With the battle over, and the shockwave fading, Pepper and Tony came up for air eventually, and stepped onto the platform. The shipyard had been obliterated. They looked over the destroyed tanker, the surrounding area, what few bits of Killian were left, hunks of shredded Iron Men, and shooting stars above as enemies and allies burned up on re-entry, far above.
Pepper shivered suddenly. Tony shrugged off his torn shirt and put it around her bare shoulders automatically, though he knew she couldn't be cold.
"Wow." Pepper whispered, as though looking at something she didn't recognize. "That was... violent." She was looking up and down the Platform, as well as the ship, following all the paths her own duel had taken. "Did I dream all that?"
"Gotta say, Potts. I've never found you more attractive." Tony admitted.
Pepper's skin had grown pale at the sight. "...wow." She licked her perfect lips and looked at Tony. "I'm pretty bad-ass now, huh?"
Tony came forward and wrapped his arms around her tightly. She was more than willing to do the same. "I missed you." He whispered.
"Missed you." Pepper sighed into his neck.
They stood there for a long time, until Pepper pulled back. "Is it over?"
Tony looked around. "Jarvis?" He called. "Is it over?"
"I'll take that as a yes." Tony offered. "How do you feel?"
Pepper licked her lips again. Her skin was still pale. "I feel... Hot."
At any other time, Tony would have made a quip, but after watching enough people overheat and explode, this thought filled him with terror. "Really? Okay, we need to get you to a hospital."
Another sonic boom filled the air and they both looked up. An Iron Man was coming down, with a few holes punched clean through it. "Good evening Miss Potts."
"Hey Jarvis." Pepper looked over the suit. "You look like I feel."
The suit gestured at her, eerily human. "Ditto, Ma'am."
Pepper looked down at herself, and found she was still a mess. She had ribs sticking out everywhere, huge chunks of her body was being filled in by what looked a lot like blackened cooling lava... "Right." She breathed. "Doesn't even hurt."
Iron Man turned to Tony. "Sir, the Extremis Warriors have been dispatched, but regrettably, we are down to only three suits."
"Who made it?"
"The MK-9, The MK-5, and the MK-23." The armor gestured at itself. "And I do not believe the MK-9 will be good for anything more than scrap metal."
"What about Rhodey?" Pepper asked, more to distract Tony from the sound of her ribs snapping back into place than anything else.
"Colonel Rhodes has successfully taken President Ellis to the nearest Military Post. They were... surprised."
"I'll bet. With the whole country on Red Alert, we're lucky they weren't shot down on the way in." Tony laughed, and turned back to Pepper. As her blackened skin faded back to healthy peaches-and-cream, she smiled at him, a little more pale. "Pepper? You okay?"
She looked at him and tried to keep up her smile, but he could practically see her getting more and more pale as she spoke. "I'm okay. I think that I'm just coming off the adrenaline high. I mean, I never get to do this sort of thing myself." She was weaving on her feet a little, pointing a shaky hand at some of the damage. "Hey. I did that."
"Pepper?" Tony's voice was rising in alarm.
"I tor-r-re it apart." Pepper was weaving further, voice starting to slur.
She dropped suddenly, and Tony lunged to catch her.
She seemed to be caving in on herself, her skin was drawing tighter across her bones, her eyes sinking in deep, and her hair falling out.
"Jarvis get me a suit, any of them, I don't care! And call Rhodey! RIGHT NOW!"
Maya closed the door to her private booth and let out a breath. The train was finally moving as the sun rose, and the room she had was private. With a bit of luck, she'd be in Canada before anyone could pick up the pieces.
The news reported that Iron Man and Iron Patriot had rescued President Ellis. The news also reported that Vice president Rodriguez had been taken into custody and that the Mandarin had been exposed as a fake.
"A fake?" Maya breathed. "That's how they're reporting it?"
Clinically, she saw the appeal. If they could vanish The Mandarin and pin the whole thing on Killian and the VP, then they could pretty much do whatever they wanted with the loose ends... including her.
"The train is clear." She told herself. "You've already checked, and the train is clear."
Maya looked around awkwardly. She was trying not to look over her shoulder every second, but she knew she didn't have long. Airports were still closed, and too dangerous anyway. With the airports shut down the trains had stayed on, even over the holiday. Even taking a train seemed risky. But she needed distance and she needed speed.
Once the train pulled out of the city, she felt safer. There wasn't much anyone could do to get on the train once it was rolling.
There was the faint sound of jet turbines. She looked up out her window. No sign of a jet plane.
"Getting paranoid, sister." She chastised herself.
There was a knock at her door.
Maya grasped the canister of pepper-spray... or at least, that was what she called it. "Come in?"
The door opened, and Iron Patriot strolled in. "Good morning, Dr Hansen."
Maya slumped. The chase was over, and it hadn't really begun.
"Doctor, your presence is urgently required at the Abraham Erskine Memorial Hospital." Rhodes continued formally. "We have a patient that you are... uniquely qualified to treat."
SHIELD was still not telling him where the A-Team was at the moment, but they had enough operatives left in contact that Tony could get a Hospital Ward cleared out and isolated. He wasn't sure if Pepper was on the verge of exploding or not, but he refused to leave her side.
President Ellis had promised to clean house, and Tony didn't care. Rhodes had been connected to Pepper's medical machines the entire time he'd been tracking Maya down. He had up to the second information across all her vitals. Maya had been working on it since the second he collared her.
Rhodes had contacted him when they landed on the roof of the hospital, and Maya strode into the ward with a tablet in one hand, and a white lab coat. Aside from her hair being all over the place, nobody would have guessed that she'd been dragged through the sky at near Mach Speed.
