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Pepper realized her life was never going to be normal again the morning after the Invasion of the Lizard People. She got up, dragged herself into the kitchen to get some cereal and was promptly blinded by camera flashes.

She squawked, ducking back out the doorway, and hollered at the top of her lungs for her dad.

“Pep?! Pepper?” he shouted back.

There was a lot of crashing about and swearing before he limped into the hall in his bathrobe. Stunned speechless for possibly the first time she could remember, Pepper pointed one shaky finger at the kitchen.

Her dad squared his shoulders and, taser in hand (and okay, where had he been keeping that? She’d totally gone through his room), marched into the kitchen.

Two seconds later he marched right back out.

“There are men with cameras,” he said.

“Yeah,” Pepper said.

“Pretending to be window washers,” he continued.

“Yeah,” Pepper said.

“Outside our kitchen window!” her dad flung his arms akimbo, gesturing wildly with the taser. Sometimes Tony or Rhodey would ask where Pepper got it from. Personally she thought the answer was pretty obvious.

“Dad,” Pepper said, drawing him back into his room where, mercifully, he usually kept the curtains shut. “What do they want? Why are they here? Where did they get those window washer outfits? What are we going to do?!”

“Pep, c’mon, breathe,” her dad said. He took her by the upper arms and squeezed, gently, and then tugged her into a hug, tucking her head beneath his chin. “I’m going to say something now and I don’t want you to freak out.”

“Dad, there’s a guy hovering outside our window holding a camera in one hand and a squeegee in the other. Also? I’ve totally fought evil lizard aliens. Little late for freaking out.”

Still, she wrapped her arms around his middle and squeezed back.

Her dad took a deep breath and said, “I think I need to take you over to SHIELD.”

Pepper screamed so loud she later found out one of the photographers started and fell off the platform.

(Luckily the fire escape below broke his fall. She visited him in the hospital later and made him promise not to ambush people in their kitchens before noon. Then she signed his cast, and took a picture with him for his kids, and felt like a total superhero.)

--

SHIELD more or less had the same idea as her dad.

He was just trying to get her bundled out the door and into the stairwell, wearing one of his jackets and a hat pulled down low over her eyes, when a hand caught the door, holding it open for them.

Agent Hill looked her up and down, lips pursed, one eyebrow raised.

“Come with me,” she started, and breathlessly Pepper cut in with, “If you want to live?”

The corner of Agent Hill’s eye did this little twitchy thing, which looked incredibly smooth and secret agent-y. Pepper wondered if they taught you how to do that in SHIELD classes.

Agent Hill sighed and rubbed a hand to her forehead and said, “Come with me if you want to see Director Fury.”

That was so much better than Pepper could have ever wished.

She got eighteen texts from Rhodey between leaving her home and getting to SHIELD headquarters. Apparently there were like a million reporters on his lawn and his mom was chucking kitchen appliances at them. The toaster clocked one pretty hard, he said. The last text told her that he was on his way too.

There was no word from Tony. Pepper sent him thirty texts; towards the end they were mostly just exclamation points.

She bounced a little in her seat. She couldn’t help it, not even when her dad put a hand on her knee and gave her the warning face. She was going to SHIELD; she’d been to SHIELD before, of course. Tony had been there loads of times. But there were photographers camped outside Pepper’s window and yesterday she fought off an alien invasion and got unmasked on national television.

She might still have been making squeaky noises under her breath, if the look Agent Hill gave her was anything to go by.

Of course, then she actually got to SHIELD. They were ushered into a waiting room that reminded her a lot of the dentist’s office, except her dentist had better magazines. Pepper was halfway through an issue of Good Housekeeping (somebody had put a post-it on an article all about spice racks; it read grenades??? in pink highlighter) when Rhodey stumbled in, escorted by a very harassed-looking Agent Ward.

Dude,” Rhodey said, catching sight of her.

“I know!” Pepper exclaimed.

“Crazy!” Rhodey said, and when he started laughing Pepper did too. It was crazy. They were sitting in SHIELD headquarters because there were a million reporters out there looking for pictures and interviews because yesterday they were unmasked on national television because aliens invaded. Aliens invaded, and they were all superheroes. Their picture was on the front cover of today’s Daily Bugle.

