Most of the characters and situations in this story belong to Marvel Comics, Fairview Entertainment, Dark Blades Films, and other entities, and I do not have permission to borrow them. No infringement is intended in any way, and this story is not for profit. All others belong to me, and if you want to borrow them, you have to ask me first. Any errors are mine, all mine, no you can't have any.
More angsty than I usually get, but this is an idea I've wanted to explore for some time. Many, many thanks to Cincoflex for betawork, enthusiasm, major reassurance, patiently rereading, and of course the banners. And a special thanks to Mingsmommy for another POV and expert advice on Charleston!
They were in New York when Pepper got the call.
She hadn't been expecting it; there had been no news for so long that she had tucked the situation into the back of her mind, to wait until the bill arrived to pop up again. But the voice on the other end brought it home full-force.
"I found her."
For a few seconds, Pepper's ears rang, and she could feel her pulse pick up, but a deep breath helped settle things. "Where?"
"South Carolina. She's in a nursing home. I'm sorry to tell you this, Ms. Potts, but she's not in good shape."
It was a blow she'd prepared herself for, but it still hurt. "Is she...I don't know how to put this. Is she...aware?"
A hesitation. "Sort of."
Pepper realized that Tony, chatting with a board member across the room, was eyeing her curiously. She straightened and pulled her professional face back on. "Send me the information. I'm going as soon as I can."
"All right." The voice was compassionate, a surprise given the woman's profession. "You have my number if you need anything else."
"Yes. Thank you." Pepper cut the connection without another word, a rudeness that she would normally avoid, but at the moment she just had too much else to think about. Already her brain was running through plane schedules, car rentals, timing and locations and--
The touch on her shoulder made her start, and she looked up to see Tony standing over her. "Is everything okay, Ms. Potts?"
The concern in his eyes was not new, exactly, but its expression was something she hadn't really experienced until he'd come back from captivity. It made things harder, in a way, because she wasn't about to tell him what was going on, but on the other hand she could trust him, now, to stick to his schedule without her constant efforts. At least mostly.
Pepper managed a nod. "I'm fine, Mr. Stark. But I need to go." She kept her voice low; the meeting wasn't due to start for another ten minutes, but there was no sense in broadcasting her private business to those already in the room.
Tony blinked. "Go? Go where?"
She stood, reaching for her portfolio. "I have a personal emergency. I'm sorry, Tony, but it can't wait. I'll be back as soon as I can, and don't forget about the Congressional committee on Wednesday..."
As she moved towards the door Tony went with her, stopping her just as they exited into the hall. "Pepper, hold up."
She glanced past him at the elevators, wondering how long a cab would take to get to the airport. "I don't have time--"
"I'm not going to stop you, I just want to know what's wrong. Is there anything I can do to help?"
The tone of Tony's voice made her look at him again. His face was creased with worry, and his hands hovered, as if to block her if she tried to duck past him. Pepper let out a breath. "No. Tony--thank you, but no."
He frowned. "You sure? Do you need the plane or something?"
"No," Pepper said automatically. "I'll get a commuter flight."
"Airport, then." Tony started towards the elevators, his hand cupping her elbow to pull her along and his speed brisk enough to satisfy her. His other hand fished out his cellphone and flipped it open.
They reached the bank of elevator cars just as he spoke. "Happy? Pepper's coming down right now. I need you to take her to the airport as fast as possible, got that?" He listened for a second as Pepper pushed the Down button. "Uh-huh. You betcha."
"I can take a cab," she said, but the protest was reflex; the limo would be quicker than trying to flag down a taxi, and while normally she tried to keep her personal and professional lives strictly separate--
"Nope." Tony slid the phone into his pocket. "Potts, you're entitled to a perq once in a while, so don't argue."
His alarm seemed to have vanished into the cool efficiency he demonstrated on occasion, and Pepper figured it for his problem-solving mode; he was always calmer when he was working on fixing something, to wit her transportation issue.
The elevator doors slid open, and she was a little surprised when Tony stepped in with her, but it was a good opportunity. She glanced through the calendar on her BlackBerry. "You have dinner with Ms. Fukushima and Dr. Grampion tonight, and tomorrow is the rest of the board meeting. Wednesday you fly down to Washington...hopefully you'll be home by Friday..."
Tony nodded, hands in his pockets, and Pepper made a mental note to e-mail his schedule to both Tony and Happy as soon as she could. Just because he was paying attention now didn't mean he wouldn't get distracted later.
The limo was idling outside when they crossed the lobby, with Happy poised at the open car door. Pepper slid into the vehicle as Tony murmured something to Hogan, but before the door closed Tony bent and looked in.