"Was she involved in the fight at all?" Maya asked immediately, looking at the readings. "Was she caught in any of the fighting? Because it looks like her Extremis levels are pretty low right now. Something used it up. Repairs to her body?"
Tony snorted. "Yeah. She was involved."
"Well, that's probably the only reason she isn't dead yet." Maya nodded clinically. "The Extremis in her system was pulled away before it could overload and blow up. She used up the formula doing whatever it was she was doing, and it's not refilling the way it should because the dose isn't taking."
"What's the next move?"
"There isn't one Tony, and you knew that before I got here." Maya shrugged, and looked up at them for the first time. "Well." She looked over his battle scars. "You look..."
"As do you." Tony said shortly, not taking his eyes off Pepper. "Fix her, or I'll show you how I took out Brandt."
Maya came to the head of Pepper's bed and pulled the woman's eyelids back. "The dose isn't taking. The Extremis won't stay in her system properly. But she's systemic, so she can't live without it any more. It's like the way an alcoholic can't feel normal until he has a drink in the morning. Her system has built a chemical need for the formula, and the formula has decided it won't work for her any more."
Tony shook off the comparison. "Maya, if her system became dependant on Extremis, won't it recover on its own once Extremis is gone?"
"Not fast enough." Maya shook her head as Rhodes came in himself, his suit left on the roof. "She's not overloading, so she won't explode. She's having the opposite reaction. I'd say you've got maybe four hours left to organ failure."
"What if we put her on Life Support?" Rhodes suggested. "Put her on total life support now, and give her system time to get functional again on its own?"
Maya considered. "I tried that with my second batch, but the machines involved... Frankly, you don't have a clue how deep the need for Extremis runs once the formula takes hold. It practically replaces your blood supply. There's no machine that can force that much artificial life into an organic body without doing damage of its own."
"Yes there is." Tony said finally, and laid a hand over the Arc Reactor in his chest. "It's right here. The first Arc Reactor was designed to power an electromagnet, but it gave me chemical radiation poisoning. The second one is a better match for organics. It's actually taken over some of my vitals. My reflexes, IQ, blood pressure, immune system, oxygen saturation, all of it is better than human, thanks to this thing."
Rhodes jumped up. "We can use the one in my suit."
"No." Stark shook his head. "I... I made it part of the chestpiece. I didn't want anyone removing the Arc Reactor from the suit I gave you. It's a fully integrated piece."
"One of your suits?" Maya ran the checklist.
"My suits all use the older design, since they weren't needed in my chest. I don't know what early palladium poisoning would do to Pepper in her condition, but it wouldn't be good." Tony shook his head. "I don't have a suit left that doesn't have some damage. Killian's people knew where the weak spots were."
Maya got there first. "Stark, if you're thinking what I think you're thinking..."
"You stop talking now." Stark told her darkly. "Rhodes, tell the surgical team to prep for an emergency transplant. They'll need to have an interior wall for Pepper to hold the Reactor in place properly, and I'll have to get the shrapnel removed at the same time."
"Tony, that's some pretty invasive procedures to do on a moment's notice." Maya pointed out. "This might not work."
"Maya, give me a better idea, or shut up." Stark said simply.
Rhodes headed out to alert the surgical team.
"I'll need to be there." Maya put in. "If Extremis does something unpredictable, the doctors here probably won't recognize it."
"If you plan to do something... unpredictable yourself..." Tony warned.
"Believe it or not Tony, I'm really hoping she pulls through." Maya said shortly. "If you've found a way for a Negative to survive getting the dose..."
"A 'Negative'." Tony scorned "Is that what you call the ones that blew up?"
Maya was silent a moment. "You saw it Tony. It works. I could save the world." She was getting that dangerous certainty in her eyes again. "I can still do it! I can still fix this!"
It was the strangest feeling. Tony suddenly felt nothing but pity for her. She was desperate to keep going, even after she'd almost collapsed human civilization. "Under no circumstances will you ever work on this again." He told her.
Maya looked at him disdainfully. "If you won't give me a computer? I'll work it out on a pad. If you don't give me paper? I'll write on the walls. If you don't give me a pen, I will chew through my own fingers." Her gaze was fierce. "I fix this? I can fix everyone. I can raise the level of what it means to be human and conquer death forever. There's nothing too extreme for that prize. A statue of me in every city in the world, Tony."
Tony turned away from her to Pepper; another victim of Maya's unhinged, zealous obsession to remake humanity in her image. He leaned down to kiss Pepper's forehead, right on the edge of her hairline. It was the only patch of skin not covered by some medical device. "I love you. I'm sorry you have to go through this, but I'll fix you, I promise. I'll fix you."
"It'll work." Maya swore, though he wasn't sure if she was reassuring him, or promising herself. "We'll make it work."
The next day passed without Tony or Pepper being aware of it. The surgery was a marathon double session. Maya stayed the whole time. SHIELD kept that wing of the hospital sealed, and as good as they were, the word got out who the patients were quickly enough.
Iron Man being in emergency surgery was global news after he'd saved the world again. Rhodes was required to show up for a few interviews, but the questions were all cleared before hand and Iron Patriot knew the official story.
Rhodes was the hero of the moment, and though he was quick to share the credit, Stark was still in surgery, and couldn't answer questions or pose for pictures. When Rhodes returned to hospital, they were still in surgery.
Extremis had been kept a secret, even more so than the Arc Reactor. It was a weapon that was equally as dangerous when it didn't work at all.
Killian had been labelled the heart of the conspiracy, and the Vice-President the mastermind. His willingness to give the investigators everything had been all that saved him from the death penalty.
