I hope no one faints. I can't believe how long it has been since I wrote… and I can't begin to describe what has kept me from it, but I'm happy to be doing something again. It's taken a couple days to get this all out, I hope it's worth the wait. Thank you to each and every reader, and extra special thanks to those who take a minute to write something back. It means the world to me.
We pick up just after Pepper and Agent Coulson have discovered Stane and his suit in Sector 16.
Just A Job: Finale
The warm summer moon slipped behind the clouds, its radiance barely noticed over the harsh lights and noise of the city.
Pepper Potts burst out into the peace of the night, gasping for breath beyond the doors of the Stark building; her heart pounding louder in her ears than the rumbling noise beneath her. She turned as she ran to see if the huge metal monster was still chasing her.
She nearly jumped out of her skin at the clear, concerned voice in her earpiece. Only one person used this frequency, and a kind of shuddering relief coursed briefly through her as she skidded to a halt. He's alive!
"Tony! Tony, are you okay?" Then, without waiting to hear, she went on. "Obadiah, he's gone insane!"
"I know. Listen, you better get out of there –"
She wanted to calm down, but her fabled self-control was failing her. She wanted, more than anything, for Tony to be standing by her side, fixing everything in that slightly annoying, amazingly unconventional, horribly, horribly endearing way he had. And if he couldn't fix it, he could somehow make it not matter… and frowning, she realized she wanted the ground to feel more stable. "He built a suit," she nearly babbled. In her mind's eye, she could almost see her boss's expression change, the slight tightening of the jaw that came with a change in his voice that no one else might recognize as worry. She always did.
"Get out of there. Right now."
The odd, unstable rumble beneath her feet became a minor earthquake. Shards of concrete and asphalt showered down as Obadiah Stane - wearing the monstrously huge parody of Tony Stark's sleek invention - pushed up through the ground. Eyes glowed in the darkness, and a stolen arc reactor was shining even more brightly. She wanted to run, but shock had nailed her feet to the ground. Stane's voice echoed oddly through the machine's speakers.
"Where do you think you're going?" The monster lunged roughly to its feet, aimed an arm mounted gun at Pepper and nearly laughed. "Your services are no longer required."
Pepper stood frozen, fear filling any space common sense might have had to suggest that she get the hell out of there. She looked down the barrel of the weapon, and her breathing stopped. This is it. I'm dead. It's over. I'll never -
"Stane!" Stark's voice rang out. A flash of red and gold rocketed past Potts, striking the hulking machine with a ringing clang and driving it out of sight.
"Tony!" Pepper ran toward the hole in the wall, and saw that it was only the beginning of the damage. The two metal clad men had torn through and out the other side. She turned to Agent Coulson, who had silently appeared near the door. "Where are they?"
Phil Coulson was speaking with quiet urgency into his phone. "Yes. Stark went after him. Got it. Do we have visual –" He nodded. "Okay." He turned to Pepper. "Miss Potts. I'm afraid we don't have a visual yet on where –"
"What do you mean? How can you not? Don't you have, I don't know, satellites and traffic cameras and - "
"We're doing our best, Miss –"
Two sounds, one after the other, drowned out his voice. First was the controlled scream of a skyward lifting fighter jet, followed by the louder, duller roar of a rocket launch. Their eyes jumped to the sky, where a golden red streak was followed by what looked more like a Saturn V booster.
Pepper gasped a whisper. "Tony…"
Agent Coulson looked at her. "Stay here, Miss Potts. I have things to attend to."
"Things to attend to?"
He gave her a tight smile, putting a hand on her shoulder gently. "You should be safe here. Stark's leading him away."
Her blue eyes were suddenly wet as she looked up at the lights in the night sky, climbing higher and higher. "But will he be safe? Stane's gone insane! And you know he wants Tony dead." As she stared upwards, the far-off lights blinked out, first one, and then, flickering, the other. She held her breath and looked at Coulson. "Oh, God…" her voice was a faint whisper.
The agent looked at her, nodded, and spoke an order almost as if she were one of his own agents. "Stay put." Then he was gone, moving with deceptive speed.
