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Across the Street

Chapter Text

Tony Stark pushed aside the curtain a little bit to peer through the window. Morning sunlight seeped through. He curiously studied the house across the street. There was a U-Haul parked by it and a guy was unloading boxes.

He bit into his apple. “Do we have a new neighbor?”

“Yes, dad, we do.” It was Harley’s brief answer, his eyes focused on the television. A bowl of cereal was balanced on his stomach as he was half-lying on the couch with his feet propped on the living room table. He was still in his bright yellow Beauty and the Beast pajamas.

“We told you about that the other day, don’t you remember?” Tony’s other son, Peter piped in, holding his own bowl with the exact same type of cereal, and sitting beside his twin, Harley. Similar to his twin, he was sporting bright pink Hello Kitty pajamas.

“I don’t remember,” Tony answered, still peering through the window. Then he turned his attention towards his sons. “Why don’t I remember you telling me that?”

“Because that was probably when you were busy scolding DUM-E when he accidentally spilled motor oil all over your garage.” Peter stood up from the couch and started to head to their kitchen.

“Oh, that makes sense.” Tony nodded.  He bit once more into his apple.

“Hey! Don’t you dare drink all the orange juice!” Harley suddenly shouted, bolting up from the couch and running towards the kitchen. Milk sloshed from his bowl, leaving droplets of milk on their carpet.

“Hey, look what you did on the carpet you little-!” Tony tried to say, but Harley was gone before he could finish his sentence.

He looked back out the window. His apple was almost forgotten in his hand. There, outside, a woman was talking to the guy he had seen earlier. Her back was facing him, so all he could see was her blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, her white blouse tucked into black jeans, and some deadly looking stilettos.

Well, if he was stuck with a new neighbor, hopefully, she wouldn’t be like Mrs. Johnson, the previous occupant of that house. The plump widow and gossiper nagged the three almost every morning with a freshly made jar of jam. Over the years, they had ended up with every type of homemade jam known to mankind. His twins had jokingly informed him that Mrs. Johnson was just doing that because she was into him. Tony shuddered at the mere thought, gossiping, plump ladies who made jam really weren’t his type.

His new neighbors seemed to be a couple, so hopefully, there wouldn’t be any new neighbors going after him. He may have kids, but he was a bachelor.

He was pulled from his thoughts when he heard yelling in the kitchen. The twins. He sighed and turned around.

“I swear!” Tony called out, heading towards the kitchen. “If you’re at each other’s throats again because of a carton of orange juice, I’m gonna ban orange juice in this house forever!”


Virginia Potts admitted that it was a whim and a spur of decision to ditch the nice apartment in Los Angeles for a house in the suburbs of San Diego. Though, it had been long decided that she would not renew her contract lease when it expired. She had had enough bad experiences in that apartment building that she had started a list of new apartments she could move into months ago. And suburbs had definitely not been on her list.

But then, she’d woken up one morning and felt like she was drowning in the city’s lights and noise, that the skyscrapers around her were making her smaller and fragile every minute. She had consulted a therapist once and the therapist said it was because of stress-induced anxiety. A nice change of scenery was prescribed to help her alleviate it.

That’s how Virginia had found herself browsing for houses in the suburbs. One, in particular, had caught her attention, and now she was standing on one of the many front lawns of that said suburban area. As she looked around, she couldn’t help but feel proud with her choice. The street was lined up with nice houses and there was a general feeling of a serene atmosphere. She just hoped that she had nice neighbors too. That would be icing on the cake.

“Ginny,” A voice from behind her startled her from her reverie. She turned to see her friend, Ryan, coming to her. She had first met him at work, and ever since then, he had become a great friend to her.

“You okay there?” Ryan asked, his blue eyes scrutinizing her with worry. His blond locks looked more golden under the warm sunlight.

“Yeah, I was fine, just thinking . . .” She trailed off.

“What?” His lips quirked up in a smile. “Regretting already that you refused my offer of being my next door neighbor?”

Virginia laughed. Ryan many times had suggested she move in next to him, bribing her with top of the line security and he himself as an instant personal bodyguard. He had a nice apartment too. Virginia was incredibly tempted to accept the offer. But she was just too dead set on her decision to move into an entirely different place, one that didn’t consist of apartments.

“Unfortunately no. I was just marveling my great taste. Choosing a suburban area was a wise decision,” Virginia answered.

Ryan hooked his thumbs on his faded blue jeans as he also looked around. “Yeah, I admit that this is a nice neighborhood.”

“Yup, but as much as it’s nice to stand here and admire the houses around, we should start working.” She looked down at the pile of boxes sitting on the front lawn. The U-Haul had left a while ago after unloading all her boxes.

“Agreed. ” Ryan was also looking at the boxes. “You’ve got a lot of unpacking to do.”

She shook her head. “No kidding.”

“And I bet ninety percent of those boxes just contain your shoes.”

She playfully hit him in the shoulder. “I won’t deny it.”

They worked in sync. Ryan was the one who did the lifting of heavy objects and pushing the couch where Virginia wanted it to be. He was also in charge of hammering the nails on the wall where she wanted to hang her paintings. He also set up some electrical wiring that was beyond her comprehension. She was in the middle of sorting through her things from one of the opened boxes, when she remembered the cookies that were still in the box outside, and were probably being cooked under the sun.

She immediately stood up and went outside, just in time to see two teens crossing the street towards her house.

“Hello, you must be the new occupant of the house.” The boy with blond hair and blue eyes greeted her politely.

“Why, yes, hello to you too.” She said amicably and approached them.

“HI, we’re your new neighbors, we live across the street.” This time, the other boy who had brown hair and eyes spoke shyly. “I’m Peter and this is my twin Harley– non-identical twin. That’s why we don’t look alike if you’re wondering.”

Harley rolled his eyes at his twin’s rambling. They definitely looked about the same age, and she estimated that they were maybe around fourteen or fifteen years old.

“Nice to meet you all, I’m Virginia Potts.” Virginia smiled at them.

“Nice to meet you too, Mrs. Potts-”

“Oh no, it’s still a Miss.” Virginia laughed at Peter.

“Oh, I am so sorry!” Peter blushed. “It’s just that Dad said our new neighbors were a couple, so I assumed that– nevermind about that.”

“Your dad?” Miss Potts inquired.

“Yeah, he saw you with a guy earlier.” Harley supplied.

“Oh, he’s just a friend who’s helping me move in.” Miss Potts said.

The twins nodded in acknowledgment. Then Peter offered. “Uhm, do you still need help moving these boxes in? We could help.”

Miss Potts was simultaneously surprised and touched by their kindness. Then she winced. “Actually, I’ll say yes to that offer. There are just a lot of things that I haven’t sorted out yet, so a few extra pairs of hands would really be appreciated. Thank you so much.”

“Yeah, sure. No problem,” Harley answered while Peter nodded in agreement. They started to carry the boxes they could lift inside the house.

She gave up arranging her things when the sun set on the horizon. Ryan had gone home by then. Ryan had offered to help her more, but Virginia had refused. She didn’t want to ask for more. She felt so indebted to him already for moving and setting up her new home.

She decided to unwind from all the unpacking she had done, so she took a walk around the neighborhood. It was a good time to get familiar around the area. The breeze was still pleasant and soothing. She spotted an enormous furry brown dog by the park. She stopped by to pet it. Its owner, Leah a mid-thirties woman, informed her it was a Newfoundland breed and her dog, Max, would still grow since it was barely three years old. Virginia was mind-blown by that. It would probably be as big as a bear when it had grown into an adult. They got easily in a short conversation and Virginia told her that she’s new around. Leah talked about the resto-bar by the docks up ahead. The pet owner guaranteed their excellent menu, especially the seafood, and it was a must-try. They bid farewell after that. Out of curiosity, Virginia went to the docks.

By the time she reached the resto-bar by the docks, her feet were a bit sore. The resto-bar was called ‘Mayday!’ The nice jazz music and the aroma of grilled seafood were inviting. Her interest peaked so she went inside. 

Pepper sat down at one of the tables by the window overlooking the docks as she waited for the food to arrive. Her feet were relieved to get a rest from all the walking. She looked around the resto-bar, noting the nice wooden and sailor themed interior. She made a mental note to bring Ryan here some time as payment for his help. As she continued to look around, her eyes landed on the bar counter. There was a guy sitting at the counter alone, but he was laughing at something that the bartender was saying to him. His eyes crinkled when he laughed. He had big Bambi eyes that were actually kind of adorable. Unlike Ryan’s unruly stubble, this guy had a goatee. Strangely enough, it actually looked good on him.

“That’s Tony.” A waitress appeared out of nowhere and put down a plate of Caesar salad on her table.

Virginia jumped from her seat in surprise. “Sorry, what?” She looked up at the waitress. Her dark brown hair was falling in waves over her shoulder.  There was a name tag pinned below her white sailor collar. It read ‘Maya’.

“The guy you’re ogling, his name is Tony.” She shoved her hands in the front pockets of the navy blue apron tied around her waist that also covered her navy blue pencil cut skirt.

“E-excuse me, ogling? I-I’m not ogling him,” Virginia tried to explain. Her cheeks turned red, making her freckles more prominent.

“Checking him out then?” Maya raised an eyebrow.

Virginia gaped at her, speechless.

But Maya just patted her on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, we’ve all been there. He’s really quite a catch. But gotta say that he’s not into serious relationships.”

How the waitress knew all of this was beyond Virginia and she didn’t even want to know.

“Enjoy your food.” With that, Maya left.

She dared to look at the guy, Tony. And her heart almost jumped out of her ribcage. Tony was looking back at her. She immediately gazed down at her food. She took a deep breath to calm her nerves.

Relax, Virginia. She chided herself. It’s just a guy.

But later on, she found it hard to concentrate on her food with that guy that was just feet away from her. She could feel his eyes on her from time to time. She finished her food as quickly as possible and asked for the bill. Then she hastily left the place.

It was dark when she got back to her new neighborhood. She hugged her cardigan tightly around her when chilly night air hit her. Virginia looked at each house she passed with curiosity. So far, her neighbors and some locals were nice. The old couple next door, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, were friendly and so were the twins across the street. She felt like she was going to settle easily in this neighborhood.

The guy from Mayday crossed her mind and she wondered if he lived in the same neighborhood. Realizing what she was thinking, she immediately shook her head, rejecting the thought. It was too early to think about those kinds of things.

Virginia faltered in her steps when she felt a presence behind her. She briefly looked behind her. A man in a cap was a few yards away from her. It was dark in the area, so it was hard to see the man. She walked faster. She didn’t like the feeling she was getting. When she rounded a corner, she noticed that the man seemed to follow her.

Her heart started to beat louder. Oh God, not this again, some creepy dude following her. This was supposed to be a new start in a new neighborhood.

She dared to look back and saw that the man was reaching in the inside pocket of his jacket. Her breath hitched. What if it was a gun or a knife or something?

That’s when she started to run.

“Hey-!” The man shouted at her.

And she started screaming for help.

The man caught up with her. He grabbed her arm. Virginia lashed out. She elbowed the man in the gut and pulled off her sandals, then tried to run. The man grabbed her. She started hitting him with her wedged sandals.

“Get off me!” She screamed at him.

“Hey wait-!” The man tried as he shielded himself from her continuous onslaught.

“You pervert! I am going to call the cops!” She managed a solid hit on his head.

“Oww! Goddamnit, what did you just say?” The man tried to shield his head instead. “Why would you call –I’m not –fuck, stop hitting me!”

The ruckus did its job and neighbors started to come out of their houses.

“Help me, there’s a perverted ass-!”

“I am not a pervert for gosh sake!”

“Then why are you following me?” She screamed.

“Because I live right there you-” The man pointed at the house in front of them. The front door of the said house opened. Two teens in pajamas were coming out. Virginia realized that they were the twins who had helped her earlier.

“D-dad?” Peter called out.

“Dad?” Virginia echoed, looking at the man.

The man pulled off his cap and to Virginia’s horror, it was the guy from Mayday, the guy with Bambi eyes. Tony.

“W-what’s going on?” Harley asked. Both boys had confused expressions on their faces. They stepped out off the porch.

“Ask her!” Tony spat. He looked royally pissed off. “She just started hitting me out of nowhere.”

“Y-you grabbed my arm!” Virginia sputtered swallowing hard. “And you were pulling out something from your jacket!”

“It’s because I wanted to give you this!” Tony pulled out something from his jacket. It was a mobile phone. And it was Virginia’s phone. Before she could ask how he got that, Tony beat her to it and spoke. “You left this back at Mayday. I followed you to give it back to you.”

Virginia was mortified.

Tony shoved the phone in her hands. “You’re welcome and by the way, that was assault. What you did was assault. I should be the one who needed to call the cops.”

“I-I’m really sorry-”

But Tony was having none of it. He headed for his house and stalked towards his house. “God, you got killer shoes, be careful with those!” Tony called out, briefly turning to her. His hand was still on his head.

“Come on, kids.” Tony ushered his twins inside.

Virginia was frozen on her spot as the door of Tony’s house slammed closed. She looked around. She had gained a small audience from the spectacular show she had created. From across the street, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews shook their heads pityingly as they went back inside.

When her senses took over and her heart calmed down a bit, she walked towards Tony’s porch and pressed the doorbell.

A moment later, Harley opened the door.

“I need to talk to your dad.” That was the first thing that came out of her mouth.

“Yeah,” Harley seemed to agree immediately, which was a relief to her, after what the twins had witnessed. “Wait a sec.” Then the door closed again.

She exhaled and closed her eyes briefly.

So much for a good first day in her new neighborhood.

 

Chapter Text

Virginia was tapping her bare foot on the wooden floor of the porch in front of Tony’s house as she waited for him to come out. She was still clutching the wedges she used to bludgeon his head, which she regretted doing with every fiber of her being. She admitted that she could be a little bit paranoid sometimes after what happened back at her old apartment.

She glanced back at the door. She was starting to think that Tony wouldn’t come out. He had every right to do that and had every right to be pissed off, but the thing was, she didn’t want to be on bad terms with her neighbor already. God, it hadn’t been twenty-four hours since she stepped foot in this neighborhood and she was already making trouble, which was so uncharacteristic of her. She was balance and order. Chaos just wasn’t her thing.

The door suddenly clicked. She jumped a little bit. She straightened up when the door opened. Tony came out with an ice bag in hand, clutched to his head. She visibly winced at that.

“What do you want?” Tony said coldly, holding the doorknob with his other hand.

She opened her mouth to answer, but Tony raised his index finger. He spoke. “Wait a sec.” He turned his head to look somewhere back inside their house. “Guys, come on, what did I tell you about eavesdropping on an adult conversation? Give us some space to talk. Head up to your room, you have school tomorrow.”

Inside the house, Virginia could hear distant muffled groans, followed by feet stampeding on the staircase.

Then Tony looked back at her. “What were you gonna say again?”

“I’m sorry,” Virginia said in a rushed voice. “I didn’t intentionally do that. Obviously, there was a misunderstanding on my part. I get nervous when strangers follow me around and I didn’t know it was you and I kinda got scared since I’m new around here.” She stopped herself before she continued to ramble on and on. She tended to do that when she was nervous.

“Okay.” Tony nodded.

“Okay . . .” Virginia said slowly. “Okay, what?”

“Apology accepted. Good night.” Tony was about to close the door. Impulsively, she grabbed on to it. The door stopped mid-swing. 

“Wait, uhh...” Virginia bit her lip. “Thank you, but are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m good. My head’s throbbing a little bit, but I’m fine.”

“Are you sure you don’t wanna go to the hospital or something? Don’t worry, I’ll shoulder the bill since it’s all on me-”

“I don’t care about the bill. I said I’m good. Now you can go and let’s call it a night.”

“No, you’re not . . .” Virginia trailed off, staring at Tony’s nose.

“I swear, you’re starting to piss me off again-”

“Your nose is bleeding.”

“Yeah– wait, what?” Tony touched his nose. When he looked down at his fingers, the tips of his fingers were stained red with blood.

“Oh my god,” Virginia breathed out. “That’s on me again, isn’t it?”

Tony exhaled through his mouth. “Don’t worry, this isn’t the first time I’ve gotten a nosebleed. I can handle it.”

“Let’s get you inside,” Virginia decided, pushing him inside the house.

“Woah, woah, wait.” Tony stumbled back. “You know, you’re kinda trespassing.”

“Sit down on the couch.” Virginia dragged him towards the nearby couch in the living room. She dropped her wedges next to it.

“You know, I can-” Tony plopped down on the couch and dropped the ice bag on the center table.

“Tilt your head back and pinch the bridge of the nose,” She instructed, standing in front of him.

But Tony just stared up at her, with blood oozing from his nose. A droplet of blood fell on his lap, staining his jeans. “Seriously, I can do this, you can go-”

“For God’s sake, just tilt your head up and pinch the bridge of your nose or else I’ll do it myself!”

“All right, jeez!” Tony tilted his head and started to pinch the bridge of his nose. “So bossy!”

Virginia looked around the living room and found a tissue dispenser on the shelf by the wall. She immediately picked it up. She noticed several small picture frames adorning the shelf. They were pictures of Tony and his twins together, smiling. Some were serious like you’d take in a studio, and others were goofy, with Tony and the twins making silly faces into the camera. In a few, they were with a red-haired woman who had a beautiful, lively smile. Virginia smiled a bit at the pictures and then turned her attention back to Tony.

She gave the dispenser to him. “Here, wipe your nose a bit.”

Tony obeyed this time, pulling out several plies of tissue.

“Are you sure, you don’t want to go to-”

“Nah-ah, not the hospital again!” Tony interrupted, staring at the ceiling.  “This is nothing, just a nosebleed, it will stop soon.”

But Virginia didn’t look convinced.

“Friday, give me a diagnosis,” Tony suddenly said.

“You appear to have a mild concussion. No fatal injuries detected.” A female mechanical voice echoed around and Virginia must have jumped a foot in the air in surprise.

She looked around. “Uh, who-”

“That’s Friday. She runs the house and she’s my assistant. Fri, be a dear, and greet our guest.”

“Hello, Miss Virginia Potts,” Friday said dutifully.

“How did she know my-” She sighed, but was impressed. “So basically, you have an artificial intelligence installed in your house.”

“Uh-huh, and she’s loaded with twelve thousand medical codings, so she’s pretty accurate. You can rest your case about dragging me to the nearest hospital.”

Virginia heaved another sigh, this time in defeat as she plopped down on the long couch adjacent to him. “I’m really sorry.”

“Stop apologizing. You’re already forgiven.”

Silence reigned on them.

“Friday, are the twins asleep?” Tony asked, eyes still on the ceiling and hands still pinching the bridge of his nose.

“No, Peter and Harley are on the stairs.”

“What?” That made Tony straightened up and looked in the direction of the stairs. Thankfully, no blood dripped back from his nose. The nosebleed must have stopped. He called out, “I swear, if you sleep through your alarm tomorrow, I am not going to wake you up.”

A pause, then there were footsteps on the stairs. The twins emerged. They went to their dad.

“Did your nosebleed stop already?” Harley asked.

“Stop changing the subject, young man.” Tony narrowed his eyes at him.

“We were worried about you,” Peter added. “That’s why we can’t sleep.”

Virginia watched Tony melt at his twins’ response. The stress lines that had become very prominent in the past several minutes disappeared. He looked ten years younger. It made her smile once again. The twins could easily capture anyone’s heart without even trying. Even Virginia admitted that she had grown fond of the twins very quickly when they had helped her with her things earlier. They were just good by nature.

Virginia wondered where their mom was. Both the boys looked a bit like the red-haired woman in the photos on the shelf, and it was only natural to assume she was the boys’ mother. But Tony was single, and in her conversation with the twins earlier, she hadn’t heard the slightest mention of a woman in their lives. Had the couple divorced? Or was it something worse?

Whatever had happened to the twins’ mother, Tony had done an amazing job raising those wonderful kids.

 “I’m okay now,” Tony responded and pointed at his nose. “See, the nosebleed had stopped. You can sleep now.”

Virginia stood up and decided to butt in. She looked at the twins apologetically. “I’m terribly sorry about what I did to your dad. I didn’t mean to hurt him in any way intentionally. I just freaked out.”

“It’s fine, Miss Potts,” Peter smiled kindly at her. “It looks like he’s already forgiven you, so it’s no big deal.”

“We really need to sort out your eavesdropping issues,” Tony muttered, dabbing his nostrils with tissue.

“I should probably get going.” Virginia looked at them and her gaze ended up on Tony. “Since your nosebleed had stopped and you look fine, as your AI said. . . .”

“Yeah, sure.” Tony stood up, discarding the tissue in a wastebasket. “I’ll see you out.”

“Good night, Miss Potts.” The twins chorused.

“Good night,” Virginia smiled warmly at them. She put her wedges back on.

“Boys, go back to your room, and if I come back and you’re still not in your room, you’re gonna regret it in the morning,” Tony called out.

“How?” Harley dared to ask.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Tony shrugged. “Your holy OJ might magically disappear.”

“You would not!” Peter gasped. The twins wore identical looks of shock.

But their dad just smiled sweetly at them. “Try me, Peter Pan. If I were you, I would run for my bed and no more watching Brooklyn Nine-nine!”

The twins looked at each other, panic dancing in their eyes.

“I can’t believe you,” Harley grumbled as they made their way to the stairs. “How could you be so petty?”

“Look at that,” Tony mused, watching them climb the stairs. “One moment they were so worried about me and then another second I’m the worst villain on the planet.” He shook his head.

Virginia chuckled amusedly.

“Teens.” Tony waved his hand as they headed for the door.

When they were outside by the door, Virginia turned to him. “Just don’t hesitate to call me if your head hurts all of a sudden, or you feel dizzy afterward. . .”

Tony rolled his eyes, but then he smiled earnestly. He crossed his arms and leaned on the door frame. “I’m pretty sure that I should be calling 911 first-“

“Of course, do that,” Virginia immediately said. “But I feel like it would be my responsibility if something happened to you.” She winced. “I admit that I hit pretty hard.”

Tony chuckled. “No kidding. But yeah sure, I’ll just bang on your door if some emergency happens.”

Virginia laughed a bit at that. Then hesitantly she spoke.  “So, we’re good, right?”

“Yeah, sure,” Tony nodded.

“All right, see you around and good night.” Virginia smiled.

“Yeah, good night,” Tony straightened up.

Virginia turned around and started to walk back to her house, wrapping her cardigan more tightly around her. She glanced back when she was halfway across the street. Tony was still staring at her. There was something in his doe-eyed brown eyes that made her heart skip a beat.

She ignored it.

Chapter Text

Tony didn’t know what to make of his new neighbor as he watched her from his window, early at dawn. She wore a black pencil skirt and a white sleeveless button-down blouse. Her hair was up in the same ponytail as the night before. She was standing in front of her car with the hood open. She kicked the front bumper of her car in frustration with her black pumps. Given the recent events, he had sworn that he wouldn’t get on her bad side, especially if she was wearing any shoes that had pointy edges.

“She’s obviously having trouble with her car.” Peter was standing on his right. He pushed up his baggy white shirt to scratch his waist.

Harley yawned on his left. “As a good neighbor, you should help her out. You’re a mechanic.”

Tony couldn’t figure out what his twins’ deal was. They seemed to be favoring their new neighbor, despite only meeting her yesterday after moving in.

“How about you two get ready for school and stop being so nosy?” Tony demanded, crossing his arms as he continued to watch Virginia get even more frustrated with whatever was wrong with her gray sedan.

The twins shuffled away like zombies as Harley grumbled. “Aren’t you being nosy too?”

“I heard that!” Tony called out, still staring out the window. Virginia had disappeared inside her car.

He sighed and decided to help his poor neighbor out. He pushed the sleeves of his blue flannel shirt up to his elbows as he crossed the street. Virginia hadn’t emerged from her car by the time he had reached her. He took a quick glance at the opened hood and walked towards the driver’s side where she was. The car door was open.

He tilted his head to look at her. She appeared to be reaching for something underneath the dashboard, her other hand on the wheel.

Tony put his hand on the top of the car door. He cleared his throat. “Hey-”

“Shit, don’t come near me!” Virginia was obviously startled as her hands flew in the air. Tony stumbled back a bit and pulled his hand away from the car door just as it slammed shut. Through the window, he could see a spray bottle of some sort magically appear in her other hand. Her eyes were shut tightly. The spray can was pointed in his direction.

Tony blinked at her. He definitely didn’t know what to make of his new neighbor.

Virginia opened her one eye to look at him, spray can still in position. Tony raised both hands, as if in surrender. He smiled thinly at her. Her eyes widened in recognition. The spray can fell on her lap. There was a beat of silence as she stared at him, open-mouthed. Then she rolled down the window.

“You sure are a bundle of nerves,” Tony stated when the window was completely rolled down.

Virginia exhaled. “I have issues.”

“Yeah, a lot of issues,” Tony agreed.

“And you came out of nowhere, startling me.”

“My bad.” Tony raised his hands once again in defeat. “I saw you from across the street.” He waved vaguely towards his house. “You seemed to be having trouble with your car.”

“It won’t start.” She sagged in her seat, stress line visible on her forehead. “It was fine yesterday and now it isn’t. And if it doesn’t start any time soon, I will be late for work.”

“You go to work early,” he noted.

“I work in Los Angeles. So if I’m going to tread through the heavy traffic and make it work on time, I need to leave for work early.”

Tony frowned. “You work in Los Angeles and you decided to move to San Diego.”

“I told you, I have issues.”

“Right.” He nodded. “And good timing, because I am a mechanic who knows his way with cars. Have you tried jumpstarting your car battery? That’s the usual problem with cars that don’t start.”

Virginia perked up. “No, I haven’t yet.  . .”

“Do you have jump starter cables?”

“I don’t think so.  . .”

“I’ll be back in a sec.” Tony turned around to go back to his house and into his garage.

Soon, he was back with portable battery jump starter in hand. It was a small rectangular black box with cables on it. Tony attached the cables on the negative and positive side of Virginia’s car battery. She watched him do it.

“I think I should invest in one of those,” she said as she looked at the device being attached to the battery.

“You should,” Tony agreed, bent forward over the hood. “It’s pretty convenient.” He straightened up and turned to her. “Why don’t you try and start your car and see if it works?”

“Yeah sure.” She immediately climbed inside her car. She turned on the keys. And Virginia heard the most wonderful sound as the engine roared to life.  She poked her head out from the opened car window. Relief was evident in her voice when she spoke. “You saved my life.”

“It’s more accurate to say that the battery jump starter saved your life. And your car needs a fine tune-up. No offense but your car sounds like it’s dying,” Tony said.

“None taken. Do you know where I can buy that device and where I can bring my car for a tune-up?” She turned the engine off.

“O’Reilley’s downtown has the best car related stuff you can buy. And the nearest place you can go for some car tune up is right across the street.” Tony was leaning on the side of the hood near the door. He was looking at Virginia as he crossed his arms. “Not to brag, but I’m the best mechanic in this neighborhood. If you want some Yelp reviews, you can just ask our neighbors. I fixed half of the cars in this area. And don’t worry. Despite my stellar reputation here, I won’t overcharge you.”

Virginia couldn’t help but laugh and shake her head in amusement. Tony didn’t miss how her cheeks flushed and the spray of freckles appeared on her cheeks. It was one of the things he had first noticed about her when he first saw her back at Mayday. 

“Let me think first about your offer,” she said, still smiling. She brought her head back into the car.

“Sure.” Tony nodded. “Just bring your car to my garage if you’re up for the offer, preferably on weekends, because I fix boats at the docks on weekdays.”

“Is that what you do?” she asked curiously, looking at him through the windshield.

“Yep. I tinker and fix machines in general, and occasionally hunt down my twins when they are still out past their curfew.”

She snorted a laugh but nodded in acknowledgement.

“Can I ask a question?” Tony asked casually, still leaning on the hood.

It didn’t escape his notice how she briefly stiffened at that.

“Shoot,” she decided.

“Do you usually have pepper spray or was it just a coincidence that there was a pepper spray can on your center console?” Tony tilted his head with a mischievous smile.

Virginia threw her head back in laughter once again.

“I gotta know,” Tony continued in between her laughter. “I can’t risk being pepper sprayed every time I go to casually greet you from behind. That thing would hella hurt in the eyes. And I feel like every time we meet, I have some dire consequences to suffer from first before I can properly talk to you.”

She couldn’t stop laughing by then.

“Oh my god.” She wiped the side of her eyes when she sobered up. “I’m terribly sorry. It’s out of habit I guess. But yeah, I usually have pepper spray in my bag.”

“Now I can’t decide which is worse: potentially being pepper sprayed or getting decked in the head again.”

“Get off of my car, Tony,” She said, but there was still a smile on her face. She opened the door while Tony moved out of the way.

He was unhooking his portable jump starter from the battery when he spoke. “You know, it’s nice to see you smiling now, you looked so stressed earlier this morning.”

She didn’t speak, but he could feel her eyes on him.

“There, it’s all set and your car is ready to sail.” Tony closed the hood of her car.

“Thank you so much, Tony,” she told him gratefully.

“Sure, no problem, Pepper.” He shrugged. She shook her head and smiled amusedly with at the nickname.

“Always happy to lend a hand to a neighbor,” he added. There was another beat of silence. There was a pull in her gaze and there was something mesmerizing in her smile. Tony couldn’t help but stare at her.

“Yeah, I appreciate that.” Virginia continued to smile.

He realized he was staring at her. Tony looked away and cleared his throat.

“I should get going.” Tony pointed his thumb in the direction of his house. “God knows what my twins are doing. They probably fell back asleep in the middle of showering or something. They’re going to be late for school.”

“Oh yeah, right,” She was nodding.  “I should get going too. I’m going to get caught in traffic. I’ve got a long way to go.”

“Phew, good luck with that.” Tony turned around and started to walk away.

As Tony trudged back to his house, he reminded himself that he just did what he did out of good will. He liked to be in the company of machines as much as he liked to be with his sons. That was the only reason he had offered to fix her car. And it had nothing to do with her endearing freckled face or her laugh. Besides, he still didn’t know what to make out of his neighbor. She was jumpy and evidently had a thing against people following her around. Tony couldn’t help but wonder why.


It was a whirlwind of a morning for Virginia, to say the least. At first, she had been so confident that she could make it work to drive back and forth from the nice little suburbs on the edge of San Diego to the bustling city on the central part of Los Angeles and vice versa. Then when her car wouldn’t start, the panic had started to creep in. How was she supposed to get to work without a car? Then the next thing she knew, she was laughing because of her neighbor, who had come to her rescue.

She was definitely not thinking about her mechanic neighbor along the stretch of a hundred and twenty miles to LA . . . or at least was trying not to. There was a smile on her face that she tried to wipe off, but failed.

It was pure luck, after the delay and a ton of traffic, that she made it on time. When she reached the floor she worked at, she put final make-up touches on in the elevator and took off her black coat, and then out she went as she zoomed past some of her co-workers.

“I made it,” She declared, out of breath. She plopped down at her desk. “I should be proud.”

“Barely,” Her brunette co-worker, Margaret, leaned over Virginia’s cubicle. “So how’s the drive?”

“Torture.” Virginia shook her head, dropping her bag on the desk in the corner.

“And I might as well remind you that you’re gonna endure that every single morning of your life,” Margaret said. “You sure you don’t want to back out?”

Virginia swiveled her chair around in Margaret’s direction. “How can I back out, when I’ve already signed the contract? Oh, that reminds me. . .” She turned once more, in the direction of her cork board where sticky notes, methodically arranged by date and importance, were plastered. She peeled off a particular one and crumpled it. She spoke more to herself. “I’m on half-day today. I’ve got to meet my realtor, something about the final clarification about my contract lease. . .” She put the crumpled sticky note into the trash bin underneath her desk.

“Is Ginny already there?” A familiar male voice echoed. Then Ryan, in his dashing business attire, emerged holding a cup of Starbucks coffee. “Good morning, Ginny, here’s your Decaf Chai latte. . .”

“Oh!” Virginia was reluctant to accept the cup. “Y-you don’t have to do this, Ryan.”

“It’s fine. I went to get my own coffee anyway.” He raised his other hand with another cup of coffee.

“What about me, Mr. Paxton, don’t I have a cup of coffee too?” Margaret teasingly raised an eyebrow at Ryan.

“Well, you’re not Ginny, so there’s no cup for you. See you later. I’ve got a meeting in ten!” Ryan disappeared before Virginia could say her thanks.

Margaret gave Virginia a look. She spoke in a hushed voice. “I just don’t understand why he can’t be your boyfriend, when he’s so boyfriend-material and obviously likes you, like a lot!”

“We’ve had this conversation a lot of times, Marj!” Virginia answered in the same tone. “I don’t want to force myself on someone whom I only see as a friend.”

Ryan had confessed to Virginia that he liked her, but she had turned him down.  He was the nicest guy Virginia had ever met but all she felt for him was purely platonic and she didn’t want to lead him on. So she had immediately made it clear that all she could give was friendship and nothing else. To Ryan’s credit, he took the rejection good-naturedly, but also added that he wouldn’t back down so easily. He was optimistic. He believed that someday, just maybe, Virginia would change her mind. He had good reason to keep on trying. Virginia hadn’t been with anyone in a long time. So far, there had been no one who successfully tamed her jittery heart. It was sweet how optimistic Ryan was— he believed he could.

“I tell you, Ginny, you’re going to regret it someday.” Margaret shook her head. “There are not a lot of guys like Ryan, who is patient and kind, and who bring you decaf coffees from Starbucks.”

“Go back to your desk, Marj.” That was all Virginia could say as she turned her back on her. “Our boss might come.”

“Whatever, Ginny,” she responded. “But remember, Ginny, what you’re missing out on.” She walked away.

Virginia stared at the blank screen of her desktop monitor. Her therapist had once said that she kept on over-analyzing things that she missed out the present, the essential and what was in front of her eyes. She glanced at the Starbucks cup sitting on her desk with the name Ginny on it. Was Ryan one of those essential things that she was missing out on?

She shook her head, deciding to just focus on her work. There were still loads of financial statements she needed to finish. Well, it was her job as an accountant, anyway. She looked around her small cubicle. All three of the flimsy plastic walls were plastered with cork boards; papers and pictures of her mom and some of her colleagues, such as Margaret and Ryan. She opened her desktop computer as she sipped on her coffee. She started to work, temporarily losing herself in the sea of papers and thinking of nothing else.

It was noon when she stopped working. She walked down the narrowed hallway while carrying a stack of manila folders, her finished work, to bring to her supervisor’s office for signatures and final revisions. She rounded on a corner and almost bumped into Ryan.

“Hi, Ginny!” He said cheerfully.

She stumbled back a bit in surprise upon seeing him. She inhaled. “I told you not to do that!”

“Do what?” He asked innocently. “And let me carry those that look heavy.” He took the tower of manila folders from Virginia’s hands.

“Coming out of nowhere!” She said. “I might have hit you with those.”

“But you didn’t.” They started to walk side by side as Ryan carried the folders. “And you’re not as jumpy as you were before.”

“Oh, believe me.” She shook her head. “Nothing has changed. You’ll never guess what I did to my new neighbor last night.” At his inquisitive eyebrow, she elaborated. “I hit my new neighbor in the head with my wedges.”