“Where’s Tony?” Pepper asked.

Rhodey showed her his phone. There was one text from Tony; all it said was UGH COLD LIGHT OF DAWN DON’T CARE.

“It’s 10 AM,” Pepper said.

“Are you kidding?” Rhodey said, rolling his eyes. “I’ve been friends with Tony practically my whole life, and these past two years are the only time I’ve ever seen him up before the afternoon.” He slumped down in his seat, arms crossed, and shot a dubious look at the door. “Hey, Pepper. Why do you think we’re here?”

Pepper gnawed on a thumbnail, sneaking a look at her dad. She was spared having to answer when the door swung open, and Nick Fury swept in. Literally swept. That coat was never ever going to stop being impressive; Pepper wanted, like, eight.

“Potts, Rhodes,” he said. “I see Stark failed to show.”

“He’s asleep, sir,” Rhodey offered sheepishly. Fury made an annoyed noise.

“Of course he is,” he said. “You two will just have to fill him in. Come with me.”

--

Long story short, Fury wanted them for SHIELD.

Fury wanted her for SHIELD.

It was unbelievable. It was everything she’d ever dreamed about, minus a jetpack. That, he told her, came with security clearance level four.

“But you told me I had to go to college!” was what came out of her mouth, because she’d never had any control over that.

Fury’s eyebrow did the cool little twitchy thing, same as Hill’s. Pepper was going to start practicing in the mirror.

“A rule with exceptions,” he said. “Otherwise we’d never have taken on Barton.”

Hawkeye was sitting in the back, feet propped up on the chair in front of him, sunglasses still on. Pepper had literally never seen him without them. He flipped Fury the world’s most sarcastic salute.

“You big city folk an’ all yer fancy learnings,” he said in a mangled Appalachian accent. Dropping it, he added, “I’ve been to college.”

“Infiltrating an art school to track down a suspected AIM base is not the same as attending,” Fury said in the tone of someone who had been having an argument for a long time. Hawkeye just shrugged and muttered “toe-may-toe, toe-mah-toe.”

Pepper was practically dancing in her seat and just about to ask where she signed when Rhodey spoke up.

“How long do we have to decide?” he said. He sounded, weirdly, kind of miserable.

Fury leveled them both with a look.

Suddenly Pepper felt very small and a little unsure.

--

Rhodey said they should talk to Tony, who still wouldn’t answer his phone.

They hustled to the restored Stark Tower under SHIELD security. It was a little ridiculous. Pepper and Rhodey had flying suits of armor -- they could totally get through the media circus, no problem.

She asked her dad if he wanted a ride and the look he gave her was one of sheer panic.

(Whatever, she was a totally great pilot, her dad didn’t even know.)

Tony let them into the penthouse. He had a truly impressive case of bedhead. His dad was in the kitchen, asleep on the breakfast bar. Rhodey’s mom had to shake him for like a full minute before he startled awake, scattering cheerios everywhere.

“SHIELD agents and parents,” Tony said magnanimously, gesturing towards something that looked kind of like one of the machines down in the armory, “meet coffee. Pep, Rhodey, let’s let them get acquainted.”

Just like that, Tony led them away, barricading the three of them in his room.

He ran a hand through his hair and said, “Okay. Why are there like a million armed SHIELD agents in my kitchen? Why did you send me three million texts about SHIELD?” Squinting out his window, he added, “Is it just me or are there way more reporters out there than usual?”

Rhodey yanked the blinds down.

“Did you miss the part where we were unmasked on live television yesterday?” he demanded. Tony gave him a sheepish smile.

“Right,” he said. “Yeah. That. To be honest, I was kind of hoping that was a dream.”

“Nick Fury wants us to be SHIELD agents!” Pepper said all in a rush, jumping up and down.

Tony stared at her.

“Did they give her coffee?” he demanded, turning to Rhodey.

“Don’t look at me,” Rhodey said, holding his hands up in front of him. “You’re the one who slept through the meeting. Nick Fury really does want us to be SHIELD agents.”