His hand on her leg surprised her, but there was no trace of salaciousness in his face. "Pepper. If you need anything at all, you call me, do you understand?"
"Yes, Mr. Stark," she answered automatically, with no intention of obeying. His mouth twitched, almost a flinch, but then he was straightening and Happy was closing the door.
She almost forgot to tell Happy to detour to the Stark townhouse for her luggage. As she threw things into her suitcase, Pepper blessed her own semi-obsessive organization; within two minutes her comfortable little suite was stripped clean of her things, and she was heading back out the door to the waiting car. And then it was time to wrangle airlines, searching for the next flight to Charleston International, regardless of price...
Two hours later she was in the air, finishing up the last e-mails and glad that Business Class now had wi-fi. She sent messages to Tony and Jarvis and to Cedric back at Stark Industries headquarters, mailed a copy of Tony's schedule to Happy, and tidied up every loose end she could conceive of.
But with the last e-mail came the silence she'd been trying not to think about. Pepper closed her laptop and leaned back in her seat, closing her eyes and disciplining her expression to calmness. Fear and anticipation knotted her stomach, and--as she always had--she wondered what lay at the end of this road.
Tony was worried.
He didn't show it. The board meeting was important, and he was determined not to lose control of anything this time, but the back of his mind kept replaying Pepper's strange reaction to her phone call, her sudden departure, and wondering.
It wasn't that he begrudged her the time off--she deserved it, and lots more if she chose to take it, though he was just as happy that she usually didn't. But he was concerned, because Potts didn't have emergencies. She was too well organized.
And he'd seen her strain. Probably nobody else had, she'd kept her game face on, but he'd seen it. Something was definitely wrong.
The meeting took three hours, and then broke for the evening. Tony thought about canceling the dinner with Grampion and Fukushima, but decided in the end that he needed the time with them, to cement friendly relations with the people Stane had so nearly turned against him.
But there was a little time. "Are we going directly to dinner?" Dr. Grampion inquired, his expression genial as he waved goodbye to a colleague.
Tony leaned a hip on the boardroom table and glanced over at Ms. Fukushima. "I'm afraid I have something I need to take care of. Let's meet in, hmm, two hours?" He glanced at his watch. It was just past five p.m.
"That will do," Fukushima said in her usual dry voice. "Though I refuse to eat at that steak place again."
Tony grinned at her; Fukushima was as sharp as a blade and scorned subterfuge, and he loved her for it even when it made his life more difficult. "Lady's choice?" He raised both brows at Grampion, who smiled comfortably.
"By all means. And I appreciate the break, Tony; my old legs need to stretch after all that sitting."
"Carroll on the Heights, then," Fukushima said. "I trust your...business will not interfere?"
Tony knew she meant his missions as Iron Man, and he gave her a tiny shrug. "I can't promise anything. But I'll do my best."
He took his leave and headed downstairs, striding through the lobby to the limo waiting exactly where it had been four hours before. Happy was at the wheel this time, and Tony didn't wait for him to get out, instead opening the door himself and sliding in. "Townhouse," he instructed his waiting chauffeur. "Report."
Happy let the limo roll down the driveway towards the street. "I couldn't make out too much, sir, but she was headed for Charleston International."
Tony blinked at that. "South Carolina? What the hell is in South Carolina?"
If Pepper were there, she would no doubt remind him tartly of some holding or other, but obviously that wasn't her reason. And while Happy was perfectly willing to eavesdrop on Pepper's phone conversations, he would only have heard half of them at best.
"Family, I think," Happy said. "She kept saying it was a family emergency."
Tony frowned. "Are you sure?"
The big man glanced briefly at him in the rear view mirror. "Pretty much, yeah."
"Huh." Tony sat back, staring at nothing. Pepper doesn't have any family.
It was one of the factoids he'd picked up over the years, curiosity spurred by a few chance comments and satisfied by Jarvis' skill at ferreting out information. Virginia Potts was, as far as the system was concerned, an orphan. She had been placed in the care of the state--New Jersey, in this case--at the age of two, given up for unspecified reasons. Jarvis had even found a picture, and Tony had felt a strange ache in his chest at the sight of the wary-eyed toddler with the short orange hair.
She'd grown up in the system, moving from foster home to orphanage and back again, never adopted. No reason was available, but Tony couldn't believe that she had been a problem child--not the rule-following, soft-voiced, educated woman he knew.
But that was all he knew. She'd obtained scholarships and loans and made it through college with honors, and managed an MBA while working full-time; that was a matter of public record. She'd worked for Bear Stearns and moved to the West Coast; and then she'd worked for Stark Industries, and then she'd worked for him.