He briefly paused to look at her, his mouth slightly open. “Please don’t tell me he didn’t sue you or something. . .”

“Nope, he’s quite nice.” She smiled.

“I should meet him to thank him,” Ryan said as they reached the door of their supervisor’s office. He gave the folders back to her. “I’ll wait for you here. Let’s eat lunch together. There’s this new Italian restaurant a block away. We should try that.”

“Sure.” Virginia nodded and knocked on the door. Then she entered and disappeared behind the door.

“Uh, Mr. Thompson, did you check the errors I presented to you the last time?” Virginia spoke as she stood in front of the table of his supervisor. Her supervisor, Mr. Thompson, was sitting behind his table, staring at his phone. He was a bald man in his fifties, with a bulging belly.

“Yeah, yeah, I checked those. I already corrected them,” Mr. Thompson said. He was more focused on his phone rather than talking to her.

“But do you know where the five hundred million dollars had gone to?” She asked. “It wasn’t adding up with our monthly miscellaneous expenses.” Then she added almost hesitantly, “It’s the third time that millions of dollars had vanished and we don’t know where the company spent it.”

This time, Mr. Thompson looked up at her. “And in the end, we always manage to find out where it was spent, like right now. There were just some miscalculations with the accumulation of new assets.  That’s where the five hundred million went. I’ve already corrected them. That’s all you need to know.”

“Oh, is that so . . .” Virginia trailed off.

Mr. Thompson laughed lightly. His big eyeglasses glinted under the fluorescent light. “Consider it a human error. We are just human, Ms. Potts. So rest your case. You’re dismissed. Thank you.”

“Y-yeah, of course.” Virginia’s frown deepened.

She was still skeptical about Mr. Thompson’s answer. Despite that it was “resolved”, it was still bothering her. There was a gut feeling telling her something just didn’t add up. She pushed the thought out of her head when she saw Ryan was leaning on the wall waiting for her.

“Hey, what’s wrong?” He frowned, walking up to her.

She smiled at him. “Nothing. Let’s go eat. Is Margaret coming with us?”

“Yeah sure, she can come. You should tell her what you did to your neighbor.”

 

She drove back to San Diego after lunch to meet her realtor. Afterwards, she went grocery shopping and even went to O’Reilley’s, the hardware shop Tony had told her about, to buy necessary things for her car. If she wanted her car to survive for long drives, she truly needed to take care of it. It was past five when she dumped the paper bags of groceries and some car accessories in the car trunk. Then she was driving back home.

She was on the road when she recognized two teens at the sidewalk. It was Peter and Harley. They had their backpacks on, so they probably had come from school. They were standing in front of a building while engaged in a seemingly serious conversation. When she reached them, she honked at them. She pulled over in front of them.

The two teens were startled by the honk and looked at the direction of the car. Virginia rolled down the window on the passenger’s side to speak to them.

“Hey!” She greeted them, leaning a bit to the passenger’s side. “I was about to go home, you want to hop in, or is there some place you’re still going?

Instantly, the teens scrambled over to her car.

“I call shotgun!” The two simultaneously declared and raced over to the front side of the car. Harley beat Peter to it. He victoriously stuck his tongue out at Peter. The latter just glared at him in defeat and opened the door to the backseat.

“Well then, buckle up, kiddos,” Virginia announced when they were seated inside. She was smiling amusedly at the teens’ antics. She turned back on the road.

“So you two are in high school?”  Virginia asked conversationally.

“Yep, sophomore.” Peter leaned forward in between the two seats.

She nodded as she watched the road. “Not too far from college. Have you thought of what you want to be when you grow up?”

“We’re going to be engineers!” The twins chorused as they beamed. There was an excited gleam in their eyes.

“Wow. That’s great! You must be good at science and math, then.”

“People say we take after Dad,” Harley told her. “Dad’s a great engineer and we’re going to be like him.” There was pride in his voice.

She glanced at Harley. “I thought your dad was a mechanic?”

“A mechanic and an engineer, he can do both,” Harley answered.

“And speaking of. . .” Peter trailed off, holding up his ringing phone. Virginia briefly saw the phone screen and on that screen, a wacky picture of Tony was being displayed. “Dad’s calling.” He answered and put it on a loudspeaker. “Hey, Dad.”

“Hey, squirt-” Peter rolled his eyes at that. Tony continued to speak. “Where are you? You were supposed to be out of school a long time ago and you don’t have robotics club today. I thought we were going to have a nice boat dinner tonight.”

“I swear, sometimes he can be so overprotective,” Harley muttered. Virginia chuckled.

“Am I on a loudspeaker?”

“Yeah, Dad,” Peter spoke. “So stop embarrassing us, we’re actually in Miss Potts’ car.”

There was a beat of silence before Tony spoke. “Are you stalking our neighbor now?”

Virginia snorted out a laugh and decided to speak up. “I saw them on the road on my way home and offered to drive them home.”

“That’s nice of you, Pepper. Thank you.”

Virginia rolled her eyes, though she continued to smile. “Will you stop calling me that?”

“Not a chance, Pep,” Tony spoke. “Your name is quite a mouthful-”

“You mean the whole three syllables?”

“Exactly. It’s tiresome to call people by their name when they go past my two syllable limit.”

Virginia laughed.

Harley cleared his throat. “Uh, hate to interrupt, but Dad, maybe you could continue your flirting with Miss Potts later-”

“Harley, I swear to God-” Tony said and Virginia flushed. Their car swerved on the road. A car that passed by honked angrily, as Virginia narrowly missed hitting the vehicle.

“-when we’re not around anymore...?” Harley tried to continue. Peter was shaking as he tried to hold in his laughter.

“It’s not-” Virginia tried to say.

“Hey, you’re too young to know what flirting is,” Tony shot back. “You don’t know that word means yet.”

“We’re fifteen, dad.” Peter was grinning. “And we’re old enough to understand what flirting is but too young to witness it firsthand.”

“Miss Potts,” Tony said. “I deeply apologize for my twins. Sometimes, they truly have a loud mouth.”

“I-It’s fine.” Virginia cleared her throat. She was doing her best to appear calm, but there was part of her that wanted to shrink into her seat.

“You two see me at the docks. I’m ordering our favorite at Mayday.” Then there was a pause. “Miss Potts, do you want anything from Mayday? They have excellent seafood here.”

“I-I’m good, actually. I can just cook-” She said.

“Their Cajun salmon belly is worth a try,” Tony stated.

“We second that, Miss Potts.” Peter gave her a thumbs-up.

Then Virginia remembered the files she had taken home to work on. Suddenly, the idea of cooking wasn’t so appealing anymore. “All right, order me some. I’ll pay you when we get there.”

“That’s a deal, Miss Potts. Bye.” Tony hung up.

Virginia released a shaky breath. She was gripping the steering wheel so hard that her knuckles had turned white. Well, that was one hell of a call.

The twins burst out of the car and ran down the wooden platform when they reached the docks. The sky was tinted with blue and violet, slowly eating away the light on the distant horizon. Overhead lights illuminated the area. Virginia was walking behind them. Her heels made a clink-clink sound against the platform. They found Tony among the rows of boats that surrounded them.

He was in a gray button-down shirt, a black long sleeved shirt underneath, partnered with the usual faded jeans. He was lying on the back seat of the boat. Virginia couldn’t tell if he was sleeping since he was wearing a pair of sunglasses. His hands were behind his head and his feet propped up on the gunwale, the upper edge part of the boat. He looked like he was posing for some magazine cover.

Peter raised up his phone to take a picture of their dad. “This is going in our meme folder,” he declared.

“And I already have an idea what the caption is going to be,” Harley added, without missing a beat.

“Awesome, dude.”

Virginia cleared her throat. “Should we wake up your dad?”

“It would be cooler if we had pots and pans to bang,” Harley said, snickering. “We did that once to him.”

“And boy, that was a morning to remember.” Peter was also chuckling, a wide smile on his impish face.

“Yeah, do that again and I’m cutting your allowance in half.” There was a voice from behind them. Tony had sat up in his seat. He pulled off his sunglasses and folded it to hang on the collar of his sleeve.

“Bummer,” The twins muttered.

Tony turned his attention to Virginia as he stood up. “Well, good evening, Miss Potts. Is your car still holding up?”

“Of course and let’s hope it will be for a long time,” she answered. “God, I don’t know what I would do without it.”

Tony bent down to reach something on the floor of the boat. It was a paper bag from Mayday. “Here’s your salmon belly. And if you want, you can join us. The boat’s capacity is four people.”

“Oh no,” She shook her head. “It’s your family time. I hate to intrude-”

“It’s totally fine! You could join us.” The twins chorused eagerly. Peter spoke. “It would be fun. We’re going to eat while stargazing in the middle of the San Diego bay!”

“The juries have decided.” Tony smiled.

It was so tempting, but her deadlines at work were coming up and she hated the thought of being behind. “I still have some paperwork I brought home to finish, so maybe next time.”

“Boring alert,” Tony deadpanned. “Anyway, kids, you heard her. She’s got work to do and we can’t force her.” He extended his hand to give her the paper bag.

“Oh, wait. How much is it?” She fumbled for her bag to get her wallet. “I’ll just get the payment-”

“Consider it paid,” Tony said.

“But-” She looked up at him.

“You gave my kids a ride, so you’ve already paid,” he said.

Virginia was about to argue when he beat her to it. “Come on, Pepper, just accept it, my arm is going to fall off.”

“Right.” She accepted the bag from him. “Thank you.”

“And thanks for driving my kids here.” He smiled up at her.

There, that kind of smile again, where his pearly whites were showing and his eyes were crinkling. It was charming in its own way. It was also contagious. She couldn’t help but smile back.

“No problem. I should get going.”

“Sure.” Tony nodded.

“Bye Miss Potts,” the twins said.

“Bye.” She gave them a little wave and turned around.

She reached the cemented ground above the docks when she saw a woman smoking, leaning casually against the cemented railings that separated the ground and the bay. She recognized the woman. It was Maya from Mayday. She was still wearing her waitress uniform. Maya looked in her direction, extinguished her cigarette, and tossed it to the ground.

Virginia slowed her walk and gave the waitress a little smile, then continued on her way. She was walking past her when Maya spoke.

“Be careful with him.”

Virginia halted. She looked back at Maya. Maya’s hands were shoved into the pockets of her navy blue apron tied around her waist. The waitress was regarding her, head tilted slightly to the left. Brown locks fell over her shoulders in waves that nicely framed her face. Virginia couldn’t deny it. The waitress was beautiful.

“I’m sorry, what?” Virginia asked confusedly.

Maya jerked her head in the direction of the docks. From where they were, they could see Tony and his twins in the boat. The boat had left its spot as Tony stood behind the wheel. It was making its way out of the docks and towards the greater part of the bay. As Virginia watched, it disappeared from sight.

“Be careful with Tony,” Maya repeated. It sounded ominous. “I told you before, didn’t I? He’s not into serious relationships. He has a way with women. He’ll make you fall for him. Then when you confess it, he’ll just give his notorious apology, and nicely say that the two of you can’t be together.”

Virginia didn’t know what to say or react.

“I’m telling you now to warn you because I’ve been there. I’ve fallen for that smile he gave you earlier. It’s a trap. And soon enough, you’ll realize that he’s not going to take your hand to bring you beyond the stars.”

“Yeah, okay?” Virginia said awkwardly. “Besides, we’re just neighbors. . .”

“You never know, babe, you never know.”

Later that night, when Virginia was sitting in her sofa enjoying a plate of Cajun salmon belly, she briefly wondered about Maya’s warning. She had to admit that Tony was just appealing in general. He was nice and good to his kids and she couldn’t help but admire it about him. She didn’t take Maya’s warning lightly but didn’t fully believe it either.

She put down her plate and picked up one of the folders scattered on the coffee table in front of her. Her laptop was turned on, her blue-lit screen illuminating her files. She opened the folder.

There, on the uppermost part of the paper was the logo of the company she worked at.

The logo read, ‘Stark Industries’.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

AC/DC blasted through the speakers as Tony worked in his garage one morning. He sat at his work table, cleaning the detached outboard motor of a speed boat. He had been putting some grease on a certain part of the engine when news on the television had caught his attention. There was someone he recognized on the TV. He looked at the flat screen TV attached to the upper portion of the wall.

“Fri, mute down the music,” Tony ordered. “And up the volume on the news. I want to hear it.”

The AI obeyed silently. The song disappeared and was replaced by the voice of a male anchor. Tony put the grease gun down on the table.

“- as Mr. Obadiah Stane, CEO of Stark Industries, went on stage to receive his third Business Leader Awards this year.”

Obadiah Stane stood proud and tall at the podium, holding a glass trophy. He was a bald man in his fifties with a white scruffy beard. He was wearing a black suit with a charcoal gray necktie. Spotlights were focused on him as the camera zoomed in.

Stane looked briefly at his trophy, then glanced back at the crowd.  “This is wonderful. It’s always an honor to receive this prestigious award. You know, every year, it is our goal to give the world more clean energy and better technology, and better and cleaner will be the lifelong brand of Stark Industries. Thank you!”

The video cut off and went back to the male anchor sitting behind the table together with another female anchor. The male anchor spoke. “There you go, Stark Industries is really ushering the world into a new era of cleaner and better. Weapons manufacturing is long gone as the Fortune 500 company stirs in a different direction.”

“Of course, John,” The female anchor piped in. “The switch from weapons manufacturer to an innovative research company in clean alternatives to energy was ten years ago and Mr. Obadiah Stane has, again and again, proved that he is worthy of receiving all the awards he has gained for everything he has done for Stark Industries and the world. Congratulations, Mr. Stane! And on to some other news. . . .”

Tony zoned out after hearing the news about the Stark Industries. Nonetheless, there was a proud smile etched on his lips as he resumed on his work. “Nice one, Obie. . .”

He felt nothing but respect for the old man. Tony had once led Stark Industries. He knew how hard it could be to lead something so big, especially after the monumental change that had happened in his– the –company. He was aware of the obstacles that Obie had had to go through for the company to be where it was right now. Obie was the one who had taken the hits when the company made a turnaround when Tony made his final decision of stopping the weapons manufacturing before he had stepped down as CEO. He had put Obie in that position. He knew that it was unfair for the old man to be in that tough position in such a critical time, while he just ran away, but Tony was still firm about the decisions he had made in the past, that it was all for the best.

And now, he was seeing the fruition of the decisions he had made. The company remained stable, still on the top, while he was living a quiet and safer life together with his kids. They were happy in the life they had chosen and that was what mattered the most.

He was broken out of his reverie when the doorbell suddenly rang.

Tony jolted a bit. “What was that, Fri?”

“That was the doorbell, boss,” Friday answered.

“Exactly. Why is the doorbell ringing? Are we expecting a guest?”

“Yes, boss. Miss Virginia Potts is at the door. And I believed you scheduled this day to tune up her car.”

Tony dropped the grease gun on the table. It thudded. “That was today?”

“Yes, boss.”

He looked around in mild panic. The whole garage was a mess. Equipment and motor parts were scattered around. There was some motor oil spilled on the floor. Dum-E, Butterfingers and You– his robots slash assistants that consisted mostly of robotic arms and claws –were whirring in the corner as if they were all worried. Dum-E tried to be helpful to his master by moving forward and offering a fire extinguisher.

Another ring from the doorbell and Tony stood up, rattling the table. He pointed at the three robots.

 “You three, try to be useful and clean the floor. See that motor junk there-” He pointed again at the mess where some screws and bolts in varying sizes, empty bottles of unknown substances, and some disassembled engines littered the floor. “Sweep all of that. I need the space clear because another car is going to be here. I don’t want them to be run over. And for the love of God, Dum-E, when will you drop that stupid fire extinguisher?  Try holding a mop, will you? Mop that oil on the floor.”

Another whirr came from the bots.

“Yeah, don’t be a useless heap of metals. Or I’ll disown all of you.”

The bots produced a sad whirr. There was another ring of the doorbell that sounded more urgent than the last.

“Gosh, why is she harassing the doorbell?” Tony mused out loud. “Friday, please tell the lady that I’ll be out in a sec, so she will stop ringing. It’s giving me anxiety.”

“Understood, boss,”

Tony went out towards the door in the corner that led to the dining hall of the house, frantically attempting to wipe the grease off his face. He glanced in the mirror in the hall and winced. All he’d managed to do was make black smears across his forehead. It was too late to fix it then. Tony jogged through the living room and finally, to the main door. He opened it.

And there she was. Virginia Potts was standing at the door. Her blonde hair was down this time. Her hair reached her chest, the end of it was curled and bangs cascaded gently over her forehead. She was wearing denim shorts and white long sleeves. He tried not to stare at her long and even-toned legs. From where Tony stood, he could smell the jasmine scent coming off of her.

Tony mentally winced at his own state. He was a mess and probably reeked of sweat and motor-oil. He should have taken a shower, or at least changed out of his greasy black tank top. His hands were practically black. He inconspicuously tried to wipe off his hands on the brown plaid shirt tied around his waist.

Nonetheless, he gave her a bright smile. “Hi, Pepper!”

“H-hi . . .” She stammered. “Uhh, am I too early? Are you busy? I can come back later-”

“No, you’re just in time,” Tony tried to reassure her. “I was just tidying up in the garage. Give me your car keys so we can park your car in my garage. Friday, roll up the garage door.”


Virginia was still unsure about going to Tony’s house for her car tune up. Well, if she would be logical about it, between her never-ending expenses and lack of time, Tony’s offer was kind of convenient, after all. Her car would be in better condition, she didn’t need to go that far, and Tony probably wouldn’t charge her too much, as he had promised. So she went up to Tony’s porch and rang the doorbell.

After several moments had passed and no one answered the door, Virginia’s resolve started to crumble. Maybe he went somewhere or there was something he was doing? Maybe it was a bad idea to come in there and disturb Tony from whatever he was doing. She tried to ring a few more times.

‘Boss is about to come out in a few seconds, please wait a moment.’

“Jesus Christ!” Her heart almost jumped out of her ribcage from the sudden female mechanical voice that echoed from the intercom attached to the doorbell. She threw her hands to her chest. “Yeah, okay...Sorry.”

However, all her uncertainties were carried away in the wind when the door opened and Tony came out.

Wearing a black tank top.

Speech and politeness fled at the sight of him. All she could think was that Tony’s biceps were nicely toned, and flexed when he moved his arms. The tank top hugged his frame too nicely. She could see the outline of his well-defined chest and downward on his stomach were what suspiciously looked like abs. . . .

“Hi, Pepper!” He greeted cheerfully.

Virginia’s brain must have short-circuited a bit.

“H-hi. . .” She exhaled, willing her brain to work. “Uhh, am I too early? Are you busy? I can come back later-”

“No, you’re just in time. I was just tidying up in the garage. Give me your car keys so we can park your car in my garage. Friday, roll up the garage door.”

The vastness of Tony’s garage caught Virginia off guard. It looked so small from the outside. She stood in the corner, nervously shifting her weight from one foot to another as she studied it, as Tony popped open her car’s hood. Two cars could fit inside his garage, seeing as there was another car covered and parked near the door that led to the main house. Still, there was still enough room for the work table pushed against the wall to the left of her car and for three identical robots to move around freely. The first robot was holding a mop in its claws and mopping the floor, while the other two were pushing a chunk of an engine into the corner area.

“You’ve got impressive helpers, huh.” Pepper turned to him. He had bent down and was adjusting the jacks under the tires of her car. Then he straightened up and stepped back to get a good look at the position of the car. He was wearing worn leather gloves. The long sleeved shirt tied around his waist was gone and she had gotten a good glimpse of the arc in his back. He had good posture and a fine looking ass-

She looked away. Her cheeks were warm. Nope, she wasn’t checking him out.

“Oh, right!” Tony turned to her. He tapped his forehead.  “Rude of me not to introduce you to my assistants,” He walked towards her. He pointed at the robot mopping the floor. “That’s Dum-E, and the one on the right is Butterfingers and on the left is You.”

The robots whirred simultaneously, as if in greeting.

“They said ‘hi, nice to meet you’,” Tony translated for her.

“Oh, I didn’t know you speak robot.” She raised an eyebrow at him bemusedly.

“One of my talents,” Tony shrugged.

She giggled. “They’re awesome.”

“Thanks, I built them way back, never upgraded them. I like them the way they are. They can be dumb at times but are still useful. I threaten to donate or disown them half of the time.”

“Please don’t, they’re adorable!”

“Hey!” Tony shouted at the bots. “You heard that someone complimented you. Congratulations!”

She laughed again and walked towards his work table. She curiously looked around the table. Different kinds of tools, screws, nails and some pieces of metal and engine stuff that she didn’t know what were the purpose of were laid on it. She needed space from Tony, considering their close proximity and the sudden out of control thoughts she was trying to reign in.

“Yeah, it’s an achievement for them,” he said. “Peter and Harley are the only people who compliment them, usually.”

Her eyes remained focused on the screws, as she pretended to be interested in looking at them. “Oh yeah, where are they, by the way?”

“Out, doing whatever teens do on weekends.”

Pepper hummed.

He cleared his throat. “Uh, make yourself at home, and please do sit down, this is going to be a hell of a long tune-up and honestly you might get bored.”

“No, it’s fine.” She dared to look at him and smiled. “This is better than sitting in my house doing nothing.” She sat on the three-legged stool.

“I’ll probably check your spark plug first. When was the last time you changed them?”

“I don’t know what that is, but the last time we went to the car shop was almost five months ago.”

“We?”

“Ryan, he’s a friend who usually takes care of my car, and who usually accompanies me to a car repair shop.”

“Oh,” He was rummaging through the tools littering his table until he found what he was looking for. There were two tools in his hands. He fused together a short metal looking pole into the loop end of a small looking wrench. “Does he mind that someone is poking around in your car instead of him?”

She waved her hand. “I’m sure he won’t. I’ve been indebted to him long enough. I don’t want to trouble him any more.”

“Okay.” He nodded and walked back to the hood.

While Tony was bent forward to the opened hood, she looked around. There was a small shelf next to the work table. She stood up and looked at it. There were an assortment of things on it, such as mini robots, stuffed toys, and another set of picture frames with Tony and his kids again in it. There were also a few screws, bolts and screwdrivers scattered on the corners of the shelf. She moved beyond the shelf to look more at the pictures. Her eyes narrowed curiously. The red-haired woman was in one of the frames again.

Her curiosity was getting the best of her. She glanced back at Tony.  She cleared her throat and spoke. “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but who is this red-haired woman in the picture?”

Tony paused. There was a beat of silence on Tony’s end. Pepper wondered if he hadn’t heard her or refused to answer. She was about to apologize for asking when he finally answered.

“Her name was Mary Fitzpatrick,” He answered as he resumed his work, not even bothering to look at her.

 “Your wife?”

“She was my fiancée and the twins’ mother. She died years ago.”

“Oh, I am sorry to hear that,” she said sympathetically. “I can’t imagine how hard it was for you to deal with something like that, especially with the twins.”

“Harley and Peter were still toddlers when she died, so I don’t think they remember that much about her.”

She nodded at that, even though Tony couldn’t see her. She walked back to her seat and sat in silence. She didn’t want to ask more when it was so personal. She didn’t want to intrude on his personal life. She felt guilty for even asking in the first place.

To Tony’s credit, he started to make small talk. She was actually surprised about how well versed Tony was about a lot of things: politics, trends, news, and especially business. He was updated with the current stocks in the market and even expressed his opinions about investments.

She admitted that she enjoyed the talk. He walked back towards the table, put down the wrench, and wiped his hands with a rag.

“So Pepper,” Tony began. “How do you like our little neighborhood so far?”

Virginia was doing her best not to stare at his arms. “When will you stop calling me that silly name?  I’m settling in just fine. This place is good, and the neighbors are nice.”

She was actually glad that she had chosen this place and she was internally grateful for obeying her instincts. Her instincts were right most of the time. It had just been a week, but she already felt at peace with her new home, and her anxiety attacks weren’t occurring as often as before.

He crossed his arms at his chest and adopted a playful defensive look. “Just so you know, you’ve been baptized with a new name, and that is Pepper. And of course, your neighbors are nice. One of them is offering you a cheap car tune-up.”

She burst into laughter and jokingly said, “I was hoping for it to be free of charge since this is just my first trial?”

Tony looked up at the ceiling and pursed his lips as if he was thinking hard. It made Virginia laugh even harder.

“Fine.” He gazed at her, a small smile on his lips. “As a welcoming gift to our beautiful neighborhood, it’s free of charge.”

“I was just joking!”

“But I wasn’t.”

“But I was troubling you with this-”

“Virginia.”

“Oh! Finally, you called me by my real name.”

“So you would stop spouting your senseless argument and I’m never calling you that again.”

If there was something she was starting to learn about Tony, it was his stubbornness and how he would do anything to get away with what he wanted. So Virginia just shook her head in resignation.

“Okay, thank you, Tony.” She smiled at him.

“No problem. How’s your work in LA?” He half-sat on the edge of the table facing her. “You know, it kinda makes me wonder why you would move here when you could just live there.”

“Oh, that.” She looked down, her smile faltered.

“It’s fine if you don’t want-”

“I had an aggressive stalker in the past.” She glanced up at him. It was a bit hard to talk about her past, considering the trauma it had cost her. But it didn’t mean that she couldn’t share small parts of it. Her psychiatrist had once said that talking it out was better than running away from it or pretending that it never happened at all.

“Seriously?” Tony was surprised. “What happened? Did he or she attack you or something?”

“Almost. But he suddenly left before I could press charges. It was a good opportunity for me to move somewhere new, somewhere he couldn’t follow me.”

“That explains your pepper spray and your over-reacting nerves.” Tony nodded. “Then what happened to him?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know, he just vanished in thin air. I hope he never comes back ever again.”

“And you never tried to file charges against him?”

She shook her head.

“Why?” Tony stared at her incredulously.

“I don’t know! I was so scared that time that I just wanted to put distance between us as much as possible and I didn’t want to deal with him anymore.”

“What if he comes back?”

She froze. Every muscle in her body tensed. The mere thought of it was paralyzing. Of course, she had thought about that every single day, the paranoia and the fear consuming her every second.  It was hard. She looked down once more, not wanting to show Tony how vulnerable she felt in that moment.

“I’m sorry,” Tony suddenly said. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

“It’s fine.” She exhaled. “The thought of that never really leaves my mind, anyway.”

“Hey!” He tried to sound cheerful as he stood up. “How about lunch, where do you-?”

“Actually,” She cut in, perking up in her seat. “I am going to meet someone for lunch.”

Tony smiled mischievously at her as he snapped his fingers. “Ryan, is it?”

She smiled bashfully. “Yep, I invited him over for lunch. We’re planning on eating at Mayday.”

"Great choice! Let him try the Cajun Salmon belly. And the Grilled Marinated fish, you know that's their best seller there, right?" Tony suggested.

She nodded as she continued to smile. She had been to Mayday a few times lately to order her dinner since she was too tired most of the time to cook. She was starting to believe the locals– that there was nothing like the food at Mayday because every bite was just the best. Caesar's salad with the fried oyster was her personal favorite.

Tony stared at her. “Keep on smiling, Pepper.”

“Yeah, I’ll try.” She stood up. “Anyway, is the car-?”

“Nope, not yet, I’m still going to check your fuel filter underneath. It might take a while. Don’t worry. I’ll bring her back to you later, in much better condition. And you, you should doll yourself up because Prince Ryan is waiting for you.”

“Oh shut up!” She snorted a laugh.

“Isn’t he the long lost prince you’ve been waiting for?” Tony wiggled his eyebrows suggestively.

“I’m going now.” She marched away. “Bye, Tony.”

But Tony was laughing. “Hey, let me see you out!”

He followed her.


“Hi!” Virginia greeted Ryan, who was standing by the railings overlooking the docks into the descending afternoon sun. Ryan’s face lit upon seeing her. He pulled off the sunglasses he was wearing and put them on the crook of his collar.  “Hey, there gorgeous.”

She just shook her head, smiling. She had changed into a baby blue maxi dress. Her hair was up in her signature ponytail.

“You don’t look bad yourself.” She punched his shoulder lightly. Ryan was sporting a gray button-down shirt and jeans.

“But it still wasn’t enough to make you say yes.” He playfully pouted.

Her rejection was becoming a running joke between them, though there were times that Virginia couldn’t determine whether he was still joking or being serious. Nonetheless, she learned to get along with it. She learned that it was easier that way than to let things get awkward between them. She didn’t want to lose a great friend like him.

She rolled her eyes in the same playful manner. “Come on, let’s head to Mayday.” She beckoned him forward.

“Great, I’ve been dying to try the food you’ve been telling me all about.” He followed her.

They sat in one of the booths by the window, very close to the same place she had sat the first time she had dined there. She wanted to show Ryan the nice view of the docks she had started to admire and love. Mayday wasn’t as packed as it was during prime meal times, but still, it was bustling with patrons and new people who wanted to dine in there too.

Maya walked up to them holding the menus. She gave the menu to them and whipped out her notepad, waiting for their orders. The waitress didn’t even so much as look in Virginia’s direction as if she didn’t know Virginia at all and hadn’t given her some sort of warning about Tony.

When Virginia was at Mayday ordering her food, there were times that she would find Tony sitting there too. They would engage in short conversations and Maya would spend the entire time shooting Virginia hateful, jealous looks from behind Tony’s back. The brunette had a way of making her presence felt uncomfortable for Virginia.

 “So what should we try here again?” Ryan asked as he opened the menu.

“I’ve tried their salmon belly. It was fantastic,” She answered, trying to push the thoughts about Maya to the back of her head. “And we should also try the grilled marinated fish.”

“So how’s your presentation coming up?” Virginia asked after Maya left with their orders and as they waited for their food to arrive. Ryan was working for sales, and they were preparing for a big business presentation to woo some big clients into signing a contract with them.

Ryan leaned back on the couch and sighed wearily. “Honestly, it’s stressing me out so much. They’ve been expecting a lot from me. It feels like if I fail or mess up, they’re gonna fire me on the spot.”

“You’re gonna do great,” She encouraged. “You always do. I’ve seen you close several big contracts in the past. This is not that different from them.”

His mouth twitched, forming a smile. “You think so?”

She nodded confidently. “Of course.”

He released a deep breath. “All right, since Virginia Potts says I’m gonna make it, then I’m gonna make it.”

She chuckled and then she excused herself. “Wait a sec; I’m just going to the bathroom.”

He nodded. “Sure.”

She stood up and walked out from the booth. After using the bathroom, she was heading back to their booth, when she saw Maya at the counter. She walked faster.

“Is he your boyfriend?”

God, she was nosy. Virginia paused and pursed her lips. She turned to Maya, who was looking at her with interest. “No, he’s not, he’s a friend.”

“What a waste, you two are cute together.” Maya shrugged.

Virginia didn’t respond.  Instead, she resumed walking back to their booth. Their food had finally arrived. Ryan was waiting for her and they started to dig in.

They talked while they ate. Another thing she had learned about being with Ryan was that they shared the same wavelength. They agreed on most things, like the same things and easily understood one another without speaking a whole ton. That was why it was so easy to be with him all the time. He just got her. And Virginia was wondering why it couldn’t be him. Why she couldn’t just feel something for him. He was perfect, in a lot of ways. Theoretically, they were ideal for each other. As much as she would have liked to give him a chance, she couldn’t lie to her best friend about her feelings for him.

“Thank you, Ginny,” Ryan said, once their plates had been cleared and only glasses of wine were left on their table.

She sipped at her wine. “For what?”

“For inviting me here. I was dying of stress and you just saved me from my misery,” Ryan said.

She had propped her cheek on her hand, her elbow on the table. “You poor thing, thank God, I called just in time.”

Ryan smiled. “Yeah, thanks for saving my pathetic ass.”

Virginia burst out laughing.

Ryan asked Virginia to go to the docks when they headed out of the Mayday.  Not far away, she saw Tony standing by the wooden platform talking to a man and of course, Maya was there too. She was starting to wonder if Maya had some sort of Tony radar or invisible antenna attached to her forehead for sensing when Tony was nearby.

And of course, Ryan had to drag her in the direction of the trio. Tony was wearing black long sleeves underneath his white V-neck shirt. There was part of her that was relieved that he wasn’t wearing the tank top anymore. Then she chastised herself for even thinking about Tony and the tank top in the first place. Tony looked in their direction when they grew nearer. 

His eyes lit up in recognition. “Hey, Pepper!” He called. Even Maya looked in their direction. She was still wearing her uniform, but the apron and her nameplate were gone.

Ryan paused and looked down at Virginia. “Pepper? Is that you?”

Virginia sighed. “That’s what he usually calls me. I don’t understand why he won’t just call me by my own name.”

“Who is he?”

She looked up at him. “You remember the neighbor I talked about? The one I hit?”

Ryan’s face lit up. ”Oh my god, that’s him?”

“Yup.” She frowned. “Why do you look so happy?”

“I’m just grateful he let you off the hook so easily. Come on, I need to thank him personally.” Ryan ushered her forwards.

Pepper blanched. “What?”

“Hey man.” Ryan brightly greeted Tony when the two of them reached the group. The other man, whom Tony was talking to earlier, bid his farewell and left the four of them.

“Let me guess, Ryan?” Tony said. When a surprised look etched on Ryan’s face, Tony continued. “Pepper mentioned you and that you two have a date.”

“I didn’t mention that we have a date. I just said that we were going to have lunch,” Virginia immediately butted in.

“It still kinda looked like a date to me,” Maya piped in.

Ryan just laughed in response. “I’m Ryan Paxton.”

 “Tony,” Tony responded, extending his hand for a handshake. Ryan accepted it.

“Maya.” The waitress waved her hand briefly.

“The waitress at Mayday?” Ryan tried to confirm.

“Yep,” Maya answered popping the ‘p’.

Ryan nodded in acknowledgment as he regarded Tony next. “So, I heard Ginny hit you with her pointy sandals the other night.” Maya looked at Tony, taken aback. Virginia’s face turned bright red.

But Tony laughed it off. “Right man, I thought she would split my skull into two.”

Ryan chortled. “Thank you for being easy with Ginny and being a nice neighbor to her.”

“Of course, no problem.” Tony smiled at Virginia. In which she returned the smile.

“You know, you look kinda familiar. Have we met before?” Ryan trailed off, staring at Tony.

“You’re not hitting on me, are you?” Tony countered jokingly.

Ryan laughed harder. “Man, you’re handsome and all, but my heart belongs to Ginny now.”

“Uh-huh,” Maya was looking more interested. “I thought you were just friends.”

“Yes, we are friends,” Ryan answered good-naturedly for Virginia, who was about to open her mouth to answer. “How about you two?” he regarded the latter two.

“Just friends too,” Tony immediately answered.

“Yeah, he isn’t into serious relationships,” Maya supplied for him.

“Oh . . .”

“By the way, Pepper.” Tony suddenly fished something from the front pocket of his jeans. He produced car keys and gave it to Virginia.

Virginia wondered why Tony had never answered Ryan’s question, only evaded it, but she let it slide.

“Oh, are you done with the car?” She accepted the keys.

“Yep, your car is in better condition than ever and now currently parked in front of your house,” he answered.

“Thank you, Tony.” She smiled gratefully. She noticed that Ryan was looking at her questioningly. So she spoke. “He’s a mechanic who fixes cars and boats. . .”