For the next day or two, the world cooled off. Armies pulled back from the inevitable World War; markets stabilized as everything went back to the way it was, and the press went mad, getting one revelation after another, unraveling the Vice President's conspiracy almost faster than the Secret Service could.
Once the Manor of the Mandarin was locked down and local law enforcement had collected everyone involved, the airports reopened quickly, and America had a Merry Christmas after all, having dodged the ultimate bullet.
The one bit of bad news was Stark and Potts, still in the middle of marathon, life-saving surgery. Without mentioning Extremis, the official story was that Potts had been taken hostage, and was injured terribly in the final battle. The official story was that she was beyond the help of traditional medicine, and Stark was almost literally giving her his heart in a last ditch effort to save the woman he loved. It was all true, except for the parts it left out.
If they survived, it would be the perfect end to a love story that had saved the whole world.
Tony opened his eyes slowly, not comprehending anything.
Rhodes was sitting beside him, dozing. "...hey."
Rhodes opened his eyes quickly. "Hey."
Rhodes pointed across the bed, and Tony struggled to turn his head to look the other way. Pepper was in the opposite bed. Her face and body was covered with so many tubes and cables that Tony almost couldn't see her. But her long red hair was visible... and lit by a pure white glow coming from her breastbone. Tony squeezed his eyes shut a moment, trying to focus his vision, and he got a look at the readouts on her heart and lung monitors.
"It worked. Her readings are stable, and they're getting better" Rhodes told him warmly. "You did it Tony. You saved her."
Pepper's recovery was slow; her whole body was relearning how to live on its own.
Stark's recovery was much faster. He'd set the Arc Reactor in his chest to be removable. The housing was still there, and the shrapnel had been removed.
Stark was up and moving, though very slowly. He was surprised at how much he had to get used to himself. The constant glow was gone, and the world seemed dim. The weight of it was gone, and he felt like he was tipping over when he stood without the frame. The Arc Reactor was semi-based on electromagnetic technology, and Stark discovered it had a rhythm of it's own, so that he could feel it moving gently. He'd had it so long he didn't notice it any more, and now he felt off balance all the time.
Stark turned away from the window slowly. Rhodes had come in. He and the medical staff were the only ones allowed into the ward. Tony and Pepper shared a private room. "How you feeling?"
"Okay." Stark murmured, hand to his chest. A bandage covered over the housing.
"You gonna get another one?" Rhodes asked. "You've made a lot of them, what's one more?"
"The production line at the house is at the bottom of the ocean." Tony sighed. "If I do this at the factory in LA then I have more recovering to do; because I sure as hell won't be sending the plans on for someone else to do it."
Rhodes nodded. "Well, the shrapnel is gone. Finally."
Tony shook his head. "I should have gotten rid of it ages ago."
"You were busy."
"I was addicted." Tony shook his head. "I was addicted to Iron Man. I forgot that I didn't invent this idea. Yinsen did. He invented a way to keep me alive, and I upgraded it a dozen times... But the point of this wasn't to be a superhero, it was to keep me alive. Yinsen invented the solution. I invented the damn shrapnel."
Rhodes went quiet, surprised by this.
Tony shook his head. "But I was having too much fun to stop, and I ignored the shrapnel because... As long as I still had it in me, I could keep going." He rubbed his eyes. "And then Stane, and Whiplash, and SHIELD, and New York... I always found a reason."
Rhodes listened to all this, and leaned forward a bit when Stark ran out of words. "You never told me about New York."
"Or about Afghanistan." Rhodes added. "Or about the Palladium poisoning."
Stark winced harder. "I know. I didn't tell Pepper either." He sighed. "What can I say? Some things you don't want to admit. At least... not to the people you rely on."
Rhodes nodded. "I get that. Remember, I was part of that convoy too. I woke up and got told that you were taken."
Stark looked over. "How'd you handle it?"
"I got some help."
There was a light tapping at the doorway, and both men turned. Father Barnes was standing in the doorway.
"I understand I'm needed?" Barnes said lightly.
Tony's jaw was hanging open as Rhodes stood up and gave the clergyman his seat. The soldier left them and Barnes sat down.
"It took your friend Rhodes to get me past the rope line." Barnes explained. "There's a huge crowd out there."
"I've dodged crowds before." Tony waved that off.
Barnes leaned back in his seat. "So. It's Boxing Day and we're all still here." He observed. "You must have done good."
Stark glanced over at Potts. "I did okay. Not good, but okay."
"Which is better than you thought you'd do." Barnes pointed out. "The flashbacks?"
"Haven't had one since The Shipyard." Tony admitted. "You'd think that the battle, Pepper falling, this hospital... You'd think something would hit me the wrong way."
"Why do you think it hasn't?" Barnes asked him.
Tony was silent a long moment, considering his response. "I think that the Shipyard was all my worst nightmares come to life. I have a pretty good knack form predicting what comes next. I made a fortune off it... The Shipyard was the worst case scenario. And then I wiped them all out."
"And what are a few flashbacks compared to that?" Barnes smiled. "It's a slightly more... militant version of overcoming personal demons than I'm used to, but still."
Tony laughed. The laugh died quickly as he looked over at Pepper. "She hates Iron Man." He confessed. "Rhodey says that it's not the suit so much as what that lifestyle put me through. I love her for it, but... She calls the suit 'The Other Woman'." He looked at Barnes. "I looked it up. Half the indicators of an addiction? Spread across all my vices, I'm guilty of more than half of them, one way or another."
