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Christine Everhart gets assigned the story the same day that the search for Tony Stark begins to focus on French Polynesia-- if "focus" is a term that can even be used for an area encompassing approximately fifteen-hundred square miles-- and she finds the parallels apt. Both have a certain needle-in-a-haystack feel to them, with a questionable probability of success that's far outweighed by the public interest in the story. There's pressure that goes along with that level of public interest, to have something timely to report even if accuracy is impacted. Christine hates that kind of pressure, and she's well known for fighting with the editors about it, but she's considered the resident expert on all things regarding Tony Stark, so she still gets the assignment.

She can tell after the first day that the story is going to look different on the page than it does on the ground, and that bothers her. She hates knowing that she's never going to be able to communicate to her readers just what it's like, listening to people tell their stories, subconsciously picking up on the thousand little points of body language that tell a story of their own, one that's impossible to boil down into the confines of a set space on a page (minus room for advertising). This story gets more space than most, because Tony Stark's name is on it and, obstensibly, it's about him, but the story she's hearing underneath it, from one person after another, is the story of the woman with the cool smile and sharp eyes, whose job it was to deftly arrange matters behind the scenes and then to fade into watchful obscurity as Stark took the stage.

There are thousands of available pictures of Pepper Potts and she is out of focus in every one of them. Every one features some combination of Tony Stark, weapons manufacturing mogul, foreground; Virginia Potts, personal assistant, background. If it wasn't so infuriating, it would be damn near poetic. Christine resigns herself to having to request Pepper's employee badge photo from Stark Industries, fighting their (understandably less-than-forthcoming) H.R. department for a picture that will end up looking more than a little bit like a mug shot. Which, under the circumstances, is a tasteless bit of irony that Christine could do without, regardless of her editor's opinion to the contrary.

A few people have suggested using the picture from the crisis at Stark Industries' Chula Vista Rapid Transit Machinery plant, last February-- the moment when Pepper had led the other hostages out of the smoking wreckage of the plant, after three long days, and Stark had met them halfway, flipping up the faceplate of the Iron Man suit, and the two had embraced. Christine has rejected the idea with extreme prejudice. For one thing, the picture has been used to death, as iconic shots always are; for another, at some point over the past year the picture has turned into a pictoral shorthand for a supposed romantic relationship that may have only existed in the mind of Perez Hilton, and Christine loathes shorthand. A picture may tell a thousand words, but all those words say more about the person seeing the picture than the person in the picture. It makes for sloppy reporting, and this story is getting enough of that already, elsewhere.

Not from Christine, though. Not ever.

***

The standard boilerplate for the Chula Vista RTM Plant hostage crisis is short to the point of being terse, because it got more live coverage across the nation than any other incident in southern California not involving a slow-motion chase down the 405 in a white Ford Bronco, so there's no reason to eat up space rehashing the same old information. For the sake of any readers living under a rock, Christine tucks the basics into the article early on: a professional saboteur known only as "the Ghost" broke into the facility, presumably for industrial espionage purposes. Tony Stark, as Iron Man, arrived to stop him, and the Ghost fled into the adjoining office building where Virginia Potts was speaking to a group of investors who were scheduled to tour the facilities with Stark. The Ghost took the investors, and Ms. Potts, hostage for three days. Stark was on the scene as Iron Man the whole time, and eventually succeeded in driving the Ghost from the building and freeing the hostages.

Upon consideration, she adds a condensed reference to Stark's 2008 captivity in Afghanistan. It steals another hundred words from the story, but Christine believes in the importance of context. Or, in this case, catalysts.

***

She talks her way into the interview with Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes ("just call me Jim; this isn't an interview for the military") with the kind of nonchalant aggression that starts as a friendly chat at the door and gradually encroaches on more space until she is finally sitting in Jim's living room with her digital voice recorder on the scratched surface of his coffee table. He's wearing a polo shirt, jeans, and a quietly baffled expression. "Virginia," he repeats, blinking at her. "Really?"

"If you're more comfortable referring to her as Pepper--"

"No, no-- well, yeah, that's really all I ever-- Virginia? That's really her name?" Jim clasps his hands together loosely and taps the knuckles against his lips, shaking his head a little as he stares into space. "I didn't know that. I mean, I should have guessed Pepper was a nickname, but I didn't really think about it. Tony always--" He stops abruptly, his eyes refocusing. "I feel like I should have known that."

Christine gives him a sympathetic smile. "There are a lot of things we don't know about the people we work with."

"Maybe." He looks at her sharply, as if he's just now remembering her role. "I doubt you have that problem."

She shrugs without comment and moves on. "You worked with them both for a long time--"

"If you're going to ask if I saw this coming," Jim interrupts in a flat voice, "the answer is no. I am not that imaginative."

***

There is a lot of amateur footage of Tony Stark on YouTube; Christine spends about a week worth of late nights sitting up with her laptop and a bottle of Johnny Walker, leaving the TV on across the room so that she can listen to the latest reports on the search operations in Tahiti as she sifts through it all. Occasionally there's a hilarious gem, like the vocoded video of one of Stark's last interviews, where he appears to be having a T-Pain-style sing-off with Barbara Walters, or the surprisingly skillful one where someone made Stark into an irritable cartoon rabbit, but for the most part it's just copies of the same stuff from the networks, mixed in with a bunch of home movies starring wanna-be fuckwits dressing up in suits made of painted plastic to pretend to shoot bad guys in their back yards. It's kind of cute, from a sentimental standpoint, as if the days when every guy wanted Tony Stark's life had been years ago, instead of just two weeks.

There's finally, finally an interesting bit posted back in 2008, interesting enough that if it hadn't been for the media frenzy over Stark coming out of the closet two days later as a custom-built superhero, she's sure this would have made it into the blogs, maybe even a few print tabloids. It's not the greatest footage in the world, but the people in it are clearly Tony Stark and his personal assistant, both in formal dress, dancing together. They're looking at each other like they've forgotten the rest of the world. Pepper is wearing a blue, backless gown and Stark's hand is on her bare skin, right at the waist. After a moment, he takes her hand and pulls her out of the room. The last five seconds of footage shows the camera bumping around and swiveling to focus on a young guy with blond emo-boy hair and a black caterer's vest, who keeps saying excitedly, "did you get it? you got it, right?"

Christine raises her eyebrows and salutes her laptop with the paper cup she's been using since she went through the last of the clean glassware. "Perez Hilton," she says out loud, "you are still a dumb asshole, but you might not be quite as dumb as I thought you were."

***

"They weren't fucking," Julie Lo says irritably, hunched over her tall low-fat soy latte. She keeps stabbing at the cup with the straw as if there's something at the bottom that she needs to put out of its misery. "I know what they said in the tabloids, but it's bullshit. Trust me."

"Did she tell you that?" Christine asks, leaning closer. Their patio table is the only one occupied, but Julie glances suspiciously out at the sidewalk, as if every chihuahua-carrying chick in a miniskirt was a possible spy. Christine hates doing interviews in public places: the subjects always speak too quietly and the recorder picks up all sorts of traffic and wind noise in the background. She always has to take notes on paper, old-school, just to make sure she gets something.

Julie rolls her eyes. "She didn't have to tell me that. She'd tell me if she was fucking him." She gives Christine a look of contemptuous pity. "That would be news. Not fucking him was just, you know, normal."

"Got it," Christine agrees and writes not fucking = normal on her notepad to show just how agreeable she is. "When was the last time you saw her?"

Julie stiffens, her cheeks tinting pink. Obviously that had hit a nerve. "Pepper never had any free time," she says defensively. "That asshole worked her like a dog."

"I know," Christine assures her. "Everybody says so."

"I've known her since college. Fifteen years. We lived on the same floor, freshman year. Believe me, if she didn't have time to see me, she didn't have time to see anyone."

"I know. I still have to ask." Christine waits until Julie looks up to continue. "When was the last time--"

"January." Julie makes another vicious stab at her latte. "Before that whole hostage thing. You know what it was like, watching that on the news? I kept thinking, this time he's finally done it, this time that asshole Tony Stark is actually going to get her killed, and it's going to be shown live on the news. It was fucking surreal." A tear slips down her face and she brushes it away angrily. "Ironic, huh?"

Christine reaches across the table and puts her hand over Julie's, not squeezing, just being present. Julie stares at her latte stoically, her jaw working; her hand stays still for a long moment before she suddenly flips it over and holds onto Christine for dear life. She doesn't cry, but it takes a while to make sure of it.

After a few minutes, Julie lets go and shakes her hair back, exhaling loudly. "God," she says. "Sorry about that."

"Don't worry about it," Christine says, passing over a little travel-pack of Kleenex. "Totally understandable. It's a fucked-up situation."

Julie snorts laughter into a tissue and shakes her head. "Yeah, well. You don't know the half of it."

"Did she ever talk about quitting?" Christine asks.

Julie gives her an incredulous look as she dabs carefully under her eyes. "Talk about? She did quit, like, in March."

Christine stares at her. "I beg your pardon?"

"What?" Julie asks. "Didn't you know? She had a brand new job lined up coordinating a team at some tech place-- Accu-something. Tech, I think, AccuTech." She huffs air out through her nose in a derisive noise just short of a snort. "Lot of good that did her. Three days after she started work, Stark bought the company and shut them down for 'restructuring'." She does the air quotes, giving the word a heavy dose of irony in her tone. "Supposedly they were all going to get their old jobs back; maybe they already did, I don't know. Pepper, of course, got her old old job back. Which-- you know, if it were me, I would've just kept walking, but she went back." She shrugs. "Don't ask me why."

"Son of a bitch," Christine says softly. She remembers the AccuTech purchase, vaguely, but nothing about Pepper being involved. Stark had managed to fly that one completely under the radar.

"Tell me about it." Julie gives her a half-hearted smile that doesn't reach her eyes. "I guess the moral of that story is that if you walk out on a billionaire, he can walk you back. Any... time... he... wants."

***

Jim Rhodes groans and scrubs his face with the palms of both hands, like a man at the end of a double shift who's trying to summon up the energy to go back for a third. "He told me about that before he did it," he says. "The day after Pepper quit, he pops up with that crazy idea, like this was gonna make everything better. I told him, Tony, this is some over-dramatic bullshit, okay, you don't need to do this. We all love Pepper, you know that, but it happened, it's over, go get yourself another assistant. I told him that this wasn't going to make her come back, it would just make her unemployed, but he just kept saying 'I can't do this without her, she has to come back'." He shakes his head for a long moment. "And she did. I never did figure that part out."

"Were they involved romantically?" Christine asks, trying to put the right blend of sympathy and curiosity in her voice.

Jim opens his mouth and pauses, caught in an argument with himself over the answer. "I don't know," he admits at last. "Tony-- Tony loved her, I've known that for a while now. Any time we'd get drunk, he'd go on this long tear about how she was the finest woman in the world, how he didn't know how she put up with him, and when we got to the bottom of the bottle, he'd always end up saying that he loved her. I just don't know if anything ever happened. And I really don't know about Pepper. We never talked about that sort of thing, okay, it was almost always business stuff, and how're things going, and how's the weather, and what's Tony got himself into this time-- like that." He stops, thinking. "There was just this one time-- this was way back before the hostage thing, when Tony was doing his whole good-will tour with the armor-- we were at the event in D.C. and Pepper and I ended up talking out on the balcony, both of us just kind of leaning on the railing. We weren't even that close to each other, really, I think we might have bumped elbows once. We were just chatting, talking about the election, I think, and all of a sudden Pepper gets this look like she's heard something, and she turns around, and Tony's standing in the doorway, just staring at us like he'd caught us going at it in his parents' bedroom. I thought for sure he was going to haul off and punch me, but then Pepper excused herself real fast, and Tony went after her, and I figured I did not want to be in the middle of whatever high-school shit was going to go down, so I just took off." He shakes his head, looking grim. "It looks different from this angle, after everything, but back then... back then, I didn't think much about it. It was just them."

"Did he ever tell her how he felt?" Christine asks gently.

"I don't know. Maybe. I think maybe he told her right before she left, or right after." Jim chuckles, once, without real humor behind it. "Either way, it would explain a lot."

***

"I thought it was romantic, myself," Mimi ("just Mimi, no last name, like Cher and Madonna") says comfortably, fishing around in the bowl of M&Ms on her coffee table until she comes up with a green one. "Like something out of the movies. Most men won't even buy you flowers when they miss you, let alone buy a whole company."

Christine makes a non-committal humming sound. "Did Pepper ever talk about why she went back?"

Mimi lifts her eyebrows an inch and purses her lips, tilting her head in an careful imitation of thinking. "Not really, now that I think about it. But that's Pepper for you, she never talked much about that stuff. The most she ever said about it was that she hadn't realized before just how much he needed her." She sighs, sounding wistful. "Can you imagine?"

"Yeah, that's really something," Christine agrees, keeping her voice bland. "Did she ever say anything about what made her leave in the first place?"

"Only, like, the whole time she was working there," Mimi says. "Especially after he made that suit. I mean, it's kind of cool working for a superhero and all, and it sounded like the money was awesome, but the hours were just brutal and the whole thing was starting to get weird and dangerous, you know? Besides," she adds, popping the M&M in her mouth and tucking it into her cheek with her tongue, "at the end of the day, a girl has to sit down and ask herself, do I really want to be answering somebody's e-mail as my career for the rest of my life? Or, you know, whatever it was she did, I never figured that out. You know what I mean, though, right?"

"Right." Christine takes her time selecting an M&M of her own, idiot-proofing the rephrased question in her head before she tries it out loud. "Was there anything in particular that prompted her decision?"

"Oh, you know, it was a big combination of stuff. I mean, Pepper never complained, exactly, she would just mention things sometimes. Like, well, the hostage thing, obviously, that put a big spotlight on the whole wow my job has totally gotten dangerous factor. And the hours, although that wasn't really new." She flips the M&M thoughtfully from one cheek to the other; it makes a light clicking noise every time it hits her teeth. "She didn't really say what made up her mind, but if you ask me, it was probably the GPS thing."

"GPS," Christine repeats, writing it down like that'll force it to make sense. "You mean like in her car?"

"That, too, but I meant the one in her back." Mimi crunches the M&M between her teeth and reaches for another one as she chews it up. "The implant. She didn't say, but I think that really pissed her off."

***

Christine already knows that Pepper Potts had minor surgery in late February, about a week after the hostage crisis. Everyone knows that. Everything (and everybody) connected with the hostage crisis had been big news at the time, so when someone-- not even a reporter, just some guy with a camera who recognized her from TV-- had spotted her going into the hospital, it had hit the national news in record time. Logically, this was a woman with a life beyond the hostage crisis, a woman who, for all they knew, could have had a previously scheduled appointment to have a mole removed. That said, the media, as a collective, never operates logically. The collective assumption, which the blogs and tabloids stated as fact and the real news organizations hinted at coyly, had been that Pepper had apparently sustained some kind of wound in the hostage crisis, some kind of wound that-- a week later-- needed surgery. One of the more outrageous headlines had claimed that Pepper had been impregnated by the Ghost and was having an abortion. It had all been extremely stupid. Stark Industries had sent out their polished PR representative, Lydia something, to read a statement flatly denying that Ms. Potts had been injured in the hostage crisis, stating that her recent hospital visit was unrelated, and chastising the press for prying into the life of a private individual. Lydia had added that although Ms. Potts had in fact undergone minor outpatient surgery, she was fully recovered and in good health and that should be the end of the matter, thank you.

