if her life depended on it. Jessie checked on her ceremoniously, but then she had to leave for her shooting promising to bring some food with her when she came home.

Instead of getting sleepy from all the crying she became restless from the hours spent in bed. She got up and reached for her mobile calling the one person most women in her current position would turn to – her mother. Her mother always had Thursday afternoons off, so she wasn’t surprised when the call was answered.

“Hi, darling. Got the afternoon free? Never thought that would happen,” her mother enthusiastically greeted her.

“Hi M-mom,” she replied as she sat down on the edge of her bed.

“What’s the problem, honey? Are you hurt?” Obviously, from one short sentence, her mother had caught on that she was upset.

“No-no… I’m pregnant, Mom,” she replied, forcing out the words knowing that it wouldn’t get easier if she waited any longer. Her mother remained silent for a moment. She impatiently waited for an answer though honestly, she didn’t know what she wanted to hear.

“You don’t sound happy, honey. Do you consider it bad news?” she softly asked and now it was Virginia who was unable to reply.

When she was young, she always imagined that one day she would have kids. She didn’t know the specifics other than that it would happen after she was married, but it seemed like the mature adult thing to do, part of life. Then she grew up and found herself being an independent woman and suddenly the thought of having children and a great career at the same time didn’t seem to work. She thought that she was too ambitious to spend her days changing diapers and wiping off drool. Children after that realization were just not part of the plan.

“I decided during college that I wouldn’t have children,” she answered carefully. Her emotions were not to be trusted right now so she wasn’t about to reply directly to the question.

“You know that your father and I would support you no matter what. You are an adult, honey, it’s your decision. Think about it though and give it some time. It’s not a decision you should make overnight,” her mother advised her. “Don’t worry darling, we will work this out during the holidays.”

Honestly, she was not sure how they could ‘work it out’, but just telling it to her mother and hearing her reassuring words calmed her down somewhat. She felt like a child again who got in trouble and felt too young and inexperienced to find a solution herself, instead turning to her mother who was able to always save her and find the right answer to the problems.

“I-I don’t know what to do, Mom,” she muttered not sure if she even wanted her mother to hear her words. Admitting defeat was not something she was good at.

“Oh, sweetheart, it’s okay to feel that way. I promise you, after some days at home things will get better. By the new year, you’d know what to do.”

Virginia believed her mother then. That very moment the idea of a solution seemed unimaginable, but like a little girl still awed by her parents, she felt that she could trust her mother’s words. The new year seemed so close and yet so far at the same time.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2: The Expression with the Addition

Saturday, 6th January 2001

The A.I. let her in without a question probably having sensed that Virginia was on a mission. She was determined to go through with it. As she took the first steps, she clenched her fists, and straightened her back. She didn’t meet her replacement as she crossed the house, which meant that the poor girl still thought that it was a regular nine to five job. She wondered how long it would take until the new PA learned her lesson. Not more than another week, she decided.

“J.A.R.V.I.S., does my code for the shop still work?” she asked the A.I. as she took the first steps down the staircase towards the workshop.

“Yes, Miss Potts. Mr. Stark is certain that you will withdraw your resignation, so your clearance hasn’t changed with the end of your official notice period.”

So, maybe J.A.R.V.I.S. only let her in, because she was authorized to enter any time she wanted. It didn’t falter her determination. Instead she couldn’t help but roll her eyes. Though deep down she liked how Tony remained adamant that she should be his personal assistant. It also made her job just now easier, though she knew once she blurted out her reason for her visit, he would permanently change his mind. She was certain that this would be the last time they saw each other which was a sobering thought. As she crossed the marvelous living room of the mansion, she couldn’t help but take another look at everything. However, the moment her eyes landed on the beige sofa that caused this bizarre situation she quickened her steps. She didn’t need the memories that surfaced at the thought of what exactly happened there about two months ago. She was wasted that night, but not drunk enough to forget everything.

“Thank you, J.A.R.V.I.S. Please inform Mr. Stark that I’m here.”

At that moment she certainly didn’t possess the tolerance to bear Tony not even noticing her which happened whenever he got lost in his work. No, she wanted to be over with this conversation as soon as possible. She was hardly brave enough to have it in the first place. She has been giving herself pep talks for the last week and she nearly chickened out at least twice. It was now or never, she decided.

The A.I. system didn’t trick her, because she easily accessed the workshop so few could ever enter. She caught sight of Tony and she couldn’t help, but frown as he looked like he hadn’t left the workshop in days at least. He was all sweaty, his T-shirt had various sized and shaped spots and holes on it, his beard wasn’t trimmed, and he had awful dark circles under his eyes. Obviously, the new PA hasn’t learned yet either that she was responsible for pushing Tony into taking care of himself. The job description of the position should be more detailed.

“Pepper,” he called out more enthusiastically than ever before.

He rarely liked to see her, because she always pushed him into attending events and meetings he didn’t want to. She supposed that as she wasn’t his PA anymore, her visit meant something different to him. Maybe on some level he genuinely liked her as a person or at least appreciated all the work she had done for him. The thought made her nauseous knowing that in a few minutes his enthusiasm would lessen.

“Mr. Stark,” she acknowledged him with professionalism as she approached him. He put down some sort of device he was holding and wiped his hands in a rag that laid on the bench next to him. It was always interesting to see this side of Tony Stark as the general public could only ever see him as a successful CEO or as a billionaire playboy in designer suits. She often wondered which of those personas was the real Tony. She suspected that while it was a mix of all three, tinkering his machines made him happier than stuffy meetings or parties.

“I think the new PA, Kirsten, pretty much hates me already,” he pouted like a little kid. “I want you back, Miss Potts.”

Just as Virginia reached him, she sat down on a stool next to the workstation where Tony must have been tinkering before she arrived. She needed to take a few deep breaths before she could tell him the reason of her visit. The smell of the machine oil hit her fueling her nausea. She wanted this all to be quickly over, before she lost her lunch too, but at the same time she still wasn’t prepared to face the consequences of the truth.

“Her name is Christine,” she replied as she crossed her arms. While she supposed it was important for Tony to remember at least the name of her replacement, it was her way of stalling. She needed another moment to get herself together.

“Really? Are you certain?” he asked with a contemplating look.

The biggest genius on the planet couldn’t remember the name of his assistant. That thought calmed her down a bit. Suddenly Tony didn’t seem so frightening. He was just another guy even if his name was written on several buildings. Well, not just another guy, she supposed, because he was the only that knocked her up. The father of her child – the thought made her even more nervous though she didn’t believe that was possible. She needed this to be over with already. It wasn’t like she didn’t know how he would react. She had been around him for long enough to know his view on the paternity cases presented to him.

“I’m pregnant,” she blurted out. Being straightforward seemed in this situation the simplest solution for both parties in her opinion.

Tony, who returned to the workstation and picked up the discarded device while she remained silent, turned around with such haste that he practically threw away the piece of metal. The device landed with an enormous bang making her shudder. Tony’s eyes were wild, and the effect of the sleepless nights were even more pronounced this way. She should talk to the new girl.

“W-what did you say?”

The way he said those words made Virginia sure that he didn’t want to hear the same sentence repeated. However, it was the truth and it wasn’t something to just take back when voiced. She knew that even if she took it back it was too late as she has already ripped off the band-aid. It was out in the open and nothing could change that. Even if she had decided not to keep the baby, it was something that changed their relationship forever. She was pregnant with his baby.

“You knocked me up in November,” she simply replied as confidentially as she could, given the circumstances. “I’m about eight weeks along, the baby is coming in August.”

She placed her right hand on her tummy. She didn’t show yet at all, but she knew that in a month or two the whole world would be able to see her little secret that currently was just the size of a kidney bean. She didn’t expect Tony to react well, but the hurt clearly displayed in his dark eyes was maddening. He didn’t seem angry, instead he was sad which she didn’t understand at all.

“I never expected you to be that type of woman, Potts,” his voice was quiet, but strong.

He crossed his arms and leaned against the counter like he needed the support. He looked at her with such intensity she could barely meet his eyes. Suddenly she felt like she had done something awful and caused him pain, even though the situation they faced was certainly both of their fault as they were both willing participants of the act that resulted in this conversation. It wasn’t like she forced him to have sex with her or that she got pregnant on purpose. However, she supposed he might think that she did want to have his child just to trap him like so many women tried. She crossed her arms as well as if it helped keeping herself together. It didn’t work, but it wasn’t the right moment to break down even if her hormones have been toying with her ever since the start of her pregnancy.

“Before you start accusing me of being a gold-digger, let me tell you, Mr. Stark that I did not plan on having children at all, and certainly not with someone who sleeps with different women every day. I have been taking the pill daily, precisely at the same time, but no contraceptive method is hundred percent safe other than not having sex at all,” she ranted.

He remained eerily silent which was unlike the Tony Stark she knew. He always cut everyone off like only he had the privilege to rant. She took a deep breath, and waited for him to respond, but he didn’t answer. He just looked at her with disdain. Great, her baby daddy clearly hated her guts and thought she was the worst gold-digger ever. She must have been a lot worse in his eyes than the other women who presented him their pregnancies because they had known each other for a year instead a day.

“You obviously have some things to say to me, so just do it,” she told him.

She was angry. The silence felt heavy between them. She knew that whatever he was going to say would hurt, but she had to know what he thought about all this. She was great with worst case scenarios, so it couldn’t be worse than what she was currently imagining. Whenever she thought about this conversation, she imagined some shouting but certainly not silence. She would have been more comfortable with simple anger than this twisted hurt she saw displayed on his face.

“You know, Pepper, I thought you were different. I thought I could trust you, but clearly, I was wrong.”

That hurt more than it should have, after all Tony Stark was simply her ex-boss, nothing else. It wasn’t like her boyfriend didn’t want anything to do with her when he knocked her up. It was just a cliché one-night stand with her boss. Though part of her knew that it wasn’t the complete truth. After all she resigned because she was developing unhealthy feelings for the said boss. It didn’t occur to her until now though that thanks to those feelings, she would be upset by his expected rejection to the idea of having a baby with her. The stupid pain she felt made no sense to her practical mind as she knew Tony Stark was not going to be happy when another paternity case was presented to him. At least pregnant women were expected to have some irrational moments, so she had that excuse.

“Look, Tony, I decided to keep the baby not because I know for certain that you are the father, but because I got attached to him so quickly, I just couldn’t get myself to abort him. Honestly, I don’t care at all about the other fifty percent of the baby’s genes just about the ones he gets from me. I just always thought that the guy providing the remaining DNA is supposed to at least know about his contribution. I don’t need or want anything from you, I simply felt that you ought to know.” She was once again surprised that Tony didn’t cut her off. He was far from patient after all. His expression didn’t lighten, so her monologue didn’t help much.

“Was I the only one you informed then?” he asked with a sardonic grin that she never liked on his face.

She kind of expected the question in some form, but it still made her somewhat mad. After all he told her he wanted her as his PA because of her inability to lie. Did he expect her to lie about such a big thing? Especially as it was so easy to prove right or wrong? Nowadays a bit of sample was enough to prove paternity after all.

“I don’t sleep with different people every day, Mr. Stark. There certainly was no one else to inform, because I have been working twenty-four seven in the last year.” She was getting mad. She should have known that she couldn’t remain calm for the entire conversation.

“Great. As you intended, you informed me, Miss Potts, so please leave me now. My PA, Christine, is going to be here any minute. I have work to do,” Tony abruptly said.

She felt hollow somehow. She didn’t expect this visit to end any better, but while imagination might be more spectacular, reality always hurt more. She nodded.

“It was an enlightening conversation, Mr. Stark. Thank you for your time,” she replied as she swiftly got up and started walking in the direction of the door.

Deep down she hoped to hear him speak up, telling her to stop and talk some more about this situation, but of course, it didn’t happen. She couldn’t keep herself from looking back for a second and she saw him already again working on something like the last ten minutes had never happened. She was surprised that he let her leave without having to sign anything. If she was anything like the women he referred to, she could go and knock on the door of the first tabloid agency selling her story for lots of money. She supposed it didn’t even occur to him just now, but while she didn’t even hope to hear from him ever again, she certainly expected a call from his legal team. She knew this wasn’t the end of the story.

***

Monday, 22nd January 2001

His large office with the endless view through the floor-length windows seemed too small and sufficing now for Tony when his secretary, Mrs. Smith announced his personal lawyer, Mr. Crawley. The man wore a perfectly tailored dark suit with a matching but not conspicuous tie as always when they met. He was tall with narrow shoulders and a disappearing hairline. His eyes seemed huge behind the glasses that magnified them.

“Mr. Stark, you were rather vague on the phone. How can I help you?” he asked after a swift exchange of greetings.

 Mrs. Smith also left with the promise of bringing back some coffee. Tony sat down in his chair and then he pointed at the one in front of the desk. The lawyer took place as well and he put down the large dark suitcase that he always had with him.

“I would like to inform you about a potential… paternity case,” Tony said with some hesitation. He hated this whole situation. He was Tony Stark, so he was above nervousness. He leaned back in his chair and ran a hand through his hair.

He noticed that the lawyer straightened his back. Tony supposed he sounded more nervous about the topic than he usually did. It was something that often came up between the two of them. As the majority owner of a publicly held Fortune 500 company and a known playboy, he was often the desired baby daddy of every women he every had a relationship and more. The funniest cases were when he knew for certain that nothing that could led to a baby happened between him and the woman. Some people were desperate.

He knew that the lawyer was surprised because the women claiming him as father of their children rarely had the chance to inform him directly of the situation. Mr. Crawley usually knew about these claims way before Tony did. Most of the times Tony just sat back hardly remembering the case even happening while his legal team handled the complete hassle. He was paying them lots of money to work these situations out. He had more important things to do – like being the CEO and the Head of R&D of a conglomerate at the same time.

“This time it’s a bit different as the woman in question is my previous PA, Virginia Potts,” he replied nearly stumbling over the name, having always thought about the redhead as Pepper Potts.

