Actions

Work Header

Vanilla Orchids - or - How The Pepper Got Her Name

Work Text:

I’m completely overdressed for this.

Virginia Potts disembarked from the plane directly onto the tarmac in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii still wearing the suit she had put on twelve hours ago in Los Angeles to finish interviewing for a position Obadiah Stane had promised her would be a step up, something ‘she would love.’

She’d worked for the man for nearly five years already, she trusted him as far as it went when it came to business – he could be gruff, he could be demanding and he certainly knew how to keep the wheels turning and the lights on at Stark Industries. She, and a few others had been pulled suddenly into interviews for a position he was creating – something that required tact, absolute trust above all things, a quick mind, poise – and Stane had been clear on this last – objective professionalism. It was going to be grace in the face of incredible odds, nerves of steel, quick wits with the ability to bend like grass in the wind. Because the winds were going to be stiff – and the job absolutely the craziest one she would ever love. She already had her hip boots on, going in. Should have had pulled them up over her head and ran.

Because when he announced that he had decided on her, she then –and only then – had found out she’d been interviewing for the role of personal assistant to Tony Stark – and she then had almost quit on the spot.

That man needed a male assistant if they wanted anyone to keep him on task – a woman? Were they mad? What did they think she was going to be able to accomplish?

Nevertheless, Stane had given her the job. “Ms. Potts,” he had purred, “He’s really not what people see. An introvert – one of those eccentric inventor types, you know.”

Please.

Who basically gave everyone in the company bearing his name the finger if it so suited him. And then ran off to play in some of the most jaw-dropping examples of excess and insanity she’d ever known.

Stane wanted her to keep him on task. He truly thought she stood a chance of Stark actually listening to her long enough to know when the next board meeting was – retain it, even – before he blew her off in favor of someone with less clothing and fewer morals.

Stane did. He sincerely did, and had put her on a plane to Hawaii leaving within the hour – couldn’t even change her clothes or pack a bag. Tony Stark had gone to Kona to enjoy watching the annual Iron Man competition championships (she understood his best friend James Rhodes was competing this year), but hadn’t stepped outside his hotel room for three days or communicated with anyone for most of that time. And his last assistant had quit the first day there, so – nobody to take over. Obviously, the man needed taking in hand. Couldn’t just go off on his own like that – not answering the phone, not responding to pages. Nobody had seen him in days – there was no way he was still in that hotel room…okay, if he was, what was going on?

And nobody from the Hawaii offices was around? They had to be closer – no one? That was curious in itself. But crossing Stane didn’t seem to be in her best interests, so she held her tongue.

So there she stood on the hot tarmac, the smell of jet fuel mixing with something that could only be flowers, and fragrant ones at that, knowing she was sweating under the wool blazer and skirt, the long flight not having done favors to her makeup or hair. Directed to a waiting car, she was taken by a circuitous route due to all of the road closures related to the competition to one of the largest hotels in the small town of Kailua-Kona. Whatever ideas she might have had about Hawaii, gleaned from old Hawaii-Five-O episodes, Magnum PI and the like – this surprised her. The hotels were clearly the tallest buildings in the place but even then rarely topped ten floors; the town resembled a sleepy beachfront community, not a bustling center of excitement. One hospital. One two-laned highway. One shopping center, with one drug store and one grocery store. The event spectators probably had doubled the population all by itself.

She was greeted warmly by the staff upon her arrival and check in, her driver (a temp working for SI that week) advising her that she had been booked in a room adjoining Mr. Stark’s suite for her convenience, giving her the keys to her room – and duplicates of his - wishing her aloha before departing.

She tried calling Tony Stark’s room from the lobby phone. No answer.

Nothing else to do but go up and see what was going on. Surely someone knew the man was at least alive, right? Most curious.

She opened the door to her own room first, finding it to have the requisite bed in a separate set of rooms, the common link a living room with a business center in one corner, couch and television in the other and a magnificent window allowing a view of the ocean on another. The connecting door was closed and she realized with a jerk that this room probably connected the two bedrooms together into this suite If she opened the door, she’d find her new boss in whatever condition she could possibly imagine. The hallway had been clear, no hangtags on either of the doors or room service dishes to take away. Perhaps a copy of the daily newspaper had been present at her door – but not his. It was quiet in her room, and the living room. Very quiet. If there was anyone else nearby she couldn’t hear them. Putting an ear to the door, she listened for signs of life – was anyone there at all?

There was someone in the room – the television was on, the channels being changed almost at regular intervals. Someone was talking – someone with a light British accent she didn’t recognize, the actual words not clear but the lift at the end of the statements sounded like questions were being asked, but not answered. A question – then a statement. Channel changed. A question again.

Knocking on the door created one change to the routine. The television went off.

“Mr. Stark? It’s your new assistant, Virginia Potts. Mr. Stane called ahead to let you know I was coming?”

That’s when she heard the coughing. Deep, noisy, wet, gasping - choking – her reaction was visceral, instinctive. She opened the door and strode in.

The room was hot, close and smelled like sweaty, coffee-laced funk. Lying in the bed, propped up on all the pillows, sheet and blanket pulled halfway up, television remote in one hand, was – her boss. Tony Stark, the heir to the multinational Stark Industries and wunderkind brat deluxe. Staring up at her, a total stranger – it was a gut check to know at once from his expression he was far more frightened of her than she was of him. His other hand was balled into a fist, held against his mouth as he tried in vain to stifle the coughing fit. A tablet phone rested on his bare chest that she quickly discerned was the source of the other voice she had heard, the screen lighting up as more sounds emanated from it. “Sir, I really must insist you summon help. Your condition is clearly deteriorating – “

He was – and had been – completely alone, for some time.

She would remember to the end of her days how small he had looked. Just a bundle of limbs and brown hair, huge glittering brown eyes that had tracked her from the moment she had entered the room, slack jawed, fighting sleep, red-rimmed and so pale. His lips even looked blue. “M’sick.” Just a whisper, and it ended in spasms.

You’re not what I expected.

“I guess you are…Mr. Stark.” Steeling herself, she finishing crossing the room to sit down on the bed next to him, trying to look professional, detached and confident - everything at odds with what she felt. She felt sorry for him – and angry at the same time. Looking around the room, she didn’t even see a glass of water – or even a dirty glass anywhere. “Well, I can see why you didn’t answer the phone.”

Blink. A very slow one. Then another. A huffing breath taken, the eyes never leaving her face. Virginia found she couldn’t stop staring. This was every kind of wrong she could imagine. Three days and nobody could have come in here and seen this? Where was this James Rhodes he was here to see? There’s a SI office in Hawaii, where IS everyone -

“J-jus’ a cold. LIddle b-bug – “ He waved the TV remote weakly in dismissal, and to his credit, the liar actually tried to paste a charming smile on his face before it went entirely to waste with another huge coughing fit. “Ob-bie s-sent ya? S-sure. Okay. Nice to m-meet ya.”

“You look awful. I’m sure you feel worse – now, no – no talking. I heard you.” Standing, she went into the bathroom in search of water glasses, which she found still in their ‘wrapped for your satisfaction” papers. Turning the tap, testing it for temperature, she filled two of the glasses to the brim and brought them back bedside, putting one on the nightstand.

Taking the remote gently –but firmly - away from one of the richest men alive as easily as taking candy from a baby, tut-tutting when his face darkened in protest, she replaced it with the other glass of water. “Drink that, please.” Brushing fingertips as he took the glass, she almost gasped in surprise. A fever she had expected – but touching him was almost like touching something left out in the sun to bake …so hot. “We need to call a doctor – you do not just have a cold, Mr. Stark. Okay, trade me that. I’ll get more.”

“F-feels good,” he murmured. “Who’re you ag-gain?”

Looking over her shoulder, as she refilled the glasses, she called her name back into the room. “Potts. Virginia Potts. Ms. Potts, Mr. Stark.”

“Potts. W-whata name,” she heard him say. “P-poor thing. S-shoulda named you Flower or some-some – “ Any other comment was lost in a coughing spasm that sounded like it started at the very bottom of his lungs. Gasping, he pushed the tablet aside and sat up on the edge of the bed, chest heaving under pale skin breaking out in a cold sweat, rales and wheezing audible even to her untrained ear. Running to grab a towel, she made it back in time for him to grab it out of her hand in a near panic as he struggled to free his airway of the wet mass obstructing it. Looking down at the bare back, she hesitated half a breath before giving it several good pats trying to help him. But he didn’t even notice her touching him in the struggle to breathe again.

Then she felt something shift under her hand that couldn’t have been ribs, and he spat something into the towel before remaining hunched over, gasping even more. Cleared his throat. Coughed more. Breathed hard, as hard as if he had run a race himself.

She found him another glass of water, and another towel. While he made good use of them, she found a washcloth she could wet down with cold water, and a dry bath towel to go with it.

“You’re very sick, Mr. Stark. I’m calling the doctor. Now. I should call the paramedics - ”

He looked first at the towels in her hands, then back up to her with his head cocked to one side – and then the eyes narrowed. Reaching over, he picked up the newspaper from where it sat on the other side of the bed and held it up to her face. Yes, the Iron Man competition was front page news…along with the “news” that Tony Stark was in residence, and three more inches of salacious text that clearly only needed him to step out his hotel room to turn into ten inches, or more. Small town – pretty shallow, to be blunt – just being there made him headline news, without doing a thing. Even by just breathing room air, as badly as he was at the moment.

Shaking his head at her, eyes clearly saying ‘you tried, ’ he rolled up the paper and gently bopped her on the head with it. “I guess not,” she murmured in response. “Sorry about that. Okay, not the paramedics…but we do need a doctor, we’re clear about that, right?”

Eyeroll. Cough. “No hospital,” he got out, dropping the towel he had been holding. It hit the ground, unfurling to show the contents of the last coughing spell.

“Oh my God.” Out of her mouth before she could stop it – the contents were livid green, copious and heavily streaked with bright red blood. “Doctor. Now.”

“Whoa,” he added, eyebrows raised as he chuffed a bit, then reached for the tablet. “Yeah. G-guess so, huh? Rhodey. C-call Rhodey.” A few quick swipes and he handed it back to her before reseating himself on the pillows, fumbling hands trying to pull the sheets and blankets out from under him and failing. Giving up, he laid back, eyes closing as he breathed through his mouth, chest working hard as she watched. “Rhodey, Ms. Potts. Rhodey…”

Taking the tablet and placing it on her lap, she folded the damped washcloth and put it on his forehead, giving him the dry towel to hold. There’s the James Rhodes I’ve been hearing about – okay. He’ll know what to suggest, he’s got to know him better -

“R-Rhodey’ll know where to b-bury me,” he muttered and passed out.

She continued to place the call as if she hadn’t heard that last, but that statement had chilled her in a way none of the previous strangeness hadn’t. There was nobody to come? No one – at all?

She had just finished interviewing, accepting this job – hours ago. Stane hadn’t called, sent someone from the local office – anything for days? – just went through the company roster, called her in and decided if he could convince her to take this job – he would have someone he could send in his place? And do it with objective professionalism oh dear ghaaaad I hate - insane. This qualified as totally in -

“Colonel Rhodes? Colonel James Rhodes? Virginia Potts – Mr. Stark’s new personal assistant, Stark Industries?” The voice on the other end of the line was pleasant, if nonplussed.

He hadn’t seen his friend in over a week. Hadn’t known where he was. But sounded genuinely concerned – Tony had flown to Hawaii with a cold, he remembered scolding him ‘hey, what can you do, it’s Tony but – ‘

Well, the cold was worse. Where were they? There was a moment of dead silence when they determined that not only were they in the same hotel, they had been only a few floors apart from each other. No, Tony had not told him – or contacted him – or anything, and again there was that curious thing about that. This was all so very – odd.

Yes, he knew who to call. No, discretion was absolutely no problem, just stay put. Don’t put him on the phone, he’d be right down. Knock on your door, not his. No evidence of eating anything, figured. A huge sigh and he ended the call.

“I don’t think I envy you right now,” she told the sleeping man. “He might want to plant you all by himself, if you ask me.”

The only response was labored breathing, a muttered “Pa-pa-pa. Potts. Pretty pots. P-pretty – “

So that’s what he noticed most. Well, then. That at least is what I expected from him. “Glad you think so, Mr. Stark. I think.” And Virginia Potts then found and sat in the closest available armchair, certain she had fallen down a rabbit hole, aghast.