Tony sat down at the edge of his bed and ran both hands through his hair. Then he started to laugh and kept at it until his shoulders shook and he was rolling from side to side on his bed. Rhodey gave Pepper the can you believe him face, but she was still kind of bouncing on her toes, so he threw up his hands and sat down next to Tony.

“Hey,” he said, shaking him by the shoulder. “C’mon, this is serious.”

“I’m being serious!” Tony said. “This is me, seriously reacting to Fury! He’s the super spy -- like he doesn’t already know I’m going to turn him down?”

“Are you?” Rhodey said, seriously. “Are you going to turn Nick Fury down, Tony?”

“You know I am,” Tony said, pulling himself into a sitting position. “My dad and I have been talking about it. I’m going to MIT. No way I’m joining SHIELD.”

“Right,” Rhodey said with a long sigh. “Me neither.”

Pepper’s heart sank.

“I’m going to do it,” she said. Tony looked up, staring straight at her.

“Well, yeah,” he said after a second. “Of course you’re going to do it.”

"Right," she said, exhaling. There were a million butterflies in her stomach. She punched the air.

Pepper Potts, Agent of SHIELD. It had a great ring.

--

“I want to make one thing clear to you,” Fury said on Pepper’s first day. “We want you, not the armor.”

Pepper let her mouth just hang open for a moment. “But -- it’s my armor. I’m in the armor. The armor’s -- it’s on me? I’m only Rescue in the armor, otherwise I’m just -- you know, me.” She held up her kind of scrawny arms to prove her point.

Fury raised his eyebrow sharply. “I am aware that you and the armor are separate entities, Miss Potts. If you weren’t, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

“Oh,” Pepper said. “Sir, I don’t think I understand.”

“I know what you can do in the armor,” Fury told her, “and the time may come when I want you in that armor, as an agent of SHIELD. But right now, what I want to see is what you can do out of that tin can. Is that clear, Miss Potts?”

“I,” Pepper began, unable to think of anything else to say. “Yes, sir. I understand.”

“Any other questions?” Fury asked, hands on his hips.

“Can I hug you, sir?” Pepper asked.

“Absolutely not, Miss Potts,” said Fury. “Agent Hill will be heading up your training. Dismissed.”

--

Pepper’s SHIELD trainee uniform had a high, scratchy neck. Hill gave her a warning look every time she fidgeted with it, so she ended up sitting on her hands for the last half of the flight.

Finally Hill climbed to her feet. Pepper followed after her.

“Fury thinks you’re ready for this,” Hill told her as they walked. “Don’t prove him wrong.”

“Right,” Pepper said. “No pressure.”

“You’ll do fine,” Natasha called from the front of the plane. She winked at Pepper. Pepper grinned back, then squinted.

“Wait, are you texting?” she said. "You're supposed to be flying!"

“It’s only Hawkeye,” Natasha said, nonplussed.

“Come on,” Hill said, taking Pepper firmly by the shoulder. “It’s time to jump.”

Pepper looked down at the ground way, way below the plane.

“I really wish I had my jet boots,” she said.

--

Technically, Pepper was an advanced trainee, on account of how she helped save the world and all.

“Didn’t you make Natasha an agent right away?” Pepper asked Fury.

Fury didn’t look impressed. “Were you trained as a spy from the age of seven?”

“No,” Pepper admitted. “Oh, but one time, in third grade, I escaped from a field trip and it took them four hours to find me?”

Fury pinched the bridge of his nose.

“Dismissed, Ms. Potts,” he said.

“Could you call me cadet?” asked Pepper.

Fury made a frustrated noise.

--

SHIELD’s cafeteria was kind of terrible, but considering Pepper was pretty good at burning water and the only recipe her dad ever mastered was the PB&J, she figured she was probably still coming out ahead.

“Just don’t eat here on Thursdays,” Clint warned her, snagging an apple. “That’s the day R&D tests the new field rations. Sometimes they’ll make you, y’know,” he broke off, waving one finger around his head and whistling. “I’m just saying, I’ve seen a lot of good agents retire early because somebody tried to kill them with stroganoff.”

“Don’t scare her,” Natasha said, elbowing him in the ribs. “That’s Tuesdays, not Thursdays.”

