|PEPPER P. (saltedand) wrote in doorslogs,|
@ 2013-07-16 18:33:00
|Entry tags:||door: marvel comics, iron man, pepper potts|
Who: Tony Stark & Pepper Potts
Where: Stark Industries, California
What: What to do with a DC villain
Warnings: Achingly-passing reference to death.
There were usually a stream of people into the office in the corner - the one that was called that, when directions were given to be particularly vague. The office in the corner (Mr Stark’s) did not refer to exactly which corner, namely two and it was a vast and glassy space, usually empty if the lab were a preferable alternative (it always was). There were executive toys - toys lined up on the desk - and a stack of paperwork that eased in from various points and were thrown out with none of the same gentleness of approach into the wastepaper basket below the in-tray. Pepper moved it now, without a single gesture to mark that it was the fourteenth time in a week that she had done so, stooping in the soft cream suit and nudging it back into place. It was well known by now (particularly since Tony had become visibly more occupied and with good reason) that if something needed to be read, she would largely be the gatekeeper, and some residual uncertainty as to exactly how one slid between CEO and personal secretary and back again without adopting, at some point, both comfort and expectation with the idea that requests - from the trivial to the banal - would run through her.
Pepper held no expectation and a certain secret comfort from the relief that things had returned to how they ought be, but Tony had long since perfected the knack of appearing to adapt without needing to gear-shift. It was, she had observed, an excellent skill.
The paperwork in hands was neither banal nor trivial. It was, she saw from the top of the sheet within the discreet manila folder, important. It was the third such communication with Mr Stark, had he had a chance to think over and respond, etcetera. It was the first piece, in a long chain of pieces, that someone had waved under her nose and said, ’could you?’ in the particular tone of voice that meant Tony was pre-occupied. So pre-occupied he couldn’t, wouldn’t or hadn’t tried to follow up.
Tony was always pre-occupied.
She moved the paperwork on the desk. There was always an order to it and the order never remained the same each time she entered and each time she left. If she moved the first page in the stack, he had thought (at the very beginning, when it was so long ago he had not been used to tricks) it was a different stack entirely, and then he would turn to the next - now she shuffled the entire thing and then added whatever new information was required. The electronic device in her pocket bleeped quietly at her; whatever tech it was (and it looked like Stark Industries, even if it had not come off any production line she knew of) it was unobtrusive. It fit, even as she fished it out and examined the latest. A frown, a thin marring line amid so much redhead’s pale milk-and-cream skin, and the shoes clicked quietly on the polished floor. The paperwork lay amid the desk, forgotten temporarily.
Tony detested coming into the office, sometimes going so far as to show up at night when there was a skeleton staff, and he never, never let anyone know before he actually appeared. This prevented people from doing irritating things like scheduling “time” that had no real purpose, striking up casual conversation that he had no interest in, and presenting proposals that he didn’t want to fund. (It wasn’t possible for Tony to be subtle about anything, but now and then he could be sneaky, if it served his purposes.) Tony’s presence in the office was so rare that it stopped just short of being unprecedented, especially now that he had one on each seaboard, and he caused quite a stir as he advanced into the building, shielded by Ray-Bans and wearing a designer suit that suggested business.
Secretaries stared, managers put down their coffee mugs, and various wheels and cogs of Stark Industries administration stood up in their cubicles to watch him stride past. Tony had a pied piper aura that always somehow led to people trailing after him, but in this case, no one could keep up. He took the stairs, which confused everyone wearing shoes more expensive than their shirts, and he popped out through a DO NOT ENTER EXCEPT IN CASE OF EMERGENCY door on his executive hall.
The woman at the desk barring entrance hadn’t seen him since the day she’d been hired, and her jaw was loose as she attempted to sputter a greeting that he cut off with a cheerful wave. He spotted Pepper coming out of the glass fortress, and he gave her a familiar, distinctly false smile that he used when he wasn’t paying the slightest bit of attention to how it might be received. (His hello look at me smiles were much different.) “Pepper! Just the woman I wanted to see.” He didn’t even slow down, eating up short carpeted distance and taking her arm with a very Tony-ish, proprietary expectancy. He pulled her back into the confines of the office with him.