The lawyer seemed unimpressed for a second, but he quickly took control over his facial expression. Tony supposed Mr. Crawley didn’t like office relationships, or simply he understood that this time the situation was a bit more delicate as it involved an employee of SI and someone very close to Tony’s life. Maybe the lawyer foresaw in his mind the potential headlines: “Heated Moments in the Office – Tony Stark Knocked Up His PA” or “The Truth About Stark Industries – Baby Mommy Shares All”

“I see. I need more details though. Is there any difference to the previous cases other than the fact that the mother-to-be is an ex-employee of Stark Industries?”

Tony never had any problem with talking about sex, but he knew that his lawyer did. On the other hand, he was always somewhat uneasy during these meetings fearing that one day there might come a claim that was proven true. So these possible paternity conversations were always painfully awkward to both parties.

“She is…”

Honestly, Tony had no idea how to tell the lawyer about his current predicament. He feared voicing his suspicions, because it would make it all more real – and it felt too real already for his liking. It was all something out of a nightmare. He just couldn’t wake up. Whenever he closed his eyes, he remembered Pepper in his workshop with her hand on her stomach telling him repeatedly that she was pregnant. It couldn’t be happening.

“She was working for me for a whole year and I hired her as my PA, because she was not only obviously competent, but she was bad at lying. She is a pretty straightforward-type of woman.”

He could still remember meeting her for the first time in this office and her absurd claim of pepper spraying the security guards. Mr. Crawley pressed his lips together and started writing in a little notebook that Tony didn’t even notice he had before.

“So, you believe her claim?” Mr. Crawley pressed him with some urgency in his voice.

Never had Tony seen his lawyer show so much emotion. He supposed the man sensed that this time the result could be different. It scared him more than he thought it could. He expected this meeting to be bad, but he thought that the lawyer would make him feel instantly better. Mr. Crawley was the type of guy that could solve any problem. The best lawyer money could buy in LA hence his appointment as the head of Tony’s personal legal team.

So far, the man only made Tony even more nervous. Then again, if his ex-PA’s claim was real, Tony didn’t know what the man could even do to make the situation any better. There would be a kid who was his child biologically – the thought made him shudder.

“I didn’t at first,” he admitted after a long moment of silence. “Not when she informed me. I just told her to leave. She did.”

“And now?” the lawyer questioned him.

Under the intense gaze of the magnified eyes, Tony suddenly felt like a little kid being scolded and interrogated even though he was thirty years old and not ten, and Mr. Crawley was his employee, not his father. Fuck, he couldn’t even imagine what his father would say now, if he was here.

“I don’t know, but she seemed pretty certain of the paternity.”

Part of him wanted to add ‘like they all do’, but something felt different this time around. Maybe it was only because he trusted Pepper as his PA. She always knew what to do in every situation and how to solve any problem, quite like Mr. Crawley. He believed in her abilities and competence. Hearing from her that he was the father of her child sounded way more real than from any other of his one-night stands. This was a paternity case where he was already afraid to see the DNA test result, because he certainly wasn’t sure that it wouldn’t announce him as the father.

“Have you had any contact with her since she informed you about the pregnancy?” Mr. Crawley asked, and Tony simply shook his head.

He didn’t add that he asked J.A.R.V.I.S. to keep him updated about Miss Potts’s whereabouts and he learned that she moved to San Francisco and started to work for a subsidiary of SI, AccuTech. It was strange to know that she left town, but at the same time, he found it oddly entertaining that she was still in some ways working for him. If it ever came to that point, it was also a card in his hand. However, he hoped this case wouldn’t turn so ugly that such cards would be needed.

“Has she informed you what she is planning to do with the pregnancy?”

Oh, yes. How easy it would be if she didn’t want to continue the pregnancy. Then again, she probably wouldn’t have told him about it at all if she had aborted it.

“She’s already decided to keep the child,” Tony answered quietly.

“I see. I do not believe I need to detail the actions steps we need to take having been through this situation before. However, I believe this time it would be better if you took the next step. So, we should talk about what you need to discuss with Miss Potts.”

He suspected that his lawyer would want him to be more involved in this case, having known Pepper for much longer than his usual one-night stands but honestly, he would have liked to just forget all about it. Though, he supposed even if he was left completely out of it, it would still plague his mind. Yes, to calm him, he needed to see a paper saying that there was zero percent chance of him being the father. He wasn’t sure what was to happen though if the test said the opposite.

***

Friday, 16th February 2001

The AccuTech main building in San Franciso was not that different from the headquarters of SI in Los Angeles in appearance though it was much smaller. He was sure that it had been years since he visited this building. Honestly, he couldn’t even remember why AccuTech was in a different city. Surely there was a good reason for it? He would have to look it up, he decided.

So when he entered it, he was not surprised that the receptionist in the lobby didn’t sit up straighter as the one in the HQ did. She obviously did not recognize who she was dealing with. She was maybe a few years younger than he was with long dark curls and pretty eyes, but his reason of the visit soured his mood, so his interest wasn’t instantly piqued.

“Good morning sir, how can I help you?” she asked leaning a bit forward, giving him a good view of her décolletage. Any other time that could have grabbed his attention, but even that didn’t work now as his mind was on a strawberry blonde-haired ex-PA. Pepper was in the building, and the thought of facing her again had distracted him completely.

“I’m looking for Mr. Arthur Carter. He is the Head of Finance.” He leaned closer to the counter like he was sharing some secret and added: “That’s my name right under AccuTech.”

He pointed towards the big blue-white logo of the company on the wall that had with smaller black letters ‘Stark Industries’ written under it. The receptionist looked at him with wide eyes for a moment, but then she nodded. She probably recognized him now, because she didn’t ask for any identification to prove his claim.

“Yes, Mr. Stark, of course, let me check.” She reached for her mouse and started writing something on her keyboard. It seemed like forever to Tony until she looked up.

“His office is on the third floor, room thirteen. He doesn’t currently have a meeting, so he is probably there. Anything else that I can help with, Mr. Stark?” she asked.

Honestly, he didn’t need her help at all, but he thought that pretending that he had to meet the Head of Finance would be a good way to stop rumors from spreading. There was probably going to be at least one person who recognized him while he was in the building, so it was better to have an alibi. The worst the employees at AccuTech would now think was that Carter was playing bigger games than he ought to and it caught the attention of the CEO of SI himself, Tony Stark.

The truth was Tony didn’t know anything about Mr. Carter and had no desire to meet him, but Pepper was working at Finance and according to J.A.R.V.I.S. her office was right next to Carter’s. He thanked the receptionist and received a badge after telling her that no, he didn’t want her to call Mr. Carter. When he stepped into the elevator, he was glad to see that it was empty and when he exited it on the third floor, he still didn’t bump into anyone. He easily found room thirteen, but he ignored it completely, instead he opened the door of room twelve without knocking.

The office was much smaller than the one she had back at SI, was the first thing he noticed. She was sitting by her desk, but when their eyes met, she abruptly stood up. His glance shifted from her eyes to her body and he nearly lost his footing. She was wearing a white jacket with the buttons undone and under it a dark blue dress which was perfectly fitting for the office’s business casual dressing style, but even from the front he noticed that the form fitting dress showed a small baby bump. The sight shouldn’t have surprised him as he knew perfectly well that she was pregnant, but he didn’t expect to be presented with such undeniable proof. He thought that she would still be as slim as the last time he saw her even if that was more than a month ago.

“Mr. Stark, haven’t you ever heard of knocking?” she asked as if she didn’t just cause his head to spin. Then again, she probably didn’t even realize how that bump that she proudly showed off messed him up. “What are you even doing here?”

“I felt like we had some topics to cover,” he said.

He stepped closer to the desk and without invitation he sat down on the chair. He hoped that she would do the same because while she was sitting, he wouldn’t see the curve of her stomach that was taunting him currently.

“You shouldn’t be here, Mr. Stark. I work here and I don’t want rumors to escalate,” she said as she sat down. The desk was tiny so the distance between them was small. He could easily notice the pink flush under the light brown freckles on her pale skin that warned him of her anger.

“I thought you would be more upset if I turned up at your apartment,” he admitted it.

She raised her eyebrows, but she didn’t seem surprised at all that he would know where she lived. She probably worked long enough directly under him to know exactly how good he was in getting any information he desired and that such small matters as privacy or laws didn’t exactly stop him when he wanted something.

“You could have just called like any other normal human being, or maybe sent an email. You know my contacts, so you can reach me.” He smiled wryly at her.

“Would you have answered?” he asked, and she pressed her lips together.

“You were perfectly clear back in January. I don’t see what else there is to talk about.”

Pepper was always stubborn much like himself, so it didn’t surprise him that she wasn’t impressed by him turning up in her office. If it was any of the other women who ever claimed the same as she did, he knew they would be over the moon that he acknowledged them this way. After all, he was here personally, he didn’t just send a lawyer and he even travelled all the way to San Francisco. Pepper was different. He knew that already though. He supposed he wouldn’t have turned up in another city if she wasn’t.

“Look, I was shocked by your news, and I didn’t exactly give us the chance to talk about this, but since then I have realized there is much to discuss.”

She seemed surprised for a moment, but she was quick to put on an emotionless expression. While Pepper Potts did not excel at lying, she was certainly good when it came to poker face. She was born to be a businesswoman, that he had realized already just from the fact how effective she was as his PA. She had the whole business persona mastered.

“That was not an apology, but more than I expected.” She sounded a bit more welcoming than before. “I’m surprised that you are here, I thought that I would never see you after that last time – only your lawyers,” she replied.

“I had some people to meet here anyways, so I thought I would check in with you as well,” he answered easily. He didn’t want her to know that he travelled all the way to San Francisco just to talk to her. He needed to feel like he had some control over this conversation. He didn’t like not having the winning cards to himself.

“Yeah, sure. Who else are you meeting? Can you name anyone working in this company?” she asked challengingly.

“I am having a meeting with Mr. Arthur Carter, the Head of Finance,” he replied swiftly saying the only name that came into his mind. Her expression showed that she didn’t believe him at all. So before she could ask what business he had with her new boss, he changed the topic.

“According to J.A.R.V.I.S. we had sex on the 26th November. Crawley wants to see what the estimated time of conception is according to your OB/GYN visit and wants you to have the test done as soon as possible.” Pepper still didn’t look impressed.

“Then Mr. Crawley is a creep, but you’re in luck. I’ve just arrived back from my latest prenatal visit, so I’ve got all the documents with me. Also, tell your lawyer that I’m not going to lose my child just because he’s impatient. Currently only invasive prenatal paternity testing exists as I’m sure he knows, so he has to wait until after the baby’s born for the result.”

She reached for her handbag that was in the corner of the office behind her desk. It took her about a minute to pick up a folder and put it down in front of Tony. He wasn’t sure he wanted to see what was in it but had to know for certain if there was even a possibility that he was the father, especially now that he learned she was not going to get the DNA test done until the baby was born.

When he opened the black folder what he first saw nearly gave him a heart attack again. He was no doctor, but he did recognize an ultrasound picture especially because the baby’s form was easy to identify. He certainly didn’t expect the baby to look like – well, a baby. He turned it down quickly, though he knew that he couldn’t erase the sonogram picture from his mind. He started looking through the papers, but he probably wasn’t quick enough, because Pepper grabbed the whole folder, and a second later she pointed to a row on one of the documents. It said:

Most probable conception dates: Nov 24, 2000 - Nov 28, 2000

What he saw didn’t surprise him, because for a while now he was nearly certain that Pepper was not lying, but it still made his stomach twist. If the doctor’s estimation was correct than he saw very little chance that he wasn’t the biological father of the child currently growing in that small bump that wasn’t there only a month ago.

“Look, I know that this is not what you wanted, I get it. Really, I don’t want anything from you and if you wish I’m willing to sign anything to declare so and an NDA that I won’t sell this to the media. I don’t want to ruin you or SI, I hope you understand that. I made the decision to become a mother, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a father. You have the choice as well. I just wanted to give you the chance to decide.”

Well, if he was the father of her child, then at least he probably knocked up the most reasonable one-night stand he ever had. She certainly didn’t seem as vicious as any of the women he had to deal with for a paternity case. He studied her for a moment, and he noticed other subtle changes in her appearance. Her cheeks were a bit fuller, her hair a bit shinier though in a familiar bun and her breasts seemed to have grown just as much as her previously flat stomach. She has changed, but overall, she still looked quite the same woman he had known for a while. It was hard not to trust her, when she could have him sign anything as his PA and yet she never wronged him. No, she was always a trustworthy employee.

“Did you know that in California there is no limit to the child support? It is all based on the income of the parent paying with the logic that the child ought to have the same luxuries the parents can afford. I’m a multibillionaire, do the math.” He watched curiously her reaction. Her eyes widened and her right hand disappeared under the table, now probably resting on the small bump.

“I guess then I understand all the paternity lawsuits you are always facing, especially as I know that the mothers are not obligated to disclose what the child support was spent on,” she commented. He nodded and was about to reply, when she continued.

“But I also know, Mr. Stark that in California the birth certificates can be viewed by anyone, so it never occurred to me to have you added to it. It certainly wouldn’t stay a secret for long after all, and as far as I know child support can be only demanded if the name is on the birth certificate.”

“For someone saying they didn’t want anything with me, you certainly know much about child support,” Tony said somewhat bitterly. For a moment he thought she was different, but obviously he was mistaken. To his surprise his bitterness made her laugh.

“My friend, Jessie, researched the question after I told her that I decided to keep the baby. She thinks that the father ought to pay after he wronged me. The part about the limits didn’t come up, because she doesn’t think the baby daddy is rich. After all I told her that I had a date with a guy named Adam from Legal at SI which ended in bed only to learn that he was married the next day,” she explained, and he looked at her curiously.

“So, you have been lying about… this,” he gestured towards her not wanting to voice such words as ‘pregnancy’ and ‘baby’. It was all too real for him already with the pregnant belly and the sonogram picture.