“Really? That’s awesome, man!” Ryan said to Tony. Ryan started to ask him things about car-related stuff that she could hardly relate to. She would not be surprised if those two became buddies sooner or later.

Meanwhile, the women remained in silence. Virginia, who normally would have at least attempted polite conversation, didn’t bother. The woman was rude, possessive and meddling. Why did she care what happened between her and Tony?

 

Chapter Text

Please, go! Save the kids. I am so sorry I put you all in danger.”

“Mary, what do you mean-”

There was another explosion that made infant Peter and Harley cry even harder. He held them tighter in his arms. Fragments of the roof rained down on top of his head, coating his nostrils with dusty plaster and ash. He was hunched over, knees on the floor, doing all he could to protect the twins. He looked over at Mary, and the horror bloomed on his face.

A jagged strip of metal jutted out of Mary’s stomach. Blood seeped through her floral dress.

“M-mary, you have-“

“I know that!” Mary reached out a hand and gripped Tony’s arm.

“Tony, look at me!”

Blood gushed down her temple and dripped off her lashes. She stared at Tony with intensity, with desperation, that paralyzed him.

“You have to protect the twins, please promise me!”

“Protect them from what?!”

“You’re in danger-!”

Another blast rocked the whole place. The ground under their feet shuddered. Dust flew everywhere, and everything turned an ashy gray. Tony had never felt more scared than in that moment, not for his own wretched life, but for the lives of the people he cared about the most.

Tony Stark turned on the lights in the kitchen and tied an apron over his pajamas. He fastened the strings securely around his waist as he walked towards the cupboard. He would make crepes for breakfast. The twins were still asleep, but Friday would have to wake them up a bit later for school. He pulled out the ingredients from the cupboard and laid them out on the table, along with a large bowl he’d bought just for making the batter. He habitually selected the ingredients, emptying them into the bowl one after another, and with an experienced hand, began to whisk them together.

Ten years ago, no one would have envisioned Tony Stark in the kitchen wearing an apron, much less cooking. But a lot of things had changed. He’d traded his solderers and screwdrivers for skillets and spatulas. He had scraped his alcoholism and bad habits into the trash bin and had achieved sobriety. The transition from playboy CEO to a full-time single dad was hard, but ever since Peter and Harley had come into his life, his perspective on things had shifted. And if he had really wanted to leave his old world behind to settle for a new, domestic life somewhere, he had to endure.

Some people questioned his choices. Why he was so willing to give up the fame, the luxury, and his legacy– basically the life and the world he had grown up with for something so ordinary and trivial? They thought that his decisions were ridiculous and stupid and he had gone crazy. But for Tony, those people questioning his sanity probably had not experienced near death, nor had they likely experienced grief for a loss that left them with more questions than answers. They probably never had experienced that deep-ingrained mental torture of what horrible things the future held. Tony constantly wondered if they were going to be in danger again. Mary had warned him, after all. It left him shaking to the core at the mere thought of Peter and Harley being the next ones to be taken away from him. It was the fear of not knowing when or where the threat would strike, a foreboding feeling that had worn him out for years.

He thought that no one could understand that kind of feeling and fear until ten years later he saw himself on someone as if he was seeing again his self ten years ago through someone’s eyes.

He turned on the stove and put a pan on top. He waited for the pan to heat up for a moment before pouring the batter on it. He lifted the pan up so the batter would spread around. After a while, he expertly flipped the crepe.

There was the sudden rumbling of footsteps upstairs. That meant his twins were awake. Now Tony got to decide if it would be one of those mornings. When the twins would act like arch enemies and would throw accusations at each other about missing socks, hoarding of orange juice, and stealing shirts, caps and other stuff. Tony did his best to give the twins all they needed evenly, but often times, their belongings would just disappear magically. Tony had lost count of how many times he had told them to be mindful about their belongings. However, there were also the mornings when the two would calmly climb down the stairs, discussing the latest episode of Buzzfeed Unsolved or Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Then they would eat in peace whilst theorizing about the existence of ghosts, or whether or not Andy Samberg was an immortal who would live forever.

After cooking enough crepes, he had folded them into triangle shapes. He sliced some strawberries and bananas and put the fruits on as toppings. As a final touch, he drizzled the crepes with Nutella. He was putting Nutella on the third plate when Harley and Peter came into the kitchen.

“Dad, Dad! Can you hack the Pentagon?” Peter’s ever cheerful voice greeted him.

He turned around to them, holding the plate. The twins were dressed for school. Their backpacks were slung over their shoulders. Tony put down the plate on the table next to the two other plates of crepes. 

“Good morning, and why would I do that?”

The twins occupied both sides of the table as they sat down. They put their backpacks down at the foot of their respective chairs.

“So we can know if there is really alien experimentation at the Pentagon!” Harley answered.

Tony opened the fridge to get the cartons of orange juice.  “Is that what Shane and Ryan said this time? That aliens exist at the Pentagon?” He closed the fridge and put down the carton on the table. He then went for the cupboard to get glasses and set them down on the table.

“Well, it’s just a theory,” Peter answered, pouring juice in his glass as Tony sat down at the head of the table.

“So can you hack the Pentagon?” Harley asked. He dipped the sliced strawberry into the chocolate syrup and munched on it.

Tony sighed. “Even if I can, I won’t do it.”

Harley swallowed, pouting. “Why not?”

“Because young man, that is a crime. Do you want me to go to jail?” Tony sliced his crepe with a fork.

“You wouldn’t let them catch you,” Peter stated.

“You know, there are just things in this world that are better left unknown,” Tony said.

“That’s all right,” Peter said brightly. “Harley and I could just take down the firewalls at the Pentagon. Right, ‘Ley?

“Right!” Harley exclaimed. They both fist-bumped over the table as Tony choked on his food.

Tony gulped down his cold coffee. “Don’t sound so smug, boys. You’re talking about the Pentagon. It isn’t easy.”

“We know.” Harley glanced at him. “But we hacked Google once and changed their UI for fun.”

“The Star Wars themed UI was awesome,” Peter agreed serenely, chewing on his food.

“I know, right?” Harley nodded.

That was the time when Tony had caught them messing around in his garage one weekend because they were bored. He didn’t know whether to be furious or impressed by it. He was half-expecting FBI agents to barge through his door because his twins had decided to be troublemakers. Thankfully, the twins were smart enough to leave their work untraceable. It took Google one week to restore their user-interface back to normal.

“I’m not going to bail you out of jail when you get arrested,” Tony said and sipped at his mug again.

But Peter smiled. “Are you?”

Tony sniffed. He was a softie when it came to his kids. He couldn’t resist them, no matter what they did, and the twins knew that. But at the same time, they had to learn boundaries. So he spoke. “Yes! That will serve a lesson for you guys not to mess with stuff because you were bored.”

“It’s for experimentation!” Peter defended. “Imagine the phenomenal breakthroughs if we prove that aliens exist!”

“Exactly! It’s going to be a Golden Age for Science, people!” Harley exclaimed.

Tony shook his head bemusedly. The twins continued to talk. As Tony looked at them, he knew that he wouldn’t trade this kind of moment for anything else.

When the twins left for school, Tony went to the dock to start his job. Fixing motorboats and being a mechanic wasn’t exactly the career he had imagined having after stepping down as CEO. But he couldn’t imagine himself not surrounded by machines, and the docks had badly needed a competent repairman for the motorboats, and he lived nearby and was qualified for the job -overqualified, even, with three Ph.D.’s he had. So he had taken the opportunity, and there he was.

Ten years ago, every household knew the name Tony Stark, the famous billionaire, playboy, philanthropist and formerly, the war-profiteer and merchant of death, before he shut down the weapon’s manufacturing section of Stark Industries. He was known for his genius mind and inventions and for his gambling habits and alcoholism. He was known for his legacy and his curse.

Maybe the locals took pity on him. The Malibu Explosion, his family’s tragic fate, had been all over the news, after all.  That was why, when he had shown up one day at the docks to repair a boat, no one seemed to talk about who he really was. As if there was a collective, unspoken agreement among the locals that nothing would be spoken about their new neighbor. There were whispers among them, but nothing had been said out loud. Nonetheless, they had all welcomed his family warmly.

But of course, the media and the paparazzi were an entirely different matter. It took a lot of threatening to sue everyone who dared to cover them as a topic. Tony had wanted to hide because of his paranoia that some people were out there for their blood. His best friend and air force colonel, James Rhodes, had promised him that they were going to be safe. For the first few years, there were bodyguards watching them from a distance. Then, years had gone by, and they were still breathing and safe. Tony had dismissed the bodyguards. Though, Tony had remained vigilant. And by continuously living out of the limelight, bit by bit, the world had started to forget about him.

“Hey, man!” A man in red plaids walked up to Tony when Tony reached the docks. His name was Gary Howell. He was a blue-eyed brunet man in his thirties. He was sporting a similar goatee as Tony. Gary had admitted the first time they had met that he was a huge fan of Tony Stark. Currently, Gary was Tony’s wingman. Gary was the one who dealt with the clients for motorboat repairs, and he would just point out to Tony which boat to fix at the docks. Gary had sworn to keep Tony’s profile low. There were some clients who didn’t even know that Tony Stark was the one who was fixing their boats. The payment was split between them. Sometimes, Tony would give more than a few bucks necessary to him because Gary also had a family to support.

Well, it wasn’t like Tony was on a tight budget. He was still a major shareholder at Stark Industries. He wasn’t just showing up at board meetings. He was also a consultant at the R & D Department and corresponded through e-mails when he wasn’t at the docks.

“My dear Gary, how have you been? Is your wife still hurling things at you?” Tony clapped Gary on the back with his free hand since he was also holding his toolbox with his other hand.

“Oh, I think we’re at a ceasefire right now.” Gary smiled widely at him. “Hopefully, after the first trimester of her pregnancy, her mood swings would mellow down.”

“Wish you the best of luck, buddy,” Tony said. “So where are the boats I am going to fix this morning?”

“Follow me and I’ll show you their illnesses, I know you’ll be able to cure them,” Gary said, smiling as he went to the wooden platform. Tony followed him. “We’ve got three today.”

Tony whistled in appreciation. “You’ve got plenty of catches this morning, huh.”

“Well, you’ve got quite a reputation around here. I don’t even need my sales talks these days.” Gary briefly regarded him.

Tony just shrugged, as they stopped at the first boat. Gary talked about the boat and its problem, as Tony listened intently. The routine was repeated for two consecutive boats.

“I’ll probably go for boat number two first,” Tony decided after Gary had finished briefing him. “We just probably need to clean its valve. But I have to get a look first, we might even need to replace it.”

“You’re the boss,” Gary said. “Do you need any help?”

“Check for boat #3 and disable the emergency kill switch. If that works, then we’re down to two boats. Who knows we might get triple work for today,” Tony clapped Gary on the back again.

“You got it, boss,” Gary said and headed down for the other boat.

Tony started his own work. As the day progressed, Gary had added three more boats onto Tony’s list of to fix. He was in the boat and assembling back the outboard to the boat when someone came up to him.

“Hey, there handsome.”

Tony lowered his sunglasses to look at the figure walking towards him. Maya walked along the wooden platform, clutching a paper bag.

“Hi, what’s up?” Tony pushed back his sunglasses and resumed putting the screw back in its proper place.

Maya stopped at the end of the wooden platform where the boat that Tony was in was currently docked.

“It’s lunchtime, you workaholic moron,” Maya answered. “I bet ten bucks you forgot that it was lunchtime again, so I brought you some.” She held up the paper bag.

“It’s lunchtime?” Tony glanced at his wristwatch. It was past twelve. He looked up at Maya once again. “Thank you, but you really didn’t have to do that.”

But Maya still put the paper bag on the top of the cooler box, sitting on the edge of the platform.

“I’ll just give the payment to Dave later for the lunch,” Tony said.

“It’s on the house,” Maya answered.

Tony sighed, pausing on his work. “You know Hansen, you can’t keep on doing this, putting my lunch on the house. That’s not good for business and Dave is going to ban me at Mayday sooner or later.”

“So, I’m Hansen now, huh?” Maya raised an eyebrow at him.

“That is your name,” Tony stated.

“But how come you never gave me a nickname?” Maya picked up the paper bag on the cooler box and sat on the cooler box instead. She put the paper bag on her lap.

“I’m not sure what do you mean by that.” Tony picked up another screw from his toolbox that was laid open on the seat of the boat.

“Really, Virginia and Pepper, doesn’t ring any bell to you? You never called me anything aside from Maya or Hansen, even when we used to fuck, you know.”

Tony winced behind his sunglasses. “You know, it sounds so bad when you phrase our former relationship like that.”

“Friends with benefits then?” Maya raised another eyebrow.

“Don’t tell me you’re getting jealous over nicknames?” Tony asked incredulously.

“No, I am curious to know what’s going on with you and Potts,” Maya said.

“Oh, I’m starting to get it now,” Tony countered. “That’s why you’re here with lunch. You’re here playing detective, aren’t you?”

“Then why can’t you answer me and prove your innocence?”

“Innocence?” Tony barked a laugh. He pulled out his sunglasses as he stared at her. “You know I don’t play innocent.”

“I see, still a playboy through and through, Stark.”

“You should be aware that all this time I’ve stayed here, you’re the only one I’d ever been with.”

“Yeah, then why can’t you just be my boyfriend? What about Potts? Is she going to be your next-?”

“Will you stop that?!” Tony exclaimed. Then he exhaled. “Look, Maya. You’re a great friend and yeah, good at bed too. But I really can’t give you more than what we have or had, depending on how you view it. And Pep- I mean Potts, there’s nothing more to us than we’re good neighbors.”

Maya stared at him. Hurt was evident on her face. “This wasn’t the first time you’ve rejected me. But wow, every time you do that, it always feels like the first time. And the fact that you see Potts as only a good neighbor makes me even more jealous.” She stood up and left the paper bag on the cooler box. Tony stared at her retreating figure as he fidgeted with his sunglasses.

Once upon a time, Tony and Mary had agreed to get married for the sake of the twins. Their relationship wasn’t even built on love. He cared about her, but there was nothing more to it than that. Mary was aware of that and was okay with it. Both of them were scientists who understood Einstein's theories better than love. He thought that he would be able to learn to love her along the way, the same way he had taught himself astrophysics overnight. But then she died before Tony could learn anything.

Then Maya came. They had had a great time together. Maya, in her own way, helped him cope with everything when he was a mess and Mary’s death was still fresh on his mind. He thought that she was fine with whatever they had and she was satisfied that lust was the only thing that connected them.

But then one night, he was thrown off guard when, in between her kisses and her body pressed against his, she was asking him if they could be in a relationship for real. It wasn’t like he didn’t want to be tied down. After all, his playboy era was long over. However, that time, his paranoia had gotten the best of him and all he cared about was his twins’ safety. So he turned her down in the gentlest way possible. He had wanted to be honest with her. That was why Tony told her that if they couldn’t accept what they were in that moment, they should probably stop.

And they stopped. Maya climbed down from the bed with a blanket wrapped around her. Tony could swear that he saw a glimpse of tears threatening to fall from her eyes. Tony had wanted to comfort her. But how could he comfort her when he was the sole reason she was like that in the first place?

Surprisingly, after all, that had happened between them, Maya hadn’t distanced herself from him. Though, the question of what they might have been, always lingered in the air between them. Sometimes, Maya would be brave enough to ask again, but Tony’s answer remained the same, even if his life was less stressful than before.

There were times that Tony would wonder. If his fate was actually to be alone in the end, and he wasn’t really meant to be with anyone ever. Tony did not believe in soul mates and The One, but if he did, was there really someone out there for him, someone who wouldn’t die on him and wouldn’t leave some cryptic message that would torment him for the rest of his life?

 

Chapter Text

Tony Stark tiredly trudged down the gravel path near the docks. Night had fallen and he had just finished his repairs for the day. He swung his toolbox up and rested it on his shoulder. His eyes wandered towards Mayday, where the music could be heard even from a distance. The resto-bar was busy as usual. There were people lounging around the resto holding beer bottles. He could see through the window that all tables were occupied, with people laughing and enjoying their meals.

And then someone, in particular, had caught his attention, who was also sitting by the window, alone.

Tony decided to make a slight detour before going home.

He went inside. Summer of 69 by Bryan Adams was blasting out of the speakers. He dodged a couple coming his way. Two guys sitting by the bar counter greeted him when they saw him and invited him to join them. Tony waved his hand in refusal.

“Hey, Tony!”

Maya beamed at him, a mop in one hand.

“Nice of you to come.” She went to him. “Are you going to order the usual? I’m going to get-”

“No, no,” Tony immediately said. “I was just gonna go over there.” He pointed at a table not far away.

Maya followed the direction he was pointing at. She looked back at him and rolled his eyes. “Whatever.” Then she went back to mopping the floor.

Tony walked over to the table where Virginia Potts was sitting. Her head was bobbing to the music. From the way her lips moved, she was probably singing along with the song too, even though he couldn’t hear it clearly because her voice was drowned out by the loud music

 “Dear Ol’ Bryan Adams would appreciate it more if you wouldn’t keep your golden voice to yourself.” Tony stopped at her table.

She looked up, startled. “Oh hi, Tony!”

“Are you alone? Or waiting for someone or something?” Tony trailed off, looking around, half-expecting Ryan Paxton to appear out of nowhere.

Virginia smiled.  “Something,”

“Huh?” He looked back at her.

“You asked if I was waiting for someone or something. I’m waiting for something. I’m waiting for my takeout to arrive.”

“Oh!” Tony said. He didn’t know if he should be relieved about that. It was, after all, embarrassing to come all the way over there to talk to her, just to find out that she was already with someone. He pointed at the empty seat across her. “Well, do you mind if I join you. . .”

“Sure, no problem.”

Tony took the seat, his toolbox beside him. He leaned forward on the table and rested his elbow on it. “So as I was saying, golden voice. By all means, please don’t stop on my account. Continue your intimate jamming session with Adams.”

Virginia laughed. “You didn’t hear that.”

“I didn’t.” Tony agreed. “But you could always resume so I could hear it.”

“Uh-huh,” She was nodding. “And why would you assume that I want you to hear it?”

Tony shook his head. “Never fear showing your talent, Pepper, never. Always, show ‘em what you’ve got.”

“Really?” She raised an eyebrow.

“Yeah, like. . .” He cleared his throat. Then he belched out, high pitched. “Oh yeah, back in summer of sixty-nine, oh yeah!”

Virginia threw her head back as she burst into laughter.

Tony cleared his throat again, rubbing his throat. “Too high. I should have done exercise on my vocals first –but hey! That’s what I was talking about, giving all you’ve got.”

“Have you considered becoming a singer?”

“Well, I didn’t-”

“Good. Please don’t.”

“Yup. I’m just gonna stick with machines.” Tony said. “I don’t wanna offend a Bryan Adam’s fan.”

“Not exactly a fan,” She shrugged. “Not my type of music.”

“Ohh, what type of music are you into then? Dead Kennedys? The Misfits? Bon Jovi?”

“Well, you’re not wrong.”

“Woah!” Tony was genuinely surprised. “I never pegged you for a metal rock fan. You look more like a Schubert, Pavarotti, Flemming type of person.”

She wagged her index finger at his face and playfully narrowed her eyes at him. “Looks can be deceiving…  You need to take time to get to know a person.”

He was about to respond when Maya came and put down the paper bag, a little too hard, on the table. Tony frowned at that.

“Here’s your order, Miss Potts. Enjoy your meal.” Maya smiled at her, then left. Her smile didn’t even reach her eyes.

“God, did she put poison in my food?” Virginia muttered. Tony frowned even more upon hearing her. But Virginia just smiled up at him.  “Well, here’s my order now. Are you going home too? I’ve got my car.”

“I won’t say no to a free ride.” Tony grinned.

“I need to hear your playlist.” That was the first thing Tony said when they both slid into the car.

Virginia laughed as she buckled up. She turned on her speaker in the car. The first song on her shuffle list was “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses. Tony laughed in delight. His head bobbed up and down with the music. Meanwhile, Virginia backed out of the parking lot and maneuvered into the main road.

“Come on, Pep, sing with me,” Tony said as he sang along with the music. He rolled down the window. His voice was carried by the wind.

“Nah, it’s your spotlight. I don’t wanna steal it.” Virginia smiled.

Tony was belting out the chorus as his fingers strummed over an invisible guitar when they stopped in front of Virginia’s house. He glanced back at Virginia, who was just staring and smiling amusedly at him.  He stopped singing and smiled back.

“You are full of surprises, Pepper.” He picked up the handle of the toolbox sitting on his lap. “I didn’t expect my night to involve belting out rock music, but it was fun.”

“To be fair, I didn’t expect my night either to have someone giving all he’s got with his talent.” She air quoted the word talent.

Tony laughed. “Well, I should get going then. Thanks for the ride.”

“And thank you for a highly entertaining night.”

Tony tilted his head in an attempt to bow. “I always aim to please.” He opened the car door and climbed down. Pepper followed suit.

“Good night, Potts!”  Tony waved at her and started to walk towards his house.

“Tony!”

He looked back.

Virginia was standing with her elbow on the roof of her car. The car door was still open. “I was just kidding. You, singing, wasn’t that bad.”

Tony snorted a laugh. “Are you sure you don’t wanna show me your talent, we could do duets at Mayday. They host live shows every Friday night.”

“Absolutely not.”

“Your loss!” Tony turned around once more and crossed the street, his toolbox on his shoulder.

Tony looked up at the sky. It was cloudless and the stars were twinkling. Maybe it was cheesy, but Virginia reminded him of the stars. She was bright and shining, different in a way Tony hadn’t experienced for a long time.


 

“Holy shit, are we going to ride in that sad little truck?”

Tony paused dusting the windshield of the white and gold pick-up truck with his feather duster. The car’s paint was chipping off and its seats were worn out. He briefly closed his eyes and sighed. He then turned around. Peter and Harley were standing in the front lawn with their backpacks on their shoulders, ready to go to school.

He looked at Harley. “My dearest son, what did I say about swear words?”

“Sorry,” Harley said. “But look at the car, it is so depressing. Is that what we’re going to ride to school in?”

“Yes, it is. My repairs are finished so it’s time for a test ride. And stop bullying Bertha, I didn’t raise you as bullies, you are hurting her feelings.”

“Mr. Gilbertson named his car Bertha,” Peter stated.

“Are you sure that it’s already safe to ride in?” Harley asked.

“Oh, stop it with your Johnny-complaints, don’t you trust your old man’s abilities? And whose fault it is that you missed your school bus?” Tony was rounding onto the other side. “You will trust Bertha or you will walk to school, it’s your choice.”

Tony threw the feather duster on the floor behind his seat as his twins climbed in. Peter was beside Tony and Harley was in the back seat.

“Buckle up boys.” Tony inserted the keys into the ignition.

“With pleasure,” Harley mumbled. “Peter, do you think we’ll even reach school?”

Peter twisted back on his seat to look at his twin. “Are you talking about the statistical chances or pure luck and miracle?”

“Oh shush you, boys!”

“But dad, we miss Bumblebee. It’s been so long since you have driven him.” Peter leaned back on his seat and hugged his backpack.

Tony’s eyes were on the road. “Well, a sports car is too flashy for just delivering and buying machine parts around this town. Besides, I haven’t had a reason to use it. You know my workplace is walking distance and Gary always gives me a ride if I need to go somewhere.”

“Yeah, you’re good at hitching rides, not just with Gary but with Miss Potts too,” Harley snickered. Meanwhile, Peter looked out the window, biting his lip to contain his laughter.

Tony looked at the rear mirror. “See, that’s the reason why you missed the school bus. Because you were busy playing peeping Tom instead of going to sleep.”

Harley just playfully rolled his eyes.

“Anyway, I won’t be at the docks in the afternoon, in case you come looking for me,” Tony informed them. “I’ll be at Sophie’s, you know the flower shop-”

Peter suddenly gasped, looking back at Tony. “Are you gonna buy Ms. Potts flowers?”

“Guys, don’t think I haven’t noticed what you’re trying to do. Are you trying to set me up with Pepper?” Tony asked incredulously.

“What? She’s awesome and we like her,” Harley said. “So are you gonna buy her flowers?”

Tony was still taken aback by the twins’ confirmation of their strong adoration with their neighbor. His twins never expressed their opinion about Tony’s dating life before. Not even when they noticed that Tony and Maya used to be together a lot in the past.

“I am not going to buy her flowers for gosh sake. I’m going there because of Mrs. Harrison’s car! They asked me to check up on it. It won’t start.”

The twins looked dejected.

Soon, they arrived at the twins’ school and Tony dropped them off. So far, Bertha has held up. He decided to bring it back to Mr. Gilbertson. Later that afternoon, he entered the flower shop, with old Sophie Harrison hunched back behind the counter. The old lady greeted him in delight. Tony noticed a bundle of red roses in the corner. He briefly stared at the flowers, caught by their bloom and fierce beauty.


 

Pepper was dismayed. She stared at her desktop monitor. A spreadsheet file was on display. There were figures and computations on the screen. And she didn’t like how the total amount was alarmingly increasing every month. Mr. Thompson had already said before that he had fixed those errors in their books, but Virginia wasn’t convinced. She still had made her own computation and nothing was adding up and it wasn’t balancing out, no matter how many times she redid the math.

She tapped her fingers on her desk as she sighed. What could she do if her own supervisor wouldn’t listen to her? Well, maybe . . .

“Hey, Ginny!” Margaret grabbed both of her shoulders.

Virginia froze in her seat and exhaled. “How many times do I have to tell you to stop sneaking up on me?” She turned around in her seat to look at Margaret.

Margaret giggled. “You’re funny when you get surprised. Anyways, it’s lunchtime. Are you just gonna keep your ass in that seat or are we going to get Ryan.”

“Fine.” Virginia swiveled her chair back at her monitor and turned it off. She stood up and picked up her purse. “Let’s go get Ryan.”

“I’ll bet 20 bucks that he had gone completely and utterly insane,” Margaret whispered to Virginia, as the two ladies looked at Ryan, who was sitting in his cubicle, eyes staring blankly at his monitor screen. His maroon necktie was tied around his head instead of under his collar. “He looks so stressed for his big presentation.”

“Ryan,” Virginia called out to him.

But Ryan didn’t seem to hear her.

“Earth to Ryan Paxton,” Margaret tried this time.

Still nothing.

Virginia clapped her hands next to Ryan’s ear. That did the trick. Ryan jumped in surprised.

“Yeah, I am going to finish it-!” He turned at Virginia. “Hey, Ginny, I thought you were someone else. . .” Stress lines seemed to double up on his face and his eyes looked tired.

“And you look like a moron,” Margaret stated at him.

Virginia gave her a look.

“Yeah.” Ryan slumped on his seat, looking dejected. “I must be a moron since I can’t do my work more efficiently.”

“How about you we all take a lunch break?” Virginia suggested. “You look like you badly need it. Come on, get up. Your brain needs nutrients to function.”

“But I can’t-”

“You’ll die of starvation before you even finish that presentation,” Margaret said.

“She’s right.”  Virginia smiled at him.

Ryan sighed, pulling the necktie off around his head. “Fine, but just fifteen minutes and I’ll have to get back.”

Margaret rolled her eyes. “Just one smile from Ginny and you’re all yes and yes to her. Amazing-ow!” She flinched when Virginia pinched her. “I was just telling the truth-”

“Our fifteen minutes is ticking, come on guys,” Virginia cut in, walking ahead of them.

“Marj’s right though,” Ryan said as an after-thought.

After 5 o’clock, Virginia strode through the underground parking to her car, her handbag and her suit draped on her right arm. She clicked her fob keys when she neared her car. The car beeped in response. She was about to open the door when she noticed something on the hood of her car.

It was a small bouquet of red roses.

She picked it up, frowning. There was a card taped on it. To Virginia Potts was type-written on the front of the card. Her first thought was, the bouquet came from Ryan. He was the only person she could think of who would pull a stunt like this since he had done it in the past. The bouquets from Ryan had stopped coming by when Virginia had gently told him to stop before her former apartment turned into a flower shop. Ryan had obliged. It had been a while since she had received flowers from him. But why on earth had he started doing it again? It wasn’t even her birthday.

Still baffled, Virginia slid into her car. She put her things on the seat next to her. She fished out her phone from her bag and plucked the card out of the bouquet. She dialed Ryan’s number and held the phone against her ear. She flipped open the card.

She’s got a smile it seems to me

Reminds me of childhood memories

Where everything

Was fresh as the bright blue sky.

 

Virginia froze upon reading the message in the card. It was the opening verse of the song Sweet Child O’ Mine by Guns & Roses. Her call went to voicemail. She put down her phone.

That was just a coincidence, wasn’t it? That Tony had sung the same verse last night and now she had gotten a card with its lyrics on it.

After all, Tony had no reason to give her flowers.


 

Tony and his twins were on their front lawn. The sky was growing dark. He was holding a drone made by his twins for their school project. They were testing it for flight, but the drone was having difficulty maneuvering the direction it should fly.

His eyes narrowed as he stared at the drone in his hands, while his twins gazed back at him waiting for a solution. He looked up at them. “Have you checked your calculations with the angular momentum, are you sure that you got it right?”

The twins whipped out their notepads and started discussing and comparing notes about the formula for angular momentum. Meanwhile, Tony’s eyes wandered across as Pepper’s car arrived and parked in front of her house.

Pepper climbed down from the car holding her bag and a bouquet of roses. She paused when she saw Tony. She stared at him for a moment. She had a weird look on her face that bewildered Tony. Nonetheless, he smiled up at her.

“Hi, Miss Potts!” His twins enthusiastically waved their hands at her.

She smiled and waved back at them.  She gave Tony one last lingering glance before she turned around and walked up to her house.

Tony gazed back at his twins and was about to ask if they solved the angular momentum problem but the way his twins looked at him made him pause.

“What?” He raised an eyebrow at them.

“Miss Potts is holding a bouquet,” Peter said.

“So?” Tony frowned, then it clicked. “Oh for the love of- I didn’t give her those flowers, okay, why would I give her flowers?”

“Are you sure you didn’t?” Harley pressed.

“No,” Tony said firmly. “Now, have you solved the problem?”

The twins once again looked dejected, but they showed their notes to their dad nevertheless. Tony did his best to push the image of Pepper holding flowers out of his head.  For all Tony knew, Ryan Paxton had given her those roses.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 7

At the break of dawn, Virginia Potts parked her car near Mayday. She was already dressed for work with her usual coat and pencil skirt. But before going to work, she had decided to head to Mayday first. She had some business she needed to deal with there.

As she expected, when she reached Mayday, it was still closed. But, the owner and the occasional bartender, was outside. Tony had introduced him to her before as Dave. He was a burly man in his late forties. He had thinning hair and a mustache. From what Tony had told her before, Dave used to be a bartender in a cruise ship and then he had retired and started his own business instead.

Dave was carrying a big Styrofoam box into the resto-bar. He paused at the ramp when he saw her approaching.

“Oh, what a lovely lady the morning has brought in!” Dave greeted her cheerfully. His voice was booming and piercing through the still silence of the early morning. “I am sorry Missus, but if you’re here to eat breakfast we’re not open yet.”

“Ah, no actually.” Virginia stopped by the ramp. “I-I was just going to ask if Maya Hansen is here...?”

“Maya again? Why’s everyone looking for her?” Dave mused. “Well, she’s not here yet . . .”

“Oh I see,” she said, looking down. She had expected it since it was probably too early for her to go to her work. Nonetheless, she had decided to try her luck and see if she was already there.

“On second thought,” Dave said. “She’s already here.”

“What?” Virginia whipped her head towards him. Dave was looking behind her. She turned and saw Maya approaching. She was wearing a red hoodie over her white blouse and navy blue skirt. Her hands were shoved in the front pockets of her hoodie. The waitress stopped in her tracks when she saw Virginia.

“So what do you want Potts?” Maya asked as the two of them walked to the docks. Their heels made a clink-clank sound against the wooden platform.

They both stopped at the end of the platform as Virginia faced Maya. The former spoke. “Look, I’m not going to beat around the bush. I am aware that you don’t like me at all. That’s fine. Not everybody has to like somebody. But what I can’t tolerate is you always looking at me like you’re going to murder me any second, when I haven’t done anything evil to you. It’s totally unfair. If it’s going to give you peace of mind, I am not going to steal Tony from you. I know you have a lot of affection towards him. We’re going to be seeing each other for who knows how long, can’t we just keep everything civil?”

Maya stared at her for so long that Virginia didn’t know if Maya would answer her. If Maya didn’t want to be civil, Virginia would probably go to Mayday less just to avoid her. She had come to this neighborhood for peace of mind and Maya was not helping at all.

“Yeah, what I did was mean. I’m sorry.”

Okay, what Virginia didn’t expect was an apology. She didn’t know how to respond for a second.

Maya continued. “From all the guys I’ve hooked up with, Tony was the only genuine one among them. Those bastards only saw me as an object for their own gratification, but not Tony. I could see that he cared about me. That’s probably why I can’t let him go just yet. He’s the only one who makes me feel like I’m not some sort of trash. Anyway, you’re right. I’m being unfair because I’m jealous, even if I don’t have the right to be.” She exhaled. “Fine, let’s be civil. But I still don’t like you. Remember that.” With that, Maya turned around and walked away, before Virginia could say a word.

And it wasn’t like Virginia could say anything after that. She just watched Maya’s retreating figure as it disappeared into the distance. She glanced back. The sun had risen on the horizon. It was such a splendid view. She should be leaving but she was stuck, mesmerized by the magnificence of the morning and the radiance of the sun, her thoughts wandering off about how, sometimes, it was hard to stay away from beautiful things.


Virginia had left the docks without even noticing small movements from one of the anchored boats. Tony’s head poked out from the boat closest to their spot on the docks to make sure that the coast was clear. Tony slumped down on the floor with his back on the hull. He winced. His legs had fallen asleep. He had had to crouch down in an uncomfortable position to hide from Pepper and Maya.

In all honesty, he hadn’t meant to eavesdrop on what the ladies had talked about. But in his defense, he had been there first. He had been lying on the backseat with his feet up on the gunwale and his cap covering his face, had dozed off for a minute or so. He had been waiting for Maya actually. He had needed to talk to her. He had noticed how Maya had been acting around Pepper lately. It was just small instances, like how Maya would look at her, things that he didn’t want to make a big deal out of. But the other night at Mayday, he had decided that it was enough.  He knew that Maya was acting that way because of him and somehow he felt responsible to sort it out. So he had gone to Mayday earlier, but Dave had said that she wasn’t there yet. So Tony went to the docks to kill some time until Maya arrived.

He had recognized Maya’s voice easily when the two women arrived at the docks. Then Virginia had spoken up, and Tony had momentarily frozen in his position. Then, he had immediately and quietly crawled down to the floor and hid. Because he had ears and he was within their earshot, he heard everything.

Turned out, Pepper had sorted the problem by herself.

Good for her.


“Ryan, can I ask a question?” Virginia came to Ryan’s cubicle one afternoon.

Ryan turned around in his seat. He looked kind of distracted and she knew that their big presentation was consuming all of his time. Nevertheless, he smiled. “Oh hey, Ginny.”

“I’m just gonna make it quick so I won’t disturb you further. . .”