That Stark Industries slowed to an expedited crawl - much as traffic on a highway took in the sights along the way - was understood and expected. Managerial oversight of where exactly, time ran away to in a day, was ignored. When Mr Stark entered the office, good intention left stage right. This had been usual prior to any public knowledge of who Mr Stark was on his days off (or rather, days on given Tony’s dislike for offices) and it was like a notch on the air-conditioning turned slightly to the left; vaguely atmospheric.
Pepper gave no perceptive acknowledgment to its strangeness nor accompanying crowd that sifted through all available exits and entrances toward the desk of the gatekeeper with significant purpose; the girl sat there began to look more flustered as the queue accumulated. She lifted her head from the device in her hand and she smiled as smoothly as she slipped the non-production-line tech into her pocket, pleasant coolness and a bland lack of surprise.
“Tony,” she said, and it had the hallmark of compiling a mental list into order, the kind of greeting that snapped at its edges in a business-like way and went with the suit and the faint lines at the corners of her eyes. And then as the hand curled around her elbow and the steering quickened her steps into that particular half-way point between walk and almost a trot to keep up with him, “Tony, you could just -” and the glass door closed, and it was not a sigh but it was almost, and a pointed look that accompanied it that folded arms over the manila folder she’d been holding.
“You have,” Pepper said, with the warmth that had been lacking in the greeting, “About five minutes before the girl on the desk loses the fight.”
Tony ignored the pointed look, something he could do even while he was looking right at her. He took a moment to look into her face and examine the features there, the shift of his pupils making it obvious that he was practically counting the freckles on her nose and the shape of her subtle lips. He didn’t have the charming expression on his face that he wore when attempting to flatter, the one that was completed by a slight smile and one eyebrow a notch higher than the other, and he usually accompanied such a look by a completely conscious lean of his body toward whoever the lucky woman was that night (hour, minute). Right now he stood still, faced her, and watched her face for about ten seconds. His expression was closer to the one that he had worn under the California sun upon his return from the desert; the look was searching.
A second later he snapped up the same smile he had found then, though the flippant comment didn’t come so readily as it had then.
“It’s my office; I’m in when I say I’m in.” He let go of her arm and turned toward his desk, not taking up the expensively appointed executive seat but choosing instead one of the oft-empty guest chairs. He turned this around with the toe of one shoe and settled in it, the curve of his spine and the new direction totally ignoring desk and requisite paper stack. He tapped the arm of the chair, still watching her, apparently taking his time to get around to the point as he tried to come up with whatever it is he wanted to say.
Pepper had seen the full repertoire of Tony Stark’s smiles, both close (she blinked as his gaze trained in so closely, she imagined he could have told her exactly what constellation the freckles on her left cheek made) and from afar. She stood quite still and neatly, on shoes that managed to be both quietly expensive-looking and also unobtrusive, and she waited. The tilt of her head and the twist of her lips were politely amused, and then something worried filtered in, something of concern. It was a slight thing; most things, with Pepper, were slight. And then he smiled as if there had been nothing to him at all, the off-beat seriousness that was alarming as it was usual, demarking something, cogs whirring and alarm bells very far off for a man who ran twelve chess matches at once and stayed a move ahead in each.
She smiled too. Echo. He sat - not in the extremely comfortable, very expensive, ergonomic chair that the designer had been highly insistent on, given tone and importance (Pepper doubted either meant much to Tony, it was a chair, not a car) but with the casual disregard for something like protocol that was utterly himself.
“Three minutes,” she said simply, with one eye on the desk beyond the glass. The smooth lines of the suit crispened into wrinkles as she reopened the folder, scanned the contents - it was, as many things were, entirely unnecessary; peripheral vision lingered on the man in the chair.
“She isn’t very good at saying you aren’t in,” observation made with pleasant sympathy for the woman seated beyond the glass, “When they can see you.” A smile. The folder closed.