And very, very worried about the near-total stranger who was now her boss, reassuring herself she would feel very much the same about anyone, anywhere in the world if she’d found them like this.

###

Such a quiet tapping, Colonel James Rhodes was clearly military by title, bearing and job description but Pepper found him also gentle, soft-spoken, intensely kind and completely unaware he was the last person Tony Stark would want to see while ill. Hell, anyone. His bedside manner was so atrocious, Virginia could hardly believe it.

“C’mon, man. This looks bad. What did you do now?”

Standing back, hands folded over a tablet in front of her, Virginia watched the two men interact with each other, coming fast to the conclusion she indeed did not envy Tony Stark at that moment. Yes, he was ecstatic to see Rhodey, his face had lit up and so much tension had flowed out of his posture, even lying down as he was, the relief was palpable. Then Rhodey had started scolding him.

“Colonel Rhodes, that doctor?”

“On the way – just give me a minute with this guy,” he had answered, sliding hands under his shoulders to lift Tony to a sitting position on the edge of the bed. “You stink, man. You know that? You stink. Get you in the shower, like five minutes ago, come on now. Seriously. What the hell’s the matter with you, dumbshit asshole – sorry, Miss – see, you got me using language already. Dumbass. Smarter than this. Better than this. You know what I’m calling you from now on? El Stupido, man. Tony, you – “

“M’sick, Rhodey – “

“Yeah, yeah – and who the fuck flew into town a week ago sick as a dog, telling me everything was fine and oh yeah, mind my own business Rhodey – “

Tony started coughing again, harsh, throat-tearing bellows that silenced the other man mid-sentence as Rhodey went tight-lipped, darting into the bathroom, to turn the shower on full blast, grabbing towels as he returned to his side, tipping Tony’s head back to look at his eyes and wincing at what he saw. Then started cursing in earnest under his breath as he pulled out his phone , thumbing a number. “Hey, Doc? Bring oxygen, okay? Where are you? Yeah – no, I’m not kidding. I’m getting him in the bathroom now, running the shower as hot as it goes – hell, I don’t know – yeah. Yeah, I hear you – but hurry, okay?”

Hanging up, pocketing the phone, Rhodey did cap checks on Tony’s fingers, running long, slender fingers over the nailbeds to see how quickly they refilled after being pressed, then slowly leaned forward until his forehead rested on Tony’s head at the temple. The coughing fit died down as another wad of puss and blood was expelled into the towel Tony held, and he tried to catch his breath again. But this time, he winced as he held his side afterward and went even grayer than before.

She held the door open as Rhodey half-carried her boss into the bathroom, then began the task of finding clothes to change him into for what certainly was going to be a trip to the nearest hospital. Behind the closed door, she heard Rhodey start scolding again, Tony coughing again and she wondered just what passed for genuine affection in Tony Stark’s world if this is what he heard from the person considered his oldest, best friend. Not a single ‘Tony, I’m sorry – that must hurt’ or ‘Tony, does that help any?’ No, Rhodey was insulted, angry and offended – even if he was deeply worried underneath it all, and that’s what he let the entire room know.

She knew what Stane thought of Tony. What had the man hired her for? Go find out why he’s not behaving, Ms. Potts! And get him back on task – discreetly and professionally, Ms. Potts. Not a job – an adventure, Ms. Potts!”

What had she expected to find when she got here – she could feel her cheeks flaming in shame as she realized she hadn’t been any better.

She literally had to decide if she needed to stay outside the closed door with the change of clothes or run back to her own side of the suite to be violently ill in the other bathroom.

“Man, this is pneumonia – double pneumonia, you dumbass. They’re gonna keep you for sure this time – “

“S-stupid air conditioning – “

“Shut it. You were sick when you got here, and thought it would be cute not to tell anyone.”

Oh come on, nobody does that –

But before she could object, the knock at the door came and she hurried to let the doctor in after she passed the clothes through the bathroom door first.

“Hell if I know what that nice lady thinks of you, asshole – she sure seems nice. Don’t you treat her nasty, you hear me? Now, come on – get decent, we got company.”

Virginia began to wonder just how fast she could get Tony Stark away from everyone who had ever known him and exactly what it would take. Little crack fantasies, she reminded herself. Remember what everyone said about Tony Stark – but reality was intruding on those assumptions, despite her best efforts.

The doctor was a tall man of generous proportions, filling the room as soon as he entered it, Hawaiian shirt a cheery surprise, black eyes crinkling shut as he smiled broadly at her, white teeth even more obvious in his dark face, dominated by snapping black eyes framed by thick, wildly curly hair. Dragging what could only be a small oxygen tank with attendant lines and a mask, Virginia also noted a very classic black doctor’s satchel, held by the spare fingers not clasping the handle of the tank’s cart. Big hands – not dainty in the least. “Hey, how’s it? Sherwood Watanabe, they call me Sherry. Dr. Sherry – “

“Doctor. Sherry,” she replied slowly. “Thank you for coming – they’re in there.”

“You need a liddle sunscreen, sweetheart – that pretty face is gonna get sunbunt in a flash out there, no problem. Hear?”

Coughing to cover the sudden embarrassed flush, she stepped back away and let him pass by her, waggling one large finger at her. He was an immediate like, she decided. “Maybe they should come out here – that bathroom isn’t very big,” she said, wrapping a bit of calm around herself to steady her voice.

“Nah, it’s all good. Let me go take a look – “

Opening the door with a hearty “Haaaay –“ and then closing it behind him as a cloud of steam escaped , Virginia let go of the deep breath she hadn’t been aware she’d been holding, shoulders dropping in relief. Help was here, friendly and better prepared than she had been – safer hands had arrived.

So what was her role now? See to Mr. Stark’s needs. Whatever they may be.

Right now, that looked like packing up his hotel room. Looking in the closet, she found one garment bag and a smaller roller and went to work.

###

The trip to Kona Community Hospital had been amusing, in hindsight. Sherry had done his examination in the bathroom – temperature 104.7, a new record in Virginia’s experience – bilateral crackles, yup he sick we’re going to see the x-ray machine and just how we gonna get there?

Office chairs in the dead of night, furtive elevator drops and service entrances. Rhodey had stayed long enough to see his friend admitted to the hospital, if only just to the ER department before getting back to the hotel. Trials were tomorrow, and his absence would only provide as much fodder for scandal as Tony would himself, if he was in the least interested in preventing any.

Virginia began to wonder if that was only the best justification for not calling for help sooner that Tony Stark could come up with. Because it was clear he despised being under the care of a physician, regardless of who it was, possibly enough to have holed up in a hotel room alone to avoid it.

He hated being accountable in general – that she found out very quickly. Tell him water was wet and he found three ways to dispute it, regardless of whether or not it had anything to do with reality – or water. Honestly!

Virginia learned that two and two did not necessarily equal four and never forget it, Potts – there, did you see the Stark Industries logo on that monitor? Did you know the sonar tracking systems built for intercepting torpedoes during WWII was the great-grand-daddy of that technology? Of course you did. Filthy lies, all of it – Dad had abandoned that line of research, he’d resurrected it before he was out of high school, thank you very much. From boarding school. In Switzerland. So there. Product diversification, what a concept. You’re welcome.

A breathing treatment later, brocho-dilators onboard, pain medication – check! – rehydrated via an IV line going full out, antibiotics piggybacked (wow, big guns Potts, look at that!), oxygen through a nasal cannula and some of the nastiest cough syrup she had ever smelled – Tony Stark was ready, willing and able to hold court.

Which, at this hour? Was the graveyard shift, ready to deal with injured athletes yet to arrive after the trials began again in a few hours. Sherry had come and gone, consulted with the attending MD and the decision had been made to admit him – Sherry remaining the physician of record, loud Hawaiian shirts, faded pidgin dialect nothwithstanding. Tony hated him. Tony adored him. Tony ignored him and Virginia listened to him, repeating what he said to Tony later in smaller bites.

“Going to earn your paycheck in the morning, Potts,” he’d rasped. “Your first press conference. Knock ‘em dead. Hell only knows they all wish I were. Ugh, that photo on your badge – not flattering at all.”

“Mr. Stark!” Thank heaven he knew false concern from the very real place hers was coming from. Plucking forlornly at the much-abused wool suit that was now going into its second day of uninterrupted use, noting the stockings had run – hell, laddered – some time ago, she had stopped wearing the heels unless she had to walk somewhere. Sighing, closing eyes and sitting back in the chair bedside, Virginia tried again. “Please. Stop. I understand this is unpleasant, believe me I’m not exactly happy about this myself, but – I need some direction. What do I tell them? What do you want me to say?”

Clean from the shower Rhodey had given him before leaving for the hospital, Tony now wore hospital-issue gown and pants, with a jacket over them and socks with textured rubberized pads on his feet. Neatly tucked into bed, the head raised, he looked far more comfortable than when she had found him, dark hair curling damply around his face, still unshaven and less than completely tidy. He still looked pale, washed-out and too frail for her comfort level, but with those bright eyes dominating his face, direct and even mischievous in their way, he was again a force to be reckoned with. The tablet phone that had been on his chest in the hotel was back in his hands again where he restlessly tapped in commands, scrolled through documents and now and again, he spoke to it. Even though he had to untangle the oxygen cannula and IV lines from time to time.

“You want direction?” he asked, clearing his throat. “Borneo. Which is where I wish I were right now. Or maybe Spitzbergen. I’m not sure.”

“What? What in the world could those two places even have in common, Mr. Stark? I –“

“They’re places to hide, Ms. Potts. They’re places one can literally disappear in with little difficulty. Two of the few unpopulated - or very sparsely populated, to be truthful – places left in the world. Get off the plane, leave the phone on the seat and poof – you’re gone.”

Something very deep within her went cold. “Mr. Stark – did we interrupt something, Colonel Rhodes and I?”

“What, a suicide by natural causes, Ms. Potts? Perish the thought. Wouldn’t give Obie the satisfaction, neither. Ms. Potts, such a gloomy outlook you have there.”

She stopped talking. It took some minutes for her to notice her hands had balled into fists at her sides and she had been staring into her lap for at least that long. And he had been gently calling her name as well, all pretense leached from it. “Ms. Potts – hey, don’t do that. Hey – kidding. Joking. Stop. Ms. Potts. You poor thing with the awful name – stop. Stop.” The last was uttered in a voice so soft and low she felt it more than heard it, and a very gentle hand grasped her shoulder and shook it. “Back over here, eyes on me. Oh. Oh my. Did you know your eyes change color when they get wet?”

Swallowing hard, she realizing she was crying then as well. “I have had probably the strangest two years in my life in the past two days, Mr. Stark. Please – I do not want to tell the world you’ve run away from home, and nobody cared enough to pack you a lunch. I will write whatever press release you want – stand up in front of the world, I just hope I can find a clean set of clothes to wear by 9 AM – and read it.” Fumbling for the tissues, she gulped down a sob and blew her nose. “Then I am going to go find a very secure location, lock myself away and scream myself into a nervous breakdown. And then come back out and start doing my job.”

She could meet those eyes, and if he could read her as well as she’d heard he’d read his competition – he’d see it. She’d meant every word of that – she would be right there if he needed her. “Very well, Ms. Potts,” he said softly after a few moments, neatly struck dumb. “That will be all then. Tell them I’m suffering from overwork, decided to take a holiday in Hawaii and I found myself more unwell than I had thought. Simple enough, yes? And I will be on retreat to – er – recover, get healthy again in an undisclosed location. And tell them I am fine and being well cared for. By the finest in the land, blah blah blah you get my drift.”

“I’ll have to go back to the hotel to draft it, use the business center – but I don’t want to leave you here. Don’t know what they plan to do with you – “

“If Obie has anything to do with it, I’ll be behind locked doors within twelve hours. Kidding.” But he allowed his head to loll back on the pillow, the eyes falling to half-mast. “I’m going to sleep, Ms. Potts. When I wake up again, you’ll be back here again after your very first press conference with a bright shiny face, clean clothes and your pretty pretty hair combed. I am safe, well-cared for and it’s all your fault, Potts. You’ll know if they move me. Now, shoo!”

“Yes, sir. That will be all, then.” Standing to leave, she found with a pang she wanted to give him a quick buss on the top of the head but refrained, covering it by rearranging the blankets, tucking them in just that more securely, checking the IV lines and monitors- but then used the back of her hand against his forehead in spite of herself. Still too hot, but better and he was right. Safe, with eyes on him. It would get no better than this and she did have tasks to accomplish on his behalf.

