They were in New York when Pepper got the call.
She hadn’t been expecting it; there had been no news for so long that she had tucked the situation into the back of her mind, to wait until the bill arrived to pop up again. But the voice on the other end brought it home full-force.
“I found her.”
For a few seconds, Pepper’s ears rang, and she could feel her pulse pick up, but a deep breath helped settle things. “Where?”
“South Carolina. She’s in a nursing home. I’m sorry to tell you this, Ms. Potts, but she’s not in good shape.”
It was a blow she’d prepared herself for, but it still hurt. “Is she...I don’t know how to put this. Is she...aware?”
A hesitation. “Sort of.”
Pepper realized that Tony, chatting with a board member across the room, was eyeing her curiously. She straightened and pulled her professional face back on. “Send me the information. I’m going as soon as I can.”
“All right.” The voice was compassionate, a surprise given the woman’s profession. “You have my number if you need anything else.”
“Yes. Thank you.” Pepper cut the connection without another word, a rudeness that she would normally avoid, but at the moment she just had too much else to think about. Already her brain was running through plane schedules, car rentals, timing and locations and--
The touch on her shoulder made her start, and she looked up to see Tony standing over her. “Is everything okay, Ms. Potts?”
The concern in his eyes was not new, exactly, but its expression was something she hadn’t really experienced until he’d come back from captivity. It made things harder, in a way, because she wasn’t about to tell him what was going on, but on the other hand she could trust him, now, to stick to his schedule without her constant efforts. At least mostly.
Pepper managed a nod. “I’m fine, Mr. Stark. But I need to go.” She kept her voice low; the meeting wasn’t due to start for another ten minutes, but there was no sense in broadcasting her private business to those already in the room.
Tony blinked. “Go? Go where?”
She stood, reaching for her portfolio. “I have a personal emergency. I’m sorry, Tony, but it can’t wait. I’ll be back as soon as I can, and don’t forget about the Congressional committee on Wednesday...”
As she moved towards the door Tony went with her, stopping her just as they exited into the hall. “Pepper, hold up.”
She glanced past him at the elevators, wondering how long a cab would take to get to the airport. “I don’t have time--“
“I’m not going to stop you, I just want to know what’s wrong. Is there anything I can do to help?”
The tone of Tony’s voice made her look at him again. His face was creased with worry, and his hands hovered, as if to block her if she tried to duck past him. Pepper let out a breath. “No. Tony--thank you, but no.”
He frowned. “You sure? Do you need the plane or something?”
“No,” Pepper said automatically. “I’ll get a commuter flight.”
“Airport, then.” Tony started towards the elevators, his hand cupping her elbow to pull her along and his speed brisk enough to satisfy her. His other hand fished out his cellphone and flipped it open.
They reached the bank of elevator cars just as he spoke. “Happy? Pepper’s coming down right now. I need you to take her to the airport as fast as possible, got that?” He listened for a second as Pepper pushed the Down button. “Uh-huh. You betcha.”
“I can take a cab,” she said, but the protest was reflex; the limo would be quicker than trying to flag down a taxi, and while normally she tried to keep her personal and professional lives strictly separate--
“Nope.” Tony slid the phone into his pocket. “Potts, you’re entitled to a perq once in a while, so don’t argue.”
His alarm seemed to have vanished into the cool efficiency he demonstrated on occasion, and Pepper figured it for his problem-solving mode; he was always calmer when he was working on fixing something, to wit her transportation issue.
The elevator doors slid open, and she was a little surprised when Tony stepped in with her, but it was a good opportunity. She glanced through the calendar on her BlackBerry. “You have dinner with Ms. Fukushima and Dr. Grampion tonight, and tomorrow is the rest of the board meeting. Wednesday you fly down to Washington...hopefully you’ll be home by Friday...”
Tony nodded, hands in his pockets, and Pepper made a mental note to e-mail his schedule to both Tony and Happy as soon as she could. Just because he was paying attention now didn’t mean he wouldn’t get distracted later.
The limo was idling outside when they crossed the lobby, with Happy poised at the open car door. Pepper slid into the vehicle as Tony murmured something to Hogan, but before the door closed Tony bent and looked in.
His hand on her leg surprised her, but there was no trace of salaciousness in his face. “Pepper. If you need anything at all, you call me, do you understand?”
“Yes, Mr. Stark,” she answered automatically, with no intention of obeying. His mouth twitched, almost a flinch, but then he was straightening and Happy was closing the door.
She almost forgot to tell Happy to detour to the Stark townhouse for her luggage. As she threw things into her suitcase, Pepper blessed her own semi-obsessive organization; within two minutes her comfortable little suite was stripped clean of her things, and she was heading back out the door to the waiting car. And then it was time to wrangle airlines, searching for the next flight to Charleston International, regardless of price...
Two hours later she was in the air, finishing up the last e-mails and glad that Business Class now had wi-fi. She sent messages to Tony and Jarvis and to Cedric back at Stark Industries headquarters, mailed a copy of Tony’s schedule to Happy, and tidied up every loose end she could conceive of.
But with the last e-mail came the silence she’d been trying not to think about. Pepper closed her laptop and leaned back in her seat, closing her eyes and disciplining her expression to calmness. Fear and anticipation knotted her stomach, and--as she always had--she wondered what lay at the end of this road.
Tony was worried.
He didn’t show it. The board meeting was important, and he was determined not to lose control of anything this time, but the back of his mind kept replaying Pepper’s strange reaction to her phone call, her sudden departure, and wondering.
It wasn’t that he begrudged her the time off--she deserved it, and lots more if she chose to take it, though he was just as happy that she usually didn’t. But he was concerned, because Potts didn’t have emergencies. She was too well organized.
And he’d seen her strain. Probably nobody else had, she’d kept her game face on, but he’d seen it. Something was definitely wrong.
The meeting took three hours, and then broke for the evening. Tony thought about canceling the dinner with Grampion and Fukushima, but decided in the end that he needed the time with them, to cement friendly relations with the people Stane had so nearly turned against him.
But there was a little time. “Are we going directly to dinner?” Dr. Grampion inquired, his expression genial as he waved goodbye to a colleague.
Tony leaned a hip on the boardroom table and glanced over at Ms. Fukushima. “I’m afraid I have something I need to take care of. Let’s meet in, hmm, two hours?” He glanced at his watch. It was just past five p.m.
“That will do,” Fukushima said in her usual dry voice. “Though I refuse to eat at that steak place again.”
Tony grinned at her; Fukushima was as sharp as a blade and scorned subterfuge, and he loved her for it even when it made his life more difficult. “Lady’s choice?” He raised both brows at Grampion, who smiled comfortably.
“By all means. And I appreciate the break, Tony; my old legs need to stretch after all that sitting.”
“Carroll on the Heights, then,” Fukushima said. “I trust your...business will not interfere?”
Tony knew she meant his missions as Iron Man, and he gave her a tiny shrug. “I can’t promise anything. But I’ll do my best.”
He took his leave and headed downstairs, striding through the lobby to the limo waiting exactly where it had been four hours before. Happy was at the wheel this time, and Tony didn’t wait for him to get out, instead opening the door himself and sliding in. “Townhouse,” he instructed his waiting chauffeur. “Report.”
Happy let the limo roll down the driveway towards the street. “I couldn’t make out too much, sir, but she was headed for Charleston International.”
Tony blinked at that. “South Carolina? What the hell is in South Carolina?”
If Pepper were there, she would no doubt remind him tartly of some holding or other, but obviously that wasn’t her reason. And while Happy was perfectly willing to eavesdrop on Pepper’s phone conversations, he would only have heard half of them at best.
“Family, I think,” Happy said. “She kept saying it was a family emergency.”
Tony frowned. “Are you sure?”
The big man glanced briefly at him in the rear view mirror. “Pretty much, yeah.”
“Huh.” Tony sat back, staring at nothing. Pepper doesn’t have any family.
It was one of the factoids he’d picked up over the years, curiosity spurred by a few chance comments and satisfied by Jarvis’ skill at ferreting out information. Virginia Potts was, as far as the system was concerned, an orphan. She had been placed in the care of the state--New Jersey, in this case--at the age of two, given up for unspecified reasons. Jarvis had even found a picture, and Tony had felt a strange ache in his chest at the sight of the wary-eyed toddler with the short orange hair.
She’d grown up in the system, moving from foster home to orphanage and back again, never adopted. No reason was available, but Tony couldn’t believe that she had been a problem child--not the rule-following, soft-voiced, educated woman he knew.
But that was all he knew. She’d obtained scholarships and loans and made it through college with honors, and managed an MBA while working full-time; that was a matter of public record. She’d worked for Bear Stearns and moved to the West Coast; and then she’d worked for Stark Industries, and then she’d worked for him.
She said I was all she had too. Tony tapped absently at the arc reactor hidden beneath shirt and undershirt, and then reached for his cellphone. A punch of the speed-dial had a smooth artificial voice answering. “Yes sir?”
“Jarvis? I need you to run a search.”
Usually Pepper had no trouble sleeping. No matter the stress of the day, she could lie down and pass into unconsciousness within minutes, and wake refreshed--definitely an asset for Tony Stark’s personal assistant. In fact, the last time she’d had insomnia had been just after he’d been kidnapped--
Pepper pushed the memory away and sipped from her refilled coffee cup. She’d tossed and turned all night in the anonymous hotel bed, drowsing from time to time but always waking again to stare at the ceiling and wonder what the hell she was doing. Even cracking the balcony door to let in fresh air had done nothing more than give her something to watch as it made the curtains ripple.
Now she sat in the hotel’s dining room, ignoring the breakfast she’d ordered but had been unable to eat. It was still early; the sun was up, but still had the gilded edge of the new morning, and she had to wait. Fortunately, the dining room wasn’t busy; the waitress was more than willing to refill her cup and otherwise leave her alone.
Her hands were sweating, and it wasn’t just the heat of the thick ceramic. She had waited for this day for so long, never knowing if it would actually arrive, and it was terrifying. Because while she might find answers at this, the culmination of her search, she might not...and even if she did, they might not be answers she wanted to hear.
I have to know. She couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t felt the empty ache, the space where knowledge should have been. Even if it’s bad, I have to know.
Finally she could no longer sit still. Rising, Pepper signed the bill and walked out into the Carolina day.
It was spring, and gorgeous with greening trees and brilliant flowers, but she saw little of it. Pepper slid on her sunglasses and headed for her rental car.
The flight hadn’t been long, but she’d arrived too late to do more than get a car and a room and a few changes of clothes that didn’t make her look like a strayed executive--she had expected to be home before the weekend, and nothing in her suitcase was casual besides her running clothes. But the sneakers went well with jeans and a t-shirt, and now--now...