It hadn't connected to anything else at the time. Christine's mind runs entirely on connections, so anything that doesn't link up to anything else tends to sink out of her conscious mind and into the vast subconscious collection of data detritus, waiting for a connection to form and bring it back to her attention. Right now, thanks to Mimi, it's connected to the word implant, and for some reason that she can't quite figure out, implant makes her think of the word patent. Christine spends three hours searching through the thousands of patents held by Stark Industries until she finds what she's looking for.

The patent is for a miniature tracking device, flat and round, about two centimeters in diameter, designed for subcutaneous implantation in human beings and work animals. It appears to be a long-range RFID chip with an integrated antenna and bio-electric battery, with some kind of GPS receiver capabilities that she doesn't quite get. What she does get is that Tony Stark-- this is his work, no question, it has that sudden-leap-into-the-future quality to it-- has created a device that can track its host anywhere on the planet, through up to a quarter-mile of solid rock.

She remembers it, now. It's the only new patent Stark Industries had filed in the months between the day Stark returned from Afghanistan, and the day he announced that he was Iron Man.

***

"I'm not going to talk about that patent in a military-business sense," Jim Rhodes says, looking very serious, "because this, what we're having right here? this is just a private conversation, between two private citizens. Okay? First of all, there's a lot of stuff that Tony designed that he just slapped a patent on without actually going through the process of testing it out to see if it would work or not, he just wanted to make sure everyone knew he'd thought of it first, in case he ever got back to it. Second of all, if he actually had licensed it to the military, which I'm not saying he did, and if this was something that the military was currently using, which I'm not saying we do, then this would be the sort of thing we wouldn't want al Qaeda to be checking for if they capture some of our soldiers. Especially because they probably wouldn't check with metal detectors, you get what I'm saying?"

Christine holds her hands up partway, conceding the point. "I get it, I get it. I'm not asking about military applications, all right, I'm just asking about Pepper." She slows down, enunciating carefully, like each word could explode and kill them both. "Did Pepper have one of these devices implanted in her back?"

Jim is still closed down, a brick wall. "I don't know."

"But it's possible."

"We're talking about Tony Stark, so yeah, anything's possible. And, okay, he always trampled over everybody's boundaries, but he used to try to be better about it, at least with Pepper. The hostage thing, though-- after that, he stopped trying."

Christine frowns, noting the shift from Pepper-as-subject to Pepper-as-object. "I'm guessing that you don't think there's any way this was her idea, then."

Jim gives her a look of long-suffering patience. "No."

She raises her eyebrows. "Do you think she went along with it willingly?"

He shrugs. "Maybe. The whole hostage deal rattled her pretty hard. Not as much as it rattled Tony, but, you know." He spreads his hands. "He had more history. And I'm not talking about Afghanistan, now, I'm talking about the way he grew up."

Christine casts about in her mind, looking for anything connecting Stark's childhood, coming up blank except for the usual glossy boilerplate. "I don't understand."

"Metaphorically speaking," Jim says, "what I mean is that Afghanistan might have taken the safety off, and the Ghost taking Pepper hostage might have pulled the trigger, but you still have to look back to old Howard to figure out how the gun got loaded in the first place."

***

If video footage was still something on physical film, spooled on reels the way Christine has only really seen portrayed in cartoons, the unwound footage of Tony Stark could circle the globe, easily. Add in Howard Stark, and the footage could reach the moon.

There are only fleeting glimpses of Maria Stark amidst the sheer mass of her husband's, and son's, public lives.

- Leaving the church after her wedding, Maria appears through the doors with her hand tucked into the crook of her husband's arm, and rushes past the cameras in a white dress fit for a Disney movie. Moments later, the camera pivots and catches her through the window of a limousine cruising past, just shining black hair and flashing dark eyes amidst the billowing clouds of her veil. She lifts one hand and waves.

- At Tony Stark's first-ever media appearance, some kind of staged production with Howard acting as the genial host who explains how the controls of his new plane are so easy to learn that even his three-year-old son can do it-- and yes, there's Tony in miniature, eyes wide, his curls already rumpling out of the water-slick comb job, the tie of his formal little suit askew. Maria is mostly visible as a hand resting lightly on her son's shoulder and as a floral skirt behind his head; once, she ducks into frame to adjust her son's tie, and when she catches the camera on her, she cocks a wicked, lopsided smile at the lens. It's the same smile Christine has seen in a thousand pictures of Stark and has seen up-close, in person, a few times more than she'd like to remember.

- At one of the Starks' parties from the late eighties, Howard is speaking in the foreground and Maria appears in the background, standing alone, watching Obadiah Stane play the piano. She's holding what appears to be a scotch on the rocks along the rim with the very tips of her fingers, letting it dangle like a forgotten handbag. Black dress, black hair, black eyes, pale skin, scarlet lipstick: she's an austere ink painting in minimal, sharp brushstrokes.

For a woman appearing so rarely in the public eye, Christine had expected Maria to look fearful, or, at best, nervous. She doesn't. She looks alert and ferocious and alive, all her movements as sharp and efficient as the twist of a fencer's wrist, looking at the world with her chin up and her eyes heavy-lidded as a cat's. Christine feels the recognition kick in again, but this time she finds herself thinking, strangely, of Pepper Potts. Christine has only seen Pepper angry once, close up, but she remembers the occasion vividly. This was the same cool expression she remembers, with a hint of something raging behind the placid exterior. She wonders if Stark had seen the resemblance, too.

***

Arlene Bixler is in her mid-seventies, short gray hair icing over into white, still tall and imperious. She's dressed in rich fabrics that drape over her bony frame, tasteful without being either ostentatious or impractical. Age is slowly carving her into something hawk-like, sharp talons and piercing eyes not quite hidden by the elegant plumage. She pours coffee for herself into a delicate gold-edged china cup, without offering any to Christine, and adds a teaspoonful of whiskey ("Medicinal," she announces, before Christine can ask) from of a small flask that Christine had mistaken for an ornamental bud vase. It isn't until she is satisfied with her preparations that she returns to the subject of the Starks.

"She was his secretary, you know, darling. Fixed his math on a question of quadrant distribution for a new bomb, and he fell in love. Six months later, they were married. It was quite romantic, if that's the sort of thing you enjoy." Arlene takes a leisurely sip of coffee, glancing over the rim of the china cup to fix Christine with a slow smile of acid amusement. "She was barely out of school, and he was almost thirty years older, but of course, that was a different time. It was seen as quite the Cinderella story, albeit with Stark being new money instead of royalty. Poor secretary, wealthy employer. He whisked her away to his mansion in a flurry of white satin and pink rose petals, and that was that."

Christine checks her notes out of the corner of her eye. "You were Howard Stark's housekeeper?"

Arlene makes a chiding noise low in her throat. "That sounds so menial. I ran the house for twenty years, darling. I organized his parties, kept the household finances in order, dealt with the staff, coordinated with security--"

"Let's talk about the security," Christine says, mimicking Arlene's artfully casual pose. "I've heard that he was more focused on security than his peers, but no specifics."

Arlene waves a languid hand, displaying long, wine-red nails. "Oh, where to begin. Howard was a fiend for security. I believe he picked up a paranoid streak when he worked for the government during the war, and the addition of a family to concern himself with caused that streak to blossom into something of a disorder. If he hadn't died in that car wreck, I'm sure Howard would have ended his days urinating in soda bottles like that Hughes fellow. The Stark house might have looked normal, but he had it built specially so that at a moment's notice it could be locked down so tight a pin couldn't get through. I never saw the need, myself, but I've been told there were threats on his life. And Maria's, of course. He seems to have taken that quite personally."

"She became something of a recluse over the course of their marriage. Were the threats on her life responsible for that?"

"In part, darling, merely in part. All billionaires have a security detail to deal with these sorts of threats, but their wives still enjoy a busy social life and vacations in Monte Carlo. They don't stay home to bake cookies, darling, they have people to bake cookies." Arlene's lips curl into another one of those savage smiles. "But I suppose that's what comes of testing the bars of one's cage. The bars only get stronger."

Christine lifts her eyebrows. "Cage?"

"You look so surprised, darling. Have I disabused some tenderly-held notion of yours? Did you think that after Cinderella married her prince, the great disparity in their class and power never once posed a challenge to domestic bliss?" Arlene chuffs out laughter like cigarette smoke. "How precious."

"Ms. Bixler, are you implying that Maria's seclusion was involuntary?"

"Oh, no, no, it was voluntary. That girl was smart as a whip, but she was still only twenty years old when she married him. She was young, she believed everything he said, and it never occurred to her to double-check his conclusions on security the way she once double-checked his math. And of course he meant well. He was genuinely terrified for her life, and convinced that the only truly safe place for her was home, so home she stayed. I imagine it was very dull for her. She redecorated the house eight times during the first decade I worked there, and she baked constantly."

The image of Maria Stark in a ruffled apron and oven mitts stops Christine cold; it doesn't fit with what she's seen of her. "You mean the cookie-baking was literal?"

"Of course." Arlene arches an eyebrow lightly, her smile cool and restrained. "It confused the kitchen staff a great deal at first, but they became used to it over time. I still have some of her recipes; they're quite good, if a little overly-complex and fussy for everyday. I suppose it was something to pass the time." She taps one long red fingernail against the fragile rim of her cup, looking thoughtful. "Later, as you've already heard, she turned to drink. But that was after they had Tony."

Christine leans forward. "I'd like to change the subject a little, if I may. Let's talk about Tony for a moment--"

"Oh, let's," Arlene drawls.

"Do you think all of this had an impact on him?"

Arlene blinks at her over the rim of her coffee cup. "What, darling, you mean there's the possibility that having a paranoid old bastard for a father and a reclusive alcoholic for a mother could have given the poor lamb a complex or two?" She takes a leisurely sip, watching Christine the whole time, and sets the cup back down without breaking eye contact. "Perish the thought."

***

On a quixotic whim, Christine calls up Lydia Huntley, the Stark Industries PR representative. It goes about as well as she'd expected, under the circumstances.

"Due to understandable privacy concerns, we don't discuss the employment details of any employee," Lydia says in clipped tones.

Christine hears an implied let alone Ms. Potts behind the 'any', and senses the vulnerable spot in that implication. She gives the phone a tight little grin, painting a mental bulls-eye on that spot. "This isn't just any employee," she says, "this is one involved in a--"

"--In an ongoing investigation, Ms. Everhart. Stark Industries doesn't comment on ongoing investigations. I'm afraid you are doubly out of luck." Lydia's voice is coated with syrupy fake sympathy, as if she'd help if she could, but, aw, shucks, her hands are tied. Christine believes that about as much as she believes in the tooth fairy.

"Regarding general company policy, then," Christine says, switching gears smoothly, "I've spoken to a few of your former employees about the company health policy, and there's a strange inclusion in the fine print about 'specialized medical examinations and treatment' at the company's discretion --"

"Let me transfer you to our legal department," Lydia interrupts, and before Christine realizes it, she's listening to a musak version of Rush's "Tom Sawyer". She checks her watch: two minutes, forty seconds. It's a new record. They must be really touchy on this topic.

She's humming along an octave below the violin line when the musak clicks off. "Tamesha Brown-Smith, Stark Industry legal department," a voice says in dulcet tones. "May I help you?"

Christine introduces herself, repeating the question about the specialized medical treatments. "I've been told by a number of sources that Mr. Stark's assistant, Pepper Potts, may have been pressured into having a subcutaneous tracking device implanted in her lower back sometime in late February of this year, and other sources have indicated that this would have been in keeping with 'treatments at the company's discretion'."

"That portion of the company health policy is currently under review, Ms. Everhart. You're not alone in your concern that the current phrasing could invite abuse of this policy, and we are looking into it."

"About this specific incident--"

"I'm afraid I can't help you," Tamesha says. Her sympathetic voice is much better than Lydia's, downright sincere, and Christine cocks her head at the phone like a puppy, listening hard, trying to figure out if there's a connection to tug.

"Ms. Brown-Smith," she tries, "did you know Ms. Potts?"

There's a brief moment of hesitation, almost unnoticable. "I did occasionally meet with her in the course of dealing with Mr. Stark's more... esoteric business."

Which, Christine guesses, either meant Iron Man stuff, or Stark's personal life. "That's something you and I have in common, then," she says, testing the connection, and is rewarded with a low chuckle. "Did you ever interact on a more personal level?"

A longer pause this time; Christine can practically hear the gears turning in the other woman's head. "Off the record?"

Christine winces; she hates off-the-record, she's had a few stories end up with another byline in another publication because of sources that she hadn't pressed hard enough, who'd talked to someone else on the record. That sympathetic note is still ringing true, though, so she takes a risk. "Off the record," she agrees.

"We talked," Tamesha confirms. "We weren't close, but. We were friendly." She stops. Christine doesn't press. "She advised me on a few pieces of art I was thinking about buying, and I gave her casual legal advice on a few personal matters."

Christine is close to something, she can smell it, taste it, her heart rate jacking up as the adrenaline of the hunt really kicks in. "Was any of that casual legal advice after February twentieth?" she asks, and holds her breath as she waits for the answer. It takes a long time. After the first minute, she risks saying "Tamesha?" in a gentle voice.

Tamesha sighs, muttering something under her breath that might be a curse. "She asked if I could give her advice on something regarding company policy-- I'm not going to say what, you understand. I told her that under the circumstances, it would be a very bad idea, but that I could refer her to a friend of mine."

Christine lets out her breath in a silent whoosh and raises a fist to the ceiling in victory. "Do you think," she asks, "that your friend would mind talking to me?"

***

Nikki Pakrashi is very short, very stylish, and speaks at a sharp, quick tempo that suggests that she might be expecting government agents to crash through the windows of her office any moment, and would like to get things wrapped up before then. "Ms. Potts did mention the implant," she says, "but only in passing. She was much more concerned about the fact that Mr. Stark had purchased AccuTech in order to reacquire her services, and about some statements he had made implying that if she were to quit again, he was willing and able to repeat that performance." She smiles, thinly. "The irony, of course, was that Ms. Potts' employment contract with Stark Industries was coupled with both a non-compete clause and a confidentiality agreement. Standard issue for that company, as I understand it. AccuTech was a research and development company; as such, Ms. Potts was, in fact, in violation of the non-compete clause by accepting employment with them. If Mr. Stark's intent was merely to keep her from working for a competitor, he had a number of less dramatic options at his disposal."

Christine leans forward, interested. "Do you think he had other intentions, then?"

"I couldn't say; I don't know him. Ms. Potts believed, quite strongly, that Mr. Stark would have done the same thing if she had taken employment with, say, a hair salon. The nature of her new employment was not what bothered him, it was the fact that she was working somewhere else, at all. Consider this--" Nikki holds up one small hand and starts to tick off points on her neatly-manicured fingers. "Mr. Stark has a long history of corporate bullying. Stark Industries has more-- and better-- lawyers than most governments do, and nearly infinite resources to fund them. Ms. Potts' non-compete clause was exquisitely drafted. And Mr. Stark had already demonstrated, very clearly, that he was willing to go through an extraordinary amount of trouble to get her back. All of this adds up to a strong possibility, in the eyes of a prospective employer, that hiring Ms. Potts would mean fighting the formidable Stark Industry legal team for as long as they kept her on the payroll." She inclines her head slightly. "Ms. Potts' impressive professional abilities aside, I can't think of many people who would be willing to hire someone whom they knew, up-front, would cause them that much trouble."

Christine whistles softly. "So Stark was marking his territory."