"Your situation is... unique." Barnes admitted. "Before the blast at the Lumber Yard? Chad Davis spoke to me for a while. He said that he was having trouble adjusting to life as a civilian again. I think that's why he signed on with AIM. But he didn't miss the fear, or the adrenaline. He missed..."
"Relevance." Tony finished for him. "The feeling of making a difference. Being a hero is a rush."
Barnes nodded. "When you're a junkie, the life you put at risk is your own. If you're driving a car or flying a plane, you risk others. But in your case..."
Tony gave a bitter smirk. "In my case, I put more lives in danger if I stop. Going into that fight was reckless to the point of suicidal. If I had a lick of common sense about it; Killian would be ruling the world right now."
Barnes almost laughed. "I know. I don't know what to say to you right now. The smartest choice you can make is to take care of yourself, but the best choice you can make is to keep going." He looked sick about it. "So where does that leave us?"
Tony tapped his chest, where the Reactor used to be, and seemed surprised for a moment that it wasn't there. He gestured over at Pepper. "That Reactor is new. The last one wasn't doing the job, and as a result, it was going to kill me. I ran the entire table of elements, and got nowhere. The right choice didn't exist, so I had to create a new one. I took three elements and forged something new and better."
Barnes smiled. "I like the analogy. So, what's the right choice this time?"
"When I had to create something new, it wasn't a question of the ingredients. It was a matter of calculating the proportions. As long as something is more one thing than the other, the balance is always in favor of the larger element." Tony said, as though reading it out of a textbook. "In my case? I think I have to make sure that the world needs Iron Man more than I need Iron Man."
"I agree. Think you can handle that?"
Tony snorted. "I week ago, I would have said no. Now I know I can. Because I poured three years of my life into this invention, and even when it drove people away I kept going, and even when it nearly killed me I kept going... And then it still wasn't equal to the task." He almost looked like he was going to laugh, as he put a hand to his chest, where his Reactor used to be. "All the work I put into it, and when the chips were down, the only person this invention could save was Pepper."
"Just as you said you would." Barnes reminded him.
Tony looked at Pepper. "I lost her the other day. I saw her fall 200 feet and land in an inferno. Remember when I said I didn't know how to save the world, but I had to save her?"
"I failed. She saved me." Tony said simply. "But when I realized that the Arc Reactor could keep her alive? I didn't even blink. I would have ripped it out of my chest with my bare hands if I could. I didn't even give it a second thought."
"Sounds like you've got your priorities straight then." Barnes smiled a little, but he wasn't looking at Stark. He was looking at Potts. Tony glanced over, and jumped up so fast he almost fell over.
Pepper was awake.
Tony was at her side in an instant. "Hey."
Pepper slowly lifted a hand to touch his face. "...n'ed a's've."
Somehow he understood. "Yeah. I need a shave."
Pepper's hand dropped from his face to her chest. "...c'ld."
"Yeah. It'll warm up once you get used to it, I promise."
Pepper was crying. "...s'it a bom'?"
"No. It's not a bomb." Tony promised.
"Rhod' thou' it was." Pepper sniffed, and lifted her hand up to his chest. "Wha'bout you?"
Tony blinked back tears. "I'm okay."
"'kay." Pepper was fading out again. "Love you."
"I love you too."
"T'ny?" Pepper slurred. "Wh'rs Happy?"
Tony felt punched in the gut. "He... He's..."
She was already asleep.
Tony let out a breath like he'd been holding it a hundred years.
Barnes rested a hand on his shoulder. "She's conscious now."
"It means the worst is behind her." Tony nodded. "She's going to be okay."
They stayed that way for a while, letting the unspoken fear fade, and let relief take over.
"What did she mean?" Barnes asked. "About thinking it was a bomb?"
"Rhodey thought the first Arc Reactor was a bomb." Tony explained. "I'd been hiking the desert for a day or so. He had to carry me onto the chopper, and thought I was wired." He shivered. "When I told Pepper all about it, she thought it was too dangerous to have it inside me as an implant. She heard me describe it, and she almost jumped back."
"That moment stayed with you." Barnes discerned. "It still bothers you, even now."
Stark nodded. "It bothers me that Pepper sees me as a living bomb. I don't think she still thinks that way now, but still... If the Arc Reactor made me an explosion waiting to happen, then now Pepper is."
"From what I saw back home, she was already." Barnes pointed out lightly.
Stark couldn't help the grin. "She was incredible."
They both laughed.
"So. What now?" Barnes asked finally.
"Well, Pepper won't want to stay here longer than she needs to." Tony sighed. "Neither do I. Our house is... well, gone."
"Where will you go?"
"New York." Tony declared. "We have a place there. She was living here for a while, and... I think I can face it now. I think I have to."
The Penthouse in Stark Tower was fully repaired after the New York Invasion, though some parts of the city were still being cleaned up.
Tony had refurbished one of the rooms to be a private intensive care unit, and once Pepper was stable, they moved her there. Tony went with her, unwilling to leave her side, but he had recovered enough to get back to work.
He had finally bitten the bullet and spoken about his experiences. He wasn't particularly religious, but he trusted Barnes, and figured telling a Priest was as confidential as telling a Doctor.
In the end, Stark had decided not to replace his own Arc Reactor. He had a second procedure to close over the big hole in his chest, but the housing had prevented any bleeding or organ disruption, so he was up and around while the skin healed.
Pepper was sleeping a lot, but was coherent again.
"Is there any chance I can keep Extremis?" Pepper asked. "You're a smart guy."
"Pepper." Tony breathed, not believing it was coming from her.
"Okay, I don't mean that." Pepper sighed. "Mostly."
"What was it like?" Tony couldn't help but ask.