The nursing home was mid-grade for its kind, neither luxurious nor more than slightly shabby. The big room opening off the lobby was sunny and filled with the cheerful sound of a morning show on the big TV, but most of the residents were in wheelchairs and none of them looked around to see who had entered the building.
A big-boned woman easily Pepper’s height sat behind the lobby desk, reading a mystery paperback. She glanced up as Pepper neared, and while her expression wasn’t exactly welcoming, it wasn’t hostile either. “Can I help you?”
Pepper wiped her hands on her jeans. “Hello, I--I’m looking for a resident. Lois Murton?”
The name still felt strange on her tongue, despite the many times she’d whispered it silently. It rang no bells at all; it was just a name.
The woman pursed her lips thoughtfully. “Are you a relative?”
Pepper hesitated. Here was the crux, a little sooner than she’d anticipated, and she didn’t know what to do. Say no, and possibly lose access to this one fragile hope; tell the truth, and lose it just the same?
For some reason, Tony’s voice seemed to ghost past her inner ear. Lie, Potts, it advised her cheerfully, and she gave up compunction and obeyed. “Yes.”
“Oh, okay.” The woman reached up, her reserve disappearing, and nudged the clipboard lying on the high counter of the desk. “Sign in, please.”
With cold fingers, Pepper printed her own name and the four unfamiliar syllables. In the back of her mind was the warning that she was leaving a paper trail, reflex bred by years of shadowing Tony in the public eye, but she ignored it. The odds of recognition here, far from both society and high-powered business, were low; and even if someone connected her name with her hair and her face, they probably wouldn’t call the press.
This is a different world.
The woman took the clipboard, glanced incuriously at the entry, and nodded. “Room 66A, the front bed. She’s probably still there, but if not ask the floor nurse.”
“Thank you,” Pepper managed.
She hadn’t been inside a nursing home since high school, when she’d gone caroling as part of the school choir. This one was much the same as the one she’d visited, clean but carrying an acrid medical odor with a hint of urine, tiny bent men and women moving slowly past on canes and walkers. Voices came from open doors, snippets of conversation or TV, inarticulate mumbles. Pepper barely noticed, too taken up with the pounding of her heart.
The door to 66 was open. The first thing that caught Pepper’s eye was the hospital bed at the back of the room; the person lying in it hardly seemed to make any mound at all under the light blanket, and the open eyes were empty and dull. Pepper’s breath halted.
But the woman was far too old, and the discreet placard on the wall next to the bed had a B on it. She let out the hoarded air, and then jumped as a sharp voice spoke.
“You’re not Annie.”
Pepper turned. In the front of the room, to the left of the door, was another bed. A wheelchair was parked in front of it, and in it sat another woman, this one somewhat younger but clearly feeble. Her hair was pulled back in a stringy gray ponytail, and she wore a stained, too-large blouse over soft pants and slippers. Her glare was angry and suspicious; her pale skin was seamed with the creases of hard living.
There was nothing in her face that Pepper recognized, not at first glance, and it made her dizzy. She braced one hand on the dresser behind her, nearly knocking over a porcelain angel figurine, and tried to clear her vision.
“You’re not Annie,” the tall woman--Lois Murton, it had to be, Pepper thought--repeated querulously.
Pepper swallowed. “No, I’m not.”
Confusion flickered over the woman’s face, and then she jerked her chin at the motionless occupant in the other bed. “You here to see her? She’s dead.”
Involuntarily Pepper glanced back over at the other woman, but after a moment she saw the thin chest rise. “Um, no, she’s not.”
The woman in the wheelchair snorted juicily. “As good as.” Her glare hadn’t abated.
Pepper took her courage in both hands, and straightened. “Are you Lois Murton?”
“Yeah.” If anything, the glare intensified. “Who the hell are you?”
Pepper didn’t let herself wince. She was chasing a chance, she reminded herself, and anyway it had been over thirty years-- “My name’s Virginia,” she said gently.
Lois didn’t react. Pepper made herself smile. “I...I’d like to ask you some questions. Would that be okay?”
The rheumy eyes narrowed. “I want Annie,” Lois muttered, though without the antagonism of before. Pepper’s heart sank. Sort of aware.
“Please,” she said, trying to keep calm. “Please, just a few questions.”
Lois said nothing, and, desperate, Pepper took it for permission. There was a straight-backed chair in one corner, staple of institutions the world over, and she picked it up, moving it so that she could sit and face the wheelchair. “Can you...Ms. Murton, did you ever live in New Jersey?”
“Trenton.” Lois sat up a little, her mouth moving as if she wanted to spit. “That hellhole.”
Pepper bit back a surge of hope. “When was that?”
Lois looked away, her bony, long-fingered hands stroking one another aimlessly. “Trenton was a long time ago.” She frowned. “Not long enough.”
Pepper took another long breath. It was hard to tell whether Lois was really focusing or not, but there was no way she could give up now. She licked her lips, trying to pull words together; she’d asked these questions countless times in her own mind, spinning endless variations, but now that their time had come she was finding it almost impossible to make them come out right. “Were you--did you--did you know a woman with a little girl? A baby she gave up for adoption?”
Lois frowned again. “No.”
The word was harsh. Pepper shuddered, and tried again. “I’m looking for my mother. Her name was Lois.”
“Annie!” Pepper jumped at the bellow. “Annie! I need you!”
Lois’ hands were gripping the wheelchair’s armrests now, and she looked ready to force herself up and do violence. Pepper froze. What the hell should I do?
“Now Miss Lois, calm yourself down.” The accent was pure Carolina. The woman in pink scrubs who bustled in the door probably didn’t quite reach Pepper’s shoulder, and her hair and eyes spoke of ancestors from much further east than the Atlantic coast. She seemed completely unperturbed by Lois’ noise. “I’m right here.”
“It’s time for my shows,” Lois said petulantly. “Annie, I want to go.”
“Well, you’re right about that,” Annie said, giving Pepper a cheerful smile and a nod. “But you want to change first. That blouse has breakfast on it.”
Her tone wasn’t quite condescending; more the upbeat affection of someone used to working with difficult personalities. Within seconds Annie had the wheelchair backed in at the end of the bed and a curtain pulled around, hiding both women from Pepper’s sight, if not her hearing. “Are you sure you want to go to the TV room, Miss Lois? You have a visitor, you know.”
“I don’t know her,” Lois snapped. “She’s here to see Yolanda.”
Pepper heard Annie cluck. “I don’t think so. Hold up your arms for me--yes.”
The curtain was whisked back, revealing Lois in a clean top but with the same glare. “It’s time for my shows,” she repeated.
Annie sighed. “All right. Come on, then.” She pushed the chair forward, and Pepper rose hastily, yanking her own chair out of the way. “Why don’t you come along, ma’am?”
Feeling helpless, Pepper trailed behind as Annie wheeled Lois back down the corridor to the big room off the lobby and parked her at the end of a row of wheelchairs. The morning show had given way to a soap opera, and Lois’ attention immediately fixed on the screen.
Annie sighed without rancor, and gestured Pepper over to the side of the room. “Sorry about that,” she said in a low voice. “There are more soap addicts in this place than there are oranges on a tree.”
Pepper shook her head, not knowing what to say. Annie peered up at her. “Are you a relation? Miss Lois doesn’t get many visitors besides her brother and his brood.”
Pepper opened her mouth, and then closed it, feeling slightly dizzy. Annie’s gaze sharpened, and then she slipped a small strong hand under Pepper’s elbow. “Susie,” she said loudly, and the woman at the desk looked up from her book. “I’m taking five. Robbie can take Mr. Genfaro.”
“Smoke one for me too,” Susie said, and went back to her reading.
Pepper was taller, but she found herself no match for Annie. The nurse led her outside into the sunshine to a little smoke station some yards from the front door, then fished in her smock pocket and came out with a lighter and a pack of cigarettes. When Pepper shook her head at the proffered pack, Annie extracted one, lit it, and inhaled the smoke with a growl of pleasure.
After three puffs, she sighed. “I’ll die young but I’ll die happy. Now, sugar, what’s the matter?”
Pepper debated lying, but she couldn’t think of anything plausible. “I think Lois might be my mother.”
Annie’s eyes widened, and she looked Pepper up and down slowly. “You know,” she remarked, “I hear all kinds of stories here, but that’s a new one.”
Pepper bit her lip, and decided to go for broke. “I was given up for adoption when I was two,” she said softly, not bothering with the details. “The records are sealed, but I couldn’t stand not knowing. I hired a private investigator and...and here I am.”
Her sense of shock was starting to pass off, and Pepper felt a little more in control. “She said she lived in New Jersey once, but I didn’t...”
Annie took another drag on her cigarette. “I don’t know about that. And I shouldn’t tell you this, but she did have a kid once.” Pepper blinked at her, and she shrugged, looking a little uncomfortable. “Stretch marks.”
Pepper blinked, then realized that Annie must have helped Lois bathe at some point. “Oh.”
Annie sighed, and tapped ash off the cigarette. “Miss Lois isn’t always completely on the ball, if you get what I mean, but she’s not totally gone. If you come back this afternoon, you might get more out of her, but do it early ‘cause she’s worse later.”
“Oh,” Pepper repeated, not quite sure what to do with the information, delivered as it was with casual callousness. “Uh, thank you.”
Annie took one last drag and bent to grind the cigarette out, tossing it into the sand-filled urn nearby. “You might do better to talk to her brother. His name’s Willie something, he lives in town here.”
She’d seen the name on the report, but all Pepper’s concentration had been on Lois. “I have the name, yes.”
Annie nodded. “Good luck, then.”
Pepper had no appetite for lunch, either. She drove aimlessly until she found herself traveling past a park, and on impulse she found a lot nearby and went to find a bench to sit on. The wide expanse of green had many shady trees and a multitude of walkers, runners, bikers, and skateboarders as well as children, but no one bothered her on the cool wrought iron, and she sat and let them all pass by, trying to take in what she’d learned.
She’s tall. Lois’ head had been high enough over the handlebars of the wheelchair that the petite Annie had almost had trouble seeing over her. And while there was no telling what shade the woman’s hair had been, it was long and fine like Pepper’s own. Her frame was slender--
Pepper bit her lip and squeezed her eyes shut, trying to settle the roil of emotion in her stomach. Yes, Lois had characteristics that Pepper shared, but there was no way to be sure, not by looking. The deep lines in Lois’ face, the loose flesh beneath her chin, all made it hard to judge what she might have looked like years before.