“No, it’s fine.” He stood up. “What’s up?”

“You’re not giving me flowers again, are you?” Virginia straight up asked.

“Huh? What? You said before that I should stop, so I stopped giving them to you.” Ryan’s brows furrowed.

“Good and keep it up.” Virginia patted his shoulder. “That’s all. I’ll leave you to your work then.” She smiled and stepped back.

When she turned around and walked away, her smile slipped. Then who on earth was sending her the flowers? She had already checked the dash cam on her car, but all that could be seen in the footage was a hand putting the bouquet on the hood.

There was another bouquet on the hood of her car when she was about to go home. There was also another card taped to it. She plucked out the card and flipped it open.

Love of my life, you've hurt me
You've broken my heart and now you leave me
Love of my life, can't you see?
Bring it back, bring it back
Don't take it away from me, because you don't know
What it means to me

 

The message was another lyric from a song she often listened to, Love of my Life by Queen. There was only one person left who could possibly have given her flowers, only one person left to ask. She knew that Tony had no reason to give her those, but she was kind of desperate to have someone she could point out, someone she actually knew. She didn’t like the uneasiness in the pit of her stomach that it was from some stranger instead. She had a rough history with strangers after all.

She was thinking about how to ask Tony about it without sounding awkward as she drove back to San Diego. She didn’t want to assume but she didn’t want to be left in the dark either. Darkness could be all-consuming.

The sky had turned orange and gold by the time she reached San Diego. She got stuck in traffic. While waiting for the traffic to move, she decided to practice.

“Hey, Tony,” She whispered. “I just wanna ask if you’re the one who gave me the flowers, I know it’s highly unlikely to happen, but I just want to be sure because the bouquet had a card in it and there were song lyrics attached to it that you were belting out just the other day-God this is so stupid.” She gripped the steering wheel harder and rested her forehead on it.

She exhaled and straightened up. She shook her head. “No, it wasn’t him. You can’t just point it out to him just because of some stupid lyrics. What about the second card? It doesn’t make any sense, sure he might have checked out your playlist before – but that’s just insane Pepper-” She paused. “Oh Great! Now, you’re calling yourself Pepper.” She hit the center of the steering wheel in frustration, honking her car. She muttered with the same level of frustration. “Why this stupid traffic is not moving. . .”

Looking through the windshield, her eyes wandered on the sidewalk, just in time to see someone come out from the flower shop.

That someone happened to be Tony.

“No, it wasn’t him.” She continued to chant to herself. “Just because he came out of a flower shop doesn’t mean it’s him. Do you know how ridiculous that sounds? Everything is just a coincidence.” She honked again, gritting her teeth.

The honk caught Tony’s attention, as he looked at the direction of her car. He paused and looked again. His face lit up when he recognized her. She couldn’t help but smile back. He walked towards the car. She rolled down the window on the passenger’s side.

“Hey, Pepper, fancy seeing you here!” He said cheerfully. He was on the edge of the sidewalk, bent forward, looking at her.

“H-hi! Yeah, I-I’m on my way home, are you going home too-?”

“Yeah, in fact, I am.”

“Then hop in,” she automatically said.

“With pleasure!”

She immediately picked up the bouquet and her purse sitting on the passenger side as Tony opened the door. She threw the flowers and her purse in the back. Tony slid inside holding a toolbox. The traffic started to move again just in time Tony shut the door closed.

He rested his toolbox on his lap. He twisted a bit on his seat and glanced at the flowers in the back. “Ryan’s been extra sweet to you lately?”

“Huh?” she briefly looked at him, then back at the road.

“I saw you with another bouquet yesterday. I thought Ryan was giving you those?” He pointed his thumb at the flowers behind.

“N-no, it wasn’t from him.” Then she blurted out. “It wasn’t you either, right?”

Silence.

A very awkward silence followed that made her want to drive her car straight off a cliff. She shouldn’t have asked that.

She dared to glance at him. He was staring at her with a raised eyebrow. She forced a laugh, once again looking straight ahead. “I-I was just kidding. I know it’s impossible-!”

“Well, I can assure you that it wasn’t me who gave you the flowers,” Tony said. “But it’s not impossible. Do you want some-?”

Another laugh escaped her lips. “W-why would you give me that, gosh, I just wanted to make sure it wasn’t you, it’s better to ask than to jump into conclusion right away, right?”

He nodded. “Yeah, you’re right, asking is good.”

She had swerved on the road and hit the brakes.  They slightly lurched forward as they came to a stop on the side of the road. “This is so awkward and embarrassing. I’m so sorry.” She couldn’t look at him. She could feel her face reddening.

Tony laughed. “Nah, it’s fine. You’re cute when you’re all embarrassed.”

That’s when she got the courage to look at him and glare. Tony laughed even harder.

When he sobered up, he spoke. “But if you don’t mind asking, what makes you think that it’s me who gave you those bouquets?”

She sighed and slumped back in her seat. “The bouquets had cards in it. Inside, there were lyrics written on it. The first card had the opening verse of Sweet Child O’ Mine which you coincidentally sang before.” She glanced at him. “Then the second card had more written lyrics on the card, this time from another song I frequently listened to. You looked at my playlist before, then I just saw you come out of a flower shop, so I just thought-” she shook her head looking out the window on her side. “I know it’s ridiculous having these kinds of theories.”

“That’s a fair point actually,” Tony said in sympathy. “Actually even my kids asked me if I gave you the bouquet. I wasn’t the only one who saw you holding one the other day you know.”

She turned her head at him questioningly.

“My kids like you a lot.” He tried to explain.

That made her smile.

“Well, if it’s not Ryan and it’s not me. Do you have other ideas on who could it be?”

“I don’t.” She lied. She had another hunch. But it was something she didn’t want to further think about. But then again, maybe it was just her never-ending paranoia. So she spoke. “Though, maybe it was just some of my coworkers.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised about that,” Tony smiled. “You’re not that hard to like at all.”

Flattered, she smiled again.

“But you know, if you don’t mind me adding on your pile of flowers, I could really give you one-”

“Oh, shut it, Tony.” She maneuvered back at the road. She knew that he was just teasing and probably joking about it. Besides, Maya would totally kill her for real if something like that happened.

“Hey, Sophie’s got the best flowers in town. That’s where I’ve been earlier.”

“Why were you there, anyway?”

“Been repairing the shop owner’s car,”

Virginia turned the lights on when she entered her house. She walked across the living room holding the bouquet and her purse. She put down the bouquet on the top of a small cabinet in the corner where another vase with roses was laid. She sat tiredly on the couch, resting her head back on the top of the backrest. She stared at the small chandelier lighting up her home.

 She stood up and was about to head upstairs to change when her phone started ringing in her purse. She paused looking down at her purse on the couch. She picked up her purse and fished out her phone. An unknown number was calling. She answered it.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Ginny, it’s been a while, missed me?”

Hearing that voice again, it felt like she had been doused by cold water, the coldness seeping through her skin and making her blood turned also cold. She couldn’t speak as if she didn’t know how to.

“Did you like the flowers I’ve been sending you?”

Virginia had forgotten how to breathe.

“Anyway, heard that you moved away, though I would probably find it out soon.” A laugh escaped his lips. She started to tremble.

“Hope, you’ve never forgotten about me because I haven’t. See you soon, my love.” He hung up.

She felt faint as she collapsed on the floor dropping her phone.

It couldn’t be.

 She shouldn’t have sought answers because the answers would have come looking for her. Now, it was too late. Her subconscious was screaming at her about how right it was for thinking there was another man behind all of those flowers. But she chose to be in denial because considering it in the first place was a punch in the gut. And now, he was here.

Her former stalker had returned.

Aldrich Killian was back in town.

 

Chapter Text

If Virginia’s regrets were weighed on a scale just to measure how screwed up her life was, the scale would certainly be crushed under the weight of everything she wished she hadn’t done. They were too heavy. She sometimes wondered how she had carried them for all these years.

She had regretted smiling at the stranger who had approached her in the coffee shop one time. The first time he sat next to her on the counter by the window, it should have sent dire warnings into her head that something was definitely not right. But of course, that time, Virginia had just tried to be polite.

“Interesting book you’re reading.” The man slid on the high stool next to Virginia. He sipped at his mug and placed it on the counter with a clunk.

Virginia looked up from her book. A blond man in a pinstriped suit was smiling at her. His hair was sleek and combed back and he had a dashing smile that showed off his pearly white teeth.

She smiled back. “Oh, it’s just a book I’ve been reading to reduce stress, nothing special.”

“What is your boss the type that kills you with piles of work and has no regards for official working hours?” He asked.

She managed a small laugh and put down her book. “No, not really. . .”

“Quit your job if it’s giving you a hard time.” He sipped again at his mug. “That advice is for free and the best advice you could ever get.”

“Well, I wish I could, but you know, there are bills to pay and all that.” She fidgeted with pages of the book.

He shook his head. “Life is too short to get tied up with the world’s mundane things. Go out there and explore new things, do some shit and all that.”

“Wow, I don’t know if I should be impressed or terrified by that advice.”

He laughed. “I just read that in a fortune cookie.”

Virginia laughed with him.

“But if you think about it, it isn’t that bad of advice, yeah? It makes you look back on the things you’ve done and realized what you’ve been doing all this time. I’m Aldrich Killian by the way, and you are?”

“Virginia Potts.”

“Nice to meet you, Virginia.” He held out his hand for a handshake.

She accepted it.  “Pleasure, Aldrich.”

They talked for some time. She learned that Aldrich was a home-based software developer and that he had gotten fed up with bosses ordering him around, so he had quit his old job. He worked independently instead. She thought that he was kind of nice and insightful about things. Then an hour had passed and Killian had to leave because he had a client to meet. When he was gone and she was left alone with her forgotten book laid on the counter, her second regret had come. She should have listened to a bit of friendly advice from another stranger.

A waitress had come to the counter to collect the mug and clean the spot that Aldrich had left behind. She was wiping the counter when she had stopped what she was doing and looked to Virginia. Her voice was a bit hesitant. “Uh, h-hi miss . . .”

Virginia was just about to resume reading her book when the waitress had called her. “Yes?”

“I don’t mean to intrude on your business or anything, but I just saw you chatting with that blond man earlier. . .”

“Yeah?” Virginia had no idea where the waitress was going with this.

“I. . . just be careful with him, I guess. . .” The waitress stuttered. “I-I’ve been working here for a long time and I’ve witnessed some other women approached by that man. Like you, it all started nice and sweet, but after a few days, things turned ugly. There were some who came here with that man trailing behind them. They looked angry and pissed off at him. I don’t know what exactly had happened, but it didn’t look good. I don’t know the man personally, but it doesn’t hurt to be careful.”

Virginia smiled at the waitress. “Yeah, I’ll keep that in mind. Thank you-” She glanced down at the name tag pinned on her brown uniform. “-Janine,”

“Yeah, okay. Enjoy your book.” With that, Janine left.

But as time went by, Virginia hadn’t kept the advice in mind.

Three days after, she walked out of a building after a meeting with one of their company’s suppliers. She was on the sidewalk with her phone in hand. She was texting Margaret to let them know that she was on her way back at Stark Industries, so they could wait for her, and the three of them together with Ryan, could have lunch together. She hit send and bumped into someone. The red notebook she was holding fell on the pavement.

“Oh my, I-I am sorry, I wasn’t looking-” She was about to pick up the notebook when a hand beat her to it. She looked up. “Aldrich?”

He looked surprised as she was. “Oh, hi, Virginia! Wow, if only I believed in fate. I think it might be pulling us together.” He winced. “God, that was corny and cheesy-” Virginia shook her head with an amused smile. Aldrich continued. “Anyway, I believe this is yours.” He gave the notebook to her.

“Thank you.” She smiled.

“So where are you heading?” Aldrich inquired.

“Back to the office. I have a meeting with some client.”

“Well, have you had lunch? There is a good restaurant I know of about a block away.”

“Sorry, I’m gonna have to refuse. I have to get back to my office asap to report to my boss,” she said.

He cringed. “Yeah, the boss. That’s why I hate bosses. Anyway, next time then. See you around!”

As Virginia watched Aldrich retreating figure, she was so far away from the thought that it wasn’t fate, it wasn’t destiny and it wasn’t some cosmic circumstances that brought them together at that moment. She was blind to the fact that it was all a game to him. He was enjoying every second of it, and she wasn’t even aware of it.

The third regret had come on the road at the speed of 70 miles per hour on a fair afternoon. Virginia was driving and on her way home from work. She was about to overtake the car in front of her. She maneuvered the wheel to the left and was about to switch lane when her phone on the center console rang, which was a mistake because her eyes had chosen to look at the phone rather than on a side mirror.

BAM!

Airbags deployed as her car skidded on the road, missing the car in front of her by an inch. The car continued to skid down the road until it slammed into the railings, prompting it to a sudden halt. Virginia groaned. Her conscious could barely keep up. Her head and her left wrist hurt. She felt so heavy and dizzy all of a sudden. Everything went black.

Virginia had woken up in the emergency room of a hospital. The first thing she saw was Aldrich Killian’s face looming over her. She frowned. Why was he there?

“A-Aldrich?” she spoke hoarsely, her vision fading and focusing on his face.

“Ginny?” Aldrich spoke. “You’re awake? Wait, let me call a doctor.” Then he was gone.

Later that day, when she was more awake, she had learned from Aldrich that the car she collided with was his car. Fortunately, he had only sustained minor injuries. Meanwhile, Virginia had a sprained left wrist and there was a three inch long cut on the left side of her forehead that had to be stitched closed. Otherwise, there were no major concussions or other major broken bones and internal injuries. Aldrich was willing to let everything go and refused to accept any financial assistance from her for his own hospital bills or to fix his car.

“I didn’t know who to call when you were rushed here.” Aldrich informed her as he sat on the side of the bed. “l tried to call from your phone but it got a password so I couldn’t get in. Do you have any family or friends we can call?”

She was sitting on the bed, cradling her arm wrapped in a cast. He gave the phone back to her and she accepted it with her good hand. “It’s fine. My mom lives in New Jersey and it’s not like she can come to LA in an instant. I don’t want to worry about her or my friends.”

Aldrich nodded in acknowledgment.

“I wanna go home, Aldrich.”

He looked startled. “W-what? You can’t, you’re still under observation. They’re going to admit you.”

“I feel okay,” she insisted. “I just don’t want to stay here. The smell of the hospital just makes me more sick. I just want to rest in my apartment.”

“But-”

“Please, Aldrich.”

He sighed. “Fine. I’ll go talk to the nurse about your discharge.”

She shouldn’t have let him take her home. She should have called Margaret or Ryan in the first place. Because from that moment on, Aldrich would abuse that information. She was just too tired and too sore to question everything. She didn’t even think about how Aldrich was there at the right time and moment, and it was his car that she had collided with.

 


 

 “You should have called us!” That was the first thing that Ryan had said when Virginia opened her apartment door to let Margaret and Ryan in.

Ryan had called her earlier in the morning when they learned that Virginia had called in sick. So Virginia had had no choice but to spill everything that happened yesterday. That prompted the two to take a half day at work and visited Virginia in her apartment.

“I just didn’t want to worry you. I’m fine.” Virginia turned around from the door as the two stepped in.

“Does that look fine? Your hand is in a cast and you have gauze on your head.  You shouldn’t be here in the first place!” Ryan continued. The two were holding Chinese takeout at Virginia’s request.

“I agree with Ryan.” Margaret cleared off the things on the table and then put down the takeout. “You should have let the doctors admit you.”

“Oh shush, Mom and Dad.” Virginia sat on the couch while the two prepared everything. “You know how much I hate the hospital.”

“And you even let some stranger bring you home,” Ryan said. “What if he’s a psycho or something?”

“Aldrich is not a psycho, I think,” Virginia answered. “He was nice enough. And he’s not exactly a stranger since I met him a few times before the accident.”

“Oh did you now?” Margaret plopped down on the carpeted floor. Ryan was sitting across from her. “And why we are only hearing about this Aldrich guy just now? Who is this guy?”

So Virginia launched into the story as they ate. They listened until her story had finished. They still did not look so convinced about Aldrich.

“I don’t know, Ginny,” Margaret said. “Yeah, okay, maybe he’s really nice, but you just met him a couple of times and all you know about him is he’s some sort of software tech guy.”

“She’s right,” Ryan agreed. “Just be careful about him, 'kay?”

“You’re not jealous that you seem to have competition now?” Margaret wiggled her eyebrows at him.

Ryan only glared at her in response.

That’s when things started to get weirder for Virginia. It all started when Aldrich showed up in front of her doorstep the next day holding a bouquet of flowers. She still hadn’t gone to work and probably wouldn’t for several days until her cast had been removed.

 She was, of course, surprised again to see Aldrich there, but politely invited him in. He reasoned that he wanted to check up on her and see how she was doing after the accident. He admitted that he was worried. She assured him that she was doing fine and healing well. They talked for a bit. Though, a worried voice in her mind was whispering to her that the fact that she was alone with this man in her own apartment and that he was sitting awfully close to her was unsafe. She pushed those thoughts into a dusty, forgotten corner of her brain. He was just being nice, she reasoned.

It didn’t end there. There were times that Virginia would be grocery shopping, then suddenly Aldrich would pop out of nowhere to help her with her grocery bags. Her car was still in the repair shop so she was taking a cab to go anywhere. His reason this time, they were going to the same supermarket to shop. He offered to take her home and Virginia had no reasons to decline and hey, it was a free ride home.

Then Aldrich began to appear at her workplace. It would startle the heck out of her. She would leave the building just to find Aldrich lounging outside. She had no recollection of telling him where she worked, though he insisted that she had told him that she worked at Stark Industries. She continued to be polite to him, but days after days of seeing Aldrich everywhere she went was starting to unnerve her.

Finally, she had enough.

She confronted him about his presence almost everywhere. He answered her with a confession that he liked her.

“I like you, Ginny. The first time I saw you in the coffee shop, I just knew then that I like you,” Aldrich admitted. He had a soft, pleading look in his eye, but Virginia had to be honest.

“I’m sorry, Aldrich. I don’t return your feelings.” She tried to be as gentle as possible.

“But can you just give me a chance-”

She shook her head. “I’m sorry, it’s still a no.”

“But why, did I do something wrong?”

Yeah, always being wherever I go is a bit too much. She could have said it to him, but decided to keep those thoughts to herself. “You’re a nice guy, Aldrich. And someday, there is going to be someone out there who will reciprocate your feelings, but that’s not me.”

With that, she walked away. She didn’t see his expression change from gentle and soft to raging, deadly contempt and mania.

Later that day, Margaret and Virginia went to the repair shop to get her car. It had taken them three weeks to repair the damage her car had taken from the accident.

“Here, we found something in your car.” The mechanic named Daniel handed her a small, rectangular black box.

Virginia was baffled when she accepted it. She’d never seen it in her life. “What is this?”

“That’s a GPS tracking device. It was underneath your bumper. We saw it when we were doing some repairs.”

“W-what, why would I have a tracking device. . . ?``She was lost for words.

“The easy explanation is someone wants to know your every move,” Daniel answered.

It felt like she had forgotten how to breathe when she realized who that person might be who was behind all of it. There was only one person who had been conveniently at the same place where she was before the accident.

“Ginny, do you have any idea who could it be?” Margaret frowned worriedly at her.

“I-I don’t know yet.” She gulped. She was suddenly too scared to acknowledge that it was all Aldrich’s doing. Maybe it was really not him and she was jumping to conclusions too easily.

“Should we report this to the authorities or something?” Margaret asked.

“It could be considered stalking, especially if you gave whoever did this no permission to track your whereabouts. Stalking is a crime, Miss,” Daniel said.

 


 

Virginia reached her apartment building in a slight daze. There were so many things going through her head that she realized a bit too late that she wasn’t alone in her apartment.

She opened the door and flicked the light switch on. She stepped out of her stilettos. Then she removed her coat and was about to head straight to her room when she stopped dead in her tracks.

In her peripheral vision, she could see someone sitting on her couch.

She whirled in the direction of the dimly lit living room.

Aldrich Killian was on the couch, sitting comfortably with his legs crossed like he owned the place.

Virginia’s heart started to hammer in her chest. She took a step back. “H-how did you get in here? The door’s locked.” She clutched her coat in front of her.

“How did I get in here?” Aldrich stood up. Virginia slowly backed up. She shuddered when she felt the rough surface of the wall against her back. She could escape no further. “I’ve been in here many times without you noticing.  I know you keep a spare key in the vase outside your door, so I duplicated it, and here I am.”

“You’re the one who put a tracker on my car, aren’t you?” Her voice shook.

He nodded smiling as if he genuinely enjoyed breaching people’s privacy. “I told you the first time I laid my eyes on you in the coffee shop, I like you. And I knew that you were going to be my next little mouse. I like you so much that I’m willing to go such extremes for you. It’s a first for me. ” He slowly walked towards her. She was frozen in her spot. Her limbs had forgotten how to function correctly.

“If you just accepted my feelings, this wouldn’t have happened. You would be mine. We would be getting along perfectly, enjoying each other.” His eyes took their time scanning her body. The predatory gleam made Virginia want to throw up. “

But of course, you’re a little picky bitch.”

He reached her. He swiftly put his hands on either side of her shoulders and caged her in. Virginia couldn’t help but tremble.

“I am going to report you,” She gritted out. She tried to act brave with her voice, but the very visible shaking of her body was giving her away.

“They all said that and look, I’m still here. You can’t do anything to me and I’m always going to come for you,” He whispered. Their faces were inches apart. She could feel his hot breath on her nose as he tilted his head down. Closer. His lips brushed hers, and it jolted her out of her shock. She vehemently turned her head to the side.

“Defiant, sweetheart? Not for long,” He whispered in her ear. He dug his fingernails into her arm so hard it split the skin and used his other hand to force her chin up.

“Yes, and I am so glad that I didn’t say yes to you, you psycho asshole.” With all her might, she kicked him in the groin. That took him by surprise as he yelped in pain. She pushed him away hard. He lost his balance and fell to the floor.

It was the opportunity she needed. She scrambled out of the way, flung her door open, and ran out of the apartment. She tried to scream for help, but it was like Aldrich Killian’s hands were wrapped around her slim throat, choking away any noise. So, she ran barefoot and silent, clutching her coat to her chest.

What was she supposed to do?

The answer came when something vibrated in the pocket of her coat. Her hand was still trembling when she fished her phone out. Ryan was calling. She answered as she continued to half-run and half-walk through the street.

“Ginny!” Ryan said. “I heard from Marj that there was some sort of GPS tracker on your car-”

“Ryan... .help. . .” She croaked out breathlessly.

“WHAT? What happened to you, are you okay? Where are you?” His voice was frantic.

“Just, just, I can explain later, just get me. Please. I will be at Marty’s four blocks away from my apartment, you know where that is, right? You can’t contact me after this call, so please just meet me.”

“Yes, of course, I know where that is. Just stay put. I’ll be there in ten.” He hung up.

She threw her phone into a nearby trash can. If Aldrich had decided to put a tracker on her car, why wouldn’t he do the same to her phone? He would’ve had the perfect opportunity the time she got into an accident and her phone was with him.

And so, Virginia ran and ran and ran until she reached the convenience store where she would meet Ryan. She figured that Aldrich wouldn’t risk doing anything to her while she was in public. Besides, she tried to get as far away as possible. Hopefully, Aldrich wouldn’t find her there yet.

She must have looked weird to the customers of the convenience store when she arrived there. She was barefooted and a haggard mess. She paid them no attention as she sat at the table outside of the convenience store. She was still shaking and she was sure that it wasn’t from the cold. She hunched back into her seat as she hugged herself, willing to give herself small comfort after what had just happened.

Then a sob escaped her lips. God, she was so so scared. She thought that she was going to die right there in Aldrich’s hands. She continued to cry even when Ryan arrived, who was worried beyond belief at the state he saw her in.

She had felt his comforting arms around her. At last, she could finally breathe again. She was safe with her best friend.

“Ginny, what happened?” He tried to ask.

“L-let’s just not go to my apartment. .  .”

The memory of what had just happened sprung back into her head, in high definition. The fear, the panic, the anxiety made her surroundings spin. The whole world tilted.

Then she blacked out.

Thankfully, Ryan obeyed her wish not to go back to her apartment, even though the whole situation was so vague to him. Though, thanks to Aldrich, she had woken up in the ER once again. And when Ryan and Margaret had learned what happened, they were so enraged that Virginia was sure they were going to strangle the living daylights out of Aldrich with their bare hands. She could barely make them stay still and not murder Aldrich right there and then.

Margaret immediately called her lawyer friend to help them with the process of filing charges against Killian. Then Virginia had learned that there was no direct evidence that would link Killian to all of his crimes. The tracker chip was no longer with her. She forgot her handbag in her apartment in haste to flee from Killian that night. The chip was in her handbag and Killian must have seen it and brought it with him to destroy potential evidence. He might have confessed his crimes to her, but there was nothing that would support that allegation, not even a voice recording of his confession. Killian was so thorough with his crimes that he managed to disabled all surveillance cameras in the apartment that night of the incident.They needed solid evidence against him. They needed Killian caught red-handed.

This was where the last regret about Aldrich Killian would come in. She should have never stopped fighting to make Killian pay for his crimes.

It was probably the trauma of being so close to him, feeling him force himself on her that made her so vehemently desire to be nowhere near him. Then something happened and Virginia didn’t know if it was a miracle or some deity from above had taken pity on her.

But the thing was, Aldrich Killian just disappeared.

As in vanished into thin air, left no trace behind, as if he had never existed. She never saw him again.

So, how they were going to offer solid evidence against him when he was nowhere to be found?

Virginia was dubious at first, to the point that she was watching her back every second for days expecting Killian to be there, but no Killian had shown up. She stayed at Margaret’s place for the time being and Ryan went back to her apartment to get some of her things just to be safe. When it had been a month since Killian had disappeared, she went back to her apartment and told the landlord she wasn’t renewing her contract. She didn’t pursue filing charges either since he had disappeared anyway.

Meeting Killian was nothing but regret to Virginia. She had no idea how soon it would come back to haunt her.

The call she had received from Aldrich Killian sent her tumbling back into the ruthless cycle of fear: fear that he would be there, in close proximity, watching her without her knowledge.

 

Virginia lost track of how much time she spent staring at the windshield. She didn’t get a wink of sleep the night after Killian had called. How could she, with the invasive, slimy, horrible feeling that Killian could be watching her sleep? She even kept a taser under her pillow for good measure.

She arrived at her work earlier than normal that morning, with black circles so thick under her eyes, no amount of makeup could cover them up.  She parked her car in the empty slot in the basement parking lot. She came rather early. She was supposed to be climbing down from her car and going up to her office, but the thought of Killian made her freeze in her tracks. For all she knew, he could be there hiding in or behind one of the cars in the parking lot. From there, her thoughts spiraled down back to the time where all her nightmares about Killian had come from.

She was startled back to reality when her phone rang. It wasn’t a call, but just a reminder that she would have a meeting in about thirty minutes. She muted her alarm. She took a deep breath to collect herself.  Then she climbed out of her car.

Seconds after Virginia reached her cubicle, Margaret came to her, holding two brochures.

“Ginny, where do you think is the best place for a vacation?” Margaret thrust the brochures in Virginia’s hands.

“You’re going on a vacation?” Virginia looked at the brochures in her hands. The first brochure had pictures of white sand and blue seas and the second one had the pictures of ancient ruins and statues.

“Duh, have you forgotten? I told you last time that my boyfriend who is a medical volunteer in Kenya will be back next week, and he let me choose where we would go on a vacation when he got back. So, what do you think? Maldives or Italy? I was torn between the two because both just look so beautiful.”

“Venice is nice,” Virginia tried to suggest.

“Then Venice it is.” Margaret snatched up the brochure and sauntered out of her cubicle.

Virginia sighed when she was gone. She contemplated telling Margaret about her latest problem, but the reminder of how much Margaret was looking forward to this vacation with her boyfriend she hadn’t seen in months made her not want to ruin that just because she was worried about her.

Then there was Ryan, who was preoccupied with his big presentation. She knew how important that work was for Ryan, and he couldn’t afford any distractions with all the pressure he had been receiving from his bosses. Heck, it could open doors for a promotion, and who was she to get in the way of that?

So, Virginia had decided to remain silent. She could figure things out on her own like she always did.

Virginia couldn’t figure things out on her own.

She discovered that while she was in the middle of a busy intersection, waiting for the stoplight to turn green when she received a text.

She was tapping on the steering wheel when her phone strapped to the phone holder on her dash pinged. She had received a text.

Her heart dropped to her stomach when she saw who it was from. With trembling hands, she opened the message.

You look great in royal blue. ;)

And Virginia was currently wearing a royal blue coat and pencil skirt. He was watching her. She had to run, had to get out, had to get away.

 The stoplight turned green and she stepped on the gas pedal hard. As her heart rate increased and she felt the familiar sensation of invisible hands closing over her throat, the thought occurred that maybe she should pull over.

What if he was behind her, what if he was waiting?

She couldn’t do it.

The speedometer increased in speed. Virginia couldn’t breathe.

Another car cut into her side and overtook her. It took Virginia by surprise. She swerved to the right. That resulted in honks from several cars behind her from the sudden switch in the lane. She meant to pull over, but she must have turned too much to the side. The side of her car scraped against the railings with a piercing, jarring screech for several feet, before Virginia regained control of her senses, and slammed her foot on the brake. It halted.

She was heaving and she needed air. She rolled down the window and thrust her head out, sucking in the fresh oxygen like there hadn’t been any in the car. She was going to vomit.

Thank God she hadn’t had lunch. Her stomach didn’t have anything to vomit out, so she dry-heaved, wheezing and coughing. Out of control.

She tried to do the breathing exercise that her psychiatrist had taught her before. She gripped the steering wheel hard as she breathed in through the nose and breathed longer out to the mouth. She tried to do it several times until she calmed down enough to see straight.

After that, she tried to assess the damage her car had acquired. The paint was completely scraped off along the right side, and the headlight had cracked, but at least her side mirror had remained intact.

 


 

 “Holy cow, what happened to your car?” Tony came closer to look at her car, and his eyes widened.

She was re-inspecting the damage done when Tony came through her lawn, to her driveway. He must have noticed the huge marks on her car from across the street.

“I went straight into the railings, I must have miscalculated,” She muttered.

Tony frowned at her and stared at her for a moment. Virginia didn’t have the energy to look back.

“Are you okay?” Tony asked.

No, I am not okay

My psycho stalker is back

I am always on edge

I am going crazy.

“Yes,” she breathed, as she finally found the courage to glance at him. “I’m just tired and all.”

Tony stared at her for some more. It felt like he was going to say something more, but went against it.

“Yeah, okay. Do you want me to fix your car?”

“That would be very helpful. Thank you, Tony.”

“You’re always welcome Potts.”

“Well then, I should head inside first. I’m just really tired. I’ll just drive my car to your garage later.”

Tony nodded. “Yeah, sure. No problem.”

Virginia left him and climbed the steps to her front porch.

She felt like her head was going to explode.

Chapter Text

Tony Stark yawned as he flicked the light switch on in the kitchen. He tied the apron around his waist. He had woken up earlier than usual. So, he had decided to head down to the kitchen and prepare some breakfast for his twins instead of tossing and turning in his bed. Maybe his insomnia had come back again, which was why he had found it hard to sleep last night. Or maybe, he needed to tone down on his caffeine intake so he wouldn’t feel like a charged battery ready to distribute its electric energy in the middle of the night. Or maybe it was something else. . .

He paused at the kitchen counter, then glanced in the direction of his garage.

He slid open the door that led to his garage. The lights automatically turned on, courtesy of Friday. His eyes wandered over to the car parked near the door. It was Pepper’s car. She had driven it there last night after he had seen the damage on her car yesterday evening.

He didn’t want to care too much, but it was kind of bothering him how badly she had damaged the side of her car. It was severely dented and most of the paint was chipped off.  In the short time he had gotten to know her, Pepper hadn’t come off as the type of driver who would recklessly miscalculate driving and crash into a railing. If anything, she was systematic, like a human blueprint with everything planned and laid out. She was cautious and guarded. There was just no way she would act like that.

“Maybe, I’m just overthinking?” He muttered out loud, cutting off the chain of theories formulating in his head. He would probably go insane if he didn’t stop conspiring.

He continued to stare at the car, thinking of the best way to fix it within a day. Pepper needed a car for work . . .

He glanced at the direction of the other car parked behind Pepper’s car. It was his, covered with a thick, black cloth. Bumblebee hadn’t been used in a long while but he continued to make sure that it stayed in great condition.

Well, since he rarely used it and Pepper needed a car . . .

 A movement caught his attention. Dum-E was in the corner moving his claws as if wanting to get his creator’s attention. It worked. Tony smiled at his funny robot.

He walked up to the bot. “You’re not holding a fire extinguisher today? What’s up?”

Another whirr came from the bot. Tony froze upon reaching it when he saw what was the bot clutching in its claws instead of its normal fired extinguisher.

He was a little bit taken aback. “Hey, wh-why are you holding that?”

In Dum-E’s claws was the fob key to his car. He remembered putting it in the desk drawer in the garage after failing to ask Pepper last night if she wanted to borrow his car. But before he could offer, she was walking back towards her own house.  Dum-E must have seen where he had put the keys.

“Give me that, we are not going for a drive.” He tried to reach for the fob key, but Dum-E moved its claws away from him.

“Ah! You’re being naughty!”

But Dum-E continued to move its claws around wildly as if it didn’t want to give the keys to him.

Tony sighed. “I am not in the mood to play games with you-”

He paused. Dum-E’s other long arm was pointedly extended in the direction of Pepper’s car. 

He gazed back at Dum-E. “Are your 0’s and 1’s starting to actually fail you? You know that key is not for that car-” Another pause when a second realization hit him. He glanced back and forth between Dum-E and the car.

“You want me to give my car key to her?”

Dum-E whirred in response.

He couldn’t help but smile. But as fast as it had come, it disappeared. “You don’t think I’m overdoing it? Letting her borrow my car? Sure, I don’t mind and I’d like to help her but don’t you think it’s--”

“Too much?” A voice from behind finished. He knew without looking that it was Peter’s voice.

He turned and saw his zombie-ed twins in their pajamas standing by the door. He shoved his hands in the big front pocket of his apron. “Is this the end of the world? You two are up early. The twins simultaneously shuffled towards the garage desk. It was Peter who spoke again. “We forgot our homework in one of the desk drawers. We haven’t finished it yet so we’re going to do it now.”

Tony nodded. “Okay.”

Peter picked up a sleek silver laptop in one of the drawers and sat on the single couch near the desk.  He opened the laptop and turned it on. As the laptop came to life, illuminating Peter's face in a blue light, he casually asked his dad. The laptop was resting on his lap. “So dad, you’re planning to let Miss Potts borrow Bumblebee?”

Tony shrugged. “Yeah, you know I rarely use Bumblebee and it probably wouldn’t hurt to just let someone use it. ”

“Then why are you hesitating?” It was Harley who spoke. He yawned. His back was facing Tony as the teen continued to open every drawer of the desk trying to find something.

“What?”

Harley turned around to face his dad. “Why are you hesitating to offer Miss Potts a helping hand?”