Pepper stood in the sudden stillness, her mind reeling. Whatever was powering Tony's suit now, it couldn't possibly be as powerful as the reactor Stane stole – and she suddenly remembered the Mark I that she had gifted him with. The unit that he said was obsolete. Oh, Tony… what have you done? Guilt swelled as she realized that if she hadn't given it to him, he wouldn't be risking his life with a weakened power source. Some small voice in her brain countered with yes, but he'd be dead without any source at all, true? She stood, paralyzed, her hands clenched tightly as she strained with all her being to hear the inevitable crashes. When she finally heard something hit the roof it was far from reassuring.
"Potts!" A voice yelled abruptly into her earpiece; urgent, slightly annoyed, hurried. So very normal, she couldn't quite believe it.
"Tony! Oh, my God, are you okay? "
"I'm almost out of power." The tone of his voice changed slightly, sounding more open. "I've got to get out of this thing. I'll be right there."
He cut off abruptly, and she exhaled in relief. He would be here any minute. She waited. Any minute… On the roof of the building, she saw flashes of light, and heard missile fire. Oh, no… Stane might have survived too… And if Tony isn't strong enough to fight him – a sudden explosion threw debris off the roof, and she ducked back against the building. Static crackled through the earpiece as some electrical malfunction turned his mic back on. She heard Tony's voice call out loudly.
She cowered back toward the building as a shower of sparkling remains dotted the ground. For a few frightening moments she heard nothing on the earpiece, and, afraid to even inhale too loudly, she waited in terror. But then his voice was a breathy whisper in her ear, in an urgent way she had wished for more than once – but had never imagined it in this particular kind of situation.
His steady, whispering voice coiled around her, distracting her from her fear. "This isn't working. We're going to have to overload the reactor and blast the roof."
Abruptly, she felt her skeptical side kick in. "Well, how are you going to do that?" His crazy ideas would be the death -
"You're going to do it." Her stomach dropped as she tried to focus on what he was saying. "Go to the central console, open up all the circuits. When I get clear of the roof, I'll let you know. You're going to hit the master bypass button. It's going to fry everything up here."
For a moment she stared skyward, as cold fear gripped her. He's counting on me. Me? What do I know? …but I'm all he has... She took a deep breath, willed her legs to obey her mind. Broken glass crunched like ice beneath her heels as she crossed the threshold back into the building. "Okay. I'm going in now."
"Make sure you wait till I clear the roof. I'll buy you some time."
She couldn't help but notice that his voice was firm, calm. He seemed to have no doubt that she would be able to do exactly what he asked her to do. What he needed her to do. Damn.
Running into the lab, Pepper began flipping switches, pulling levers with driven speed. She moved methodically, barely thinking, ignoring the trembling in her hands and the way her stomach threatened to betray her. Doing what she had to do. Almost before she realized it, she had made a full circuit of the lab, and was standing over the master bypass button.
"It's ready, Tony! Get off the roof!" Her hand hovered over the button, but there was no response. Looking up, she saw the silhouette of familiar armor standing on the glass ceiling high above her. Machine gun fire spit its rhythm into the night, and the glass around the silhouette shattered, falling down in a deadly hailstorm. She shrieked as he fell with it, "Tony!"
"Pepper!" His voice answered her as sheets of glass rained down once more, and she looked up to see her boss clinging to the bent framework of the atrium. He called down to her desperately. "Time to hit the button!"
"You told me not to!" Not with you hanging there, not with you directly in harm's way, not with you ready to sacrifice everything for this bastard -
"Just do it!"
She could hear it in his voice. What happened to him didn't matter anymore. Obadiah was insane, and had no qualms about killing anyone who got in his way. People would die. More people would die. And again, it would be his fault. His inventions... his guilt… he couldn't bear it, and neither could she. Oh, Tony…
Another fusillade left him clinging to the girder with one hand. "Push it!"
The urgency in his voice tore through her as she heard more explosions. She knew he was right. It was their only chance. For a brief moment, she stared up at him.
Then, pushing aside all thought, she slammed her petite little hand down on the button.
The arc reactor was very nearly beautiful in its destruction. Pepper turned and ran from the lab as sparks crackled around her, arriving outside in time to see a pillar of light shoot through the roof, piercing the clouds and speeding like a live thing that had a serious appointment with the stars. She held her breath.
Could he possibly have survived that?