“Sleep, Potts. I mean it.”

“Yes, Mr. Stark. Sweet dreams.”

He only chuffed a little, lips twisted into a wry grin. “You’re very sweet,” he said quietly as she left the room.

###

He’d tried to make a break for it while she was sleeping. Should have known. Okay, I did. Okay, I underestimated him. Okay, I believed him. Okay, he didn’t exactly promise me. Okay, he didn’t stop being Tony Stark.

You can’t be mad at a dog for being a dog.

She couldn’t scold him. Just stood bedside, where they had hidden him away – an isolation room at the end of a hallway, behind a door that could lock with a guard outside it. The requested change of clothes had been waiting for her back at the hotel, and a light meal provided by the staff plus a quick nap after verifying that yes, he was resting comfortably and Sherry had made sure nobody would – or even could – disturb him and she was on her way back.

Only to find him sitting on the floor next to the bed, struggling to breathe, livid about it.

“I have to go do this press conference, Mr. Stark,” she said quietly, once he had been placed back in bed, all of the monitors patched in again, the IV restarted. But now he was on a full mask instead of a cannula and the glare he gave her over it was nothing short of poisonous. He couldn’t talk, every time he tried, he choked and no sound came out. The best thing he could manage was holding very, very still, and that was done with hands clenched in fists at his sides. “Please don’t make a liar out of me…at least until I get back, okay?”

The glare didn’t wane, unconvinced and still too angry to think beyond I want OUT I want OUT NOW. Her hair was brushed, makeup applied, dressed and pressed – she’d spoken to Mr. Stane at bedside where he could hear him, received direction from him as to what he wanted said, and how…and it had been good advice as far as it went, but she’d weighed Tony’s wishes more heavily. She knew what she was going to say, she was ready.

“Mr. Stark? Can I demonstrate something before I go?” Picking up the hand nearest her, gently uncurling the fingers and extricating the pulseOx monitor clipped to the index finger, Virginia clipped the lead on her own finger. “Now, watch what happens. See, the saturation rate goes up to 97% and that’s me breathing room air,” she said, taking a deep breath unconsciously, “and there, look. Up to 99%. Watch what happens when we put you back on.”

She moved the lead back, and watched the percentage drop to 86%. Then 83%. Looking back to meet his eyes, most of the fury had left them. Okay, point made. “I don’t have to explain how this works, you know better than I do,” she said as passively as she could manage. “Much lower and they put you under and intubate you until you turn a corner with the antibiotics – maybe even do a bronchoscopy to clean things up in there, doctor mentioned it. I don’t know how this got started, I don’t know what could have been done to prevent it but here you are and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

His eyebrows came together at that one, and he shook his head minutely, wincing. “I know, I know, not my fault. Clear as crystal, Mr. Stark. So. I need you to do one thing while I’m gone.

“Decide what we’re going to do with you.” Putting his hand down, smoothing the sleeve, arranging the leads so they wouldn’t tangle before stepping back. “Conservative estimates say it’ll be three weeks before you’re well enough to travel back to California. I’ll be right here. And there is no way we’re spending three weeks in this closet.”

The eyebrows almost climbed into his hairline and a smile grew that warmed his face all the way to his eyes, the tension melting away. Oh, okay. Atta girl. I can work with that. “Here’s your tablet, use this to communicate, don’t talk. Rest – sleep if you can, I don’t expect you to watch the conference – no television in here, no wifi and cell reception is the pits. I’ll be back as soon as I can. Will that be all, Mr. Stark?”

Taking the tablet, he quickly swiped an answer across it, still smiling. That will be all, Ms. Potts.

###

She was grateful unto death for the Iron Man competition. It provided no end of diversion for the press, it clogged the roads and confused the spectators beyond all hope of noticing one more person coming or going in the sleepy little towns strung along Alii Drive.

Even if that person was now something of a celebrity in her own right, much to her chagrin, let alone surprise. “Poised and radiant, Tony Stark’s new assistant, Miss Virginia Potts – Miss! Honestly! – reported today…”

It was a small car, a very plain car with four doors, air conditioning and the bare minimum in the sound system department. It also had seats, ran well and completely blended into traffic in a way the limo would not, and didn’t blab to the nearest gossip rag like a taxi cab. And it didn’t complain much when she smacked the steering wheel with the heel of her hand. “Why not report my measurements, why don’t you – “

Service entrances, staircases and doors at the dim end of hallways, Virginia was seriously beginning to think she had narrowly missed a vocation in espionage when she approached Tony’s room and nearly stopped dead in relief to see both James Rhodes and another man who could only be Harold Hogan standing outside it talking easily together. “Hey, there she is, “ she heard Rhodey say. From the way his face lit up, Rhodey still thought she was a nice lady, it would seem. Walking up to greet her, she felt her face break into a smile in spite of herself. Rhodey’s earnest good nature was contagious, it would seem.

Hogan, on the other hand, said nothing but looked at her intently, eyes traveling from the top of her head to her shoes before he met her eyes and nodded. In all fairness, she had done much the same and had the advantage of knowing more about him than he could possibly have known about her. She’d known him on sight, his photograph was one everyone at Stark Industries learned upon signing with the company – somewhat gone to seed, somewhat doglike in his loyalty and mien, not homely but not handsome…harmless only if you didn’t know to take him seriously. Hogan had been part of Stark’s life longer than she had been employed in any capacity, for anyone. He wasn’t the best, and everyone knew it, but he was far from being the worst and his naturally kind nature made him easy to forgive. Where he had been up to now was more of a mystery but not important – Happy Hogan was now where Tony Stark was, he was a constant. Not particularly adept or clever, but willing – and protective. She had no intention of forgetting that. It was a relief seeing him there, a clear message that she was no longer on her own.

Approaching him, she extended her hand and was reassured when it was taken with a firm, but cautious grip for the handshake. “So you’re the new kid, huh?” He only looked fierce until he smiled, she decided. And when she looked him in the eye and smiled herself, that was all it took. He looks like Mongo, only pawn in game of life. Poor guy.

“Mr. Hogan.”

He examined her SI ID badge, much as Tony had, frowning at the photograph as well. “What do people call ya, Ms. Potts? Ginny?”

Oh dear. “Heaven forbid. There’s only a college chum or two who’d dare at this point. But thank you for asking. Sorry, but it’s Virginia, Mr. Hogan.”

Happy, Ms. Potts. I should warn ya – the boss names us and claims us – “

“He’s already tried to call me Flower Potts – so, yes – I’ve noticed. Don’t worry.”

He must be sleeping. Tony must be asleep, for him to be outside making small talk like this.

“Thank you two for coming,” she added quietly. “I’m sure it means a lot to Mr. Stark.”

Rhodey only shifted his weight and blew air. “He’s a dumbass, but he’s our dumbass.” He looked tired but freshly scrubbed, and she remembered he had been a participant in the trials this morning. “He’s sleeping, but he left you something – here.”

The tablet she had left him before leaving for the conference – he’d opened one page of a text file and typed “What I Want When I Come Out Of This Closet.” Despite herself, it made her chuckle until she read the next line.

“Leave Tony Stark in the hospital. Sneak me out of here. File the numbers off. Disappear. “

One hand had come to her mouth unbidden, knowing what came after ‘disappear’ – and again, that pang that said don’t scold. “He wants a vacation from himself? He wants to stop being him,” she murmured.

Neither man looked comfortable, looking away from her and from each other. They’d known, and what else could they have been talking about?

Closing the tablet, she dropped it to clasp it between both hands as she waited for Rhodey and Happy to take the corporate breath before meeting her eyes again. “Well, then. Either of you have any ideas on how to make that happen? He mentioned Borneo and Spitzbergen, and for obvious reasons that’s not an option. So if we can’t get him lost in a place, maybe we can lose him in this place.

“We need to hide Tony Stark in plain sight.”

Happy grinned lopsidedly as Rhodey’s face brightened but grew wry. “Sounds like you need a magician, if you ask me,” the airman said. “But it sounds like fun.”

That was the moment it all came together. “Magic. Colonel Rhodes, that is an absolutely wonderful idea,” she said, reaching up to clasp his shoulder with one hand. “I know just the thing – Mr. Hogan, I’ll need some help setting things up.”

“We are indeed going to make Mr. Stark disappear into thin air.”

###

She consulted with Dr. Sherry first, smiling at the way his dark eyes twinkled at her plotting and scheming. Tony was responding well to treatment, but he did want to keep him a day or so longer before ‘turning him loose into the neighborhood’ as he put it. Would he be willing to make house calls? Oh sure, no worries. Where?

Taking a moment to be grateful he only had a common case of bacterial pneumonia, likely secondary to an untreated upper-respiratory infection, she thought again how fortunate they all were. It was serious – serious enough to reconsider taking him out of the hospital, much more neglect and he would have been in danger of losing his life less than a day ago. But now, it was only time and compliance with treatment that quite frankly, would come very naturally with the presenting symptoms. He needed rest; very well, he might get out of bed, but it wouldn’t be pleasant and he wouldn’t get far. Fatigued, he would prefer sleep, much as he would hate it and want not to. As he recovered and began to feel better, that would change but she had time to prepare for it. She needed someplace quiet, comfortable – there was a property on Oahu that belonged to the family, but none on the big island where they were. Air travel was out – and Virginia shuddered inside considering sea travel.

The hotels were full. The timeshares were ridiculous and not nearly secure enough or private enough for what she had in mind. That left private homes, the guest houses and bed and breakfast inns. She immediately went to work trying to find one that was remote, tiny and preferably without many modern conveniences, yet have enough to be safe for Tony while he recovered.

Rhodey continued to divide his time between trials, competition prep, and spending time bedside – not even talking with Tony, just sitting with him, even just sleeping in the chair. Happy ran interference – not many people knew exactly where Tony was, that was the way he liked it and had every intention of keeping it that way.

And she drove her little invisible car around, looking for a place to hide.

She nixed the inn in the middle of the coffee plantations; they conducted tours during the day. They did, however, recommend a place nearer the ocean that sounded just like what she needed.

From the road, it looked like a cluster of clapboard shacks clustered at the foot of some banyan-like trees. And the road? Gravel, washboardey and full of chuckholes. Pulling up to the low-slung fence, it became very clear that the initial impression had been misleading. Yes, the facility was made largely of clapboard siding, but the buildings weren’t sitting at the foot of the trees.

No, they were wrapped around them, in some cases the tree trunks bisected them. The whole place was treehouses, some higher, some lower and the office was nestled neatly to the side with a piece of driftwood proclaiming its status with carefully burned letters as the sign hanging on the door. Rainbow banners and flags flew from every square corner and Virginia was sure she saw hummingbird feeders among the brightly colored streamers. Parking the car, she stepped out of the car to be again struck with the clashing smells of hot automotive fuel – and flowers. But unlike being at the airport, once the car was shut off, the slam of its door had been the last noise she heard.

Instead, she heard wind chimes gently singing in the breeze, lowered voices coming from inside over the rustle of leaves above. Looking up, she saw an angel banner with the word “Welcome” on it flapping overhead – too cute by half, not her thing, the only word she could come up with was kitschy. Contrived poverty, someone had once called the style.

In all honesty, it fit in with the rest of the place – which looked solid, if multicolored and spare in design. The only floors were those inside the cottages, all the rest was either grassy mounds, gravel paths or rocky soil.

Picking her way carefully, she went to the office door and went in.

Her first impression was that she was inside a circus tent, one made out of white cotton that did nothing to cut the sunlight, but diffused it into something soft, gentle and extraordinarily bright. There wasn’t a shaded area anywhere inside the little nook, and that by itself was odd.

The walls were half walls; the ceiling was translucent fabric, draped, stretched and secured by guy lines that fell out of her range of vision. Weathered clapboard wood made up the walls, washed in white, a wooden floor done up in the same style was under her feet. There was a reception desk made of the same material as the walls and floor, business cards and guest register at the ready but no phone.

The room smelled of something amazing – like vanilla, but sweeter, headier and far more demanding. More complex than the vanilla extract she initially compared it to. That was when she noticed the orchids. Scattered about the little enclosure were no less than fifteen different orchid plants, most of them in full bloom – no two of them alike. And the one sitting on top of the registration desk was the source of the fragrance that had grabbed hold of her attention and refused to let it go. Leaning over to look closer at the clusters of tiny white blooms, Virginia couldn’t help taking a deep breath – everything sweet about vanilla, and concentrated rainwater at the same time.