“You’re the one who taught us to never hesitate to help anyone in need.” Peter’s eyes were still glued to the screen. His fingers flew over the keys.

Harley continued. “And never measure the help you’re giving to someone. Why are you thinking now that this is too much?”

Tony couldn’t help but smile again. There was pride in his smile. The fact that his sons had grown up to become the kind of people who could be this gentle and thoughtful, but who could also knock some sense into him when he needed it made him feel proud. Maybe, he hadn’t done a terrible job parenting them after all.

He released a breath. “You’re right. I’m over-thinking again. I’ll come by to her house later to offer my keys.”

The twins nodded.

Then Harley turned to Peter. He kicked Peter’s ankle, prompting the laptop to almost fall from Peter’s lap.

“Hey!” Thankfully, Peter caught it just before it hit the floor.

“Where did you put my physics’ worksheet?” Harley accused Peter. “I put it in the drawer last night.”

“Why are you asking me about your worksheet? It’s yours, not mine.” Peter retaliated. “What would I do with it? Dum-E or Butterfingers probably set it on fire or something.”

“That’s my laptop you’re using,” Harley stated.

“So? You used my laptop the other day!”

“I already changed my laptop password. How did you get in?”

“Really? You’re asking me that? All caps “Harley Stark rocks” with a double X is a lame password. What? You’re copying Uncle Rhodey’s password style now?”

“Hands off my laptop.” Harley yanked his laptop away from Peter. “I saw you holding my worksheet last night after I put it in the drawer.”

“Because I was trying to find a freaking charger, I put it right back there! You must have brought it with you and slipped your worksheet again in between the pages of your textbooks!” Peter looked at Tony. “Dad, make Harley stop acting like an asshole. It’s too early for me to deal with this!

“You’re changing my default setting on my laptop every time you used it!”

“You talk like you don’t do it every time you use mine!”

All the pride that Tony had felt quickly drained as he watched his twins transform into savages wolves, at each other’s throats. He mentally slapped himself for being the worst in the parenting department.

“If you two don’t stop I am going to throw your laptops out of the window and take away your wifi privileges and let you live like Neolithic dudes in caves.” Tony’s voice was calm.

Peter and Harley resorted to a glaring contest instead.

“Resolve your issues before I get back.” Tony pulled the fob key from Dum-E’s claws. He turned around.

He walked out of the garage and headed to Pepper’s main door. He paused at the door, wondering if it was too early to go at Pepper’s house. She was probably not even awake. Maybe he could just come over later? But what if she had to leave early because she still had a long way to go? It wasn’t like he could wait in front of her house. With a frustrated sigh, he realized that he was overanalyzing again.

He rang Pepper’s doorbells once, and then waited.

Nothing.

He rang a second time..

After a moment, there was no answer.

Tony scratched his head. See, this was what he was talking about. It was too early to do anything at all. The street was still dark and empty. Only the sound of crickets could be heard in the area. Who would be awake at this hour? It was stupid to ring someone’s doorbell at 4 A.M.

Tony had decided to head back to his house. He was about to step down from the porch, when he heard the door click.

 He paused and glanced back.

The door slowly opened. It only opened a few inches, revealing Pepper in a silk, silver robe, tied tightly around her waist. Her hair was in a messy bun. She was holding a taser. She peered cautiously through the door. He was not that surprised about the taser when she brought pepper spray everywhere she went.

There, that kind of look again. He had noticed it yesterday upon asking her about her car and when she had brought her car into his garage last night. She had looked so distracted, as if she was in some sort of trance. He had initially thought that maybe her thoughts were occupied by her work. But it couldn’t be just that. Her eyes were too hollow, the shadows underneath them had only grown darker.. There were even darker circles around her eyes. She looked like she hadn’t slept, her face was pale and gaunt.

“T-tony!” he visibly sighed in relief. “I thought you were someone else.”

“Why? Were you expecting someone else?”

“Not really. So what’s up? Why are you here at four in the morning?”

“I’m so sorry. I must have disturbed you.”

“I-it’s fine.” The door opened wide as Pepper stepped out. She crossed her arms, tucking the taser underneath them. “W-what brings you here?”

He stared at her. His first thought was to ask if she was okay. But then, he was probably overanalyzing again. So he just stated his true purpose there. “Uhhh . . .” Wait, what was that purpose again? His brain had a momentary glitch.

“Is it about my car?” Pepper frowned.

“Right!” Tony snapped his fingers. Right. The fucking car. “Well, I was thinking since your car is still needing repairs and I won’t be able to get it back to you till later this afternoon. And you’re probably going to commute . . .”

“Yeah, but I could take an uber,” Pepper said.

“Right, that’s your other option but I’m gonna suggest a better one,” There was a pause. “Do you want to borrow my car?”

Pepper just stared at him.

Now, he felt compelled to explain more. “I mean, uh, you might have not noticed it because it was covered but there is one car in my garage. His name is Bumblebee. I rarely use it, so I thought it would be better to let someone use it. . .”

Pepper smiled a bit. “You’re being generous Tony and I appreciate it a lot, but I don’t think I can accept-”

“It’s better than Uber. I guarantee you. Bumblebee is fast and free unlike Uber.”

“But Tony, it’s too much-”

“My motto is to not measure the help I’m giving.”

“Are you really this generous to your neighbors?”

“It’s not like I’m giving you my car. I’m just letting you borrow it.” He raised the fob key. “Come on, take it.”

But Pepper was not moving. “What if I crash your car?”

Tony sighed. “Just don’t drink and drive, you’ll be fine. And if you crash it, I’ll just repair it. That’s my job. I’m a mechanic after all.” He wiggled the fob key. “My arm is going to fall off, Pep. Just accept it so we’re done here. I have to go back and feed my savage cubs.”

Pepper’s smile grew bigger as she finally accepted the fob key. “You’re infuriating.”

“You’re welcome, Miss Potts.” He grinned back. “Just go to the garage later so you can pick up the car. See you later.” He started to climb down the porch.

“Tony,”

“Yeah?” He glanced back.

“Thank you.” Gratefulness was evident in her voice as she looked earnestly at him. She looked down at the key on her hand. “I appreciate it a lot.”

“I know.” Tony smiled. He didn’t wait for her reply and headed back to his house.

“Nice apron!” Pepper called back.

“My favorite!” Tony briefly turned in her direction as he continued to walk back.

In the quiet street, Pepper’s soft laughter echoed. It had a nice ring to Tony’s ears.


It had dawned on Virginia as she stood in Tony’s garage that Bumblebee was an Audi A3 four seater sports car. Also, it was bright yellow.

“So you have a sports car sitting in your garage that you rarely use.” Virginia eyed the sleek car in front of her. She crossed her arms. Her dark blue handbag was hanging in one arm. She was already dressed for work in a gray plaid pencil skirt, a coat and a black collared blouse. Her outfit was partnered with her usual black pumps.

“Basically.” Tony cleared his throat. He was wearing a similar plaid patterned shirt, but his were green in color. He jammed his hand inside his faded jeans’ pocket. “It was a gift from a friend.”

“What kind of friend can give you a sports car as a gift? Bill Gates? I want to befriend him too,” Virginia muttered.

Tony joked. “Bill Gates? I talked to him once.”

“I’m sure you did.” She couldn’t stop staring at the car. She wasn’t that knowledgeable about cars, but even she could tell that this eye-catcher car was fast and a thing of beauty.

“Dad!”

Peter and Harley came to the garage with their backpacks on their shoulders. Their faces lit up upon seeing Virginia.

“Good morning, Miss Potts!” They chorused.

“Good morning,” she answered with a big smile. “Are you heading to school now?”

“Yeah, we’re just about to catch the school bus-”

“Why wait for a school bus when there’s a ride right here?” Virginia pointed at Bumblebee.

There was a beat of silence, before Tony broke in.

“You don’t have to take these jokers to school-”

“This is the least I could do for letting me borrow your car.” She cut him off. “Seriously, what if I crash your car? Aren’t you afraid of that?”

“Why do you keep thinking of crashing it?” Tony countered. “You’re not fifteen year old, adolescent boys who can’t tell the difference between the gas pedal and the brake.You’ll be fine.”

“Ouch.” Peter and Harley said.

“Right,” Virginia exhaled. “Let’s put this magnificent thing on the road. Come on guys,”she said to the twins.

“Yeah!” The twins punched the air in excitement.

“See Dad, Miss Potts has more common sense on what to do with a freaking car when you have one. Instead of letting it rot in here,” Harley said, rushing into the car.

“Come back here you little-!” Tony feigned chasing Harley, who ducked into the back seat. Peter slid into the front seat. The twins were laughing.

Virginia was the last one to climb into the car. She gave Tony one last smile before shutting the door. Tony dramatically saluted. Then he stepped back to give way to the car coming out of the garage.

Virginia was impressed by the sound of its engine as it roared to life and how it smoothly ran on the road. The wheels were sensitive. The car turned at the slightest veer. She wouldn’t even start on the black leather interior.

“So guys, your dad doesn’t want to use this car?” Virginia asked after passing a couple of blocks or so.

“Obviously, this car doesn’t blend in exactly so basically yeah,” Peter answered.

“Dad was just letting this car rust in his garage,” Harley added.

“What a waste,” Virginia said.

Harley nodded. “That’s what we’re saying too.”

Then they lapsed into a comfortable silence.  They stopped at the traffic, waiting for it to move. Typical California with its palm trees and blaring sun, traffic was also at every corner. She glanced at her wristwatch. Well, she was going to be late to work anyway, so it wasn’t like there was any point in stressing over more about road dilemmas. The truth was she had initially planned on not going to work and calling in sick. She had a migraine that had dulled a little bit after taking an Advil. She hadn’t slept that much. The only time she had managed to sneak in some sleep was after Tony had come over to her house earlier. Then, she had woken up late and debated for a full fourteen minutes whether to go to work or just hole herself up in her bedroom and probably wait for Killian to kill her in her sleep. It was probably her lack of sleep that was giving her this sense of dark humor. In the end, because she was a workaholic mess and her sense of work ethics had gotten the best of her, she had decided to get dressed and go. Besides, she would get even more paranoid by doing nothing. She would just file in a half-day today.

“Are you not going to be late for work?” Peter suddenly asked. “You usually leave early for work.”

Virginia gave him a smile. “It’s fine. I’m only on a half-day today, so I’m good to go to work a little bit late.”

Peter nodded. “That’s a relief then. We don’t want to trouble you more by giving us a ride to school.”

Virginia waved her hand in dismissal as they started moving. “I am the one who’s giving you more trouble. I’m borrowing your dad’s car while he’s repairing my car.”

Peter smiled cheerfully. “Dad doesn’t mind that. He likes to be surrounded by machines. He’ll probably take as many engines as he can to fix because he’s the type that can’t stay still. He said it helps him to focus and not think too much over useless stuff.”

She nodded at the information.

“Oh,” Harley chimed in. “Pete, look, Mrs. Beckingham’s bakery is open for business again.”

“What?” Peter’s head snapped around towards the window, but it was too late. They had passed it. He craned his neck around trying to get a glimpse.

“I didn’t see it.”

“Wow, I thought they would never open for business,” Harley mused. “I miss their almond croissant. It was the best.”

“What do you mean the best,” Peter countered. “Miss Potts’ cookies are a hundred times better.”

Harley leaned forward in his seat as Virginia chuckled at the compliment. “Right. I’m so sorry. I’m talking blasphemy. No one could ever top Miss Potts’ cookies. We still remember how awesome your cookies tasted back when you first moved in here.”

“Oh is that so?” Virginia said. She remembered that day, when she had given the twins some of her baked cookies after they had helped her moving in her things to the house. “Well, I haven’t been able to bake in a while. I could do that when I get off of work. Do you want to join me?”

Their faces lit up. “Really? We could?” They chorused.

Virginia nodded.

“Of course.  We don’t mind,” Harley said, while Peter nodded eagerly. “We could come by your house after school.”

“Deal,” she said.

The twins cheered. Virginia giggled. For her, baking was therapeutic. With all the things that had been going on with her lately, she totally needed it. Plus, it would be more fun to have some company and the twins were perfect for it.

Soon, they reached the twins’ school. Students guffawed at the sleek sports car that sopped at the front gate. The twins bid their goodbyes to her and proudly climbed out of the car. She just shook her head amusedly at the teens’ antics.

Then she was driving towards the expressway on the way to LA.

 

“Why are you on a half-day?” Margaret went to Virginia’s cubicle. “Ryan came by earlier holding a decaf coffee and you weren’t here.”

Virginia blew a breath as she stared at the cold coffee cup on her desk. Margaret had texted her awhile back and had asked why she wasn’t there yet. Though, she hadn’t known that Ryan would drop by her cubicle. She should have known and texted him too. “He should be worrying about his own presentation. It’s happening soon.”

“I think it’s his way of apologizing that he hasn’t been able to hang out with us lately because of his big clients.”

“Cut him some slack,” Virginia chided. “He’s probably so stressed about it right now.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Margaret said. “See you later at lunch then?”

“Sure.”

Margaret went back to her own cubicle.

Time ticked by and Virginia had found out that she couldn’t really focus on her work. She kept glancing at her phone, half-expecting it to ring and see Killian’s name pop up on screen. Just the thought of a text from him sent a shiver down her spine. And she wanted to do nothing more than crawl somewhere where he couldn’t find her. She spaced out, often especially at lunchtime and Margaret did notice it. Virginia lied and told her that she was thinking about the financial statement that she hadn’t done yet. Instead, she distracted her friend by asking about her upcoming vacation with her boyfriend the next week. Margaret giddily gave her all the details, and some details that Virginia didn’t want and shouldn’t know about.

There had been no word from Killian as her day at the office ended. She didn’t want to, but she had  a tiny hope that maybe Killian had stopped harassing her life again. Still, she cautiously glanced around as she walked through the parking lot towards her car.

She reached the bright yellow sports car,unlocked it, and opened the car door.

“Wow, is that really your car?”

Virginia’s hand dropped limply to her side as she slowly turned around. Aldrich Killian was standing not far away from her. Nothing had changed about him. He was still the exact same person she had met for the first time in the coffee shop, with combed-back blond hair and the corner of his lips upturned, smiling smugly. She had found it charming at first, but now seeing that smug look on his face disgusted her. She even detested herself more for finding it charming in the first place. He wore a navy blue suit and charcoal black pants that made him look respectable. But there was nothing respectable about him . He was a beast.

“I couldn’t believe it at first,” Killian continued. “What? Did you find yourself a handsome rich guy to be your boyfriend? Now, my feelings are hurt, Ginny.” He tapped his chest.

Instinctively, Virginia stepped back. Her back hit the car. Her voice shook. She didn’t know if it was because of anger or fear. “Don’t call me that. What do you want?”

“You,” Killian immediately answered.

Virginia’s hands started to shake though she did her best to hide them. “I swear if you make another step towards me, I am going to scream. There are CCTV’s in here.”

“You’re right.” Killian agreed, nodding. He looked around. “There are a total of twenty CCTV’s in this area. That was quite a lot for this place, there are almost no blind spots. I’m actually impressed. Well, that’s what you could expect from a Fortune 500 company.” Then he looked back at her. The playfulness in his face was gone. It was replaced by maliciousness. “You know very well what I could do right?”

He took a step closer.

“Are you sure that someone’s gonna come down here to rescue a damsel in distress? For all we know, the elevator down here might be stuck, or the CCTV’s could be having a glitch right now.” His voice was velvety but deadly.

Virginia felt helpless. It paralyzed her. Her heart was hammering in her chest. There was a clog in her throat. he knew her voice would fail her if she tried to speak bravely. There was no point in acting brave because she didn’t feel brave right now.

“Why can’t you just leave me alone?” She whispered.

Killian hummed and shook his head. “Where’s the fun in that? You make all of this so exciting. To see you cowering like that energizes me more.”

Virginia glanced at her open car. She inched her way towards it.

But Killian immediately noticed it. “That’s right Dear. Run. I love the chase going on between us.”

She hastily climbed into the car and slammed  the door shut. She started the engine and backed away from the lot. All the while, Killian stood there, watching her. She was so tempted to run him over with the car, but she wouldn’t stoop to his level. She wouldn’t.

She drove past him. Their eyes locked for a second as she looked through the windshield. Killian was smiling at her. He was truly enjoying it, that filthy man. Him being the predator and her, being helpless prey in his hunt.

She pitied herself for falling for his trap. She must have looked so pathetic for doing nothing and just running away like a frightened mouse. It was frustrating how her body had so easily betrayed her at a time as crucial as this, how her heart so easily got scared that she couldn’t retaliate back no matter how much she wanted to. She wished she would stop being afraid.

She must have switched into auto-pilot, because one moment she was pulling out of the garage, and the next, she was in San Diego. She debated whether or not to go straight to her house. Killian might have followed her there. But at some point, she had gotten so tired that she didn’t really care. She wasn’t going to be surprised anymore if Killian came knocking at her front door. Her paranoia and fear were draining her.

Amidst all that happened, she suddenly remembered her promise to Tony’s twins to bake cookies at her house that night. Honestly, she had no strength to do anything at all. But she was willing to try, for the sake of her promise. She couldn’t just disappoint them when it looked like they were looking forward to it.

She reached her house by sunset. She looked at the house across the street, then to her own house. Maybe the twins were inside their house waiting for her. But then, they had said that they would come over to her house. Maybe they got tired of waiting? She climbed out of the car.

She contemplated going to Tony’s house. Before she could make any decision, the twins came walking down her front lawn.

She gasped at the sight of their faces.

“Hi, Miss Potts,” they greeted unenthusiastically. They were looking down.

She strode towards them.  “What happened to you?” She demanded. She held Peter’s chin and examined the cut at the end of his eyebrow. She did the same to Harley, who had a bruise on the corner of his mouth. “Did you get into a fight?”

“N-not really. . .” Peter tried to cover up.

“Bullshit. Come with me.” Before the twins could say anything, Virginia was dragging them towards her house.

“It’s not my place to scold you because I am not your dad, but you shouldn’t really get into a fight.” Virginia was sitting on the coffee table, the first aid box open beside her. She was putting a band-aid on Peter’s cut, who sat dejectedly next to Harely on the couch.  “That’s what I told Harley too,” Peter mumbled.

Harley paused at dabbing an ice bag on his own bruise and looked away from the small mirror he was holding, towards Peter. “That’s why your bullies are always getting back at you, because you don’t fight back. And here I am always having to save your ass.” He resumed nursing his wound and held out the mirror.

Virginia turned to Harley. She took the mirror out of his hand and started to dab a cotton ball with antiseptic on his bruise. Harley winced at the contact. Virginia spoke. “And so? You’re always going to go out there punching people like a boxer? What is your dad gonna say? I’m sure you’re gonna give him an aneurysm when he sees you like this.”

“Can we sleep here?” Harley asked.

“No. Face your consequences like a man,” Virginia said. “I’m sure you fought like a real man, too.”

Peter snorted. “EJ has a bigger bruise than we have.”

Virginia held Harley’s chin and examined the bruise closely. “Violence isn’t always the answer to your problems.”

“Then how do we fight back?” Harley asked. “If we don’t do anything, they’re just going to continue to bully us.”

She paused as she stared at Harley. She cleared her throat then spoke. “How about talking to the school administration-?”

They both snorted. Peter said. “As if they cared. We’re not the type to rat this out. We’re going to be bullied even more if we do that.”

“Then how about instead of using your fist, try using your brains.” She dabbed some ointment to Harley’s bruise. “I’m sure you have bigger brains than them.”

The twins looked at each other. She could see that the gears in their brains were turning. “Don’t do any that’ll get you in more trouble than this.” She warned. “All I am saying is get revenge by outsmarting them on something.”

The twins grinned cheekily at her. They said simultaneously. “Got it, Miss Potts.” Then Harley immediately winced because his cheeky smile hurthis bruise.

She sighed as she set the ointment aside on the table. She crossed her legs and started to massage her foot. “Who invented bullies anyway, it’s not like they would do any good here on Earth,”she absentmindedly said.

“I know right!” Peter said. Then he looked closely at her. “Did you have any bullies before?”

She immediately thought of Killian. “Bullies don’t stop after high school.” She gazed up at them. “That’s why I told you that violence isn’t always going to be the answer when you encounter assholes along the way.”

“Why, is there someone bullying you now?” Peter frowned.

She just smiled at them. “There are a lot of bad guys out there. We all encounter them from time to time.”

“Then what do you do to them?”  Harley asked.

Nothing, because she was a coward. As she looked at the twins, she suddenly felt ashamed of herself. These were fifteen years old who weren’t afraid to confront their fears, instead of hiding and running away from them. Meanwhile, she, an adult, chose to give up on fighting Killian because she was a coward.

“I occasionally tase them or pepper spray them.” Virginia shrugged.

The twins laughed. Harley spoke. “You are our spirit animal, Miss Potts.”

She just raised her eyebrow questioningly. Peter translated it for her. “We were just saying that you are our idol.”

“Don’t. There is nothing much worth idolizing me for,” she said.

“But you bake awesome cookies, isn’t that enough to idolize for?” Harley tilted his head.

Virginia clapped her hands together as she remembered something. “Right! The baking!”

She immediately stood up and headed for the kitchen. The twins followed her. She opened the cupboard and to her dismay, it was almost empty of baking supplies. She dejectedly turned around to the twins.

“I haven’t been able to grocery shop in a while. There’s not enough flour, sugar and pretty much anything we would need to use for baking.”

“It’s alright Miss Potts,” Peter consoled. “We could always do it some other time.” Then he looked at his wristwatch. “It’s pretty late anyway, Dad will be home soon. So we should get going.”

“Alright then, let’s bake next time.” Virginia smiled.

The twins picked up their bags and Virginia walked them out.

“Thank you, Miss Potts, for patching us up,” Harley said as they were standing on the porch.

“Just don’t go breaking your skulls and getting bruised up,” she said.

The twins just waved at her as they headed back to their own house. She closed the door behind them. She went back to her living room where the first aid kit had been left behind. She crouched down and started to clean up.

If we don’t do anything they’re just going to continue to bully us.

She paused in the middle of picking up the band-aid wrapper and cotton balls as Harley’s words echoed in her head. She stood up. She grabbed her handbag on the nearby couch and fished out her phone. She then dropped her handbag back to the couch.

She must be out of her mind for doing this, but she went on and dialed Killian’s number anyway.

He answered it on the second ring.

“I must say, I’m surprised to receive a call from you,” Killian greeted.

“Listen here, you son of a bitch,” Virginia said. “I am not going to hold back anymore. I should have done this a long time ago. But if you ever try to do something like what you did to me ten months ago, I am going to make sure to report you to the police this time. I don’t care if you clean up after your nasty self so well that I can’t find anything against you. This time, I will do everything in my power to see you rotting in a jail cell, like you deserve.”

There was a pause from Killian’s end.

“Can you do that?” Killian asked. “Can you really fight me? Are you sure you’re not going to run away like you did earlier? This is unexpected, but really all it does is make things more interesting for me since the mouse is starting to bite.”

Virginia gritted her teeth. “How about you ask me that again when we see each other in court?”

She hung up.

All the strength went out of Virginia’s legs as she stumbled back to the couch. She clutched her chest. Her heart was about to burst out of her chest. She was hyperventilating. She tried to calm herself by doing some breathing exercises, as she closed her eyes.

“What did I do?” She muttered. “What if he really comes here? Right, let him come here so I can prove what a creep he is.” She exhaled. “Yeah, Ginny, you did the right thing . . .” She patted her shoulder.

But why did she feel like she’d done the wrong thing? She felt more scared than ever.

But then again, no matter how scared she was, it might be her first baby step. And soon, she would conquer her fear, even though she had no idea what to do next.


Tony Stark had arrived at their house later than usual that night. He opened the door and the quiet and dark living room greeted him. It was odd. Usually, his twins were still up watching television. He closed the door.

“Friday, where are the twins?”

“They are in the garage boss,” his AI immediately answered.

Tony nodded. Then he called out, “Hey, I’m home.” He removed his cap with one hand, and adjusted his grip on his toolbox with the other hand. He made his way to the garage.

He peered through the door to see his twins at the desk with their backs to him.

“Hey, you two seem busy.” He walked in. “Your teacher gave you a bunch of homework to do?”

The twins turned around and stood up from their seat. Tony paused as he looked at them. Peter was wearing a pair of sunglasses, while Harley was wearing a mask.

“Hi, Dad,” they greeted.

“Wow, you really did manage to fix up Miss Potts car.” Peter immediately pointed at the car. “It looks brand new.”

“Of course, I did. I just got held up at the docks so I couldn’t bring it to her earlier.” He started to walk towards them.

“Then why don’t you give it to her now?” Harley said. They stepped back. “She’s already there.”

“Yeah, I will once you remove your mask and sunglasses. You look ridiculous by the way.” He  suspiciously narrowed his eyes at them. He put down his toolbox and cap.

“But you know Dad, you should really bring the car to Miss Potts first. She really needs it for her work tomorrow,” Peter said.

Tony shrugged. “No problem. It’s not like she’s living across town. I could drive it back early tomorrow morning.” He reached them. The twins were leaning back. “Now, what’s with your get up?” He plucked the mask from Harley’s face and pulled the sunglasses off of Peter’s.

The twins were looking everywhere except in Tony’s direction. Tony was staring at the purplish skin on the corner of Harley’s mouth and the band-aid on Peter’s head.

“What happened?” He asked them.

The twins wouldn’t answer. The floor suddenly became an object deserving intense scrutiny.

“I’m not going to ask twice,” Tony said, ditching the sunglasses and mask on the table.

“We got into a fight,” they mumbled.

“Why?”

“Because EJ was being an asshat,” Peter mumbled.

Tony turned around. “I am going to call the principal, how could they let-”

“Dad!” The twins leaped to his side, and each yanked at one of his arms, stopping him. Harley spoke. “It happened outside the school, so it’s not like they could do something about it-”

“What? You’re picking up fights in the street now?” Tony countered. “Did some gangster raise you or something?”

“We told you it was EJ, he keeps bullying us-”

“I’ll call EJ’s parents then.”

“Dad!” The twins gripped his arms even tighter.

“Don’t make a big deal out of this-!”

“He hurt you, how can I not make a big deal out of this?!”

“He has a bigger bruise than we both have combined, so it’s alright-”

“It’s not alright! Do you really have to brag about the size of your bruises? Do you think it’s worth bragging about?”

“Dad, will you just listen to us first? Jeez!”

The twins let go of his arm and faced him.

“We are not going to get into another fight with that jerk,” Harley said. “Because violence is not always the answer to our problems.”

Tony’s eyebrow shot up.

“And because we are going to use our brain instead of our fists,” Peter continued.

“We are going to avoid fighting them, no matter how tempting it is to punch their perfect white teeth,” Harley said.

Peter nudged him and muttered, “Man, stop mentioning punching people here, it’s not doing us any good.”

“Right yeah, sorry.”

Tony sighed. “And how exactly are you going to use your brains here?”

“We haven’t come up with anything solid yet. But we promise that this is not going to happen again,” Peter said. “Sorry  we got into a fight.”

“How big is this EJ’s bruise?” Tony crossed his arms.

Harley snorted. “He looked like a panda, to be exact.”

“He’s probably not going to school tomorrow, considering his banged-up face,” Peter said.

“At least you put your self-defense training to good use.” Tony nodded.

“Yeah –wait, you’re not mad at us?” Harley blinked, startled.

“I’m mad because you’re getting yourselves into trouble. But since you already learned your lesson here, there’s nothing much for me to say. But I don’t like you two getting into trouble often. You hear me?”

The twins nodded.

I’ll get a first aid kit.” Tony was about to turn but the twins held him again.

“You don’t have to do that,” Peter said. “Miss Potts patched us up nicely.”

Tony was taken aback. “Miss Potts?”

“Yeah, she was the one who put a band-aid on my cut and put ice on Harley’s bruise,” Peter continued.

“Explain,” Tony said.

“She invited us to bake at her house since we mentioned how much we love her cookies, but she ran out of supplies so it didn’t happen,” Harley explained.

“But  you know Dad,” Peter added. “We were thinking that Miss Potts has a bully too.”

Tony frowned at that. “Explain.”

“There’s nothing much to explain about it. She just mentioned how we don’t lose our bullies, even after high school,” Harley answered.

Tony was silent for a moment. He glanced at her car, her car that had been a wreck before he repaired it. He remembered her distracted look and the dark circles under her eyes, as if she hadn’t slept in ages. The taser in her hand and the way she had cautiously looked at him, as if she had been afraid of who was at her front door. The way she had sighed in relief when she saw that it was just him.

I thought you were someone else.

“Could it be . . . ?” Tony trailed off.

“What could it be?” Harley asked.

“How about you wash up and don’t stick your noses into business that isn’t yours. It’s adult stuff. Go wash up!” He ushered his twins away.

Tony was still deep in thought.

What if her stalker is back?

 

Chapter Text

“How’s Afghanistan treating you so far?” Tony was sitting on the couch of their darkened living room. It was 5 A.M in the morning and he was wrapped in a brown robe.

“I’ve been eating dust and sand for breakfast. The desert here could cover up San Diego and Los Angeles combined.”

Tony snorted in laughter. In front of him was a holographic display just above the coffee table. James Rhodes, his longtime best friend, was on the holographic screen. He appeared to be leaning forward in a makeshift chair, elbows on his knees. His background was nothing but gray cloth hanging on the wall. James Rhodes was an Air Force Colonel. He wore a green t-shirt partnered with a camouflage pants. He was currently in Afghanistan because of some confidential mission. 

“I miss you Rhodey,” Tony said. “You’ve been gone for three months. When are you coming back?”

“I have to be back in LA next week for the board meeting to fill up the chair you decided not to sit in.”

“Oh, so the boring meeting is next week, huh. Then come by here after your meeting. The twins miss you too.”

Rhodes smiled at that. “How are my godsons?”

Tony shrugged. “Teens being teens. You know how teens are nowadays.”

Rhodes frowned. “They’re not doing drugs or anything like that, right?”

He snorted again. “I’m hurt Honeybear. Who do you think I am? You think I would let something like that happen? They got into a fight yesterday because some prick had bullied them. I’m still deciding whether I am going to let it pass or if I’m going to march my way down to the principal’s office, or to that prick’s house, or just both.”

Rhodey threw his head back as he burst into laughter.

Tony feigned a gasp. “Unbelievable. Are you laughing at me now? Look here, Sarge, you don’t know how I feel because you don’t have kids show up home with banged up faces.”

“Your over-protectiveness is amusing sometimes.” Rhodes said in between his laughter. When he sobered up, he continued. “I know the lengths you’re willing to go through for them. And you also know that, if it comes to worst I would bring a few tanks in there to blow shit up for my godsons.”

Tony grinned. “I knew you were my best friend for a reason,” 

“But Tones,” Rhodes continued. “You also know that you can’t shelter your sons forever, right? You can’t hide them in a small little town for the rest of their lives. Eventually, they have to go out there. Go to college, and lead the life they want to have.”

Tony looked away. His smile faded. His eyes landed on the curtained window. From the small gap in between the curtains, he could see that dawn had broken out and it was light outside.  He threw up his hands. “That’s all I know to do. That’s the way I live my life all this time, protecting them from the unknown, wondering if the unknown is still going to come. And after all these years, it is still scary to change the way I’ve been living.” He finally looked at Rhodes. “I try to be the laid back kind of dad really, but most of the time my brain can’t handle doing that. I’m always one click away from turning on the tracker on their wrist watches every time they’re home a few minutes late.” 

Before Rhodes could say anything, Tony stood up. He went to the window and pushed aside the curtain a little bit. The camera around the house would follow him anyways, so it was fine to move around while video-calling his best friend. Rhodes would still be able to see him wherever he goes. Tony gazed out at Pepper’s house, briefly wondering if he should go to her house to give her car key. Or if it was too early again to knock on his neighbor’s door.

“You’ve been sleeping regularly these days, right?” Rhodes changed the topic much to Tony’s relief. The past was still a sore subject for him.

“Of course,” Tony shrugged. His eyes continued to roam around Pepper’s house. Suddenly, a black sedan car pulled over in front of Pepper’s house, blocking Tony’s view of the front door. He frowned. The car’s windows were tinted so it was hard to see who was inside.

“Is that Ryan?” Tony muttered, crossing his arms.

“-hey, Tones, are you even listening to me?” Rhodes’ voice pulled him out of his musings. “What are you even looking at through the window?”

“There’s a black car outside.” Tony’s eyes narrowed on the car.

“What car? Can you see the plate number? You think it’s spying on you?” Rhodes’ voice was suddenly alert.

Tony sighed as he finally gazed at the holographic screen. “Calm down your horses, Pumpkin. I don’t think it’s a spy or assassin for me. It pulled over in front of Pepper’s house.”

“Who?”

“My new neighbor.”

“Oh, so Ms. Jam Lady has already moved out?”

“Yep, we’ve got a new neighbor.” Tony looked back at the window.  The car was still there and no one was climbing out of it. For one panicky second, he almost believed his own dark thoughts-- that the car had been sent to blow up his house a second time-- with the twins and Tony in it..

“You know what, I’m gonna go check that out. See you next week Rhodey Bear! Friday, end call.”

“W-wait, hey-!”

The hologram screen disappeared. Tony turned around and headed for the door. He walked lazily onto the porch with his hands inside the pockets of his robes. When he reached his lawn, he casually stretched his arms. He walked a bit further to get a glimpse through the windshield. He bent his waist sideways as he caught a glimpse of a blond man inside the car. The man was looking in the direction of Pepper’s house.

That certainly wasn’t Ryan.

He didn’t have Ryan’s unruly stubbles, and Ryan’s blond hair was not that sleek and gelled back.

And Tony didn’t like how coldly he was looking at Pepper’s house.

The man noticed Tony.

Tony stopped stretching as he returned the man’s stare. The man was the first one to break contact. He looked ahead and drove down the road. Tony’s eyes followed the car as it disappeared around the corner. 

He looked back at Pepper’s house. Why did he have a bad feeling about this?

The door slammed closed as Tony went back into his house. He paced back and forth in the living room. He then paused as he clicked his teeth together, thinking. The conversation with his twins about Pepper’s bully came to his mind. He couldn’t get the distraught look on Pepper’s face out of his head. To top it off, there was a random car pulling over in front of her house. It couldn’t all be coincidence. Something was going on.

The feet stomping upstairs cut off his train of deep thought.

Later that morning, as the twins ate their breakfast Tony had decided to stop by to Pepper’s house to give her back the car key. As he began to cross the street, Pepper came out of her house. She was staring at her feet, a blank look on her face. She was already dressed. Tony stopped in front of her lawn as he watched her walk down her porch. She hadn’t noticed him yet and continued to walk. She was on the lawn when she looked up.

“Oh shit!” She jumped up in surprise when she noticed Tony standing there. She took a step back, clutching her chest. “Why are you just standing there like a scarecrow?”

“Ouch, do I really look like a scarecrow?” Tony asked.

Pepper cleared her throat and straightened out her cream coat. “I was about to go to your house to ask if my car was already fixed but you’re already here. . .”

Instead of answering, Tony raised his hand. Her car key was dangling from his hand. “It’s already fixed.”

Pepper smiled. “Thank you-” She was about to reach for the key.

But Tony flicked his fingers and clasped the key out of her reach. Pepper gave him a confused look.