Tony ignored the glass. If he had to solder it shut to keep the rats from eating him alive in the cargo hold of this plague ship, he would do it. He hated the office. Tony put two feet on the floor and idly rotated back and forth, pivoting on his knees so he went one way to the left a few degrees, then corrected himself, with less and less accuracy. He was still watching her, and now he brought up one hand to set it on the edge of his jaw. His lips pursed for a second in an obvious attitude of consideration before making a decision--a trite nod to the fact that Tony never thought about his decisions before he made them. Both brows went up in juvenile innocence. “So fire her.”
Tony dropped the attitude on the chair and tipped forward so both elbows were on his knees. “I have... a situation. I want your advice on.” So maybe the assumptions about Tony’s decision-making process weren’t entirely accurate in every situation. This is why Tony enjoyed it when people made assumptions about him.
Pepper knew HR very well. HR was a separate department, given the size of Stark Industries and the number of people it employed. It was a vast department and it moved, like all good HR departments did, at the speed of legislation, that is to say, not fast at all. HR was terrified of Tony, in part because of the large number of women in his company that had liked him a great deal before he was officially Iron Man, and who liked him all the more after and in part because Tony did not move at the pace of legislation and was apt to get impatient with whoever explained why certain things could or could not happen. Pepper frequently was called upon to translate.
Becky, the girl behind the desk, looked more like she was trying extremely well to fend off some very determined people. Pepper was more apt to commend her than toward firing her, but she smiled as calmly and as innocently back at Tony, and said, “But you’re never in the office,” in the space between his posturing and his ceasing to do so, and then Becky and her travails were forgotten.
She sat. One leg curled behind the other, feet tucked neatly to one side. “What is it?” There were too many ‘situations’ Tony could now get himself - them - into, for anything but seriousness. A note of something, almost alarm, at the back of it.
Tony really didn’t want Becky fired, and he thought about her exactly as long as it took to fend off Pepper’s opinion of her. Tony generally did not fire pretty women, regardless of how incompetent they were. He was the reason the HR department existed; so they could tell him to stop and then wring their hands at legal. It was, in this case, a boon to almost everyone that he was rarely in the office. When he wasn’t there, he was less apt to cause trouble.
Fortunately, Tony had been largely absent from any project that wasn’t ready to explode for several months.
Tony sat still, apparently focused. He squinted at her, as if she was a very bright light or a bomb about to go off. He took a deep breath. “I’m considering getting involved in a manhunt for a bastard from a different door. He’s bad news, but I... don’t like the idea of hunting down one guy.” He stood up in one movement before she really had time to answer and began to pace. “I’m not an assassin. It’s one thing if he’s offing people right in front of me, but that’s... that’s war, and God knows I’m good at that.” He frowned at the ceiling.
She was a bright woman. Pepper had said nothing when the small, glassy-smooth device with Stark Tech insignia and no visible production line stamp had shown up. She had read (obviously, she had read) but she had said nothing. She had listened, to an angry man who said a great deal and said nothing at the same time and she had mentioned nothing of doors and what lay behind them to Tony.
It was, she considered, stupid to have supposed he was not somehow involved. Whenever there was trouble, Tony was involved. She did not obfuscate. She might have done; there was a breath, half-held and a look of scrutiny that was as focused as one of Tony’s himself, although the focus wrote itself into small things, the curl of her fingers around the folder in her lap, a sharper look best suited to problems. She opened her mouth, she shut it.
“You’re not an assassin,” she agreed. If there was anything Tony was, it was not that. Assassins were subtle. They held agendas, something of cruelty. If Tony had an agenda, he wrote it in the sky. Announced it at a press-conference. Assassins liked to deal in death. A quick look, one to the drinks cabinet (there were always drinks cabinets; any designer dealt with this as they dealt with the need for desks, something to be drawn around) that was fleeting and then to him. “What has he done?” Calculation of risk. Pepper liked doors not at all, and she liked the idea that there were prolonged conflicts across them even less. How Tony had begun being drawn into one, she didn’t know. Perhaps it had been longer. He had been longer.
