"Have Mrs. Arbogast contact the press, will you? I need cameras and microphones..." The order comes from Iron Man. The shift out of the old and into the new is subtle, but unmistakable. He instructs her to have Mrs. Arbogast call the news stations, reporters and media bloggers. In essence, he wants to have the former secretary they left at the party wrangle the media at the last moment, rather than the former secretary standing in front of him. There was a time when setting this up would have been something he expected of Pepper, regardless of whether or not it actually fit into her official job description.
Calling Bambi to relay what Iron Man wants from inside the suit is a simple matter. Rescue's communications array is more than capable of hacking into Mrs. Arbogast's cell phone and reaching her right there at the party, where she was last seen schmoozing investors and keeping drinks in their hands. Pepper is finished passing along the instructions before Iron Man is through giving his statement to the local law enforcement. The press is here, too. He could have set the ball in motion himself right now, but he doesn't like to do legwork, even when it would mean cutting out a few steps for his own people. The press only likes Tony Stark when he is about to die. Whether he is quietly tragic or poised to go out in a great blaze of heroism, the mortality of men who are larger than life itself makes for a marketable human interest story. It's an easy sell. When he is up and walking around, they find him to be rude and difficult. They take it as a slight, seemingly unaware that he is a difficult person by nature.
Pepper hates the cameras. She's not accustomed to being the one out front or the center of attention. All of it makes her self-conscious, especially when the destruction of a freeway was involved and they let the perp go. She isn't sold on this idea of Iron Man's to let Sasha Hammer run off and continue whatever plots against Stark Resilient she and her mother had been cooking up. The situation puts Pepper on the defensive. The best she can say is that her knees aren't knocking and the breasts on her new suit are subtle enough that they don't embarrass her or make her feel naked. She doesn't cover her chest this time.
The commotion has traffic backed up for as far as the eye can see. The man who lost his car due to the combined efforts of their ingenue enemy and Rescue is surrounded by a flurry of relief workers. Iron Man is talking to the cops. He has to defend and explain his every action, because he knows he was the one campaigning for greater accountability in super heroes. Most members of the masks and capes set run off once the police make the scene, but not him. This is just part of his on-going attempt to plug himself back into his old roles as though he still is the man he used to be.
He tries so hard to keep up appearances and act like he knows everything that's happened in his life. Everyone has more or less silently agreed to play along, but some days, it doesn't take much conversation before something doesn't add up the way it should. It happens more often with Maria than Rhodey or herself. He's more comfortable with Hill than any of the other Avengers because she was Pro-Registration, but he doesn't actually remember knowing her. When Tony made his back-up mind, he had only met Maria briefly. An angry conversation or two and some newspaper articles are all he has to base what he knows of this woman on.
Iron Man is pointing at her. Probably thinking to introduce Rescue to the world, unaware that she has already made her nation-wide news debut. It's a new suit. The public will catch on soon enough that it is the same person inside, just as they had every time Shellhead upgrades. She waves. He's wrapping it up. They should be done here soon. One by one, Iron Man shakes the hands of all the officers and EMTs at the scene. A few are snapping photos with their phones. Finished, he lifts off and gestures for her to follow. When they are in the air, Tony's voice floods her helmet, "You're allowed to talk to them."
"I know," she answers. It's Tony using a direct line, straight from his helmet to hers. That is why it is his voice she hears. Iron Man's voice is mechanical, run through some sort of modifier to make him unidentifiable. She imagines her Rescue voice is the same way, but she only hears her normal voice, echoing inside of her helmet, when she speaks. "I've talked to them before."
There is no response. Tony hates being reminded that there are so many things he doesn't remember.
They fly in silence. He doesn't lead her back towards the gala, but loops widely through the air, soaring above Seattle in a growing spiral.
"I caught a plane once," Pepper continues, gracefully filling the dead air. "Actually catching it was a lot easier than telling all the TV stations exactly how I did it."
Tony laughs. "The adrenaline rush makes things hazy. Once its over, you don't even remember how you did it anymore."
"I meant J.A.R.V.I.S. did all the calculations," Pepper counters. She accelerates to his side, holds her arms out and pinwheels away. "I just had to hold my arms out and do it."
"It was a pleasure, Ms. Potts," the A.I. replies.
"You shouldn't let him talk to you like that in public," Tony says, his voice changing with sudden disapproval. She can hear the frown, despite being unable to see his face.
"Using your name."