A secondary explosion erupted through the arc reactor, spreading golden fire through the building and making her cry out as she shielded her eyes. Her heart sank. Oh, God… Without even realizing it, she called out his name.
She spun to see who had spoken.
The voice was firm but reassuring. "Agent Coulson, Miss Potts. Visual confirms Mr. Stark is still on the roof, although we don't know if he's –"
Coulson hadn't finished his sentence when she broke into a run, heading for the stairs. She called out his name again, pleading with the fates.
How exactly she reached the roof, Pepper didn't quite remember. All she did remember was that after an eternity she found him lying there, his armor dented and charred. She tried to run toward him and felt strong arms hold her back. Pepper struck out at whomever held her, and heard a brief grunt from agent Coulson.
"They have to make sure the roof is sound, Miss Potts. Just give them a minute –"
Three men who had run out with sensors stopped, turned back to Coulson and after checking their instruments, nodded. He didn't have a chance to speak before Pepper broke out of his grasp and ran to where Tony was sprawled. Dropping to her knees, she gasped at how still he was… then took a breath, and pushed his hair back gently from his forehead. Leaning close, she paused, before calling to the men behind her. "He's still breathing! We've got to get him to a hospital!"
Coulson spoke into his phone. "I need a med team transport. Now. Yes, on the roof of the Stark building." Looking at Pepper, he gave a tight smile. "I think we have a safer place for him than that."
Agent Philip Coulson pulled into the non-descript parking lot, quickly read over the report he was dictating into his phone, hit 'send', and got out of his car. He frowned up at the mundane-looking office building as he walked to the front door, knowing that the helicopter had been and gone already. The lock mechanism clicked as his fingertips touched the handle, and the door opened easily. A woman in scrubs walked up to meet him, giving him a tight smile as she shook his hand.
"Agent Coulson, good to see you. This way, please."
"Doctor Hawkins, thank you for coming in on such short notice. Status?"
The woman shook her head with a heavy exhalation. "We got the damn armor off. He's probably not going to appreciate how we did it, though."
"And his injuries?"
She gave a reluctant sigh. "He did a fine job on the protective systems in that tin can. I'm hoping the helmet prevented a concussion; right now it looks like there's nothing more on his head than some lacerations to the face and scalp. Trouble with his ribs – whatever he got caught in that tried to squeeze him –" and here she looked at the agent for a moment, who returned a studiously blank stare – "did manage to fracture a couple ribs, especially near the electronics he built in. It shouldn't be anything life threatening."
"Is he conscious yet?"
She pushed her hair back. "No. That's really my only concern. The massive EMP, the stress of whatever he was up against, the fight, the explosion… it's likely shock. He really needs to find his way back."
Coulson frowned. "Do you have any reason to think he won't?"
She shrugged, shook her head. "Physically, he's stable. For now. We wait for him to come around."
They took an elevator down – how many floors, no one could know, since there were no numbers in this car – and walked out into a busy medical center. He absently assessed the environment as they walked briskly through it, although concern etched old, familiar lines in his face. He was pleased with the sleek efficiency of the halls, the machinery, and the people as well. They slowed in front of a door and Hawkins turned to him again.
"She hasn't left."
"Ah. Should we send her home?"
Hawkins looked thoughtful for a moment. "I wouldn't try. She seems quite proprietary about his care. Please try to make sure it stays calm in there."
They opened the door, and Coulson saw Stark in bed with an assortment of medical machinery attached to him, humming and pinging softly in the dim room. Sitting next to the bed was the man's faithful assistant, her hand resting on his arm. She looked both concerned and exhausted.
He spoke quietly. "Miss Potts? Any change?"
She looked up and her mouth opened, but nothing came out. Standing, she stepped over to the agent and tried to speak again, her hands gesturing toward her boss and the machines, stopping briefly to push against her face and then falling limply to her sides.
Coulson shook his head. "Miss Potts…I read Colonel Rhode's debriefing on the rescue mission." She frowned, confused, and he went on. "Mr. Stark has certainly recovered from worse."