Tony, on the contrary, had lived through a great deal and then promptly died in the middle of it. He knew things that Pepper hadn’t lived through, and he didn’t think they’d been so great that he was eager to inform her of all the extraordinarily stupid things he had done. In typical Tony fashion, he figured that he’d simply inform her as they went along. Something interesting happened, well, he’d just let her know. He’d looked around a little bit and Banner was missing; so was Captain Flag. He saw Thor, but he didn’t know if Thor was any more himself than Pepper was. He was going to wait on it.
As it was, Thor was a blunt instrument, and Tony wasn’t keen on telling him about Selina’s Scarecrow. He paced around a little bit, moving in circles, and the people beyond Becky’s barrier were watching as if the chamber beyond was a tennis match. “I’m told he’s doing some kind of drug or chemical testing here. I got a woman in a catsuit from the other door saying he poisoned a school and all the kids there literally walked off rooftops.” The pacing became more rapid with a shorter radius.
A choked sound. Pepper had never had a journal. She had never said goodbye to the man pacing the office as if he would never come back; known he would never come back. Her world - the world beyond the glass enclosure - waited, patiently. It was a world she liked, for all its difficulties. But she expressed things as she always had, as she would. As though words might say too much, as if continually conscious of the window behind them and the audience enmassed. Her shoulders straightened, the jacket pulled taut.
“What kind of chemicals, drugs?” She disregarded the woman in a catsuit. Women in catsuits were more common these days than they had been before Tony had built a suit in his basement, had become something more than an infuriating Peter Pan of a man. The other doors, as far as Pepper could see, were either utterly normal or completely bizarre. She hadn’t known they could cross.
“Stop,” she said, and her voice was quiet, strained. “Let me,” she looked toward the glass, “You said chemical testing. On children?” She had tensed, as though she might move upward, out of the office, toward where Becky stood, helplessly, in the crowd.
Tony was fully in his own world, a world that was narrowing to the width of the office and growing ever shorter. A dark line was straight down between his brows, and his arms were hanging taut by his sides. He had to lean forward as if in a headwind as he moved, twisting and rotating, and though he paced by it several times, he didn’t reach for any of the amber liquid in the glistening bottles. The dark suit flapped around the silk-cotton blend, and sharp sapphire stabs of light made it through the space between the buttons whenever he turned abruptly.
“I’m not sure. Toxins of some kind. She hasn’t found out exactly what yet. If it makes kids feel like they’re invincible then it’s probably something that affects the endocrine system, but who the hell knows. Could be something in the brain.”
Tony halted and brought his head up. “Let you what?” he asked, as if they were still mid-conversation. It was obvious he didn’t even know where he was, and didn’t particularly care. Becky could have been on the moon.
She took advantage of the pause. There were too many pieces that did not yet begin to do anything but fit frighteningly together; her heels were quiet on the carpeted floor, and she leaned beyond the glass door. The fluid, unconcerned curve of her spine, the tilt of her head, a smile echoed in the restored, brief calm beyond the door. A word flung toward Becky, who sat back down at her desk. There were some things Pepper did well; calm was one of them. When she turned back, crossed the office, it was serene, the forced placidity of an extremely good poker face.
“The endocrine system. And he’s there. Or here? What is it for?” The questions came, one after the other, strung together like beads of moisture rolling down glass, gathered momentum but quiet. Pepper spoke like boardroom meetings, like gathering information together in front of her. “What does she expect you to do, this woman?” From another door. She wondered how she’d known, to ask Tony. How easy it was, to ask Tony for things like this, how easy to ask him to be a hero.
“Something in the brain,” she prompted. She folded her hands.
“Oh,” Tony said, looking at the glass barrier and the people beyond it like a lion staring at people beyond the bars at the zoo. He didn’t yawn, but his dismissal was just as obvious, and some of his momentum diminished as he watched Pepper handle it for about two seconds.
By the time she returned to the office, he was already at the side table and flipping a crystal tumbler over. Pulling out the stopper and gesturing with the wrong hand so the glistening decanter’s contents sloshed dangerously, he said, “She expects me to be pissed that he’s in my door poisoning people on this side.” He tipped the decanter over the glass. “And she’s right.”