Pepper gulped, giving her plate the suspicious eye. It didn't look evil.

“I’ll make you a sandwich,” Clint said in an aside to Pepper. It was the best news she’d heard all day; Clint made incredible sandwiches. He was also big into taking selfies. Pepper had about of million of them. Her favorite was the one they managed to snag together in the zero gravity simulator.

She sent that one to Tony, in case he forgot that SHIELD was about a million times cooler than MIT.

oh haha Tony texted back. made any friends besides Thing 1 and Thing 2?

That was the part Pepper still wasn’t entirely sure on.

--

Weekdays Pepper spent at the SHIELD dormitory, which she was pretty sure used to just be a warehouse before Fury slapped some walls up and installed a microwave in one corner.

It was kind of a step down from spending most of her time in an ancient Makluan temple, even if it had been in the middle of New Jersey.

Pepper’s roommate at SHIELD was a girl named Daisy who looked like she was twelve, did about a hundred situps every day and had mutant earthquake powers. Not that Pepper was jealous or anything. Then there was Natasha, who lived -- somewhere, and Agent Hill, who wouldn’t even give Pepper her e-mail, let alone her address. Agent May had once saved a hundred agents armed with only a plastic fork and a shetland pony.

There was Agent de la Fontaine, who was apparently a contessa and also probably Nick Fury’s girlfriend. Half the time she showed up to missions in a white bathing suit and no pants, and she did all her paperwork sitting on desks in slinky evening wear. Pepper wanted to be her when she grew up.

Basically, everyone else was incredibly intimidating. Pepper didn’t know how to talk to them. “Hey, done any good spying today?” wasn’t exactly the icebreaker she thought it would be, except on Agent Quartermain, who actually showed her a powerpoint of his five best missions, which accidentally segued into the first twenty seconds of a voicemail from a woman named Jessica.

It was mostly swearing.

“Young ears! Not for young ears!” Agent Quartermain yelped, trying to mute his phone.

“She’s amazing,” Pepper said, wide-eyed, while Quartermain just kept desperately jabbing at his phone.

On weekends Pepper dragged herself back to her dad’s place, where she mostly laid on the couch with about a million ice packs, made him bring her take-out and conference called Tony and Rhodey while watching bad weekend television.

Training to be a secret agent was really hard. Everything hurt; Pepper missed the armor.

“You’ve gotta give it some time, Pep,” Rhodey said. “New things are always rough at the beginning.”

“Rescue wasn’t,” Pepper grumbled, cradling the phone to her ear and pushing her spoon around her bowl of ice cream soup.

“C’mon,” Rhodey wheedled. “You got to jump out of a plane, right? That sounds pretty cool.”

Pepper brightened a little. It had been pretty cool.

“I almost missed my landing,” she confessed, “but I stuck it at the last second.”

Agent Hill had told Pepper that she hadn’t really needed to throw her hands up in the air like she just didn't care, but she’d been kind of smiling, if you turned your head and squinted, and Pepper had kind of gotten a million butterflies in her stomach all over again.

“You didn’t have to practice jumping out of planes when you had a suit of armor that can fly,” Tony cut in. If Pepper was upset about having to hang up the armor for her SHIELD training, then Tony was spitting mad, over the moon furious about it.

It would’ve been hilarious, except Pepper really, really missed being Rescue.

“Tony,” Rhodey said in a warning tone.

“What?” Tony said. Pepper could hear him rolling his eyes. “We already know Pepper’s going to be a great SHIELD agent. Pep, you’ve succeeded at everything you’ve ever put your mind to -- this isn’t going to be any different.”

Pepper might have teared up, just a little bit.

“When you get back from Boston I’m going to hug you so hard,” she said.

“I’ll wear the armor,” Tony said. “Can we talk about my problems now? Because, guys. Guys. I have the biggest brain crush on Reed Richards.”

“Brain crush,” said Rhodey with an audible eyeroll. “Sure.”

--

Three months in, SHIELD sent Pepper and another trainee named Morse with Hill to investigate an abandoned, uninhabited AIM base on a manmade island off the coast of Rhode Island. It turned out to be not so uninhabited.

Mostly it was full of dinosaurs.