“Can I help you?” The voice behind her made her jump in spite of herself, but Virginia quickly recovered when she realized it was only the owner of the property returning back to the office to find a stranger standing there.

Holding an armful of wriggling Pomeranians was an older woman Virginia liked on sight – and distrusted just as quickly because she had. Taller than her, blonder, older – and very, very serene in a calm, centered way that made the top of her head tingle in alarm. Not because it felt fake – but because it didn’t. She simply stood there as Virginia struggled to find her voice for the moments it took to regain her composure, head slightly cocked to one side as she idly stroked the dogs trying hard to escape her arms, terribly excited and struggling to get free. “I hope you’re not allergic to them,” she said at last, putting them down before they jumped out of her arms and fell down, “They like people very much, and people they’ve never met the most of all, I fear.”

Proving her point, the two buff-colored balls of fur immediately made a beeline for Virginia’s feet, head-butting and then snorting and pawing at her shoes. They were so tiny they hardly could make a mark, harmless and endearing at the same time. But once she had been properly examined, they quickly lost interest and made a beeline for the far corner of the office, out of sight. “No – no, not at all. Thank you – I, uh. Yes. Yes – please, you can help me. I think. I need some help, and I was told to come talk to you. I need a place to stay for a number of weeks, someplace quiet and peaceful – out of the way, but not too out of the way – “

She was babbling, she heard it herself and somehow, didn’t try to stop. Perhaps she wouldn’t recognize the poised, radiant PA from the televised press conference, now reduced to quick sound bites repeated over and over on CNN – if she managed to sound as disjointed and ill-prepared as she did right now.

“For yourself, dear? You look like you could use a good retreat – we do offer a wide variety of services to help one cope with stress,” the older woman said, tapping one long, tanned and well-manicured finger against her chin. “Hot stone massage, yoga and meditation classes – would you like to try out our contemplation maze? No? How about a cup of tea while we talk, then?”

Tea. Oh my God, yes.

Suddenly, the world shifted into slow motion and Virginia had no other place to be except this woman’s guest. “It’s not for me, actually,” she managed to say as she followed the other woman to where the couches and coffee table had been hidden behind the turn of the doorway. “I didn’t catch your name – “

“Roxanne Lebrandt, but call me Roxy. You?” Gesturing for her to be seated, Virginia watched as she went to a small hutch placed next to the bookcases lining the walls. She might have been fifteen to twenty years older than herself, but she was still reed slender and graceful, bending with an easy grace to set water to heat in an electric kettle, placing two mugs out with tea bags at the ready. “Chamomile peppermint, I think, “ she murmured, “Something sweet and easy to take in. You appear to have had quite a day already, my dear.”

“Thank you. I’m – “ Not Flower, not Ginny, not Ginger. Heaven forbid. “Mary,” she finished lamely. Well, I can remember to answer to that. “My boss is the reason I’m here, he’s – worked himself into a good case of pneumonia, and I need to find a nice quiet place for him to recover for a few weeks. The folks up the road at the coffee place, um – Soleil Run, I think it was? – said to ask you if you had space.”

“And if I didn’t, I would know where to send you – is that it? You were up there today? How were my old friends up there, then? We’ll have to have some of their coffee in the morning – it’s all I keep here, and it’s very good. I think I have just the thing – your boss, was it?”

Time to take the plunge. Here’s to lying better than a cheap rug. “Tony Blake. You understand, can’t tell anyone.”

Roxy only raised a curious eyebrow as she poured the hot water over the teabags and brought the mugs to the coffee table, then turned to fetch spoons and a half-pint jar of sugar. “Is that so?” she murmured in the same tone she had used to select the tea. “Well, then. We’ll have to make a special effort to make him feel welcome. Would you like sugar for your tea? It’s vanilla sugar, the beans come from my own greenhouse out back.”

That went better than it should have. Hmm.

“That sounds lovely – you can grow vanilla here?”

“They’re orchids, my dear – of course you can, this is Hawaii.” A graceful hand gestured to the room in general, the sleeve of her blouse falling to her elbow, exposing a tanned arm banded with woven bracelets and carved jade bangles. Everything about her seemed simple but lovely and precious – the blouse and long skirt were cotton, heavy thick Egyptian cotton gauze tied at the waist and throat with knotted cords. She wore closed toe shoes, but only simple canvas slip-ons without socks or any other artifice. Bracelets and bangles she might wear on her arms, but no watch – that hung around her neck as an antique pocket watch.

Virginia took up the jar of sugar and opened it to find four long, black vanilla beans poked into it and the fragrance of the sugar gave off was irresistible and she took a pinch of it on her tongue. “That’s amazing – I’d never thought of doing that, how clever.”

“After they’ve been there a while, you can soak them in rum or vodka for vanilla liquor for the holidays.”

“That sounds wonderful,” Virginia said, taking a sip of her tea before adding sugar to it. It seemed only fair as it also smelled nearly as good as the sugar had. Looking up, she saw that Roxy had pulled out a cell phone of her own and was sending a text.

“I do believe I have just the thing for Mr. Tony Blake – the magician? And you, his able assistant?”

“The new one,” she said quickly, almost choking on her tea in the process. “He’s not had very good luck in keeping them lately.”

“Still cutting them in half the wrong way, is he?” Reading the screen as it buzzed an answer back at her, her expression brightened a bit, her blue eyes sparkling. “Such a poor performance from a man who can disappear as well as he has, neh? Ah – there we go. The Thoreau cottage is available, and I’m sending someone over to dress the beds and freshen it up. Shall we go over? Let you see if it’ll work for you?”

Virginia looked at her over her mug and Roxy covered her mouth with one elegant hand as she chuckled. “After you’ve finished your tea, of course,” Roxy said, laughing.

“It’s very good,” was all Virginia could manage, and Roxy obliged her by drinking her own with a smile on her face.

###

The cottage was just that – one of the few units that truly sat on the ground under the trees, its entrance on nearly level ground. It had one bedroom with a queen-sized bed in it, tall and heaped high with a featherbed mattress, thick duvets with crisp cotton covers and many plump pillows, all snowy white. Beyond the necessary nightstand with one lamp and rocking chair in a corner, the room was simple in décor with the same white-washed clapboard and plank floor construction as the office, the walls lined with bookcases full of dog-earned paperback and elderly hardback books.

A bathroom with a clawfoot tub-shower and toilet was off one doorway, the other lead into the sitting room that featured a small kitchen, desk, couch and easy chair, and the front door they had entered by.

No telephone, no television – not even a clock radio. Most of the light came in from outside, the ceiling here being much the same as it had in the office – thick canvas stretched to a central point in each room, falling to the corners. There were orchids placed in each room, one blooming with tiny rusty spotted flowers, another with deep purple slipper blooms and yet another with sunny yellow and orange feathers.

“There’s an intercom here, if you need help – one of us is near the base to hear it.” At Virginia’s quizzical look, Roxy laughed. “Oh, I’m not alone here, I have staff – which reminds me, I need to get back to. What do you think? Will it do?”

“It’s charming,” she replied, turning to take in the front room. “Does the couch fold out?”

“It does, but I can ask the boys to bring in a daybed into the bedroom for you – it’ll be more comfortable and out of the way. If that will be okay - ?”

“If it’s not, we can change it. Thank you so much, Roxy.”

Taking the other woman’s hand, they shook on it. “Don’t forget, there are a lot of things for you to do here as well – we’ll try to make Mr. Blake’s recovery period a pleasant one.”

Virginia had no illusions – once Tony began to feel better, he was going to be insufferable if he didn’t have something to keep him occupied. That would be the challenge. Well, burn that bridge when you cross it, as they always said – she had her hiding place, now all she had to do was bring him to it.

And explain that if he wanted to leave Tony Stark in the hospital, he was going to have to accept being an urban myth outside of it.

Tony Blake, affluent philanthropist and professional magician, missing and presumed dead for decades. People spoke of him in terms reserved for Jimmy Hoffa, D.B. Cooper and Captain Steve Rogers, a missing in action mystery that had never been resolved.

Her new boss was definitely too young to pass for the original. However, while only a few photographs remained of the man, Tony Stark could resemble the original if you squinted. Hard.

But the name was close enough that she wouldn’t trip up by calling him by his given name, and even Roxy hadn’t believed her, so however Virginia played it – it wasn’t Tony Stark taking up residence in an eco-hostel near Captain Cook, south of Kailua-Kona, but the ghost of a gentle, caring magician who had never really hurt anyone – and whose public reticence was legendary.

She decided to go to the market and pick up a few things for the kitchen, and then began to think about when to arrange for discharge from the hospital. Somehow, calling in to consult with Obadiah Stane didn’t seem that important. And besides, did she really report to him anymore, anyway?

And what would she do to keep herself busy for three weeks?

She remembered the books. There had indeed been a lot of them, hadn’t there?

The idea brought her up short. How did this become my life? Too easily by half, and far too easy for belief.

There had to be a catch.

###

“Please.”

Rhodey leaned forward to rest his forehead against Tony Stark’s and repeated himself. “Please. Don’t make me worry about you, dumbass. I gotta hell of a day tomorrow.”

Sitting on the edge of the bed, Tony only closed his eyes, hands still in his lap. Rhodey leaned over him, bracing himself with one hand on either side of him and was still for a moment.

“You’ll knock it out of the park,” Tony said quietly, huffing a bit at the end. He could manage a very soft voice for short periods, but for the most part he whispered the few queries and statements he made.

“Next year, we’ll both do it – okay? You and me.”

“Sure.”

Pulling away, clapping him on the shoulder, Rhodey looked up to meet Virginia and then Happy in the eye, nodding. “Be seeing you.”

“Good luck, Colonel,” Virginia answered, offering her hand. “You’ll know where to find us.”

He took the hand and shook it, his face warmed with a smile. “Don’t die of boredom,” he said. “Mean it. No dying.”

“No dying.” Tony looked up and then made shooing motions with one hand. “See ya.”

With that, he took his leave – which left her with Happy, a wheelchair and Tony Stark staring a hole in the floor. Happy had brought him a set of street clothes – cotton twill shorts, t-shirt and an aloha print shirt bright enough to wake the dead. A pair of plastic sandals and cheap sunglasses completed the ensemble and Virginia couldn’t be sure she disapproved or not. But he was checked out – unofficially, officially Tony Stark was still in isolation and would be for some time – and it was time to go.

“C’mon, boss. You know how this works.” Happy brought the wheelchair around, locking the wheels before he motioned Tony to get in. Expecting resistance, she braced herself for a barrage of complaints – but Tony only looked up at Happy with a sneer, frowned and stifled a cough as he complied.

“You’d think this had happened to you before,” she murmured quietly.

“Oh, it has,” Happy offered breezily, without thinking – then coughed to cover the blunder. “Well. Yeah. It has. Boss just gets busy and doesn’t always – y’know, pay attention so good.”

“I see.” Not for the first time, Virginia wondered about her predecessor – she knew he’d had a PA; to be blunt, she wondered if he’d had half a dozen assistants but so far nobody had mentioned the person – even to if they had been male or female. Stane had said they’d quit – just walked. Remembering the state of the hotel room, the sheer lack of anything resembling debris – and a very sick man – she wondered again where and when that worthy had parted company with Tony. Well, with weeks ahead of them, perhaps an answer could be forthcoming if she was patient.

“Stupid sore throat. Guess it was strep after all.” Grumbling, quiet, but grumbling nonetheless. “Ms. Potts? Let’s go see this bolt hole you’ve been telling me about.”

The decision to move him during the day had been prompted by the lack of outdoor lighting at night – due to the Keck Observatory, the island obeyed some of the strictest light pollution restrictions at night she had even experienced. Even a good flashlight wasn’t going to be enough to navigate the outside of the cottage safely once it got dark. No porch lights, the few streetlights were on the main streets, and the gravel drive would have none whatsoever.

Again, she was grateful for an event being held in town that was so compelling, it even drew the attention of the media away long enough for them to sneak down to the back parking lot as Rhodey went out the front door into the thick of the crowds surrounding the hospital, hoping for a glimpse of Tony Stark, but able to console themselves with his best friend instead.

It may have been October, but it was still hovering around eighty degrees outside – the shorts had been a good choice. Moving swiftly to where her little rental was hiding between two parked ambulances, she quickly got behind the wheel as Happy settled Tony into the passenger seat, reclining it as far back as it would go after fastening the safety belt. Making sure the bag with prescriptions was loaded with the discharge instructions one last time, he made sure Virginia looked up at him before he drew away in preparation of letting them leave. He would stay behind to ensure the fiction that Tony Stark was still inside for the next few days, before he ‘left town to recover further at his own residence.’ There had been a little discussion about whether she should have been the one to stay behind, but both men had assured her Happy would make better cover.