And Pepper had never possessed so much as a photograph.
She realized she was squeezing her hands together so hard that her fingers were turning numb, and made an effort to relax. In all the times she’d imagined such a meeting, it had never occurred to her that she might not be sure.
She’d been prepared for rejection, or at least she’d tried to prepare herself. But at the same time Pepper had not been able to keep from hoping for welcome. Lois’ hostile ambiguity only made her brain whirl faster.
As she sat and waited for afternoon, Pepper found herself watching the children at play. They were all small, given the weekday, and while there were some men and young adults among the caretakers, most of those watching over the kids seemed to be mothers. They chatted with one another, nursed infants, tended scrapes, hushed tears and broke up little fights. Some helped their children climb playground equipment; a couple were tossing balls for excited young runners.
Pepper couldn’t ever remember playing in a park. She couldn’t remember a kiss on a bruise or a hand holding hers, or even a raised voice telling her to stop that right now. And she had made it not matter, in the end; she hadn’t let the lack ruin her life. She’d done what she wanted, achieved what she set out to do, and if being the personal assistant to one of the world’s wealthiest hadn’t been her original intention, it was good, satisfying work.
But the question was always there, tucked away in the back of things. Who am I?
And beneath it, the other one, the lost cry in the emptiness. Why didn’t she keep me?
Sometimes, Pepper reflected bitterly, it would have been easier if her mother had just died.
At least I’d know.
When she came back, at 1 p.m. precisely, Susie was busy with another visitor and barely glanced at Pepper. Pepper signed the clipboard and headed back towards Room 66A, this time able to pay a little more attention to her surroundings.
They were depressing. The home was clean, and its walls held cheerful prints and photographs nicely framed; there was plenty of light and space. But the ancient residents moved so slowly, were so weighted by time, that it hurt her to look at them. Too many had blank stares, or rocked slowly in their wheelchairs. It seemed wrong, somehow, to find the end of life a burden.
As she neared Lois’ room, she saw Annie coming from the other direction. The nurse waved as she spotted Pepper. “Hey, perfect timing. Miss Lois just got back from lunch and she’s feeling pretty perky...aren’t you, Miss L?” This last was directed to Lois as Annie led Pepper into the little room.
The silent figure in the other bed was now facing away from them, but Pepper had the feeling that Yolanda didn’t know they were even there. Lois was sitting on the edge of her bed, her slippered feet firmly on the floor, smoothing the nap of the sweater she held on her lap.
Annie grabbed the chair from its corner and placed it for Pepper, speaking to Lois. “This young lady’s here to see you, so be nice, Miss Lois. I get the feeling she’s come a long way.” She winked at Pepper, who concealed her flinch in a bland smile and sat. “I’ll leave you two to get acquainted.”
She patted Pepper’s shoulder as she ducked around the chair to the door. “If you need anything, let me know,” she said, and disappeared into the hall.
Pepper swallowed and looked back to Lois. The woman’s frown was more puzzled than hostile this time. “You’re back.”
Pepper took a deep breath. “Yes.”
Lois pursed her lips and looked down at her lap. “I don’t know you.”
Her heart sank, but Pepper didn’t let it show. “No, but I’d like to get to know you.”
The wrinkled hands were still moving slowly over the sweater, as if Lois enjoyed the feel of the nap beneath them. “What did you say your name was?”
“Virginia.” Pepper was surprised that the word came out without a tremor. It was no use adding “Potts”; she’d taken the name of her last foster family, the ones who’d put her through her first year in college. If she’d arrived at the orphanage with a birth certificate, it had been quickly lost, and by the time she’d been old enough to ask, no one remembered a last name.
Lois’ expression didn’t change. “You’re young,” she said abruptly. “Where’s your man?”
Still in New York, hopefully, Pepper thought with sudden wryness, but that wasn’t exactly what Lois meant. “I don’t have one.”
That produced another skeptical snort. “Girl as pretty as you should have ‘em running after you.” The statement was delivered in a flat, almost disapproving tone, and Pepper shrugged carefully.
“I’m too busy right now.” Truth, if not all of it.
Lois’ hands tightened on the sweater, then resumed stroking. “Why are you here? Why’re you looking for me?”
Unprepared for such bluntness, Pepper hesitated, but finally answered. “I’m looking for my mother,” she repeated. “Her name was Lois.”
The private detective had ferreted it out, over time, one fragile clue leading to another; a woman named Lois Gray had given up a young female child to the state of New Jersey in 1974. The dates and places matched; eventually the detective had traced that shadowy figure through time and moves and changes of name to South Carolina. Marriages, divorces, arrests, a little time served for minor charges; the woman before Pepper now looked like she had lived each year hard and lean.
Pepper braced herself for another outburst, but this time Lois just cocked her head. Her eyes were blue, but the color was hard to make out against the reddened sclera, and as Lois moved her lips Pepper suddenly realized that she was wearing dentures. “I don’t have no kids.”
“Maybe not,” Pepper agreed carefully, “but did you once?”
Lois’ gaze shifted to look over Pepper’s left shoulder. “No kids,” she repeated vaguely. “Never wanted any brats.”
That hurt. Pepper refused to flinch, and tried a different tack. “Tell me about yourself.”
By dint of gentle questions, she led Lois into talking about her past. It was mostly a litany of complaints, stories of abandonment and hard times, men who walked out on her and bad luck that made it impossible for her to get ahead. Pepper couldn’t judge the truth of the rambling stories, but it was fairly clear that Lois’ life hadn’t been easy. She mentioned living in New Jersey, New York City, and Philadelphia, though Pepper got the impression that she’d been residing at the nursing home for several years at least. Certainly the knickknacks and photographs crowding the few available surfaces in the room spoke to some time spent accumulating them.
Pepper listened as carefully as she could, absorbing details without knowing which ones might turn out to be valuable later. Willie was mentioned frequently--Lois’ brother, if Annie had been correct--and the name Shirley came up as well. After a while, Pepper decided tentatively that Shirley was Lois’ sister, and more firmly that she was dead.
But Lois didn’t so much as hint at a child or even a pregnancy. Pepper began to wonder if she was on the wrong track after all; surely there had been more than one child given up in Trenton that week, and maybe the detective had made a mistake or been led astray. But she kept listening, asking the occasional question, unable to give up hope. I want to know. I have to know.
A masculine voice in the hallway broke Lois off mid-sentence, and she perked up, peering around Pepper at the door. Pepper turned to look over her shoulder in time to see a man step through the doorway and halt, his shaggy brows going up.
He was a big man only slightly shrunken with age, a wide gut tenting his shirt and a fringe of white hair surrounding a bald pate. His eyes were sharp and cold, and they fixed on Pepper without favor. “Who’re you?” he demanded.
“Willie,” Lois said with pleasure. “Where’s my chocolates?”
Pepper rose and held out a hand. “I--my name is Virginia,” she said levelly. “I’m here to see Lois.”
Willie ignored her hand. His gaze looked her up and down slowly, an assessing pass that had nothing to do with sex; his eyes halted on his face, and the impressive brows drew together. “I’ll bet you are,” he said, in a tone she couldn’t identify.
He tossed the small box he held in one hand onto Lois’ bed. “Don’t make yourself sick,” he directed her brusquely, then pointed one thick finger at the corridor, directing his words at Pepper. “Let’s you and me go talk.”
Pepper didn’t like his attitude at all, but she complied, leaving Lois to the greedy contemplation of her candy. Willie stood just inside the door, forcing Pepper to twist a little to get past him, but if he was trying to intimidate her it didn’t work. Nonetheless, she cautioned herself to be polite. He can probably have me tossed out of here with one word if he chooses.
Besides, what does he know?
Willie followed her out, closing the door almost all the way, and planted himself in front of it. “What do you want with Lois?” he asked bluntly. “If you’re looking for money, she ain’t got none.”
Pepper raised her chin and regarded him coolly. “I’m not looking for money.” She glanced around, but there was no one within immediate earshot, and Willie didn’t look as though he would be amenable to going somewhere more private. “I’m looking for my mother.”
The old man gave her the same assessing look. “Yeah. You think she’s it, eh?”
“I have records--” Pepper began, but he made a dismissive gesture.
“You’re the spitting image of Shirley’s girl last time I saw her. New Jersey, right?”
His tone was impatient, and Pepper swallowed. “Yes.”
Willie nodded. “Never knew why she went ahead and had a baby, let alone hung onto it for two years, but looks like you survived. Look--” His voice softened a fraction. “--Lois ain’t all there no more, and even before she wouldn’t admit to no kid. You won’t get nothing out of her. I don’t think she even knew who your pop was.”
Pepper absorbed his words without blinking; it felt like her soul had gone numb. Taking a breath, she tried to form a sentence. “I...just wanted to know.”
“Sure you did. Now you do. My advice is, go home. Nothing more for you here.” His face had hardened again, and belatedly Pepper realized he was well-dressed, if casually. He doesn’t want me to ask for anything, came the unpleasant thought.
“You don’t know why she gave me up.” It was hardly a question at all, but she had to try.
“I don’t know why she kept you at all.” Willie’s mouth twisted. “We was all dirt-poor then.”
He hesitated. “How long you in town?”
Pepper blinked. “I--I really should be back at work by Friday...”
Willie nodded again, relaxing slightly. “Tell you what. You come on by my place tomorrow, and I’ll see if I can’t find some old photos or something.” He pulled a business card from his pocket and handed it to her. “And in return you clear out by the end of the week and don’t come back. Lois, she gets upset easy, and her health ain’t good no more.”
Pepper folded her hand around the card. Somewhere under the numbness anger was stirring, but it was too deep. “All right.”
Willie bared his teeth--his were dentures too, she noticed. “Good. See you tomorrow then.”
He turned and vanished back into Room 66, closing the door pointedly behind him.
Pepper was back in her hotel room before she thought to retrieve the card from her purse. W. Gray and Sons, it read. Plumbers and Electricians since 1982.
There was the usual array of information beneath the clear print, and Pepper set it carefully on the little desk the room boasted. For all his ungrammatical speech, Willie was apparently successful; the card was heavy stock, expensive. And if he were wealthy, it would explain why someone as destitute as Lois seemed to be was in a private nursing home.
She was still numb. Pepper sat for a while, trying to take in the revelations of the day, but her brain felt gluey and slow, and Willie’s callousness made her stomach roil.
Is she? was the incessant question. Is she really? The old man’s word wasn’t enough to go on, not to satisfy her.