He was pleasantly surprised though that she wanted to keep this between them and haven’t shared it yet with just about anyone. He of course knew that it hadn’t hit the papers yet, so she obviously hasn’t sold the story, but he thought it was just a matter of time until someone she told to did. The fact that she wasn’t the one looking up the child support topic was good news as well. She might not have been after his money unlike all the others before her. Maybe this whole situation wouldn’t be as catastrophic as he imagined in the workshop when she first uttered those dreaded words.

“When I learned that I was pregnant, I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew that I didn’t want to end up as a tabloid story, and if I didn’t choose abortion then there was also the baby to consider. I didn’t want my baby to be trashed in magazines before he was even born. I trust my friends, but I thought the less people that knew the truth, the easier it would be to keep it under wraps.”

He had to admit that he was glad that if someone was to ruin his childless state, it was a woman like Pepper who seemed to care about the baby more than the publicity and the money she could receive. He for a moment entertained the thought what the child she raised would be like. Obviously smart and competent, but also kind and caring, he decided. He quickly shooed the thought away.

Pepper was right. She made her decision to keep the baby, she signed up for the job of being a mother. However, he was not planning to become a father – certainly not now, but most probably never. It just wasn’t part of his plans. Even the mental image of himself trying to change a diaper was laughable after all. He was Tony Stark: genius, playboy, billionaire, philanthropist. Father just didn’t belong on that list.

“I have a proposal for a settlement for the child if the DNA test proves paternity. Mr. Crawley will be pleased to know that you are planning to keep the name off the birth certificate, but we agreed that should the child be mine, then you will still receive an agreed upon sum instead of the official child support. I don’t want to rob you or the child,” he told her, and she nodded.

“I am more than capable of providing for the child, but we can agree on a fund for education. I want what is the best for the baby, and if he wants Ivy League then he should get that if he can.”

Business was something they were both good at, so their conversation easily swayed to numbers. The sum she proposed was ridiculously low especially compared to the child support she would receive if she went to court. He understood that she wanted to protect herself and the baby from the vicious media, but he couldn’t understand why she didn’t fight for more. If the child was really his as he was suspecting, then she had much better cards in her hands than she was willing to play with. It was hard to understand after the women he met before who wanted as much money from him as possible.

When he voiced that thought, she just shrugged but then added like it was just an afterthought. “I enjoy working, and I get good money for what I do – at a company you own actually, so I get my money from you anyways. However, it’s not like I need that ridiculous amount you are willing to give… but I’m glad that you want to aid the baby financially.”

She did seem happy when they decided on the exact terms of the contracts, even though it was much less than he would have settled with. She didn’t ask any questions about much heavier topics than money – like involvement. He was pretty sure that she understood without having to bring it up that even if the child was his he didn’t want to be part of its life.

“Then I will contact Mr. Crawley when the baby is born so the test can be arranged,” she said, and he nodded. For a moment it seemed like she was waiting for him to say something, but then she offered her hand.

“I think this concludes our meeting then, Mr. Stark.” That surprised him. While they talked about all the points his lawyer advised him to discuss with her, he didn’t think their conversation would end so abruptly.

“Miss Potts, you were very cooperative, thank you for that,” he said. “You know how to reach me if you ever need anything.”

She nodded. That was it. They both said good-bye and he left the office being satisfied as it all turned out much better than he expected. He wondered if he were to ever meet her again.

***

Friday, 10th August 2001

The moment her water broke, Virginia sent a text message to Tony informing him about the baby being born. She didn’t expect him to turn up in San Francisco once again, but she thought that he would at least respond. However, after twelve hours of labor she now held a baby in her arms, but she still didn’t receive a text from him. Her mother and father were there with her though, so she decided that it didn’t matter. Her little boy might not have a father, but he was already loved by his mother and his grandparents. Without a father it might not have been a conventional one, but it certainly was a family.

“So, will you tell me now the name of my beautiful grandson?” her mother questioned her somewhat impatiently.

Virginia looked at the tiny face of her newborn son. His eyes were open and wide, and the color was dark blue currently, though she has been told that in the upcoming year it was likely to change. As Tony had brown eyes, the chances of the baby inheriting her own light eyes were small. The bit of fuzz that was his hair was already much darker than she ever had.

“Peter – Peter Benjamin Potts,” she replied stroking the cheeks of her baby with her index finger. She noticed that her father was obviously touched by the middle name. She had a hard time choosing a first name, so she told her parents she would only decide on it when he was born. In the end it was easier than she expected to name him. The name just felt right when she looked at the pudgy and red-faced baby.

“Oh, darling. Such a beautiful name for an amazing little boy. Don’t you agree, Ben?” her mother asked her father. Her light eyes much like her own ones were full of tears.

“Thank you, sweetheart,” her father got up from the plastic chair and kissed her cheek. “I’m proud to have such an amazing namesake. Why Peter though? Is it just a name you like?”

The truth was not something she was willing to tell even her parents, so she just agreed that yes, she liked the name and it was nice that his first name and surname started with the same letter. Really, the truth was more pathetic than she was willing to admit even to herself. She chose the name ‘Peter’ because it reminded her of ‘Pepper’, a name Tony gave her. He might not have wanted anything to do with the baby, but the child in her arms was still their son. It seemed fitting to name the baby something that reminded her of Tony. No one needed to know that though.

“He is my little rock,” she cooed to the baby referring to the meaning of the name Peter. Yes, it was a nice name, she decided.

Her mother leaned closer to the baby studying every feature of him, which made Virginia roll her eyes. Peter was a newborn, squishy and red, just like every other newly born baby. She certainly didn’t recognize any of the tiny features. The only apparent feature was his very dark hair color, but she already knew there was a big chance the baby would have Tony’s coloring instead of her own as that was high school level genetics.

“Well, I think he will have much in him from his father. Surely, he will have his dark hair and eyes,” she stated. “Wonder if we will have a little genius. Seems to be in his genes.”

“Mom, please forget about the topic. He is out of the picture, end of the story,” Virginia replied impatiently.

She was willing to lie to everyone about the father of her baby, but her parents. She felt that they needed to know the truth, and they deserved it. They were supportive of her decision of keeping the baby and being a single mother, and about her agreement with Tony as well. However, it didn’t mean they didn’t bring up the topic of the missing father more than she would have liked. They wanted the best for her and Peter, she knew, but they were old-fashioned people. The idea of raising her son alone while the father was not around was not something they took lightly. They wanted Tony to be there for Peter and couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t want to be.

Especially her mother who seemed to have this wild dream of Tony Stark one day turning into a househusband. It seemed she was certain that if Peter turned out anything like his father (let it be his looks or his brains), Tony would suddenly want to be the perfect father. Virginia was always more practical than her mother, but she did silently agree that one day Tony might be interested in his son, especially if Peter grew up to be a genius. She didn’t think he would really want to be a father though – he made it perfectly clear to her on multiple occasions that he never planned to be one.

“Oh, come on, darling. That man will want to have a son one day. He is just too young to realize it yet. However, he basically has an empire, so he needs an heir.”

Virginia didn’t want to argue with her mother, so she just let the comment slide. She shared a look with her father though who was not impressed at all by Tony for not ‘stepping up’ as he said. According to him no good man would not acknowledge his child. Virginia of course argued that she didn’t want Peter’s paternity announced to the world either, but her father was not forgiving when it came to his daughter. Apparently, Tony could only be an awful guy for not showing up when she was giving birth especially as he owned a private jet.

“He hasn’t even answered her message, now did he, Maggie?” her father obviously couldn’t let the topic drop. Virginia just sighed.

“Please, can we talk about anything other than him? He made it perfectly clear that he doesn’t want to be involved, so he is nothing more than a sperm donor. Peter doesn’t need him and neither do I,” she stated firmly.

She loved her parents and greatly appreciated everything they had done for her especially in the last year since she had learnt she was expecting Peter, but she knew the topic of her son’s father was something they couldn’t agree on. They just couldn’t let it go as she would have liked to. Based on their expressions though they both felt bad for upsetting her. Her mother reached for her hand and squeezed it.

“I’m sorry darling, you are completely right. This is Petey’s day, everything should only be about him,” her mother replied, and Virginia couldn’t help but smile at the baby’s first nickname.

The door opened and a nurse came in with a huge and beautiful bouquet of flowers. It was a mix of white, yellow, orange and red roses. She had a smile on her face when she presented the dozens of flowers.

“There is a note as well. I believe someone was very eager to congratulate to the new mommy and welcome this beautiful boy,” the nurse said as she placed the vase on the bedside table. Her mother reached for Peter automatically, and Virginia gave him to her. She then took the card that was next to the vase. The note was printed, but the message was clear: Congratulations on the birth of our child.

“See, I told you he wouldn’t just ignore it,” her mother said eagerly as she spied on the card.

Virginia just rolled her eyes once again, but she couldn’t help feeling a bit better spirited as well. She had to admit that even if she didn’t expect anything from Tony, it hurt when she thought he didn’t even care about the birth of the baby. It was also nice that even though the DNA test wasn’t done yet, he obviously accepted that he was the father. It might not have been much, but it was an acknowledgement in her eyes, no matter what her father had said. Maybe one day Peter would get to know his biological father.

***

Wednesday, 15th August 2001

Mr. Crawley entered the room with a white envelope in his hands. This time he wasn’t even announced, he just walked into the office. Tony had expected the lawyer to come that day having been notified of the finished results, so he told the secretary to let the man in, an appointment wasn’t needed. He wondered what his newest PA, who only started two weeks ago, would think about his schedule being ruined. After all, he had a meeting in ten minutes, but no matter what the paper in the envelope said, he believed this conversation would be longer than that.

“It wasn’t exactly quickly,” he grumbled after shaking the hand of the lawyer and gesturing towards the chair. Mr. Crawley took his place and put the daunting envelope on the desk between them.

“I thought it better to have a usual hospital-done paternity test than one at some private lab. Less flashy, but just as correct. It takes more time I admit, because you can’t just pass some money to get it done faster,” the lawyer explained.

Any other time this explanation wouldn’t have satisfied Tony and he would have some choice words to the lawyer. However, he has never been so nervous in his life before. His mind was simply blank. He didn’t care at all for the excuses. He just needed to know the verdict.

“Have you… opened it?” he asked dumbly. Mr. Crawley looked sympathetic for once when he shook his head.

“It’s your test result. I thought you ought to see it first,” Mr. Crawley replied.

The difference to the usual situation was obvious. The lawyer never seemed to have a problem with checking the test result before. This time the man must have sensed that Tony was emotionally invested in the outcome, and that he wanted to see the fateful printed words himself.

Tony reached for the envelope and slowly opened it. Inside there was only one paper. The test result was prepared for dumb people to understand it as well, so he only needed to the glance at it to know the result. At the top of it with bold letters it said:

Probability of Paternity: 99.9998%

Combined Paternity Index: 536,264

There was an explanation underneath. He automatically started reading even though he already processed the information that he was proclaimed the biological father. Understanding and accepting were too vastly different things though. As a genius processing any data was simple to him, but it didn’t mean he had an easier time accepting those pieces of information than anyone else.

The alleged father is not excluded as the biological father of the tested child. Based on the results of the analysis obtained from the DNA loci listed, the probability of paternity is 99.9998%. This probability is calculated by comparing to an untested, unrelated, random individual of the Caucasian population (assumes prior probability equals 0.50).

Underneath the alleles of the child and his own ones were compared. He noted blankly that the conclusion was not faulty as the baby had one of his own alleles in every case. Statistically speaking it was pretty much impossible for that to happen if he was not the father, or as the index said he was five hundred and thirty-six times more likely to be the father than another Caucasian man.

“So, what does it say?” Mr. Crawley asked after a few minutes of total silence while Tony was staring at the piece of paper unmoving.

“She wasn’t lying,” he said, and he tossed the document to the lawyer who looked at it with raised eyebrows.

“You do not seem to be surprised. I thought that the positive result would upset you more,” Mr. Crawley said slowly as if he was speaking to some wild animal ready to strike. Tony couldn’t help but laugh out. It was not a cheerful sound though.

“I’ve known since February when I met her at AT. I was too upset to realize that she wasn’t lying in January, but when we met… It was obvious she was telling the truth. I didn’t want to, but I believed her,” he replied somewhat bitterly.

He had months to come term with the result, so it was just an official confirmation of something he had known for a long time now, but still it was different now that there was an undeniable proof lying on his desk. He felt oddly empty and his mind was blank, something that very rarely happened to him.

“I have met her at the hospital. She is willing to proceed as was discussed. She signed every paper without any reclamation,” Mr. Crawley said as he leaned back in the chair still studying the test documentation. As he put it down their eyes met.

Tony smiled at the lawyer wryly. “Should I be glad that the one woman I really knocked up is not a complete gold-digger?” he asked. Mr. Crawley was silent for a moment, obviously not knowing what to say.

“Well, it makes the situation easier to handle. You pay a sum you will not even miss or notice, and she raises the child as she wants. Everyone is satisfied.”

Tony didn’t react. It was hard to classify what he was currently feeling, but ‘satisfied’ was certainly not the word he would have used. The thought of a squirming baby with half of his gene set was baffling. None of this felt real, even though he could still read the paper laying on the desk upside-down.

“So, that’s it?” he asked completely at loss of how to handle the situation. The lawyer neatly folded the paternity test and put the paper back in the envelope which then disappeared into his suitcase. The evidence was not there anymore like the situation never existed at all.

“She is very cooperative, so I believe that is all, Mr. Stark. I do not expect to have any problem in the foreseeable future.”