“See you later tonight, after all these yahoos go to bed – okay, Ms. Potts?”

“You got it, Mr. Hogan. Thanks.”

Happy,” he said, tipping two fingers in salute as he closed the door, checking to make sure it was secure before patting it gently.

Starting the car, using care to make sure the coast was clear before pulling out, Virginia looked over to see Tony watching her with curious, interested eyes and a bemused smile on his face. “Yes, Mr. Stark – we’re slumming. Nobody is going to believe a man of your standing would stoop to riding around in a late model Ford Escort.” Grinning in spite of herself, she signaled and pulled out into traffic. “Frankly, I can hardly believe it myself if you want the truth.”

“Easily entertained, Ms. Potts?”

“Possibly. That might come in handy, considering the circumstances,” she said, looking over to check on him. She never thought she’d be using the word passive to describe Tony Stark, but she couldn’t come up with a different one. The eyes were open, but once she began to pay more attention to driving than to him, they had lost focus and now stared off into the distance. Mouth slack open, hands resting on his chest which barely lifted with inhalation, his color had gone gray again. Fatigue could be one cause, talking remained difficult as he remained short of breath. Once he was settled in, that would improve – it had before. But there was one thing she hadn’t considered. “Mr. Stark, is it still painful to take a deep breath?”

Eyes closed as he nodded quietly, and laid his head back. “Hurts, period. M’sick, my own fault.”

“I’m sorry. It’s not far – hang on a bit longer? They should have given you something before we left.”

“Wanted – be awake.”

“Okay,” she murmured. “Pretty stubborn, but that at least sounds normal – for you, of course.”

“Ha, ha,” he whispered back. “Sick at work for a week, sick for seven days in bed at home.”

Pulling to a stop sign, she covered the hands he had folded on his chest with one of her own – temperature was back up, and they felt clammy. “Hey, at least I know to stay home and open a can of Campbell’s.”

“…a’ watch soap operas.”

“Not a chance. Crocodile Hunter.”

“Wha-? That guy is nuts.”

“Yup.”

Pulling up in front of the cottage, Virginia looked around as the world went quiet around her as soon as the engine was turned off. Looking over at her boss, she watched with some amusement as he at first strained to listen, then deflated visibly as he realized there just wasn’t anything to hear except birdsong and wind chimes, his eyes darting back and forth, as bright and alive as she’d ever seen them.

It wasn’t slumming. It was an adventure. Virginia sent a silent thanks to the cosmos in relief.

“Hear that? You know what they call that, right?” A bemused frown was his only response. “Nothing. Nothing but nothing, Mr. Stark. Hang on and I’ll get the door for you.”

Settling in for the night involved visits from Roxy, who introduced the two of them to the rest of her ‘able and experienced staff’ – all men. They were to a man, leanly-muscled twenty-somethings with bright smiles, strong backs and few words dressed in white t-shirts, khaki shorts and sandals.

She’d brought tea again, which had made taking all the medication tolerable. A few simple shortbread cookies were a kindness in itself against stomach upset, served on a hand-thrown stoneware plate with a paper doily on top. The teapot was one of those that sat nested in its own cup – tea for one, and it didn’t match the plate. The whole tray could have come off as a jumble of mismatched pieces, but the whole effect was one of interesting contrasts, lovely things to look at and explore.

Comfortable, propped up on pillows, Tony noted all of them with interest, amusement and no little curiosity, mouth quirked in a smile that made Virginia cover her mouth over a chuckle despite herself. It made up for the lack of air conditioning. Yes, scenery – and her appraisal of Roxy and her methods got another footnote.

The gardener who came in to examine the orchids was the one exception. Dressed in soil-stained clothing, he checked every last one in the cottage with careful hands, his posture very precise and focused. Older than Roxy, snowy-haired with a face rich in character, he smiled easily at the two of them as they settled in while he completed his rounds.

The hospital had sent an oxygen concentrator –in home oxygen without the tanks – which he also demonstrated to both she and Tony, explaining that he also doubled as the handyman when necessary. That was when she got to hear him speak.

He wasn’t Hawaiian, although she would swear those black eyes were Asian, direct and even more prominent under the white hair and eyebrows, coated with a light layer of brown dust like the rest of him. The voice was an easy baritone, half-voiced in the quiet with a clear Californian accent, swift moving with careful vowels. A trained voice, handling the medical terminology with ease as he set it up, hooked up the cannula and tubing before handing them to Tony.

“Go ahead and use it – or not. It’s not dangerous, regardless. Just air,” he said confidently. “No smoking near it, of course – doubt you’d want to right now anyway – and there is a prescription written for flow rate, but it appears to be entirely up to you whether you use this or not.”

She had to give it to Tony at that last. He just took the device with a look that was both passive and direct, covered his mouth with a free hand and coughed from the bottom of his lungs, the sound wet, creaky, wheezing as he inhaled to begin again, threading the loops over his ears before leaning back to take a deep breath through his nose, eyes closing in dismissal, relieved. Not my first rodeo and I’m not stupid enough to pass up good help.

“Okay, then,” the older man had said softly, rising easily to his feet. “”I’m John, by the way. John Bosco – and chances are, I’ll be the one bringing your dinners back up tonight – no, no, that’s the way Roxy works here. You’re here to get better, she helps. Any allergies?”

“Strawberries – “ Looking over at Tony, Virginia watched him shake his head in denial, then frowned. “Strawberries,” she repeated, somewhat embarrassed. “Huge rash, I stop breathing – that sort of thing.”

“What a pity. Ah, not uncommon, but something to avoid for sure. No strawberries then. Until dinnertime, then. Enjoy the sunset, they’re very pretty – they told you where the lamps are, right? Right – I’ll be on my way.”

So quiet they could hear him walking away, the footsteps growing faint until a door opened, closed in the distance and Virginia heaved a sigh of relief.

“This…is a very different place, Ms. Potts.” The sound of Tony speaking at a volume intended only for her made her a bit uneasy. “Homey, kind of. Rustic.” He lingered on the last word, giving her his opinion on the whole place in one word. Well, the polished five-star, air conditioned perfection his previous hotel stay had been was as far away from this as the ubiquitous Spam was from the Thanksgiving hams it shared lineage with. This place was different, but hadn’t it been just that lack of artifice that had made it so appealing in the first place?

“I appreciate the thought, Mr. Stark.”

“Potts, they know who I am. Why did you – “

“Plausible deniability. They don’t have to lie. Tony Stark is not a registered guest at this establishment.” The words rolled off her tongue easily, well-prepared as she finished unpacking the few things she had brought with them. “Even if someone catches a photograph, you know you could pass – at a distance.”

He only rolled his eyes. “You didn’t try to pass me off as Captain America, at least. Thank you for small favors.”

“Honestly. That would only get us attention. Tony Blake gets us a bey – man of mystery, magic and good deeds…as long as you don’t look too closely, right?” It was hard not to smile, feeling like a kid sneaking out of class with a forged permission slip and it must have shown on her face because when she stopped looking through the books in the bookcase and back to Tony, she saw him watching her with an amused smile on his face, reaching all the way to his eyes.

“You’re a naughty girl, Ms. Potts – aren’t you?”

“No more than I need to be, Mr. Stark,” she replied, a bit saucy.

He winced a bit as he took another deep breath through his nose, and his mood abruptly shifted. “Who are you,” he said, “Really. I’m willing to accept I’ve been way out of the loop, but comes a time when even that doesn’t satisfy. You’re very good, I have to give you that – but who are you, Potts. How the hell did you get here. Start from the beginning. Who sent you.”

The catch. Here it is. Slowly sinking down to sit on the edge of the daybed Roxy’s able-bodied staff had set up across the room from where Tony rested on the resident queen-sized bed, she composed herself and sat very straight, hands folded in her lap. “I told you when I entered your room, I was sent by Obadiah Stane.”

“Obie hired me a new personal assistant. Without even asking me if I wanted one.”

“I was told the old one quit. You’d been out of touch for over three days.”

“The old one? Old one – Ms. Potts, I have had secretaries, nannies, tutors, watchers, bodyguards, handlers…” One hand flew into the air, waving the thought away as he frowned and stared off into space, chuffing a bit. “But I never had assistants, Ms. Potts, they all belonged to Obie – and Obie made them do what Obie thought they should do. It may be my company, but Obie’s made sure I run it just the way he’s comfortable with.”

Well, if that had anything to do with making sure the company stayed productive and in the black, perhaps that was the right thing to do – but looking at Tony, Virginia sensed something very much akin to what she had felt back at the hotel in the company of Rhodey and Happy. He’s managed. He’s an ass because that’s how he gets his say, but the rest is all Obie and that’s the way it’s always been.

“It’s okay, actually. It’s kind of more I design stuff for Obie, and he makes sure everyone leaves me alone to do it. I don’t need a personal assistant, Ms. Potts. Though you’ve been – very good. Thoughtful. Inventive. Helpful, even. Certainly know the job description – “

“You don’t have anyone.” The words tumbled out before she could call them back, and they stayed in the air between them.

“Nonsense. I have everyone. Anyone – “

“And they all have you, if Obie says so. Is that how it works?” Oh, there’s a catch alright. And it’s beginning to sprout hooks and barbs. “Mr. Stark – “

“Ms. Potts. Poor thing with the terrible name – don’t. Don’t. You start feeling sorry for me and I’ll have to have your head examined.”

“Too late, I already took the job. I’m certifiable.”

The laugh that threatened to escape him turned into a coughing fit that left him breathless laying back on the pillows, eyes skyward. “You don’t care,” he managed at the last. “Or you do. What is it, Potts? Where do you fit in?”

She sat and thought about it, composing the most succinct answer she could without getting sentimental. That, she was sure, would be mistaken for an interest she simply didn’t have at the moment. “Have I overstepped myself, Mr. Stark?”

Tony. We’re talking about me, we use my name. It’s not long enough ago that Mr. Stark was my Dad, Potts. Okay?”

“Fine. Tony.” Taking a deep breath, she found a place on the floor to look at as she tried to concentrate on what she felt needed to be said, instead of wanting to demand more from Tony about himself. I find myself very misinformed, Mr. Stark. Would you care to explain why Stane lied to me about you? Or was he lying. Tell me about yourself – oh wait. That’s it -

“My name is Virginia Anne Potts. My birthday is September 9, 1974 and I was born in New Haven, Connecticut. I’m also an adoptee,” she said slowly, carefully. “May I suggest something of an equal trade? I’ll answer any question you’re willing to answer about yourself.”

“Any question.” His expression became puckish, calculating. She had proposed a sharing of information, wrapped up as a game – irresistible.

Looking up, she allowed one quick glance to gauge his reaction. If he thought this was one big joke at her expense, it was going to be a very short conversation – but that didn’t appear to be the case. Matter of fact, his expression was of intense interest and while she looked away – he didn’t. “You have to be willing to answer any question about yourself…Tony. I think that would keep you from asking silly things like where I lost my virginity – if you even remember, of course.”

“Are you asking?”

“No.”

“Then neither am I,” he said shortly, clearing his throat. “Deal. But I don’t know if it’s entirely fair – my life story is hardly a company secret. But I’ll tell you one anyway – I’m Howard Stark’s son, thankfully I was smart and interesting enough in my own right to hold my own against him, people these days say I’ve surpassed him. I’ve inherited his company, I guess I’d be more interested if I was a businessman, but I’m not. I fake it, Potts – make a note. I fake that part, and if you want to make sure there’s a job for you to keep, remember that. It’ll be an uphill struggle on your part to make me one of those typical drones who keep appointments and think power lunches without booze are useful.”

She only nodded, watching his hands dance in his lap and wondered if he was aware he was doing it. “You got through school before you were out of your teens, as I recall – I wasn’t so quick,” she offered. “Pretty standard public school education, terribly standard stint at a state school that ended with me getting an MBA about six or so years ago and I was scouted at a career placement fair the year I graduated with my Masters. I’ve been with the company ever since, and I was one of the many, many people whose direct report directly reported to Obadiah Stane – up to three days ago.”

“Fair enough. You were adopted?” It didn’t come as much of a surprise to hear the hesitation creep into his voice, she couldn’t remember many people who weren’t curious about the adoption – and embarrassed to admit it at the same time. But it never stopped them from asking, either.