He didn’t bother asking Pepper if she wanted a drink, because she never did. He didn’t even notice he was pouring a drink, not even when he started pacing again, this time holding the tumbler in one hand and keeping one eye out the huge executive window that overlooked the criss-cross of freeway and humanity below. “He’s from there, but he is here. Some idiot gave him a key to this door, though it isn’t like we’ve got our share of malicious people that don’t need idiocy to be vicious.” This was an extremely complex conversation for Tony, who tended to speak in short declarative quips and then fly off. He detested explaining himself.
She watched the glass and her lips thinned just a little, enough to look as though all the lines in her face were threatening to crack placidity. It was a look worn more often than not when Tony was as he was presently, fighting with whatever lurked just beneath the surface, but Pepper looked at the level in the tumbler, and she sat, because perhaps if she did, the pace might slow to something less frenetic. She doubted it.
“Can’t they control him over there?” There was enough. God knows, there was enough. People and demands, on him and on him-in-the-suit and another door, and someone else’s villainy and a woman who knew which buttons to press, apparently. A wince, small but fingers pressed to temple. “Someone gave him a key.” And that made him their problem. Tony’s problem.
“Can’t they come and fetch him?” And take their problem back. Whoever the woman in the catsuit was, presumably she could do it. “Or do they want this,” she cleared her throat and it was loud in the solid quiet of the glass, the traffic hushed to expensive quiet, “Assassination?”
Tony took a drink and then sat in his chair. He didn’t spin in it, this time, though that executive chair could probably spin better than any other in the building, because that was generally the only thing Tony noticed about a chair unless a woman in a red dress was in it. By sitting in that chair Tony mastered the entire room, and he spread his knees out under the desk and scowled over it as if the world under his feet was set to destroy him. It was the first time the entire morning he actually looked like a CEO.
When Pepper asked if ‘they’ could control him, Tony’s eyes narrowed. “Obviously,” Tony said, with a faint hiss through his teeth that came from starting the word when it the glass was still against his mouth, “not.”
He tapped his fingers flat on the top of the desk. “Actually, I’m given to understand the man in charge over there is something of a pacifist. That doesn’t really help me, as Catwoman told me that the prisons over there just took a hit. So let’s say I wrap up this dirtbag in Christmas paper and chuck him through the door. Seems to me like all that would do is give him a different set of schools to test on. Am I wrong?”
Pepper liked logic when it applied itself to neat little knots that could be cut free with intimate knowledge of how the company functioned, or of the people enmeshed in them. Talk of another world, of a man in charge who didn’t take command and a woman with a name that made her eyebrows lift just a little in ardent disbelief, was a headache that came without neat little knots.
“Yes, I suppose it would,” her tone was measured, inches carefully meted out; “Isn’t there something other that can be done on their side?” All the prisons? At once? It didn’t seem possible, in a world that ran on time and ticked over, the freeway a continual hum reduced from the roar beyond the window. Pepper rose, she walked to it without thinking, and her fingertips rested against the glass. Killing people - individuals - and those who came from all the mess that was tied up in doors and what lay beyond them. The strong smell of the amber liquid in the decanters bored through her conscious; Pepper poured a small measure and drank it with the quickness of someone who didn’t like it at all.
“So what is it you want to do?” Bleakly businesslike.
Tony didn’t answer right away. He was accustomed to people asking him what he was going to do, what his intentions were, what his plans were. No one ever asked Tony Stark his opinion. They asked what he would do, and were told, and only if they were lucky. He didn’t hurry himself in the decision, did not remind her that he came for advice. He didn’t even remember asking.
“It could be. The point is, if I hand him over to them, I don’t have a lot of confidence that they’d prevent this from happening again. The Bat doesn’t believe in permanent action. Someone managed to take out all the prisons in an entire city. It sounds like chaos over there.” Tony’s jaw flexed. “And there’s the fact that he’s done things here he needs to account for.” He looked up just in time to see her take a drink, and he raised both eyebrows so high they almost went into his hair; but he didn’t actually form a question.