“Stay. Here,” Hill said in her best It’s Not the Mutant Velociraptors You Should be Worried About voice. “Watch each other’s backs.”

This was the first time Pepper had seen Morse without her nose stuck in a biochem textbook. Now she mostly just looked pale. Pepper jostled her with an elbow.

“It’s going to be okay,” she said. “I’ve fought dinosaurs before. Well. Space lizard aliens, but that’s pretty close to dinosaurs, right?”

“Not really,” Morse said, fighting back a smile. She stuck her hand out. “I’m Bobbi.”

“Pepper,” she said, shaking Bobbi’s hand. Bobbi’s smile got a little wider.

“I know,” she said. “I watched the lizard alien thing on TV. You’re kind of famous.”

“Oh,” Pepper said. She’d mostly forgotten about that part -- since joining SHIELD, almost nobody followed her into Starbucks, trying to get her to sign their chests. She didn’t know how Fury had managed it, and no amount of nagging seemed like it would make him squeal. He was so cool.

“Velociraptor!” Bobbi yelped, grabbing Pepper and throwing them both back behind a pile of crates. They were marked HAZARDOUS in big yellow letters, but compared to the genetically modified dinosaurs from the future, that maybe wasn’t such a big deal.

Pepper and Bobbi huddled together, the only noise their breathing and the distant clik-clak of claws on cement. Bobbi’s face was very close to her own; Pepper could see the faint freckles scattered across her nose.

She could also see the nightstick she had clutched in one hand. So cool.

Pepper held her breath until after the velociraptor crept by, trying desperately to remember how Jurassic Park went, which only reminded her that Tony had never seen Jurassic Park because he was like some kind of supergenius techie Rapunzel, minus the braid.

“They can’t see us if we don’t move, right?” she whispered out of the corner of her mouth.

Bobbi made a face.

“Those movies aren’t really accurate,” she said, leaning around the corner of one crate. “Real velociraptors were a lot smaller. See?”

Pepper followed her head, leaning over Bobbi. The velociraptor didn’t really look a lot like the ones in the movie -- it was actually pretty cute.

“Aw,” she said.

“They’re supposed to have a really good sense of smell, though,” Bobbi noted, right before the velociraptor swiveled to stare at them.

It cocked its feathery little head to the side.

Pepper squeaked.

Ten minutes and a lot of screaming later, she and Bobbi sat panting against the wall. The hogtied velociraptor glared balefully at them.

“That was awesome,” Pepper said. “I tackled a dinosaur. You tied up a dinosaur.”

“I did,” Bobbi seconded, wide-eyed. “You did. We definitely did those things.”

There was a crash that made them both jump as Maria Hill rolled into the room, wrestling a much bigger raptor. This one definitely looked it came from Jurassic Park.

“Deinonychus,” Bobbi said, wide-eyed, as Hill got one leg between her and the dinosaur and delivered a sharp kick to the chin.

The great thing about Rescue was that she had let Pepper do what she did best: leaping in headfirst was easy when you were encased in a very advanced flying suit of armor. She’d almost forgotten the split-second of total terror that descended when you realized you were doing something really dangerous right in the middle of actually doing it.

Pepper tazed the dinosaur.

It didn’t really do anything more than make it mad. It swung to face her and for one terrible moment, Pepper wondered how SHIELD was going to break it to her dad that she’d been eaten by a raptor.

Then Hill lunged with a war cry, wrapping her arms around the dinosaur's neck.

“Get the tail!” she said. Pepper scrambled, throwing herself down over it. Bobbi vaulted forward, leftover cables in hand. Together, the three of them got the dinosaur trussed up enough for Hill to safely tranquilize it.

Pepper could hear the faint roar of SHIELD helicopters in the distance. She breathed a sigh of relief, slumping down.

“Can we leave dinosaur island now?” she asked.

Once they were in the air and safely on the way home, Agent Hill sat down across from Pepper and Bobbi. She cleared her throat.

“You both did,” her eyes strayed to the velociraptor in the dog carrier sitting on the adjacent seat, “well today.”

The velociraptor squawked a mournful protest.

Pepper straightened up in her seat. “Thank you, ma’am! Er, sir! Agent Sir?”