“It’s okay. I was an infant adoption, standard four days old, closed file to older parents who adored me and never made a secret of it, they were so grateful.” Remembering them gave her a pang, but also warmth at the same time. “Dad died of a heart attack before I was out of high school, Mom passed away around the same year I started working at Stark Industries from cancer. They gave me the best start they could – I was very loved.” Shrugging, she folded her hands in her lap as she looked to him for his next question.

“You did say anything,” he murmured, pensive. “I’m jealous, and want to punch myself in the face at the same time. That’s so not with the okay, Potts.” Taking a measured, deep breath and then releasing it slowly, he blinked a few times before asking the question she knew was coming. They all asked it, sooner or later. “Ever wonder about your…um…”

“First parents? Your parents died younger than mine, don’t you wonder about them? That’s normal, at least I think it is. But not enough to search for them. Thank you – that’s very kind.”

“You’re very resilient, Potts. That wasn’t kind.” Taking up the tablet, he swiped open a new document. “Note to self: Potts is case-hardened. If you think I’m ever getting stupid about my childhood, slap me. Worse, remind me you’re in the room. Jesus, I asked you to tell me this stuff cold sober on oxygen.”

“It’s my game, Tony. And the question is only mildly out of line. People find out, they ask,” she replied, shrugging. “It’s given me some freedom to make my own way, to be honest.”

At that last, he crossed his arms, tucking the tablet under one arm. “No obligations, no ties, eh? No? How do you see yourself? What are you? This way you’re making-” One hand unfurled to gesture aimlessly as he frowned. “The trite, boring question asks for your five year plan – tell me what you are, Potts. Dream job – heart of hearts stuff. Go for it. What makes you tick?”

Gaping for a moment, she found she had to shut her mouth before forming an answer. “I – uh. Hadn’t thought about it. Well, not that way. No fair, that one’s hard.”

“No dreams, Potts? Not one?”

“Too busy working, I guess,” she said mock-mournfully, “I guess remaining my own person is enough of a dream most days. The little picket-fence, doting husband and 2.5 kids doesn’t exactly appeal. “ Sighing, she looked at him watching her, still expectant. I guess all the hard ones are the important ones. “I listen to what’s being said, and try to hear what they need. Be ready to fill in the blanks. I came on as a business analyst five years ago, Stane thought I did a good job of drawing conclusions so I was moved. Not very exciting but business is good and I did something where I was needed. And I was good at it, if I have to blow my own horn. That’s probably it – I want to be where I’m good at what I do. You? I’m curious – what do you think you’d be if there were no Stark Industries, if you were something – more ordinary?”

He’d thought about it. He’d thought about it often, it was clear from the way his expression softened as he tried to stave off a coughing fit at the same time, his expression turning inward. “I’d find a research lab somewhere and never leave it. I’d still be doing some very strong mechanical/chemical engineering, some electrical electronic for good measure but I love puzzles. Patterns – replicating intelligence. Potts, you know anything about artificial intelligence and what goes into creating it?”

“A bit – I only know enough to make sure two scientists can cohabitate inside a conference room long enough to get a plan check accomplished. What I do know about it, I got largely by watching Robot Wars. Wow, that’s a face – you don’t like that show?”

“Waste,” he spat. “Make ‘em to break ‘em, that’s not very appealing, sorry. Give a weapon enough computing throughput to get to its target, but to intentionally build something sentient just to see how long it would take to destroy it with a sledgehammer is just plain brain dead.”

Feeling her head cock to the side as she looked at him, Virginia knew at that moment that Tony Stark was the heir to one of the largest weapons manufacturers in history largely by accident. He wouldn’t even be in the weapons business at all, given a choice. “How do you feel about all the systems you’ve helped design, then? “

“If people are stupid enough to use our stuff, knowing what it does – more the fool them. Not my problem. Maybe I am something of a businessman, Potts – and wasn’t I supposed to be asking the questions? But – okay. I can see how you find something about it to like – it’s a challenge, and you build to that challenge and see who outbuilds the other guys. You’ve got potential. Next question - ”

The conversation ambled on while the sunlight dimmed, the walls and ceiling in the cottage growing orange and pink and Virginia rose from her perch on the daybed to find and turn on the few lamps in the bedroom, then answered the door and admitted the gardener again with a tray with enough covered dishes for the both of them while Tony dozed.

“What is it?” Asking as she accepted the tray, she tried to determine the contents by smell and only came up with steamed rice being a main component of the dishes.

“Okayu. Something of a Japanese tradition for people who aren’t feeling well.” Smiling at her, the older man had sketched a small bow before leaving. “Just leave the dishes for tomorrow, someone will be by to pick them up when breakfast is ready.”

“I’m very grateful for all the attention – tell Roxy thank you for me, would you?”

She’s made my job so much easier. Here’s dinner and I don’t even have to stop talking.

When John returned later with an armful of clothes for her, she was speechless. “People leave things behind, we keep them around just in case. That all looks dry clean only anyway. Rest well.”

Tony had wrinkled his nose, pronounced his dinner ‘a lovely shade of beige’ but after tucking into the meal, hadn’t said much until it was entirely eaten. In her opinion, it had been just right – steamed rice broken down into porridge with hot milk and shirred eggs, a little minced green onion with some soy sauce to add to taste. Paired with some plain toasted Hawaiian sweet bread, hot black tea and a soft vanilla pudding, Virginia found little to complain about. It was like the rest of the accommodations – simple, but done well with an eye to making one comfortable, pampered but not spoiled.

Tony was beginning to look grey with exhaustion again, though. Virginia only held up a hand when it looked like he was willing to begin the game anew once the meal was completed, and smiled. Her reward was a relieved sigh as he laid his head back on the pillows, mouth curving into a smile that was both fond and wry at the same time.

There were medications to take, personal toilets to complete – if Tony found the fact she was sleeping in a spare bed across the room from him strange, he didn’t voice it as such. Tucking herself into bed with a book and a flashlight, however, earned her a chuckle. For his part, his tablet provided enough light while he half-heartedly made entries on it.

“Trashy romance novel, Potts?”

“Not at all, Mr. Stark. A Nero Wolfe mystery, thank you.”

“Ugh, don’t tell me which one. Doesn’t matter - they all ate better than we did, and they’ve been dead over forty years already.”

He’d then asked for her interview with Stane, verbatim – and it had been one of the few things he hadn’t questioned or asked her to elaborate.

When she finally turned off the flashlight, eyes drooping closed, the last thing she remembered hearing was the soft murmur of the oxygen concentrator and the sound of Tony Stark wishing her good night in the strangest fashion she’d ever heard.

“You’re very nice to me, Ms. Potts. I’m going to find out why you’re so nice to me.”

After that, he had visibly relaxed and sleep had not been far behind.

Cocking an ear to listen to him breathe (still wheezy and shallow but better), Virginia was awake enough to hear Happy arrive in the middle of the night – with all of the best intentions of being quiet, he was still loud enough to be heard by the entire facility as he unlocked the front door, stepped into the bedroom to find Tony sound asleep and herself wiggling fingers from under the comforter in her own bed. Nodding, he had only stepped back and made himself comfortable on the couch in the other room.

Discharge from hospital: complete.

###

 

Days began to pass, one by one after that. Peaceful, uneventful – uninterrupted – days. If anyone was looking for them, she never knew it. They didn’t even hear the other guests staying at the facility – perhaps a shout far above them, or someone discussing the finer points of yoga as they exited their accommodations. Virginia enjoyed spending her time in the company of her new boss, learning the ropes while he steadily improved without any further complications. She had expected a noncompliant patient; what she discovered was something completely different.

Tony Stark’s speaking voice often covered three octaves or more, she found. He loved the plantation-grown coffee Roxy brought up in airpot carafes in the morning, refilling them at lunch time. But he also drank cold barley tea when it was offered. Food was nice, but he often had to be interrupted to take in a meal. He wasn’t fussy or demanding – there were no angry outbursts over the menu (which remained very simple and nearly vegetarian), the lack of any electronic contact with the outside world (aside from his tablet phone) or the constant supervision while he recovered – as long as he wasn’t expected to entertain or be entertained.

Away from other people, he was a very quiet, focused individual who could spend hours alone and lose track of time wrapped up in whatever had caught his attention. The second day, he had selected dozens of books from the cases lining the walls, stacking them beside the bed. He was a voracious reader, going through books swiftly, methodically with no little enjoyment, often handing a book directly back to her when he finished it. “I want to talk with you about this one later - let me know when you’re done.” Virginia wondered if having the time to simply read for his own enjoyment was rare enough to be a guilty pleasure. Discussing them? Part of the game – he was more than willing to offer his opinion, curious about her own.

The gardener came in daily, either to tend to the plants or to exchange them for different ones. Noting the books, a daily copy of the local paper and the Wall Street Journal began to arrive with breakfast in the mornings.

Tony would read them, highlight articles he found pertinent and hand them to her, to be read for conversation later. For her, John brought Hawaiian caftans – mumus – in bright colors that clashed with her red hair.

Tony was curious, but didn’t pry – displaying a reserve she hadn’t expected to find in the man, considering his reputation. But giving him permission to ask questions of her had been like giving him a roll of quarters and sending him into a video arcade.

She found she enjoyed it. Nobody had ever been so very interested – fascinated – with what she said, thought or desired before. It was if she was a puzzle he was trying to decipher, other times it was his desire to tickle her curiosity about subjects she’d never considered important before. The attention was flattering, but reassuring. I can do my job, and do a good job of it with this kind of support. It just might work after all.

Before she knew it, more than a week had passed.

“Potts, have you noticed how clever this canvas ceiling is? Did you know the leaves of the tree cast the most beautiful shadows today? It must not rain here very much – it would never work if it got wet all the time, but they must have designed this place with that in mind. Simple. Clever. Very nice. Have you seen the gardener today, Potts? Do you know they’ve grown most of those orchids themselves? Man gave me a quick lesson in how they breed them. Says in a couple of days, we can go up and spend time in the green house. Ambitious, I know but – “

He had lived a very indulged life, but was gifted with an intensely curious mind that noticed every detail, however humble. And found it worthy of note, fascinated by the world around him.

“Why, I do believe you found that other hotel very boring, Mr. Stark.”

“Nice of you to notice, Ms. Potts,” he replied. He hadn’t said much more for a few moments, his expression becoming far away, almost wistful. “I’m not bored, here. Good job, and thank you for that.”

“I’m having fun too,” she’d admitted softly. “Thank you, Mr. Stark.”

He’d only waved it away. “What do you know about the National Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority? Been reading about it most of the day – “

“Roxy – she was talking to me about it too. What did she say?”

“It’s near here,” he said, picking up the newspaper he’d marked for her. “Potts, as soon as it’s possible, we need to pay it a visit. Covert, of course. Hush hush. I want a look.”

“Of course, Mr. Stark. I’ll put it on the list.”

“When is our man Sherry coming back for a visit?”

“Tomorrow. “

“Perfect. I’m going to knock his slippers off.”

As long as it was on his terms. She hadn’t forgotten how fast that quick mind could work its way out of any confining space, real or perceived. She’d learned to offer, not hand him things after he had almost sheepishly admitted he had a thing about it. It went beyond being able to choose – the implied obligation to accept everything put in front of him squicked him.

“You can always say no,” she said. He’d only winced and looked away.

“Okay, so I always say no. I still hate having things pushed at me.”

“I’m sorry,” she’d replied, careful not to sound concerned in the least. “We’ll let them push things at me from now on. Will that be okay, Mr. Stark?”

“Practically perfect in every way, Ms. Potts.”

She’d expected something so different from the quiet but intense young man she found herself companion to in this place. He hadn’t so much as made a pass at her, but complimented her at odd moments on the way she’d done her hair or what she had on. And in turn, she remembered to return the compliments in kind, always genuine to the bone; he hated anything less. Don’t flatter Tony Stark, tell the truth even if it’s only to reassure him the laryngitis is temporary and sounding like a chipmunk on helium makes you smile because you can tell he’s trying so hard not to. And then tell him to stop talking and let you catch up on your reading. Reassure him when he does.

“I don’t like secrets,” she told him one afternoon. “I don’t like being left out of the loop. If I have a thing, that the one.”