“Before that,” Tony said. “There was a black car that pulled in front of your house earlier. I got a glimpse of the driver. He has combed back blond hair, a clean shaven face, and blue eyes. Do you know the guy?”

Pepper took another step back. She visibly paled. “Y-you said, combed back blond hair?”

“Yeah do you know him?”

Pepper lost her balance. She would have fallen face first to grass if Tony hadn’t caught her first.

“H-hey, you okay?” He looked down at Pepper. His concerned frown grew.

“Oh my god,” She gasped, as she clutched Tony’s arm.  “He’s really here,” she whispered. He knows where I live.”

“He. . .” Tony started. “Please tell me, he’s not the stalker you’ve talked about before?”

Their eyes met. Blue eyes, the same color as the California sky stared back at him. Tony thought of how they used to shine before, when they had first met. How her eyes resembled the summer sky, clear and bright. But now, there was something churning in them. It wasn’t bright and clear anymore. He hated how familiar that look in her eyes were at that moment. He hated how he had the same expression ten years ago.  How his tongue had failed him and the words he wanted to utter had clogged in his throat because of fear. He could see a similar fear brewing in her eyes. She didn't need to answer him though, because he knew right then that his suspicion was right.

“Don’t go to work today,” Tony said.

Pepper was startled, as if she had come to her senses about their proximity. How the personal space barrier had been breached. In all honesty, Tony didn’t mind that. But of course, it was not the time to think about stupid things like that. She cleared her throat and stood up straighter. He released her as she took a step back.

“I. . .” She looked lost as she stared at the ground once again. He wasn’t used to seeing her looking down. She always held her head high. There was always certainty in her every stride. Her voice was strong and sometimes authoritative. There were a lot of things that were probably going through her mind at the moment, like a supercomputer processing billions of arithmetic operations per second.

“How about we go inside first and talk about the comeback of this stalker guy?” He suggested.

She raised an eyebrow at him.

“Go inside your house, I mean.” Tony added. “Do you have black coffee? I would kill for a black coffee right now.” Before she could say anything, he was walking past her and heading to her porch.


“Yep, this is the same guy I saw earlier,” Tony confirmed as Pepper put the mug of black coffee down at the high counter where he was sitting. They were in her kitchen. He was holding Pepper’s phone as he looked at the image of Aldrich Killian’s face they had found online.

“So, what do you plan to do now?” Tony asked, putting down the phone. He sipped at the mug. 

“Beyond threatening to sue him if he ever tries something on me, I don’t know.”  She leaned forward on the opposite side of the counter as she clasped her hands together.

“You shouldn’t have provoked him.” Tony continued to sip. “It will just fuel him to do something worse, something dangerous to you. Not that I want to scare you more...”

“I’m already scared, so there’s no way you could scare me more.  When I got a bit of courage, sounding brave was all I could do.” She put her head in her hands. “I don’t even know if I should be proud of that.”

“Provoking him may not be a good idea, but standing up for yourself is a good start.” Tony put down the mug with a clink. “You ran away from him the first time, so it’s good that you’re holding your ground this time around.”

She sighed wearily. “I don’t know how long I can hold my ground when I feel like I’m always seconds away from leaving the country and my life just to get away. I-I just want everything to stop. I. . . I just want to lead a normal and peaceful life without always looking over my shoulder.”

Tony stared at her. He was certain that he was experiencing déjà vu. He wanted to tell her that he could relate and understand what she was going through because he knew what it felt like to be hunted. Though, he couldn’t say it out loud because it would raise questions and he hated questions about things he didn’t want to talk about just yet.

She noticed that he was staring at her. “W-what?” There was a pause as she smiled a little bit. “My life is pathetic, isn’t it?”

“I’ve seen worse.” Tony looked away.

This time, it was Pepper who was staring at him.

Tony cleared his throat, glancing back at her. “Anyway, are you and Voldemort still in contact? You said something about threatening him . . . ?”

“He called me on the phone-”

“Did you record any of your conversations? Anything that can be used against him?”

She shook her head.

“Have you thought about changing your contact number-?”

“I can’t. I’m using my number for business too. I have a lot of clients’ numbers on my list. It would be hard to contact them if I changed my number.”

Tony’s eyes wandered around the house. Her house looked more like a gallery than a home, with artful paintings hanging left and right. It looked cozy though, with its caramel and light cream interior. “You don’t even have surveillance cameras around. Though, there is one over your front porch. But it isn’t enough. I bet your security measures are also going down the drain. Burglars and stalkers alike could waltz in here like they were strolling into a public park.”

Pepper exhaled. “Okay, more CCTV’s around-”

“Yep, that’s step one. I know a tech guy who could provide us with the equipment. Top of the line equipment, I might add. I’ll contact him right away.” Tony hopped down from the stool. He walked towards the living room. He pointed at a certain corner. “That’s the best spot we could install the first cam. We could have a view of your entire living room from that spot. Oh!” He turned to her. She  was standing closely behind him. “I also know a few guys at the police station, we could contact them to alert-”

“H-hold on a sec.” Pepper raised her hand for a time out. “Why are you talking like we’re going to do this together?”

“Because we are.”

“Why?”

“Isn’t it obvious that I’m helping you?”

“Yeah I know that, but why are you going this far? No offense, I truly appreciate your help, but why do all of this?”

Tony hooked his thumb in his jeans pocket as he gave her a side glance. “Because I know what it feels like to be scared and helpless and how it is easier to go through all of that with someone helping you and having someone you can count on.”

“Can I. . . Can I really count on you?” 

She was standing tall in her signature high heel pumps. But beneath that firm exterior, vulnerability was radiating off of her. She looked exhausted. There was something admirable about how she had pulled herself together despite her nightmarish situation that was Killian. How she was fighting her own demon despite that ever-consuming fear.  So he gave her his million dollar smile that would easily swoon the ladies back in the day –not that he wanted to swoon her, but to give her assurance.

“Pepper, you are one hell of a lucky gal, because the most reliable guy you could ever ask for is standing right in front of you.”

She snorted and crossed her arms. But a smile graced her lips. “Really? Are you really that reliable? I forgot to tell you that Killian is good at hacking technologies like CCTV’s-”

“Not to brag, but I can assure you that I’m smarter than him.”

She raised an eyebrow at him.

Tony smirked. “Trust me, I know my way around this kind of stuff.”


Thomas, the tech guy Tony had been talking about had come later that afternoon, accompanied by a large box of security equipment, straight to Pepper’s front porch. Pepper’s mouth dropped open at the sight of it.

“What exactly is inside of that, a ballistic canon?” She asked. She had changed into a pair of sweatpants and a baggy t-shirt. Her hair was up in a messy bun. Her bangs were covering her forehead and strands of hair framed her face. There was nothing fancy about her current look, but Tony was still completely distracted by her. He tried to focus on explaining the situation at hand.

“Yeah, as much as it would be lovely to shoot Killian into the next galaxy, I figured we’d do it the old fashioned way, monitor stuff and we’ll get an alert if Killian so much steps past your five feet boundary. There’s a tech like that inside of that box. The security cams are also inside.”

“So, uh.” Pepper scratched the edge of her eyebrow. “Did you purchase all of that? How much did it cost-?”

“No, uh, you see.” Tony was looking at Thomas, who was trying not to look like he had no idea what he was doing and why he was there in the first place. Tony had called him the last minute with some instructions and vague explanation as to why he had to drive down to San Diego from Los Angeles. “They’re on loan. Because, Thomas here-” Tony put his hands on Thomas’ shoulders. “-was generous enough to lend a hand to a friend in crisis and agreed to lend his tech to us. He made all of these. He’s an engineer. The tech inside the box are his prototypes.”

“You made all of these, I don’t like taking credit” Thomas muttered, and Tony squeezed his shoulders a little bit tighter than normal. Thomas squeaked.  He cleared his throat. “Yeah, I’m developing them and Mr.-” Tony squeezed his shoulders again. Thomas coughed. “Tony here sounds like he was in desperate need of my tech, so I didn’t hesitate to help my friend.”

“Yeah, desperate. . .” Tony said. “I don’t think I sounded desperate though.”

“You sure did,” Thomas glanced at him. “And I can see why. I would probably do anything for her too.” He smiled at Pepper.

Pepper raised an eyebrow, but her lips quirked up in an amused smile.

Tony feigned a laugh. “Thomas is really funny, that’s why I love him.”

“Yeah, you do.” Thomas agreed.

“You are really something, Thomas.” Pepper beamed at him. “And thank you, you flatter me and bigger thanks for doing this, driving all the way here and bringing this.”

“No, problem,” Thomas saluted. “I can’t say no to Tony anyway and it’s a pleasure helping  out a pretty lady like you.”

“Hey, how about we get this box inside?” Tony interrupted them before everything could get too  mushy-mushy.



“She’s really pretty. Are you two dating, or a thing . . .?” Thomas asked. Tony was walking him back to his car. Pepper was inside, sifting through the tech after opening the box and giving her brief explanations about how they worked.

Tony faced him when they reached Thomas’ car. “How about you find someone who’s like in your age bracket or something? Lisa, that IT chic with awesome bluish hair that accidentally interrupted our video conferencing for a bag of Cheetos, is cute.”

Thomas smirked. “I don’t mind the age gap and you’re being territorial. Do you really like her that much?”

“It’s too soon to say that. I’m just being a good neighbor to her.”

“Everyone starts from I’m just being a good neighbor or I’m just being a good friend to her. I can already see where the finish line is.”

“I could also see where your finish line is, a jobless 27 year old guy.”

“Hey! I did everything you asked me. I had to make a quick stop at the Target to grab some tee’s and jeans and change out of my work attire so I would look casual and all like you told me. I risked stepping out of Stark Industries despite that I have a meeting in-” He checked his wrist watch. “-about 2 hours. I smuggled some unlabeled SI techs without questions asked. And I can’t tell that hot lady over there where the tech came from and I can’t call you Mr. Stark. You can’t fire me.”

“Yeah, good job on that.” Tony patted his shoulder consolingly.

The truth was, Thomas was a Junior Supervisor at the R & D Department at Stark Industries. Tony appointed him three years ago after receiving an email from him of an impressive blueprint of a 23 feet tower that could clean outdoor air. The kid had potential, even though he hadn’t seen him yet personally.

Thomas adjusted the red cap covering his mop of curly black hair. “Anyway, I’d better go. Mr. Keith is going to kill me if I am late to the meeting.” He fished out his key fob and clicked it. His car beeped in response.

“Just tell me if you’re late. I’ll have a chat with Abraham this evening.”

“Yeah.” Thomas opened the car door.

“And Tommy,” Tony said when Thomas opened the car door.  “Thank you for coming here.”

Thomas smiled at him. “You know I couldn’t say no to you unless you were going to do some illegal or bad stuff, I couldn’t have helped you with that.”

Tony smiled at that.

“Are you really not going to visit your own company? Check the R&D and how we’re holding up.”

“I’ll visit when pigs have turned a shade of violet. Besides, you’re my eyes and ears there. You all are gonna be fine.”

“Alright, whatever suits you, see you around, Mr. Stark. Say hi to Peter and Harley for me.” 

Tony watched Thomas’ silver Montero Sport became a spot in the distance. 

When Tony had gone back to Pepper’s living room, she immediately came to him with a worried look plastered on her face. His first thought was Killian had contacted her again.

“W-what’s wrong? Is Killian-?”

“My friends are coming over,” Pepper said. “Margaret and Ryan are coming over because they found out I was on sick leave. They’re on their way and we have to hide this box. Also, we have to keep Killian a secret.”

“H-hold on,” Tony said, raising his hand. “Why are we keeping Killian a secret? Don’t they need to know because they’re your friends?”

“Exactly, they’re my friends so they can’t know. Ryan has a big presentation coming up and I don’t want him to mess up because he’s worried about my situation. Margaret is going to go on vacation next week and if she knows about this, she’ll probably postpone her much awaited vacation. Both of them have something big coming up and I don’t want it to get ruined because of me.”

Tony blew out a breath. “I am not exactly on board with your idea. The people close to you should be aware of-”

“You said you’re the most reliable guy I could ask for.”

“Fine! We’ll keep it a secret. Where do you want to hide your box?”

“In the storage room, there’s not a lot in there, so there’s plenty of room for the box.”

“Okay,”



“There, it’s settled.” Tony dusted off his hands after putting the box down in the storage room. They covered it with some unused rugs so the box wouldn’t be noticeable.

“Thank you so much, Tony.” Pepper was leaning on the doorframe of the storage room.

“Yeah, no problem. Maybe I could swing by here later after your friends leave so we can install the tech. I’ll be in the garage all day anyway.”

Pepper frowned. “You’re not going to work at the docks?”

“Yep. I’ll be fixing some boat engines in the garage, so there’s no need for me to come to the docks today.”

Pepper nodded. “I’m sorry I feel like I’m bothering you a lot-”

“No you’re not. I wanted to help anyway. Besides, I heard that you patched up my twins yesterday when they got into a fight. This is my payback to you, so let’s just call it even.”

Pepper smiled at him.

“Maybe I should go before your friends come here-”

The doorbell rang.

“Shit!” it was Pepper. She jolted up from her lazy position against the doorframe. She looked at Tony in panic. “They’re here. What are we gonna tell them about why you’re here?”

“Let’s be calm about this. Uhhh...” Tony said, thinking. “How about you asked me to come by because you’re having issues with your circuit breaker and you asked me to look into it. I’m also a good electrician. I’m an all around guy you see.”

“Yeah, yeah okay, let’s say that.”

The doorbell rang again.

“Let’s go outside.” Tony said, turning off the lights in the storage room and closing the door behind.

Pepper opened the main door. As expected, Ryan and a brunette, whom Tony assumed that was Margaret, were standing by the door. Ryan was holding some paper bags.

“Ginny!” The brunette hugged Pepper. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I had a bad migraine earlier, but I’m okay now. It subsided a bit, though my head is still throbbing.” Pepper lied.

That was when the latter two noticed Tony standing behind Pepper.

Margaret frowned at him. “And who are you?”

“Tony?” Ryan piped in. He looked surprised. “What are you doing here?”

“Oh yeah, Tony was looking at my circuit breaker because there’s uh, I thought there was a broken wire in there, you know that could be dangerous. So I asked him to take a look into it,” Pepper said. “He’s my neighbor. He lives across the street,” She added for Margaret.

“Yeah,” Tony agreed. “But it’s all good. She was panicking for no reason. It was just a loose wire.”

“That’s our Ginny, she’s got anxiety you see.” Margaret said. “I’m Margaret by the way. Nice to meet you, Tony.” She extended her hand for a handshake.

“Likewise,” Tony accepted the handshake. He released it. “I should get going. I don’t want to interrupt you anymore.” 

“Yeah, thank you for looking into my breaker Tony.” Pepper said, as Tony stepped out of the door. 

He just waved at her in response. Before he could get farther away, he heard Margaret speak.

“You didn’t tell me you have a hot neighbor!”

Tony smirked at that as he made his way back to his house.

 

Chapter Text

The moment Tony stepped foot in his garage, Friday told him that he had 17 missed calls from his best friend.

“Boss, incoming call from Col. James Rhodes,” Friday said.

“Answer.” He sat on the worn-out swivel chair near the worktable.

“Why aren’t you answering my calls?!”

“Woah, woah, Yosemite Sam, what’s with the tone –what’s the matter-?”

“What’s the matter? I’ve been calling you for-”

“Yeah, this is like the 18th time to be exact. We’ve just talked 8 hours ago. Did you miss me already?”

“After hanging up on me and leaving some alarming message, how could I not call back? I was so close to calling out a SWAT team.”

Tony was confused. “Alarming message-?” Then it clicked. “Oh! The black car I told you about that was outside earlier.”

“Yeah,” Rhodes answered immediately. “What was that all about? Were they spying on you? Do you think they’re dangerous-?”

“He’s not spying on me. He was spying on my neighbor,” Tony explained. “Pepper’s the one who’s in danger.  I was at her house earlier to help her out. That’s why I wasn’t able to answer your calls.”

There was a beat of silence. “This is the second time I’ve heard of Pepper. Who is she exactly?”

Tony leaned his head back on the headrest as he stared on the ceiling. He spun around in his chair. “Just a neighbor.”

“That you’re helping out?” Rhodes continued.

“Yeah, I told you she’s in danger. There’s a psycho stalker lurking around her.” He sat up straighter. “Wait you said you can call in SWAT?”

“Yeah, do you want me to make a call?”

Tony sagged into his seat as he waved his hand. “Forget about it. It would be hard to explain to her how I  got a SWAT team on site. It might freak her out too.”

“Wait, doesn’t she know who you are?”

“She doesn’t know my surname and I have no plans on telling her just yet.” He reached for a small screw driver on the table and began to fidget with it.

“I’m a bit confused. Are we back to playing secret identity here? Does she look suspicious to you?”

Tony sighed. “It’s not that. She works at Stark Industries and it would be awkward if she knows who I am.”He was curious about her from the moment they had first met. So maybe he had done a bit of research about her way before. He paused and smiled. “Besides, I like that I’m just Tony to her, you know, just the neighborhood mechanic.”

“Now I want to go back to the States immediately,” Rhodes said.

“Why, because you miss me?”

“Cause things are starting to get interesting.”

Tony raised an eyebrow. “Are they?”

“This Pepper gal is making me curious, man. I want to know why you’d consider calling in a SWAT team, just for her.”

Tony sat up straighter once again. He waved the screwdriver in the air. “Tsk. You know how dangerous stalkers can be.”

“Since when did you start to care so much about your neighbors? All you cared about in the past was their car engines when they needed them fixed.”

“I. . .” Tony trailed off. He paused. He wasn’t quite sure how  to phrase out loud the things that had been on his mind lately. “She’s like me ten years ago. She’s got her own Unknown too. She doesn’t know when the Unknown is going to come for her. And we both know how maddening that can be, right? And I . . .” He exhaled. “I can’t just turn my back on that. I’ve got you, Happy and Obie. You all had helped me to be where I am today. I would have gone crazy if it wasn’t for you guys. And she . . . She’s so stubborn to go through all of that alone because she doesn’t want to burden the people close to her. Someone has to volunteer and step up and help her, just like what you did for me back then.”

There was only silence on Rhodey’s end.

Tony blinked. “Hey, Rhodey, you still there?”

“Yeah, I am . . .”

Tony snorted in laughter. “What? Were you moved by my speech?”

“I’m so close to tears man.”

Tony snorted back a laugh.

“Thanks.”.

“And you know, just proud. . . “

“You should be. You’ve got a genius best friend after all.”

“And my best friend has come a long way.”

Tony smiled.

“I expect to meet Pepper when I come by there.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Whatever.”

“Is she pretty?”

“She’s okay.”

“She’s really pretty then.”

Friday voice suddenly echoed. “Another incoming call from Thomas Patel.”

“Hey, hate to interrupt our lovely conversation, but I’ve got another call coming,” Tony said.

“You’re always so eager to escape a conversation when you’re embarrassed.”

“I’m not.”

“Don’t try to fool someone who has known you since you were fifteen. See you next week.” He hung up before Tony could protest.

Tony glared ahead. Sometimes, he wondered if it was really okay to have a friend who knew how to get to him. He ignored the warming of his cheeks as he answered Thomas’ call. He rubbed his neck.

“Why did you not tell me that Ms. Potts is also working at Stark Industries?”

“Why do people keep on yelling at me on the phone? Nobody has any phone manners today,” Tony griped. “Hello to you too.”

“Sorry. It’s just that, I’ve looked her up.” Thomas elaborated. “Miss Potts is working in the Accounting Department.”

“And?”

“Did you forget to tell me that?”

“Sort of.” Tony shrugged.

“Yep you forgot to tell me this tiny but very important detail. What if we meet in the hallways? What am I gonna tell her? You’re the one who’s so adamant about keeping everything a secret!”

“Then do your best to hide from her, I guess.”

“Wow, I really love my boss. . .”

“I’m detecting sarcasm. And aren’t you supposed to be in a meeting?”

“Should I just submit a resignation letter?”

“You’re not going to really do that.”

“You’re right. I can’t do it because I need this job to survive in this harsh world full of capitalism. How am I supposed to hide from her? We’re working on the same building!”

“Look, you two never crossed paths until now, so what are the chances that you’re going to see each other in the hallways like you said.”

“What if we do?”

“You figured out Poincaré Conjecture when you were ten. I’m sure you’ll figure something out. I’m hanging up. I’m gonna grab some lunch. Bye.” Tony hung up.


“I’m done installing the cams and they’re working just fine.” Tony gazed down at the tablet in his hand. Footage from every angle of the house were displayed on the screen.

He was back at Pepper’s house. Like he had promised, he went back to her house when her friends had left. He was standing in the living room. Meanwhile, Pepper was sitting down at the couch. The box containing the tech was opened next to her. Plastic and bubble wrap littered the floor. She tried to be helpful earlier, but after plugging in all the wrong cables one after another, Tony just made her sit down. Though, Pepper being the stubborn woman she was, refused to do nothing at all. She resorted to passing some screws and pliers to him and occasionally rebooting the system when needed to. Tony had learned that she was adept when it came to software.

“I am going to teach you how to work with the OS later.” Tony looked up at her.

Pepper was staring into space. She looked like she hadn’t heard any of what he had just said. Her forehead creased in a small frown.

He had the sudden urge to wrap his arms around her, and comfort her. He wished he could take his thumb and smooth the wrinkles out of her forehead. Instead, he awkwardly perched himself next to her on the couch.

Pepper blinked. She turned her head to look at Tony.

He picked up a white rectangular box on the coffee table, then peeled off the seal. He was aware that she was watching him, curious what might be inside of the box. He hadn’t told her yet what was inside the box, only that they would open it last.

Tony removed the lid. Inside was a digital wristwatch. A thick, black rubber strap was attached to both ends of a silver, square screen.

He plucked out the watch. “Give me your hand.”

“Huh?”

He glanced at her as he held out his hand. “Your hand, I need it.”

Reluctantly and slowly, she extended her right hand to him. Tony held her hand as he fastened the wristwatch around her wrist. He noticed how petite and pale her hand was and how soft her skin was under his rough fingers.

“This wristwatch needs to detect body heat signatures to turn on the system. It doesn’t have an on switch on it, that’s why.” Tony explained. He locked the wristwatch. “But don’t worry, you’ll only have to do that once.  When the OS starts to work, you’ll only have your fingerprint to turn it back on. It will shift to sleep mode when not in use.” Moments later, the screen lit up. Several menus popped up.

“Oh! It already turned on.” He grinned at her and then looked back at the screen. He reached for her other hand as he settled down her right wrist on his lap. “Let me borrow your left thumb please.” He pressed her left thumb on the screen. The screen scanned her fingerprint. “It’s for identification. By default you’re the only one who can access this watch but you can always change it if you want. There, it’s done. I’ll tell you about the other features later. For now, you just need to know that it’s not just a watch.”

“How come . . .?”

His thumb caressed the back of her hand. Tony looked at her. “It’s also a panic button.”

“Panic button?” Pepper tilted her head.

He nodded. “If you’re in trouble or if you’re in danger or something, just press the screen really hard with your left thumb and I’ll get an alert and I’ll be there.”

“You?”

He nodded again.

“Why you?”

“Don’t you want me to be?”

“I mean it’s not that I don’t want to but with my anxiety I might press the panic button every minute-”

“Then I’ll be there.”

Pepper laughed.

“You can’t just be there every time I’m a little nervous, you have your own life I just can’t-”

“I told you, I’m the most reliable guy you could ever ask for. So I’ll be there.”

Pepper stared at him. Tony couldn’t gauge if it was because she doubted him. He was usually confident at reading body language and subtle gestures, but with Pepper he was always double guessing. Sure, sometimes, he could figure it out immediately. But there were times that Pepper was so composed and guarded, like right now. Most women wouldn’t hesitate to lay out their feelings for him. Why couldn’t Pepper be like that?

“Uhm, Tony . . .”

“Yeah?”

“My hands.”

Tony looked down. His face burned. He pulled his hands away immediately.

“Sorry,” Tony looked away.

“It’s okay. So uh, how are you going to know where I am if I pressed the panic button?”

“There’s a tracker-”

“Tracker?” She cut in. Her brows knitted together.

“Yeah.” It was his turn to frown. “Why? Do you feel uncomfortable-?”

“Killian put a tracker on me before.”

“Shit. I didn’t know you’ve got a peeve on it-if you don’t like it we can-“

“It’s alright.” She looked down at the wristwatch. She smiled at him. “Maybe it’s a good thing anyway. Like a reminder that trackers aren’t that bad.”

He’d known since the beginning that Pepper’s smiles were pretty. But now, Tony had realized that her smiles weren’t just pretty. Her smiles that came from her deepest fear and were drawn out by her unyielding courage made them extraordinary. Tony liked that even more.


 

Initially, Virginia thought that her heart was pounding out of fear.

And then, she realized that her heart felt like it was about to burst from her chest for another reason.

Was it because of the way he looked at her when he had said that he was the most reliable guy she could ask for? Or was it the way he smiled at her? At that moment, she felt like she had momentarily forgotten the existence of fear. The time around them had warped-- every second felt like a long time where she was free from the crushing anxiety that had been weighing her down. She was left free to breathe and all she could hear was the giddy pounding of her heart.  Was it the excited look on his face when he explained the technicalities of the technologies she couldn’t understand? Was it the gleam in his eyes or the concentrated look on his face as his hands twisted and plugged the wires? Was it the hours that they spent together that told her that it was alright to trust this man, because unlike her who was light as a leaf that quakes under the influence of the slightest breeze, he was as steady as a boulder in a hurricane, as he confidently solved every problem he was faced with.

Or maybe, it was the way he held his hands oh so gently as if her hands were paper-thin porcelain. His hands that felt so warm in contrast to her hands that felt like ice because of the anxiousness that plagued her every moment.

In all those moments with him, her heart beat like it was scared, but she was sure didn’t feel scared. Contrary, it was those moments that she felt safest.

That night as she lay in her bed with her eyes closed, she could feel the coldness of the metal of the wristwatch against her skin. It was somewhat soothing. She thought about her day. She thought about how she was lying calmly in her bed instead of tossing and turning around, despite knowing that Killian knew where she lived. Perhaps, Tony was right. It was easier to go through the rough things with someone at your side, someone whom she could share her fears with and not worry that she was sharing her burdens with him as well.

She opened her eyes. She raised her arm and stared at the wristwatch.

In the end, her heart that was like a drum inside her ribcage was softly telling her that it was okay to believe in him, that he was going to be there when she called his name.

She was thankful though, through the years, she had mastered how to collect herself and hide her jittery heart. That no one but her who could see how fragile her heart was and listen to the agitated beating of her heart. And then, she had a fleeting thought. What if she let Tony listen and hear what her heart sounded like? Could he tame it and hold it like how he had gently held her hands before?

She drifted off to sleep with his name as her last thought and her first thought when she had woken up.

And funny, how she had woken up late in the morning on a weekend when she was always an early riser. Strangely, she’d had a goodnight’s sleep, which had become so rare.

She yawned as she climbed down the stairs tightly wrapping her silk robe around her. She was at the end of the stairs when her doorbell rang.

She froze.

Her first thought was Killian.

She swallowed. Her mind was suddenly on high alert. She wrapped her hand on her wristwatch. That was right. If it was Killian, she could easily call Tony. Might as well put the wristwatch into use and see if it truly worked. But then, knowing Tony it would definitely work.

She cautiously went to the door, gripping her wristwatch.

She opened it.

She blinked.

“Oh my . . .” Tony was standing at her door in his usual plaids. He looked at her from head to foot. “Don’t tell me you just woke?”

She nodded.

“It’s past 10 in the morning. You’re usually an early riser.”

“I thought so too.”

“I thought you were holing yourself up in here.” Then he smiled. “I’m glad you’re still getting sleep.”

There. That smile again. It wasn’t like he hadn’t smiled at her before. But what was different with his smile now that it was making her heart skip a beat? It was the kind of smile where the side of his eyes crinkled and showed all his perfect white teeth. It reminded her of the first time she saw him at Mayday and like that very first time, she couldn’t help but be drawn to that smile.

“So,” Tony spoke jolting her up from her thoughts. He rubbed his hands together. “I heard from my twins that you bake.”

“Yeah, and?”

“I was thinking of inviting you to join us. We are planning to bake some pastries for my twins’ bake sale at school. And they straight up told me that you’re a better baker than I will ever be.”

Virginia laughed then she tried to rein her laughter by pressing her lips together. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be laughing.”

“No, it’s fine. I like that my kids were being honest with me actually.”

That made her laugh even more.

“So are you up for it or . . .?”

“Sure. Give me an hour and I’ll go to your house. I promised them that we would  bake some time anyways.”

“Cool. Then we’ll prepare the ingredients. See you later.”

Tony went back to his house. Virginia smiled as she closed the door. It had been so long since she last baked and baking was something she liked doing the most. Lately, it felt like there was no place for her where she could do the things she loved without feeling suffocated and overwhelmed. She only had this house as her own safe haven, but now it felt threatening all of a sudden because of the thought that Killian could show up in any corner at the least expected moment.

She didn’t know that something fun could still be inserted in the midst of the chaos she was in. Tony, in his own way, had managed to provide a small refuge where she could breathe again, even if only temporarily.

 

Chapter Text

After Tony had left, Virginia stopped at her kitchen and grabbed an apple from her fruit stand on the counter. She was about to take a bite when she changed her mind. “Let’s go shower first,” She muttered bringing the apple with her. She climbed the stairs two steps at a time.

After taking a quick shower, she wrapped herself in a pink towel robe. Another white towel was wrapped around her head. She opened her closet. She stared at her clothes as she bit into her apple. There was a quiet crunchy sound. She pulled out some clothes from the closet as she munched on her apple. She liked the shirt-skirt combo, but it seemed too formal for baking cookies. She tossed the clothes onto the bed. It didn’t appeal to her that much. Before she knew it, half of the clothes in her closet were on her bed.

She paused, her lips centimeters away from biting into her apple, when she saw the pile on her bed.

“What am I doing?” She mused to herself out loud. “I’m just going to the house across the street. It’s not like I’m going to an event or something.”

In the end, she settled on black and white stripes, long sleeves, and ripped denim shorts. She sat on her dresser and quickly blow-dried her hair. She left her hair down with bangs covering her forehead. She was combing her hair when she paused again. She stared at her pale reflection on the mirror. She picked up some lip tint. She applied some to her lips and a bit to her cheeks. Virginia smiled at the mirror, satisfied. Now that face had some color, it was much livelier.

She left her room, leaving the huge pile of clothes on her bed. She would put them back into the closet later.

She rang the doorbell of Tony’s house. She shoved her hands in the back pockets of her shorts as she waited.

The door opened.

“Hi, Miss Potts!” Peter grinned at her.

“Hi, Peter.” She smiled brightly at him.

“Come on in.” He stepped aside. “We thought you’d never come.”

“How could I not?” She went inside. “We’ve been planning to bake for a long time now. I was glad that your dad invited me to come.”

Peter bounced on his heels. “They’re all in the kitchen. Come.”

When they reached the kitchen, Virginia noticed that all the ingredients were laid on the dining table. Tony’s back was facing her. He was talking on the phone so it seemed he hadn’t noticed her yet. Harley was on the table with the torn wrapper of a chocolate bar in front of him. He was about to bite into the chocolate bar he was holding when he saw her.

His eyes lit up as he abruptly stood from her seat. “Hi, Miss Potts!”

That was when Tony turned, the phone still against his ear.

“Hello, Harley.” She smiled at him.

“Harley! What are you doing with the chocolate? We’re going to use it for the baking!” Peter scolded him when he saw the torn wrapper and half-eaten chocolate bar on the table.

“I just tasted it!” Harley defended. “And I got hungry. Besides, we’ve got plenty of chocolate bars in the cupboard.”

“Right, should we start baking then?” Virginia asked.

“I hate to be that guy,” Tony interrupted. He pocketed his phone. “But I have to step out for a bit.”

“Why?” The twins simultaneously said flabbergasted. They looked like they had been told that Christmas wasn’t going to happen anymore. Virginia was even more disappointed. Though, she tried to mask it by giving Tony a questioning glance.

“I have to go to the docks. There was some problem on the boat we’ve fixed so I have to see it immediately since they’re going to use it now. But on a brighter note, I promise to be here by noon and join your baking escapades.” Tony tried to sound cheerful.

But the twins’ crestfallen faces still hadn’t changed.

“Hey, what’s with that look, we’ve got the best pâtissier here.” He pointed at Virginia. “I won’t be that long. I promise.”

Peter pouted and muttered. “Be thankful that Miss Potts is here.”

“Thank God you’re here Pepper.” He turned at her and smiled. “Or else I'm dead meat to them.” He pointed at them, then made a gesture of slitting his throat with his thumb.

“All right then,” She clapped her hands, trying to lift the mood. “Let’s start. What should we bake first?”

“Chocolate brownie!” Harley said.

“Oatmeal cookies!” Peter said.

The twins glared at each other.

“Think you can handle that?” Tony muttered as he walked up to her. He gave her a side glance.

“A piece of cake,” Virginia declared, popping her fingers and stretching her neck.

Tony patted her shoulder. “You are truly incredible.”

He turned to his kids. “Guys, I’ll be out then. Behave and please try not to burn down our kitchen.”

“We’ll be fine,” Harley confidently said. “Miss Potts is here.”

“That puts my heart at ease.” Tony patted his chest.

“So,” Virginia began when Tony had left the kitchen. “How about you two do a round of rock paper scissors so we would know what should we bake first? Let’s set everything fair and square.”

It had been decided that they would do chocolate brownies first. Peter, bless him, was a sport about losing. Harley was ecstatic.

They put aprons on. Meanwhile, Virginia tied her hair in a messy bun with an elastic band she had brought with her. She pushed her sleeves up to her elbows.

“How many do you plan on selling at your school?” Virginia asked as she inspected the ingredients on the table. There was a lot. Not to mention, all of them were expensive types from flour to the chocolate bars that were hard to find in the local market.

“We don’t know.” Harley shrugged. “We just want to make enough funds for our robotics club. Also, we want to save a lot for ourselves and something for you too.”

She nodded, feeling touched that she would get some of the baked goodies too. They started working.

She began to melt the chocolate on the stove while she asked the twins to crack eggs into the bowl. She put the saucepan with a chocolate bar on the stove. That was when Peter noticed her wristwatch.

“Oh! We all have matching wristwatches.” Peter extended his arm so she could get a better look of his watch. Harley raised his arm as well. They had the same black band and silver metal square screen.

“Your dad loaned it to me.” She said. She turned on the stove and started stirring the chocolate to melt

“Why? Are you in trouble too?” Harley asked.

She frowned and paused. Trouble too?

She glanced at them in time to notice that Peter inconspicuously elbowed his twin.

“What do you mean by in trouble too?” She asked.

“It’s nothing,” Peter assured her and smiled. “Dad just likes to keep tabs on us. You know how dangerous the streets can be nowadays. He just wants to easily reach us if something happens. He’s overprotective that way.”

“If,” Harley butted in. “What are the chances that someone is going to abduct us or something?”

Peter gave him another look. She couldn’t see Peter’s face but it felt like a look of warning.