"In a manner of speaking, yes."

"And, therefore, going back to work for him was the path of least resistance." It's starting to make sense now, but Christine doesn't like the picture that's emerging.

Nikki nods. "At the time, I believe it was a better alternative than unemployment or a lifetime spent battling Stark in court." She meets Christine's eyes, and Christine sees regret there, and sorrow. "Since then, of course, I've had cause to re-think that opinion."

***

Tony Stark had purchased AccuTech Research & Development on March 5th. Pepper Potts had consulted a lawyer on March 8th, and started working for Stark again the next day.

There are no records that Pepper had ever filed any legal action against Tony Stark or Stark Industries. In fact, after March 8th, Christine starts having difficulty finding any records of Pepper at all.

Out of frustration, Christine starts assembling a timeline based on those pictures of Stark with Pepper in the background so she can get an idea of where to find the event horizon of this particular black hole. There are twenty-four in March, eight of them taken by different organizations at the press conference announcing that Google had struck a deal with Stark Industries to use an arc reactor to power their server farm in Mountain View. There are twelve pictures in April. Eight in May. Four in June. Only one in July.

As far as Christine can tell, the last time anyone saw Pepper outside of Stark's house was July 28th.

***

There is no footage of the incident in New York in late April; the security footage from the St. James disappeared in some kind of mysterious server crash, and all that remains are a few cell phone pictures that started out on TwitPic and Flickr and eventually graduated to the gossip blogs and tabloids. The pictures don't show much; they were all taken at arm's length where the crowd was at least three or four people deep, so most of the frame is obscured by the backs of people's heads and by other cell phones held at the end of other arms, taking pictures that never made it to the internet.

It would be difficult to put the pictures into a logical narrative without the story that came out when the other guy involved, whose name was apparently John Lowery, filed assault charges against Tony Stark. Without context, it's all a muddle, all aftermath with no action: Lowery is sprawled out, face-down, covering his head with his hands, and Stark is standing above him with his fists up and his face a pale mask of rage. Pepper Potts is visible in two of the shots, standing behind Stark the way she always is, but instead of being in her patented demure wallflower pose, she's in motion, reaching for Stark's arm, trying to stop him, calm him down.

According to the witnesses-- although Lowery himself denies it-- Lowery had been drunk. Not sloppy-drunk, but drunk enough to make him overly-friendly. Drunk enough that when he'd recognized Pepper Potts from the coverage of the hostage incident, he'd plowed across the lobby with a big friendly grin on his face and a big friendly hand raised, and she'd turned to look and froze in her tracks.

The pictures from the hotel don't show why she would have stopped, why Stark would have turned and launched himself at Lowery just as he clapped one of those big hands on Pepper's shoulder. Witness testimony indicates that Tony hadn't said anything, and that Lowery hadn't had the chance to even try. The only words overheard had been Pepper's, as she tried to pull Stark off the other man: "It's not him," she'd said, according to a witness who was closer than most. "She just kept saying it," the witness reported. "She said it over and over, like it was his off-switch or something, she just kept saying it's not him, it's not him, it's not him."

Christine works on a few idle theories about this, right up until the point that she finally digs up a different picture of John Lowery, one where he's smiling at the camera and wearing a suit, instead of bleeding all over the delicately inlaid marble floor of the St. James lobby. For one startling moment, Lowery looks just like Obadiah Stane, back in the days when Stark had been missing and Stane had been all over the news as the solemn face of the company. Bald head, graying beard, imposing stature, similar bone structure, even that same broad, warm smile.

Once the initial shock wears off and she looks a little closer, the resemblance is nowhere near exact: Lowery is a bit on the pudgy side, balding instead of full-on bald, and his eyes, from what Christine can see, are brown, not blue. These differences, according to the witnesses, had not apparently made any impact on Stark, who had laid into Lowery like he was his worst nightmare come to life.

***

"What you have to understand about Tony," Jim says, "is that when he came back from Afghanistan, he pretty much didn't come out of his house again until he'd built a goddamn flying robot suit. That's how much it shook him. But the thing is, he did come back out. So when he started freaking out this hard about Pepper's safety, we all thought, well, wait a bit, leave him alone, he'll get his head straight eventually."

"And did he?"

Jim looks away for a long time. When he looks back, his eyes are ten years older. "No," he says. "No, he just kept getting worse."

***

The police report from November 11 is brisk reading. After the report had come in about Tony Stark, two officers had gone to the residence of one Virginia Potts at 4 PM, and knocked. There had been no answer. No sign of forced entry or distress. They had left the premises without entering.

The next day, after more information had come out and it became obvious that nobody had seen Ms. Potts in over three months, the officers had returned and forced the door. That was when they'd found out the place was entirely empty-- no furniture, no possessions, nothing.

The police report from the officers that went to Stark's place is even less helpful. After a few aborted attempts at getting through the security perimeter, which had resulted in injuries to two officers, the police had given up and called the Feds for help from a specialized unit. The report from that unit has yet to be seen by the public; the statement released on that subject, three days later, merely confirmed that they had succeeded in entering Stark's house and stated that neither Mr. Stark nor Ms. Potts had been there. The only specific details that Christine had been able to find out was that whatever had happened-- they weren't saying-- had happened in Stark's workshop, and that all of Stark's cars had been present and accounted for. There were weapons in that shop that Stark had been developing under contract for U.S. military use, before his abrupt termination of his business relationship with the government in May 2008, and the legal status of those weapons is still in limbo. Therefore, as far as the Feds are concerned, the whole workshop, and anything that had happened there, is classified for the foreseeable future.

***

"Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division, this is Danielle," the receptionist says in one smooth musical line, tagging it with, "how may I direct your call?" without coming close to running out of breath. Christine gets impatient with writing the name halfway through and just scrawls SHIELD across her notepad, recognizes the word forming as it happens and rolls her eyes. Real cute. Another of those testosterone-packed acronyms invented by the people who came up with the PATRIOT Act, just what the world needed.

"Hi, Danielle," Christine says, layering on as much warmth as she can muster, "my name is Christine Everhart, I'm a reporter with Vanity Fair magazine. I'd like to speak to someone about the operation on November twelfth when the LAPD called a SHIELD team in for assistance on entering Tony Stark's house."

Danielle doesn't miss a beat, her musical voice dropping down into a more sorrowful alto line. "I'm sorry, Ms. Everhart, but--"

Christine has heard so many sympathetic kiss-off lines lately that she recognizes the best point to put a verbal foot in the door. "Sorry, my cell phone sucks," she lies, "so could you start out by telling me a name, in case I have to call back? Who ran the operation?"

"Agent Coulson, but--"

"May I speak to him, please?" Christine's pen starts to sputter, misses every other letter in Coulson; she rolls her chair toward the next desk over to snap her fingers at Mike Reyes, but Mike is engrossed in his own phone call. She tucks the phone between her jaw and shoulder and stretches over as far as she can to steal a fresh pen out of his collectible Dodgers' mug. Mike looks up, scowling at her; she salutes him with the pen as she rolls back to her desk, and he lifts an eyebrow and salutes her in return with his middle finger. It's practically a thank you / you're welcome, where they're concerned.

Danielle is making little humming noises, stalling. "I don't think-- this isn't-- um. I think he's on the phone right now?"

Christine smiles into the phone harder, gives it a thin line of teeth. "I'll hold."

***

www.usshield.gov has eight pages of information with almost zero useful content. There are multicultural pictures of smiling Americans, there is an address in an unassuming part of D.C. and a picture of an equally unassuming building, and there is a vaguer-than-normal mission statement about security and defense and vigilance, ending with a weird bit about "utilizing the more unusual talents that have often gone untapped."

The phone number Christine had used does not appear anywhere on the web page. She'd had to pry it out of an unusually balky source at the LAPD who'd acted like Christine was asking her for nuclear launch codes instead of contact information. Thus far, Christine hasn't seen anything to justify that amount of paranoia, but she's keeping an eye out, just in case.

***

Danielle comes back on the line every five minutes to tell Christine that Agent Coulson still isn't available, and to ask, in a hopeful voice, if would she like his voice mail instead? Christine, though, has the stubborn endurance of an Alaskan sled-dog and a bladder of steel, so she always says, "I'll stay on hold," and goes back to doodling in the margins of her notepad and listening to Soledad O'Brien on CNN. Soledad has been covering the search operation in French Polynesia for the better part of a week, and has so little actual news on the search to report that her reports are starting to turn into travelogues; Christine finds this kind of reporting-for-the-sake-of-taking-up-time to be immensely frustrating and generally useless. Two desks down, she can hear Mike Reyes taking bets on how long she'll last, and on whether the Feds will hang up on her, close the office while she's still on the phone, force her to voice mail, or-- this gets the worst odds-- actually put the call through.

Annikka Bronner wins $49.18, a knockoff Montblanc pen, a $15 Starbucks gift card of dubious remaining worth (Patrick Sykes claims he never used it, but he's well-known for being a little loose with the truth when he can't be fact-checked), and an IOU for homemade king cake next Mardi Gras when, after fifty-three minutes on hold, the musak suddenly cuts off and a light, calm male voice says, "Ms. Everhart, this is Agent Coulson; I understand you wanted to speak to me about Tony Stark."

***

Christine has to hand it to him, Agent Coulson has a seamless line of bullshit. There's no weak spot to hammer at until it shatters, no crack to wedge open by inches, nothing but smooth, polished, flawless surface with no way to get inside. He seems comfortable with silence, doesn't feel the need to elaborate on anything she says, isn't drawn out by subtle jabs. She would bet all of Annikka Bronner's winnings on Coulson being CIA at some point in his career; they get all the weird zen guys.

Coulson confirms that he had been in charge the day the SHIELD team had entered Stark's house, and that's the last she gets out of him on that. When she attempts to draw him out with her own theories on what happened, he gently reminds her that the information is still classified. After about five minutes of running into more of these calmly constructed brick walls, Christine switches angles to see if she can surprise him. "Did you know Pepper Potts?"

There's a pause, just long enough for her to zoom in on this spot and regard it with interest, before Coulson says, "Yes," in the same tone he'd used to say still classified earlier. She's starting to believe that Coulson would use that same neutral tone of voice to describe anything from the end of the world to a mild fungal infection.

He doesn't elaborate, so Christine asks, "Professionally?" She doesn't add or personally? because she's playing nice for the moment.

"Yes," he says, and stops. For the first time, she gets the feeling that he'd like to keep talking, even if he won't. It's the closest thing to a weak spot she's seen in Coulson thus far.

"Do you know what happened to her?" Christine asks, leaning on that spot and hoping hoping hoping.

"No," Coulson says, and just as Christine is gearing up to continue, he suddenly adds, "I wish I did."

***

Christine tracks down the file on the car crash that killed Howard and Maria Stark. Not the elaborate political eulogies, not the mournful dirges sung for the lost titan of industry, not the broad strokes of optimism for the company's future that Obadiah Stane painted over every interview he'd been in; no, Christine goes for unadorned facts about the crash itself, some available in the first terse update, some emerging weeks or months later. Three of those facts catch her eye.

One: Other than having crashed through a guardrail and plunged into the ocean, there was nothing mechanically wrong with the Stark's car.

Two: The autopsies indicated that neither of the Starks had been under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Three: Maria had been driving.

That last one tickles at Christine's brain for hours. She finally calls Arlene Bixler, who laughs at the question in a sly, proprietary way, as if Christine had been placed on the earth purely for her amusement. "No, no, you're right, darling, she never drove. On those rare occasions she left the house, Howard insisted on driving the car himself-- he wouldn't hear of using a driver when it was his sweet little wife's safety at stake."

"But she was at the wheel," Christine says, looking at the article again to see it in writing as she spoke the words. "It says, in the report--"

"Oh, I don't deny that," Arlene drawls, taking her time about it. "Obviously, something out of the ordinary happened. They were on their way to the Dobson's Christmas party-- Howard's cousin Katherine married a Dobson, you know, so of course they went to that party every year-- and for some reason, Maria drove."

"As simple as that?"

"Simple? Darling," Arlene says with great patience, "don't be stupid. Every married couple is an inexplicable, impenetrable organism to the outside world, understood only by themselves. We'll never know what happened between them that night, or any other night for that matter, but I can tell you with great certainty that it wasn't simple."

Christine closes her eyes and presses a fingernail slowly into her forehead, focusing on being carefully, deliberately calm. "All right," she agrees. "For some reason that we'll never known, Maria drove the car. And for some reason that we'll never know, she crashed it."

"Really?" Christine can almost hear Arlene's eyebrows slipping upwards in a token signal of surprise. "You missed that part, then?"

"What part would that be?"

Arlene chuckles deep in her throat. "Oh, darling, please don't tell me you're an investigative reporter, I don't think I could bear the comedy." She pauses, savoring that moment of knowing things that Christine doesn't; Christine grits her teeth and allows it. "The road didn't curve away from the ocean at that point. There was no stop sign to miss. There were no other cars. There were no marks that indicated that the car hit anything but the guardrail." She doesn't say she wasn't drunk, but the words hover over the conversation nonetheless, with a faintly surprised aura. "That leaves three possibilities: either she made an absurd mistake, which I find improbable, or Howard somehow interfered with her driving, which is more probable but still unlikely, or-- or that she chose her fate."

"You think she killed herself."

"Oh no, darling; if she'd wanted to kill herself, she could have done that a thousand different ways in the comfort of her own home. I think she killed Howard. Her own life was merely the incidental price."

"Of revenge?" Christine asks.

"No," Arlene replies flatly. "Of escape."

***

Pepper's condo in Pacific Palisades is a single-bedroom unit on the third floor of a multi-unit mission-style building with ocher-colored stucco and a lushly landscaped courtyard. It's beautiful, well-kept, and utterly empty.

It feels disconcertingly like a mausoleum.

Mimi walks in ahead of Christine, slipping the key back into the front pocket of her jeans. "Shit shit shit, hang on," she mutters, unfolding a crumpled yellow post-it note and slapping it up against the door jamb. "This is new, hang on, she told me the number but I haven't been here since they installed it-- twelve, fourteen, ninety-one-- there." The light on the security-system control box flips to green and the alarm chirps once, very quietly, in confirmation.

Christine looks up, checking the ceiling of the entryway. There's a curved mirror up in a corner-- camera. "The extra security's new?" she asks.

"New-ish. Since March."

March, again. "Another present from her boss?"

"Yeah, Pepper didn't think she needed it, but he thought--" Mimi's eyes go wide. "Ohhhhh." She lowers her voice to a whisper. "Because he was paranoid?"

Christine just raises her eyebrows and nods toward the living room. Mimi looks that way, looks back at Christine for confirmation, and peeks around the corner.

"Oh my God," Mimi exclaims, her voice echoing hard off the bare walls. "I know they said on the news that all her stuff was gone, but this is-- fuck." She reaches out and flips the light switch by the archway between the entryway and living room, and flinches a little when the lights don't come on. "Fuck," she says again. "Of course the electricity isn't going to be-- God, I totally forgot."

"Automatic reflex," Christine says. "Don't worry, there's enough light to--" The light bulbs in the wall sconces make a loud snapping noise, a fuzzy sound like an old television warming up, and then they sizzle to life, bathing the room in soft, diffuse light.

"You've got to be kidding me," Mimi says, and darts into the kitchen, out of sight. Moments later light blooms out of the kitchen. "It's on in here, too." She walks back into the living room, her eyes darting around. "This is so weird."