Agent Hill shook her head.

“Why don’t you just call me Maria?” she said. Pepper exchanged a wide-eyed glance with Bobbi.

“Yes, Agent Maria!” she said, attempting a salute and mostly getting tangled in her seatbelt. Maria muttered something disparaging under her breath, getting up from her seat. She took the raptor with her.

Bobbi kicked Pepper’s ankle.

“Hey,” she said with a grin. “We tackled a dinosaur. We’re secret agents.”

Pepper smiled so wide she thought her face might split.

--

“You got on first name basis with Hill?” Clint said the Tuesday after, when Pepper told him the story in exchange for lunch. He whistled, handing over a sandwich. “That’s impressive. I wasn’t even sure she had a first name.”

“She’s really awesome. I wrestled a dinosaur with her. That changes your relationship,” Pepper said with a sigh, unwrapping her sandwich. It was kind of red and drippy. “Uh…?”

“It’s cranberry sauce,” Clint said. “Don’t worry about it.”

Fury swept into the room, deep in conversation with Natasha. He nodded at Clint and Pepper.

“Agent,” he said. Eyeballing Pepper, he added, “Cadet.”

The velociraptor toddled after him on a leash. It was wearing a collar with a little silver SHIELD logo on it.

“This is a weird place to work,” Clint said once Fury had rounded the corner.

“I know,” Pepper said and, one hundred percent sure for the first time since she’d tugged on the uniform, continued, “Isn’t it the best?”

--

To her delight, Fury kept putting Pepper on real missions after the velociraptor thing. Most of them didn’t involve dinosaurs, but they were all pretty weird. Pepper kicked a lot of AIM drones in the face. Not an exaggeration -- being able to perform awesome high kicks was a great bonus to SHIELD training.

Seeing MODOC again was probably weirder than the dinosaurs, anyway.

“SHIELD would send little girls to fight me?” MODOC shouted in his reedy voice.

How do you keep coming back?” Pepper demanded, locked in a tussle with a beekeeper.

There was a pinprick sensation at the back of her neck, like all the hairs standing up. She risked a glance over her shoulder and yelped when she saw two more AIM drones sneaking up on her with their creepy little mad scientist fingers outstretched.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw a flash of blonde hair and navy uniform and the next thing she knew Bobbi leapt out of nowhere. She landed on top of the nearest AIM drone.

“I’ve got these two!” she called cheerfully.

Another minute of grappling was all it took for Pepper to get her guy down. She dusted off her hands, rolling her eyes at MODOC’s squawking, and turned to find Bobbi standing proudly over two groaning drones.

“So,” she said, casting her eyes upwards. “What is that, exactly, and why is it flying?”

“It’s a Mobile Organism Designed Only for Conquering,” Pepper said. “Tony’s fought him, like, a dozen times.”

Maybe it was only two or three, but it felt like a dozen.

“Should we get him?” Bobbi asked, tipping her head back.

“You dare--” MODOC spat, spinning from side to side in agitation.

“Yeah,” Pepper said with a grin. She straightened her uniform. “Let’s get ‘im.”

--

Five months into Pepper’s SHIELD training found them in the middle of another alien invasion.

Technically, it found Iowa in the middle of an alien invasion, which Fury swore up and down was “damn inconvenient.” By the time they landed in Waverly, the sky was dark and crackling. The clouds looked funny. There wasn’t any activity on the ground yet, but Fury seemed sure there would be before long.

“Home, sweet home,” Clint said wistfully.

“You okay?” Bobbi asked, elbowing Pepper in the ribs.

“I’m okay,” Pepper said. “As long as they aren’t lizards this time. I’ve had enough lizard alien invasions, thanks. How about you?”

“Definitely had enough of those,” Bobbi said with a quick grin. She held up her battle staves. “I think I’m okay.”

“Morse,” Natasha called out. “You’re with me.”

Bobbi gave Pepper’s arm a quick squeeze before jogging after Natasha.

Maria’s hand landed heavy on Pepper’s shoulder.

“Be honest with me,” she said. “Do you need the armor?”