Finally she plugged in her laptop and typed Willie’s name into her browser. It took some refining to get to relevant information, but eventually Pepper was able to fill in a little history. Willie and his family seemed to have moved to South Carolina in 1981 or 1982, and he had built up a steady business; most of the reviews of W. Gray and Sons were favorable. Pepper wished for Jarvis’ research capabilities to find out more, but she didn’t bother to contact him. The AI would help, she had no doubt; but anything she asked of him would be available to Tony, and Pepper wasn’t ready to try to explain anything to her boss just yet.
That wasn’t quite fair, part of her mind pointed out; Tony being Tony, he would no doubt be eager to help her in any way he could, from Jarvis’ services in cracking private databases to illegal DNA analysis, and with no strings attached.
But this was private. It always had been. And Pepper knew, deep down, that if the answers were bad, she didn’t want anyone to know.
She had always wondered, from before she could actually remember--from the time, Pepper figured, that she had realized what a mother was. Growing up in the system had showed her a hundred reasons children were separated from their parents, but at some point she’d learned that her mother had given her up. Just not why.
She couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t wanted to know what her family was like, whether they missed her...whether they wondered what had become of her. She’d considered all the possible reasons, from dearth to danger, for giving her up; and she’d spun countless fantasies of what it would be like if she ever found them again. She’d invented sisters, brothers, a father as well as a mother; imagined them incredulous, overjoyed, tearful at the reunion, dreamed of hard hugs and the welcome she’d always hungered for.
And, in darker moments, she’d imagined rejection, or postulated finding nothing at the end of her search but a grave.
In the darkest times, she wondered what she’d done. How bad could a two-year-old be, to be put aside and left behind?
When she next looked around, the room was dark, and Pepper realized she’d been staring at the laptop screen for far too long. Sighing, she rubbed her dry eyes and shut off the machine. I should eat something, she thought vaguely.
The hotel restaurant served her a good, if uninspired, soup and salad, and Pepper ate mechanically, paging through the fashion magazine she’d picked up in the gift shop in hopes of distracting herself for a little while. It even worked, to a degree; she let her mind focus on the latest trends in makeup and shoes, gratefully leaving the tumultuous day in the shadows for the moment.
When she finished dinner, Pepper signed the bill and rose, intending to go back to her room, but as she passed the little hotel bar she hesitated. I’m tired...but how much sleep am I going to get?
Finally she went in. There were few patrons, given the weekday, and Pepper went straight to the bar to request a martini from the bored bartender. He had it ready for her within two minutes, and she took it to one of the small standing tables nearby, not intending to linger too long. I’ll finish the last article, and then go to bed.
She was just savoring the second olive when a masculine voice spoke at her elbow. “You’re not waiting for anyone, are you?”
For the briefest second, Pepper thought it was Tony, though there was absolutely no reason for him to be there. But when she looked up the man was far too tall, and clean-shaven. A business traveler, as bored as the bartender to judge by his hopeful smile.
Pepper gave him a polite one in return. “No, I’m just about to leave.”
His face fell, and he placed one hand on the high table. “Let me buy you a drink first. You look like you could use some company.”
She almost hesitated; the lines were worn, but he didn’t sound creepy, and he’d had the sense to offer the drink rather than just sending her one from the bar. But she was tired, and wrung out, and not looking for company of any kind.
“Thanks, but no.” Pepper flipped her magazine shut. “One’s my limit.” It wasn’t quite true, but it would serve.
The man didn’t move. “Boyfriend?” he asked lightly.
Abruptly she ran out of patience. No, no boyfriend, no lover, no significant other, just a boss who takes all my time and emotional energy and-- Pepper gathered up the magazine, briefly regretted the last swallow of her drink left languishing in the glass, and let her smile chill by several degrees. “Goodnight.”
It was harder to stalk out of a room in sneakers than in heels, but she wasn’t Tony Stark’s PA for nothing. She swept back to her bland room and locked the door behind her, tossing the magazine on the bed and bending to untie her shoes.
The brief burst of irritation faded, taking her energy with it. Pepper brushed her teeth, changed into a sleepshirt, and was asleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow.
Tony sipped from his glass, staring out the townhouse window at the darkening world. “What have we got, Jarvis?”
The AI’s smooth voice was barely altered by the speakerphone. “Ms. Potts rented a Mazda Miata at Hertz upon landing last night and checked into the Hilton Charleston. She also shopped at Target. No further activity has been detected on her credit cards.”
Tony’s mouth twisted in frustration. “That’s it? What’s she doing there, Jarvis?”
“I have access to more data, but to reveal it would be to violate Ms. Potts’ privacy,” Jarvis said gravely.
Tony hesitated a long moment. Curiosity was one thing, and she would kill him if she found out he’d been snooping...but he was genuinely worried. He had no evidence that Pepper was in trouble, per se, but there was clearly something wrong.
She wouldn’t let me help. But she might need it anyway.
There was barely thirty seconds of silence before Jarvis spoke again. “I have accessed her e-mail. It appears that Ms. Potts hired a private investigator three years ago to trace the whereabouts of her mother.”
Tony started. The scenario had never crossed his mind. “And he found her?”
“She,” Jarvis corrected. “The investigator tracked one Lois Murton, born Lois Gray, from Trenton, New Jersey in 1974 to Charleston, South Carolina in 2009. The final report cautions Ms. Potts that Lois Murton may not be the woman she is seeking.”
The sun was gone now, vanished below the horizon. Tony swallowed the last of his Scotch and tried to assimilate the cool and collected Pepper he knew with a woman seeking a mother she probably couldn’t even remember. His mind turned the facts over rapidly, fitting them into place like gears in a machine. She had to hire a PI to look, which means that the adoption records were sealed. And that means that Pepper’s mother didn’t want to be found.
And she has to know that.
Tony set the glass down carefully, and reached for his tie. There is no fucking way that can end well.
The thought made him a little sick. Pepper was the best person he knew, with a spine of steel, a superb brain, and a generous heart. She didn’t deserve to be hurt, but he was almost positive that was what was going to happen.
He whipped the tie off, listening to the silk snap through the air, remembering Pepper’s half-grudging confession. You’re all I have too, you know.
Tony tossed the tie over the back of a chair and went to work on his cuffs. He’d tried to offer more of himself, though he had to admit that he’d done a lousy job of it; and she’d turned him down. But at the moment, that oblique refusal didn’t matter at all.
“Jarvis. What time is the committee meeting tomorrow?”
“Nine o’clock, sir.”
Tony nodded in satisfaction. Plenty of time.
Pepper slept badly. Lois’ face, Tony’s, those of various foster parents kept passing through her sleeping mind, making her dream so hard that she woke early, scarcely rested.
A long hot shower helped. Pepper chose a blouse instead of a t-shirt to go with her jeans, wanting a touch of formality when she went to meet Willie Gray, and bound her hair back neatly.
The address on the card was a house, large but not pretentious. Two commercial vans were parked out front; as Pepper closed her car door she saw two men come out of the house and drive away. By the time she was stepping onto the porch, another had taken its place.
A sandy-haired young man opened the door when she rang the bell, and grinned at the sight of her. His expression was as salacious as any of Tony’s; but, Pepper reflected dryly, Tony’s leers never made her feel dirty.
“I’m looking for Mr. Gray,” she said coolly, not allowing him to speak first.
Still grinning, the young man shouted back over his shoulder. “Pops! There’s a babe here to see you!”
The return bellow sounded annoyed. “Bring her in and shut your mouth, Kevin!”
Kevin stood aside, holding the door open, and Pepper stepped past him, ignoring his glance at her cleavage. The living room beyond was set up as a reception area, but Kevin led her through it to what had probably originally been a den.
Now it was an office, crammed with filing cabinets but ruthlessly neat. In the center was an ancient, battered desk, behind which sat a glowering Willie Gray.
“Here you go, Pops,” Kevin said, and Willie frowned more deeply.
“What did I tell you about respect? Get your butt back to work.”
Kevin rolled his eyes and took himself out. Willie’s glare eased slightly, and he jabbed a finger at the office chair in front of the desk. “Have a seat.”
I’m here to learn, Pepper reminded herself, and sat. “Good morning, Mr. Gray.”
The old man regarded her for a long moment, then snorted. Reaching out, he shoved the thick portfolio on his desk in her direction. “Here.”
It was a photo album. Pepper pulled it into her lap, hardly aware of Willie’s phone ringing or his terse conversation with the caller. All her attention was taken up by the first page.
It was a high school photo--ninth or tenth grade, perhaps. The girl pictured wore the stiff, fixed smile of the portrait sitter, and the sepia tones made her blouse look unflattering, but the similarity was unmistakable.
Pepper couldn’t look away. There, there was the face she’d been unable to find in Lois’ battered features; there was her own young self, a ghost waiting in the curve of bone and flesh.
Pepper traced the image with one forefinger, hovering just above the wrinkled plastic that protected it. Here was the proof that even Willie’s acknowledgment hadn’t provided.
She is my mother.
Willie hung up the phone and grunted as he heaved himself out of his chair. “I gotta go fix this fuckup. You can look while I’m gone.”
He didn’t wait to see if Pepper looked up, just slid past her and out. Pepper blinked as he disappeared, and turned the page.
The photos seemed to be in a rough chronological order, though none had labels. Lois appeared again and again, in groups or alone, maturing from a gawky girl to a hard-eyed young woman who turned an assessing stare to the camera. Pepper could guess at some of the other people shown--surely the broad-shouldered young man in overalls was Willie, and the younger girl could have been Shirley--but all the others were mute stories, people she didn’t know and probably never would.
Lois got older--they all did--and thinner, until she was bony and unhealthy-looking. Then the photos ran out, about three-quarters of the way through.
Pepper held the album open at the last picture, trying to assimilate what she’d seen, and then moved to reopen it at the beginning. As she did, a Polaroid slipped from between the last few pages.
It transfixed her. It was Lois, looking exhausted but proud, holding a white-wrapped bundle in her arms. Pepper stared at the little image until it blurred, the red face reduced to a blot by the camera--herself, brand-new.
She picked it up with an unsteady hand, trying to see more detail, but the aged film had little to give. It could have been any baby, and almost any mother, but Pepper focused on the pride, trying to believe it. She wanted me--she must have--
I don’t know why she kept you at all.
Willie’s words made her throat close. Carefully, Pepper peeled back the plastic of the first blank page and set the Polaroid in the middle, then sealed the flap back down. Then she went back to the beginning of the album, trying to memorize each glimpse.
Willie came back before she reached the end again, blowing back into the room and giving her an uninterested glance. “There ain’t much. My daughter was into that genealogy crap for a while, but she took most of the pictures when she moved out.”