She said I was all she had too. Tony tapped absently at the arc reactor hidden beneath shirt and undershirt, and then reached for his cellphone. A punch of the speed-dial had a smooth artificial voice answering. "Yes sir?"
"Jarvis? I need you to run a search."
Usually Pepper had no trouble sleeping. No matter the stress of the day, she could lie down and pass into unconsciousness within minutes, and wake refreshed--definitely an asset for Tony Stark's personal assistant. In fact, the last time she'd had insomnia had been just after he'd been kidnapped--
Pepper pushed the memory away and sipped from her refilled coffee cup. She'd tossed and turned all night in the anonymous hotel bed, drowsing from time to time but always waking again to stare at the ceiling and wonder what the hell she was doing. Even cracking the balcony door to let in fresh air had done nothing more than give her something to watch as it made the curtains ripple.
Now she sat in the hotel's dining room, ignoring the breakfast she'd ordered but had been unable to eat. It was still early; the sun was up, but still had the gilded edge of the new morning, and she had to wait. Fortunately, the dining room wasn't busy; the waitress was more than willing to refill her cup and otherwise leave her alone.
Her hands were sweating, and it wasn't just the heat of the thick ceramic. She had waited for this day for so long, never knowing if it would actually arrive, and it was terrifying. Because while she might find answers at this, the culmination of her search, she might not...and even if she did, they might not be answers she wanted to hear.
I have to know. She couldn't remember a time when she hadn't felt the empty ache, the space where knowledge should have been. Even if it's bad, I have to know.
Finally she could no longer sit still. Rising, Pepper signed the bill and walked out into the Carolina day.
It was spring, and gorgeous with greening trees and brilliant flowers, but she saw little of it. Pepper slid on her sunglasses and headed for her rental car.
The flight hadn't been long, but she'd arrived too late to do more than get a car and a room and a few changes of clothes that didn't make her look like a strayed executive--she had expected to be home before the weekend, and nothing in her suitcase was casual besides her running clothes. But the sneakers went well with jeans and a t-shirt, and now--now...
The nursing home was mid-grade for its kind, neither luxurious nor more than slightly shabby. The big room opening off the lobby was sunny and filled with the cheerful sound of a morning show on the big TV, but most of the residents were in wheelchairs and none of them looked around to see who had entered the building.
A big-boned woman easily Pepper's height sat behind the lobby desk, reading a mystery paperback. She glanced up as Pepper neared, and while her expression wasn't exactly welcoming, it wasn't hostile either. "Can I help you?"
Pepper wiped her hands on her jeans. "Hello, I--I'm looking for a resident. Lois Murton?"
The name still felt strange on her tongue, despite the many times she'd whispered it silently. It rang no bells at all; it was just a name.
The woman pursed her lips thoughtfully. "Are you a relative?"
Pepper hesitated. Here was the crux, a little sooner than she'd anticipated, and she didn't know what to do. Say no, and possibly lose access to this one fragile hope; tell the truth, and lose it just the same?
For some reason, Tony's voice seemed to ghost past her inner ear. Lie, Potts, it advised her cheerfully, and she gave up compunction and obeyed. "Yes."
"Oh, okay." The woman reached up, her reserve disappearing, and nudged the clipboard lying on the high counter of the desk. "Sign in, please."
With cold fingers, Pepper printed her own name and the four unfamiliar syllables. In the back of her mind was the warning that she was leaving a paper trail, reflex bred by years of shadowing Tony in the public eye, but she ignored it. The odds of recognition here, far from both society and high-powered business, were low; and even if someone connected her name with her hair and her face, they probably wouldn't call the press.
This is a different world.
The woman took the clipboard, glanced incuriously at the entry, and nodded. "Room 66A, the front bed. She's probably still there, but if not ask the floor nurse."
"Thank you," Pepper managed.
She hadn't been inside a nursing home since high school, when she'd gone caroling as part of the school choir. This one was much the same as the one she'd visited, clean but carrying an acrid medical odor with a hint of urine, tiny bent men and women moving slowly past on canes and walkers. Voices came from open doors, snippets of conversation or TV, inarticulate mumbles. Pepper barely noticed, too taken up with the pounding of her heart.
The door to 66 was open. The first thing that caught Pepper's eye was the hospital bed at the back of the room; the person lying in it hardly seemed to make any mound at all under the light blanket, and the open eyes were empty and dull. Pepper's breath halted.
But the woman was far too old, and the discreet placard on the wall next to the bed had a B on it. She let out the hoarded air, and then jumped as a sharp voice spoke.
"You're not Annie."