“You couldn’t be good at your job then, could you Potts?” On the verge of taking a nap, the eyes blinking shut, he’d looked at her with an expression as sad as she’d ever seen. “That really is what makes you tick, isn’t it? Shame. I won’t even remember the loops, Potts – m’kay? It’s not you, won’t ever be - ”

“I know. You’ll get better at it. You won’t mean it.” But by then he’d fallen asleep, sleeping easier and easier as time passed. If he gave any indication he missed the outside world beyond the daily newspapers, he hadn’t voiced it in her hearing – only referring to the future as ‘make a note of it’ or ‘sometime in the near future, we need to – ‘ but never right now. Right now was sleeping in a treehouse whenever it felt good, being curious about the smallest of things and allowing a small handful of people know how he was.

The town had emptied out, the competition over – even the newspapers forgot that Tony Stark was still inpatient at the only hospital in town while Happy snuck into the little cottage at night to rest on the couch, drink whatever leftover coffee there might be and keep watch over them at his own behest. There had been a night or two when sleep was elusive, and Happy had produced a deck of cards to while the time away by flashlight. He was also full of stories, and when Tony was sleeping, he told the best ones to her.

Rhodey completed the Iron Man triathlon, not first, not last – but completed it to his own satisfaction, and the night he came with Happy before returning to base was one of the most bittersweet of their stay.

That was the night she’d learned Tony’s previous bout with pneumonia had been after he’d aspirated the contents of his stomach during an overdose. “Worst hangover ever, Potts,” he’d said so softly, threading his fingers with Rhodey’s as the airman sat on the bed next to him, warm and safe and falling asleep.

“Stupid college stunt. Stupid kid stunt. Almost killed him – damn, he scared me.”

“Don’t scold him, Rhodey.”

Settling Rhodey on top of the covers next to Tony to sleep with an afghan tossed over him had seemed like the kindest thing to do. She didn’t rest much that night, listening to the two men sleeping nearby, thinking about what she had been told about Tony, what was still a matter of public record – and what she was still learning of the man. It was beginning to make sense, but very little of it had much in common with the public persona of Tony Stark she had taken for granted when she had arrived here.

In the morning, she tried to engrave Rhodey’s presence on her memory – he was so poised, even sound asleep. With a guilty start, she found herself jealous of his long eyelashes, how he could wear such clear, bright tones with his coloring – the firm but gentle handshake, ready smile and faithful dedication to this old college friend who he clearly loved, but drove him crazy at the same time. Somehow, he did it without raising his voice, and if he complained it was always with such warmth she couldn’t be upset with him.

Well, they always said – if you wanted to know someone, look at who they have for friends. Tony Stark had few friends – but the ones he did?

If I’m really in trouble, call Rhodey.

She knew she would.

###
One morning while she was in the shower, Tony Stark decided his new assistant needed a day off, and thankfully – the old gardener had agreed with him, pledging to make it an immediate reality.

John Bosco, gardener come handyman had shooed his brand-new, so clean she squeaked assistant away after breakfast a few days after that, offering to take her place for the morning. He had promised Tony a trip to the greenhouses and having prepped the oxygen concentrator for pick up that very day, decided he was well enough for the hike up the hill behind the facility to see them.

It hadn’t hurt that he had found Tony examining one of the orchids left in the bedroom closely, intrigued by the colors and the pattern of the flower’s petals.

Vanda ustii,” he had offered. “Rare, only found in the Phillipines. Something of a feather in my cap, it was a gift from a former guest here.”

“Really.”

“A delightful woman, poor thing. She was our guest for a short time after the death of her husband.” Moving to stand next to him, John gently cupped one hand under the cluster of purple and white flowers. “This one is commonly known as a University of Santo Tomas vanda. When she returned home, she sent a slip back as a thank you – very kind – knowing how much of a shameless collector I am.”

“You’ve got more patience than I have,” Tony had replied, turning to watch the gardener admire his own handiwork. “I’d heard of this sort of thing, but – “

“Not something you run across in your daily life.” The tone was kind, the look John shot him under veiled eyes curious but tolerant.

‘Fraid not.”

John had brought appropriate clothing, including an oversized canvas hat that matched the one he’d tossed onto the bed upon entering the cottage. All of it was stained the color of old blood either by splash or immersion by the highly iron-rich soil, oxidized into rusty clay.

“These belong to your friend, don’t they? He left them behind.” He idly played with Happy’s worn deck of cards while Tony sat on the edge of the bed, changing from the khaki shorts and old band shirt into the gardening clothes, paying more attention to Tony than the cards he idly fingered while he waited for Tony to finish.

“Yeah, Happy likes playing poker just about as much as he enjoys a good meal. He’s always good for a deck if you need one to pass the time.”

“A very good trait in a bodyguard,” he’d replied slowly, palming the deck. “But I would have expected to see you practicing with these instead, being a magician like you are and all.”

He’d quickly coughed to cover his reaction. “Hiatus,” he choked out.

“Uh, hmm.” Taking the deck of cards between his own hands, John expertly shuffled the cards between his hands, top to bottom so they slid between each other. Pulling a card seemingly at random, he showed it to him – a Jack of Clubs. “A fine fellow, Happy is – isn’t he? But if circumstances changed just a little – “ The card went back inside the deck and a new card fell into his hands to be turned towards Tony. The Jack of Spades. “Things could get rather deadly, I dare say.”

“Not bad. Know a few tricks yourself, I see.”

“I’m…retired,” he said, almost purring. “Here, take one. Any-“

“Ah - Drop one, don’t care which one – just…”

With a small display of surprise, he pulled the cards back. “Oh, that’s right. Sorry – forgot.” Using both hands, he fanned the deck in front of Tony, one card pulling itself out of the middle by itself to fall onto the bed. “Someone constantly on your radar, someone you can’t ignore – “

Turning the card over, Tony found the King of Spades. “Obie,” he said softly, more to himself than to be heard aloud.

“Mind putting those back in the deck for me?”

Tony complied, watching John shuffle the deck once again, dealing four cards in front of him, face down. “Now, here they are all together – care to guess who the last two are?”

Feeling impish, he grinned at John and sat back. “You’re the one with all the secrets, it’s your trick.”

Smiling back, he turned the first two over. “You know these two.” The Jack of Clubs and the King of Spades. “But this? Familiar to you?”

The King of Diamonds. “But I’m not sure,” the gardener said. “Perhaps this one – “ And covering the card with the one remaining face down, he flipped it up to reveal The Joker. “Ah, the wild card. Could be anything or anyone now, couldn’t it? And why is that – “

Pointing the deck at Tony, cards stacked together, one card jumped out to join the others on the bed, falling face up.

The Ace of Hearts.

Potts? Nah. “An Ace?” he said, wry. “Why not a Queen or – “

Taking up the cards, John put them back in the deck, putting the deck back into the box they had come in. “The Ace. Both the most and least valuable card in any suite – depending on how you chose to apply it.”

“A not so veiled reference to my new assistant,” Tony said, watching John for a reaction. But the older man only smiled to himself even broader, cocking an eyebrow.

“Your very devoted assistant,” John said without looking at him, closing the flap of the box. “Who has managed to keep you safe, hidden and entertained during your convalescence without neglecting herself. Or making more work for other people. That’s something most would take for granted, but it’s a talent all its own.

Sweeping a hand towards the ceiling, John stood a little taller as he captured Tony’s attention with a direct gaze of his own. “She could have bought you a place to stay, cash on the barrelhead for the biggest, best-appointed property on the island – but she didn’t. She went looking for what you didn’t have – care. You didn’t need much – just a place to rest without being disturbed. And that was what you wanted, wasn’t it? This is a very small town, Tony. We all knew where she’d been.”

Tony stared at the other man, looking even more carefully than he had before. You could pass – if you squint.

“She doesn’t appear to be impressed with affluence,” John had then added, with a small shake of the head. “Perhaps beyond knowing you can pay for your own dinner, it doesn’t matter. Certainly knows the value of a simple life, coming here - ”

“You can’t be.” The words were trite, stumbling out of his mouth unbidden but to the other man, standing next to him holding a deck of cards they were as welcome as a greeting as he closed his eyes, dipping his head in acknowledgement. The next, he spoke almost as a challenge. “You know who I am.”

“Of course.” Looking down at him, John cocked his head to one side and looked at him fondly. “Hello, Tony Stark.”

Like watching knots untie themselves, the last of the illusions fell away. “Hello, Tony Blake,” the younger man said. “Retired, my ass.”

Blake’s expression became inscrutable, pensive. “Misdirection is often the key to any successful illusion. But your people had already done most of the work – all I had to do was keep any unwanted attention away from you, and back on them.” Smiling, he chuckled and looked away. “Really, it was more fun than I’ve had in a long time.”

Offering a hand to Tony, he tucked it under one arm, giving him a secure place to balance and rest if he needed to. “People who know how to assist without either doing it all for you – badly, I might add - or not doing the right thing – dreadful – or worst yet, nothing at all waiting for you to give direction? They make it look like they’re doing very little, yet everything is taken care of and things just go along as they should. Roxy was like that – “

“Before you – retired,” Tony said, giving the older man a verbal dig in the ribs. “She worked for you instead of the other way around, didn’t she.”

“And look at her now, running a whole company that does nothing but look after people and take care of their needs. Nobody would call her a mere assistant now, would they? But that’s what she does.”

Stepping outside, Tony was grateful for the hat as he stood blinking in the bright sunshine. “That’s what she says – Potts, I mean. She says she likes being able to see the empty spots, figure out what to fill them with. I’ve never known anyone like that before – happy with that. Didn’t expect to. “

Outside in the daylight, ready to work in the greenhouses, he didn’t look like a wealthy philanthropist but only the simple gardener he had been since his arrival. Blake didn’t say anything more, just turned to look at Tony almost paternally, giving Tony’s hat a sharp tug to further cover his face before he took him to the rocky path behind the cottage that led up the hill behind the facility.

He didn’t walk quickly, but the pace and the elevation gain quickly tired Tony and they had to pause more than once for him to catch his breath. Blake didn’t chide or encourage him, just waited patiently for Tony to find his own comfort zone before continuing. It was the first time he’d been truly outside, on his feet in over two weeks. And getting dizzy at less than twenty feet above sea level was humbling.

There was one greenhouse dedicated to growing coffee trees, it turned out. “It’s steady income, everyone around here needs them and we’re good at growing them,” the gardener explained. “Pity you won’t be here for the Coffee Festival, it’s quite the thing around here.”

There were herbs, vegetables for the kitchen and Blake waved a hand at the plethora of papaya trees sprouting behind one the greenhouses. “I keep telling the boys not to put the seeds in the compost heap, but no – and look, volunteers! Who could blame me for not wanting to yank them all up?”

“Face it, you see breakfast,” Tony had huffed. “Very cozy setup you’ve got here, gotta give you that. Renewable – breakfast.”

Shrugging, he opened the door to the last greenhouse. “This one? One hundred percent unnecessary – but I have to admit it, I can’t help it.”

This is the one with your orchids in it. All of them. He knew it before he stepped inside and was instantly enveloped by a wave of warm, moist, fragrant air. Finding a chair at what could only be a potting table, Tony sat to catch his breath as he look down the length of the interior at what could only be the largest collection of orchid plants he’d ever heard of, let alone seen. The examples placed in the cottage had only been a small example of the diversity to be found in this nursery – beginning with what looked like an ivy plant trained to a trellis sitting next to him on the floor.

The older man had already taken up his tools; a spray mister in one hand, a nippers in the other. Noting Tony’s focus, he ambled back to him, kneeling next to the plant.

“That’s not an orchid,” Tony said. “Boring.”

“Ah, looks can be deceiving. This is one of the most primitive of the species, to be true – but also, one of the most delicious. This is where vanilla beans come from – see the blooms here? Not very impressive, is it?”

“Vanilla. I don’t think I ever thought about it.”

“Ironically, they don’t even smell as good – here, try this one.”

A small pot with a plant in it mostly made up of the ghostly roots and thick leaves Tony associated with the orchid family, but hidden among the greenery were a handful of small blooms with triangular, ivory and rust spotted petals, no bigger than his thumb. But raising it to his nose, the scent was irresistible – sweet like honey and vanilla but not cloying like the plumerias had been in the last greenhouse.

He was off the chair and investigating the rest of the greenhouse as soon as he had caught his breath, each set of blooms a new experience – no two the same.

“Would you allow me to send some of these home with you? As you can see, there are plenty and I could use the space to grow more.”

Sure.

“Let Potts decide which ones. She’ll be good at it – green, growing things aren’t my thing.”