"Try the gas and water," Christine suggests. She glances up, almost in spite of herself, and catches the glint of mirrored camera housings in two corners-- no, three. Nice. "Do you know where a phone jack is?"

"North wall," Mimi calls from the other room.

"Thanks." She turns to the wall. The phone jack is there, all right, but there's a flat metallic box plugged into it, running flush against the wall, about a foot long, four inches high, maybe half an inch thick. "What's this thing?" she asks.

"What's what thing?" There's a clicking sound, and then a whoosh. "Gas works."

"The thing plugged into the phone jack."

"...Is it a phone?" The sound of water. "Water works."

Christine crouches down to examine the box. It's definitely not a phone. The surface is smooth chrome, with a brushed finish and a dark, slightly-recessed stripe along the top. Two tiny green lights, set into the dark stripe, blink in irregular sequence with each other. There are no visible connective ports, other than the one that goes to the phone jack; it must have an internal battery.

She feels along the edge, testing to see if it will come away from the wall. It's firmly attached. As she moves her fingers down the edge nearest the corner, she feels a pattern embossed into the metal, and leans over awkwardly to peer at it.

It's a tiny Stark Industries logo.

She comes back to an upright position and stares at the box for a long moment, then runs a finger along the top of the box and looks at the pad, confirming what her subconscious had already noticed: no dust.

She leans back, pitching her voice to carry to the other room. "When did you say she moved out?"

"Early August? Something like that. It's been a while."

Christine checks the baseboard, reaches up to check the chair rail: both are spotless. There are no dust bunnies in the corners of the room, and none of the wall sconces have that fuzzy rim of dust on the top. She sniffs the air and catches the scents of ammonia and fake lemon. Cleaning products.

Mimi emerges from the kitchen, looking pale and a little spooked. "This is so fucked," she says. "The whole place looks like she could have just left yesterday."

"Yeah, I got that," Christine says, looking up. "Hey, do you have your cell phone?"

"Why?"

Christine taps the box with one finger. "Call Pepper's home number. I want to see if this rings."

Mimi stares at the box. "I don't know," she says nervously. "What if it answers?"

"Oh, for Christ's sake, give it here," Christine says, standing up and holding out her hand for the phone. Mimi passes it over without a word, and takes three steps back, pressing one hand against her mouth. Christine thumbs through the numbers and finds two for Pepper, helpfully labeled home and cell.

The first ring happens in asymmetrical stereo, first from Mimi's phone and then, half a beat later, purring out of the chrome box on the wall. Mimi lets out a muffled squeak; Christine glares at her and signals for quiet, and Mimi nods, eyes wide, and presses her hands harder against her mouth.

The second ring starts the same way, but the awkward echo from the chrome box cuts off halfway through, leaving the cell phone ringing solo into Christine's ear. A series of lights begin to blink in the dark stripe along the top of the box. "Is it--?" Mimi begins, and Christine waves her away, nodding, pressing the phone closer to her ear. A third ring, and a fourth, only on the cell phone. The lights on top of the box keep blinking.

A fifth ring. Christine opens her mouth to say I think it's trying to forward the call when suddenly she hears a click on the other end of the line, and breathing. She waits. The almost inaudible breathing continues. Finally, Christine ventures, "Hello?"

There's no answer, just one quiet breath, then another.

Christine keeps waiting, her heart pounding, and finally asks, "Pepper?"

The gentle breathing stops abruptly. The next thing Christine hears is the dial tone.

***

Christine re-reads the police report when she gets home.

There's no mention of the flat chrome box attached to the north wall. Perhaps they thought it was part of the security set-up.

They might not be wrong about that.

***

"That? No, no, I have one, too. It's a call-forwarding device," Jim says, and waggles his empty beer bottle at the waitress as she passes their booth. The waitress looks at Christine, who answers the implied question-- yes, it's on me-- by gently waving her credit card and flashing two fingers. Her own beer isn't empty yet, but she might as well save the poor girl a trip.

"Call forwarding," Christine says dryly. "Jim, I hate to break it to you, but I get that free with my cell phone bundle."

He rolls his eyes. "Yeah, I said the same thing, but I gotta tell you, it's different technology. After Tony went public with the whole Iron Man thing, he wanted to be able to get in touch with me and Pepper without having people track him down, so--"

"Wait, hold on," she interrupts, "you're saying this dates from before the hostage crisis?"

"Right," Jim nods, tapping his big brass MIT ring against the neck of his empty bottle in time with the music; someone had stacked the digital jukebox with Johnny Cash songs a while back and they're on maybe the fifth or sixth one. "It was right after he went public. I mean right after, maybe two or three days. Some kid in Palmdale figured out how to trace Iron Man by cell phone triangulation, so he puts an Iron Man Tracker site up on the internet. Tony flipped. Had the kid's site shut down. Had the mirror shut down. Had the protest site in Sweden shut down. Then he sat down in his workshop for a few hours and came back with these boxes."

"Oh," Christine says, finally recognizing the story as Jim says Sweden. "That. Right, right, I remember that."

"I remember you handing him his ass over it," Jim says, the ghost of a smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. "A hundred other reporters in the same room kissing Tony's ass and asking him to talk about how this kid was a threat to Iron Man's mission, and then you stand up and ask if he has any further plans for destroying free speech on the internet. It was pretty cool."

She smiles. "I think I was slightly less histrionic than that, but thanks. So this box, this call-forwarding device, what exactly does it do?"

"Basically, it takes the cell towers out of the equation so that nobody can track the signal. Stark Industries already has a bunch of geosynchronous communications satellites--" He breaks off, gives her a sharp look and she nods. They've done this so many times that she can tell when he's warning her to avoid asking questions because this could be a military thing, and he can tell when she's respecting his non-verbal Here There Be Dragons sign. "Right. Instead of using the cell phone towers, he made it so the signal from his suit bounces off those satellites and gets routed through Jarvis to anonymize the whole thing. The boxes make it so our cell phones do the same thing."

"Jarvis," Christine frowns, "you mean Stark's house computer?"

"That's the one."

"I thought it just--" runs the house, Pepper's voice whispers, "-- automated the lights, read the news, that sort of thing."

Jim frowns at her, shaking his head. "No, no. I mean, yeah, he does that stuff, but Jarvis isn't just an automation program, he's--" Jim pauses as their waitress comes over with their beer; Christine hands over her empty bottle, accepts a cold one, and picks at the corner of the label as she waits. Once the waitress is far enough away, Jim says, "Jarvis is a full-blown A.I., okay? He's like Tony's butler, and head of security, and workshop assistant, all in one. He keeps track of what's in the refrigerators and coordinates drink orders at parties, and he can do a background check on every guest and scan them for weapons as they arrive. He helps organize all the paperwork and he helps run the Iron Man suit. Motion sensors, full optical and aural input, no keyboard necessary unless there's a programming glitch. And, yeah, in this case, he served as the secure routing system to make sure that nobody could tell where Tony was calling from."

"Wait, wait," Christine says, leaning forward, "hang on, full optical input-- cameras, you mean cameras? Digital video?"

"Uh," Jim says, and in that moment of awkward hesitation it becomes obvious that either Stark had told him about sleeping with Christine, or Jim had figured it out himself. "I don't know if it's in, uh, every room--"

She waves this aside with a frustrated noise. "No," she says, and manages not to add asshole. "Jim, if the Feds have video from Jarvis, then they know what happened, so why the hell won't they just say what happened and clear up this whole mystery?"

He's already saying no, no, no, no by the time she finishes. "They don't. That's the thing, they do not have video. They can't get to it unless they hack Jarvis, and Jarvis is impossible to hack. Tony wouldn't have trusted him with control over his wine cellar without that kind of security, much less the suit. Jarvis is encrypted to hell and back; nothing's available without explicit authorization. The Feds can't get anything out of him-- last I heard, he wasn't even talking to them. Hell, I can't get anything out of him. I can talk to him, but. Well." He shrugs, half-smiling. "Tony always said I'd choose the military over him, any day, but I thought he was joking." Christine catches a flash of hurt in his eyes before he looks away and takes a pull from his bottle of beer. "I guess he really thought that, after all."

"You said he was becoming extremely, ah--" Christine searches for a non-judgmental phrase. "Security-conscious."

Jim gives her a wry look. "Just say it, he was paranoid. I can't say most of it wasn't justified, but, yeah. It was getting pretty bad. Pepper told me a while back that he never slept in the bedroom upstairs anymore. She said he'd renovated this closet in the workshop to sleep in-- dug into the solid rock, like a bunker, you know? No windows, just this five-inch-thick steel door. He had it all hooked up to auxiliary power, same as Jarvis. Pepper said--" He hesitates a moment, then plunges ahead. "Pepper said there was a safe in there full of cash and diamonds, that sort of thing. Five million in traveling money, at least. I asked Tony about it, and he laughed it off. Said you never know when you're going to have to go off the grid for a while, and he wanted to be able to hide out in style." He takes another swig of beer, staring blankly over Christine's shoulder. "I thought that was what happened, at first."

"Yeah," Christine agrees gently. "Me, too."

The news has been playing in the background, mostly ignorable celebrity stuff, but as Christine is waiting for Jim's attention to come back, she hears the news anchor say Tony Stark and her head swivels in unison with Jim's as they both focus on the TV mounted in the corner. A reporter in Bora Bora is talking about the search efforts becoming focused around Tupai, in particular taking over the private airfield on the atoll.

The international organization in charge of the search has released a statement warning against expecting results too soon. There are a great many variables at work, the statement says. It's impossible to tell exactly when we'll know anything. And that's it for new news.

As the anchor goes on to talk about the upcoming Thanksgiving celebrations at the White House, Christine glances at Jim. He shakes his head and takes a pull from his beer; Christine follows suit. By unspoken agreement, neither one says anything about the news; they just move on.

"So," Jim says. "Anyway, you were saying?"

"Do you know if there's any other way to get information out of Jarvis?" Christine asks. "Would anyone else would have access?"

Jim snorts, not quite laughing. "The only person who had access was Pepper. Tony gave her a sort of power-of-attorney kind of thing, in case he was out of commission. Anyone else would have to ask Jarvis to get permission from Pepper." A shadow crosses his face. "If Jarvis could find her."

"Did you ever ask Jarvis to find her?" Christine asks. "To ask permission, or anything else?"

"No," Jim says, and looks down at his hands, both wrapped around the beer bottle like a facsimile of prayer. "I don't know what I'd do if there wasn't an answer."

***

Christine isn't clear on the established norms for interview prep when one is prepping to interview an overgrown computer program, so she settles for making sure her chat logs will be on the record, and buying a fresh bottle of whiskey. Jim had warned her that Jarvis might not respond at first, if at all, so she settles back after sending her chat invitation and prepares to wait.

She's in the middle of cleaning up her mislabled mp3s in iTunes when all of a sudden the screen goes blank, then switches to the feed from her webcam. Christine looks at the screen warily, with the screen imitating her after a half-second lag. The feed freezes in mid-look, disappears, and a snapshot of her dubious face appears in a chat window. A second picture appears next to it, also of Christine's face, also too-close up and from a weird angle, but this one has a different background, all neutral colors and natural light. She's wearing a too-large burgundy-colored shirt; her hair is down; her extended forefinger is looming close to the camera lens, slightly out of focus. There appears to be a time/date stamp near the bottom left; she maximizes the picture as much as she can and squints at it, even though she's pretty sure she knows what it will be. 01/22/2008 07:11:53. She lets out a breath, shaking her head. That morning at Tony Stark's house. Of course.

A line of print appears underneath the side-by-side pictures. Ms. Everhart, I presume?

***

Jarvis turns out to be a polite, even clever conversationalist; it's obvious that Stark had put a lot of effort into making his A.I. sound as close to human as possible. The only times it lapses into something close to computer-speak is when it informs her, repeatedly, that she doesn't have the proper permissions to access any of the information she's requested. Then, cheekily, it adds, As per usual in your case, it would appear.

I'm looking for proper permission this time, she types, irritated at having to justify herself to a snide computer program. Ask Pepper to let me have access.

There's a slight pause, as if the A.I. is mulling this over. Ms. Potts has not been present in Mr. Stark's Malibu residence since early November.

"Right, right," Christine says out loud, and types, When were you last in contact with her?

You are not authorized to access that information, Jarvis raps right back.

"Worth a shot," she mutters. Do me a favor, she types.

Why, Ms. Everhart, I was unaware our relationship had progressed to such a cozy level of intimacy.

It's a shock to everyone. Just ask Pepper, when you have a chance, if she would give her permission for me to have access to this information.

The pause this time is longer; Christine can practically hear the A.I.'s circuits straining to keep up. Agreed, Jarvis says at last. I will ask at the first opportunity.

Christine grins from ear to ear. Jarvis, she types, thank you. You're a peach.

A decidedly inedible one, I would imagine. Good night, Ms. Everhart.

The chat window disappears. Christine sits back, feeling a little shaky, and pours herself a double shot of whiskey.

***

Utility companies are not known for their cooperation with their own customers, let alone members of the press, but Christine is not the only reporter working at Vanity Fair, and Mike has contacts he's willing to talk to if Christine will check a few facts for him with Robert Pattinson. It's a fair trade. Christine is on the phone with Pattinson's agent, deep in the wilds of an argument phrased like pleasantries and striking herself repeatedly on the forehead with her free hand, when Mike tosses a sheaf of faxes on her desk in triumph. When she looks up to wave him away, he makes finger-guns with both hands, shoots one, then the other, then blows imaginary smoke off the tips of his fingers and holsters them as he backs away.

She spreads the pages out when she finally manages to hang up and pry the phone away from her ear. Account activity print-outs for AT&T, L.A. Department of Water and Power, SoCal Gas, all registered to Virginia Potts. Each is still active, fully paid, zero balances all in a row. None of them have registered any real activity since July, which makes it easy to spot the other thing they have in common: a change in billing information on August second. No name, only the last four digits of the bank account number and the name of the bank-- Micheloud Banc U.S.-- but that's enough to make Christine reach for her highlighter.

Micheloud accounts have a minimum balance of $500,000. Stark Industries is famous for its generosity to its employees, but not that generous. Whoever is paying the monthly minimum to keep the home fires burning in Pacific Palisades, Christine is pretty sure it isn't Virginia Potts.

***

Back when she was fresh out of school and eager to prove her worth, Christine would have called every moving company in a fifty-mile radius to find out who had moved everything out of Pepper Potts' condo. Today, it takes two calls: a call to the ever-charming Lydia Huntley to find out which moving company has a contract with Stark Industries, and then a call to Munroe/Tam Relocation Specialists to speak with a pompous young gentleman named Samuel J. Tam who uses college-prep vocabulary with the air of a ten-year-old kid who's clumping around in his father's shoes, all awkward balance and oversized dignity. Samuel J. Tam informs Christine that while he cannot tell her the destination of Ms. Potts' possessions, he can confirm that the vast majority were removed from her home on August third. She thanks him while simultaneously scrawling "8/3" on her notepad and following the tingle in the back of her brain that connects the words Relocation Specialists to a conversation she'd once had at a party with a friend of a friend who'd just moved in from the Valley and who'd said-- who'd said--

"Mr. Tam," she asks, hearing the kid swell up a little at being called mister, "by any chance does your company offer cleaning services as part of your relocation packages?"

"Oh, certainly," he assures her, his voice slipping up into what she guesses is his usual range before he catches himself and pitches it lower again. "Um. Several of our deluxe packages include cleaning the premises, uh, after everything's been packed and transported, of course. In temporary cases like this one, we also arrange for bi-weekly touch-ups and a more, um, thorough cleaning before the return."