He settled back behind his desk with a sigh. Pepper swallowed and summoned words. “Thank you.”
Willie’s expression couldn’t be described as soft, but it wasn’t harsh. “Nothin’ wrong with looking for your past, I figure. Lois’d spit in your eye if she were younger, so I guess you came at the right time.”
He was actually serious, Pepper realized. She closed the album slowly and set it on the desk. “I always wondered.”
Willie shrugged. “That’s natural, I suppose.” He gave her an assessing look. “You didn’t turn out too bad, looks like.”
The tangle of emotion in her chest was too knotted to sort out, so Pepper merely smiled, small and polite. “I did okay, yes.”
The old man nodded, then pulled open his desk drawer and rummaged in it, bringing out a flat circle of plastic and sliding it across the desk. “I had Kevin scan them things into the computer for you, told him it was some kind of history project. You can take it home with you.”
Pepper reached slowly to pick up the disk in its case, part of her admiring Willie’s ability to embed generosity, warning, and a broad hint into two sentences. “Thank you.”
He nodded again, watching as she tucked the case into her purse. “I don’t expect I’ll hear from you again.”
Pepper moved to the door, then glanced back at her uncle, wondering wryly what his reaction would be if he knew what she did for a living. “No. You won’t.” She took him in once more, old and tough and fierce, and bit back the pang of yearning. “Goodbye, Mr. Gray.”
He snorted and waved off her words, already turning his attention to one of the filing cabinets. Pepper slipped through the door and out of the house, slipping on her sunglasses against the late-morning sun.
Only one van was left in front of the house. Kevin stood at its open side door, doing something to the equipment inside, but as Pepper neared he straightened. “Hey, baby.”
He was some sort of cousin, Pepper realized, and felt vaguely queasy as he leered. But she said nothing, passing him by as though he weren’t actually there and climbing into her rental. He shouted something as she drove past, but she couldn’t make it out.
Annie was nowhere to be seen when Pepper arrived at the nursing home, but Lois was in her room, just returned from lunch if the cookie she held was any indication. She looked up when Pepper came in, her expression more resigned than angry. “You’re back.”
“Yes.” Pepper supposed she should ask permission to stay, but she wasn’t in the mood. This is probably my last chance. Willie expected her to leave soon, and she wouldn’t put it past the man to have her barred from the nursing home if he found out she’d visited again. So she took the chair out of its corner and sat down, scarcely noting the still figure in the other bed.
Lois ate the cookie with slow bites, clearly savoring it, and Pepper couldn’t help smiling a little at the sight, though it made her sad. I suppose you have to take your pleasures where you can find them.
When she had finished, Pepper took a deep breath. “Lois, do you know who I am?”
Lois brushed ineffectually at the crumbs on her shirtfront. “Virginia.”
Pepper bit her lip. “Yes. But do you know who else I am?”
She had the feeling this wasn’t going to go well, but she couldn’t help it. Something in her was starving, begging, pleading to hear Lois acknowledge her just one time. You must have loved me once, was the desperate thought running underneath her words. I saw that photo. You wanted me once.
Lois’ gaze slid away to look over Pepper’s shoulder again, and she didn’t answer. Pepper shifted on the hard seat, pulled in a breath, and tried again. “Lois. Look at me, please?”
The withered hands dropped to the wheels of the chair, but Pepper didn’t think Lois had the strength to turn them. “No kids. Never wanted no kids.”
“I understand that,” Pepper said, struggling to keep her tone gentle. “But you had one once.”
Lois shook her head, then raised a hand to scratch her cheek. The loose sleeve of her blouse fell back.
Pepper’s stomach twisted sharply at the scars that stippled Lois’ inner arm--a host of track marks, years of them in an obscene pattern that followed the veins up under the sleeve.
How fried is her brain? came the dizzy thought. And it was followed immediately, helplessly, by Was she high when she gave me up?
Pepper lurched to her feet. The little bathroom attached to the room was directly behind her, and she still almost didn’t make it to the toilet before she threw up.
She didn’t exactly pass out, but Pepper sat on the floor for quite some time, eyes closed and head against the hard frame of the door, trying very hard not to call back any of the thoughts circling overhead. Her head seemed light and hollow, all her anguish emptied out with what little was in her stomach, but she knew it was false. She could only keep it all at bay so long.
Still, the calm gave her space to do what she had to. Eventually Pepper got to her feet, stiff and chilled, and rinsed out her mouth at the sink. She smoothed back her wisping hair, managing not to look too closely at her own face in the mirror, and came back out.
Lois was still in her chair, thumbing clumsily through a ragged paperback book. She looked up as Pepper emerged, but her absent frown didn’t change.
Pepper slid her purse strap onto her shoulder, took two steps forward, and bent to place a gentle kiss on Lois’ forehead. “Goodbye,” she said softly, and walked out of the room.
No voice called her back.
He saw Pepper before she saw him, and Tony was glad of it. Her empty expression spoke more eloquently of despair than tears could, and it told him what tack to take.
And then she spotted him loitering in front of her hotel room, and a frown took over, hiding her behind a mask of annoyance. “Tony, what are you doing here?”
“Looking for you, clearly.” He pushed away from the jamb he’d been leaning on and unfolded his arms. “How long were you in the sun? Your face is pink.”
She lifted a hand to her cheek, then dropped it again. “I don’t know. A couple of hours, maybe.” Pepper jammed the keycard into its slot and yanked on the handle, shoving the door open with a violence she didn’t often employ. As she passed through, Tony followed, not wanting to give her the chance to lock him out.
She dropped her purse on the low dresser and sighed, an irritated sound. “What do you want?”
“Nothing.” Tony shoved his hands in his pockets. “I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
Pepper didn’t quite roll her eyes. “I’m fine. Now, I don’t want to be rude, but go away.”
The words were brusque, but he didn’t move. “No.”
Pepper’s frown deepened. “I’m on leave, Tony. And no offense, but I don’t have the energy to deal with you right now.”
“Tough.” Tony didn’t let his voice rise. “And, no offense, you lie like shit. You’re not fine.”
“Oh, because you’re the expert.” The sarcasm stung, but Tony didn’t flinch. “It’s none of your business how I feel anyway. Go home, Tony. Or go back to Washington, whatever.” Pepper flung up her hands and turned away. “I hope you at least showed up for the committee before blowing them off.”
Actually, he’d spent the morning answering the senators’ questions before telling them that he had a personal emergency and had to leave. They’d been surprisingly gracious about it, but that was irrelevant now. “It is my business, Pepper. I’m making it my business.”
Her laugh held no humor at all, and she didn’t turn back. “Don’t--just don’t. You’ve done the right thing, made the right gesture showing up here, but you don’t have any more obligation.” Her fingers, dangling at her side, fretted against her thumb. “Thank you. Go away.”
“No.” Tony didn’t move. I guess we’re going to have to do this the hard way. “I’m not leaving you like this.”
Pepper spun around, and the fury on her face was shocking. “Like what?” she shouted. “Tired? Irritated? Looking forward to having twelve more hours without having to deal with Tony Stark’s life?” She pulled in an angry breath. “Did it ever occur to you that I might just want to be alone?”
“I think alone is the last thing you should be right now,” Tony said gently, trying not to take her words at face value. “I don’t know exactly what happened with your mother, but--”
Watching someone with a sunburn go pale was a peculiar experience, he realized. “How the hell do you know about that?” Pepper asked, her voice suddenly, dangerously, quiet.
Tony shrugged, quirking his mouth. “Jarvis.”
Her hands slowly curled into fists, and Tony wondered if she was going to hit him. He’d give her one punch, he decided; he really did deserve the bruise it would leave.
But Pepper set her jaw, and didn’t move. “I should have expected that,” she said stiffly. “You’re an ass.”
“Yeah. Going to tell me what happened?”
“Fuck off.” She snatched her purse from the dresser and began rummaging in it, and Tony couldn’t help whistling softly at her words. He’d never heard her use language like that before, not even when she’d discovered that his landscaper was selling candid shots to the gossip rags.
“Wow. The PI was wrong, then?”
He didn’t quite know why he was pushing, except that the very sight of Pepper in pain made him ache, and instinct told him that something had to give. Pepper didn’t look up, but Tony realized her hands were shaking as she tried to find something in her bag. Suddenly she straightened, and hurled it at the wall across the room.
The purse smacked into the plaster with a dull thud, spilling various feminine items all over the carpet. Pepper buried her face in her hands, and Tony could hear her breathing, rough and fast.
He took two long steps forward and took her arms just above the elbows. “Pepper?”
She shook her head, but he didn’t let go. Is she crying?
But when she lowered her hands, there were no tears on her cheeks, just the angry flush exacerbated by sun. Pepper stared at him for a long moment, and something in him tightened with the strange feeling that she was looking through him somehow.
Her fingers wrapped around his tie, knuckles grazing the reactor beneath his shirt, and then her mouth was on his, hot and aggressive. Tony froze in shock. He’d expected tears, yeah, or screaming, but not this.
She tasted like sweet water, and his lizard brain was shouting in delight. Part of him urged him to grab Pepper up and kiss her back, because he’d been wanting to do just that for longer than he could actually remember.
But the rest of him knew this wasn’t exactly ideal circumstances. Tony managed to pull back enough to form words. “Pepper--”
Her grip tightened, and her frown was fierce. “Shut up, Tony.”
His protest was cut off. The feel of her tongue teasing his was mind-meltingly good, and he couldn’t help kissing her back, exploring the softness of that eager mouth, struggling all the while to remember why this was a really bad idea. When they paused for breath, Tony realized he still had hold of her arms, and shook her gently. “Stop. You don’t really want this, Pepper, you’re just--”
Her eyes were glazing. “Shut up,” she repeated, her voice high and tight. “I need this. I need to feel, Tony, I need to stop--I just want to stop--”
She kissed him again, whimpering a little, and now he tasted salt. Pepper pressed closer, and with a mix of shame and anticipation Tony realized that his body was on her side. Once more he reached for control, trying to pull back, but she was shivering now and he couldn’t bring himself to push her away.
“Please, Tony,” she said against his lips, hardly more than a whisper. “Just this once, I never ask for anything, please, please--”
She was begging him. He knew he shouldn’t, but denying her seemed the worse sin somehow. Hell with it. I’m already a bastard and she’s already mad at me.
And, God forgive me, I want this.
He stopped arguing with Pepper and with his own arousal, and dropped his hands to her hips, letting her take his mouth the way she’d been trying to do. Pepper whimpered again, and something in him shifted, aching sharply as he gave in entirely.