According to his lawyer all problems were solved. Yet, somehow it didn’t feel like that to him. He was stupid enough to open the text message Pepper sent only a few days ago. It contained a picture of a newborn in a baby blue hat and his name written underneath it. Peter Benjamin Potts, the message said. It seemed surreal. He had a newborn son named Peter living in San Francisco. He had a son, but he was certainly not going to be the child’s father. Tony wondered if the boy would grow up calling someone else ‘Daddy’, and if he ever learned who provided half of his DNA. No matter what, the names Peter and Potts were going to haunt him for the rest of his life, he knew.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3: The Solution to the Equation

Friday, 23rd July 2004

Virginia Potts liked to think that she was always prepared. Obviously, life liked to trick even the most prepared people, so there was some looming danger of the unexpected even in her life. She certainly learned that lesson when the pregnancy tests she took after a liquor-filled one-night stand with her boss turned out positive. However, as a single mother she had done excessive research in quite some topics way before the problems could even arise. She was the type of person who already knew everything about the school admission process when her baby still couldn’t turn over. The moment she decided that she was keeping the baby, she made a promise to herself and to her unborn child that she was going to be the best mother she could be. She never did anything half-heartedly.

So, the age-old question of Daddy certainly did not come unexpectedly, not when most parenting books, articles and posts warned single mothers that children who started attending some form of community often quickly realized that their family structure was different from their new friends’. She also early on anticipated that her child might have above average mental capabilities thanks to the genius father, so she looked up how to deal with gifted children’s love of asking questions.

However, she never thought that having to answer millions of questions about Tony Stark to a not-even-yet three-year-old would ever be so mentally exhausting. The questions started as early as his very first day at daycare. She still remembered the exact thoughtful expression Peter sported when he first questioned her as she put him in the car seat, because it was the same one that he had whenever he tried to solve a puzzle recommended for much older children.

“Why don’t I have a Daddy? Lina and Toby have one.”

By the fifth day she hoped that he would forget about the topic in favor of something more interesting that he had learned at daycare, but Tony Stark’s kid was not easily amused by age-specific content, Tony Stark interested him much more of course. Now, two months later his father was still one of his favorite topics and Peter never seemed to get discouraged by her at best vague answers. She was not even that surprised how much the topic interested him, it seemed fitting though the universe was certainly laughing at her misfortune. She supposed this was her punishment for sleeping with her boss. By now she has certainly learned her lesson.

At least the recent move provided Peter with lots of new material for better questions. Having only ever lived in San Francisco, moving to LA was something completely new to him. So, the fact that he didn’t have a Daddy didn’t seem to be the most surprising piece of information anymore. Plus it meant a new daycare after only a month of starting the other one. She feared that it was one too many changes for someone as young as him, but she just needed to get out of San Francisco after losing her parents so suddenly. Their home after the accident taking her parents’ life away was not only lonely but suffocating as well. It didn’t feel like a home anymore. It was now more like a memorial exhibition where everything reminded her of the family she and Peter had lost.

She only told Peter about his Daddy in general, she didn’t tell her son even the name of his father let alone what an important man he was or what he did for a living. She honestly didn’t know if she ever should if there was no chance of Tony getting involved and meeting his son. However, knowing how brilliant of a toddler Peter was, she had a feeling one day she would have to sit down with her son and have a very awkward conversation about an office hookup. After all if Peter even inherited a slice of his father’s intelligence as he already showed some signs of, at one point he could easily realize the truth himself. While his birth might have been unplanned, Peter was the best thing in her life, and she didn’t want him to ever believe that he was a dirty little secret.

While being interrogated by her tiny son was always tiring, at least they were currently at home. Rushing from one place to another with an excitable toddler who had way too many questions was worse. Still, on Friday evenings she could have imagined a less stressful topic than absent fathers. The two of them were currently sitting by the dining table and were coloring, but she noticed that Peter’s Lion King picture was still rather colorless, and she gave up on the pretense of even doing it herself about three questions ago.

“Is he with G’andma and G’andpa?”

Dead grandparents were even a worse conversation topic than an absent father. The question caught her off guard. The death of her parents was a fresh wound as it happened only two months ago. Often it still didn’t feel real at all, she expected to hear her mother’s cheerful voice to call out to her and to get her father’s thoughtful remarks on everything she had done. So, Peter’s question felt like a knife twisted in the not yet healed wound. It was another unexpected event – a real tragedy – in her life. Statistically speaking a motor vehicle accident was not a surprising way to die, but her parents were still young, and it just seemed so wrong to lose both like this at the same time. She needed them. Peter needed them. It seemed entirely unfair of the universe that her son would have to grow up without grandparents and that he wouldn’t remember how amazing her parents were.

She looked into Peter’s brown eyes that seemed endless. They were dark but warm, full of love and childish innocence. The tiny face of her son was framed by slightly curly dark brown locks of hair. Sometimes a small jealous part of her wished that his eyes mirrored her blue ones and that she saw less of Tony Stark in him. She knew from the moment she held those cheap plastic sticks in her hand that in a genetic battle her fair genes had nothing on Tony Stark’s, but it still felt somewhat unfair that the child he didn’t want would take after him in so many ways. However, a much bigger part of her knew that her little boy was perfect the way he was and that he was this amazing mixture of both of his parents. She had to admit that there were worse men to provide genetic sample for reproduction than Tony Stark. Undoubtedly, Peter won the genetic lottery.

“No, darling. Your Grandma and Grandpa are in heaven with the angles. Your Daddy just lives in another city,” she replied patiently. Peter’s eyes in a second filled with tears. He pursed his lips and dropped the red pencil that he was holding.

It was the same answer she gave him on his first day at daycare. Young children often asked the same questions again and again, they just needed some reinforcement. However, it was slightly more truthful back then as they were still living in San Francisco just after the accident. While Tony technically lived in a different town even now, Malibu was just a short drive away and he was working in LA, in literally the same building as she was. So distance was no factor in the non-existent father and son relationship anymore.

Peter was a very smart kid. However, it didn’t mean he understood what dying meant. She hastily researched just after she learned that her parents died how to tell young children about such loss and how much they understood of it. Death as a concept all in all was something no child under three would ever really understand she decided then no matter if the father is a literal genius. Children much older than Peter would ask questions if dead people needed to eat. So, the finality and absurdness of death was something he was simply too young to comprehend.

There were days when even at thirty she didn’t fully understand the fact that she could never see her parents again. They were just gone, and she couldn’t even say good-bye. The idea that the very same could happen to her or her little boy just in a blink of eye was even harder to grasp. So, she was an adult and a mother, and the universality of death took her breath away as well. It was unfair that he was forced to live through the finality of loss at such a young age.

“I miss ‘em. I wanna play ball with G’andpa. Does Daddy like playin’ ball just like G’andpa?”

Before she became a mother, she always admired those women who seemed to understand their incomprehensible little children. Whenever she met young kids, they sounded like aliens to her or at least speaking some foreign language instead of English. So, she was glad that the obviously inheritable Stark intellect meant better language skills, not just crazy talent for numbers and machines. From her research about seventy-five percent of his words should be understandable at three, but everything Peter said was recognizable to her even when he was just two and she doubted that it was some Super Mommy skill of hers. It made her life and communication much easier though it certainly gave him more chance of asking a lot of questions.

“I miss them too, sweetie,” she replied softly. She reached out and stroked his hand.

She supposed that forgetting about his grandparents at least meant that he wouldn’t have to live with the same ache she had to. Still, it was heart-breaking that in a few years’ time he might have no memory of them. Suddenly they were all alone in the world. She felt like she somehow failed Peter by not providing him with a family so his newfound interest in his father could not have come at a worst time. She felt horrible that Peter didn’t have a father. When he was just a baby it didn’t seem like a problem, but now that he was growing up and forming his own personality and had interests already, she felt like she was not enough alone. She also constantly felt upset because Peter hardly had anyone left in the world now.

She only had an eccentric uncle who was her mother’s brother and he had two children, but she had never known her cousins well, because her uncle was an estranged father not that much involved in the life of his children. So, Peter had only her left and she couldn’t even dare to imagine what would happen to him if she was to die young as well.

She read in those parenting books that she had to answer all his questions to the best of her ability while sharing small things about the father, always remaining positive but truthful. So she imagined Tony playing ball with Peter. It was a bittersweet picture really, something she wished would happen but what the practical part of her mind couldn’t accept as a possible outcome.

“I think he is not that much into ball games, honey. He loves building machines though. He is very good at that too.”

Peter looked thoughtful for a moment, then his eyes lit up and he grinned, showing the full set of his white baby teeth. He looked delightfully adorable like this and at moments like this she couldn’t imagine why she didn’t want children when she was younger. Just Peter’s smile could light up an entire room not to mention her day. She couldn’t imagine how dark her life would be just now after the death of her parents if she didn’t have Peter. She wouldn’t have anyone; she would be all alone in the world.

“Can we go to Daddy? I wanna build somet’ing with him,” Peter exclaimed enthusiastically.

He was fidgeting on the chair, practically shaking with the buildup energy from the thought of building things with his father. All the books said that young children were very resilient and if their curiosity and needs were fulfilled, they didn’t need another parent. Yet at that moment she felt that all those things were just lies. Her little boy needed a father that she just couldn’t give him. It made her incredibly sad.

“How about Mommy instead? I want to build something with my little Petey-pie,” she said with a forced smile, but the moment Peter beamed at her it all became real. Yes, just one smile from her little boy could melt her frozen heart. Peter was all she needed, she just feared that she wasn’t enough for him.

“Mommy, ‘m not little anymore. ‘M a big boy now,” Peter insisted with a serious expression. It was all positively adorable coming from a toddler of course. “What are we building?”

***

Tuesday, 17th August 2004                                                      

Highway to Hell was blasting through the speakers on maximum volume but Tony’s attention was on the machine on his table, the wires he was tinkering with making a colorful mess. The door to the workshop opened meaning that someone very close to him was looking for him, but he wasn’t about to just stop his work when he was so close to finishing the project. No, whoever dared to disturb his project could wait until it was completed.

“Ah, so here you’ve been hiding, Tony.”

Tony hardly heard Obie because of the music, but he did realize that his business partner wanted his attention, he was just so preoccupied by his latest project that he didn’t care at all. Obie stepped right next to his desk though and tried again.

“Tony!” With a sigh Tony looked up.

“J, turn down the music a bit,” he said and his A.I. followed his instruction immediately.

He turned towards Obie who didn’t seem to be in a good mood. He was usually a jolly fellow who treated Tony like a fun uncle would. Since the death of Tony’s parents he was the one to sometimes step in and play the father figure, but that rarely happened by now. After all at thirty-four Tony certainly didn’t need parental guidance anymore, he was an adult capable of mature decisions. So, seeing the disappointed look on the man’s face that Tony recognized as the ‘you are in trouble, boy’-look was certainly surprising.

“You have missed three important meetings in just the last two days, Tony,” he started on what would obviously become a lecture.

Meetings – Tony should have known Obie would be upset over something as stupid and trivial as some board meetings. Why were so many of them anyway? He couldn’t remember ever attending one that actually offered some useful information. It was just a bunch of old stuffy men who wanted to feel themselves important so they rambled on and on about their great results and big ideas when in reality Tony in his lab made a bigger impact for the company in a night than all of them put together did in a year.

“Yes, I was working on the project you told me to perfect, because we pay lots of money to a bunch of useless scientists at R&D,” he answered simply. “It’s nearly done, no need to thank me, it was my pleasure.”

Tony then turned back towards the wires he was working on. His mind was already on the machine again, hardly noticing that Obie hasn’t left yet. He should have known by now better; Obie didn’t like being ignored. Obie hit the desk with a magazine with such a force Tony flinched and nearly dropped the nearly finished weapon protype. He put it down and stood up from his chair.

“You can’t just disappear into your workshop for days, Tony. You are the face of the company and it comes with certain obligations.” It was a lecture Tony has heard a billion times before. It was not like he was partying instead of attending those meetings. He was working and he was impatient to get back to that.

“It’s better for the company if I spend my time with actual useful work rather than sleeping through old men arguing over some stupid fine prints that doesn’t matter at all,” he replied easily.

Obie had a fixation with board meetings even though they were utterly useless. Indeed, whenever Tony had to meet those morons on the board, he wondered how many asses they kissed to get where they were, because they certainly didn’t possess any refining qualities.

“Look Tony, you need some structure in your life. In the last year how many PAs did you have, five or was it six? None lasted longer than the trial period. You haven’t even bothered to get a new one in a month since that Smith accused you of sexual harassment and didn’t let HR handle it. We have an HR department for a reason, Tony.” Tony crossed his arms and he smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes.

“It’s not my fault that she couldn’t take a joke. I didn’t even touch her,” he insisted though they had this conversation at least a hundred times as well. When the piece of news first reached Obie he was seething.  “Got bored of being ordered around by some little girls though who suddenly think they are actually important. I don’t need a PA; they are all useless.”

Obie’s expression hardened. He lost that jolly good mood that always reminded Tony of a fun uncle and now he resembled his estranged father instead who had shared that look of Tony being nothing more than a nuisance quite often.

“To get her to shut up and not sell the story to the media or worse press charges was certainly a headache. I’m fed up with you choosing your PAs based on their chest size, so I decided to hire the next one.” Tony rolled his eyes. Apparently sometimes Obie still thought Tony was a kid who needed a babysitter – it was truly ridiculous.

“I told you I don’t need one. But let me guess – she is eighty years old and has fifteen grandkids she is knitting socks for?” he asked with a frown.

“Oh no, I’m not willing to test the waters just now. Knowing you, you’d make sure she left before she finished just one pair of socks. Instead I offered the position to someone who held it before and was capable of handling you.”

Tony was surprised by that mostly because he couldn’t remember any PA, he had that Obie was genuinely satisfied with. He had often showed his distaste for the method of Tony’s hiring. There was that girl Pepper found for him before she told him about her predicament, but even the one didn’t last long, because she had a jealous husband who didn’t like her new job’s odd hours. She was probably the most competent after Pepper herself though – he stilled as a thought occurred to him. Obie was very displeased when Tony told him that Pepper was leaving.

He relaxed though when he realized that there was no way that Obie would have reached out to Pepper who was living in Frisco. Even if he did, Tony couldn’t imagine Pepper packing up her whole life just to come back to become his PA when she left because of him in the first place.