Pepper had been thinking about that the whole ride over, sick to her stomach with what-ifs, but one look at the sky had settled the matter.

“No,” she said. “But it probably wouldn’t hurt.”

Maria chuckled. “I think that’s fair,” she said.

There was a bright flash of light. Maria pushed Pepper backwards, angling herself in front of her. She threw her hand up in front of her eyes and drew her gun.

Pepper squinted as the bright light materialized into a woman wearing green everything -- bodysuit, sunglasses, hair.

Maria swore under her breath and holstered her gun.

“You,” she hissed.

“Me,” said the woman in green.

“Her?” Pepper asked.

“I’m Abigail Brand of SWORD,” the woman in green introduced herself.

“Sentient World Observation and Response Department,” Maria said to Pepper, rolling her eyes. “Basically, aliens.”

“That. Is. So. Cool,” Pepper breathed.

Abigail Brand held out a hand.

“Pepper Potts,” she said. “Come with me if you want to live.” She hesitated a moment, then added, “I guess you can come too, Hill.”

Pepper squealed.

--

“So I pretty much saved the galaxy,” Pepper said, spinning around in her chair. On the computer screen Tony glared at her blearily, surrounded by piles and piles of homework and textbooks and something that looked like half a robot.

“That’s really great for you,” he said. He squinted at the corner of her desk. “Is that a ray gun?”

Pepper held it up for inspection. It was a pretty sweet ray gun.

“Spoils of war,” she said, beaming. Tony put his head down on the desk and groaned.

“When I go to space, people try to murder me,” he said. “When you go to space, you get ray guns.”

“I also made a lot of friends,” Pepper said. “Tony, there are so many cool aliens out there. I made friends with this guy, right? He’s basically a space raccoon who talks, and he’s a really good sharpshooter, and he needed a place to crash. So he’s staying with my dad now.”

He hadn’t seemed thrilled about it at first, but Rocket Raccoon was a pretty good houseguest and he always cleaned up after he used the kitchen. Plus, it was someone to watch Chopped with.

Tony groaned. “I regret everything,” he said. “Everything. Space raccoon.”

“So what’s new with you?” Pepper asked, stopping her spin.

“I don’t have a brain crush on Reed Richards anymore,” he said, scowling. “He’s the devil. I hate him.”

“Oooh, finals already?” Pepper said, grimacing. Tony put his head down on the nearest stack of textbooks and made a dying noise.

Pepper’s phone alarm blared.

“Sorry, Tony, I have to go,” she said. “It’s the SHIELD holiday party. Natasha promised she’d show Bobbi and me how to disarm a guy from fifty feet with a tray of canapes.”

“Killer canapes, space raccoons,” Tony grumbled. “I’m telling Rhodey.”

“Bye, Tony,” Pepper said, laughing, as she grabbed her jacket. He waved her off.

“Go, go,” he said. “Destroy a man with a crouton. Whatever. Have a good time.”

“You too,” she said. “By that I mostly mean try not to die alone in your dorm room surrounded by half-assembled tech that will never love you.”

Agh,” Tony said.

--

"The trick is to aim just right," Natasha said, dressed in a slinky black dress. She had a prosciutto-wrapped melon ball in one hand and a smirk on her face. Pepper was kind of in awe of her, just a little bit.

"Do not aim that at the director," Maria said, making a grab for Natasha's hand. "Aim it at, I don't know, Dugan, Quartermain, but do not attempt to maim the director with a melon ball."

"Alright, fine," Natasha said, and, closing one eye, took aim at Clint's back.

"This is not what I expected when I joined SHIELD," Bobbi confessed to Pepper, eyes shining.

Pepper had actually expected a lot of things when she'd joined SHIELD. Jet packs, mostly. Cool black outfits. Super spy games. A lot of tall, suave men wearing tuxedos who only drank their martinis shaken, not stirred. She didn't think she'd be sitting at a table in the shadow of a giant Christmas tree, underneath the Hanukkah lights, watching Black Widow pelt Hawkeye with hors d'oeuvres.

"Nope," she said, holding her glass of nonalcoholic sparkling cider up to the light. Maria had seen her going for the real stuff and descended before Pepper could even grab a flute. "This is way, way better."