But Harley seemed unaffected and shrugged. “Just saying, we’ve had this since we were like eight and we’re still okay until now. It just feels suffocating sometimes.”

“Will you just continue to crack the eggs? We’ll still have to do oatmeal cookies after this.” Peter’s voice sounded annoyed.

Meanwhile, Virginia focused back on her saucepan. She put some butter on it.

“You know,” she spoke after a moment. Her eyes trained on the dark sauce bubbling on the pan. “I bet your dad just wants you to be safe.”

“Oh, I’ve heard that before,” Harley muttered.

She turned off the stove and faced the twins. She raised her arm and tapped her wristwatch. “This thing is a reassurance to me. Just the thought of someone being there for me when I need it is already comforting enough.”

The twins stared at her. She continued. “How about you? Don’t you find it comforting that your dad will be there for you too? I wish I had this thing wrapped around my wrist sooner.” She smiled at them.

She then grabbed the saucepan out of the stove. She set it aside to cool it down.

“Miss Potts, can we do heart-shaped brownies? We have some heart-shaped pans in here,” Peter suddenly asked when they started to mix the flour into the bowl. They were standing around the table and had each mixing bowl in hand.

She glanced up at him. Peter was looking shyly at her. There was a faint blush dusting his cheeks.

She smiled. “Of course, we can do that if you want. So, who’s the lucky girl who’s gonna receive your heart?”

“Miss Potts!” Peter’s face was a shade of strawberry by then.

Harley gasped turning to his twin. “Wait. Don’t tell me you like that Liz girl, the captain of the decathlon team?”

Peter glared at the bowl in embarrassment. “Forget I asked anything.”

“What do you mean, this is a perfect opportunity!” Harley encouraged pointing his whisk at him. “Give her some brownies and then confess your undying love to her.”

“You’re making fun of me!” Peter whined at Harley.

“I’m not,” Harley said with an innocent look on his face.

“You’re not going to live this down until the day we die.” Peter continued.

“Maybe?”

“I hate you.” Peter turned back on his bowl and mixed the flour a little bit harder. The flour sloshed out of the bowl.

“Just mix the flour a bit more gently,” Virginia tried to say.

“Sorry.” Peter slowed down.

“Besides, it’s not like you’re committing a crime by liking someone,” She added.

“Have you ever liked someone, Miss Potts?” Harley suddenly asked.

“Huh?” She paused. She scratched the back of her neck with the tip of her index finger. “Well, of course, I have -had that.” Honestly, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a dating life. She had been so focused on work that she barely had time to date. Well, there was also Ryan. But it wasn’t like they had dated officially when she turned him down immediately.

 “Then how about now? Don’t you have someone you like?” It was Peter this time.

She was about to say none when her mind had a different answer for her. Tony’s face came to her mind.

“Are you kidding me?” She mused out loud.

“Sorry, we didn’t mean to-” Peter immediately said.

“No! No! it’s fine.” She waved her hands at them. “I was talking to myself. Anyway, life’s a bit tough for me to have a dating life right now,” She answered. She chose to focus on mixing her flour instead.

They mixed all the ingredients, including the chocolate, the flour, and the beaten egg. The twins laid out the heart-shaped pans on the table. Moments later, Virginia started to pour the batter into the pan. They had enough chocolate batter left over to pour some into the other assorted shaped pans that they also had. There was also the classic rectangular pan. The twins looked excited, even when they finally put the pan into the preheated oven. While waiting for the brownies to bake, they decided to eat lunch since it was already late in the afternoon and they were starving. Tony still hadn’t come.

The twins told her that there was lasagna made by their dad in the fridge that they could just reheat and eat. So she did that.

“I wonder if Dad is going to make it.” Harley tapped on his wristwatch to check the time. The screen lit up, displaying the time. They were sitting on the table eating.

“I’m sure he will. He promised after all.” Peter chewed on his food. He looked at Virginia from across. “How’s the food, Miss Potts? It’s good, isn’t it? He might not be as good as you in baking but he’s a great cook.”

“He is.” She smiled and looked down at her lasagna. The lasagna was truly delicious.

Harley suddenly snickered beside Peter. “Dad told us that before when he was starting to learn to cook, he would mistakenly put motor oil in the food.”

“Seriously?” She gazed incredulously at the boys.

Peter laughed. “We didn’t know if he was joking since we hadn’t seen him mistakenly put actual motor oil in the food. But it was funny.”

After eating and clearing the plates, they all huddled in front of the oven watching the brownies to bake. Soon, they were pulling out the pans from the oven.

“Careful,” She said as Harley pulled out a pan. They put the pans on the table.

“Let them cool down first.” She told them.

They leaned forward on the table as they stared down at the pans. The smell of the pastry alone was enough to make them drool.

“The heart-shaped ones look perfect. I’m sure Liz would like it.” Virginia winked at Peter. The latter blushed.

“It’s not yet February but it looks like Valentines here,” Harley noted.

“Oh shut up!” Peter punched him lightly in the arm.

Harley and Virginia laughed. Then their conversation drifted off on some random things. She enjoyed listening to Harley and Peter’s childhood misadventures and how stressed Tony was in those moments. They even recounted the bit when Tony got so angry at them when the twins tried to eat bleach. Even Virginia was baffled at the thought of them eating bleach. But the twins reassured them that it was just a joke online. Virginia was even more worried about what the younger generation did for fun nowadays. The twins also told her the story of ‘The Diaper Accident. They said that it was a story that their dad had told them since they were too young remembered most of it. They told her about how their dad was too frantic to change their diapers because both of them had pooped in it. Tony was so busy changing Harley’s diaper that he didn’t notice Peter was crawling out of the mat and dragging a half-attached diaper with him and leaving an awful mess behind. Virginia was laughing that her stomach hurt. It was so hilarious to imagine Tony frantically chasing Peter meanwhile dodging the mess he had made on the floor, meanwhile, Harley had joined in making a bigger mess by scattering the shit around even though he was freshly cleaned.

All of them were still laughing at the story when a voice joined in.

“Having fun without me?”

The latter three whirled at the direction of the voice. Tony was standing in the corner holding his toolbox over his shoulder.

“Dad!” The twins abruptly stood up looking pleased that Tony was already there.

Virginia stood up too and smiled. “You’re just in time. We were just cooling down the brownies and we’ll have a bite.”

Tony glanced at the pans on the table. “Am I late? Looks like you already finished baking?”

“No. We’re going to bake another batch which is oatmeal cookies!” Peter enthusiastically said.

Tony playfully rolled his eyes at the enthusiasm of his kid. “God, the amount of sugar intake in this house, don’t blame me if your teeth rot quickly. Since it looks like there will be Baking Part 2, I’ll just take a quick shower and I’ll join you.”

“Yeah!” The twins cheered. Tony shook his head and amusement and glanced at Virginia. “Don’t start without me, Pepper!” Then he left.

She smiled. The twins turned their attention at her.

“Dad must have like you since he’s calling you by a nickname a lot,” Peter noted smiling.

Virginia choked on her saliva. She cleared her throat. “Sorry?”

“Dad likes giving nicknames to the people he likes,” Harley explained. “Plus, he even left us to you. We’ve never had any babysitters aside from Uncle Happy, Uncle Rhodey and Aunt May or sometimes, Gary. He doesn’t like leaving us to random people but I guess you’re not just random people now.”

“I. . .” She didn’t know what to say. She rubbed her arm. “-Well, I guess your dad trusted me enough . . .”

“It’s an understatement.” Peter beamed. “But it’s not like we don’t like it. We’re on your side, Miss Potts!”

“What do you mean-?”

Yodeler’s Dance song suddenly played out of nowhere. Peter fumbled for his pocket. It turned out to be Peter’s ringtone.

“Is that Liz?” Harley leaned sideways to peek at Peter’s phone.

Peter moved his phone away from him. “Dude, you gotta Google ‘Privacy’ for your benefit. Excuse me.” Then he scrambled out of the kitchen and answered his phone.

“I saw Liz’s name on the screen.” Harley mused.

Virginia shook her head in amusement. She was about to sit down again when Peter’s voice echoed from the distance.

“Harley where’s my power bank? My battery’s dead!”

Harley rolled his eyes. “God, I pity his phone. He wouldn’t charge it until his battery gave up on him.” Then he shouted. “It’s in our bedside drawer upstairs, dumbass!”

There were heavy footsteps on the stairs.

Harley looked at Virginia and pointed at the pans. “Can we eat the brownie now? I’m starving.”

“Sure. I think we can slice this out of the pans now.” Virginia stood up to get a long thin knife while Harley cheered.

She was in the middle of knifing out the first heart shape brownie off the pan when Peter shouted from upstairs.

“Harley! It’s not in here!”

Harley pressed his lips together and released an annoyed groan. “I just wanted to eat brownie as in right now. Is it that bad? Why am I being deprived of that?”

She looked up at him. “Just help your brother find his power bank and when you came back, you can eat brownies to your stomach’s content.”

That made Harley moved. He stood up and headed out of the kitchen. He shouted. “I swear to God Peter Benjamin, if I see that stupid power bank, I am going to do a bowline knot with the charger and power bank's cord around your neck so you won’t ever forget to charge!”

Harley stomped into the stairs.

Teens. Virginia shook her head as she resumed removing the brownies out of the pan carefully so they wouldn’t break. She smiled as she put the first heart shape pan on the tray. She moved to the next brownie.

“Ohh. You’re removing them out. Does that mean we can eat that already?”

She paused and looked up once again. Tony walked towards her. He wore black long sleeves and gray sweat pants.

“Did you check on your twins?” She resumed once again on her work. “It felt like they’re on the verge of strangling each other.”

“Oh, it’s a daily occurrence you see.” He stood beside her. “I think they’re doing guillotine right now.”

She turned and glared at him.

Tony laughed and waved his hand. “They’re gonna be fine. I swear. I assure you that they will come down the stairs in a moment with all body parts intact to devour your brownies.”

They were in close proximity that she could smell soap and cologne on him. Her heart must have liked the smell too since it was reacting wildly inside her rib cage. She immediately looked away. She didn’t like the look in his eyes. They looked like they were sparkling when he laughed. It was nonsense anyway. How could eyes just sparkle? It was utterly ridiculous and she should pull herself together when she was starting to see weird things.

“Here,” She needed to distract herself. She reached for the tray with the heart shape brownie in it. She put it in front of him. “Have a bite and tell me if it’s good.”

“With pleasure!” Tony picked up a fork in the utensil rack on the counter and sat on the chair next to her.

She continued to remove the brownies out of the pan. She put another brownie on a separate tray.

“Why it is heart shape?” Tony mused. “Is this your heart, Potts, and you’re giving it to me?”

She exhaled quietly. Let’s be calm about this, Virginia. She chanted mentally. Another brownie had made its way to the tray. She spoke. “Careful on your words, Tony, I’m holding a knife.”

Tony burst into laughter. “Yikes. I’ll just eat my brownie quietly then.”

“Ohh! It’s so good!” Tony said. His face lit up. “My kids know the right person to approach about baked goods. Sit for a moment and have some.”

“Hang on. I’ll just clear this pan first.” She said. She got the momentum and was now quickly removing the brownies without breaking them.

After a moment, she looked satisfied at the brownies on the tray. She turned. She was startled to see Tony staring at her. His elbow propped on the table and his cheek on his hand. The brownies seemed to be forgotten on the plate. He was smiling.

“What?” Forget about him giving her a chance to breathe and all that shit because he was doing the exact opposite to her right now. She couldn’t breathe.

“Nothing.” He shrugged. “Come sit and have a taste of your hard work.” He pulled out a chair. Virginia sat beside him.

Tony slice down the brownie with his fork. He held out the fork with a brownie in it in front of Virginia’s face. “Say ahh.”

“Really?” She said flatly.

“Come on, take the bite.”

She was having none of it. “You know I can just take my fork-”

“I’ve got a lot of patience for this. I’ve got years of practice with two toddlers before.” Tony continued to hold out the fork. “Or if you want, I can also make airplane noises-”

Virginia took the bite.

Tony beamed. “There you go. It wasn’t so hard, right? It’s good, isn’t it?”

She nodded, also delighted. The texture of the brownie in her mouth was just right. It was chewy. She could still taste the melted chocolate. It wasn’t too sweet either.

“Here, have another bite.” Tony held out the fork again.

“Are you feeding me?”

He nodded.

“I’m not five. You have a lot of forks I can use-”

“It’s over there.” He glanced at the counter. “It’s too tiring to stand. So I’m doing you a favor-”

“Well, I’m not-” She was about to stand but Tony held her hand and pulled her down on her seat. “Just sit. You’re tired from all that baking and we’ll bake another one. Better save your energy.”

Actually, her energy was nowhere to be found when Tony continued to hold her hand. Was it his habit to hold someone else’s hand so casually?

She slowly eased her hand out of Tony’s grasp.

“Oops. Sorry.” He held the fork in front of her mouth. “Here, Ahhh.”

Begrudgingly, she took another bite. Tony continued to beam as he ate some too using the same fork. It didn’t end there as he continued to hold the fork in front of her. She was about to bite in when he suddenly made a sound of an engine and moved the fork away from her mouth.

“This is Captain Tony of Flight-”

She slapped his shoulder hard that it resonated around. Tony threw his head back in laughter.

“Tony!” But she was laughing too.

He ended up eating the brownie before it fell from the fork.

“Oh!” She noticed a brownie crumb on the side of his mouth. “You’ve got something here.” She tried to point it with her finger on the side of her mouth to demonstrate.

“Oh, here?” Tony tried to wipe it but failing to get the crumb.

“No it’s not-” Instinctively, she reached for the side of his lip and wiped it.

She froze with her thumb on the side of his lips. She looked at her thumb on his face. She could feel under her thumb the softness of his lips. She glanced up at him. The playfulness in his face was gone. He was staring at her with an unfathomable gaze. She wanted to look away because if she didn’t his brown eyes that looked darker at that moment would probably be the death of her. But she couldn’t look away. Why was she so drawn to his eyes that looked so warm every time he looked at her?

Because her eyes couldn’t do it, she drew out her strength and pulled her thumb instead. But then, Tony grabbed her wrist. She was startled.

Was she just imagining the whole thing or Tony’s face was getting closer to her?

And closer . . .

THUD! THUD! THUD!

The two jumped away from each other and looked at the direction of the stairs. Peter’s face peeked out from the corner.

“Son, did you just fall on the stairs?”

“You’re an idiot, Peter!” Harley hissed at him who was also at the stairs.

Virginia stood up worriedly. “Are you okay?”

“Y-yeah, I’m fine.” Peter said, “continue what you were doing-I mean did we interrupt you or something? I feel like we did. Sorry.”

Virginia wanted to launch herself to the nearest planet.

“No, it’s okay, son. You didn’t interrupt anything. You sure, you’re okay? Didn’t break any bones?” It wasn’t fair that Tony was calmly leaning back on his chair.

“No. I’ve got flexible bones. You see.” Peter stood up. He was holding onto the banister.

“Atta boy!” Tony said. “Come on here. You gotta taste the best brownie ever made.”

The twins were looking carefully at the two as they sat across them.

“Do you want a fork?” Virginia immediately asked to dissipate the awkwardness in the air. “I can get-”

“Nah, it’s fine,” Harley said. “It’s best to eat with bare hands.” The twins picked each brownie and ate, savoring the sweetness of the pastry in their mouths.

“This is heaven.” Peter swallowed as he closed his eyes serenely.

“Agreed.” Harley had the same expression.

Virginia smiled. She involuntarily looked at Tony who looked at her too. She quickly averted her gaze.

Later on, before the twins could inhale all the brownies, they had decided to clear the table and started baking again. They all wore aprons once again. They were standing around the table. Peter poured the flour on the stainless bowl that Harley was holding in place on the table.

“I think that’s enough,” Virginia said.

“Okay.” Peter put down the small sack of flour on the table.

“Tony, can you crack some eggs please?” She said not looking at him.

“I’m good at that.” Tony pushed up his sleeves.

The twins snickered.

That was when the unexpected happened. It all started with the smallest gesture that spiraled out of control.

A measuring cup fell on the floor from the table. Since Harley was the nearest, he crouched down to pick it up. And then unintentionally, Peter nudged the bowl containing the flour with his elbow. Virginia was the first one who saw what was about to happen.

“Harley, watch out!”

“Wha-”

The bowl fell from the table dousing Harley with the flour. The bowl hit him in the head.

“What the fuck-!”

“Hey, language!” Tony paused in the middle of cracking the eggs.

Peter was staring down at him in horror. Harley emerged from underneath the table.

They all froze. There was a moment of silence as they drank in the state of Harley was in. Harley was white from head to shoulder. He was holding the empty bowl. He coughed. Puff of smoke came out from his mouth.

Tony was the first one to break the silence as he attempted to cover his laugh with a cough. “Well son, you look . . .”

“Ridiculous?” Harley supplied.

“I was about to say Casper from that movie we had watched the other night-” Tony tried to say.

“This is all your fault!” Harley turned to Peter who was still frozen in his spot.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to-!”

He didn’t finish his sentence when Harley threw flour at him from the sack he had picked up from the table.

“Seriously?” Tony stared at them. Virginia’s mouth was hanging open.

Peter, who was now covered in flour, retaliated. He picked up a mound of flour on the floor and threw it at Harley.

Then they started laughing.

“Guys,” Tony called. “How about the baking-?”

A patch of white hit Tony on the chest.

“Come on, I just took a shower!” Tony complained.

But the twins continued to throw flour at them. Virginia ducked down to avoid being hit.

“So this is how it is, huh?” Tony said. Somehow, he had managed to get a hold of another sack of flour. He threw back some flour at the twins

“What on earth are you doing?” Virginia yelled. Laughter escaped her lips at the ridiculousness of what was happening. She grabbed a tray and covered her face when a shower of flour came her way. She yelped.

“Come on, Potts.” Tony urged who was now beside her. “Grab some ammunition or these two evils are going to toast us alive.”

“What-” She tried to say.

Before she knew it, she had a bowl of flour in her hand and chasing the twins with it. She managed to douse Peter with it. Harley tried to throw a bowl of flour at Virginia as revenge but Tony shielded her away as he held her waist and covered her. The flour hit his back instead. There was nothing black on his long sleeves anymore since it was all covered in white. Tony dipped his hands on the bowl with an egg yolk in it. He grabbed Harley and wiped the yolk on his face. Peter guffawed in laughter and so was Virginia.

“Not fair!” Harley tried to shout.

“Son, all is fair in love and war.”

That was when the war of eggs had broken out.

Eggs were being hurled in the air. Virginia felt sticky and messy from the flour and eggs covering her body. There was a yolk in her hair. But despite the mess, she couldn’t stop laughing.

Laughter after laughter erupted in the household. The day ended differently from what Virginia had imagined but it was the most fun she had in a long time. The baking had been completely forgotten because they had to clean out the mess they made in the kitchen.

 

 

The sky was dark when Virginia went back to her own house in a messy state. Tony let her borrow some towel to wipe off some yolk and flour but it didn’t lessen the stickiness she had felt. She went straight upstairs to take a shower in the bathroom adjoining her room. She sang in the shower. She felt light and her mood was beyond the clouds. She couldn’t help but laughed when she remembered what happened at Tony’s house. She wore some pajamas and loose shirt after showering. She paused at the dresser when she saw the wristwatch. Tony said that it was waterproof. But she had still decided to take it off before getting in the shower. She picked it up and fastened it around her wrist. Then she headed down the stairs humming to herself. It was dark downstairs.

She went for the switch and turned on the lights

“You seemed in a good mood today.”

A strangled scream erupted from her.

Aldrich Killian was sitting on the sofa, very much like the time he had barged into her apartment before. The only difference was there was a gun on his belt.

Chapter Text

It was a futile question but she asked Killian anyway to stall her fear. “W-what are you doing here?”

“Why, because I miss you and I want to see your new house. The interior is great by the way.” Killian answered. He didn’t budge on his seat. His legs were crossed and he was sitting idly on the couch.

Virginia didn’t budge on where she stood either. She was standing by the counter in the kitchen. Instead, she gripped her wristwatch hard. She eyed the gun on his waist.

“What took you so long?” Killian asked again. “I figured you were in the neighbor’s house.” He waved his hand vaguely in the direction outside. “It’s nice that you’re getting along with your neighbor. I could see that you’re settling in just fine.”

“Oh, by the way!” Killian stood up and clapped his hands together. “Speaking of neighbors, I saw one of your neighbors. I think he lives across the street. Is that where you came from? Boy, I feel like he wasn’t that nice. He was glaring daggers at me when I tried to visit you one morning.”

“And you think you’re nice?” Virginia said. “You’re the worst, Killian.”

Killian stared at her for a moment. Then he burst out laughing. She was a bit startled by that.

“What is this?” He asked after sobering up. “This is not fun anymore, you’re talking back to me and you’re not running away anymore.”

“So? You’re here to kill me now?” The loud beat of her heart was choking her to the point she could barely get the words out of her mouth. She talked in a low voice. If she spoke any louder, the quaver in her voice would be noticed.

“Why would you say something like that?” Killian started to walk towards her. Virginia took a step back, her back hitting the counter. He tapped on the gun. “This is for just precautionary measures, you know.” 

“So, who is he?” Killian asked again when he stopped a few feet away from her. “The guy who’s living across.”

“Why are you suddenly interested in my neighbors?”

“For some reason, he irks me.” He answered. “I don’t like it. And you seem happy around him. I don’t like it even more. I can make you happy too.”

“Yeah, you can make me happy when you voluntarily walk straight to a jail cell and imprison yourself. Or I can do that myself. There are a lot of CCTV's around here now. I’m also wondering how you get passed through my door when it also has security measures.”

Killian nodded. “I’m impressed actually. I never thought that you would do such a thing. Where did you manage to get a top of the line security techs? Every nook is guarded with CCTV's. There’s also thermal CCTV in your room and your doors leading outside were locked through bypass code and biometrics, I could barely get in. You are guarded by a top-notch OS. And because I wasted two hours waiting for you, I only have an hour left before the system noticed the glitch and before the alarm system goes off. What should we do within an hour?”

“I’m curious about who’s helping you? You can’t set up this security hacks all alone.” Killian added as he tilted his head at her.

“And why should I answer you?” 

“So I can give them formal praise. I’m thoroughly impressed with the setup. Was it a security company? I know a few of them.”

“When will you stop doing this, Killian?” She asked, her voice almost pleading. 

“I’m not gonna stop.” His voice was as hard as his expression. “Or maybe I would if you became mine? I was really sincere about my feelings with you. I was sincere with my actions with you before you rejected me. You’re one of a kind, Ginny and I know there’s no one like you. I like you a lot. I was planning to stop on this kind of habit when I met you and when you answered yes to my confession. But you said no, and you pushed me to be in this deeper and darker corner.”

“Your actions are yours alone. You can’t hold me responsible for all this shit you’re doing!”

Killian’s voice was bordering on desperation. “Be with me, Ginny and I'm going to stop. Let’s go somewhere, just the two of us. I’ll take care of you. I’ll make you happy-”

“You’re insane, Aldritch!”

Killian froze. 

“I’ll never be with you because you are a psychopath asshole who deserves to be in jail! I’m not your only victim, aren’t I? I’m willing to find all of them just to prove how delusional you are. You’re not making me happy. You’re making me miserable. Because of you, I can’t live my life anymore.”

“Ah, psychopath, delusional. . .” He combed his hair with his hand. “Since you said that you can’t live your life anymore-” Suddenly, he pulled out his gun and aimed at her. “Should I just kill you? I’m going to kill myself afterward. If you can’t be with me, you can’t be with anyone.”

All this time, Virginia was gripping her wristwatch. She moved her wristwatch closer to her chest. It was the only thing that was giving her strength. Now, it became her lifeline. She should be pressing the panic button and Tony would be there. But at that moment, she realized that she was scared. 

This time, she was scared not for her own life but someone else’s life. 

If this was going to be her last moment, then she would let herself admit something she tried to ignore before. 

She liked Tony. 

She liked him a lot that Tony being in danger because of her scared her more than anything. She couldn’t do that to him. She couldn’t do that to the twins. 

The baking fiasco came to her mind. She remembered their laughter. How it rang throughout the house. How everything was okay and she was not thinking of anything but just being in that moment and having fun. She was truly grateful to Tony and his family for the laughter they had shared. 

That was why she couldn’t press the panic button, because she was so grateful to them and she liked him too much that all she could think about was to stir them away from the hell she was facing in.

Most importantly, Tony deserved to be with his family and the twins deserved to have a father. 

“Then kill me if that’s what you want.” Virginia finally said looking at Killian directly in the eye. She looked at him in determination. She was thankful though that her voice was steady despite the erratic beat of her heart. “If everything will end with this, then do it.”

Resignedly, she closed her eyes. A single tear slid down to her cheeks. His name was probably going to be her last thought and there would be no first thoughts anymore because she wasn’t sure if she would ever wake up from this nightmare. 

Tony . . . 

BANG!

Her eyes snapped open. She must be hallucinating or the nightmare must have continued. She heard a gunshot. And Tony. . .

Tony was there.

Tony was holding Killian’s arm and the gun was pointed away from her. He bashed Killian’s head with a glass jar full of brownies. The jar shattered in Killian’s head. Killian screamed. Tony wrestled for the gun. The gun skidded on the floor. Tony kicked the gun out of Killian’s reach. He punched Killian in the face. Killian staggered back and fell on the floor.

And then he looked back at Virginia who was rooted in her spot. Tony held her arm and pulled her away. He shoved her in the direction of the living room, away from Killian. She stumbled back and toppled the lampshade on a small table beside the couch. The lampshade rolled on the floor with a loud thud. When she looked up, she saw Killian crawling into the direction of the gun.

Her eyes widen. She wanted to shout a warning to Tony but this time, her voice betrayed her.

Killian had managed to get a hold of the gun but Tony was quick. He tried to twist Killian’s wrist to turn the barrel of the gun away from him. Though, Killian was strong enough and putting up a good fight of shooting Tony directly.

BANG!

That was when she finally found her voice. She screamed and then everything went black.

 


 

It was always going to be Pepper first so Tony let Killian ran away.

The second gunshot hit the big vase in the corner. It shattered and crumpled right on its spot. Then she heard Pepper screamed. He stomped Killian’s foot hard and he screamed again. Killian’s grip on the gun slackened a bit, enough for Tony to pull the gun out of his hand again. He hit Killian in the head with the barrel of the gun. He staggered clutching his head.

Tony glanced back at Pepper. He momentarily froze when he saw that she was unconscious on the floor. He heard a police car siren from the distance. His twins must have called the cops just like he had told them to do. He turned his head and saw Killian stepping back clutching his head. His eyes were unsteady with panic, probably because of the sound of the police car siren.

Tony raised the gun he was holding and aimed at Killian’s head. He was so livid at him, especially at the sight of him pointing a gun at Pepper. He was so livid to the point that every limb in his body shook. He wanted to do the same thing that Killian would do to Pepper. Tony would kill him.

But then, he moved his hand and aimed inches away from his head. He fired.

Killian screamed again clutching his head harder to point his knuckles were white. The bullet went straight to the wall. He searched for injuries in his head. When he was sure that there was none, he ran for the back door.

Tony let him go.

Tony threw out the gun and ran to Pepper. He knelt on Pepper’s side and cradled her head on his lap.

“Pep, wake up, please,” Tony whispered anxiously. He tried to activate her wristwatch. He was surprised that it was working. Then why she didn’t press the panic button? He thought that the watch failed to work that was why he hadn’t received any alert from her. If he hadn’t check up on her security system that night after taking another shower, he would probably be too late. He noticed the glitch and had asked Friday to run some diagnostics. That was when they had learned that Pepper’s system had been hacked. 

He checked her vitals through her wristwatch. Thankfully, all vitals were stable. She probably fainted due to shock. He released the breath he had been holding. He proceeded to call 911.

 

“Yeah, Susan, please do whatever you can to prevent any form of media from releasing articles and news about what happened near our house.” Tony’s phone was against his ear. He called Susan, his part time assistant he occasionally called to do some errands for him. He was doing some precautionary measures. Everything had blown up because Killian was utterly out of his mind. An incident like this was easy to be on the tabloid headlines or worst BBC news and then his carefully built quiet life would shatter in an instant because he was involved.

After hanging up, Detective McAllister approached him. He reported some pretty bad news.

Tony couldn’t believe it. “I-I mean, how could that happen? You were just nearby. You were supposed to catch him.” He shouldn’t have trusted the cops that they would get Killian. He should have shot him in the feet so he wouldn’t be able to go anywhere.

“We tried to search the perimeter.” Detective McAllister said rubbing his forehead in frustration. “But he must be good at hiding.”

They were in the Emergency Room of a hospital where Pepper was brought in. Doctors were attending her while he proceeded to talk to the cops that had followed them after the incident. Pepper was still unconscious.

“But don’t worry,” The detective continued. “He’s already on the wanted list-”

“What if he comes back for Pepper?”

“My men will regularly patrol the area from now on and if you want we can assign some cops to watch her tail.”

“I’ll talk about that to her first.”

The detective nodded. “Besides, Killian wouldn’t do some drastic moves right now when he’s hot with the cops. He would probably stay low for the time being.”

“Please, do everything you can to find that asshole.”

“Yes, we’ll give you updates-”

Their conversation was cut off by a scream.

“TONY!”

In a speed of lightning, Tony was running towards Pepper’s bed. Detective McAllister was on his heel. It was Pepper’s scream. Tony haphazardly pushed the curtains aside. Pepper was sitting on the bed with a nurse and doctor holding her and subduing her. There was an IV hooked to the back of her hand. Her face was red from crying.

“W-what’s wrong?” Tony asked walking up to her bed.

Pepper calmed down a bit when she saw him. The doctor and the nurse released her. “A-are you okay? A-are you hurt? T-the gun. . .” She swallowed thickly. “I-I saw it, Killian’s holding it. Did he, did he. . .”

“Ssshh. . .” Tony hugged her as he stood at the side of the bed. She leaned on him. Her trembling body started to loosen up. “It’s okay, I’m okay. I’m not hurt.”

“But,” She looked up at her with eyes stained with tears. “There was a gunshot-”

“Yes, there was a gunshot but it hit your vase,” Tony assured her. He pulled away and stepped back “See, look at me, I’m not hurt anywhere.” He spread his arms.

Pepper looked at him from head to foot. Then back at his face. “A-are you sure you’re not hurt?”

“Do you want me to strip off in here just to prove that I wasn’t shot anywhere?” 

Their company snickered a bit. The detective bid his farewell and the doctor said that they’d be back later for more examination. Soon, there was only the two of them. The nurse was kind enough to pull the curtains together again before leaving.

“You know, it was supposed to be another way around,” Tony said. “I should be the one who’s asking if you’re hurt somewhere. You were the one who got assaulted.”

“I’m fine.” Pepper automatically said.

“How could you be fine after someone pointed a gun at you?” Tony asked. He sat on the edge of the bed facing her.

Pepper just stared at him.

“What?” Tony asked. “Why are you staring at me?”

“How about the twins? Where are they?” Pepper asked again.

“They’re in the house. I called Gary-he’s a friend from the docks. I asked him to look out for them for a bit.”

“What about Killian?”

“I’m sorry, he got away. But the police are doing their best to find him. They post his face on the wanted list. He’ll be caught soon.” Tony said. “Now, stop worrying about other people and worry about yourself instead. You should rest.”

Pepper scooted forward. She leaned the side of her head on Tony's shoulder.

Tony briefly stiffened. “What are you doing?”

“I am resting.” 

“Okay.” Tony shifted a bit closer to her so Pepper would be more comfortable.

“Thank you.”

Tony glanced at her. But all he could see was her messy blonde hair. “You’re welcome.”

“How did you know that Killian was there?”

“I immediately noticed that someone hacked into your system. And I went to your house to give you your brownies. I wasn’t expecting that Killian would have the nerve to point a gun at you.”

Pepper just hummed.

“I have a lot of questions for you,” Tony said. “But it can wait until tomorrow. Rest for now.”

“I want to go home.”

“No.”

Pepper finally looked up at Tony. He had a closer look at her freckles dusting her cheeks and her clear blue eyes that were staring at her.

“I can’t rest here,” Pepper said again. “I hate the smell of antiseptics. It makes me dizzy.”

“The doctor still needs to do some tests on you. If you want, we can transfer to a room-”

“Please, Tony, I can’t be here. I don’t want to be here. I am really fine. I swear.”

Tony narrowed his eyes on her to show that he wouldn’t budge with his stance about the situation. She needed immediate medical attention. But then Pepper wasn’t backing down either just to get what she wanted. And then, he looked away first as he heaved a sigh. “You’re such a stubborn woman.” 

Pepper smiled a bit.

“Okay, we’ll go but on one condition. You’ll be staying at my house tonight.”

That took her by surprise. “W-why?”

“Well, Miss Potts, here are the three reasons you can’t go in there yet. First, is because your house is under investigation and we can’t go in there until the morning. Second, in case you haven’t noticed it yet, your house isn’t exactly safe right now. And lastly, you’re in a state that you can’t be left alone as of the moment.”

“I don’t want to.”

“That’s not up for negotiation. That’s the condition. You’ll stay here or at my house.”

“What if Killian comes to that house because of me?”

“Oh trust me, Killian can’t trespass my house. Remember Friday? She runs the house and she’s also the first line of defense in case of a threat. She’s reliable and competitive.”

And so an agreement had been made. 

 

Tony walked up to the front porch of his house. He glanced at Pepper who was still standing at the lawn. She was wearing his bomber jacket. She wrapped the bomber jacket around her tightly as she hugged herself. She was staring out at her house. The house was dark. There was a yellow cordon tied on the front porch. The only remnant of what happened earlier.

“Hey,” Tony called. “Let’s get inside.”

Pepper turned at him. She nodded and followed him.

He opened the door. The two went inside. Instantly, the twins were in front of them blocking them from going farther in the house.

“Miss Potts! Are you okay?” Peter was the first one who spoke.

“We were really worried about you,” Harley said.

Pepper smiled at them. “Thanks for worrying about me. I am so sorry for inconveniencing you this late. You must be also shocked at what happened.”

“You’re not inconveniencing us.” Peter shook his head. “We love that you’re going to stay here.”

“Did you tidy up on the guest room like what I asked you earlier?” Tony asked.

“Of course,” Harley beamed proudly. “We even vacuumed it and changed the bed sheets for Miss Potts.”

“What? How did you learn to vacuum and change the sheets?” Tony said. “You never do that. I always need to do the work or else molds will grow on your bedsheets and a whole new terra will form under your beds.”

“Stop embarrassing us in front of Miss Potts, dad!” Peter whined. “We know how to do that too.”

“We’re not exactly useless.” Harley retorted.

Pepper chuckled. Tony was relieved to see that smile on her face.

“Well, I guess, everything’s okay now?” Gary walked up to them holding a can of beer. “We ordered some pizzas. We left some for you guys.”

“Thank you so much for coming on such short notice, man.” Tony clapped him on the back.

“Anything for you, pal,” Gary said. He glanced at Pepper. “Hope you’re feeling better now. I’m Gary by the way.” Gary was aware of what happened. Though he only knew the gist of it. He was maybe nosy at some point but he knew when to not ask too many questions and Tony was grateful for that.