“She has been a loyal employee of SI for the last six years or so and has just recently moved back to LA. Seemed like the perfect candidate – look for yourself.”

Obie pointed towards the magazine he had threw on the desk when he arrived. Tony didn’t pay any attention to it before, so he was now surprised to read the title – Working Mothers. His attention was soon caught by something else though, or rather someone else. On the cover there was a strawberry blonde woman in a powder blue business suit who has been haunting Tony’s mind for quite a few years thanks to the bomb she had dropped on him.

“No, that’s a mistake. That’s Pepper – I mean Potts. She left to live in Frisco,” he denied automatically.

Before Obie could suspect something, Tony decided to calm down. This was all a misunderstanding for sure and he surely didn’t want it to turn into something much more by accidentally revealing his connection to Pepper to Obie. Just a misunderstanding.

He looked at the magazine again in hope that he imagined those blue eyes and red hair, or it was just someone who looked freakishly like Pepper, but the more he stared the less possible that seemed to be. After a second too long of staring he was sure that it was Pepper. To make it worse under her picture it was written: A LOOK INTO A WORKPLACE DAYCARE – mothers and their children at Stark Industries

He knew for certain that only the headquarters of the company in LA had a daycare. He had to be the one to hold the opening ceremony six months ago after all, and while it had been since then considered a success, there haven’t been any further plans for extensions just yet for the other buildings belonging to the company such as the HQ of AT in San Francisco.

“Yes, Virginia Potts, I see you remember her,” Obie seemed pleased.

“No,” Tony replied swiftly. A blatant lie especially as he had already confirmed accidentally that he remembered her very well.

 “PR decided that she was the perfect cover girl for the follow up article of the daycare. Learned about her being back when the plan was put on my desk. At first, I was a bit uncertain about having her back as your PA as she is a single mother now, but your escapades this week taught me that you need some structure in your life, and as far as I remember, she was the only one capable of it.”

“No,” Tony repeated just as Obie finished. While he was usually more than happy to cut into anyone’s monologue, he wanted to know exactly what Obie knew. His answer was rather simple though. Having Pepper as his PA spelled disaster.

“It wasn’t a question Tony; I was just informing you. More and more people are questioning if you are fit to be the CEO, so you need to show them that behind those flashy suits you are a committed serious businessman. Having a competent assistant who is not accusing you with sexual harassment would be a good place to start,” Obie insisted.

Tony remained silent for a moment which he knew surprised Obie. He honestly didn’t feel the need to impress those morons on the board, but no matter what those jerks believed, he cared about the company. It was his company. He also knew that Obie wanted the best for him and SI as well.

“You can choose my next PA, I don’t care, but not her,” he decided. He hoped that Obie would agree automatically to such a compromise, but he was surprised to find that he didn’t seem happy with the idea.

“She already took the job, she starts next Monday,” Obie answered simply.

“No – not as my PA, she won’t,” Tony insisted, and Obie frowned.

“Is there something I should know about Miss Potts that you haven’t told me? Why are you adamant that she cannot be your assistant?” he asked, and Tony froze.  

He was always quick on his feet, witty responses, and clever solutions ready before the conversation partner even finished the sentence, yet his mind was completely blank now. He had years to accept Pepper’s news, but every time he was reminded it, he buried it deeper and deeper in his mind. He never told anyone about it after sharing the paternity case with his lawyer. Over the years there were a couple of times when he nearly blurted out to Rhodey and once to Obie, but he always changed his mind and closed his big mouth.

He could just tell the truth to Obie – he was certain that if Obie knew it then he wouldn’t want to hire Pepper so much. However, the same gut feeling that always stopped him from telling anyone was there again. As Mr. Crawley said, that was it. Pepper signed all the papers and she never asked for anything more. There was no reason to bring it up – yes, her child was biologically his, but other than a paper where his alleles were compared to the child’s it didn’t mean anything. Bringing it up and disturbing the past would just cause more troubles, he decided. That was probably the subtle thought that stopped him every time before. It was a past mistake that had been dealt with, no need to shed light to it. The situation was resolved but he was certain everyone would make a big ordeal out of it, just like Obie was upset with him for missing some useless meetings.

“No, she was just too cold and stiff for my taste,” he replied half-heartedly though of course he didn’t mean it. While Pepper was always very proper and professional except for that one fateful night, she was never cold, quite the contrary, she took care of him more than any other assistant he ever had. She went way beyond her tasks as a PA just to make sure that he was always okay.

Obie studied him for a moment obviously sensing that there was something Tony wasn’t saying, but he seemed to accept his answer, because he replied: “That’s being professional, Tony. Your assistant isn’t supposed to get in bed with you.”

Tony couldn’t hide his amusement at that. Well, technically they never made it to the bedroom, so it only happened on the couch, but still. The meaning was clear and as she told him the next day when he asked her not to press charges, she was a willing participant in the act.

“What’s the point of having a PA then?” he just shrugged. Obie rolled his eyes.

Tony decided that he just didn’t want to fight Obie anymore on this topic, because if he kept insisting that Pepper shouldn’t be his assistant, Obie would certainly look into the issue. It wouldn’t take a genius to work it out what it was all about, because Tony had set up a college fund for the kid and sent the agreed upon sum every month to Pepper. Obie must have been so into the idea that Pepper couldn’t quite say no to him. However, she must think this was a terrible idea as well, so they would just agree to pretend for a while and then she would leave and the past can remain the past, the mistakes forgotten.

***

Monday, 23rd August 2004

This was a mistake, was her first thought as Virginia entered the Malibu mansion that was just as breathtaking as always. It was certainly the type of home that had wealth written all over it.

“Welcome, Miss Potts, it’s nice to see you again. Sir is in the workshop,” J.A.R.V.I.S. greeted her and she couldn’t help the smile that appeared on her face.

Being warmly greeted by an A.I. probably shouldn’t warrant such reaction, but it reminded her that there were certainly parts of the job that she had missed. She liked her work at the Finance department at both SI and AT, but being an accountant was most certainly less interesting than being the assistant of a crazy genius billionaire whose house was managed by an artificial intelligence.

“Thanks, J.A.R.V.I.S,” she said while walking towards the door that led downstairs.

As she passed by the white couch in the spacious living-room she couldn’t help but stop for a moment. She most certainly didn’t regret that night because Peter was the best thing in her life, but she did have regrets because her foolishness of sleeping with her boss meant that her son had to grow up without a father. She told herself a million times since Mr. Stane insisted on having her back as Tony’s PA that the only reason why she wanted this job was because of the professional challenge it possessed. However, standing there she knew that a tiny traitorous part of her decided to accept the offer because she hoped that this way Tony would change his mind about Peter. She couldn’t help the thought that if he was faced with the reality of Peter existing, then he would sooner or later decide to be involved.

She decided to move before she broke down right there. Between the death of her parents and Peter being interested in his father, she has been feeling like she had failed him because he now lacked a father figure in his life. However, she knew that she couldn’t force Tony into becoming a father either – no, he needed to want it himself. So, she couldn’t be such a mess right before meeting him again because it would just spook him. She needed to be the perfect assistant again, that’s the reason she was primarily in the mansion after all and if in the long run being around him changed his mind that was just a bonus. Not that she genuinely believed it would, he was adamant that he never wanted to be a father after all.

She had to keep that in mind, she couldn’t think of it any other way because then she wouldn’t be better than any of the women who wanted to tie him down with a baby. No, if Tony didn’t want to be Peter’s father that was completely fine, she decided – for about the millionth time since she learned about her pregnancy. Yet, she knew that a part of her that had been awoken by all the stress and loss she had recently faced hoped that Peter would have a father.

That tiny part always existed but until now she could suppress it. She was certain it was only a matter of time before she was in control of her mind again. Life has just been hard recently – she had Peter though and that was all that mattered. She just wanted the best for him. However, if she forced Tony to be there for Peter, that would just turn nasty on long term. The idea of Tony wanting to be Peter’s father was just too nice of a thought to get rid of just now though. Later. Yes, she would get stronger. She would be more collected. She just needed a bit of time to dream.

The shop didn’t look much different than nearly four years ago. As she stepped into the workshop (J.A.R.V.I.S. opening the door without having to even enter a code) she couldn’t help but remember the last time she was there. It was not a pleasant memory. Tony was by the desk now as well and some rock song she didn’t know was blaring through the speakers, but this time he put down the machine he was working on the moment she stepped in. He didn’t look much different but the moment he looked at her, she knew that things were different between them now. He looked like a deer caught in the headlights.

“J, turn off the music,” he said automatically. And after a quick “Yes, sir” the shop became eerily quiet. Pepper took a few steps looking down, not ready to look into his dark eyes again. She took a deep breath because she knew that it was time to face the music. She was the one to take the job, so it was her task to make it work.

“It is my pleasure to see you again, Mr. Stark. I hope that you will be satisfied with my work. I thought that first we could go through your meetings for the week,” she said professionally but she only dared to look up once she finished. Tony looked at her rather blankly like he didn’t understand a word she said or cared at all.

“Pepper – I think we should first talk about this new job of yours. I know that Obadiah insisted on having you, but you could have said no to him.”

Pepper. She was surprised that he remembered the silly nickname he gave her the first time they met, let alone that after everything that had happened, he still insisted on calling her that. Especially as he didn’t exactly seem to like her new position.

“For obvious reasons I was uncertain whether it was a good idea to resume my old position. However, I believed that as adults we can put that behind us, it happened many years ago after all. It was only a lapse of judgement induced by alcohol for both of us and I’m sure neither of us wants to repeat it. I like this job, Mr. Stark. I sincerely hope that we can work well together without any lasting awkwardness,” she replied.

It probably sounded rather like she had practiced it for hours in front of a mirror, but she supposed while there was no mirror involved that was pretty much what happened. She knew that this would be awkward at first, but she hoped that they could work it out. The thought of becoming his PA again had never occurred to her, and when she was first offered the position, she refused it automatically, but after much thinking she decided to give it a chance. Since then she became more and more enthusiastic about the idea – and for the right reasons for most parts.

When she was his PA originally, she wasn’t fond of the job. However, on hindsight after working for years in the office at accounting she realized that she was better suited for a job that entailed more management than just studying numbers, she enjoyed working with people a lot more closely. She probably could have got a job at HR as a manager at SI, but when this job was presented to her on a silver platter, suddenly she wanted it. Being Tony Stark’s assistant was exhausting and not always rewarding, but a rather unique experience. She could be an HR manager for the rest of her life anyway.

Tony crossed his arms and frowned. He didn’t exactly seem convinced that this was a good idea. “You told me that you hadn’t had time to have sex as my PA. Then how do you want to do the job while raising a little kid?” She supposed that was a fair question. It was one that she often wondered about as well, because being Tony’s PA was certainly not a nine-to-five job.

“I’d certainly be less flexible now than I was when I was originally your assistant, Mr. Stark. However, I think we could still make it work, but of course if you find that my work is not satisfactory, I will accept that and resign,” she simply replied. Tony looked at her with a tilt of his head like he was trying to solve her and see through her from a different angle.

“So, you actually want to go through with this stupid plan of Obie?” he asked incredulously. “Wasn’t it you who repeated countless times that you couldn’t work for me after having sex with me?” He was rather blunt, and she couldn’t help but blush, her red hair and white skin not helping. She certainly didn’t need the reminder of what had happened between them – she had it in a form of excitable three-year-old.

“A lot has happened since then Mr. Stark,” she replied simply, and he chuckled humorlessly.

“So, you were not okay with being my PA after having drunken sex one time, but you think it’s a good idea now that you are raising the result of the said night?”

When it was put it that way, her logic seemed rather faulty or simply stupid. However, the equation didn’t make sense to Tony because he was missing a variable: love. She was falling in love with him back then and she was afraid that remaining around Tony would certainly result in heartache. There was no way he would ever want anything permanent from her after all. Peter had changed everything though – suddenly he was the focus of her life and a silly crush on her boss didn’t seem such a big thing anymore. Especially because she absolutely didn’t have the time for relationships anyways, all she needed was Peter.

“It was awkward then and I was utterly confused – I didn’t want to become the cliché PA who slept with her boss. I felt like a slut,” she answered honestly without adding that it fueled her crush as well that she desperately wanted to fight. Tony looked deeply into her eyes.

“And it’s not awkward now?” he asked her with a grimace.

She pressed her lips together and remained silent for a long moment. The atmosphere between them was certainly uneasy, so the obvious answer would be that yes, it was awkward. Hell, she knew it would be hence her prepared speech. Yet, at the same time now she remembered why she developed that crush in the first place. No matter his countless faults, she liked being around him. She also knew that he liked having her as his PA. Then again, that was before her pregnancy announcement. In their own way they had worked out that issue in AT as well though. He didn’t want to be involved but handled it as a businessman and she was okay with that. He accepted being the father even before the official paternity results even. It was okay. They were okay.

“It is, but I think it won’t be like this always, not if we focus on the work. Let’s just be professional Mr. Stark and see where it goes,” she proposed.

He nodded without cracking a joke or making an impolite comment. She supposed he either took her comment to heart or he did feel that this arrangement would be too awkward to work. Nevertheless she never backed off a challenge. She could be the perfect PA, Mr. Stane wanted for Tony, and she would show Tony that this could work. She wanted this to work.

“You have a meeting today at three o’clock with R&D. It’s about the new missile prototype.”

***

Thursday, 16th December 2004

The anniversary of his parents’ death was always a hard day for Tony. He fired many PAs over the years for not understanding his need of solitude that day. Pepper was of course different. She knew without even having been told to stay away. He locked himself in the shop with some ridiculously expensive – even by his standard – hard liquor that he wished would numb the pain, but in never did. It has been thirteen years now, but it never really got easier no matter all those quotes saying that it would get better with time. He found those completely stupid as sometimes the loss of his mother still felt just as fresh as the day after the accident.