It was a second’s work to pull off her scrunchie, and Tony tangled his fingers in her hair, realizing vaguely that she still had a grip on his tie. She was as perfect a fit against him as he’d always imagined, her other arm going around his neck and her kiss bordering on frantic. He stroked his hands down her spine, trying to calm her a little, but then she ground her hips against his, and he gave up the idea, along with most of his conscience.
Pepper. Yes-- She was warm and soft and she tasted so damn good. Tony wanted to lay her out on the hotel bed and spend the night exploring her, but neither her urgency nor his own hungry body was going to allow that, at least at first. Her long fingers were unknotting his tie, now, and he grabbed her hips again and tugged her closer, groaning at the feel of her pressing against him. Tony pulled his head back just enough to follow the line of her jaw towards her ear, kissing himself a trail, and felt the burn as she yanked his tie out from under his collar.
He started with the bottom button on her blouse, and went all the way up without taking his mouth from her throat. Pepper was working on his belt now, and finally he had to lean back to shrug out of his jacket. Her hands clung to him, her eyes burning fierce, and as wrong as it all felt--as right--the sight made him breathless. He let his jacket drop and undid his cuffs. “Pepper--”
“No talking,” she said sternly, and released the front catch of her bra, removing both it and the shirt at the same time. Tony moaned at the picture she made, topless in denim--soft pale breasts, and a stomach he wanted to taste, all covered in skin bordering on luminous. He didn’t bother with his own buttons, simply pulling his dress shirt and undershirt off over his head.
Pepper made a faint noise in the back of her throat, and one hand flew to touch the casing embedded in his chest. Tony shivered as her fingers brushed the scars around it, but he was too taken up with all that satiny skin before him. “You’re gorgeous,” he murmured, and filled his palms with her breasts, exulting in the warm weight of them.
Pepper shuddered, and her nipples stiffened against his thumbs. “No talking,” she repeated shakily, and hooked her fingers in his waistband, tugging him towards the bed.
The next few minutes were a scramble Tony would normally have found hilarious, but somehow the expression on Pepper’s face forbade laughter as well as words. But eventually his pants and her jeans were on the floor, and the cool anonymous sheets were warming against their skin, and the best, smartest, most adorable woman he’d ever met was rubbing herself against him, sending him out of his mind. She smelled like herself, that light vanilla scent now spiced with arousal, and Tony wanted to wallow in it for hours, days, the rest of his life.
Pepper’s hand wrapped around his erection, and Tony jerked. He grabbed her wrist, fighting for control. “I know you don’t want to talk, but if you don’t slow down--”
She scowled. “Now, Tony.”
“No.” He peeled her fingers loose. “Condom.” He still carried one in his wallet, more habit than anything these days.
Pepper huffed--the familiar sound almost made him laugh again--and slid his hand around to the small of her back. The texture under his fingertips told him he’d somehow missed the birth control patch on his earlier pass. You’re getting sloppy, Stark.
Her leg hooked over his hip, pulling him closer, and her breath was hot in his ear. “Now,” she repeated, the quiet word still commanding, and he gave up, gave in, sank into her embrace and her body with a pleasure so sharp it made him gasp.
She shuddered again, eyes tight shut, and Tony braced his hands next to her shoulders and kissed the long-lashed lids. “Okay, foreplay later,” he murmured, and let himself move.
It was fast, it was a little rough, it wasn’t what he wanted for their first time, but it was incredible. He couldn’t keep his mouth from her skin, hot and velvety under his lips; every time he sucked on her pulse point, she would moan, her hands closing on his shoulders. She was slick and tight, her nipples poking his chest, and vaguely Tony wondered if he was bruising her with the reactor, but he couldn’t slow down long enough to ask. It was a years’-old fantasy to have those long, long legs wrapped around him, and Tony wanted to tell her how beautiful she was, but he couldn’t tear himself away from the sweet softness of her neck. Perfect, perfect kept running through his brain, because she was, her hips arching up to his, her nails digging into his skin, her panting giving way to little tremulous cries that delighted him.
It didn’t take long for her to stiffen under him, the long thin wail vibrating through them both as she came in a series of hard spasms. He wanted to hold out for round two--at least--but it had been far too long, and as Pepper went limp Tony clutched her to him and let go, ecstasy burning up through his spine in pulse after mind-blowing pulse, leaving him ash in her arms.
When he recovered enough to move Tony lifted his face from Pepper’s throat and kissed her slack mouth, coaxing her until her lips moved languidly against his, slow and yielding. Pulling out of her body felt like a loss, but that was easily remedied; he shifted to the side and wrapped himself around her, ignoring stickiness and sweat and all the aftermath of good hard sex.
Holding her was more important.
“Tony...” Pepper sounded exhausted, and he looked down at her, cradled against him with her arms drawn up as though she were cold. He spared one hand to snag the sheet and drag it over them.
“No talking,” he told her softly. “Sleep.”
And, for a wonder, she obeyed, closing her eyes and slowly relaxing against him.
Tony breathed through her hair and stared unseeing at the wall. His body was still savoring the aftermath, but his mind was moving forward. What the hell happened, Pepper?
And what are we going to do about it?
When she surfaced, it was dark and she was warm, heavy and limp with sleep. Pepper didn’t move, not quite certain she was awake at all, but the hand tracing languid patterns on her stomach seemed too real to be a dream.
She pulled in a deeper breath as a fingertip dipped into her navel, and Tony stirred next to her. The feel of his mustache brushing her throat made her shiver, hard, and she felt him smile against her skin as his tongue sought out the tender spot below her ear.
Dimly Pepper wondered if she should protest, but she couldn’t seem to summon either the energy or the will. It was easier to lie still and let Tony touch her...easier to give in to the pleasure. His mouth traveled slowly down to the curve of her breast, every inch covered as if he were mapping her out, and when his lips closed over her nipple Pepper couldn’t help the squeak.
She reached for him, but Tony’s hands snagged hers gently and moved them back down to the mattress. “My turn,” he whispered in her ear, nibbling it as he passed by, and somehow, in the warm, close-wrapped dark, Pepper couldn’t think of a reason to argue.
He didn’t hurry. And he wasn’t silent, she discovered dizzily; little hums of pleasure drifted up to her ears as he found some new part of her that delighted him, and her low gasps brought sounds she couldn’t classify as more than “male” and “approving”. The feel of his cheek rubbing her knee, his fingers lingering on her heel or her hip, the line of slow wet kisses placed down the inside of her arm--every time she tried to concentrate on anything beyond what Tony was doing to her, he would shift his attention and distract her again.
He finally let her touch him when he lowered his head between her legs, but by then all she could do was wind her fingers in his hair and moan. He teased her for what felt like forever, lips and tongue and gentle suction, and she couldn’t focus long enough to decide if it was just his own skill or the fact that it had been years, but when he finally let her come she drowned in sensation, everything besides her own cry whiting out.
As she lay panting, she felt Tony plant kisses back up her body before spooning up behind her, one leg sliding over hers. The faint prickle of the hair on his calf made her goosebump, and he pulled her close, one hand curving over her hip. HIs mouth rested against her shoulder, and she could feel his smile again, but she felt too good to take offense at what was, after all, justified smugness.
His arc implant was a smooth hardness against her spine, as warm as the rest of him, but the erection pressing into her backside was of more interest. Still, he didn’t move, just holding her as if he wanted nothing more.
Finally her breathing slowed, and she let herself lean back just a little. “What are you waiting for? Permission?” she asked softly, suddenly amused, and his smile widened.
“Uh-huh.” His hips moved upward, and Pepper smiled to herself in the darkness and reached back to guide him into her body.
She didn’t expect him to do more than finish himself off, but Tony set a slow and luxurious rhythm, his hand sliding first up to caress her and then down. Pepper lost herself in the movements, listening to his soft repetition of her name, feeling that unstoppable tide of pleasure rising again. She let her fingers bite into his hip behind her, pulling him as close as possible through her long slow orgasm, through Tony’s soft grunts and thrusts and deep shudders of relaxation. It seemed right to lace her fingers through his where they came to rest on her stomach, and she accepted the kisses he laid on her neck without words.
It was a long time before he spoke. “Tell me what happened.”
Whatever resistance she might have mustered was gone. “I found her.”
There was another silence. “And?” Tony prompted softly.
Pepper stared into the darkness. “She didn’t know me,” she whispered, the words bitter on her tongue. “She didn’t want to know me.” She never wanted me at all.
Tony said nothing, but the slow tightening of his arms around her was a strange, unaccustomed comfort. “She’s dying,” Pepper went on, the truth only now becoming clear. “My uncle told me to leave and not come back.”
Her lifelong fantasy was dust now. There was no one out there wondering what had become of her, wanting to know, wanting to see what she’d become. There were no hands held out in welcome, no family waiting to form. She was nothing to them but a mistake, one that should never have been unearthed.
Tony was still silent, and it didn’t surprise her, because there really wasn’t anything to say. But his head pressed against the back of hers and his thumb rubbed over her hand in a circle, and it was enough to let her close her burning eyes.
Pepper woke to the sound of Tony’s voice, but he wasn’t talking to her. She lay still for a while, trying to assess the situation, because whatever madness had possessed her the night before was gone, and she was appalled.
What the hell was I thinking?
She hadn’t been, that was the problem, Pepper realized with disgust. She’d let herself go completely, jumped her boss in a frantic effort to forget her own problems, and completely compromised herself as well as her career. The fact that it had all been incredibly good didn’t really help.
When she opened her eyes, it really was morning, and Tony’s one-sided conversation was somewhere over her shoulder. On the phone, Pepper thought, and made herself roll over and sit up, automatically pulling the sheet up to cover herself.
Tony was sitting at the room’s little desk, speaking quietly into his cellphone. A mug sat by his hand, and Pepper could smell coffee mixed with the fresh air seeping in past the balcony curtains; apparently he’d made use of the room’s coffeemaker.
She swung her legs off the bed and stood up, tugging the sheet free to wrap around her. Tony might have already seen her naked, but that was no reason to give him a fresh view. Her clothes lay where she’d dropped them the night before, along with his shirt and jacket, when she glanced over at him, he was wearing the slacks. He waved, clearly preoccupied, but his smile glinted and she looked away quickly.
It was a moment’s work to gather fresh clothes from her suitcase and retreat to the bathroom. It was still slightly steamy, and her boss had apparently borrowed her razor to judge by the hair in the sink.
Pepper peeled off the sheet and kicked it into the corner, and made herself look in the mirror.
And winced. What a mess.
Her hair was a rat’s nest. She was as pale as milk except for the pink of the lingering sunburn and the rather impressive hickey decorating her neck. There were other, fainter marks scattered over her body, including a bruise on her breastbone, and she could feel the soreness of well-used muscles.