There are some times when Christine lets herself repeat the words that come as a surprise, lets that oh-so-human reaction create a little bond between her and her interview subject, a little normal interaction that serves to relax the subject and lets them feel more comfortable and talkative. There are some other times when repeating those words would just make the other person realize that he's said more than he might be allowed to. Christine wisely avoids repeating "temporary" and "return" out loud, but the words ring in her head like Christmas bells. "I see," she says instead, casting about furiously for the words that will keep him talking. "Do you need to schedule the return date, or can it just be open-ended?"

"Oh, open-ended is fine," Samuel says confidently, rolling the words a little in his scratchy attempt at a deep voice. "In some cases, we have clients who know they're not moving back, but they keep the arrangements all the same. They enjoy the illusion of the possibility of return."

"And this was one of those cases?" Christine presses. "Or was there a return scheduled?"

There's affronted silence on the other end of the line, and when young Mr. Tam speaks again, his voice is icy, polite, and in its proper tenor register for once. "I'm sorry," he says, without bothering to sound like that's remotely true, "but I don't think I should discuss the specifics of Mr. Stark's account with the press."

"You mean Ms. Potts' account," Christine corrects him.

"I mean Mr. Stark's," Samuel says firmly.

"I meant Ms. Potts," Christine says, wondering whether she's going to have to start this entire conversation over again. "Her things. Her account."

"Her things," Samuel says, slow and methodical, like he's explaining basic math to a child. "His account."

"Stark's account," she clarifies, just to make goddamn sure, because this, this is like the GPS chip all over again, but this time there's this kid saying things like the illusion of the possibility of return like it was a dainty, harmless kind of game that the ridiculously wealthy played over tea and crustless cucumber sandwiches. Of course it would be on Stark's account; that way Pepper wouldn't even be bothered to write up the expense reports afterward. Of course a grown woman would give her employer control over the process of moving her possessions. Of course, why not, who wouldn't?

"Stark's account," young Mr. Tam echoes, sounding relieved and irritable. "Is that all you needed to know, Ms. Everhart?"

It isn't, but she still says, "Yes, Mr. Tam, that's all for now," and she even lets him do his if there's anything else you need spiel before she hangs up.

***

According to Christine's source at the DMV, the license plate for Pepper's blue 2007 Audi A5 is KNK1246. According to her source at TCA, Pepper's FasTrak transponder hasn't been used since 2008, which is no help at all. According to her source at Caltrans, Pepper hasn't had a traffic, speeding, or parking ticket since 1994, which is even less help. Christine has never tried to track down such a responsible human being before, and it's leaving her at a loss.

Thus far, Christine has confirmed that Pepper's car is not parked in the secure parking garage for her condo building, it is not parked in any of the Stark Industries parking lots, and it is not parked at Stark's house in Malibu, at least not anywhere outside that could be seen from the news helicopter fly-overs. There have been no accidents involving a car of that make and model in the past six months in California or Nevada, and no car of that make and model has been found abandoned in the past six months in California or Nevada.

This leaves three options. Either Pepper's car is inside a garage of some kind at Stark's house, or she's stored it somewhere, or she abandoned it somewhere where it hasn't been found yet.

Of course, there's also a non-zero chance that Pepper Potts started driving in early November and has been carefully staying under the speed limit-- and thus under the radar-- ever since.

***

Christine isn't the greatest at keeping track of her checking account; she considers it well-maintained as long as all the automatic bill payments go through. She keeps enough in that account to cover her bills, puts all her variable purchases on a different account, and calls it good. Which is why she doesn't notice the strange charge for $1,249.99 on her bill-paying account until three days later, when the resulting low balance racks up about $280 in bounce fees.

She has to work through three levels of bureaucracy before she gets to someone who can refund the bounce fees. Dealing with the fraud department is worse.

"I'm sorry, ma'am," the representative says in a very patient voice, "but if you'd notified us about this yesterday, your liability would only have been fifty dollars, instead of five hundred. You might want to take this up with the company in question."

"There's no business name," Christine explains shortly. "Just the date, and an address in Ventura."

"That's because it's a debit transaction, ma'am." The customer rep is starting to sound bored. "A lot of them don't have the company name."

"So how am I supposed to contact the business to get my money back?"

"Well, ma'am," the customer rep says, sarcasm starting to wear through her tone, "you might try Google."

"You know, I am so glad you and I had the chance to talk today," Christine tells her, layering on the sweetness through gritted teeth. "How about you get your manager on the line now."

***

The manager isn't any more helpful than the customer rep, but he does knock another $100 off of Christine's supposed liability, so she takes it and starts investigating on her own. Google indicates that the mystery charge's address belongs to either a tiny pizza place or Ventura Specialty Self-Storage. Yelp indicates that the pizza place has been closed for two months, and that the self-storage place is expensive, exclusive, climate-controlled, and specializes in storing fine wine and antiques. Christine leaves four messages of rapidly declining civility with their office and finally gets a call back at 4:55 PM from one Bibiana Jimenez, who is apologizing almost from the moment Christine picks up the phone.

"I meant to get back earlier, I'm so sorry," Bibiana says breathlessly, "this day has just been-- well, obviously it's bad for you, too. Do you know the unit number?"

"I'm afraid not," Christine says, matching her attitude and tone of voice to Bibiana's. "Is there any way you can work backwards from the card number and the date the payment went through?"

There's a surprised chuckle on the other end of the line. "Oh God, of course, how dumb of me. Let me look at the batch from that day, just a sec. Could you tell me the card number?"

"Sure thing." Christine props her debit card up on the number pad of her keyboard and runs a fingernail underneath the embossed numbers as she rattles them off.

"Thanks so much. There we go, got it-- wow, that's for one of our deluxe twenty-by-thirties. That's-- huh." Bibiana lapses into silence; all Christine can hear is the rapid-fire tapping of her keyboard. "Um, Christine, I'm sorry, I have to ask-- are you sure this is the first time you've had this charge? The system says you've been paying for this unit since August."

"You've got to be kidding."

"I know, I know," Bibiana says in a horribly embarrassed squeak, "It must have got crossed somewhere, I have no idea where, I'm so, so sorry. We'll get this straightened out, I promise. It's just that your name is on here as the bill-to, and everything seems to check out."

"If my name is on there as the bill-to," Christine says, trying very hard not to snap, "then who rented the unit?"

"Um, hang on, sorry sorry sorry, let me-- here we go. It says Toby Sparks. Does that ring any bells?" Bibiana asks hopefully.

Christine freezes, barely breathing. It can't be, obviously; there's no way an alias that goofy could ever evade the notice of the police, let alone the Feds, but the coincidence is too strong to resist. "Actually, that does sound familiar," she says, grabbing a pen and flipping over a fresh page on her notepad. "What did you say that unit number was, again?"

***

It takes way more than two hours to drive up to Ventura in the middle of rush hour, and Christine drives like a total asshole the whole time, changing lanes without warning and tailgating and leaning on her horn whenever things get tied up. She creeps her car forward as far as possible whenever traffic stops, and when there's no more room, she leans forward in her seat, willing the cars to get moving.

The gleaming glass-and-metal office space wrapped around the front of Ventura Specialty Self-Storage is closed when she pulls up, lit only by the emergency lighting over each door. Christine parks and follows the arrows marked 24-7 Access In Back until she finds an orange metal door surrounded by bright lights and security cameras. She pushes the buzzer and waits, listening to the distant sounds of traffic whizzing by on the freeway a few blocks behind her.

The security guard's name is Gregor, and he regards Christine with a hangdog expression so constant, she starts to feel guilty for taking up his time. "You say, unit 74?" he asks. "This is the one?"

Christine nods decisively. "Unit 74," she agrees. "It's a deluxe twenty-by-thirty."

"Okay then," Gregor shrugs. "A moment, okay, while I check the account. Got to make sure the picture is of you, yeah?"

"Yeah," Christine echoes, forcing herself to exude a level of confidence not found in nature. Bibiana hadn't mentioned a picture. She edges around the counter, trying to get a glimpse of his computer screen and mentally scrambling to prepare a cover story for why her picture wasn't there.

"Oh, very nice, beautiful," Gregor announces, patting the side of the monitor like a well-behaved dog. He cocks his head and considers her for a moment. "If I may? Your hair, I like it much better this way, now. A good cut, I think. Is it recent?"

"I'm sorry?" Christine asks, completely baffled.

"In the picture," Gregor tells her, rotating the monitor a little so she can see. The picture is cropped, but she can recognize the webcam snapshot Jarvis took last week, dubious expression and all. "This cut, I think, is too long. Not enough body. The cut you have now, okay-- the layers, the length, it makes a good frame for your face." He tips his head bashfully. "I do cosmetology classes three times a week."

"I can tell," Christine says, giving him a radiant smile. "Now, uh, how do I get to unit 74 again?"

***

Inside, Ventura Specialty Self-Storage is made up of wide, spotless, brightly-lit corridors that remind Christine of a hospital. "Climate-controlled" apparently means that the place is air conditioned until it's under fifty degrees; she's surprised she can't see her breath. Each door is brushed steel, with the unit number etched into the surface a little above eye-level and a biometric fingerprint scanner above the handle instead of a keyhole.

No sane person would walk into a place with this kind of security and expect any kind of results, but Christine has endless self-confidence and one hell of a strong hunch. Jarvis had switched the charge to her account, she's sure of this, and then set it up so she could get through the front door. Jarvis is a computer, and even the most friendly, smart-assed computers are still logical, so there has to be something here, has to be some way in. Jarvis wouldn't set it up so she could get this far and no further.

Unit 74 doesn't have a regular door; it has a steel-panel garage door across its entire twenty-foot width. Christine considers the fingerprint scanner on the door frame and gingerly touches the pad of her thumb to it. The scanner lights up, a red line moving down the length of her thumbprint, and then it flashes red. No entry.

"Shit," Christine mutters, and tries her left thumb. No dice. She chews on her bottom lip for a moment, thinking furiously. That morning at Stark's place, she'd touched the glass security unit. In the picture Jarvis had sent her, she'd been reaching toward the glass. Maybe--

When she tries her right index finger, the scanner flashes green, the lock slams back into the door, and the door rolls up, inch by ponderous inch.

The twenty-by-thirty deluxe unit is full, but strictly organized. The back-- eight feet deep or so, Christine can't quite tell-- is full of furniture, the upholstered pieces wrapped in plastic and the wooden ones wrapped in light-blue furniture pads. Both the right and left wall are lined with utility shelves full of precise stacks of medium-sized boxes, each one labeled, in order, with a room name, a purpose, and a number. KITCHEN - APPLIANCES - 1/2. KITCHEN - APPLIANCES - 2/2. KITCHEN - TEXTILES - 1/1. KITCHEN - SILVERWARE AND MISC. UTENSILS - 1/1. Christine doesn't have to recognizes Pepper's distinctive handwriting to recognize her style; she can almost imagine the careful spreadsheets Pepper had kept to supplement the labels.

Christine can see boxes of books (sorted by subject), art (HANGING PRINTS - EARLY 20TH - 1/2) and of back records (FILES - TAX RETURNS 1999-2008 - 1/1). There appears to be everything, in fact, except for any boxes labeled clothes or toiletries.

In the center of the room, surrounded by an empty aisle about three feet wide, is the covered body of a car. Christine tugs the cover up enough to see that the license plate says KNK1246. Pepper's car. The registration sticker says SEPT 09, which gives Christine an uneasy feeling. It doesn't match up. The entire storage unit reeks of easy access: wide aisles, shelves, carefully organized boxes. This was a storage unit meant to be visited and interacted with, ergo, Pepper Potts would have come out to replace the registration sticker. Except that, somehow, she didn't.

Christine pulls the cover the rest of the way off the car. Underneath, it's a clean, waxed blue coupe with Audi rings on the front; it seems to match up with the pictures Christine has seen of the 2007 A5, more or less. It's the "more or less" that bugs her. There's a subtle chunkiness about the car; everything from the doors to the tires seems thicker than it should be. There are strange options on the dashboard that Christine doesn't recognize, and when she taps on the hood, it feels and sounds as solid as a concrete floor. Something is very, very weird here.

She digs her camera out of her purse and starts taking pictures.

***

According to Mike Reyes, or more accurately according to his friend Josh in Montreal who has a serious thing about cars, Pepper's Audi appears to have undergone extensive security modification. There are two places in the U.S. that do that kind of work, and only one of them deals with European cars. Christine gives them a call and yes, they had in fact given two of Stark's cars what they refer to as the "presidential treatment": ultra-high-strength ceramic armor, bomb-proof glass, specialized tough tires, and a sealed interior that's invulnerable to chemical attack. They had also installed a tracking system that's monitored from Stark's A.I., and a remote-control driving option, both exclusive Stark tech that, Christine was told in confidence, the presidents of several countries were clamoring to get for their own limos. One of the cars had been Stark's Rolls Royce Phantom, and the other had been an Audi A5. It rapidly became clear that the people doing the upgrade had all thought the Audi was Stark's, because nobody on the Stark side of the deal had mentioned anything about the actual owner.

The upgrades had been completed on May twenty-ninth, after being worked on for a month. Christine compares the odometer readings on record at the shop to the odometer readings she'd gotten off the car in storage, for a difference of five hundred and sixteen mile in the time after the upgrade. It seems low. Even if all she did was drive the twenty miles or so to work and back every day, that should have added up to a lot more than five hundred and sixteen miles.

***

"'Upgrade' isn't really the term I'd use," Julie says, rolling her eyes. "More like 'fucked-up approximation of her car with some of the original parts'." She leans forward on the park bench, hunching a little to prop her arms on her thighs, and watches the little kids running around on the playground. "She sent me pictures once, it was creepy. Like, a few months after she got the car originally, she had a bottle of bleach in the trunk and it leaked, so there was this white splotch on the carpeting in the trunk. After version 2.0 came back from the shop, she sends me this picture from her cell phone: the splotch was still in the trunk." She lifts her hand as if she's taking an oath. "True fact. They lifted out the carpeting and upholstery out of the old version and used it all in the new one. I guess it was supposed to be familiar and comforting, but it sounds a lot like some kind of fucked-up car taxidermy to me."

Christine winces sympathetically and leans forward, mimicking Julie's pose. "Was that the only car she drove?"

"It was her only car, period. So, yeah, pretty much."

"Did Pepper ever tell you what she thought about the car?"

"Oh, yeah," Julie says. "Oh yeah. She hated it. Said it handled like a tank."

"Did she complain about it to Stark?"

Julie snorts. "I doubt it. Pepper always tries to be really gracious about gifts, it's a thing with her, so I really don't think she would have complained about it to the guy who just dropped a few hundred thousand dollars to protect her, and who by the way is her boss." She makes a face. "He didn't even ask, is the thing that gets me. She'd been driving that car for two years and all of a sudden it's not good enough anymore, he has to make sure sure her car can survive a direct hit from a freaking asteroid or something. Don't get me wrong, after the whole hostage thing I was worried about her, too, but-- he didn't even ask. It was like he didn't trust her to make decisions about her own safety anymore."

"Do you have any idea when she might have put it into storage?"

Julie shakes her head. "I didn't even know it was in storage until you told me. I always assumed it was up at Stark's place."

"Any idea when she stopped driving, then?"

"No." Julie shrugs. "I'm not that surprised, though. She said that even with an asteroid-proof car, Stark was still freaking out about her going home every evening. A lot of the time she'd just give up and have Happy drive her back and forth. I guess Stark was more comfortable with that, don't ask me why."