He opened the photo album that was currently on his desk, but which was shoved into the back of his wardrobe any other day unlike the rest of the family albums that still collected dust at the family estate in New York. But while those covered only short specific time periods with countless useless pictures about the scenery, this was an album his mother put together when he was already at MIT and it contained her favorite pictures of his childhood and their family. He felt like a sentimental fool when he turned the pages and looked at the photos, but looking at the likeness of his mother always dulled the ache in his chest, especially knowing how fond she was of this album that she put together with care and love as a present for his MIT graduation. At seventeen he didn’t appreciate the gift that much, but in hindsight he was glad his mother gave it to him. He should have valued everything she did more. Yeah, hindsight was a bitch.

It became somehow his tradition to scroll through the album on the anniversary to remember his mother and feel her close to him. However, this was the first time since 2000 that he opened the album and the reason for it was obvious on the very first page. There were four pictures on the first page – his mother with a big belly with the caption “Three days before Tony’s birth”, a picture of his parents obviously taken at the same time as his mother was wearing the same flower-patterned maternity dress, a picture of his mother holding him as a baby with the caption “Welcome to the World, Anthony!” and a picture of him as a newborn with identity bracelet, blue hat and all.

He didn’t dare to look at the album because of that exact picture. After August 2001 when he was stupid enough to open that message from Pepper with the picture, he knew that his mind would wonder into dangerous territories. He wasn’t exactly sure what was different now, why he felt the sudden urge to see his own childhood pictures. However, he suspected it had to do with Pepper’s sudden reappearance in his life.

He was skeptical about having her as his PA again, but he should have known better than think that she would be anything but professional. Honestly, she was irritatingly professional. She took a step back when he got close to her, insisted that she was to be addressed as Miss Potts, and she never said a word about her life outside of her work. She was in fact less flexible when it came to extreme working hours, but if he didn’t know that she had a three-year-old waiting for her at home, then he wouldn’t have never learned of it, because other than that nothing she said or did indicated it. She was always perfectly collected and looked flawless unlike the mothers with young children he always saw.

Her distance should not have been a problem, because theirs was supposed to be a completely professional relationship, but for some unexplainable reason, it did bother him. Especially when he realized that the text messages and emails stopped coming as well. For the last three years at least once a month he received some message from her about the kid. He never checked what she wrote, just told J.A.R.V.I.S. to alert him, if it was some emergency or if they needed something specifically from him. Still, this silence was maddening. She was right there every day in front of him and yet she seemed farther away than when she lived four hundred miles away. He knew that it was stupid that it bothered him, because he never wanted to have a child, and he told her so – countless times. Now it seems that she accepted the reality that he was just not meant to be a father. He should have been relieved.

He couldn’t help but wonder if maybe the change was not caused by her new job, but by finding a man who was to ready to step up and be a father to the kid. He didn’t care, he insisted, but deep down he knew that he didn’t like the idea. He just couldn’t grasp why. He still didn’t want to be a father; he was certain of that. Children were loud, filthy, and stupid. They couldn’t be left alone for five minutes because they were a danger to themselves and to others. They asked endless annoying questions and didn’t understand any of the patient answers. Then they grew up to be even stupider adults who couldn’t care less about their parents or all the sacrifices they did for them. Yes – no, thank you – he certainly didn’t need this.

However, his eyes shifted towards the baby picture with his mother and he couldn’t wonder what she would think about him having a son he had never seen. She would most certainly be upset with him, disappointed even. She was such a maternal loving person that she couldn’t live with the thought of having a grandchild she didn’t know, so he was sure that she would seek the child out herself. She would be constantly nagging him with updates and telling him how the kid looked just like him even if it was a blatant lie. She would be a proud grandma for sure, he decided.

“I’m sorry, Mom, I know that you wouldn’t approve,” he muttered as he gently ran his thumb across his mother’s photo. She looked radiant with his baby self in her arms. Her hazel eyes bright with tired happiness and an impossibly wide grin on her petite face. He wondered if she would have looked just as eternally maternal with his grandson in her arms.

“J, open the Baby Rock folder from my private server,” he ordered impulsively and the screens on his desk lit up automatically. He turned towards the closest one and a folder full of pictures was opened there. He selected the very first one, the only one he had ever seen. It was a very similar picture to the one in the album just as he remembered with a baby bracelet, blue hat, and squishy red face. He was staring at the picture and tried to work out what he was feeling. The alcohol didn’t numb his pain, but it certainly did his mind. His mind was completely blank of any thoughts while he felt a mixture of thousand feelings.

He stupidly proceeded to the next picture (that was of the newborn as well, though he looked less squishy and red already, but just as tiny) and then asked J.A.R.V.I.S. to start a slideshow as he leaned backwards in his seat. There were more pictures than he anticipated, obviously Pepper sometimes sent more than one. After the second message she sent, he told his A.I. to create a folder and save the pictures. He didn’t know why. He never planned to look through them. Maybe he just felt bad for not opening the messages. Deep down he must have felt some shame that she diligently sent them to him only for them to be never opened.

Yet, here he was now watching a folder full of pictures of a kid who shared half of his gene set. It was just like looking through the album – he could see how the kid changed from one month to the other. He was captivated by the slideshow so much that when the door of the shop opened, he didn’t even notice. Damn, he should have asked J.A.R.V.I.S. to announce anyone coming it, but because everyone who had access to his workshop knew what this day meant to him, he never anticipated having company.

“Never thought I would ever find you watching your baby pictures, Tones.”

Tony stiffened and turned around in his office chair only to be faced with Rhodey. His friend was out of uniform, in a simple, not exactly stylish maroon sweater and dark jeans. He had an amused expression that usually meant that Tony was to hear about the incident in the coming years.

“What are you doing here, cupcake?” he asked dumfounded. “You are supposed to be in DC. Why aren’t you in DC? Go back to DC.”

Rhodey came closer stopping about five feet away from Tony but didn’t answer instead his attention was on the screen. It showed a picture of the kid around age two. He had a shy smile as he looked into the camera with a red ball in his hands that was nearly bigger than the kid himself.  Having seen his childhood photos a lot of times, Tony knew that the resemblance was obvious or maybe even striking, so the logical guess would be that it was his baby photo. There was no way that Rhodey who never studies the Stark family albums would ever realize that it was not Tony on the photo. Luckily, there was nothing on the picture that suggested the twenty first century. So, he could just tell his friend that he was digitalizing his family photos. Not that in the Stark family that was needed.

“J.A.R.V.I.S., stop the presentation,” Tony barked, and the slideshow automatically stopped but the folder was still open. Fuck, he should have been more specific with his instructions. Stupid, amazingly gratifying alcohol.

“I was done with my job earlier than anticipated and thought that you might want a drinking buddy tonight. So, care to tell me why you are watching your baby pictures?” Rhodey asked as he leaned against the desk holding most of his weight by his outstretched arms.

“I’ve just scanned the pictures from Mom’s album.”

Tony gestured towards the album that was still laying open on desk while turning off the screen of the computer manually. It was the least conspicuous way of getting rid of the pictures of the kid. He hoped that in a few minutes Rhodey would completely forget about the presentation and if he were still interested in watching Stark photos, he would just look through the album laying right there.

“Can’t I watch the slideshow too? The pictures seemed much better quality on the screen – I guess you ran some quality upgrading programs?” Rhodey asked. The thirty years of technological development was an obvious answer to his question, but of course he couldn’t know that.

“Yeah, you know, the seventies were a long time ago. It’s a drink you need man, not some photos. Let me get you a glass, you will love this whisky – and if you don’t then you’ll still tell yourself you do, because of its ridiculous price,” Tony replied.

He got up from the office chair to get glass for Rhodey too from the kitchenette in the end of the workshop. Just as he turned back with the glass in his hand, he noticed that the screen was back on and Rhodey was sitting on his chair staring at it.

“What the fuck Tony, isn’t that you PA?” he asked pointing to one of the picture icons and then opening it in full screen. Fuck, Tony really should have just closed the folder instead of turning off the screen. It was an encrypted folder so Rhodey would have never found it once it was closed. Hell, he should have just asked J.A.R.V.I.S. He was certainly a mess. This was never his day, but it has just turned even worse.

“That’s your PA.” Rhodey only saw Pepper a few times, but her strawberry blonde hair was easily recognizable, Tony supposed.

The picture on the screen had to be a recent one, Tony hadn’t even seen it yet, because Rhodey interrupted his slideshow before he could see all of them. He supposed it must have been taken during the kid’s third birthday just this summer as the kid was sitting in his mother’s lap with a red birthday hat on his head and some chocolate icing on his cheeks. His brown eyes were shining brightly, and his hair was a mess of dark curls. Both mother and son were smiling, and Pepper’s hair was down in soft waves unlike the stiff ponytails she always wore for work. It was the kind of picture that was frequently used in ads because the mother-son pair seemed ridiculously perfect on it. Tony was frozen as Rhodey closed the picture and studied the folder that was full of pictures of the kid and yes, some of them had Pepper as well.

“Do you want to explain, or should I guess?” Rhodey asked softly.

“Platypus, there isn’t anything to explain,” he insisted, though he knew he didn’t exactly sound convincing. He probably didn’t even want to convince Rhodey of some lie anymore. He just felt exhausted. Fed up with bottling it all up, he supposed. With Pepper around and being extra unreachable, the kid was plaguing his mind and there was no one to share the burden with. In some ways his best friend learning about his alcohol-induced mistake that has kept him up during the nights one too many times might be a relief.

“So, you often stare at pictures of random toddlers?” Rhodey asked with a doubtful expression.

“You know, the definition of random is so unclear ― happening without method or conscious decision, they say. But it depends on what we accept as a conscious decision. Believe me, the kid was not one, so I think we can say that he is rather random,” he replied thoughtfully. Rhodey looked at him like he had completely lost it. Tony supposed it was not as far from the truth as he wished it to be.

“My question is, is it just a possibility that he is yours or do you know it for sure?” Rhodey asked after a moment of silence.

Tony wasn’t surprised by his friend’s question; he knew without a doubt that Rhodey would catch on, he wouldn’t be friends with a total moron. There certainly weren’t that many options, because he was not a pedophile who watched pictures of random little children just out of entertainment and pleasure. He imagined it quite a few times how he would tell Rhodey about the kid, but reality was never like imagination. He always thought that he could choose the right moment to share his secret if he ever decided to do it. Then again, maybe there was no such thing as perfect moment.

“I’m sure. My lawyer personally organized the paternity testing. Plus, compare the pictures, it’s obvious,” he said without much emotion and gestured towards the album. Rhodey reached for it and turned a page or two until the Tony on the pictures was a toddler and then a preschooler. Rhodey was silent for a few minutes and then he looked up.

“How long have you known about him? Has she just told you?” he asked. Tony shook his head.

“No, she came to me as soon as she learned of the pregnancy. The kid was tested right after birth. I just… the only person I ever told about even the possibility was my lawyer. I liked to pretend that it wasn’t happening, that I just dreamt it,” he simply replied.

Rhodey looked a bit hurt which Tony supposed was not surprising. They have been friends for a very long time – more than half of Tony’s life by now. He would be upset as well, if he learned that Rhodey had a kid he didn’t tell him about for nearly four years. The difference between them was that it would never happen.

“I’m your best friend,” he replied.

“Of course you are, sugar cube,” Tony agreed easily as it was a no brainer.

“You have a kid and you’ve never told me,” Rhodey accused him.

“I – I nearly did a lot of times… It’s just… You know, it never actually seemed real when Pepper was living with him in Frisco. And then Obie had insisted on the idea of having Potts back as my PA and suddenly… it is so much more real with her here and knowing that when she leaves my office at the end of the day she is going to the daycare wing to pick him up,” he rambled on and on, but Rhodey didn’t seem to mind.

“So, you aren’t in the boy’s life at all?” he asked softly. Tony shook his head.

“No, I have never seen him. Legally he isn’t mine either, just biologically, as she decided not to add me to the birth certificate so that she can keep the paternity a secret. I had set up with her an unofficial child support system though.” Rhodey looked stunned.

“Fuck, man,” that was all he said.

“Yeah, that got me in this situation – oh, and alcohol, there was definitely lots of alcohol that night,” Tony replied automatically and Rhodey snorted. “Oh, and lack of conscious decisions. Completely random kid as I said.”

“Cute kid, and he looks a lot like you. What’s his name?” Rhodey asked curiously.

Tony was silent for a moment. It felt surreal talking about the kid. Mr. Crawley was the only one he ever discussed the kid with before and even that hadn’t happened in years, because his lawyer was satisfied with the settlement. He always insisted that it was a done deal and there was no reason to worry, no one would ever learn about it. Suck it, Mr. Crawley – someone just did! Next time Tony saw the guy, he would certainly bring that up.

“Of course he is cute, he looks just like me,” he replied. Then added as if an afterthought: “Peter.”

Fuck, he only ever thought about the boy as ‘kid’ – this was the first time since that text message more than three years ago that he thought of the kid as Peter. Thinking of him as simply ‘kid’ made it less personal, he supposed.

“Don’t you want to get to know him? I mean he is what, four now? At that age you were designing circuit boards. Are you not curious if he inherited your brain?” Rhodey pressed him and this was exactly why Tony never told his friend about the kid.

While Rhodey was his best friend, Tony always knew that in many ways they were quite different. His friend was the type of guy whose first question to the woman when faced with an unplanned pregnancy would be how he could help instead of questioning whether it was his child at all. He was unlikely to understand Tony’s lack of involvement or even interest in the kid’s life.

“No,” he replied rather forcefully. “Look, as you can see on the pictures the kid is happy. No need to mess up his life.” Rhodey didn’t look convinced at all. He turned back towards the album again.

“Your old man was not exactly the type of father that supported you through thick and thin, he was just never there at all, right?” Rhodey asked like he didn’t know the answer. Tony just rolled his eyes knowing already full well where this was going.

“Right.”