She stepped into the shower, adjusted it just short of scalding, and scrubbed herself clean, as if she could wash away the last twelve hours. Or twenty-four, or forty-eight, all the way back to the initial phone call. Stupid, she told herself furiously. How stupid could you possibly be?
If she was really, really lucky, Tony would be gone by the time she came out. In fact, she was surprised that he hadn’t actually left yet. If he’s gone, I won’t have to deal with him now. And later could possibly be handled remotely--
Eventually she had to get out of the water. Pepper dried her hair and rubbed lotion into her sunburned face, brushed her teeth and drank three glasses of water, and dressed, wishing for more formal armor than a t-shirt and slacks. But her makeup was in her suitcase and her stilettos were in the closet, and why was she even bothering to think this way, none of it really mattered.
When she mustered the courage to open the bathroom door, the desk chair was empty. Pepper expected relief, and was appalled again to realize that what she actually felt was a sort of miserable disappointment. What do you want? she asked herself savagely. What makes you any different from the other women who throw themselves at Tony? Of course he’s gone.
The fact that she’d told him what had happened with her quest was too painful to touch, so she ignored it. It was part and parcel of the rest, anyway, a vulnerability too dangerous to maintain, and it could be dealt with at the same time.
Pepper sat down at the little desk, ignoring the half-full carafe on the coffee machine and the way her body twinged, and opened her laptop. If she got the resignation letter done now, she could e-mail it to Tony before she left, and it would be effective from the moment it hit Jarvis’ servers.
It probably wasn’t going to be that easy, of course, but if she were really lucky, Tony would let her go without a quarrel, and she could go about trying to recreate her life from the shambles she’d made of it.
The letter was stiff and formal, but it really didn’t need to say much. Pepper hesitated over the last sentence, wondering if she should try to frame an apology, but she couldn’t think how to begin.
The sudden soft breeze was all the warning she had before Tony’s hand landed on her shoulder, gripping tightly. “That better not be what it looks like, Potts,” he said dangerously.
How she managed not to jump, Pepper didn’t know. I forgot about the balcony-- “Please let me go,” she said stiffly.
“Not on your life.” His other hand reached down from behind her, and before she could move he’d managed to close the program.
“I saved it,” Pepper said automatically, and he snorted.
“Want me to throw the whole thing off the roof? Give it up, Pepper. We need to talk.”
She ducked out from under his hand and rose, not wanting to be trapped in one place. “No, we don’t, Mr. Stark. If we act like civilized adults, this can all be over very quickly.”
“Fat chance.” Tony propped his hands on his hips, scowling. He’d put his shirt back on before going outside, at least, she noted, but hadn’t tucked it in, and while he was clean and shaved his hair was uncombed. He looked delicious.
Pepper wrenched her gaze away and focused it just beyond his right ear. “There’s nothing to say. I did something I shouldn’t have, and I can’t take it back.”
“I don’t want to give it back. Pepper, for pity’s sake look at me, will you? I don’t know why you think you--”
“I don’t have a choice, Tony,” she interrupted, refusing his order. “This is not something we can just...ignore.”
“Damn straight it isn’t.” He took two steps forward, almost into her personal space. “But walking away isn’t the answer.”
“Isn’t it?” Pepper gave in and glared at him. “How much credibility do you think I’d have, after this?”
He ran a hand through his hair in frustration. “Just as much as you want, this the twenty-first century, not the nineteenth--”
She wanted to scream. “I slept with my boss. What does that make me, Tony?”
“The best thing that’s ever happened to him. Come on, Pepper.” He took her arms just above the elbows, much as he had the night before. “Stop it. Half of this is just camouflage anyway because you told me your secret.”
His blunt words struck deep, and she twisted away in pain. “So what if I did? What difference does it make?”
The question was rhetorical, but as she struggled not to cry, Tony wrapped his arms around her from behind. “All the difference in the world.” He rested his chin on her shoulder, squeezing her warningly when she tried to step out of his embrace. “I don’t know what it’s like to be abandoned, Pepper. But I do know what it’s like to be utterly alone.”
That stopped her cold, because it was true, even if he’d never mentioned it before. He’d had the sort of love she’d only dreamed of, but it had been torn brutally away in one swift blow, and he’d had to learn to survive in the aftermath.
His breath was warm against her ear. “You trusted me last night, Pepper. I’d like to think it was for a reason, and not just because I happened to be the closest warm body.”
Her throat was cramping with the tears she didn’t want to shed. “Tony...” The word wavered and broke, and she squeezed her eyes shut. But this time there was no stopping them, and Pepper buried her face in her hands, ashamed as the first sob tore free.
She tried again to pull away from Tony, but she was crying so hard she could hardly stand up, and couldn’t make out what he was saying. But his arms wouldn’t loosen, and when she staggered he lifted her bodily, settling them down with Pepper across his lap on a yielding surface that had to be the bed. Tony pulled her in tight, and she felt his mouth against her temple, a soft kiss that somehow made her weep even harder.
It was more crying than she’d done in a year, but Pepper couldn’t seem to help it. She pressed her hands over her eyes, not caring how she looked or sounded; let out her grief and rage and bewilderment at being turned away by the people who should have loved her.
She cried for the lost dream, all the years she’d spent on it; she cried for herself, more alone now than ever; and she cried for the gray broken woman in the wheelchair, whose chances had all run out.
Through it all Tony held her, warm and secure and silent. Part of her wanted to pull away, because accepting comfort meant admitting weakness, but Pepper just couldn’t find the will.
She wept until she could hardly breathe, until her eyes were swollen half-shut and her burned cheeks felt scoured. At some point she’d curled one hand into the front of Tony’s shirt, holding it hard, and she could make out the glow of his reactor where her tears had wetted the cloth. And still he held her, the fingers of one hand stroking her arm absently.
Pepper felt hollowed out once more, almost too weary to move. She closed her eyes, wishing she could sleep again and avoid whatever awkwardness was still to come. But despite the way her head spun, sleep didn’t seem available.
“When’s the last time you ate something?” The quiet question was unexpected, and Pepper blinked.
“Um...yesterday morning,” she said, her voice hoarse.
Tony’s arms tightened a fraction. “Typical, Ms. Potts. You really need better stress management.” His tone was teasing, and he reached for the bedside phone. “Yeah, this is Room 224, I want breakfast delivered...uh-huh...no, three. And more coffee. Yeah. Thanks.”
She heard the click as he put the receiver back, and tensed to move away, but Tony hugged her close again. “Tell you what,” he said casually, and she could feel his voice vibrate in his chest where her ear was pressed. “Let’s stay put until the food gets here.”
Again, Pepper knew she should argue, but there didn’t seem to be any point. And she didn’t have the energy that getting her own way would take, so she complied, knowing she must look ridiculous but too drained to care.
She’d always known that Tony had a deeply compassionate side to him, even though he seemed to spend a lot of time pretending it wasn’t there. But she’d never expected to have that compassion focused on her, and underneath the embarrassment and grief Pepper was shyly grateful. Mourning alone would have been easier...but so very, very lonely.
Just don’t get comfortable, she warned herself. This is temporary.
When the knock came, Tony sighed, and Pepper braced herself to slide off his lap, but he didn’t let her. Instead he stood, and carried her over to the desk, seating her in the chair despite her protest. “Stay put,” he told her sternly, and went to answer the door.
He had it open before she could voice a warning about the reactor under his shirt. But as far as she could tell, the tall man who wheeled in the cart of breakfast didn’t notice; he accepted the generous tip that Tony handed him and left, not even blinking at the room’s disarray. Pepper closed her eyes briefly and told herself that if the whole situation turned up in the tabloids it wouldn’t be her problem any more.
“Smells good,” Tony said cheerfully, and filled them both plates, handing her a fork and then leaning against the desk to eat rather than sitting on the bed. Pepper tried not to assume that he was blocking a potential escape route, and looked down at the food, suddenly aware that she was very hungry.
Tony consumed about three times what she did, but that was typical, and Pepper filled up on omelette and toast and fruit. The fresh coffee eased the tight band around her temples, and by the time Tony had popped the last strawberry into his mouth she was feeling much clearer. Automatically she stacked the dishes back on the cart and wheeled it back out into the hallway for pickup.
She glanced at the clock by the bed when she came back in. She had the room booked through Friday morning, but it was only eight-twenty, and checkout was eleven a.m. I can be out of here by then.
Tony was on the phone again, and she slipped past him to the bathroom, wincing again at the damage. Pepper soaked a washcloth in cold water and bathed her eyes until they felt better, and reapplied lotion and brushed her hair smooth once more. She still looked like a wreck, patchy red and white, but it would have to do.
When she came back out Tony was crouched next to her fallen purse, picking through the scattered contents; as she watched, he came up with the CD in its case. “What’s this?”
Pepper thought about prevaricating, and decided it wasn’t worth the hassle. “Photos. I think.”
Tony straightened, and lifted an inquiring brow; Pepper shrugged at him, and went to gather the clothes still lying on the floor. Tony went over to the desk and opened her laptop, slipping in the disk.
It took him only about five minutes to go through the pictures. Pepper carefully didn’t watch, instead packing her possessions methodically and indulging in a brief fantasy of slipping out the door while he was preoccupied. The laptop, after all, was technically his property.
But he finished just as she was zipping up the suitcase, leaning an arm over the back of the chair and resting his chin on it. The expression on his face didn’t bode well; it was the calm stillness that meant he was beyond cajoling or argument, the one she most often saw when he was getting ready for another Iron Man mission.
“What do you want to do now?” he asked.
Pepper set the case on its wheels by the door. “Go home.”
“Good idea.” Tony didn’t move. “Then what?”
“None of your business, Mr. Stark. I resigned, remember?”
He actually rolled his eyes. “Don’t even start, Pepper.”
It was a little frightening the way her temper flared back to life. “You can’t keep me if I decide to leave.”
His mouth twisted. “Maybe not. But you don’t have to.”
He caught her gaze, and Pepper’s stomach dropped at the wary wanting she saw in his eyes. Slowly Tony rose and walked towards her, moving as if he were trying not to frighten her away. “I know you’ve been through a lot right now, and I don’t want to push you. But I meant what I said.”
“What you said?” she repeated numbly, trying and failing to remember what he was talking about.
His hand skimmed her cheek, curving around the back of her neck; his thumb rested lightly beneath her ear. “You’re the best thing that ever happened to me. Professionally, personally, the whole package.”