"Happy?"

"Hogan," Julie provides. "Stark's driver. You should talk to him about this, he probably knows a lot more."

***

"Mr. Hogan, my name is Christine Everhart, I'm a reporter for Vanity--"

"Mr. Hogan, hi, I think we got cut off last time. This is Christine Everhart; I think we met once, a few years ago. I'm--"

"Mr. Hogan, it's Christine Everhart again, please don't hang up, I just need a moment to--"

"Hi, Mr. Hogan, this is Christine Everhart. As I've been trying to tell you, I'm a reporter for Vanity Fair, and I'd like to interview you for a piece I'm doing about the disappearance of Virginia Potts. If you could call me back, my number is..."

***

Jarvis answers the chat invite almost before Christine hits send, which is all sorts of freaky. Good evening, Ms. Everhart.

Hi, Jarvis, she types back, conscious of how ridiculous it is to go through all the conversational niceties with a machine, but finding her own social programming too powerful to ignore. Thanks for all the help the other day, I really appreciate it. I was wondering if you could help me with another--

Before you go on, Jarvis interrupts, the text suddenly switching to a bold font, I should warn you that this mode of communication is not secure.

"Fan-fucking-tastic," Christine groans. You could have mentioned that last time, you know.

There would have been no point in doing so, Ms. Everhart; our prior conversation was not compromised in this manner. I'm sorry to say that if you wish to continue our pleasant little talks, we will need to find a different venue.

She makes a frustrated noise. What the hell am I supposed to do, then, come by the house?

I would not advise it. Not only is it unnecessary, but I believe that certain government agents have taken control of the house security systems and left them up in order to deter others. Were you to arrive uninvited to such a tête-à-tête, the extent of the injuries you would experience would undoubtedly be detrimental to our communication. If you would be so kind as to stay in one piece, I would find it much easier to impart further information.

Christine sighs, biting back the questions clamoring for her attention. I assume you'll be in touch in some other way, then, she types.

Certainly, Ms. Everhart. I would not dream of keeping a lady waiting.

***

"Mr. Hogan? This is Christine Ever--"

"Hi, Mr. Hog--?"

"Mr. Hogan, this is Christine Everhart again, calling from Vanity Fair. If you could spare fifteen minutes, I would love to speak with you. It's very important. Please give me a call back at..."

***

Christine notices the guy in the suit right away, mostly because he is, in fact, wearing a suit. People in the twenty-four-hour CVS at two in the morning tend to fall into two categories: either they're on their way back from the bars and are dressed to get laid, or they're wearing comfy clothes with loose waistbands and lax fashion standards. Christine is just on a toiletries run-- she always loses track of this stuff when she's in the middle of a story-- so she's rocking the latter style: t-shirt, sweatpants, flip-flops, no make-up, hair up in a sloppy ponytail.

The guy in the suit is a mystery; he keeps ending up in the weirdest aisles. The first time Christine passes him, he's in the make-up aisle, frowning at a bottle of L'Oreal foundation. The second time, he's in the euphemistically named Feminine Care aisle, looking at tampons. Christine glances over at him as she grabs a box of pantyliners; he looks back at her, a small, gentle smile on his face, and nods before going back to studying the tampons. He's a totally generic-looking white guy, not too tall, not too short, clean-shaven, medium-brown hair, no tan worth noting. She halfway thinks that maybe he's doing some emergency shopping for his wife, but he's not giving off the out-of-place panic that guys usually do in the Feminine Care aisle, and, well. He's wearing a suit.

There's another guy in a suit near the check-out counter. This guy is slightly taller, black, and is carrying a bottle of laundry detergent. Christine's mental explanations of the suit phenomenon expand to include the possibility of some kind of law seminar in a hotel nearby, but it doesn't fit at all with their apparent shopping lists.

The third guy in a suit is in the parking lot, leaning awkwardly under the hood of a car without touching anything. He's taller than the last guy, broad across the shoulders, and has dark hair in a short, neat haircut. He's only two spaces away from Christine's car, and looks up as she approaches. She starts to speed up without even thinking about it, shifts her bags to her left hand, gets her keys out ahead of time and uses the remote to unlock the car from ten feet away. The tall suit guy stands up all the way, turning to watch her. Eight feet to the car. Six. Four.

Christine is reaching for her car door, ready to throw her things inside and slam the locks on behind her, when a familiar voice behind her calls, "Ms. Everhart!"

She spins around. It's the first suit guy, the generic one, smiling at her with tilted head and gentle eyes. The second, black guy in a suit is behind him, circling to the left; the third, tall guy in a suit is approaching from the right. Christine lunges for her car door and yanks it open, only to have the black guy reach past her and slowly, inexorably, press it shut again. She edges away, switching her gaze back and forth to track all three men, looking for an opening, readying herself to scream.

"Ms. Everhart," the first guy says, still smiling, "I'm going to need you to come with us, please."

"I don't think so," she snaps, backing away from him. She backs right into a wall of muscle and wool suit, looks up to see the taller, broader guy looking down at her with a bland expression. He puts a hand on her upper arm, applying just enough pressure to give her pause.

"I'm afraid it's not an option," the first guy says patiently, and she recognizes the voice at last: Agent Coulson, he of the seamless bullshit and mysterious federal organization. "Ms. Everhart," Coulson repeats, and waits until she looks at him, wild-eyed, to say, "I need to speak with you about Pepper Potts."

***

"I don't know what happened to her," Christine insists. Her voice pings off the concrete block walls like bat sonar, reminding her of just how small the interrogation room is.

"Obviously, you're trying to find out," Coulson says, leaning forward with that light, patient smile on his face. "Why were you at her home?"

She stares at him for a long moment, feeling helplessly furious in the face of authority in a way she hasn't experienced since she'd first been armed with a press pass, back in high school. "Who says I was there?" she asks defiantly.

"Three witnesses," he says gently, "and a security feed from Ms. Potts' condominium. You are not as subtle of an investigator as you seem to believe."

"Checking up on me, I see," Christine snaps. "Did you go through my mail, too? Tap my phones?"

Coulson shakes his head very slightly, his mild expression tinged with disappointment. "What were you looking for, Ms. Everhart?"

She tips her chin up stubbornly and folds her arms across her chest. "Maybe I'm looking for a new place."

"It's not on the market."

"I heard it might be available to rent."

"I doubt that's the real answer."

"Too bad," she shrugs. "It's the only answer I have."

Coulson blinks at her a few times, looking thoughtful. On the phone, his impenetrable calm had been annoying; in person, it's terrifying. Christine wrenches herself out of panic and forces herself to focus. She needs to feel her way on this, to crank her ability to read body language up to the limit to pick up on these tiny, tiny clues from the way the tone of his voice just barely changes on some responses, and the way some words make his attention shift minutely, and the faint hints of emotion in his expression. She's not going to be able to learn to read him if she keeps freaking out.

"We know a little about your investigation, Ms. Everhart," Coulson says. "You've been speaking to Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes. I understand the two of you looked very cozy at the Ye Olde King's Head pub the other night."

She lifts her eyebrows. "Having me followed?"

Coulson gives her the disappointed look again. "We spoke with a waitress. She says you're both very good at darts, by the way. Who won?"

"Rhodes," she admits.

Coulson nods lightly, as if this is interesting but not very surprising. "Did he tell you anything interesting for your story?"

"I didn't say we were there on business." Christine gives him a toothy grin. "Could be we're dating."

Coulson ignores that and moves on as if she'd never spoken. "Ms. Everhart, did Colonel Rhodes mention anything about Tony Stark's A.I.?"

She gives him an arrogant look. "What, the automated butler program? Why?" Coulson's expression sharpens, that hint of a smile vanishing, and Christine feels all her senses zoom in on it at once. There; that, right there, push there. "Oh, I see," she says slowly. "That's what this is about, then." No wonder Jarvis had said the chat wasn't secure; SHIELD must have monitored the whole thing.

"What would that be, Ms. Everhart?"

"Jarvis." She watches, waits for it-- there, the barest flicker in his eyes. "You think I can get Jarvis to talk to you." That gets a proportionally bigger response, almost like a real person instead of a mannequin in a government-issue suit. "Still getting stonewalled by a talking computer, Agent Coulson?"

"We have reason to believe you've been in contact with Stark's A.I.," Coulson says.

Christine lifts her eyebrows. "And I have reason to believe that by 'we have reason to believe' you mean 'we've been monitoring the A.I.'s communications because we can't get him to talk to us and that makes us jealous of anyone who manages the job'."

Coulson's mouth tightens a tiny bit around the corners. "Mr. Stark's A.I. poses some unique difficulties."

"I would imagine," Christine says dryly. She leans forward a little, feeling her confident reporter persona clicking into place even in federal custody, at three in the morning in a concrete cell, even in a t-shirt and sweatpants, without her everyday high-gloss armor. She's starting to fire on all cylinders again, and it feels amazing. "I believe I read something once about how Stark's A.I. was in control of his formidable security systems."

"I believe I read the same article."

"Taking control of those systems away from the A.I., then, would be extremely difficult. And, possibly, hazardous."

"Possibly." It's not phrased as confirmation, exactly, but his head briefly tips about two degrees to the left, and it reads like a nod.

"The fence," Christine says. She hadn't been lying about the magazine article; there'd been a spread in New Scientist three or four years ago in which Stark showed off-- in a manner of speaking-- the invisible barrier of his own invention that traced the property line of his place in Malibu. There's a wire embedded in the ground, with tall, narrow cedar trees planted at very precise eight-foot intervals over it, that emits a highly specialized, semi-permeable field that allows vegetation to sway through and small animals to cross, but keeps humans and projectiles safely outside. Instead of a gate, there are two chrome-plated columns framing the drive, with a discreet line of small red lights embedded in the pavement between them; one column does a facial-recognition scan of the driver and any passengers, checking the ID specs against an approved registry, while the other checks the license plate and scans for weapons. If all conditions are met, the barrier between those columns is lowered. Christine had thought at the time that Stark was boasting, flaunting the bleeding-edge tech that only his brain could come up with and only his bank account could afford. These days, it's starting to look less like a boast and more like a larger version of the security stickers that people put on their windows to tell burglars not to even try it. "You'd need a helicopter to even get to the house," she tries.

Coulson gives her a particularly inscrutable look. "Perhaps."

A swing and a miss for Everhart. She tries again: "Paratroopers."

His eyebrows crept up a few millimeters and he gives her that tiny head-tilt again. Bingo.

"Hard to believe the house A.I. would let anyone in," she says. "People could get hurt."

Coulson blinks, looking down at the table with the ghost of a grim expression. "More than hurt," he says.

Christine looks at him, feeling the truth creeping up on her like a bath of cold water. "Two people?" she asks, thinking of the police that went to the hospital, trying to get through Stark's perimeter field. No reaction. "Three?" That faint nod. "Jesus," she whispers, her mouth going dry.

"Our job," Coulson says, very gently, "is not without risk."

She meets his eyes and, with great care, mimics his barely-there nod.

Now that she has the rules of interviewing within plausible-deniability down, Christine has to think fast, trying to figure out what to ask before whatever angel on Coulson's shoulder stops prompting him and heads off for lunch. She could honestly give a damn about the security measures or the weapons apparently stacked in Stark's mythical downstairs workshop, which should give her a little room to maneuver since that stuff is undoubtedly high on the federal metric of tight-assery. Somewhere in that house, the final battle for control between Stark's desperate, escalating fear and Pepper's dwindling independence had been acted out; Christine wanted to know what had happened, when it had happened, how it had happened, and who had won.

"They found out Stark was missing on November eleventh," she says, watching him, testing each step to see if it will bear her weight before she takes another. "But nobody was at Pepper's house. Nobody was at Stark's house."

Coulson gazes at her with serene interest.

"So whatever happened was before that." She waits for the implied nod before continuing. "Hours." No reaction. "Days." A blink, and the eyebrows slip upward a sliver. "Two days," she tries. No reaction. "Three. Four." There, there's the nod. "Four days," she says, half to confirm it and half to teach herself to believe it: four days without anyone saying anything, God. Anyone else with that kind of money would have eight different people on staff leaking information to the press before the day was out; leave it to Stark to be so isolated that nobody would even notice he was gone.

"It's impossible to tell exactly," Coulson says, the faintest of frown lines appearing, etched mid-way between his eyebrows. It feels like a warning. "There are a great many variables at work."

"Of course," Christine says, focusing in on that peculiar turn of phrase. It sounds like a stock line coming from Coulson, but it also sounds like something she's heard recently on the news. "By any chance," she asks carefully, "is SHIELD involved in the search efforts in French Polynesia?"

Coulson blinks once, then again; on him, it's practically the equivalent of his eyes bulging out and face turning red. "What makes you ask?"

"Just following patterns," she says lightly. "You use some of the same language."

"I see." Coulson looks at her for a long moment without speaking and just like that, Christine can feel the interview ending. "Ms. Everhart," he says at last, "I believe you've been cooperative enough for one night. Agent Sandoval will see you back to your car."

***

Christine is woken from a sound sleep when the e-mail alert on her cell phone chimes around six in the morning. She starts to doze back off after the first, but then the second e-mail alert hits five minutes later, and when the third, fourth, and fifth hit in quick succession she just gives up and feels around groggily for the damn thing so she can take a look at what the hell is so fucking important that it can't wait until daylight.

At first she thinks she must be too tired to read, because all five new e-mails seem to be from ceverhart@vanityfair.com. She rubs her eyes and tries again, with the same result. The person annoying her at six in the morning is, apparently, herself. If Christine were more awake, she'd try to make a joke involving electronic sadomasochism, but all she can manage at the moment is to cock her head at it and say, "Huh."

There are no subject lines on any of the e-mails, and no text. Each one has a single image file attached, huge uncompressed TIFF files that take ages to download. Christine gives up halfway through the first one, cursing the lousy cell phone reception in her apartment, and switches to her laptop. It still takes long enough for her to make coffee; she sits down in front of the computer with her first cup just as the first picture finishes downloading.

It's a picture of an open closet, the opaque glass door pushed to one side, with women's clothes hanging inside and a neat row of high-heeled shoes underneath, toes all pointing toward the camera. There's a piece of abstract wooden sculpture to one side of the closet, and the wall is creamy-colored and gently textured. She can see a bed reflected in the glass, the bedclothes crisp and neatly made, and a window view reflected beyond that, showing only water and sky. It's only when Christine zooms in to check the detail that she notices the recording watermark, a faint cyan-colored border implied all the way around the picture about a centimeter from the edge, and, in the lower right corner, an equally faint timestamp: 08/03/2009 16:51:03. In the lower left corner, there's another stamp, this one made up of initials: J.R.V.S.

"Jarvis," she says out loud. It eases something in her mind to have an explanation, even as she feels uncomfortably like she's in an updated digital version of the campfire story that ends with the calls are coming from inside the house.

August third again, the day that Samuel J. Tam had quoted as the day that his service had moved Pepper's belongings. This explains why there weren't any clothing or toiletry boxes at the storage unit; apparently, those things were here, instead. Christine can't confirm where 'here' is beyond a shadow of a doubt; she's never seen this room before. She recognizes the style, though, and if Jarvis was running the security feed, all the signs point to this being a room in Stark's house in Malibu. Christine is still idly trying to place the room in the half-remembered layout of Stark's house as the second picture finishes downloading.

For one long, awful moment, all she can see is the blood.