Pepper looked up at him gratefully. Her attempt at a smile abruptly contorted into silent sobs, and she stood there, her shoulders shaking, until Coulson pulled her into his arms. For a long while she wept quietly into his shoulder, while he watched the man who was so pale and still on the bed. Finally, embarrassed, she pulled away. "Sorry. I'm sorry. I'm…"
"You need some rest. Why don't you –"
"I'm not leaving." The steel had returned to her blue eyes, although they still shimmered with tears.
The agent nodded. "Understood. I'll have them bring in a recliner. If that's alright, Miss P –"
"Pepper." She sniffed once, and caught a ragged breath. "Please. Call me Pepper."
Coulson gave her a small grin. Giving her shoulder a squeeze, he turned to walk out, stopping at the door. "Thank you, Pepper. I'll get on that right away."
"Thank you, Agent –"
He stopped her with a raised hand. "Phil."
It was well past midnight, although Pepper didn't know that. The false twilight in the underground medical center meant it could have been any time at all. She had finally lapsed into sleep, her hand resting on the portion of the blanket covering her boss's ankle. Something startled her, and she blinked a moment, confused as to just where she was – and then remembered at the same time she heard the noise again.
In the space of a heartbeat she was wide-awake and standing, leaning over the bed. She whispered, "Tony?"
He made the small sound again, somewhere between a groan and a whimper. A few sounds ran together, became mumbled words. "Obi… no, no… not her. Don't… Pepper!"
The last was a strangled cry. Potts put her hands on his shoulders. "Tony? Tony, it's okay. Wake up, please. Please, Tony…"
His breathing caught for a moment, and his eyes blinked open. It took a few seconds for him to focus on her. "Potts?"
Her smile was drenched in relief. "Hey, boss. It's about time you woke up."
Dark eyes were wide, and a little disoriented. "You're okay? You're alive?"
She didn't know whether to laugh or cry. "Yes."
"Wow. Great… that's great… and… " He frowned, looking around the room vaguely. "I'm alive?"
"Yes, Tony. You're alive."
"Wow. Well. I didn't expect that. I mean, really… well… that's great." He looked up at her as she pushed the hair gently off his forehead. "You okay? You look okay. Are you really okay? I mean… you're really here? I'm not still dreaming?"
Pepper smiled, shushing him softly as she took his hand in hers. "I'm okay. I promise. Listen, you've been through a lot. You need to rest."
"Yeah, right… and… Obi's really… gone?" She nodded solemnly. "You're sure?"
She laid her other hand on his wrist. "He is."
Tony blinked a few times, his eyes watering as he stared up at the ceiling. "Right." For a few moments he seemed to be thinking, then shook his head as he began mumbling quietly. "I thought he was like… a father to me, Pep… I trusted him. I'm supposed to be so smart… I was an idiot. Who am I supposed to trust, I mean –" His eyes met hers, and there was a long pause as they looked into each other. "Pepper…?"
Pepper swallowed hard, and spoke in a whisper. "Always, Tony."
His eyes shimmered in the dim light. "I know. Thank you."
She nodded, and felt his hand squeeze hers.
"I'm really tired."
"I bet you are."
"And everything hurts."
"I can go get the doctor –"
"No." He paused, clearly not liking how unsteady his voice sounded. "You must be tired too, what with destroying my building." His expression was trying very hard to be smug.
Pepper's lips pursed for a moment. Keep it light… "Me? You can't blame me. It wasn't my bright idea to blow up the place. I was just doing –"
"Well, you were the one who actually did it." Her eyes narrowed and he gave her a nearly normal smirk. "You're a hero, Potts."
They sat quietly for a while, listening to the machines and not saying nearly all the things that they were thinking. After a minute or two, Tony's eyes closed, and Pepper gave him a fond smile. "I should let you sleep." In the silence of her thoughts, she added now that I know you can wake up.
His eyes flashed open, and she was startled at his urgent tone. "No! I mean… can't you just stay here? I might… need you to take a memo…or something…"
Her heart nearly burst. Standing over him, she took his hand and held it tightly. "I suppose I should work on the press release…"
"Yeah. Yeah, you should do that."
She smiled as he closed his eyes. "Will that be all, Mr. Stark?"
"Yes. For now, Miss Potts."
She watched until his breathing became deep and steady. Leaning closer, she exhaled a whisper. "I'm so proud of you…" She leaned a bit farther and kissed his forehead softly.