Pepper turned. In the front of the room, to the left of the door, was another bed. A wheelchair was parked in front of it, and in it sat another woman, this one somewhat younger but clearly feeble. Her hair was pulled back in a stringy gray ponytail, and she wore a stained, too-large blouse over soft pants and slippers. Her glare was angry and suspicious; her pale skin was seamed with the creases of hard living.
There was nothing in her face that Pepper recognized, not at first glance, and it made her dizzy. She braced one hand on the dresser behind her, nearly knocking over a porcelain angel figurine, and tried to clear her vision.
"You're not Annie," the tall woman--Lois Murton, it had to be, Pepper thought--repeated querulously.
Pepper swallowed. "No, I'm not."
Confusion flickered over the woman's face, and then she jerked her chin at the motionless occupant in the other bed. "You here to see her? She's dead."
Involuntarily Pepper glanced back over at the other woman, but after a moment she saw the thin chest rise. "Um, no, she's not."
The woman in the wheelchair snorted juicily. "As good as." Her glare hadn't abated.
Pepper took her courage in both hands, and straightened. "Are you Lois Murton?"
"Yeah." If anything, the glare intensified. "Who the hell are you?"
Pepper didn't let herself wince. She was chasing a chance, she reminded herself, and anyway it had been over thirty years-- "My name's Virginia," she said gently.
Lois didn't react. Pepper made herself smile. "I...I'd like to ask you some questions. Would that be okay?"
The rheumy eyes narrowed. "I want Annie," Lois muttered, though without the antagonism of before. Pepper's heart sank. Sort of aware.
"Please," she said, trying to keep calm. "Please, just a few questions."
Lois said nothing, and, desperate, Pepper took it for permission. There was a straight-backed chair in one corner, staple of institutions the world over, and she picked it up, moving it so that she could sit and face the wheelchair. "Can you...Ms. Murton, did you ever live in New Jersey?"
"Trenton." Lois sat up a little, her mouth moving as if she wanted to spit. "That hellhole."
Pepper bit back a surge of hope. "When was that?"
Lois looked away, her bony, long-fingered hands stroking one another aimlessly. "Trenton was a long time ago." She frowned. "Not long enough."
Pepper took another long breath. It was hard to tell whether Lois was really focusing or not, but there was no way she could give up now. She licked her lips, trying to pull words together; she'd asked these questions countless times in her own mind, spinning endless variations, but now that their time had come she was finding it almost impossible to make them come out right. "Were you--did you--did you know a woman with a little girl? A baby she gave up for adoption?"
Lois frowned again. "No."
The word was harsh. Pepper shuddered, and tried again. "I'm looking for my mother. Her name was Lois."
"Annie!" Pepper jumped at the bellow. "Annie! I need you!"
Lois' hands were gripping the wheelchair's armrests now, and she looked ready to force herself up and do violence. Pepper froze. What the hell should I do?
"Now Miss Lois, calm yourself down." The accent was pure Carolina. The woman in pink scrubs who bustled in the door probably didn't quite reach Pepper's shoulder, and her hair and eyes spoke of ancestors from much further east than the Atlantic coast. She seemed completely unperturbed by Lois' noise. "I'm right here."
"It's time for my shows," Lois said petulantly. "Annie, I want to go."
"Well, you're right about that," Annie said, giving Pepper a cheerful smile and a nod. "But you want to change first. That blouse has breakfast on it."
Her tone wasn't quite condescending; more the upbeat affection of someone used to working with difficult personalities. Within seconds Annie had the wheelchair backed in at the end of the bed and a curtain pulled around, hiding both women from Pepper's sight, if not her hearing. "Are you sure you want to go to the TV room, Miss Lois? You have a visitor, you know."
"I don't know her," Lois snapped. "She's here to see Yolanda."
Pepper heard Annie cluck. "I don't think so. Hold up your arms for me--yes."
The curtain was whisked back, revealing Lois in a clean top but with the same glare. "It's time for my shows," she repeated.
Annie sighed. "All right. Come on, then." She pushed the chair forward, and Pepper rose hastily, yanking her own chair out of the way. "Why don't you come along, ma'am?"
Feeling helpless, Pepper trailed behind as Annie wheeled Lois back down the corridor to the big room off the lobby and parked her at the end of a row of wheelchairs. The morning show had given way to a soap opera, and Lois' attention immediately fixed on the screen.
Annie sighed without rancor, and gestured Pepper over to the side of the room. "Sorry about that," she said in a low voice. "There are more soap addicts in this place than there are oranges on a tree."