"I've never felt anything like it. It was electric. Like I could take on the whole galaxy." Pepper admitted. "As focused as I was on tearing Killian into little pieces, part of me wanted to run up walls, leap tall buildings... I could have run forever. I could have outrun Iron Man." She pushed her hair back and laughed, despite herself. "I bet I could have flown if I put any effort into it."
Tony smiled. "You miss it."
"I do. Even knowing where it came from, part of me would have given anything to be the one in four." Pepper admitted. "Is that very terrible?"
"No. I don't think so." Tony admitted.
Tony threaded his fingers tightly through hers, and they sat together a while like that.
Pepper pulled his hands to her chestpiece. "Feels strange." She hummed. "I think it's moving, but I can't tell for sure."
"That's the electromagnet." Tony nodded. "You get used to it."
She gave him a long slow look, up and down. "Weird, not seeing your 'heartlight'." She gave him a sad little smile. "You gave it up for me?"
"I've got two suits left... and until we had this conversation, I was seriously considering putting them both in mothballs, for good."
"I think I understand now." Pepper pulled him in for a kiss. "You had to know I wasn't wild about... well-"
"The Other Woman?" Tony said it with her. "I had a hunch."
"I think I know why you don't want to give it up." Pepper admitted. "And... after having tasted it myself, I'm not sure I could either."
Father Barnes came home a few days before the New Year.
The small community outside Chattanooga had a lot of clean up to do of its own. The entire police force had been ripped limb from limb by Brandt. Her rampage had taken out another half dozen souls in a town still reeling from the last time they had lost so many.
Barnes couldn't believe it when he returned to the town and found an enormous team of strangers, hard at work. The small, isolated town was buzzing with activity.
Barnes went to the Tavern; still the main social hub of the area, and found Maggie speeding around the tables, with a pot of regular coffee in one hand, and a pot of decaf in the other. She had a big smile on her face when she saw him come in. "Welcome to the party!"
Barnes shrugged off his coat and kept pace with her. "Maggie, what in the world is going on?"
"A Miracle, Padre. A genuine Christmas Miracle." Maggie was beaming. "It started two days ago. Dozens of trucks came rolling in; hundreds of workers. They had the town fixed up in a day, and then they went to work on the Lumber Mill. None of us can figure out where they came from, but they're all coming here for lunch; and they say they're not stopping until they've finished making the Yard better than new! Word is the Yard already has a buyer waiting for lumber, and the employees are all being rehired!"
Barnes gave a secret smile. "How about that?" He deflected. "By the way, Maggie? That guy who was in here last week?"
"The guy wearing my Mister's overalls?" Maggie nodded. "I remember."
Barnes put a few notes on the counter. "He wanted to pay you back for that little act of generosity."
Maggie scooped up the cash and dumped it all in the tip jar, which was already full. "Huh. That was nice of him."
Barnes had a secret little smile on his face. "Mm."
Rhodes came to visit them at the tower. "How is she?"
"Walking again." Tony reported. "Not far, and not fast, but she's doing great." He smiled a little. "She says she wants to be dancing by New Years."
Rhodes held up a folder in one hand, and a bottle of scotch in the other. "News from the front. You got glasses?"
"Um." Tony hesitated, eyes fixed on the bottle. "Not for me. Help yourself, but I'm gonna lay off the jet fuel for a while."
Rhodes blinked, not displeased to hear it, and he put the bottle away. "Fair enough. Have you heard from Fury?"
"No, and it's starting to worry me a bit." Tony admitted as they sat down, looking over the city. "What's the latest?"
"The President has decided to tell the world about the fake Mandarin."
Rhodes shrugged. "You can't give the Vice President a secret trial, and sooner or later, someone's gonna want to see The Mandarin taken apart. We can pin the blame on Killian, but nobody's heard of him; all they know is what they keep seeing on television."
"Right." Tony sighed. "There's one thing that I still don't get."
Rhodes looked over. "What's that?"
"Well, Maya needed me to finish Extremis, so that the majority of her clients didn't... you know, explode. And Extremis was sort of Killian's whole power base for his plans, right?"
"Right." Rhodes nodded.
"So, he'd want me to make it work too, right?" Tony said logically.
"So, why the hell did he send attack helicopters to my house, while both I and Maya were there? It's sheer dumb luck that we all got out alive. Why would he attack the house if he cared about Maya and I surviving?"
"I don't know." Rhodes shrugged. "If Killian were alive, we could ask him."
Tony nodded, but still seemed troubled by it. "Hm." He shook it off when he noticed movement. "Pepper?"
Shuffling into the room on a walking frame, with a light sheen of sweat on her face, Pepper Potts gave them both a big smile. "Hey. Look what I can do!"
Rhodes was smiling. "Looking good, Speed Racer."
Pepper was recovering faster every day. Her vitals were better than human. She was still on bed rest, and covered in bandages, but she was eating a bit, and free of the machines.
She sat up in bed, tapping swiftly on two different tablets, following four different news feeds. "This is fun." She admitted to Tony, not even slowing down. "My head feels so clear."
Tony nodded. "Yup. Your brain is getting a little more blood flow, your lungs are filling up faster and putting more oxygen into your blood..."
Pepper tapped her fingernails absently on her Arc Reactor. "You think I'm up to a field trip?"
Tony smirked. "The Doctors say you need to use the walker for long walks. You'd be surprised how much the magnet throws off your balance."
Pepper chewed her lip. "What about a wheelchair?"
Tony was surprised. "Where do you plan to go?"
"I can't believe we got stuck with babysitting duty for this guy."