It is possible that his lips twitched a grin.
"Are you sure you're up to this?"
"Don't I look up to it?"
Pepper rolled her eyes. "Don't avoid the question."
"Do I sound like I'm avoiding the question?"
She did her best not to laugh. It had been only fifteen hours since the incident at Stark Industries, and Tony had recovered with amazing speed. Now, however, the media had to be dealt with. Pepper was worried, but with his team around him, Tony was clearly feeling much stronger.
"Rhodey will be introducing you."
"And we better do something about those bandages, unless you want to go with the damaged hero look."
He frowned up from buttoning his shirt. "Nah. I'm invincible."
She shook her head. "Okay. Sit." Pulling a makeup bag out of her purse, she proceeded to make him presentable for the camera. "I can give you a couple bruises, if you like."
He glanced up. "With the makeup? Or with the bag?"
"Don't tempt me."
He picked up the newspaper and read the coverage of the incident as she worked her magic on him.
"'Iron Man'. That's kind of catchy." Pepper listened, and tried not to smirk as she worked. "It's got a nice ring to it. I mean, it's not technically accurate. The suit's a gold-titanium alloy, but it's kind of evocative, the imagery, anyway."
Pepper pulled a bandage off his nose and blended some foundation. Behind her, Agent Coulson appeared with some file cards, and held them out to Stark.
"Here's your alibi. You were on your yacht. We have port papers that put you in Avalon all night, and sworn statements from 50 of your guests."
Tony might have looked impressed, but saw that Pepper was already smiling at the agent's work. "See, I was thinking maybe we should say it was just Pepper and me, alone on the island." He looked up at her and she glared just a bit, pulling off another bandage a bit too quickly for comfort. The smirk that they shared was fused with something… more. Coulson gracefully ignored their interaction, and nodded toward the cards.
"That's what happened."
Stark sighed. "All right."
"Just read it, word for word."
Pepper gently applied makeup to Tony's face, working delicately around the injuries, making him look as handsome as… she shook her head. They were discussing Stane, what the story would be… and she couldn't help but feel like it was all some kind of strange dream. A press conference, however, she could handle. Making her boss look good after a bad night, she could handle. A deadline broke into her thoughts.
"You've got ninety seconds."
She stepped away from her boss with a look of genuine gratitude. "Agent Coulson? I just wanted to say thank you very much for all of your help."
He gave her a fond smile. "That's what we do. You'll be hearing from us."
"From the Strategic Homeland... "
"Just call us S.H.I.E.L.D."
The agent left and she smiled after him as she picked up Tony's suit jacket. "Let's get this show on the road."
Stark shook his head at the file cards that held his explanation. "You know, it's actually not that bad. Even I don't think I'm Iron Man."
"You're not Iron Man."
"Am so. "
"You're not. " She held out his jacket and avoided his eyes in case she began to laugh.
"All right, suit yourself." He shrugged into the coat and his eyes sparkled as he verbally sparred with his assistant. "You know, if I were Iron Man, I'd have this girlfriend who knew my true identity. She'd be a wreck, 'cause she'd always be worrying that I was going to die," he paused only a bare second before he went on. "Yet so proud of the man I'd become. She'd be wildly conflicted, which would only make her more crazy about me."
Pepper did her best to straighten his tie, trying to no avail to ignore what he was saying.
"Tell me you never think about that night."
The blunt statement startled her, at least for a moment. "What night?"
His eyes, dark as night and twice as deep, stared into her. "You know."
Her eyes widened slightly. "Are you talking about the night that we danced... and went up on the roof... and then you went downstairs to get me a drink… and you left me there, by myself?" She tightened her grip on her grin, knowing that this wasn't the time or the place for a conversation they were bound to have eventually. She hoped. "Is that the night you're talking about?"
He nodded uncomfortably.
The grin escaped her. Smugly. "Thought so. Will that be all, Mr. – "
"Yes, that will be all, Miss Potts."
As he walked out to the press conference, she watched until the door closed behind him, then looked up at the monitor. Damn it, Tony. Someday you'll want to really talk when we have more than thirty seconds. She shook her head ruefully, although a smile still touched her lips.