“Do you really want the same for your kid?” he asked.

“Drink, don’t think, sweetums,” Tony stated as he put down the glass he was still holding and poured to his friend from the bottle of whisky more than generously.

By the holographic platform there was another chair that he pulled closer and sat down on it. He also picked up his glass and drank the remaining liquid in one gulp before pouring another full glass of whisky. Now that Rhodey knew about the kid there was probably not enough alcohol in the world that could help Tony, but he was happy to test that theory. Man, did he need another drink – and then another one. Rhodey was not as thirsty as Tony, because he was just staring at the glass thoughtfully.

“You know, Peter will always think that the reason why you were never around is that he wasn’t good enough.” Tony stiffened, nearly choking on the whisky. “And isn’t that the truth, really?”

“What?” Tony asked incredulously. “I don’t have any specific problem with the kid… I mean with Peter. I just don’t want children.” Rhodey stared at him.

“You know, that’s probably what your father thought exactly and yet you spent half your life hating him for ignoring you and the other half feeling that you weren’t good enough and wishing to prove him wrong.”

Ah, sermons – the reason why he never wanted Rhodey to know about the kid. How unexpected… Yet, the disappointment in his friend’s dark eyes was hard to ignore even for Tony. He cared about the opinion of very few people, but Rhodey was among them.

“I’d have been better off without knowing my old man at all,” he eventually replied. Rhodey didn’t appear to agree with his words. Rhodey was a solider who could look just as emotionless as the best of them, but with Tony he never seemed to think hiding his real thoughts was needed.

“Maybe not the way he was meant to be, but he always prompted you to do better. It was not the type of encouragement I think you deserved, he was not loving enough for that, but it was certainly a driving force that pushed you to live up to your full potential and not just waste away.”

“I didn’t know you approved of me so much, honey bear,” Tony said with a smirk. Rhodey just shook his head with a fond smile.

“I wouldn’t stick around if I didn’t,” he simply replied. “But seriously, Tones, Peter deserves your attention, he will need his father’s love. I’m sure Miss Potts is an amazing mother, but she can’t be his father as well.” Tony looked away, not meeting Rhodey’s eyes. Instead he watched as Dum-E and U circled in the workshop without any reason at all being a danger to his other inventions and to his priceless car collection.

“Have you seen her? I’m sure she will meet a guy – probably a single father from PTA with a boring office job, marry him and have a sickeningly sweet and poster perfect bonus family with him.”

“For someone who doesn’t care, you sure sound like you put much thought into that,” Rhodey replied without missing a beat.

“Look, I’m not saying I don’t care, I’m just not what the kid needs, I can’t be a PTA-dad, and he deserves better than a Howard-type of father.” There, he said it. Rhodey looked at him with wide eyes.

“Why would you be anything like Howard as a father?” he asked, and Tony chuckled darkly.

“I live for the world of inventions instead of people just like he did, so why would I be any different? We, Starks, are great with machines, but not with people – especially not children.” Rhodey had a peculiar look that always meant trouble for Tony. It meant some suggestion that he wouldn’t like but couldn’t say no to, because it came from his oldest friend.

“I know what I’d like for Christmas from you,” Rhodey suddenly said which was strange for many reasons.

It was a very sudden change of topic for one, and another reason was that while from day one of their acquaintanceship, he knew exactly how rich Tony was, Rhodey never cared much about expensive presents, he always insisted that his friendship was not for sale. So, he never asked for anything specific from Tony. This was the first time in about twenty years of friendship that Rhodey said something like that.

“Why do I think I won’t like it?” Tony asked sarcastically. “Please say that it’s the newest Ferrari or Porsche – or maybe Audi? No, I think you might be more of an Aston Martin type of guy, you know – I’m Rhodes, James, Rhodes. Very badass.” Rhodey laughed at him.

“Okay, I’m probably crazy but I have to say no even though anyone else in my position would just say yes. So, yeah – I’ve lost it, but Tony, I don’t need you to buy me a car. What I want doesn’t cost much money.”

Tony hated giving those type of gifts. Money, he had and understood – the more it cost, the better the present was. However, sentimental gifts were lot harder to grasp for him. It didn’t mean that he didn’t appreciate when someone got him a present that was really personal, after all he was a billionaire so it wasn’t like he couldn’t buy anything he wanted, it was just that giving them was hard.

“How about two cars then? I can do that,” Tony insisted.

“Just hear me out okay?” Rhodey asked and Tony nodded. Okay, he could do that. “I want you to sit down with Miss Potts and ask about Peter – ask what he is like and what he likes, and then buy him a Christmas present based on her response. That’s all.” Rhodey looked rather pleased with himself, but Tony was sure his friend was completely nuts.

“That’s the weirdest Christmas wish I’ve ever heard,” he replied and Rhodey shrugged.

“That’s what I want though – no flashy cars, just a simple conversation with your son’s mother and a gift for him. Look, I’m trying to be a good friend here. I’m sure one day I will get that ridiculously expensive car anyways when you realize that I have just given you the best possible gift.” Okay, Rhodey really lost it. It was incredibly sad because he was such a safe point in Tony’s life. He was the type of person that Tony could always count on.

“And what would that be?” Tony asked incredulously.

“A family.”

Right… Why didn’t Tony think of that, huh? Completely logical. Tony sighed. He supposed he could go along with Rhodey’s stupid idea. It would be probably awkward, but certainly not the weirdest shit he has ever done, not even close. Plus, for some unexplainable reason it seemed that it meant a lot to Rhodey. Surely, he could do this just to please his best and oldest friend? Yes, it was an incredibly stupid gift idea but if this was, what Rhodey wanted, then he would get it, Tony decided.

“Okay, you get it, but how about no more baby talk now, instead we just drink? I really need some more alcohol after this conversation. Like alcohol worth your annual salary type of quantity I’m talking about.”

***

Monday, 20th December 2004

Pepper was wearing a gray dress that seemed modest enough on a first glance for a work environment, but when she sat down, it left much of her creamy legs exposed – not that Tony paid attention to her thighs of course, but he was only a man. He couldn’t help but notice that his memory did no justice to her breasts either. He supposed childbearing could have some positive consequences as well.

“Yes, Mr. Stark, what did you want to discuss?” she asked with a pen and a calendar already prepared. They sat by his dining table, which he frankly never used having his meals at the shop, in the kitchen or at the office. His interior designer said something about it being the focus of the room, so he kept it anyways. With previous PAs he usually just sat down on the sofa, if he ever felt the need to have a conversation with them at all, but he knew that the living-room was off limits when it came to Pepper Potts for obvious reasons.

“You won’t need the calendar, it’s actually rather personal,” he started and noticed her stiffen automatically at the word ‘personal’. Since she started working him again that was something that just didn’t exist.

“I’m not sure how I can be of service for you then, Mr. Stark,” she replied coolly, her back straightened, her eyes sharp, her lips pressed. This way she looked like a marble statue of some Greek goddess who was greater than life.

“Tell me about the kid – I mean Peter. What is he like? What does he like?” Her cool demeanor crumbled in a second. Her eyes widened and she looked like a deer caught in the headlights.

“Why are you interested in that?” she asked quietly. He wasn’t sure what the good answer to that question would be.

“Just need an idea for a Christmas gift for the kid,” he replied offhandedly. She put down the pen and crossed her arms.

“You don’t even do Christmas presents, I ordered all the gifts that you need to hand out of courtesy,” she replied automatically.

“That is true, I suppose. You are much better in it, so please do help me out here.” His answer seemed to surprise her even more. She seemed hesitant, so he used his best card. “I ask you as your boss to help me out with some gift ideas. You yourself said you do it already, so this is just part of your job.” That seemed to relax her.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Stark. It’s just I don’t want to ever cross certain boundaries anymore and remaining strictly professional is the easiest way to achieve it. Talking about Peter with you seems to cross the line,” she replied, and he shrugged it off.

“Think of me then as your boss who shows some mild interest in learning about your son out of professional courtesy. I heard that some bosses actually do that,” he insisted. A small hesitant smile appeared on her face.

“Well, he is the sweetest kid there is, full of love. He is way too smart for his age, already reading books. Currently he is most fascinated with dinosaurs, but he is also very interested in astronomy, completely taken by learning more about the stars and planets. He also loves animals, asking questions about their biology I cannot even answer without looking them up, and he has been plastering me about having a puppy for way too long, I just don’t have the time to take care of a dog as well.”

By the end of her monologue Pepper was wearing a wide smile and her eyes had a glint he hadn’t seen since she started working him again. He wasn’t sure how he felt himself. Mostly stunned. Whenever he thought of the kid, he thought of him as a drooling baby not someone interested in astronomy and biology.

“Right. Thank you, Miss Potts. You certainly helped me out with my problem. Off you go, your working hours are over.” She seemed surprised by the sudden change of tone, but she just nodded. She might have sensed that he needed some time alone.

“Is that all, Mr. Stark?” she asked as she picked up her discarded folders after she stood up from the table.

“That is all, Miss Potts,” he replied automatically. She then said goodbye and disappeared from his vision in a moment though he could hear the clicking of her high heels as she left the house.

 

***

Saturday, 8th January 2005

Tony put down the screwdriver and picked up a discarded rag to wipe off his hands. He headed towards the tap at the kitchenette of the workshop to wash his hands when J.A.R.V.I.S. once again reminded him that Pepper was waiting for him and she would storm down again in ten minutes if he were not upstairs by then. As she had been down twice already, he knew that the third time wouldn’t be pretty, so he decided to just humor her and go up.

“J, start the coffee machine upstairs,” he asked and headed towards the kitchen in need of some caffeine.

To his greatest surprise once he entered the modern kitchen someone was already sitting at the table – and it wasn’t his PA. At first glance he nearly missed the person, because he was so tiny. The table was full of colored pencils and books though, so it was hard to miss that something peculiar was going on in the room. The kid looked up probably spooked by the coffee machine that has just started when Tony entered the room and it made some noise. As the boy looked around his eyes met Tony’s. He was so tiny that he was sitting on a pillow to reach up the table.

The kid has changed a bit since the last photo Tony he had seen of him, but not enough to be unrecognizable. The dark curls which were only a shade lighter than his own hair were a mess. His chubby cheeks were frozen in a surprised but shy smile and his achingly familiar brown eyes were wide. Peter Potts was sitting by his kitchen table and it messed Tony up more than he thought it was possible. He never planned to meet the kid and yet here he was sitting at Tony’s kitchen table like it was the most natural thing. It was a fascinatingly odd sight, a kid coloring in his kitchen especially knowing that he was the father of the child.

“Hi, I’m Peter. Mommy told me never to talk to strangers, but you’re Mr. Stark, right? Mommy works for you and this is your house. You don’t really count as a stranger, do you?” Peter asked him and Tony was at a loss of words.

“Well, to make sure, you should tell me what’s your favorite dinosaur, then I’d know you.” Tony wasn’t sure why knowing his favorite dinosaur would make him less of a stranger and a danger to the kid, but he was still so stunned that he just went along with it and said the first dinosaur name that came to his mind.

“T-Rex.” Peter looked thoughtful at his answer.

“I thought you’d say something more original, but I guess T-Rex is cool, so I can understand it.”

Tony couldn’t help but chuckle. He has never been accused of being not original enough especially by a little kid. It was so absurd he found it rather entertaining. The thing was that the whole situation itself was very absurd, but he supposed taking it lightly was better than freaking out before the kid. It was not the kid’s fault after all that he was born.

“So, what’s yours then? Just to make sure we aren’t strangers anymore,” he prompted the little boy.

Peter had a wide smile when questioned. His smile suddenly turned to a frown though and then picked up a book from the table. Tony was once again stunned when he recognized the book as the 3D dinosaur children’s book he bought for the kid for Christmas. Of course Peter couldn’t know that it was from him, because it was just presented to him as part of all the Christmas gifts he received from Santa, but the thought that he was carrying it around certainly surprised Tony. The kid liked the gift he bought for him. It was a frightening, but nice thought.

“I don’t know – I can’t choose, they’re just all so interesting,” he replied with a pout that was oddly cute. He opened the book and the folded paper sprang out in the middle automatically showing the form of a Triceratops. Peter seemed to be mesmerized by the sight.

“Did you know that Triceratops lived the same time as the T-Rex? And that the Triceratops’ head is one of the largest of any land animal discovered? And I read, some Triceratops may’ve had like eight hundred teeth – how cool is that?”

The kid got excited and started enumerating facts so fast that it was hard to keep up with him. While Tony himself was never interested in dinosaurs, he didn’t particularly care about them even as a kid, he found the childish delight and enthusiasm Peter had about them rather engaging. Especially coming from a boy who was not even three and a half. Pepper was not exaggerating as mothers often did when she said that the kid was smart. It was another piece of the puzzle that just didn’t fit in the picture that Tony had crafted over the years. Oh no, the kid he envisioned over the years didn’t look anything like him (even though he knew the boy was more likely to inherit his coloring than Pepper’s), and certainly was not gifted. So, obviously the opposite of the real Peter Potts. Fuck.

“Really cool,” he echoed. Peter beamed at him and his white baby teeth appeared.

“Mr. Stark,” Peter became very sincere suddenly.

“My Mommy thinks you’re like really smart. So, now that you aren’t a stranger, I hope you can help me, ‘cause I need an answer. Mommy always gets sad when I ask her, and I want her to be happy, so I thought I should ask someone else, but Mommy is the smartest person I know – but I hope you’re nearly as smart and can tell me where I can find a Daddy.” The kid’s rambling seemed endless, but when he did end his monologue and looked at Tony with those impossibly brown eyes of his, Tony nearly forgot how to breath. Fuck indeed.

“You want to find a Daddy?” he asked completely dumbfounded by the three-year-old. The kid nodded eagerly.