She could feel her pulse racing, and it wasn’t just the memory of his mouth on hers causing it. “Come on, Pepper,” Tony coaxed softly, so close that she could feel the heat of him. “Yeah, we had sex, and it was amazing. And if you want to pretend that didn’t happen, I might even be able to get used to it.” His lips curved up. “Eventually.”
Pepper swallowed. “You honestly think we could just...continue,” she managed. “Like nothing happened.”
He shrugged. “Not really, but if you want to try I’m willing to go along with it until you figure out we can’t.”
That made her bristle, and Pepper pulled away. “You don’t understand, Tony.”
“Yeah, actually, I do.” His voice was suddenly hard. “You showed actual human weakness, and now you think you have to do some kind of penance for it. Let me tell you, it’s bullshit.”
Tony stepped closer again, and Pepper realized she was backed up against the bed. “We’ve been dancing around this ever since I got back. Sure, this wasn’t ideal circumstances to start a relationship, and I regret that, but we did start. Finally.”
Pepper looked at him for a long, long moment. What he said was true; they had been hovering on the brink of...something...for months, something that would never have been possible before he’d changed. And while she’d assumed that the night they had just shared had negated that, Tony apparently believed otherwise.
But she couldn’t clear her head enough to think about it. Too much had happened in the last couple of days. Pepper sat down on the end of the bed, leaving him looking down at her in surprise.
“Tony...I...I need time to think about this.”
She really expected him to argue, but instead he grinned, a sudden flash that made her heart jump. “That’s my Pepper.” He bent, cupped her chin in one hand, and kissed her slowly, the sweep of his tongue against her bottom lip a sensual promise that made her shiver. Then he was tugging her to her feet. “Come on. Let’s go home.”
The flight back to Malibu took two hours longer than it usually did, due to major storms across the Midwest, but for once Tony didn’t mind. He settled into his seat and watched Pepper as she worked away at her laptop, studiously ignoring him, and counted his blessings with greedy pleasure.
One, amazing sex; two, she’s still here. And he wasn’t fool enough to think the first more important than the second; it just seemed worthy of celebration that the only woman he wanted anymore should be so perfect in bed, even under less than ideal circumstances.
So soft, so hot, so-- Tony breathed out slowly and cautioned himself to be careful; the end of months of celibacy had his body eager for more--a lot more--but Pepper clearly wasn’t ready for that.
And he’d managed to coax her into staying, at least for the moment. He understood her reservations, but to his mind they simply didn’t matter. He was Tony Stark. His personal assistant deserved--and would get--all the respect to which she was entitled, or else. She’s always been paranoid about it, anyway. Wait until she sees that almost nobody cares. In fact, he suspected that a lot of people already assumed they were having sex, and they still treated her properly.
It remained to be seen if he could convince her to go on with what they’d started, however clumsy a beginning it was. Tony knew it would take some doing--but he usually got what he wanted, in the end, and he was prepared to do whatever it would require. If she needs time, I’ll give it to her. But, Pepper, you’re not getting out of this without a damned good reason.
When she paused to rub her eyes, Tony got himself a Scotch and then resumed his seat, pretending not to notice as she closed the computer and moved to the long couch. He’d gotten rid of the flight attendants months ago, giving them generous severance checks, because privacy was more important in the wake of his changes. And it worked to his advantage now.
Pepper was exhausted, he could tell that without looking, and it wasn’t surprising. She’d had the week from hell, in a way, and Tony wasn’t sure how much comfort he could offer without making her shy away. But offer it he would.
When she bent to undo her shoes and then curled her feet under her, Tony set down his glass. The blankets were kept in a small cabinet near the couch, and he pulled one out and draped it around Pepper’s shoulders before she could protest, sitting down next to her with his arm across the back of the couch behind her. “You doing okay?”
“I’m fine,” she said, and of course it was automatic. He didn’t call her on it; he just waited. And after a moment she tugged the blanket tighter and sighed.
Tony waited some more. It wasn’t what he was best at, but sometimes it was necessary. And after a while, Pepper gave in.
She didn’t tell him much, but along with the photos it wasn’t hard to piece together. Lois had probably already been involved with drugs by the time she’d gotten pregnant, and while her older brother seemed to have eventually turned his life around, Lois never had. Instead, she’d given up her toddler to the state and gone on to try to forget she’d ever had a child at all. Tony couldn’t begin to say why, but the thought of that bright little girl left at the mercy of a drug addict for any longer than she had been made him queasy. Just because he’d been born into privilege didn’t mean he wasn’t aware of what could happen to the small and helpless.
As the halting tale came out, Pepper edged closer and closer to him, and Tony all but held his breath, wondering if she were even aware of what she was doing. But when her head came to rest on his shoulder, he let his arm fall gently around her, and closed his eyes in a moment of relief when she didn’t pull away.
It was a bleak picture, on the whole. Given up, given away, rejected; despite her gifts, Pepper had never been chosen for adoption, though as far as Tony knew she’d never had a bad foster placement either. She simply hadn’t been wanted. And he could see how that would leave her alone in the cold, maybe even unable to believe that she was worth wanting at all.
You are so wrong, Virginia.
When she was finished, Pepper was quiet for a long time, and when she did speak again the simple question made Tony’s throat tighten.
“Why did she give me up?”
He knew it was rhetorical, but he couldn’t help answering it. “I don’t know. But it may have been the most heroic thing she ever did.”
That made her sit up, and stare at him. Tony shrugged, going for honesty, blunt as it was. “Her life...you know it wasn’t good, Pepper. And it looks like it didn’t improve.” He dared to touch her cheek again, to let his thumb stroke the soft, soft skin. “By letting you go, she probably saved you from something worse.”
Pepper’s eyes widened as she took in his words, and then slid shut, another tear spilling over to splash over his knuckle. Tony gave in to yearning and pulled her into an awkward hug, feeling her quiver with a silent sob and hoping desperately that she could make peace with her past.
When she fell asleep in his arms for the third time, he let himself hope for more.
The flames were almost invisible in the bright noonday sun, but Pepper could hear them crackling over the wood Tony had piled on the beach. The fire smelled good, an honest smoky smell, and she half-expected Tony to whip out a bag of marshmallows, like he had at the last Fourth of July party. But his hands were already full, and his face sober.
“You sure about this?” he asked for the fourth time, and Pepper took the pile of papers he held, wrinkling her nose at him.
“It was your idea, Tony.” She clamped one hand down on top so that the breeze off the cliff wouldn’t carry the sheets away.
“Yeah, but...never mind.” He shoved his hands in his pockets. The wind tossed his hair into his eyes and he shook it back out again, looking irresistibly boyish despite his expression.
Pepper looked down at her armful. It wasn’t a lot, in the end; reports, receipts, some Google printouts; even the CD was in there, despite her protests that burning it was probably dangerous. All of it.
It had been nine days since they’d returned from South Carolina, nine days in which Tony had let her think with fewer interruptions than she expected. By tacit agreement she’d continued working as if nothing had happened, although her resignation was an option sitting at the back of her mind, brought involuntarily forward every time he surprised her with a sudden gentle kiss.
They hadn’t talked about that either, but it was pretty clear what he was offering, and deep down Pepper was still amazed by the idea of Tony Stark wanting any kind of permanent relationship at all, let alone an exclusive one.
Amazed, and moved, and tempted. Even to the point of tentatively returning a kiss or two.
Now she stood in the middle of a sunny Saturday, attending a funeral. With care, Pepper crouched next to the fire and began feeding it with paper.
None of it took long to burn, the private investigator’s notes flaring into ash within seconds. The CD turned to slag, and it stank, but the breeze took away the reek, and Tony handed her a long stick to poke the last few clumps of charred paper into dust.
Pepper straightened eventually, wiping her hands on her pants. She would have liked to say that she felt freer, or lighter, or something positive, but she only felt tired. The memories were still there, and the shards of broken dream would take time to wear away.
Still, it was done. She had declared independence from her past; her choices from now on would be wholly her own, unhindered by that invisible weight.
“Should we put it out?” she asked Tony, watching the faint flames dance.
He shook his tousled head. “Nah. The tide’ll take care of it, and there’s nothing down here to catch.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the low waves creeping up the beach.
Pepper hesitated a long moment. “All right, then.”
The soft sand gave way under her feet as she turned to walk back to the house. Within two strides Tony had caught up to her and slung an arm around her waist. “I did tell you that Jarvis ripped that CD, right?”
Pepper snickered, surprising herself, and caught his grin out of the corner of her eye. I should have expected that.
They were halfway to the cliff that housed the elevator when she slowed. Tony had been unbelievably generous over the past ten days; it was time to give something back. “Did I ever tell you why I let you give me a nickname?”
He pivoted to face her, hands ending up resting gently on her waist. “No.”
She let her own hands creep up his forearms, wanting the connection, and looked him in the eye. “Pepper...she doesn’t have a past.” She searched for words, finding them easier to speak than she expected. “She was always successful, always good enough. Nobody ever left her behind.”
She saw Tony’s throat move as he swallowed, and then he leaned in to press his forehead to hers, their shy clasp becoming an embrace. Tony held her hard, and Pepper let herself give into it all the way, accepting the strength he offered.
And then, for the first time since that Thursday morning, she kissed him. Offering, acceptance; they mingled until keeping a balance sheet didn’t matter any longer, and the soft sound he made was as much relief as pleasure, his mouth possessive and gentle and giving all at once.
When they parted, Tony looked into her eyes for a long, long moment, and then smiled, shifting to whisper in her ear.
“If my parents were still alive, Virginia, they would have loved you.”
That made her throat tighten, and she lost herself against his lips once more.
When they resumed their trudge through the sand, Tony’s hand was wrapped securely around hers. “You know,” he said thoughtfully, “I don’t have any family either.”
Pepper glanced at him, a little puzzled. She already knew it; his parents had been the last of his immediate relations. “That’s true.”
“So, maybe we should just make one of our own.” His grin was sly, but she could tell he wasn’t entirely teasing.
She squeezed his fingers, amused. “That’s a little precipitous, don’t you think?”
They stepped into the elevator car, and Tony hit the button for his private level. “No, no, I’m not talking anything like that...yet.” He smirked at her. “C’mon, Pepper, it’s there already. You, me, Jarvis, the ‘bots...”
Pepper found herself laughing as they rose upwards. “Only you would think of that, Tony Stark.”
“So? You think about it too.” He kissed her through her giggles, stopping only when the elevator doors opened on his bedroom. Stepping out, he tugged on her hand, his expression moving from amusement to an intense tenderness that made her breath hitch. “You had your turn, Pepper, and I had mine. Now...make love with me.”
Smiling, Pepper walked into her future.