The older man looked back as he went through his collection, misting a bit here and there. “I’ll make sure to include some hardy specimens neither of you can kill easily. Any favorites yet?”

“Those look familiar – “ He’d stopped in front of a large pot sporting a tall spray of moon-like white blooms.

Phalaenopsis cultivars. Yes, very familiar, I’m sure. They’re also called Moth orchids – take good care of them, and they rarely stop blooming.”

There was another plant with flowers the same red-gold of Pott’s hair - Cattleya coccinea – that found its way onto the list.

Gymnadenia conopsea, long spears of light green flowers, fragrant – “They also come in pink, very pretty’ – set aside as well.

He was saying goodbye, Tony realized. Satisfied but weary when they returned to the cottage, he found his assistant sound asleep on her daybed, cheek pillowed on one hand, breathing softly, her fingernails showing a fresh manicure. She smelled like soap, water and vanilla extract – fresh and lovely and he didn’t have the heart to wake her.

“Thank you for making her job easier,” Tony said quietly.

“Take good care of her,” the other Tony replied. “And she will always be your ace in the hole.”

###

Reality and Tony Stark’s return to it was announced by Happy bursting into the cottage during breakfast the next morning. “Boss! We gotta go – they found out you’re not there anymore. We gotta go, now!”

It was then Virginia’s phone began to ring – and checking the caller ID, none other than Obadiah Stane himself. She hadn’t spoken to him since the morning of the press conference, but since they had agreed Tony was to be on leave, it wasn’t an immediate concern to see the call coming in.

However, she regretted it immediately. Stane was furious.

WHERE IS HE,” the tiny speaker on the phone nearly buzzed by itself as she held the phone to her ear. “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH HIM – WHERE’S TONY.

Sitting across the breakfast table in the living room of the cottage, Tony’s eyebrows first raised into his hairline before the eyes grew stormy and dropped down into an angry frown.

On his terms. Everything - Standing to take the call, Virginia found herself unable to do more than hold the phone away from her ear while her former boss roared at her, despite her efforts to get a word in edgewise.

Her current one? Was not impressed, and as she watched, pulled out his own tablet phone and swiped open his own call. “Obie! Nice to hear your voice – what the fuck is your damage?”

Hearing his voice coming out her own phone as well as in person, Virginia held it away from her face as she watched Tony Stark come to her defense, putting on every last trapping of the spoiled brat prince she had been expecting to deal with from the moment she had landed in Hawaii. Leaning back in the dining room chair, he threw his head back to look up at the ceiling, lithe hands dancing midair in angry strokes and dashes, eyes so bright they glittered in the morning sunlight.

But the phones had gone silent. “Mr. Stane? This is Virginia Potts, sir. Mr. Stark is with me. He’s fine – Mr. Stane?”

If she could have named the silence on the other end of the line, she would have called it disappointment. And it was appalling. Hearing Stane curse softly under his breath, she took a deep breath to begin speaking – only to hear Tony interrupt them both.

“Don’t know where you found this one, Obie – but I’m keeping her.”

“Tony, you’re three weeks late for plan check on the – “

Mine, Obie. You don’t get to yell at her, you don’t get to cuss at her – and you definitely don’t get to make her my keeper. Plan check on the what? That cluster you suckered us into over in Libya? You know we haven’t got a hope in hell of delivering - it’ll sit on the dock obsoleting itself while the blockade goes on for years – for GOOD reasons, Obie – so no, it wasn’t on my to-do list. Ever think about checking with me about shit like that? I got things to do – stuff that’ll make the company, not make fools out of the company Obie. In the ear, Obie. Riiight in the ear. No lube.”

Looking over at her, Tony shook his head, waggling a finger at her. It’s okay, I got this one.

She snapped her fingers to get his attention instead. It surprised him so much, he dropped the chair back to the ground, eyes wide. Remembering what she had found in that hotel room, what this man had sent her to manage – she knew her spare hand had balled into a fist, but she really didn’t care. She was also aware she no longer looked friendly and if her eyes were nothing but black slits – so much the better. When she found her voice, it was low, deadly and so calm it scared Tony right out of his intended tirade. “I think Mr. Stark has made it abundantly clear where the division of labor is at this point, Mr. Stane.

“I report to Mr. Stark, not you. That is the job I was brought on for, and until Mr. Stark decides otherwise – that will be all.” Closing her eyes, she bit her lip and counted to ten – but there were some things she just couldn’t leave unsaid.

“How could you.” Her voice was little more than a hiss, but it carried well enough. “I can almost believe you thought him dead before you sent me here.”

“I’d be careful what you accuse me of, Miss Potts.” The tone was languid, confident – the purring of a very large cat eyeing prey. But he didn’t deny it – and that only made her bolder.

“Don’t care. How could you.”

“That will be all, Ms. Potts.” Tony, speaking into the silence, and when she looked at him, she saw something there that hadn’t been there before. Respect and not a little fear. “Obie – you want anything, you can drop Ms. Potts an email or something – use the scheduling systems, leave a note – send up smoke signals, don’t really much care at this point. If I want to go off the grid, I’m going to and I don’t have to ask your permission to do it. She’ll know where to reach me – and if it’s important to interrupt me, she can. That’s fair – and if you don’t agree, sorry. No wait – not so sorry. That’s better than you had it, so be grateful.

“Now, if that’s all for now – and it is, Obie, it really is – I have some notes for my assistant and then I’m going to finish my sick leave in peace. We’ll update the calendar by the end of business today, and that’s fairer than you’d give me in the same position and we both know it. Goodbye, Obie. Aloha and have a nice day.”

She didn’t wait for the throat-cutting gesture – she’d already closed the call, hesitating over whether to shut the phone down altogether. Throw it across the room. Bury it in the yard.

“Well, then. You have a temper to go with that hair, don’t you?” A soft voice, fast-moving with careful vowels. Noting Happy had seated himself on the couch and was now scrubbing his face, both she and Tony had turned to look to the front door where Roxy’s gardener stood in the doorway, having slipped in unnoticed during the call. “You’re a regular pepper pot,” Blake added, grinning. “Nicely done!”

“Pepper.” The word was voiced in wonder, and turning back to face Tony, she couldn’t help but break into a smile, the one on his face was that contagious. “Pepper. That’s your name, I won’t accept any other.”

Happy had warned her – he names us and claims us, he’d said. But suddenly, it didn’t matter anymore. The sound of that word, that look on his face as he said it – it was good, like hearing her favorite song for the first time. She liked it quite a lot actually and it must have showed on her face because Tony only sat back, chin in hand, grinning from ear to ear, eyes shining. “That’s your name from now on, Potts. Hello, Pepper. Pepper.”

###

“You were the nicest thing Obie ever did for me, you know that?”

Tony Stark gently threaded the fingers of one hand through a few locks of Pepper’s hair, her head in his lap as they sat on the couch watching the last of the wood burn in the fireplace, her feet curled next to Bruce Banner on one side of them, Tony nearly elbowing Steve Rogers on the other.

Fall had come to Stark Tower in New York, and with it the desire for a fire in the fireplace, hot spiced cider drinks and conversation driven by sweet memories. Tonight, Steve had asked Pepper about herself, much like Tony had done all those years ago in Hawaii. And the tale had spun itself out to its completion, told in turns by the both of them.

“I take it back. Nearly dying from palladium poisoning while telling nobody is no longer your high water mark. Working a cold into pneumonia, and then locking yourself away in a hotel room?” Natasha Romanov turned a stern visage towards him from the end of the couch on the other side of Steve, an eyebrow cocked. “That takes stupidity as well as dedication, you know.”

“Shush, harpy. It wasn’t a cold. It was strep throat – okay, scarlet fever.”

“Scarlet fever, Tony?” Okay, he’d forgotten he’d never told Pepper about that. Turning her head to look up at him with a shocked expression, he knew he was going to pay for that later. “Tony!”

“Sorry, honey. I was bored and wondered what would happen – kind of an experiment, not saying it was bright.”

“Dumbass.” Clint Barton balled up a paper napkin and hit him in the face with it. “Dumbass twice over.”

Batting it away, Tony tossed it into the fire. “Guilty as charged, I admit it. Those were very different days.” Pepper’s hands drew both of his down to hug against her chest, her mouth working as she looked into the flames. “Shh, honey. You okay?”

Pepper still didn’t like open flames much, but she had done well with the fire in the fireplace tonight up to this point. “I felt so sorry for you,” she said sadly. “You were so sick. All alone except for Jarvis, and he wasn’t much help.”

“No, back then there was just a tablet – not a whole lot of throughput so largely a nag application and not much more.” Taking one hand back, Tony stroked her hair with it again, long strokes from the crown of her head to the center of her back. “Was mad at…things. Decided to see what would happen, if anyone would notice I was gone – looking back, it’s clear Obie was hoping I’d died before he sent Pepper to find out for sure. He just made sure of it the next chance he got – or sure as shit tried hard enough.”

“He picked someone he thought he had completely in his camp, who believed you were nothing more than a spoiled trust fund nuisance. Someone bright, capable and hard-working enough to handle any part of the cleanup your death would have caused, without questioning him.” Dr. Bruce Banner smiled broadly as he reached up to tuck the lap robe in a bit closer around Pepper’s shoulders, patting her on the shoulder. “A pretty face, young and easily lead. More the fool him. He got a lot more than he bargained for.”

“My ace,” Tony murmured. “He got bupkis, and I got Pepper. Hell, people still tell me she smells like vanilla and rainwater and look at me funny when I laugh in their faces. I never know how to break it to them that we met over a three week slumber party and never even played spin the bottle.”

“It’s a wonderful story,” Natasha said, smiling at them. “There have always been orchids around the both of you, everywhere you’ve gone as long as I’ve known you. Are they?”

“Propagated from the ones Tony Blake gave us, yes.” Pepper kissed the tips of Tony’s fingers before continuing. “We lost most of them back in Malibu with the house, but we still have some of them around here, if you hadn’t noticed. One of the first things I put in the Tower once it was ready to be inhabited.”

“Who could miss them, the little green ones by the elevator smell amazing.” Looking around, Clint saw the common area again with new eyes as he saw no less than three different kinds of orchids just in this room alone. “Kinda neat – you’re continuing his collection, sort of.”

“Continuing his legacy in more ways than one, more like it.” Turning his head to look Steve Rogers in the eye, Tony noted that in the low light cast by the fire, only the blue of his eyes remained as the rest fell into shadow, the reflection of the flames dancing in them. “A philanthropist dedicated to saving the world, one illusion at a time. Admirable.”

“As the story goes, he also was imprisoned and gained both his fortune and calling by escaping his captors,” Bruce said. “But unlike our Tony, he was a recluse of legendary proportions – more myth and legend than reality. Did you ever go back and try to find him again?”

“Once,”Tony answered, nodding. “Just on a whim. We found Roxy, but not him – there was somebody else entirely in charge of the greenhouses. And according to Roxy, neither he or I had ever lived there. A figment of our imaginations, a slice of our dreams. Very like her, everything a dream within a dream. ”

“Magic,” Pepper said into the silence following Tony’s statement, closing her eyes at last.

“Luck,” Tony countered. “Steve, why so quiet?”

“Hm?” Cocking his head, he looked to Tony in response, then back to the fire. “Just kind of sad I missed it. You'll forgive me if I hold out the hope he's still out there somewhere, right?”

"Steve, you're still holding out for Glen Miller. It's a thing with you."

"We're still alive, aren't we?"

"Point." Taking up his mug of cider, he raised it in salute. “Here’s to magic, and the magicians who save us. Of any caliber.”

“To small kindnesses.”

“Vanilla orchids and pepper pots.”

“May we never fail to rely on them. Or take them for granted.”

Natasha asked for coffee, Clint found cookies baked earlier that day and Bruce made tea. Steve took out his sketchpad and made a quick drawing of Pepper curled up on the couch, her face bathed in firelight; pensive, thoughtful but unfraid. Tony looked over his shoulder, grateful unto death that his luck had never been stronger than when it involved people. He'd seen nothing but jackpots, every time. It was good to be the King - even if at times, he was something of a Joker at heart.


"“There have always been orchids around the both of you, everywhere you’ve gone - " Why yes, there have - here, enjoy some screenshots - this is where the idea began:


Look to the right of Pepper to see her orchids - and then?

But you can imagine the squee when I was doing my frame by frame of IM3 and caught this:

Yup. They're everywhere. I'll bet if I go back to IM1 & 2, I'll find them there too. ;)