Stage Left: Trying to Get Away
October 17, 2016
Pepper was intimately familiar with the effort required to arrange someone’s life. She had managed Tony’s – as much as anyone could manage Tony – for ten years, so when she asked her personal assistant to make certain that she was notified when Darcy was going to be released from the hospital, she was aware of the hoops that would have to be jumped through to get around HIPPA, police investigators, and Darcy herself. When she arrived at Darcy’s hospital room just as the nurse was going through her release instructions, Pepper made a mental note to make certain to include a personal message with the Christmas bonus that year.
“Ms. Lewis, do you understand these instructions?”
“Yeah, like a steel trap,” she tapped her temple with her good hand and smiled as sweetly as Pepper had ever seen. It was so obviously fake the CEO nearly laughed. “No water on the stitches, no dirt on the stitches, and no heavy lifting. My burgeoning MMA career will have to be put on hold. Now can you please, please get me something to wear that doesn’t expose my ass?”
“I believe that would be my cue,” Pepper stepped into the room and gestured to the small rolling suitcase Happy had insisted on carrying for her.
“You brought my stuff? Pepper you are a lifesaver!”
“I did have your things laundered, since it seemed you didn’t have anything else clean.”
“You think of everything.” Darcy gestured with her thumb and spoke in a loud whisper to the nurse. “This is why she gets the corner office.” The nurse only held out another form for signature before leaving the room. Happy murmured his well wishes and stepped out as well, promising to have the car brought around for them. Pepper shut the door and busied herself with the release papers to give Darcy privacy to change.
“Are you certain you are feeling well enough to leave?” Pepper would have preferred if Darcy agreed to stay with her in Malibu for the rest of the week. She still looked pale, and tired, and she would have to return in ten days to have the stitches removed anyhow. Pepper mentally steered away from the reminder that Darcy had been shot. Shot. And hadn’t even noticed until the paramedics had drawn her attention to it.
“It was just a graze. Well, that and a mild concussion. Like, less than ten stitches, all together. I don’t think they would have even kept me this long if I hadn’t reacted so badly to the antibiotics.”
“Yes, well, I took the liberty of ordering you a bracelet for that. It’s in the outside pocket of your suitcase. And a new phone, too. Although, I should warn you there are several messages from your father on there. He seems extremely concerned. Did you let him know everything was fine?”
Darcy huffed. “I didn’t tell him jack – I’m not crazy. That man would have flown out here on a red-eye and demanded to see the incident reports. So much better if I wait until I am stuck at the airport and can have a good excuse to cut the call off. I love my dad, but he will go completely bonkers over this.” Pepper heard her typing on the new phone. “I mean look at this, six messages because I missed our weekly call. Good gravy.”
Pepper wisely stayed out of that family squabble. “There were some components that Jane ordered, ready to be shipped to her. I didn’t figure you would want to fly commercial, so I ordered one of the smaller planes to drop you and the equipment off. It will be ready to leave whenever you are.”
“Little help here?”
Pepper turned around to find Darcy half into a well-worn t-shirt. She carefully rendered assistance, trying not to bump the stitches on the younger woman’s arm. Seeing the neat black thread made her stomach queasy. It was difficult to make friends in her position. Right out of college she had begun working for SI, and then was promoted to Tony’s PA within a few years. That job became her life – following him around the globe and ensuring his professional and personal matters were taken care of. And then there was Afghanistan, and Stane, and Tony’s ongoing health issues. Taking over as CEO had been a refreshing challenge, and infinitely more time-consuming than she could have imagined. It left little time to meet people that did not work for either her or one of SI’s competitors. Or worse, the government. And then Darcy had practically fallen into her lap. Pepper had wanted to pass along her personal welcome to Dr. Foster upon joining the SI research division, and meeting Darcy on her first visit to the LA facility had been like being smacked in the face with charm. She was down to earth, intelligent, loyal, and already had knowledge of classified events. Despite the age gap, Pepper had been taken with Darcy, and the feeling seemed mutual.
The call from Jane, nearly hyperventilating with worry, that Darcy had been admitted to the hospital had come on the heels of Friday’s announcement that the Ghia was no longer transmitting GPS data. Pepper hadn’t felt so out of control since the day Rhodey had called to tell her Tony was missing. Within the hour, Darcy had a private room and Pepper had her prognosis directly from the doctor on call in the ER. Pepper didn’t have many friends, but the ones she did have she looked after fiercely.
“Thanks for the offer of the plane, Pepper. Really, that is way, way too much. I love it. But I have a few errands I need to run before I can head back. And I should probably call Jane before she freaks out and sends Thor to get me.” Darcy sat down to slip on her boots, and without asking Pepper helped her with the zippers.
“The plane will wait as long as you need, Darcy. Please,” she forestalled the rejection that Darcy was certainly preparing to give. “Let me do this for you. I feel just awful that this happened while you were visiting me.”