And I'll probably be waiting. She watched as he rambled, waiting for him to get to the story. Of course, it was never his style to do things directly. Not unless it was an invention, anyway. Her attention refocused as he fielded a question from a familiar face, and she couldn't help but sigh. "Here we go."
"I know that it's confusing," he said, sounding just a bit condescending. "It is one thing to question the official story, and another thing entirely to make wild accusations, or insinuate that I'm a superhero."
"I never said you were a superhero."
"Didn't? Well, good, because that would be outlandish and… fantastic. I'm just not the hero type. Clearly. With this laundry list of character defects, all the mistakes I've made, largely public-"
Pepper felt her eyes watering as Rhodey leaned in to bring him back on track. If there was one thing she knew, it was when the man was being sincere. When he was drifting off on thoughts that he might rather not express… she watched his eyes as he looked at the cards once more.
"The truth is…"
Pepper held her breath. In her mind's eye she saw him lying in a hospital bed, heard herself saying what she meant as absolute truth. It seemed possible that he was hearing it again, too.
Tony, I'm so proud of you…
She watched as his mind slowly changed. As his resolve tightened. She heard his statement before he said it.
"I am Iron Man. "
And all hell broke loose.
Anthony Stark walked through the front door of his house for the first time in what felt like forever.
"Welcome home, sir. I trust being a 'superhero' isn't weighing too heavily?"
"Thanks, Jarvis. Always nice to have your support." He walked into the kitchen and opened the fridge, staring.
Pepper Potts walked in behind him, speaking calmly on her phone. "Yes. No. Listen, we need to meet about this tomorrow. Yes, I'll make sure. Thanks, Ken. What? Oh, yes." She laughed. "Good night." She ended the call, shaking her head, and nearly walked into her boss, who was unsuccessfully trying to look disinterested.
"Legal has a long day ahead of them tomorrow. And so do I." She looked thoughtful for a moment before turning toward her bedroom suite.
"You're going to bed?"
Pepper sighed. "Do you need something else, Mr. Stark? Or should I call you -"
"Pepper," he said, cutting her off sharply.
She stopped, took a deep breath and sighed it out. "Yes?"
"Look… This is what I have to do. I'm sorry if you can't deal with it. I thought you would understand." He stared at her for a moment, then turned and stalked off to his room.
She took another breath, willing herself to be calm. "Damn it, Tony." For a minute she stood in the kitchen, wondering if she should just go to bed and try to forget about the danger he would be putting himself in. Try to forget what it was like to sit by his bedside, wondering if he would live. Try to forget what it was like to wait… Damn.
Without really thinking about it, she found herself walking down the stairs to the workshop. "Jarvis?"
"Run Starlight, please."
"Of course, Miss. Music?"
"Surprise me. But… something soft." The workshop darkened and then brightened again with the light of a thousand stars, constellations and nebulae moving slowly in the universal river. Pepper leaned against the workbench and watched… it always calmed her, or at least took her somewhere else.
The music began to play, fitting into the dancing night. She walked into the center of the universe, and listened.
Let it go
Let it roll right off your shoulder
Don't you know the hardest part is over
Let it in, Let your clarity define you
In the end we will only just remember how it feels
Pepper realized she was weeping openly now, her hands covering her face as she listened. She didn't hear the door, didn't hear the footsteps approach her in the starlit night. She didn't realize someone else was there until a hand touched her shoulder and she spun with a gasp, only to feel a hand take hers, another slip behind her, leading her in a slow, intimate dance. A voice sang softly in her ear.
Let it slide,
Let your troubles fall behind you
Let it shine until you feel it all around you
And I don't mind if it's me you need to turn to
We'll get by,
It's the heart that really matters in the end
All of my regret
Will wash away some how
But I can not forget the way I feel right now
Pepper pulled her head back to look into his eyes. "Tony…"
"It's what I am, Pep."
"I need you. To do this. All this. I…"
He pulled her closer, his head resting on her shoulder, her ear pressed to his heart as they moved to the music.
Our lives are made
In these small hours
These little wonders,
These twists & turns of fate
Time falls away,
But these small hours,
These small hours still remain
The music ended, but they continued to dance among the stars.
Thank you for coming along with me.
Please… feed the author.
Song credit for "Little Wonders" to Rob Thomas.