"The President wants him on air to say that he was an actor hired to do a job."
"Fine, but... I mean, it's not like he needs a full bodyguard detail."
"Have you heard half the stories? The Vice President just got arrested over this guy."
"Hey listen." The prisoner called from his cell. "If you want me to go on TV and make it clear what happened, it might be an idea to have me in the proper costume. I've been an actor thirty years, played everything from a supervillain to Gandhi. I can tell you, having a different outfit on would be enough to make people think I'm a fake Mandarin. I mean, a fake fake Mandarin."
The guards looked to each other and shrugged; heading to the case that held his Mandarin clothing.
Including the Ten Rings.
HERE LIES, HAPPY HOGAN
Tony stood behind Pepper's Wheelchair. She bent forward awkwardly to lay down flowers at the headstone. "I'm sorry we couldn't get here sooner." She whispered. "And I'm sorry we missed the funeral."
Tony could see her peeking back at him, expecting him to go into convulsions. Tony pressed a quick kiss against the side of her head. The flashbacks weren't bothering him any more.
"I..." Tony faltered as he spoke. "Happy, I don't want to be morbid, but just so you know, I made a promise that I wouldn't come out to see you until I took down the Bad Guy. But I just couldn't do it." He tapped the wheelchair. "She did. Meet the one that avenged you."
Pepper blinked. "Ohh. Yeah, I guess I did, didn't I?"
Tony smiled. "He would have loved to see that."
Pepper smiled a little, eyes red. "Is it bad that I haven't... Grieved?"
"We were both a little busy. I never got the chance either. But we're here now." Tony forgave, and put an arm around her. "I'm really gonna miss him."
"Me too." Tony admitted.
Edwards Air Force Base was burning. The survivors tried to flee and panicked as monsters conjured themselves out of thin air and tore them apart. Fire sprang up without source. Ice formed, thick enough to crush helicopters and warplanes on the runway... Soldiers tried to run on foot and found themselves at war with the ground beneath their feet. Those that tied to fight back went mad, attacking each other in delirium, or being swallowed by pure unnatural darkness.
Regal, immortal, unstoppable; the warlord lifted one hand and the only survivor was yanked to his feet by some unseen force.
"It is... a tragic twist of fate." Boomed that cultured, unflappable voice. "To have the world catch up at last; at this pivotal last moment. It turned my thousand year plan into a ten year strategy. There are powers in the multiverse that your pitiful world of science could never explain. Perhaps the gods of the Norsemen could... But your... 'Heroes', if there is such a thing, failed to learn the lessons of Sly Loki. But I learned them, centuries before you knew they existed."
The last guard standing was gasping for air, clawing at his throat to free bonds that weren't there.
"It was a relatively simple matter, to turn suspicion on another. It made Stark go running into what should have been his death." The Mandarin commented. "Playing the fool to avoid detection is an old tactic. One that fooled better minds than Stark. It worked better than I could have hoped; since Aldrich died without ever mentioning my name."
The Oriental Master looked out over the burning wreckage of the base. Mandarin slipped something from a hidden pocket in his robes, as though conjuring it from thin air.
It was an Extremis vial.
The guard saw it, and his eyes bulged, still held in the invisible hand that now lifted him gently off the ground.
"For the first time, the Machines of the world have proven a match for more Ancient and elegant powers." The Mandarin told him, letting the power of his voice roll over the helpless man. "But cunning and guile have never been in short supply. And Stark will apparently require a more subtle touch."
Mandarin lifted the vial to his prisoner' lips, and forced him to take it in.
"But the great tragedy of the matter... is that the one witness to the Truth of The Mandarin will die in an Extremis blast. The last ditch effort of those who still have the formula, to cover their tracks... by killing the only surviving inside man, Trevor Slattery."
The guard gurgled pathetically against the phenomenal heat already growing in his body, and the Mandarin cast him aside, moving away from the scene, in no particular hurry.
The fire erupted, and consumed everything... And nobody lived to witness a single survivor walk straight out of the flames, untouched by any of it, with a satisfied smirk on his face.
"Stark..." The Mandarin drawled powerfully, though nobody would hear it. "You'll never see me coming."
The destruction of Edwards Air Force Base was news for a while, but Maya was willing to cooperate enough that she confirmed the numbers. There had been a very small number of successful Extremis warriors, and Tony confirmed they were all dead. An Extremis blast meant that an unsuccessful case had finally run too hot. The official ruling was that an Extremis Warrior that hadn't quite made it was trying to break out Trevor Slattery before he could talk, and had overheated when in combat with Air Force personnel.
Maya wasn't quite sure if they were going to tell the world that The Mandarin was dead, or if they were going to pin the whole thing on Killian, and she didn't much care. She had met The Master, but most of her interactions with him were second-hand through Killian, so she couldn't offer much intel.
Maya Hansen was locked in a room with stone walls. The room was narrow enough that she could put a pen in each hand and write on opposite walls at the same time, which she frequently did.
She had not been granted visitors, or a laboratory, or facilities of any kind, save for a stone bench that was integrated into the wall, a pillow, and two felt tip pens; useless as weapons.
Maya was under strict supervision. When she behaved herself, she was given paper too. Most days, she had only her plastic chamberpot for company.
She didn't care. She had been obsessed with the formula long enough to have it committed to memory. When her paper was taken away, she tore her jumpsuit into strips and wrote on that. And when that ran out she wrote on the walls. The ceiling was low enough that she could write over that too.
Within two days, she hadn't eaten or slept, but she'd recreated the formula as best she could. Her cell was covered, floor to ceiling, in equations.