“Yes, everyone’s one but me – well, Emma and Amy don’t, but they have two Mommies, and I only have one. Not that it’s a problem, ‘cause she is the bestest, but I want a Daddy too like the others. Mommy says I have one as well, but I don’t know where to find him,” Peter explained. Tony stood there gaping at the kid just as the coffee maker he forgot about suddenly stopped with a beep signaling that his coffee was ready.

Before he could reply – not that he had an answer for the kid – Pepper appeared pretty much out of thin air, or maybe Tony was just so caught up in his head that he only noticed her when she was right by his side.

“I’m sorry sweetie for leaving you alone for a few minutes.” She stopped right behind Peter’s chair and ruffled his hair.

“It’s okay – Mr. Stark and I were talkin’ about dinosaurs,” Peter beamed. Pepper looked at Tony and he sensed the wordless question, so he plastered a shaky smile on his face like the world didn’t just stopped making sense to him.

“Yeah, the little guy certainly knows his dinosaurs,” he agreed. “It was nice to meet you, kid, but I’ve got to go now.”

He left the room without another word. He went back to the workshop and continued the project he had been working on while trying to erase the memories of the encounter from his mind. The problem with being a literal genius was that his mind didn’t exactly work like everyone else’s. He could certainly do the engineering work while his thoughts ran wild. It was about half an hour later that J.A.R.V.I.S. announced that Pepper has just got into the shop. When he looked up, he noticed that she looked just as upset as he was.

“Mr. Stark, I want to apologize. The babysitter cancelled at the last minute and the daycare is only for the weekdays, so I had to ask a friend to look after him, but she had some work to do early in the morning, she could only take him now. I didn’t know what to do with him, thought you wouldn’t even notice that he was here, you were so caught up in work… I just went to the bathroom and asked J.A.R.V.I.S. to make sure he was okay alone for a few minutes–” he cut off her rambling which now reminded Tony of her son.

“It’s okay.” It was okay that she came with Peter who couldn’t be left alone at home. Was he okay with meeting the kid? Totally not, but that wasn’t her fault.

“It’s okay,” he repeated it, trying to convince himself as well that the meeting didn’t just break something in him. He was okay. He had to be. It was just a kid. He had met children before. Yet, he was not some random kid. He was not okay, but he was going to be, he supposed. He was just surprised by the encounter and unprepared. He just needed some time to get over what has just happened.

“Really? I know that it was certainly not professional, and I promised you that I’d always behave professionally, so I’m very sorry Mr. Stark and I would certainly understand if you wished to terminate my employment.”

Tony looked at her and noticed her pinks cheeks and rigid posture. She was just as flustered by what has just happened as he was. A part of him wanted to shout and be angry with her, but that was only because he wanted a scapegoat, because being angry seemed so much easier than this mixture of emotions he felt, that threatened to overpower him.

Whatever he was feeling was not her fault though, not really. She might have messed up his carefully constructed life when she strolled back into it in her dangerously high heels and way too short dresses. However, she was always very careful not to cross any lines, because she obviously didn’t want to mess up his life. He couldn’t fault her that it was not enough, because he was the one that questioned everything ever since she reappeared in his life.

“Miss Potts, you didn’t do anything wrong, you don’t have to apologize,” he said. “And if you could excuse me now, I need to return to my project. I know that we agreed to discuss the fusion today, but I believe it’d be better if we talked about it on Monday. You can have the rest of the day off, spend the weekend with your son.” She was stunned but agreed immediately.

“Thank you, Mr. Stark.” Her smile was a bit hesitant, but much warmer than the polite smiles she usually gave him.

“Not at all, Miss Potts. I wish you a pleasant weekend.”

***

Monday, 17th January 2005

The last time when Tony sat Virginia down at the dining table was nearly a month ago, when he asked after Peter’s interest, because he wanted to buy her son a Christmas present. So, now she was rather apprehensive what exactly he wanted to discuss when the two of them took the same chairs as in December. None of them mentioned the incident with Peter since she apologized, and he told her it was okay.

However, she certainly noticed how much it affected him. Tony for the last week or so was much quieter and while he often disappeared into his workshop before, getting him to stop tinkering even for a second was pretty much an impossible task now. So, the fact that he was upstairs freshly shaved, and he changed into something that didn’t have oil spills on it was a surprise itself. A good one, mind you, but a surprise none the less.

“Miss Potts, I hope to talk with you know as the mother of my child rather than my personal assistant.”

The look he gave her was so intense she had to look away. She was certainly not used to Tony Stark noticing her, let alone giving her his full attention. He just breezed through life without noticing people in general, and she was okay with that, she got used to reminding him of the people around them. She could be his PA even though she was raising his child exactly because of this reason. So, she was now perplexed. Having the full attention of Tony Stark was just strange, she wasn’t sure how to proceed.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Mr. Stark. We agreed on being professional and I dare say that it seems to be working,” she replied quietly not adding that it was working until father and son came across each other and a line had been crossed without anyone being prepared for it.

Of course, Peter wasn’t shaken by the experience having no clue that he didn’t just meet his mother’s boss but his father as well, but the adults involved certainly felt the blow of the incident. It wasn’t just Tony that seemed to have problems afterwards, she wasn’t exactly top of her game either.

“Pepper –,” he started only to be automatically cut off.

“Miss Potts,” she insisted, and a ghost of a smile appeared on his face.

“Pepper,” he repeated, and she huffed knowing that they wouldn’t get from one to two if she cut him off again. He would just insist on the nickname until this conversation turned into simple bickering. He seemed to want to tell her something very much, so if he felt more comfortable while addressing her like that be it, especially as it seemed to be a personal matter anyways. She could be Pepper, their son’s mother, for a while if afterwards she can be Miss Potts, his PA again. It might be even a good idea to keep the two personas completely different. Lately, it seemed it hasn’t been going too well after all.

“So, Pepper, I have been thinking a lot since Obie appointed you as my PA. With you here things have been… intense,” he started, and she was certain that she already knew where this was going. He told her that meeting Peter was okay but based on his attitude ever since it obviously wasn’t, so now he wanted her to quit, and it was okay, she decided. While she enjoyed her job, things with Tony were still somewhat awkward and she supposed because of Peter, they would always be no matter how much she was trying.

“It’s okay, I understand, as I told you in the shop, I know that bringing Peter here was not professional, not with everything that had happened between us. I understand completely if you wish me to resign. I just ask you to let me stay at SI, maybe at HR or at Finance.” Tony seemed alarmed.

“What? No, I’m not firing you, Potts.” She frowned because she had no idea what else he could have meant then. Tony Stark was one confusing man.

“You aren’t? I mean I really would understand it, no need to fear that I’d come clean about Peter, my stance on the way I want to raise him hasn’t changed just by moving back to LA. I only did because my childhood home reminded me too much of my parents.” Tony ran his hand through his hair.

“God,” he muttered. He seemed more tense than when she told him about her pregnancy. She had no idea what could have caused the otherwise chill guy so much stress. “No, Pepper, you’re an annoyingly good PA. I’m just trying to tell you that I changed my mind.”

“About what? I mean you’ve just said you don’t want to fire me,” she said with alarm. His out of character behavior was freaking her out as well.

He looked at her with those brown eyes that he shared with his son, and she knew that he wished she would guess what he wanted to say without having to voice his thoughts, but she certainly felt lost. No matter how intensely he stared at her, she was still not closer to figuring out what he thought than when they sat down to talk.

“You have to talk to me… Tony.” His breath hitched when she referred to him with his first name and then he slowly nodded.

“It’s just hard. I… I never planned this, but then you appeared and suddenly I couldn’t stop thinking about him and then Rhodey wanted to play godfather and then came the dinosaurs… What I’ve been trying to tell you, Pepper is that I changed my mind about Peter – I want to be part of his life.”

Okay, so this had to be a dream or a cruel joke. However, she suspected it was neither just her wildest dreams suddenly coming true, which was a truly terrifying idea, because reality and dreams were quite different and often it was better when they were separated. Tony looked at him with those puppy eyes Peter perfected way too early in life and her heart was beating faster than any time before. She was even more surprised and stressed than when she learned about her pregnancy. If she were not to suddenly die right there because of heart failure, she expected to live a long healthy life.

With every fiber of her being she wanted this change of heart be true and permanent. She wanted Tony to become the father to Peter he was always supposed to be, but to her own surprise her answer was quite different. “No.”

She jumped up from the table alarming even herself. She felt traitorous tears running already down her face. She wiped them off furiously, because she didn’t want to break down in front of Tony – this was not the moment or place for crying.

“No?” he asked with confusion obviously not anticipating this answer.

“No,” she insisted feverishly.

“You-you can’t just do this!” she blurted out. “He is not just a machine to fix up or a project to perfect until you get bored and discard him – he is my son and I won’t let you ruin him!”

The words left her mouth without thinking. She might have not known Tony that well on a personal level, but she knew him well enough to understand that Tony Stark was not one for long-term commitments, and being a parent was the longest type of commitment, it lasted a lifetime. She loved the idea of Peter having a father of course but having one and then being abandoned by one was much worse than never knowing one. She couldn’t let Tony Stark ruin the best thing on Earth just because he liked challenges.

Tony got up as well and approached her slowly as if she were some wild animal ready to pounce or run away. She did neither, instead she crossed her arms and raised her chin defyingly. He stopped right in front of her and seemed to struggle to find words which was very unlike the Tony Stark she knew. Even when faced with her pregnancy he had much to say after giving her the silent treatment.

“I know that ever since that day when you told me about the pregnancy, I’ve been constantly fucking this up. Hell, I wish that literally anyone else was that little boy’s father, because he deserves much better than me. However, that’s not how it works, I now realize that. Look, Pepper, I’m not going to pretend that I wanted to be a father, but no matter how much I’ve been denying it, I already am,” he stated. She couldn’t help, but retort.

“More like a sperm donor – and I’m okay with that. He is my son, and I want what is best for him, so if you cannot be his father, then don’t try to be. You can’t ruin this, you can’t ruin him, I won’t allow you,” she insisted fearing what getting Peter’s hopes up would result in.

If she were to let Tony in Peter’s life and then he would get spooked about fatherhood all over again, it would result in permanent insecurities for Peter. He would always wonder what he did wrong even if it was all Tony’s fault. Yes, Peter deserved more from Tony than what he got so far, but it was better not to change the status quo if Tony wasn’t a hundred percent committed to it. She would not be satisfied with a half-hearted attempt, because Peter deserved more than that. He deserved the whole world in her opinion.

Tony nodded gravely. “That’s what I thought too, you know. He asked me to help him find his Daddy though and it broke my heart, because I was the reason why he didn’t have one.”

Pepper shut her eyes for a second. She suspected that not only dinosaurs were discussed in the kitchen by how spooked Tony was and how strangely he had been behaving lately, but she certainly didn’t expect her little boy to start with that.

“I won’t promise Pepper, that I’ll be a prefect father. Hell, probably the kid would be better off with pretty much anyone else, but I can promise that I won’t change my mind this time. I know that I’m not exactly reliable, but I’m not going to just abandon him. I know what it is like being ignored by your father and I don’t wish that for him.”

The hot and wet tears were still running down her face, certainly ruining her carefully applied mascara. She must have looked a complete mess, but she didn’t care just now. Maybe Tony even needed to see her like this, to know how important this was to her and how serious his promise was. This was not a promise to be taken lightly and he needed to understand that.

“Do you really understand what you are promising?” she asked quietly, hoping but not really believing. He had lost her trust when it came to Peter a long time ago way before he was even born. Her trust was fragile when it came to her little boy, because she wanted to keep him safe from everything bad in the world like an estranged father abandoning him.

“If you decide to become Peter’s father, it’s for life. Being a parent is exhausting, physically and mentally. It’s challenging, and yes, also very rewarding, but the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s certainly not about fun.” Tony nodded slowly. She didn’t know if he really understood what he was signing up for, though he didn’t seem surprised or frightened by her words.

“Look, I understand that you don’t believe me, you are smart, so I’m not surprised, I honestly don’t quite believe myself either. However, I do know that what we both need is some time. I just want you to give me a chance, hell, I feel I need to give myself a chance to do this.” She let out a shaky breath.

“What do you propose then?” she asked somewhat timidly.

She was certain she was not ready to have Tony become Peter’s dad in a fortnight, but this was what she always hoped for since she peed on those pregnancy tests. She wasn’t about to storm off and tell him to fuck off, just because she was afraid. For Peter’s sake she was ready to give this a try but only on her conditions. She was willing to listen though and learn how he imagined it.

“Bring him to the mansion every once in the while, maybe when you can’t find a babysitter, but you need to work. Don’t tell him just yet that I’m his father, let me prove it to you that I’m serious about this. Plus this way he won’t be overwhelmed either.”

His plan was simple, but a good one, because he could learn more about Peter and being in a child’s life without having to take on the mantle of Daddy right away. If he didn’t get bored by the visits and Peter and he really got to know each other, maybe even developed a bond, she would be even willing to grant him a more permanent role in her son’s life. She dearly hoped that his plan would work, but she was not yet ready to voice that dream. No, she would let him meet Peter again and just see where this was going. Just as he couldn’t get Peter’s hopes up, she had to keep to reality as well.

“Okay,” she said with a shaky smile. “I can work with that.”

To her surprise he put his arms around her and pulled her into a hug. She stiffened, but then she relaxed – right, she was now Pepper, their child’s mother and not his PA. Yet, the last time they were so close was more than four years ago that fateful night. Tony Stark was not the hugging type though, so she didn’t step away, she understood that her acceptance was important for him. It was his way to show how much it meant to him, she thought.

“Thank you,” he muttered as he let go of her looking into her eyes.

It was not too much, but Tony Stark also didn’t often say thank you. She supposed that she should get used to seeing a whole new side of Tony Stark, because the one she thought she knew would have never asked her to be involved in their child’s life. It was the start of something new she decided. She feared the unknown, but at the same time saw all the possibilities that came with it. Maybe, just maybe, Peter wouldn’t have to grown up without a father. She was ready to do anything to make sure it would happen. Peter deserved a father just as Tony deserved a chance to be one.