***

Christine spends fifteen minutes digging through her junk-filled front closet, getting dust bunnies all over her pajamas, in order to find the cable to attach her laptop to her television. She wants to open the pictures on a screen large enough to accommodate them without sacrificing detail, because she gets the feeling that there's a reason these files weren't compressed.

Once upon a time, in what seems like another lifetime, she'd seen a sanitized-for-public-viewing photo shoot of Stark's workshop. This was years and years ago, when he first built the place in Malibu and this was what passed for news; he hadn't even used it yet, so there wasn't anything there but computers and robotic arms and expensive cars. She remembers a picture with him standing in the middle of it, chin up, tie uncharacteristically centered, and hands shoved deep in his pockets. The designer of that house and half the things in it. Master of his soul, captain of his fate, titan of industry. The man, the myth, the legend. He'd just turned twenty-eight years old.

The pictures that Jarvis sent have clearly been cropped to avoid sensitive military technology, but the workshop is still instantly recognizable. Huge windows, walls the color of the desert, glass-and-chrome tech, and stripped-down steel lurking in the background.

The first picture from the workshop is of a dark, opaque glass desktop. There are papers on it, held down by a coffee mug with a Stark Industries logo on it. There's a framed picture that appears to be of Howard Stark with his hand on a younger Tony's shoulder. And there's blood splattered across all of it. The picture, the mug, the paper. Blood pools, thick and red, on the shining surface of the desk. It doesn't look like a whole lot-- Christine'd had about that much blood on her counter once, after a nasty accident with a borrowed mandoline slicer-- but it's still a shock.

The second picture from the workshop is a close-up of an unfinished Iron Man gauntlet, lying on what appears to be the floor of the workshop. There is blood crushed into the gauntlet's wrist joints, drying into a dull patina over the surface planes. There are a few dark, curling hairs caught under the edges of the metal.

Christine feels her stomach lurch. She's still not sure what happened to Pepper Potts, but she's starting to get a pretty good picture of what happened to Tony Stark.

***

Harold Hogan is wearing a Lakers t-shirt and holding a bowl of cereal when he opens the door. He says, "No," when he sees Christine. "Oh no. No, no, no, no way."

"Please, Mr. Hogan," Christine says, "I just need a few minutes of your time."

"No," he snaps, and shuts the door in her face. She holds down the doorbell button for almost a minute before he flings the door open again. "What the hell?" he yells. "Am I gonna have to call the cops on you? Is that what you want?"

"Five minutes," she promises, flashing him the Girl Scout salute, "and I'm out of your hair."

"Jesus," he says, "you just don't quit, do you? Is this some kind of fucked-up revenge fantasy for you, or do you think you're gonna get some kind of award for picking through Tony's garbage?"

"This isn't about him," she says, "this is about Pepper."

"Oh, sure," Hogan says, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "You met her what, once? I remember that. You were not nice. You trying to make up for that now? Is that what this is?"

"That doesn't have anything to do with this," Christine says, starting to lose patience. "Yes, I barely know her, and no, we didn't get along, but my feelings on this aren't-- it doesn't matter, okay? What does matter is that she was a person, and that what happened to her was an awful abuse of power, no matter how good the intentions."

Hogan stares at her, looking suspicious. "What do you even know about it?"

"I know some," she tells him, sensing an opening and pressing her way into it as best she can. "I know about AccuTech. I know about the implant in her back. I know about the car upgrade, and how she had you driving her a lot of the time. I know that most of her stuff is in self-storage in Ventura, and that the rest of it is in Stark's house. There's a lot left that I don't know, though, and hopefully that's where you come in."

He studies her face for a long moment. "You were there," he says, "back before all of this. You ever think that maybe, if you'd noticed at the time, you could have done something to stop this?"

"Yeah," Christine admits. "All the time."

Hogan nods a little. "Okay," he says, and moves aside, motioning her inside with the hand that isn't holding the cereal bowl. "Okay. Let's do this."

***

Hogan's living room is small, most of it taken up by four mismatched armchairs, all circled around a large flat-screen television that has fat HDTV cables snaking out from behind it to attach to a big media PC, an X-Box 360, a PS3, and a Wii. The floor is littered with controllers and remotes. The TV is blaring away, tuned to CNN as they do their hourly update on The Search for Tony Stark. Christine glances at it as Hogan self-consciously tidies, sweeping the gamer detritus under the TV stand with his foot. He switches off the television and finally realizes that she's still standing. "Oh," he says. "Um, just sit anywhere."

Christine picks a green armchair on the left side of the circle, and Hogan sits in a blue paisley one on the other side, squaring off with her. There's a moment of silence as they size each other up. Christine pulls her digital voice recorder out of her purse and holds it up, lifts her eyebrows in a silent question. Hogan shrugs, tips his head sideways in uncomfortable agreement. She turns on the recorder. "Mr. Hogan--"

"Harry."

"Not 'Happy'?"

His mouth pinches up in a pained approximation of a smile. "No, that-- Tony started that, a few people picked up on it. Just a dumb joke. I prefer Harry." He shifts in his chair and squints at her. "So. What's this gonna be? You looking for something specific, or is this more like a fishing expedition?"

"Little bit of both," Christine says. "I thought maybe we'd start with the questions, ease into it that way."

"Doesn't make a difference to me. Do whatever." He starts bouncing one knee, his eyes shifting away.

"All right. I've been told that after Pepper's car was refurbished--"

Hogan makes a noise at that, huffing air through his nose. "Yeah, if you wanna call it that, sure. Refurbished."

"--she sometimes had you drive her to and from Mr. Stark's house. Is that right?"

"Sometimes. She didn't like the car much." He makes a face. "Okay, mostly she didn't like dealing with Tony when she drove it. I maybe overheard them argue about it a few times when I was driving the two of them. He was worried, he'd ask questions, she'd get tired of answering them, he'd get pissy, she'd have to calm him down. By, say, July, I was pretty much driving her back and forth full-time. Neither one of them really went out anymore by that point. Well, Tony went out in the armor, but otherwise, not so much."

"Did Pepper move into Stark's place in August?"

Hogan nods for a few seconds, not quite looking at her. "Yeah. They didn't say that was what was going on, but, yeah. Early August. With her there full-time, there wasn't much left for me to do. I think I washed Tony's cars more often than I drove them, since August."

Christine smiles. "Did that get boring?"

"Eh, a bit, but it's not like I had to sit in a shed all day, staring at the wall. Tony has a real sweet set-up for me out there. Cable, X-Box Live, air conditioning, real comfortable. Not much of a view-- wrong side of the house for that, you know?-- but real nice."

"Did you see Pepper at all while you were there, or did she stay inside?"

"Oh, I saw her," he says, leaning back in his chair. "At first it was just once a day, maybe not even that, and she always had work things to talk about. We weren't close, really, but we were friendly, and she's easy to talk to. It was a nice way to pass the time, you know? By Labor Day, she was coming out a few times a day, just to chat. I think maybe she was going a little stir-crazy in there. Hell, so was I, and I had somewhere else to go at night." He looks a little sheepish. "I like driving. After a month or two of not going anywhere all day, every day, I started getting itchy. I guess that gave us something in common."

Christine frowns. "So you're saying she never left Stark's property, after August third?"

Hogan shrugs. "Security thing, Tony said. Threats to her life. He wanted to keep her safe."

"And she went along with this?" Christine doesn't like to accuse people who're kind enough to talk on the record, so she doesn't voice the second part of that statement: You went along with this?

He spreads his hands helplessly. "Look, I know, I know. The whole thing was kind of crazy, but he's the boss, okay? I'm just the driver. I was concerned, but Pepper said--" He stops, frowning.

"What?" Christine leans forward. "Tell me."

Hogan shakes his head. "There was this one time-- early October, maybe, last September. Pepper was hanging out with me while I washed the Rolls, just chatting a little, enjoying the sunshine. All of a sudden Tony showed up and completely freaks out, yells at me, yells at Pepper, all this crazy shit about what a risk it was for Pepper to be outside, didn't we know about all the ways people could be watching from satellites and telescopes and I don't even know what all, the moon maybe. He just kept freaking out until Pepper went inside with him. I didn't even know what to do, I just stood there with this dumb sponge dripping suds on my shoes for like five minutes. The next day, Pepper came out and started talking like normal, so I asked her what the hell happened, and she just got this weird look on her face and said that Tony just wasn't himself lately, so we just needed to treat him like nothing was wrong, avoid aggravating him, and he'd calm down, he'd get over it."

"Did you believe her?"

"Nope," he says firmly. "I know some guys who have PTSD, all right, so I know what I'm looking at when I see a guy freak out like he's seeing ghosts come at him from every direction. Tony was in bad shape. I told Pepper we needed to get him some professional help, and she said she'd tried, but he wouldn't hear of it."

"And that was that?" Christine asks. "He doesn't want to get help, end of story?"

Hogan throws his hands in the air. "He's Tony Stark. Tony Stark says jump, and whole countries ask how high. Nobody makes him do anything. That's just the way it is. I didn't like it, she didn't like it, but what choice did we have?"

"You could quit."

"And leave her there alone?" He shakes his head. "No. No way."

Christine watches Hogan subside, sitting there with his elbows propped on his knees and his hands clasped between, head bowed and shoulders slumped. "When Stark went missing," she asks, "what did you think happened?"

He doesn't look up. "Nothing, really. He'd be missing for days at a time on missions all the time, that was pretty much par for the course. I tried calling him a few times, but Jarvis always answered in the armor and said Tony was busy. I left messages, he didn't call back. Then on the eleventh, I saw the news that he was missing missing, and I-- I don't know. I don't even know what to think."

"Were you there on November seventh?"

His head snaps up. "I don't know anything about that."

"Is that the line you're using on the police?" Christine asks, almost amused. "I think it might need some work."

"I haven't talked to them," Hogan says, making a face. "Haven't been avoiding them, really, just haven't gone looking for them, either."

"And they haven't been out here?"

Hogan shrugs, looking down again. "Maybe they thought I wasn't out there anymore after Tony stopped leaving the house, I don't know. I don't want to talk about it."

"Harry," Christine says, very gently.

He looks up at her, an almost pleading expression in his eyes. "I'm just the driver," he says again. "This whole thing, I did the best I could. You gotta believe that."

"I know," she assures him. "I do believe that. People tell me you're a good guy, and I'm seeing that for myself. Just, please tell me what happened."

"She wouldn't leave," he says miserably, the words rushing out like a dam had burst. "She was cooped up, couldn't talk to anyone, couldn't do anything, but she wouldn't leave because she said it would just make him worse. The thing is, he got worse anyway. It wasn't her fault, she did everything she could. Everything."

"Harry." She's flat-out begging by this point. "What wasn't her fault? What happened?"

"He said--" Hogan sighs deeply and scrubs his face with the palms of his hands. "He said I was fucking her."

"What?"

"He said-- ah, God. Tony'd started saying stuff weeks before, but at first it was almost like teasing, just a little rough, you know? About how much time we spent together, how well we got along, how Pepper was always out with me whenever Tony looked for her. Then it started getting weird. Cruder. He kept saying things like they were jokes, like asking me if I liked her tits or her legs better, or asking her if she left her heels on when we were out in the garage 'chatting'." Hogan does heavy air quotes around the last word. "But they weren't jokes, you could tell from the look on his face. And then, that morning, I had the intercom on to help Jarvis run a security test, and I overheard them fighting." He falters, stops.

"Go on," Christine says quietly.

Hogan pinches the bridge of his nose and closes his eyes, like the memory is giving him a migraine. "He was screaming at her, calling her names. He kept asking her how she liked it, how much we were doing it, asking if maybe she'd fucked Rhodey, too. Called her a whore." He shakes his head angrily. "It didn't matter that she said it wasn't true, 'cause he wasn't even listening to her by that point. No matter what she said, he just ran right over it. Then she said-- she said, 'This isn't going to stop, is it? You're never going to stop.' And then the intercom shut off."

Christine feels sick, thinking of the bloody gauntlet. "What happened next?" she asks.

"I hauled ass to the house, is what happened," Hogan snaps, his face red. "I didn't know what was going down, but I knew it wasn't going to be good, so I tried to get in, but it was locked tight. Jarvis kept calmly telling me that Mr. Stark had revoked my security clearance for access to the house-- I'm guessing that happened when he started to get all jealous-- so I started banging on the door, and next thing I know, Jarvis fucking drew on me, there was this laser target centered on my chest and Jarvis told me that he was very sorry, but he needed to ask me to back away."

"What did you do?"

"I backed the hell up, what do you think? I started yelling. I hoped, I don't know, that if I yelled enough one of them would come out just to shut me up. Then all of a sudden I hear this whoosh, and I look up and Iron Man goes roaring up into the sky, heading out over the ocean." He shakes his head. "No Pepper, though, and I, I don't know, I started to panic. I told Jarvis to patch me through, but he wouldn't, he just kept saying Ms. Potts was in 'apparent emotional distress' but otherwise okay. I stood out there for fifteen minutes, arguing with a damn computer, and just silence from the house, nothing."

Christine waits. "And?"

He shrugs, looking a little sheepish. "And then Pepper came outside. She was really pale, a little shaky, but she seemed fine. I asked her again if she would please, please think this over and get out of this house, and she said-- she said okay. Asked me if I'd drive her to a friend's house in the Valley, and I said yes like eighteen times, I was so relieved. I didn't want her to get hurt, you know?"

"I know," Christine says. "Did she have a suitcase?"

He shook his head. "Just her handbag and some metal briefcase. I took my car, not the Rolls, because I figured if Tony was out, I'd just stay away for a while, let him cool down."

"Did you see her friend, the one she was going to visit?"

"She wasn't home, I think. Pepper said she had a key. I waited, you know, watched to make sure she got in the front door, it seemed okay." He looks down at his hands. "Pepper said she'd call me later, let me know she was okay, but she never called."

"Harry," Christine says gently, waits until he looks up. "Do you remember the friend's name?"

"Yeah," he says. "Yeah, I remember. It's Mimi."

***

"Never happened," Mimi says blithely, and tongues a sourball from the inside of one cheek to the other, briefly displaying a flash of wet green between her open teeth along the way. "Sorry you came all the way out here for nothing, 'cause wow, that's got to seriously suck, but you got the wrong girl."

Christine gives her a flat smile. "He said Mimi. He said the Valley. I haven't checked his car's GPS records, but if your memory needs a little boost, I'm sure we could do that."

Mimi shrugs. "Whatever."

"You have a key to Pepper's place. Did she have a key to yours?"

"Like that's proof," Mimi says, rolling her eyes. "She always has. Back before her job turned into some kind of twenty-four-seven suckfest, she used to come out when I was on vacation, you know, take in the mail, water the plants, feed the cat. We'd trade back and forth. I mean, okay, she doesn't have a cat, but otherwise it all worked out."

"So she could have come in while you were gone."

Mimi gives Christine a pitying look. "I'd know."

Christine tips her head and watches Mimi for a moment, putting together all the little cues. There isn't a lot there, but Christine had spent an hour the other night playing a game of Twenty Questions: Federal Agent Edition with a man whose mastery of his own body language makes Mimi look like a kid in her first high school play: all her nervous little tics come together and make it obvious that she's lying her ass off. "Holy shit," Christine says, letting her admiration spill into her voice, "you're good. You're really, really good."

Mimi blinks at her, wide-eyed, playing the ditz for all she's worth. "What? I'm what?"

