Disclaimer: 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. Any errors are mine, all mine, no you can't have any.
An expansion of the flashbacks I stuck into Working Free. Also a correction, because in that one I had Rhodey showing up on the Stark Industries roof when he was actually nowhere near there. What was I thinking?
It's going out.
That was really the only thought in Pepper's head as she stumbled towards Tony's all-too-still form. The roof was covered with debris, and she'd already tripped several times, only fast reflexes keeping her from crashing down onto her face. But none of that really made it into her conscious mind; she was focused on that wan, flickering light.
"Ms. Potts?" someone called behind her, she didn't know who and it didn't matter. Tony still wasn't moving.
Pepper dropped to her knees next to the battered heap of armor, some part of her registering pain as her stockinged legs hit the ground but choosing to hold the information in reserve. His eyes were closed, his skin too pale; Pepper could see the bruises starting up already. "Tony!"
He didn't move, but the arc reactor brightened slightly. She could hear it crackling, an ominous sound; the thing didn't even hum, normally. Pepper grabbed at his ungloved hand, limp on the ground, and squeezed it brutally, hoping for some kind of response. "Tony, answer me--Tony?"
Nothing but a spatter of light. Pepper swiped at her face, trying to clear her vision; her hair was damp and hanging in her eyes. "Tony!"
Rapid footsteps crunched closer, and then Agent Coulson was crouching next to her, somewhat the worse for wear but hanging on to calm. "Ms. Potts, we have rescue on the way, but it's going to take a few minutes. Do you know how to get him out of the suit?"
She bit her lips, staring down at the dented metal, struggling to think. It took his patient repetition of her name to get her to look up. "Oh--no, but I know who does. Give me your cellphone--" Her Bluetooth earpiece had flown free the last time she'd tripped, and she hadn't stopped to find it.
To his credit, the agent didn't hesitate, slapping the device into her free hand. Pepper flipped it open and dialed with her thumb; the other hand was still wrapped around Tony's, monitoring a pulse that was far too uneven. There wasn't even a ring on the other end, just a rich male voice reciting "You have reached the Stark residence. No one is available to--"
"Jarvis, it's me," Pepper said impatiently.
A second's hesitation, and then-- "Voiceprint match. Hello, Ms. Potts. I have lost contact with Mr. Stark--"
"He's right here, but he's nonresponsive, tell me how to get him out of this thing, Jarvis!" She knew she was speaking too quickly, but the AI seemed to have no trouble understanding her.
"There are emergency release switches located on the inside of each thigh, three inches from the top of each piece," Jarvis said. "Depress them both at once. You will need considerable pressure."
Without further thought, Pepper handed the phone back to Coulson and bent over Tony's lower half, grateful that the suit's legs were already spread slightly; they were probably far too heavy for her to move. Coulson lifted the phone to his ear. "Hello?" he said cautiously.
The small part of Pepper that wasn't near screaming with panic was snickering and rolling its proverbial eyes at the switches' positioning, but she had no time for Tony's little jokes. Running her hands up the inside of the thigh pieces, she found the fingertip indentations and pressed as hard as she could manage.
She spat an oath that would have made Tony grin if he had been conscious, and tried again, grunting a little with effort. Still nothing. "Jarvis, it's not working!"
Coulson, who still had the phone at his ear, reached for the armored leg nearest him. "Yes, I understand," he said into the device, and knocked Pepper's far hand away to replace it with his own. Catching her eyes with his, he nodded, and they both pushed as hard as they could.
The change in leverage seemed to make the difference, because with a squeaky ratchet, the suit simply fell apart, clanking down in multiple pieces and leaving Tony looking unaccustomedly vulnerable in his dark neoprene. Pepper grabbed the chest plate and heaved it away, baring the dimming reactor completely. "Tony! Tony, come on, wake up!"
It pulsed slightly, and she snatched up his hand again. "How long until rescue gets here?"
Coulson closed his phone and glanced at its external display. "Another ten minutes, probably."