Pepper shook her head, not knowing what to say. Annie peered up at her. "Are you a relation? Miss Lois doesn't get many visitors besides her brother and his brood."
Pepper opened her mouth, and then closed it, feeling slightly dizzy. Annie's gaze sharpened, and then she slipped a small strong hand under Pepper's elbow. "Susie," she said loudly, and the woman at the desk looked up from her book. "I'm taking five. Robbie can take Mr. Genfaro."
"Smoke one for me too," Susie said, and went back to her reading.
Pepper was taller, but she found herself no match for Annie. The nurse led her outside into the sunshine to a little smoke station some yards from the front door, then fished in her smock pocket and came out with a lighter and a pack of cigarettes. When Pepper shook her head at the proffered pack, Annie extracted one, lit it, and inhaled the smoke with a growl of pleasure.
After three puffs, she sighed. "I'll die young but I'll die happy. Now, sugar, what's the matter?"
Pepper debated lying, but she couldn't think of anything plausible. "I think Lois might be my mother."
Annie's eyes widened, and she looked Pepper up and down slowly. "You know," she remarked, "I hear all kinds of stories here, but that's a new one."
Pepper bit her lip, and decided to go for broke. "I was given up for adoption when I was two," she said softly, not bothering with the details. "The records are sealed, but I couldn't stand not knowing. I hired a private investigator and...and here I am."
Her sense of shock was starting to pass off, and Pepper felt a little more in control. "She said she lived in New Jersey once, but I didn't..."
Annie took another drag on her cigarette. "I don't know about that. And I shouldn't tell you this, but she did have a kid once." Pepper blinked at her, and she shrugged, looking a little uncomfortable. "Stretch marks."
Pepper blinked, then realized that Annie must have helped Lois bathe at some point. "Oh."
Annie sighed, and tapped ash off the cigarette. "Miss Lois isn't always completely on the ball, if you get what I mean, but she's not totally gone. If you come back this afternoon, you might get more out of her, but do it early 'cause she's worse later."
"Oh," Pepper repeated, not quite sure what to do with the information, delivered as it was with casual callousness. "Uh, thank you."
Annie took one last drag and bent to grind the cigarette out, tossing it into the sand-filled urn nearby. "You might do better to talk to her brother. His name's Willie something, he lives in town here."
She'd seen the name on the report, but all Pepper's concentration had been on Lois. "I have the name, yes."
Annie nodded. "Good luck, then."
Pepper had no appetite for lunch, either. She drove aimlessly until she found herself traveling past a park, and on impulse she found a lot nearby and went to find a bench to sit on. The wide expanse of green had many shady trees and a multitude of walkers, runners, bikers, and skateboarders as well as children, but no one bothered her on the cool wrought iron, and she sat and let them all pass by, trying to take in what she'd learned.
She's tall. Lois' head had been high enough over the handlebars of the wheelchair that the petite Annie had almost had trouble seeing over her. And while there was no telling what shade the woman's hair had been, it was long and fine like Pepper's own. Her frame was slender--
Pepper bit her lip and squeezed her eyes shut, trying to settle the roil of emotion in her stomach. Yes, Lois had characteristics that Pepper shared, but there was no way to be sure, not by looking. The deep lines in Lois' face, the loose flesh beneath her chin, all made it hard to judge what she might have looked like years before.
And Pepper had never possessed so much as a photograph.
She realized she was squeezing her hands together so hard that her fingers were turning numb, and made an effort to relax. In all the times she'd imagined such a meeting, it had never occurred to her that she might not be sure.
She'd been prepared for rejection, or at least she'd tried to prepare herself. But at the same time Pepper had not been able to keep from hoping for welcome. Lois' hostile ambiguity only made her brain whirl faster.
As she sat and waited for afternoon, Pepper found herself watching the children at play. They were all small, given the weekday, and while there were some men and young adults among the caretakers, most of those watching over the kids seemed to be mothers. They chatted with one another, nursed infants, tended scrapes, hushed tears and broke up little fights. Some helped their children climb playground equipment; a couple were tossing balls for excited young runners.
Pepper couldn't ever remember playing in a park. She couldn't remember a kiss on a bruise or a hand holding hers, or even a raised voice telling her to stop that right now. And she had made it not matter, in the end; she hadn't let the lack ruin her life. She'd done what she wanted, achieved what she set out to do, and if being the personal assistant to one of the world's wealthiest hadn't been her original intention, it was good, satisfying work.
But the question was always there, tucked away in the back of things. Who am I?
And beneath it, the other one, the lost cry in the emptiness. Why didn't she keep me?
Sometimes, Pepper reflected bitterly, it would have been easier if her mother had just died.
At least I'd know.