"You're a lot smarter than you let on, aren't you?" Christine asks, going back over her mental notes on their previous conversation and remembering all the times she'd thought Jesus, what a dumbass, realizing belatedly that she'd never once thought to question why Pepper would be friends with someone that dim, why Pepper would leave her keys and security code with anyone whose intelligence didn't match her own. "I have to hand it to you, you really did have me fooled. If Hogan hadn't told me himself, I never in my life would have thought Pepper would come here for sanctuary. I get it now, though. She trusted you."

Mimi creases her face up in confusion. "Get what? God, seriously, I do not know what you're talking about."

"Here," Christine says, pulling out her cell phone and thumbing open the picture of the bloody gauntlet. "This. This is what I'm talking about."

Mimi gingerly accepts the phone and flinches when she sees the picture. "Oh," she says, very quietly.

Christine takes the phone back and scrolls to the next picture, the last one Jarvis had sent, showing an empty wall safe in a small, windowless room with an unmade bed and a grease-stained batch of men's clothes on the floor. She hands the phone to Mimi again and says, "According to a source, Pepper said there was about five million dollars worth of cash and diamonds in that safe. I think she used it to get away."

Mimi doesn't say anything, but her grip on the phone tightens.

"I don't want to find her, Mimi," Christine says. "I swear to God, I don't. I just want to know that she got away."

Mimi hands over the phone and sits in silence for a moment, chewing on her bottom lip. "If it's any consolation," she says at last, "it took Pepper almost a month to see through that act." She brushes her hair out of her eyes and gives Christine a sharp look, considering her. "Of course," she adds, "that was in college."

***

"I didn't get home until almost seven o'clock that night," Mimi explains. "Traffic was totally screwed up, there was some kind of six-car pile-up on the 5, I think. I was pretty tired, but I noticed something was off the minute I walked through the door. Rufus McDoofus-- that's my cat-- wasn't yelling for his supper like he usually does the minute I showed up, and the hall light I usually leave on was turned off. It creeped me out. I went through the whole place with a baseball bat before I noticed the note on the kitchen table."

"Was it from Pepper?"

Mimi nods. "I don't know if you've ever had her write you a note, but it's hilarious. She makes lists and does sub-points and everything, so it's like: Long story, you'll find out what happened on the news, but I'm on the lam, so 1) I've borrowed a suitcase and some of your old clothes from the 2B closet--"

"The what?" Christine interrupts.

"That's, sorry, that's an old joke we had, Pepper got me in the habit of having a second closet where I rotated out the clothes that weren't fitting well, or that I was having second thoughts about, or whatever, so when I got dressed in the morning I could just grab from what I knew I liked at the moment. We called it 2B because--" Mimi stops, smiling a little. "It's dumb. It's clothes '2B' retired, or clothes '2B' put in storage, or clothes '2B' reconsidered. We'd do the whole Hamlet thing when we'd do the rotation on the weekends, ask '2B or not 2B'." She shrugs, her little smile slipping a bit. "We were kids, we thought it was funny."

Christine smiles. "It's cute."

Mimi heaves a sigh. "Anyway, what was I--? Oh, the list. So, 2) I have to borrow your car, so a) you'll find it at the bus station at such-and-such address, and b) I'm leaving you cab fare so you can go get it." She chuckles under her breath, shaking her head. "It was vintage Pepper, you know? Classic. She goes on the run with-- what did you say, five million dollars?-- and she goes and writes an outline like she's doing a book report. Hilarious."

"Hold on, hold on," Christine says, holding up a hand. "If you had just got home, how did she take your car?"

"Whoops, my bad." Mimi taps her head for a moment like it was on the fritz. "I wasn't driving. My shitty old Toyota was making a weird noise, so I carpooled with my neighbor Lanie Hofstetter all week because my boyfriend couldn't come to check it out until the weekend, and I didn't want to have my wheel come off or something and die in traffic. So my car was in the garage." She lifts one shoulder and drops it in a self-conscious shrug. "You know the funniest thing? I'm reading that note, and the first thing in my mind was that this must be some seriously bad news to make Pepper willingly drive my piece-of-crap Toyota. She hated it."

"So she took a suitcase of your old clothes, and borrowed your car."

"And fed my cat." Mimi inclines her head toward the bulky bundle of orange fur occupying most of the armchair near the door. "She and Rufus McDoofus were always good friends."

"And fed your cat," Christine echoes. "And left you cab fare."

"Yeah, that's the other funny part. She said 'cab fare' but when I opened the envelope it was like, ten thousand dollars." Mimi looks away for a moment. "I don't know why she did that. She didn't have to do that. And, you know," she adds, turning back to look at Christine, her expression settling back into insulted ditz mode for a moment, "it was really kind of annoying, because it was all in hundred-dollar bills. Seriously, you try finding a cabbie who'll break a hundred. I ended up having to tip the guy three-hundred percent just to get out of the cab, my God."

Christine smiles at her. "Yeah, I've heard that. So you got your car back?"

"Yup. Exactly where she'd said it would be."

"Can you remember anything else?

Mimi hesitates. "My bathroom smelled like chemicals." She sees the look on Christine's face and waves it off. "No, not like-- God, she's not a terrorist, what's wrong with you? I meant, it smelled like hair dye in there. I think she must have dyed her hair, maybe cut it, too-- I found a little tuft of hair in the corner, but it could have been from Rufus-- so she could blend in better. I mean, God, without the red hair I'd have trouble noticing her, and I've known her since forever ago." She stops, her mouth set in a thin, crooked smile. "Thing is, I didn't find any bottles or anything in the garbage. If she did dye her hair, she took the leftover stuff with her."

***

The last picture from Jarvis, Christine doesn't show to anyone. The details are too small to notice on her phone, and she tells herself that it would be more trouble than it's worth to explain the whole thing to Hogan, or Mimi, but that's not it, not entirely.

The picture is of a bathroom. Based on the desert-colored stone and the bits of chrome and glass visible through the open door, Christine guesses that it's the bathroom in Stark's workshop. The sink is in a counter that goes all the way from one wall to the other-- solid, utilitarian furnishings, nothing fancy. Arranged on the counter, in precise order, is a folded towel, several large paper wrappers that look like they say Band-Aid on them, an X-acto knife, and a small flat disk about the length of the X-acto blade. Christine recognizes the disc from a drawing she'd seen of it, a week or so ago. Flat and round, about two centimeters in diameter. Designed for subcutaneous implantation in human beings and work animals.

The sink and counter are spotless. The towel, knife, and tiny disk are all covered in blood.

Christine thinks about the fact that Pepper took the hair dye, and possibly her own hair clippings, with her when she left Mimi's, and compares this to the careful tableau she left in the bathroom. Pepper hadn't just forgotten to dispose of these things, she had left them there, and left them displayed in such a way that nobody could overlook them, or miss the story the arrangement told. She'd wanted to rub someone's nose in it. Christine isn't certain who that someone is, but she's starting to wonder if it might be SHIELD.

***

Tony Stark's body, still in the Iron Man armor, washes up on a beach in the Marquesas Islands-- Nuku Hiva, to be exact-- just as Vanity Fair is preparing to publish Christine's exposé on him. The first people on the scene aren't from the international search operation, aren't from the international media, aren't even from the local authorities-- they're kids, one of them with a cell phone that took pretty decent video. The international search operation, which may or may not be controlled by a certain shadowy department of the U.S. federal government, takes control of the scene and the body shortly afterward, and is not exactly forthcoming afterward. Christine suspects that if it hadn't been for the kid's video getting out, they might not even had admitted Stark had died.

Her editor, Nelson Zeitler, pulls the plug on her article shortly after that. "It's like when Nixon died," he explains brusquely. "You remember that?"

"I was twelve."

He points at her, his eyebrows up. "I bet you were paying attention even then, though. Right? Right?"

Christine heaves an annoyed sigh. "Yeah. The only thing I'd ever heard about him before that was Watergate, Watergate, and then he dies and all anyone talked about was how he went to China. Total whitewash."

"And that was Nixon. Nobody liked Nixon. Tony Stark, though?" Nelson lifts his hands with the wrists together, like he's handcuffed, and shakes them a few times to make sure she gets the point. "Give it a month, maybe two, and we can publish this, but right now, under these circumstances? We'd look like assholes. Stark Industries would crucify us, and all people would remember about the whole thing was that Vanity Fair printed a nasty article about Stark right in time for his funeral. Nobody would remember what the article said, or take it seriously. You want this thing to have any impact, you gotta wait for the martyr effect to dissipate. Okay?"

"If we wait," Christine snaps, "it'll be too late. Everyone will move on."

Nelson spreads his hands. "It happens. You get a scoop, then suddenly reality throws you a curve ball and the public isn't in a mood to give a shit. I had it happen to me, once, but for different reasons. Six weeks I spent on this story, and you know what happens the day it's published? Monica Lewinsky. By the time anyone could think about anything besides presidential blow jobs, my story is old news, nobody cares." He tips his head, gives her a sympathetic look. "I know it sucks, kid, but there's nothing I can do."

"Right," Christine says as she walks out. "There's a lot of that going around these days."

***

The funeral is a lot more sedate than Christine had expected. Just friends and family-- what there is of it-- and close colleagues, a small graveside service, no public viewing, no press within two-hundred yards. There was a rumor that the Vice President might show, but in the end, it was only a rumor. No fly-over from the Blue Angels, no kick line of women in tiny mourning costumes, no superheroes from across the country, at least none in their traditional bright uniforms. She supposes they could be attending incognito, but it seems counter-intuitive to have one last big party for Tony Stark without anyone trying to make a spectacle of themselves.

Christine watches from the sidelines, out beyond the no-press zone, as far away as she can get from the crowd of reporters and photographers fighting each other for a spot on the top of a small hill. One enterprising young gentleman has climbed a nearby mausoleum and is leaning perilously over the edge, trying to get a shot through the modest amount of trees between him and the grave site. Christine watches, tries to work up the energy to be outraged, or at least alarmed for the kid's safety, but really, she can't bring herself to care. She's not here on business, after all.

She sees the guy in a suit approach out of the corner of her eye, but he doesn't make much of an impression; everybody's wearing suits. It isn't until she turns to get a better look that she recognizes him. "Agent Coulson," she says, tipping an imaginary hat.

Coulson nods in return. "Ms. Everhart." He stands next to her and turns to watch the service; some tall blond guy with a soldier's posture and a cowboy's gait has just stood up to speak at the front, and this holds Coulson's attention for a long moment.

"I didn't expect to see you here," Christine says. "Thought you'd be busy."

Coulson smiles slightly, still watching the blond cowboy. "I could say the same about you. I was sorry to hear that your article won't be published; I was looking forward to reading it."

"'Postponed', not cancelled," Christine says, drawing air quotes around the first word. "You may still have your chance."

Coulson inclines his head slightly, registering the point. "I thought you might like to know," he says, "that an autopsy report has apparently been leaked to the New York Times."

"Ah." Christine smiles with her lips tight together, bites back the urge to use profanity. "Any way I could get an advance copy?"

"I doubt that," Coulson says, "but I could tell you what they'll print."

Christine turns to look at him, her eyebrows up about as far as they can go. "Tell me?" she deadpans. "Just like that? Good heavens. I don't think I could take the shock, Agent Coulson."

"I'm sure you'll manage." He glances at her, the skin around his eyes crinkling faintly. "In short," he says, "there was water in Mr. Stark's lungs."

Christine stares. "He drowned?"

"Apparently so. There's an injury on his head, caused by a blunt weapon, but it wasn't the cause of death. There are also a few incidental scrapes and bruises, but those appear to be the result of him being placed into the suit while he was temporarily unconscious."

"Wait," Christine says, "hold on, go back." The story the media has been chasing for the past few days has taken two forms: either Who Killed Iron Man? with a rogue's list of suspects, the Ghost heading up the list for sentimental reasons instead of logical ones, or Did The Suit Fail? with exhaustive technical diagrams and endless discussions of the known list of the suit's capabilities. There's an echo of that argument happening in her own head right now. "You're saying the suit failed?"

"The suit," Coulson says, each word coming out at a careful, deliberate pace, "was undamaged. Due to the amount of salt-water corrosion, I believe there may be no way to be completely sure that nothing went awry with the computerized flight controls, but they appear to have been responsive."

"An accident, then?"

"Perhaps." Coulson looks back out at the graveside service. "Perhaps. Personally speaking, I remain unconvinced."

Christine thinks about that for a moment, working it out. If the suit wasn't broken, then the only remaining option is that the suit was supposed to plunge into the Pacific. "You think it was murder?" she asks, very quietly.

Coulson shakes his head slightly, moving maybe a few millimeters, all told. "I believe," he says, "that whoever gave Mr. Stark the head injury he sustained prior to his death exercised great restraint. The crime scene--" he glances at Christine, eyebrows up half a centimeter; she nods, knowing what he means. "The scene of the crime, I believe, may have been full of weapons capable of causing mortal damage to a bank vault, let alone a human being. If this person truly wished to kill Mr. Stark, there were better options at this person's disposal than hitting him over the head with a blunt object. I doubt that person intended to kill him at all."

"Oh." Christine goes cold, thinking about the only option that leaves. If Pepper didn't mean to kill him, and she already knew Jarvis didn't do anything without Pepper or Stark giving instructions-- "Oh."

They stand there, silent, watching the mechanics of the ceremony: people stand, people sit down, the sleek steel coffin keeps vigil over it all. A string quartet starts to play an instrumental version of Mozart's Requiem; Christine gets something in her eye and she looks away, blinking, until her vision resolves itself. She finds herself looking at a lone female figure in the distance, wearing mourning black, standing at another grave a few hundred yards away and weeping into a white handkerchief. The woman has short brown hair and huge sunglasses, and there's no reason at all to take a second look at her, but Christine still does. After a moment, she realizes what drew her attention: the woman isn't looking at the grave in front of her, but at Tony Stark's funeral. She's watching Tony Stark's funeral. She's crying at Tony Stark's funeral.

Christine realizes, a moment later, that Coulson is also looking at the distant figure. Christine gives him a sidelong look, waits for him to reach for a walkie-talkie or signal another bland young gentleman in a suit, but he doesn't. He doesn't do anything; just watches.

"You know, Ms. Everhart," Coulson says, his voice soft, "there are job openings available in my organization."

"If you're recruiting," Christine tells him, "I'm flattered, but you're barking up the wrong tree."

He makes a quiet sound that she thinks may approximate laughter amongst his people. "That's not what I meant. Pepper Potts asked me, once, if we had any job openings."

"By any chance," Christine asks, "was this in early March?"

Coulson glances over and gives her that tiny head-tilt of agreement that she remembers from before. "She would have made a brilliant addition to our team. Logistics, I think, at first; perhaps she might have moved into a more active role over time. I regret that I had to tell her no."

Christine backtracks, pieces it together. "In spite of the fact," she says cautiously, "that there are job openings available in your organization."

That tiny head-tilt again. He's gazing out into the distance, watching the woman crying for Tony Stark in front of a stranger's grave. "There was a conflict of interest that could have negatively impacted our relationship with one or more of my organization's associated operatives. Employing her was never an option."

"But you wish you could have," Christine says. It's not a question. She can see the regret in Coulson's face as he watches the crying woman walk away. He still doesn't do anything, but she no longer really expects him to.

"Given what happened," Coulson replies, "I doubt I could wish anything else."

They stand there together, watching as the woman walks among the stones on the far side of the graveyard, her head up, her back straight. She never looks back. As they watch, she moves around the corner of a stone monument, and is gone.

***
***