Pepper was asked several times a day for things that ranged from opinions to judgment calls. It was rare that someone asked Pepper before they had asked someone else, other than the man who sat in the chair as though the weight of the world - a world - lay on his shoulders as heavy as armor. Tony trusted in himself. She turned and her palm curled around the empty tumbler as her mind ran across possibilities. Prisons. Could one commit a criminal from another world to a prison in this one? Perhaps. But not necessarily to be trusted. Eviction. But that was uncertain and - another steady look at Tony, unfair. For a minute she loathed whoever it was who had laid it at his feet, who had asked him for something. There were enough who asked him for things without new worlds lining up to do the same.
She was unaware that they had asked before. That they had asked for everything.
“Is there no way of shoring up whatever system they had over there?” She didn’t want to pour another measure, she could taste it still, sharp on the back of her tongue. It steadied her, a little. She didn’t want to think about how much he had in the glass. “Long-term, we can’t be responsible for their criminals. If one crosses, they’ll all cross.” We. You, really. It was always Tony.
“What about Director Fury?” The man no doubt had a dozen unpleasant places to put people that did a world wrong. “You can’t kill him. You’re not an executioner, here or there. It’s bad enough,” her gaze had lifted to the rush of traffic once again, sightlessly but she turned to look at him now, very straight in the sleek suit. “What did they actually ask for?”
“I’m sure that’s in process,” he replied, sardonically, when she mentioned shoring things up. “There is a government, it’s just extremely corrupt, from what I could tell in my handful of visits. And believe me, I definitely wasn’t welcome.” As if anyone could be expected to welcome a fire engine red man in a robot suit with a penchant for blowing things up. “Pepper, he came here. I’m not flying over there handling their problems, I was only asked if I was interested in knowing what the hell he was doing over here, and I am. I have to be.”
At the mention of Director Fury, Tony made a face as if he had just eaten something sour. He hadn’t established much of a working relationship with the man, though he owed him something... he wasn’t sure what. He didn’t want to think about it. “We could lock him up here. I’m not sure how’d we explain it.” Tony made the same face again. “I should probably just contact the Bat and send him an express in a bow. ‘Take your villain and handle your shit.’” His gaze darkened. Tony never asked anyone to handle his problems, not the real ones.
No, she thought, as the traffic rushed itself into a gray ribbon, he wouldn’t be welcome. Even if they were asking more of him than anyone could. But they weren’t alone. The government wanted more of Tony than Stark Enterprise stamped on a suit. “How did he get in?” She turned her head, of course he needed to know. And she didn’t know who it was ‘the Bat’ was, but from the twist to his mouth, whoever he was, he wasn’t doing as he should.
“And have him be a problem days, weeks or months later,” because regardless, if another world could not contain him, keep him keyed up beyond the door, then it was no longer ‘their’ villain. Whoever they were. “SHIELD have facilities,” Pepper was calm certainty of that, of the agency, to think that whoever he was, SHIELD would meet the challenge.
And it wasn’t Tony killing him. She was serene, looking out of the window, a smoothness that was tightly stretched. She turned her head; a membranous smile. “We lock him up. Until his world is ready to take him back. If they are.”
In the end, Tony didn’t need much asking when it came down to it. Important things, things that he saw as more important than himself, those things he would sign up to defend, and nobody even needed to know which buttons to push to make it happen. He would never be on time for a meeting, never miss the chance to step up on a pedestal, but there were some things Tony Stark would always do.
“SHIELD has facilities,” he agreed. “But without the ability to scientifically prove that he doesn’t belong in this world, we’re going to have to be subtle about imprisonment. If he’s smart enough to find subjects without getting caught yet, he’s smart enough to work the system.” Tony knew all about the system. He didn’t have a lot of confidence in the government, and the government felt the same way. “I guess I just get him first, and figure out what happens after.” For a little while he stared darkly out the window, and then glanced at her. She looked the same. Her profile didn’t give him any more hints as to her thoughts, to her recent history. He was not going to ask, as starting an FAQ was just going to get him into trouble.
The chair spun as he pushed out and away from it, clacking back against its hinge, and Tony was already pacing around the desk with all the fervor of a decision made. He breezed right past the paperwork and headed for the glass doors, leaving behind an empty glass sitting on the broad desk. “I’ll let you know how it goes,” he said, cheerfully.