"I'll make it work." She whispered to herself, over and over. "I can fix it. I can fix everyone. I'll make it work."
"You know what the worst part is?" Pepper said quietly. "Part of me wishes she succeeded."
"Me too." Tony admitted. "The human race becomes immortal? I could see that as a good thing."
She was walking normally at last, but still using Tony's arm for balance from time to time, as they made their way around their Penthouse.
"I half expected to see you hard at work on the formula yourself." Pepper observed.
"I don't know." Tony sighed. "I'm getting less and less impressed with the future these days."
"That doesn't sound like you."
"Maya and I had a teacher, back at MIT. His name was Sal. Great guy. He was raising people up to create a new age. And every one of his students, myself included, took their dreams of a new utopia, and got into weapons tech. He got sick of the future and went off grid."
Pepper gave a jaded smirk. "Maya told me this story about VonBraun wanting to make rockets to outer space. We went to the moon. She considers it a great victory for science; so the London Blitz was justified."
"A year ago, I might have seen the logic. I had to, since my dad worked the Manhattan Project. But trade war stories with Captain America some time. He was there on the receiving end when modern rocketry was invented." Tony shot back. "Pepper, I don't know if I'd be doing more good than harm if I just ended the Arc Reactor Age completely. If The Age of the Iron Men ended..."
"Tony, you do a vital job. And what about The Avengers?" Pepper reasoned. "I'm thrilled to bits that you're toning back some of your... mania. But the fact is, a world without Iron Man isn't so rosy a picture just because it got away from you."
Tony considered that for a moment. "Hm." He looked around the penthouse. "My workshop is under the waves too. Only two suits left, plus War Machine."
"Iron Patriot." Pepper corrected him absently.
Tony just looked at her.
"War Machine." Pepper conceded. "It is a cooler name." She eased down into a chair, and curled up next to him. "What would my superhero name be?"
"I'm serious. For a few minutes there, I was a pretty good superwoman."
"You still are." Tony said honestly.
The day before New Years Eve, Tony rebuilt his workshop. There were still only two Iron Man suits left, and he found he was in less of a hurry to build more.
He checked to make sure Pepper wasn't watching... and brought up a new screen. Written on the screen was the only remaining copy of the Extremis Formula.
What Maya Hansen and Aldrich Killian had unleashed was his darkest nightmare vision of the future. Even if Extremis worked, he didn't believe for a second that it would be freely available to all mankind. Someone would take it and use it for their own agenda.
Every advancement humanity has ever made, was paid for with blood. Tony thought to himself. Including Iron Man.
It was all too easy to see the disasters that Extremis could bring... but the futurist in him could see the benefits too.
If nobody ever had to die anywhere, would we suddenly value our lives more?
Tony was one of the smartest men on the planet, and he couldn't begin to guess.
Even so, he started seeing the potential. Extremis was programmable. If it could make Pepper spit fireballs, it could bind Iron Man together tightly. He'd been outclassed at the shipyards, not by the strength, but by the speed. Iron Man had to respond to Tony's movement. Repulsors took half a second to charge. Missiles had to paint targets with Jarvis' software...
Extremis was the speed of thought.
Extremis could make him Iron Man inside and out. It could make him the first wi-fi capable human. It could make him heal any injury, grow an organic Arc Reactor all through his body, plug him into satellite feeds...
He desperately wanted to hit the delete key. To make the clean break...
But the world needed an Iron Man.
Tony opened a new file. "Jarvis, you see the new file?"
"I do, sir."
"Encrypt this one tighter than you ever have before." He directed. "And name the file Iron Man: Extremis Armor."
New Years was always a big party in Times Square. That year, even more so. Pepper wasn't quite up to making the trip or going to a party.
But she wore the lavender dress, and he wore a tux, and standing on the heliport of Stark Tower gave them a fantastic view of the city, and the fireworks above.
They danced softly as the sky exploded into beautiful lights.
Pepper opened the box. It was a jeweled necklace, with a nice big ruby carved into the shape of a heart, lined with gold.
And in the lid of the box, written in flowing gold-leaf script, was a message: 'Proof that Pepper Potts has Tony Stark's Heart.'
Pepper smiled and leaned back into him as she pulled her hair up. He slid the necklace around her neck and pressed a kiss below her ear. It was a perfect moment. She turned to face him and slid her arms up around his neck. "Let's go inside." She murmured. We're both healed enough.
The disgraced Vice President had been summoned from his cell to meet his wife. She had been tempted to leave him, until he told her why he did it. To give their daughter her legs back, she might have been tempted herself.
But when he came into the meeting room, and saw his wife and daughter sitting at the table, they both looked... so happy.
"Hi." His wife said.
"We were able to go home today." His wife said with a smile. "The FBI, and the Secret Service and the police all turned it inside out, but we were allowed to go home at last."
"Camped out on our front lawn." She confirmed. "But Angie had a surprise in her room."
Angie was bouncing up and down in her seat. "Santa came!"
He smiled, a little sadly, wishing he could have been there to open her presents with her. "What did Santa give you, sweetie?"
Angie looked eagerly at her mother. "Mommy?"
Her mother gestured grandly. "Go ahead. Show him."
And Angie stood up.
He felt his jaw drop open at the hinges as his daughter came around the table to give him an eager hug. Her legs were prosthetic, but like nothing he'd ever seen. Angie wasn't even limping. She was moving so smoothly. Her legs were sleek chrome, moving as easily as flesh and blood limbs, maybe more so.
When his daughter broke the hug, he noticed her new headband, with blue LED lights glowing faintly on her forehead.
He looked at his wife. "Stark?"