“Technically,” Darcy grinned, “it happened while I was visiting Maria. So I think she’s the one who owes me. I’m thinking at least a B in Language Arts and no cursing for a week.”
“Sounds perfectly reasonable.”
“I need to check in on her before I leave town. After what happened to Mrs. Soto…” Darcy trailed off, and Pepper leaned in for a hug. She knew better than most people what Darcy would be going through. Anyhow,” Darcy continued with a watery laugh as she pulled away, “I may need to throw your name around again, just to make certain her next family is decent. I hope you don’t mind.”
Pepper frowned. “The granddaughter isn’t going to keep her?”
“No, not that I can blame her. Her only family is dead, her apartment is unlivable, and she doesn’t have a steady job. I wish I could take her, at least until they find something permanent, but I have to get back to Jane and Family Services won’t let her leave the state. Hopefully, I can convince the granddaughter to stay with Maria in a motel for a few more days. At least she wouldn’t have to go to a group home then.”
“I’ll take her.” The words were out of Pepper’s mouth before she had even thought about them. Speaking without thinking was more Tony’s thing than hers, and he did enough of it for both of them and then some. But once the offer was made, Pepper grew determined. She had met the girl several times through Darcy, at lunches and once at a movie theater. Maria had been blunt, wildly intelligent, and used an impressive vocabulary and grasp of sarcasm to hide some deep emotional hurts. Pepper was self-aware enough to realize the similarities with Tony had drawn her interest in the child. But she also genuinely liked her, and knew this was something she could do to directly affect a person’s life for the better.
“Pepper, that – that would be awesome. But…” Darcy hesitated and for a moment the veneer of carefree college student fell away and the serious, protective creature that Darcy was underneath emerged. “I can’t believe I’m saying this to you, but you do understand how much responsibility this would be? Maria needs attention, and positive reinforcement. She can’t be left to her own devices – especially after this. She’ll be acting out, and she can be pretty cutting and reckless when she feels out of control.”
“Luckily,” Pepper said softly, and with just as much steel under her voice, “I have some experience with that.
“Right, okay.” With a blink Darcy was back to her usual irreverent self. “If Maria is cool with it, that could be a great solution. Thanks Pepper. Although,” she paused as she reached for the door, “it can take weeks – sometimes months – to get approved for foster care.”
“I doubt that will be a problem.” Pepper pulled out her phone, channeling Tony and giving a cool smile and challenging glare to the nurses and the signs declaring cell phones to be banned in the hallways. It took only a few minutes to explain to her PA what she needed, and by then Happy was closing the door of the town car behind them and Darcy was staring wide-eyed with a smile.
“Can I be you when I grow up?”
Pepper laughed. That was why she enjoyed Darcy so much. Even after a week that had begun with a search for a reproductive specialist, taken a turn for the worst with another emergency board meeting, and been highlighted with not one, not two, but three lab incidents requiring containment, Darcy could still make her laugh. Even Tony’s incessant messages about suitable doctors, remodeling plans, color schemes for the Rescue suit, purchase of an island in the Arctic ocean, why could we possibly need that?, complaints about Mrs. Barton, and requests to find out how Vision could get a degree in architecture could not stand in the way of Darcy’s infectious good humor. She was the best friend an overworked, genetically altered CEO could ask for.
For a moment, Pepper debated giving Darcy a head’s up about Tony’s plans for her thesis. Darcy, anyone really, deserved to at least try to prepare for the whirlwind that was Tony Stark. Darcy’s rambling sidetracked her thoughts.
“-would have had a witty reply, I’m sure. Not to mention, you can probably pull off smoke-stained and slightly shot better than I can. And it was the Black Widow, Pepper! Natasha freaking Romanoff! Who can stand in front of that and not babble like a fan girl?”
“Natalie was there?” Interesting, that wasn’t in the police report.
“Yeah, with the Captain. I couldn’t quite tell if I was hot for him, or if it was just the building being on fire.”
“Him,” Pepper replied with a smile. “I’m not so into clean-cut, myself, but even I know it was him.”
“Yeah,” Darcy sighed and leaned back against the leather with her eyes closed. “It was totally him. Or maybe the Widow. I can’t think straight with that much pretty around.”
Pepper laughed, and she kept laughing, all the way to get Darcy’s pain pills, check on Maria, and drop Darcy at the airport. It wasn’t until much later, when she had finished going over the details with her lawyers for Maria’s stay at the Malibu house that she remembered she hadn’t warned Darcy about Tony. Or Tony about Steve. Or Nat about Darcy. Or Tony about Maria.
Some things are better as a surprise, she tried to convince herself. Like an engagement ring. Or an undiscovered Pollock. Or a pit of snakes. Pepper reached for her phone. Maybe just a quick text.