“Virginia.” Pepper smiled. “And thank you.”

After Gary had left, Tony asked the twins to wash up. Pepper politely refused to eat anything telling them that she had no appetite. So he took her up upstairs to the guest room. He opened the room to the guest room and let Pepper enter.

“You can sleep here,” Tony said. Pepper’s eyes wandered around the room. “If you want a change of clothes, there are some female clothes in the closet. There’s a bathroom at the end of the hallway. The twins’ aunt usually stays here if she was in the area or if she was babysitting the twins. She left some clothes there. You’re about the same size, I think. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to call us. I’m next door and the twins’ room was across the hall.”

Finally, Pepper turned to him. “Thank you. I’ve been saying that a lot since earlier and I’m not sure if that was enough to express the gratitude I feel right now.”

“And that’s enough,” Tony assured her. “Rest up and goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Tony.”

Tony smiled back at her as he closed the door behind. He went next to the twins’ room. They shared the same room with two beds in it. It was originally the master’s bedroom and Tony was the one who was occupying it before. But then as the twins grew older, he had learned that for some reason they couldn’t be separated. Maybe it was a twins’ thing. Before, he would frequently find out the two of them sleeping in the same room, be it on Peter’s or Harley’s. That was why he had decided to convert the bedroom to be theirs. It was big enough for two beds to fit in.

He sighed at the sight of their room. It looked like a category 4 hurricane hit their room alone. Pair of socks and open books and a bunch of crumpled papers discarded on the floor. T-shirts and boxers littered their beds. Disassembled machinery scattered on their desks. The twins were still in the bathroom. 

He stepped inside. He picked up all the things on the floor that would make a person tripped. He noticed that some crumpled papers were their exam papers. Big bold red A+ was written on the upper corner on most papers.

“Why would they crumple this?” He muttered. He straightened them out one by one. Then he stacked them in one pile and pinned them on the corkboard on the wall. He also noticed a yellow legal paper pinned on the same corkboard. There were some handwritten equations on it. He easily recognized the writing. It belonged to Peter. Harley’s handwriting was way too slanted and he always writes in all caps whereas Peter was always writing in lower case. There were also some notes written on the paper.

YOU'RE WRONG ABOUT YOUR FORMULA, DUMBASS, YOU HAVE TO MULTIPLY YOUR Ө FIRST WITH YOUR R –H.

“What are they working on? Are they still working on their drone?” Tony continued to mutter as he looked around. Lots of secondhand books about Aerodynamics were on their desks. They probably bought it on thrift bookstores. He looked closely at the other formula written on other papers in the corkboard. He picked up a red marker on their pen holder and wrote on a new piece of paper.

You two are both wrong. You must be confused between Linear and angular velocity. Try using the latter instead. Also, determine the power transmitted by the motors to the propellers in terms of rpm. That would do the trick.

P.S. are you being rocket scientists now? Should we give uncle Rhodey a call?

-dad

He pinned it on the corkboard. He then proceeded on putting the discarded clothes and socks in the laundry basket nearby. He left the room pleased at the cleaner state of the room.

Tony proceeded to his room. There was nothing fancy about his room but it was neater than the twins’ room. He had to set an example for them after all. He unfastened his wristwatch and put it on the bedside table. He was emptying the pockets of his sweatpants when he fished out something in his pocket. He pulled it out. It was Pepper’s wristwatch. He unfastened it from her wrist earlier when they were at the ER. 

“Friday, dear, wake up. We’ve got a short work to do before we go to bed.”

“Anything for you boss,” His ever diligent AI answered.

He went to his working table in the corner. He put down the wristwatch. “Run diagnostics on this watch and see if everything is working especially the processor for SOS.”

“Processing,” The table surface lit up. The holographic interface appeared on it. A blue-ray of light that came from the surface began to scan the watch.

Tony crossed his arms as he waited. He stared down at the watch.

“All operating systems are functioning boss, SYP-217C processor is intact and clear of bugs and malware.”

“So Pepper didn’t push the panic button, huh?”

Then kill me if that’s what you want if everything will end with this then do it.

Tony briefly closed his eyes pinching the bridge of his nose. Pepper hadn’t changed the security of her front door yet. Meaning, he could also access the house with his biometrics besides Pepper. He immediately went to her house after learning the hacking on her OS. He went inside just in time to see Killian pointing a gun at her and Pepper being resigned to death all of a sudden.

Tony could swear that his heart stopped functioning right then. He refused to believe what he had just heard from her. She wasn’t the type who would give up so easily. She was fighting Killian heads on even though it scared her so much. So why did she say that all of a sudden?

Suddenly, the door burst open. Tony turned.

“Dad! Dad!”

The twins barged in. They were in their pajamas. Harley was holding Tony’s note that he had pinned on the corkboard.

“Can we call uncle Rhodey now?” Peter asked eagerly. “Is he coming back from his mission? Is he back? When he will visit us?”

“I always wonder where you put your lungs when you talk like you don’t breathe at all,” Tony said playfully. He walked passed them. “Uncle Rhodey is coming back next week so he will visit us soon.”

The twins cheered. 

Tony closed the door. “Since you two are here, should we talk for a bit?”

The twins paused as they looked at each other.

“About what?” Harley asked him.

Soon, the three of them were sitting on Tony’s king-size bed with their backs on the headboard. Tony was in the middle. The bed was big enough for the three of them to fit in the bed comfortably. 

“You must be scared about what happened earlier,” Tony said.

“Yeah, we were,” Harley answered who was sitting on his right. “We were terrified when we heard the gunshots. We thought something bad happened to the both of you.”

“I’m sorry, I scared you like that.” Tony put his arms around them. The latter two leaned on both shoulders. “Good job on calling the cops earlier.”

“Dad, was some bad man after Miss Potts?” Peter glanced up at him.

“We’re not going to let something bad happen to her,” Tony assured.

“Miss Potts must have been more terrified,” Harley said. “It already terrified us hearing a gunshot from the distance, even the Andrews’s next to Ms. Potts house almost went into cardiac arrest because of what happened earlier, what’s more being near it.”

“Dad, you have to promise to protect her okay?” Peter said. “We don’t want something bad to happen to her.”

“You like her that much?” Tony’s lips quirked up into a smile.

“Don’t you?” Harley countered. “You’re about to kiss her earlier.”

Tony poked Harley in the waist where he was the most ticklish. Harley jolted up pulling away from him. “Dad!”

Peter laughed.

“What are you talking about?” Tony asked innocently

“We saw it!” Peter insisted still laughing.

“What? What?” This time it was Peter whom Tony started to tickle in the waist. 

Peter fell on the floor with a thud trying to dodge Tony. Harley laughed harder.

“Sshhh.” Tony shushed them, putting his index finger on his lips. He spoke in a low voice. “Miss Potts is probably sleeping. We have thin walls here.”

Tony beckoned Peter to come back on the bed. His son obeyed. The twins resumed on their previous position which was to lean their heads on Tony’s shoulder. Tony wrapped his arms around them again.

“We want to sleep here.” Harley snuggled closer to him. Peter did the same. The twins wrapped their arms around Tony’s waist.

“Then sleep here.” Tony started to pat their arms in a lullaby. “Lights off, Fri.”

The room dimmed and the lampshade on the bedside table turned on.

“Goodnight, dad.” The twins chorused.

“Night. Night.” Tony said.

It was at a time like this that Tony wished his sons wouldn’t grow up that fast. They were seven when they used to barge into his room with their teddy bears in hand and waking him up because they couldn’t sleep. They would snuggle in his bed with their thumbs in their mouth while Tony would hum a lullaby to them. Now, they were fifteen. Nothing much had changed. Except that they didn’t suck their thumbs anymore and they didn’t have teddy bears with them. And still, they always fell asleep instantly in his arms. Tony’s followed them into the dreamland after a moment.

Tony woke up from an ache on his back. He was in an uncomfortable position, slouched on the headboard. He blinked his eyes open. He looked at his twins. They were no longer tangled to him. They lay in bed in a fetal position. They were facing away from each other. He winced when another ache hit him in the back. Slowly and carefully, he stretched his back. It gave him a satisfying pop. He groaned quietly. 

He glanced at the digital clock on the bedside table. It read: 3 am. He needed to pee. So he carefully moved out of the bed. He tucked in the twins before heading out of the room and went to the bathroom outside.

He was about to go back to his room when he noticed that the door of the guest room was suddenly ajar. A light was coming from it. It was easy to notice since the hallway was dark. He quietly walked towards Pepper’s room. He peered inside. The lampshade was on and the bed was empty. He frowned. So he went down the stairs to search for her. 

She didn’t go back to her house, did she? Tony anxiously thought.

He reached the foot of the stairs and turned in the direction of the living room. The lampshade in there was on and Pepper was sitting on the couch. Her back was on him so she hadn’t noticed him yet.

He went to her. He stopped by the couch. Pepper was staring into nothingness as she hugged her knees together. He spoke. “Hey, you woke up early this time.”

Pepper was startled as she glanced up at him. “H-hey . . .” She looked away. She put her chin on her knees. “I-I couldn’t sleep.”

Tony sat beside her. “It must be because of the shock of what had happened earlier. I’ll make you milk with honey. It will help you sleep.” He stood up. She spoke.

“I thought I was gonna die.”

Tony froze. He slowly turned to her. She was staring at the coffee table. He sat back down again.

“When Killian pointed the gun at me, I thought that’s it. I thought everything was gonna end right there.” She continued. “But the thing was, I wasn’t scared for myself at that moment. I think the fear for my own life just came a little bit later when I was lying on the bed earlier. And I just kept thinking how easy for some people to take away the life of others. How death is just always there lingering and how it takes without warning. It was really scary.” Then her face crumpled. She started to sob. 

She tried to bury her head on her knees but Tony held her arm. He pulled her to him and Pepper leaned her forehead on his shoulder. Her body shook with her continuous sobs. “I was scared.”

Tony remained silent. He knew that no word could easily comfort a rattled heart. All he could do at that moment was just to be there knowing that she wasn’t alone while she was feeling scared. She fisted on his shirt while he rubbed her back in comfort. It pinched his heart that the only sound he could hear was her cries but inspite of that, he let her. Because Pepper, after all, was only human. He would have been even more worried at her if she continued to act nonchalant like earlier. 

And Pepper cried and cried and cried until there was nothing left to cry.

“Here.” Tony put down a glass of water on the coffee table. She stopped crying by then. She pulled out sheets of tissue from the dispenser on the table that Tony had handed to her earlier. She sniffed as she wiped her red and swollen eyes with a tissue.

“Thanks.” Her voice was hoarse. She drank the water in one go. Tony sat down beside her again. She put down the glass on the table after emptying it.

“How is it? Do you feel a little bit better now?” Tony asked her.

Pepper smiled a bit and nodded. “Yeah . . .”

Tony nodded back. “The fear might still be there but the important thing is, you feel a little lighter enough to carry on.”

“Thank you.” She said, “For being here right now and for being there back then. I owe you. You saved my life.”

“It’s nothing.” Tony tried to shrug it off. “That’s what neighbors do, help each other out.”

Silence reigned on them.

“Okay.” Tony immediately shattered that silence. “I was trying to put it off until later in the morning but I don’t think I can. Since we’re here now, I wanted to ask you this question that’s been bothering me since earlier.”

Pepper only tilted her head at him.

Tony took it as his cue to continue. “Why didn’t you press the panic button? I thought at first that the SOS protocol in your watch failed to work but I checked it earlier and it’s working just fine. So why didn’t you?”

“I told you, I was scared.”

“Yeah, the more reason you should have pressed it.”

“I was scared that you’d get hurt because of me.”

Her words didn’t register on Tony quickly. There was a beat of silence before he spoke. “Sorry?”

“I can’t be that selfish.” Pepper explained. “In the first place, that’s my problem that I should be dealing with-”

“But I thought we had an agreement that I am going to help you and I think that includes-”

“It had changed when Killian brought a gun with him.” She cut him off. “I told you earlier. At that moment that Killian pointed a gun at me, I wasn’t scared for myself. I was scared for your safety. I was thinking that he might come after you because of me. That thought terrified me more than anything else.”

And Tony’s mind just shut down right then. It wasn’t making any sense. How . . . How this woman could still think of others when there was a gun aimed point-blank at her. How could she still worry about others when she was the one who was one-centimeter away from plunging into a death cliff? Was that the reason why she said those words to Killian?

“Tony... .?”

To this woman who could be so frustratingly stubborn and who was always skittish and nervous behind her composed demeanor, to this woman who had an extraordinary smile and selfless heart, to this woman who had an endearing freckles on her cheeks and who had a clear summer sky eyes, to this woman who had come to him like a storm and gentle breeze and who could knock the breath out of him. To this woman who had unintentionally started to be part of his everyday, to this woman he was falling in love with.

“Listen,” He reached out for her hand that made her startled. “I knew that I am going to be involved this much from the moment I offered my help to you. There might be consequences, yes. The thing is, I don’t want you to face them alone. We’ll face it together not just because you need someone to be on your side right now but because I want to. I want you to press the panic button when you need it. I want you to stop worrying other than for yourself. I’m going to do everything I can to catch Killian not because I feel obligated to but because I want to end your long term misery with him. This is not just your problem anymore. This is my problem too because I chose it to be. Do you understand me?”

But all Pepper could do was stare at him.

You like her that much.

Don’t you?

No, I think I am falling in love harder and faster and it was simultaneously scary and exhilarating.

 

Chapter Text

“Sorry?” Tony Stark turned around to the table where Pepper was sitting. He was holding a pan and he was in the middle of flipping pancakes when she had spoken her next move after what happened last night. “Did I hear you right?”

Pepper’s hair was tied up in a messy bun. She borrowed some of May’s clothes and put on a sky blue fitted long sleeves and pajamas. Tony thought that she looked beautiful that morning. She straightened up from her seat as she put down her cup of coffee on the table. “Yes, Tony, you heard me right. I am going back to work tomorrow.”

Tony put down the pan on the stove. He turned off the stove. He faced her again. He crossed his arms over his chest. “No offense but that’s just stupid decision.”

Pepper rolled her eyes. “And you would know what the best course of action is?”

“Yes,” Tony answered. “And that involves not going to work at all. Killian is on the loose. We don’t know where he is right now. What if he comes after you while you’re on the streets just because you want to be a bona fide employee?”

“Then what do you want me to do?” Pepper crossed her arms too and looked defiantly at him. “Lock myself up while we wait for Killian to be caught?”

“It’s not like that-”

“Tony,” She released a breath as she stood up from her seat. She walked around the table to come closer to him. When she was in front of him, she spoke. “It’s just that, it feels like I am just letting him win by hiding in the corner because that’s what she wants from me. That I will fear him. He enjoys seeing me cowering in the corner and I will not let it happen this time.”

“I understand what you meant, Pep.” He argued, “but we were just taking precautionary measures. You’ve seen last night what he can do. We can’t risk that happening again.”

“I know.” She answered softly. “It scared the shit out of me because I know what he can do but I have to do this anyway.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t want my life to stop because I am scared of him,”

Tony gazed at her in scrutiny. He searched her face for any signs that her words were not as absolute as it may seem. But all he could see was the utter resoluteness drawn on her face. Her bright blue eyes were staring back at him steadily. Her lips pressed together in a thin line.

He heaved a sigh as he threw his hand in the air in defeat. He faced back the stove.

“I am serious.” Pepper pressed. “I am really going back to work and you can’t stop me.”

“Who says I’m stopping you?” Tony asked. He turned on the stove. “Do whatever you like. It’s not like I am your mom or something.”

“I know you’re just worried.” Pepper peered at him. “If it makes you a little bit better, I promise that I am going to press the panic button the second I see a glimpse of Killian’s hair.”

Tony flipped the pancake.

“Also, I don’t want the cops tailing after me. I don’t want to make a big deal of-”

He cut her off with a look as he tilted his head at her. “It’s a big deal. You almost got killed.” His voice was hard.

“I know, but I also know that I am going to be fine.” She insisted. Then there was a pause before she continued. “I know I am going to be because you’re here.”

He almost didn’t catch the pancake the second he flipped it again.

There was a thundering of footsteps upstairs. His twins were awake.


Tony had found out a long time ago that being in the middle of the sea was a great place to sort out his never-ending thoughts. So he had gone to the bay and sailed off. When he was far enough from the docks that he couldn’t see a mass of land from the distance, he killed the engine of his speedboat. Yeah, he owned a luxury speed boat and a limited edition for that one. Just because he was living on a low profile, it didn’t mean that he couldn’t own some lavish things. He had learned that owning a speed boat could bring him to places, especially if he wanted some getaway trips. Sometimes, he would bring the twins with him as a sort of bonding.

However right now, he was with his boat because he needed some quiet alone time. The twins had somewhere to be at anyway and Pepper had come back to her house. He had helped her to clean up the mess that had been made yesterday night. She had insisted that she would do the rest of the cleaning. He had figured that she needed some alone time so he hadn't insisted more. Though, Pepper being alone had made his stomach churned and twisted. He had ignored it and dampened down the unsettled feeling in his gut.

That was how he had found himself alone with his beloved boat and his all-too-consuming thoughts. Maybe this was a good time to think about the things he was about to do.

He plopped down on the seat in the back part of the boat. He didn’t bother removing his sunglasses. He was slouched in his seat. He straightened out his legs and tipped his head back. He covered his face with his baseball cap and closed his eyes. He let his boat drift off in the vastness of the calm blue sea as his mind wandered about Pepper because she was the only person occupying most of his thoughts lately.

Seconds later, his phone rang in his jeans pocket. Thankfully, he hadn’t removed the Bluetooth earpiece in his ear after having a conversation with his twins earlier to let them know his whereabouts. He tapped the earpiece to answer, not even moving from his position.

“Who are you?” He answered lazily while wondering how far he would go just for Pepper.

“You seemed not in a good mood.” The voice answered. It was Rhodey.

“Oh, platypus, what’s up?” Tony said perking up. His eyes opened.

“I’m about to board the plane and head back there.”

“Suddenly?” Tony was surprised. “I figured you wouldn’t come home until Wednesday for the board meeting on Friday.”

“Yes, suddenly, because the board meeting has been rescheduled for tomorrow. I’ve only learned it at the last minute.”

Oh.

“I don’t know if I would be able to make it on time, though.”

“I see.”

“What are you up to?”

“Nothing. Just thinking.”

“You’re always thinking,” Rhodey said not missing a beat. “What are you thinking about?”

Tony sat up straight. His baseball cap fell on his lap. He put it aside and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. He removed his sunglasses and exhaled. “Rhodey, I’m about to do something crazy.”

“That’s not crazy if it will not top the prank we’d done at MIT back in the '80's, you know with Mr. Wallace.” There was a hint of a smile in Rhodey’s voice.

Tony nodded remembering fondly. “Ah right, dear old Mr. Wallace. May he rest in peace.”

“What are you going to do?”


At the break of dawn the next day, Monday, Tony woke up earlier than usual to prepare some breakfast and to prepare for his own scheduled agenda that same morning. He prepared some waffles something easy to do. After cooking, he leaned back on the counter sipping on his mug. He was holding his tablet with his other free hand reading some documents on it.

The doorbell rang. It must be someone he had been waiting for. He put down the mug and tablet on the counter. He shoved his hands in his robes. He went for the door. He opened it. His ever-loyal bodyguard and friend greeted him. Happy Hogan was standing by the door holding a black garment suit bag over his shoulder. He smirked at him.

Tony looked at his long-time friend from head to foot. As usual, Happy was sporting a black coat and tie. “It’s been a while, agent.” Happy, throughout the years, had been loyal to the black coat and tie. Tony had sometimes wondered if that were the only kind of clothes he had had on his wardrobe.

This time, Happy smiled at him genuinely. “It’s been a while, boss.”

“Come on in,” Tony stepped aside. “Are you sure you haven’t joined Men in Black yet?” He took the garment suit bag that Happy was holding.

“No. But I would be a top-notch agent of Men in Black if I did join.” Happy said. They went to the kitchen.

“Is Harley and Peter still asleep?” Happy asked.

Tony nodded. “But they will wake up soon.” Then he gestured at the table “Why don’t you have some breakfast first? I made some waffles and you know where the coffee is. Help yourself.”

“Sure.” Happy said. He was about to sit down when he paused and looked at Tony. “Boss, I’ve been wondering. What’s with the sudden change of heart? Why are you doing this all of a sudden?”

“Just because . . .” Tony trailed off. Then he waved his hand as he swung the garment suit bag over his shoulder with his other hand. “Don’t worry, this is just temporarily. . . .”

“But I wish this will be permanent.” Happy sat on the chair and focused his attention on the plate of waffles on the table.

Tony just clapped Happy’s shoulder. “I’ll just take a shower.”

After he had taken a shower, Tony dressed. He started to button his white long sleeves in front of a full-body length mirror. His long sleeves were partnered with steel gray dress pants. A gray and blue striped necktie hung loosely around his shoulders. As he buttoned his long sleeves, there was still part of his brain having a hard time comprehending what he was about to do.

After ten years, he had finally decided to step out of his nest and decided to grace Stark Industries a visit and attended the freaking board meeting. The board of directors would probably have a cardiac arrest seeing him there. That thought made him smirked a little bit in the mirror. Nobody had had a glimpse of him from the board of directors throughout the years. Obie was a bit different since they had been meeting once in a few months. So, for everyone else, he might as well be considered dead. And right now, it would be like seeing a dead crawling up from the grave.

Why he was doing this again? He asked himself mentally. Ah, because a certain someone was so hellbent on being a Joan d’ arc. He wanted to downplay everything and not to go overboard about things again but seeing flashes of Pepper being held at gunpoint even when his eyes were closed were enough to make him restless. Restless to the point that he would disregard every parameter he set up for himself and his family. Stay low. Work in the shadows, a phrase that had been his bylaws for years. Something he engraved in stones -metaphorically speaking. And now, he admitted that he was a bit scared at the thought that he was smashing those stones with his own hands.

Tony heard the door outside opened and closed. There were heavy footsteps. Tony waited for it. He stilled in front of the mirror.

There was a shriek.

Tony threw his head back in silent laughter. He resumed buttoning his sleeves while listening to the noise down below. it was so loud that he could hear the conversation in his spot.

“Uncle Happy!!” Peter shrieked. “You’re here!!”

“We’re not dreaming right?” Harley wondered. “Am I still dreaming? Are you really here, uncle Hap?”

“You’re not dreaming, kids.” Happy reassured them. Tony could hear fondness in Happy’s voice.

“Don’t take it the wrong way, we’re thrilled that you’re here but why are you here?” Peter inquired.

“And early in the morning at that,” Harley added.

“Ask your dad.” Happy’s only answer.

There were thundering footsteps at the stairs. Tony had finished knotting his necktie by the time the door burst open and the twins barreled into the room still clad in pajamas.

There was a beat of silence as the twins stared at Tony. Tony turned to them as he smirked.

“So,” Harley started. “Happy’s chaperoning you. Whose wedding are you attending this time?”

“Or a funeral. . . .?” Peter tried to supply.

Ah. There were two times that the twins had ever seen Tony in formal attire. It was when he had attended a wedding and funeral in their neighborhood. There was a client named, Mr. Morris, his favorite client. He was a seventy-eight jolly spirited old man who owned an Oldsmobile F-88 which was one of the rarest vintage cars. It was said that there were only two models left in this world. One was in the Colorado Museum and the last one was rumored to meet its end on fire in a display show.

Tony almost had had a stroke seeing the last model at Mr. Morris's garage. The mechanic knew the authenticity of it at a first glance. Mr. Morris had told him that his father was a car enthusiast who had acquired the car on a hefty amount through a liable dealer. For some reason, his father had kept quiet about the acquisition. No one had known that he had the car except for his family. Because no one could find the original car model, someone had the nerve to create a fake model instead and showcased it on a car display event. Thus, the fake one was the one that got burned to cinders. Talk about karma. Nonetheless, Tony was enthusiastic to repair its engine.

However, Mr. Morris had died shortly because of old age. When Tony had attended Mr. Morris's funeral, his relatives told him that the late old man had entrusted the car to him for safekeeping. Now, the vintage car was sitting at Tony’s private garage at Los Angeles.

Then there was also the wedding of Mr. Evans and Mr. Dale. Admittedly, Tony had acted as a match-maker of the two. Evans was the client who had asked him to repair his speed boat. In a short time that he had known his client, Tony had learned that Evans was too tongue-tied to confess his feelings to Dale who lived a couple of blocks from them. Tony could only roll his eyes at them when he could see them together. It was too obvious. Mutual feelings had oozed out of them like goo but no one had made a move. When Tony had grown frustrated looking at them, he had decided to take the matter in his own hands.

Tony had asked Evans to drive test his speed boat (He had already done a driving test to the boat beforehand and unknowingly to them so it would be on its best condition when Evans used it) with Dale at San Diego bay under a lovely sunset. With a bit of prodding and pushing and giving hints to just man up already and tell him how he felt, it was safe to say that they had sappy smiles on their faces while holding hands when they had returned to the docks. Then the wedding bells could be heard not too long after.

“You think it’s too early for me to go to a funeral or a wedding?” Tony said. He faced back the mirror adjusting his crook necktie.

“Then where are you going?” The twins continued to pester him as they moved to his side.

“Board meeting at Stark Industries.” Tony smiled at the mirror when he felt satisfied at his necktie

“Board meeting.” Peter echoed.

“You’d never attended any of that since in what felt like forever,” Harley said.

“Well, I am now,” Tony answered.

“Why?”Harley asked who looked like he couldn’t grasp the idea of their dad going to a board meeting.

Tony paused. “Something just came up. That’s all and my presence is needed there.”

“Worse than the explosion of one of the SI plants in Toronto back in 2012?” Peter asked.

Tony heaved a sigh. “Look, me going to this kind of meeting is not gonna be a thing, alright?”

“Why not?” Harley tilted his head at his dad.

Tony just gave him a look that said, Son, you already know why. Why bother asking? It’s for all our safety of course.

“Why don’t you skedaddle out there and prepare for school.” Tony changed the subject. “You’re gonna be late for school.”

Tony was grateful that the twins didn’t push the subject anymore. They just gave one last glance before heading out of the room.

“Why on earth are you bringing a toolbox on a board meeting?” Peter asked later that morning when they were out at the front porch and Tony was closing the front door. The twins were also dressed with their backpack slung on their shoulders. Happy was waiting by the shiny sleek black car at the front.

Pepper had left earlier. Tony had peeked through their window earlier to see Pepper's eyes had lingered at their house before climbing into her car and driving off. That was his green light to move too.

“Son, you don’t know when a toolbox will become in handy,” Tony answered and then he ushered them to the car. “Now come on, we don’t want to be late.”

The twins sat on the passenger seat at the back while Tony sat next to the driver’s seat with the toolbox on his lap. Happy started the engine and soon they were on the road. They would drop off the twins first at their school before heading to Los Angeles.

After dropping off the kids, Tony switched seats and sat on the back instead. His toolbox was sitting beside him. He drummed his fingers on the toolbox lid as he looked out of the window. The road was passing by in a blur. He was lost in his thoughts.

Secretly, Tony wanted the whole ride to be as slow as possible but for some reason, the traffic wasn’t as bad and before he knew it, they were driving into the Stark Industries compound. He didn’t know what to feel about coming back to this place after a long time. A lot of things had changed in the company. It hadn’t been his territory for years and now he would barge in unannounced. Obie didn’t even know he was coming because he wanted a genuine reaction from everyone when he waltzed in.

Happy pulled over at the main entrance. He climbed down while Tony remained seated. Happy briefly talked to the valet waiting and then clapped him on the back. He walked around the car and went for the door. Tony pulled out a Tom Ford sunglasses from the inside pocket of his coat. Happy opened the car door and Tony put on the sunglasses.

Showtime.

Tony climbed down the car bringing the toolbox with him.

“Hap, do me a favor and please take care of my toolbox for a while,” Tony asked Happy.

“You got it, boss.” Happy immediately said as he closed the door behind. The valet took care of their car.

Tony handed him his toolbox. He buttoned his coat. He was aware of the people at the entrance giving him a double look. Probably, some people would still recognize and some would probably look at him and tried to figure out why he looked so familiar and if they had seen him somewhere. A few would probably pass him by without giving him another glance.

They walked through the main door. Security was waiting on the other side. Happy was leading the way.

The security on duty smiled politely at Happy. Happy was after all the head of security. The security looked relatively young.

“Doing your job alright, Marcus?” Happy greeted stoically.

“Of course, sir.” Marcus proudly answered. He probably wanted to show off to Happy on how well he was doing his job when he turned his attention to Tony. He spoke. “Do you have a scheduled appointment here, sir? Please go directly to the concierge area for your identification and temporary badge.”

Tony’s eyebrow slightly rose at that. It was obvious that this Marcus guy was new. He was about to open his mouth to answer that he was on his way to a meeting when Happy beat him to it.

“Are you shitting me, Marcus?”

Marcus’ head whipped to Happy’s direction. He was taken aback. He looked suddenly scared at Happy’s voice that reached a hundred and twenty decibels.

“S-sir... .?”                                       

“Have you learned your Stark Industries history class?”

They were causing a delay and there were people behind Tony. So Tony spoke. “Hap, there’s no need-”

But Happy wasn’t listening. “Why on earth are you asking Anthony Edward Stark for a goddamn scheduled appointment?”

“Really, there’s no need to announce my full name here.” Tony tried to say.

Marcus paled as he stared back at Tony in horror and when recognition hit him like a freight train. Honestly, Tony pitied Marcus. He looked like he was one sheet away from passing out. So he smiled at him. “It’s okay-”

“No, it’s not okay.” Happy said narrowing his eyes on Marcus. “You and I are gonna talk later.”

“It’s all good, Hap,” Tony assured. “Let’s just go we’re causing a long queue behind me.”

Happy reluctantly obliged. He gave Marcus one meaningful glance before walking away.

“You’re not gonna fire him, are you?” Tony asked Happy as they walked through the lobby.

Since Happy’s announcement, everyone’s attention was now focused on him. They tried to be subtle but it’s not working out when he could hear their conversation within the radius. He could hear their disbelief and skepticism if he was THE Tony Stark.

“I’m thinking about it.” Happy said.

Tony nudged him as he tried to ignore the stares. “Oh don’t be so hard on the poor boy.”

Happy only snorted. Tony shook his head. He then held his head high and looked ahead.

 

“What are you going to do?” Rhodey had asked him when Tony had declared that he was about to do something crazy.

“You said you’re not gonna make it to the meeting so I’m gonna do you a favor and attend that meeting,” Tony answered.

There was a long pause. Too long that Tony thought Rhodey wasn’t on the line anymore.

 

People who were much older and had been working at Stark Industries for so long, halted and gaped at Tony as he passed by. The lobby seemed to stretch forever and seemed a lot bigger than Tony had remembered it. He briefly thought if they had gone some renovations.

 

“Are you kidding me?” Rhodey shouted after that long pause.

Tony winced at the voice. “Nope. I’m not. Pretty serious this time.”

“Why all of a sudden? Why now? You don’t want to come back to your own company.”

“It’s not like I don’t want to come back,” Tony answered. Or maybe there had been part of him that didn’t want to and Rhodey was right. “It’s just that. . .” Tony trailed off clicking his teeth together. This was the part that was kind of hard to explain.

 

“Mr. Stark, is that you?” A skinny bald man approached Tony.

Tony stopped walking as he squinted his eyes at him trying to remember the name of the old man. He looked familiar. Then he snapped his fingers when the name surfaced to his mind. “Mr. Rodriguez! It’s been so long.”

Mr. Rodriguez looked like he was close to weeping. Among other people, he had helped Tony before on stabilizing the Arc Reactor Technology that was now powering all the Stark Industries companies around the globe. Mr. Rodriguez had the biggest contribution among the team. The old man reached for Tony’s hands and enveloped them on his own. “It’s been so long, Mr. Stark. I thought you’ll never come back!”

 

“Why? Tones.” Rhodey demanded. “Please do explain to me the sudden change. Please do explain the sudden crack on the wall you built yourself?”

“I. . .” Tony exhaled.

“I’ve fallen for her.”

For the second time around, Rhodey was rendered speechless on the other line.

“I’m in love with her, Rhodey,” Tony repeated. This was the first time he had admitted his feelings out loud. It was strange. Not a bad strange though. It was just in his mind, love is a concept that should be learned but before his mind could ascertain any of it, his heart went ahead and smacked him straight with a conclusion. That love was never an equation that needed neither a solution nor a step by step manual. Love was not bound by any rules and therefore couldn’t be restrained. 

 

Tony just smiled widely at Mr. Rodriguez. “So where you now? Still at P.E.D Department?”

“Oh yes, of course, Mr. Stark. I’m leading the department now.” Mr. Rodriguez answered humbly.

“Oh!” Tony was genuinely happy. “That was great! You deserved it.”

Soon, Mr. Rodriguez released Tony’s hands and bid his farewell. Mr. Rodriguez was looking forward to seeing again around the compound. Tony wasn’t so sure about that. They resumed their way.

Several people recognized Tony along the way. But no one dared to approach him again as Mr. Rodriguez did. They all just gave him a wide but polite smile and Tony nodded at them in acknowledgment. There were people he still recognized but most of them were new to his eyes and unfamiliar. Well, ten years had been a long time. A lot of things had bound to change. It wasn’t like he was keeping tabs at everything that was happening here.

 

“You what? Who?” Questions jumbled on Rhodey’s mouth not quite knowing the order of question he should ask first. Tony was amused by this. It wasn’t every day that he could make a Colonel sounded so lost. 

“Pepper, my neighbor,” Tony said. “I’m in love with her and I’m scared for her.”

And Tony had told him his tale, how he had come to the conclusion. How it all had begun and where he had gotten the bravery to scratch the very wall he tried to preserve. Not necessarily in that order.

 

Finally, they reached the VIP elevator. Happy pressed the button. The door immediately dinged open.

 

“All I know is it just outweighs everything I firmly uphold for the past ten years.” Tony finished his story.

There was a beat before Rhodey spoke. “I wish you met her way earlier.”

Tony pondered on this. “I think if I had met her earlier than now, we would meet in different circumstances. Things would be different and honestly, I kinda preferred that it only happened just now. It felt right.”

 

Tony stepped into the elevator with Happy. They were alone inside. The elevator closed.

They reached the floor, the R&D floor. They went straight to Tony’s office. People continued to stare at him. Words travel fast, faster than his ride on the elevator to reach his office. They were still having a hard time that the Director of R&D was truly there in flesh and bones.

Happy opened the door to his office. Tony stepped inside as his gaze wandered. Even his office had changed. It was not the same office that Tony had remembered before. Well, it was nice that they were still maintaining it despite his absence. He was impressed by the overall interior and by the fact that his office wasn't accumulating dust or webs. His desk was situated in front of a floor to ceiling window. He walked towards the window. If he turned around on his seat, he would be able to see the view of the entire compound. Tony liked it even more.

“Holy shit, it’s really true.”

Tony turned around at the source of the voice. Thomas Patel, the junior supervisor of R&D, was standing by the door, his face gobsmacked.

Tony pulled off his sunglasses as he smiled at him. “Hello, Tommy.”

“Have. . . Have. .” Thomas tried to ask. “Have the pigs turned into a shade of violet now?”