She was nodding. "The note said that he wanted to rub your nose in something. I swear, she just put the headband on, and they started moving." She laughed. "She got out of the car and ran alongside. She was almost faster than I was in third gear."
"Mister Stark said that when I get bigger he'll have better ones waiting." Angie said innocently. "And that when I turn eighteen, he'll make them a lot warmer."
His wife winced a little. "Actually, the word he used was 'hotter'."
Angie nodded guilelessly. "That was it. He also said that I can call him for free main-tense."
"That's it." Angie looked down at her new limbs. "Do you think I'll be able to fly like him?"
"Oh, watch this!" Angie reached up and pushed one of the lights on her headband. Soft classical music began to play from somewhere, and Angie's new legs started to move automatically in response.
Rodriguez felt tears gathering in his eyes. His wheelchair bound daughter was on her feet, ballet dancing.
Pepper woke up the next morning, and realized she was alone. She looked around, and got used to the silence. Jarvis had been integrated into the household servers, but not the rest of the Penthouse. No intercom, no smartglass...
It was oddly like being on vacation... And she enjoyed the slow journey to wakefulness in the New Year. She hadn't been able to sleep nearly as well in her hospital bed, even the one in the penthouse. She sat up awkwardly, and looked around for her clothes. Her muscles were still giving her twinges, but the watery feeling in her insides had faded.
She had no idea where Tony was, but breakfast was waiting in the kitchen. He must have had an early start. Usually after a New Years Eve, we don't see him till January 3rd, at least.
Pepper realized suddenly that Tony hadn't had a drink the night before. In fact the wetbar had been cleaned out.
Pepper took her plate out of the warming oven, and found a note enclosed.
I wish I could be there, but I have to make a quick stop in LA. I left something for you in the Workshop.
Pepper went down a level. The level below the Penthouse had originally been part of the Stark Tower Offices.
The Workshop was half formed. One workstation, with only one computer. Three screens, each running something different, and several half-arranged industrial machines. It was now Tony's new Iron Man Production Line...
Except he hadn't produced an Iron Man.
Pepper's jaw dropped. It looked like Iron Man, done in red and silver instead of red and gold. It's proportions were more shapely; and she recognized the curves as her own instantly.
Tony had designed her a suit. With only two suits left from almost fifty, Tony had given her a suit of her own first.
There was another post-it note on the smooth metal skin, and Pepper read it quickly.
I named her 'Rescue'. For the woman who's always been there to Rescue me.
Pepper circled the armor for a few minutes, feeling giddy. The suit opened for her, panels sliding aside to reveal the space within, designed for her.
Don't do it, Pepper. She told herself. You're still recovering. It was this side of a week ago you were clinically dead. An Iron Man Armor isn't the easiest thing in the world to use, and you've never been on the inside of a suit before. It'll be here tomorrow. Be smart. That's what you do... Pepper grinned. But on the other hand...
Pepper stepped into the suit eagerly, and found that it fit her perfectly. It was made for her, inside and out.
"Hello, you gorgeous thing." Pepper drawled as the HUD lit up. It wasn't quite Extremis-level awesome, but it was damned close.
"Welcome aboard, Miss Potts." Jarvis said smoothly. "Shall we begin with some preflight checklists and tutorials?"
"Oh, hell yeah!"
Tony had returned to the LA House. His private army of contractors had cleared off the foundations and categorized the wreckage.
Armed with the Interface, Tony had directed his two remaining armors to search the ocean. He had pulled the hardened computer drives, all of which were waterproof. He collected Dummy and Butterfingers. They were trashed, but he was good at fixing things.
But eventually, the found what he was looking for.
The case was a transparent molecular alloy, harder than diamond, and pretty much everything proof. After Rhodes had stolen it, Tony got it back and upgraded the War Machine. He then sealed it in a seamless diamond, making sure nobody else could ever get to it again. Not even him.
The first Arc Reactor.
He had never been sentimental, but in a lot of ways, it was the first thing that Pepper had ever given him. She'd given him things before that day. But that was the first thing since Afghanistan. The first time she held his heart. Iron Man's Heart.
Tony smiled as he thought of it that way. With the Avengers, he'd learned that all heroes went through a crucible, one way or another. Captain America had his training, and the formula. Banner had the accident. Thor had his Exile. God only knew what Barton and Romanov had gone through to come out the other side as they were.
Tony Stark had thought himself separate from them, because of all the Avengers, he was the one that went from ordinary human to superhero with a change of clothes.
But he was wrong. Mandarin had taken his house, his friends, his armors, and he had come out the other side. It was like Afghanistan in reverse. The first crucible meant he had to be superhuman. The second crucible needed everything he had that a suit couldn't give him.
He'd even given away the Reactor in his chest.
When the realization hit him, he burst out laughing. His life had come full circle at last.
He hitched what salvaged bits he'd collected to the back of his car. The first Ferrari with a trailer. He left the cliff-side behind him, washed clean of the wreckage.
He looked at the Reactor. Not so very long ago, this device, made from a box of scraps, had made him Iron Man. Now he didn't need it any more. He was just fine as Tony Stark.
And Tony Stark is Iron Man. He thought smugly to himself as he got in his car and drove away.
AN: Whew. After three years of writing, the Iron Man Fan-Trilogy is complete. I know there may be a fourth, but other writing projects demand more and more of my time, and frankly, this feels like the natural ending to the story. The act of coming full circle was a great idea, but done a little too abruptly in the movie. He is my humble version of it, mixed with some aspects of the comics. I owe a word of thanks to all those who have followed along with the story this far.
I hope you all enjoyed it, and if you did, may I direct your attention to the handy-dandy review button?