Her stomach dipped. That's too long.
"Ms. Potts--" Coulson began, but Pepper straightened, taken by a revelation as vivid as any of Tony's crazy inspirations.
"We need the other reactor implant," she said, in the tone that made board members defer and sometimes even got Tony to listen. "The one in Obadiah's suit. Can you--"
The agent was already rising. "Is the main reactor dangerous?" he asked.
She shook her head distractedly. "It should be completely discharged. Hurry--"
"Keep him breathing," Coulson told her, and hurried away.
There was enough light from the surroundings for Pepper to see the dark stains on the neoprene, but when she touched them with fearful fingers, they turned out to be sweat rather than blood. Only slightly reassured, she slapped Tony's face lightly, trying for any response at all. "Tony..."
His arc implant brightened slightly.
Confused, she frowned, and it began to dim again. "Tony!"
The weak blue light increased a trifle. Childhood memory stirred, and Pepper almost felt like clapping her hands to make it stronger. Instead she bent close. "Anthony Stark," she growled in his ear. "Don't you dare die on me, do you hear me? Don't you dare."
She had endured longer minutes in her life, but none so painful as these. Pepper kept chafing his hands, one and then the other, or both, and never let up in her monologue. She threatened him, pleaded, cajoled, promised him anything he wanted; all that mattered was saying something, because every time she fell silent the implant failed a bit more.
Then Coulson was running back, puffing, the Mark II in his hand. "It's dark," he said, sounding worried.
Pepper reached up and snatched it from him, staring at it. No, it wasn't quite--a tiny spark still lingered in the center.
She knew in theory how arc reactors worked, but few of the technical details. And the miniaturized version obviously couldn't be hooked up to an external power source as it was, even if they had one to hand. Desperate, out of time, she went on instinct and did what she'd seen Tony do before when things weren't working to his satisfaction--she let go his hand and smacked the reactor sharply.
It burst into light, glowing with cool fire. Pepper ignored Coulson's exclamation and bent over Tony. "We don't have a flashlight, so we'll have to use this," she said grimly, handing him back the reactor. "Hold it here--"
She positioned his hand so the Mark II's incandescence fell on Tony's barely-moving chest, and began the nerve-wracking process of removing the Mark I.
The smell was as bad as she remembered--an acrid, metallic reek that reminded her of burning brake fluid. This time her angle was better, and she was able to pull the device free without shocking him, but she was shaking with fear and haste, and it took three tries for her to connect the Mark II's leads. Note to self: start carrying Maglite for tricky reactor replacements.
She didn't think it was just the glow that was making Tony's lips look blue by the time she got the Mark II hooked up, but the moment she did he sucked in a deep breath, and she felt her own heart spasming with relief. What the hell does this thing do for him? That's a lot more than just keeping shrapnel in place--
But she didn't bother thinking about it, just wiping her hands on her ruined skirt for lack of a better option and stuffing the Mark I into her jacket pocket. She saw Coulson's eyes follow it, but to his credit he said nothing.
Tony stirred, opening his eyes and groping weakly towards her. "Pepper?" he croaked.
She almost--almost--burst into tears. Pepper grabbed his hand. "I'm here--Tony--how do you feel?"
He blinked dizzily. "You okay? Pepper?"
"He's in shock," Coulson said, and Pepper heard sirens. "Rescue's arriving."
She looked down at Tony's battered, anxious face, the way his gaze kept unfocusing. "I'm fine," she told him firmly. "Just lie still, we'll take care of everything."
His eyes closed, but he forced them back open. "Sure you're okay?" he whispered, fingers trembling around hers, and Pepper gave in and touched his scraped cheek.
"Just fine," she murmured, telling him the truth. Because that blue light was back, and as long as it shone, she thought, she was okay.
Tony nodded jerkily, and let his grip on consciousness go.
Pepper kept hold of his hand, and listened to the fuss as everyone arrived, and didn't move.
And the arc implant kept on glowing.