She'd never really thought about it. However her artificial partner spoke to her, it was how he had been programmed to speak. The real Jarvis that Tony based the A.I. on referred to her as 'Virginia.' He was the only person in her life to use her real name on a regular basis. Either Tony had forgotten what her name actually was - which Pepper doubted - or it was something Tony had consciously decided when he created J.A.R.V.I.S. "I think he's programmed to call me that," she answers.
"I'll fix that," Tony says. "No reason to get careless about your identity."
"It's not a secret. My face was on the news before I'd even named her Rescue."
"Sloppy," he chides. She can hear his nervousness loud and clear.
She huffs. "I never tried to keep it a secret. I wouldn't want to keep it a secret. You've always tried to justify lying to everyone around you because it was for our own good. Even if that did work, Tony, I don't have anyone left to protect." Anyone she may have once had a relationship with that existed outside of the bubble of superhero was gone. Tony was Iron Man. Rhodey had been wearing armor for longer than she had even known him. Maria was an Avenger now. Most of the Stark Resilient employees were barely more than strangers to her, all old acquaintances of Tony's from beyond her sphere of involvement in his life. They had all managed to successfully navigate the treacherous terrain of being a civilian in a super hero's world before. It is no guarantee for continued survival, but they know what they are becoming involved in. They've accepted the risk. If some up-and-coming enemy of Rescue wanted to attack someone she was close to, any potential victims were already on a super villain hit list for being a force of good in this crazy world. She had nothing to gain from hiding who she was.
"And that's my fault," he says.
"That's not what I meant," she replies, not wanting to go another round of Tony's Guilt Complex: the Home Version. "I don't want to lie. I don't have a reason to lie. That's it."
She had once been on the wrong side of the secret when it came to secret identities. Pepper never wanted someone who trusted her to have that sick realization that it was all a lie. The entire noble idea of living the hero life alone to protect the people around you was a bunch of nonsense. For too many years, she had been attacked by monsters and costumed crazies without ever knowing why she was a target. Tony had chosen to conceal the truth from her and it had protected her from nothing. It was not until she knew who he really was that she was able to protect herself or understand why these horrors kept befalling her. Even if she had been presented with the opportunity to maintain a secret identity, she would not have chosen it.
As it was, the very idea that Rescue's true identity could be a mystery was absurd. Anyone who dared use Starktech armor was either someone Tony trusted enough to do so or someone he was about to beat the hell out of, if not kill. For years, he had maintained a double life as Tony Stark, CEO, and Iron Man. An armor clad female had shown up at exactly the same time a woman was named CEO of Stark International. The genie was out of the bottle on day one. It never even got into the bottle to begin with.
"You need to protect yourself. You aren't going to be in armor all the time. You're vulnerable without it and you are giving people a reason to go after you if you broadcast it." One of the greatest strengths of his liquid armor was that he was, in effect, always wearing it. It flooded out of him and receded back into his body by mental command. He was never without it, so he was never vulnerable to the things that would harm a body that was only flesh and bone like Pepper's. Extensive body modification had made him like this. Even if Pepper was willing to go through with a similar procedure, he would have to oppose carrying it out. He had gotten this way by necessity, not by choice. He needed his modifications to live, but the human body wasn't designed to exist the way he did. She didn't need to be like him.
"People are already gunning for me!" Pepper cries. "If someone shoots me while I'm walking down the street because they want to hurt me because I'm me, or because they want to hurt me to hurt you, it doesn't make a difference. At least..." she realizes that she has to clarify, to do otherwise would be lying by omission, the very act she does not want to commit as a costumed hero, "I'd be hurt, either way, if someone got me. But, I think I'd be okay - not okay, that's stupid - I'd be able to accept it if it happened because of me or something I did. If someone hurts me for being me, I can take that. I can't take it anymore if someone wants to hurt me because of you."
"I worry about you," he says. The admission of emotion would be strange coming from Iron Man. Iron Man is cold and formal. It is always a little strange when he starts being vulnerable. But it is Tony's voice she hears and Tony is always vulnerable. He is sensitive and lonely and hurting. He's watched people in his life get killed because of what he does so many times. He carries a nervousness about him, always knowing that anyone he dared get close to could be next. His enemies have always provided good reason for him to be concerned. The difference now she goes out looking for trouble and that has transformed his apprehension into full-on fear.
"I know you do, but you can't let it dominate your life."
"I have a lot of balls in the air here," he says dully. He's an Avenger, the Iron Man, an inventor and innovator. No one thought dominates him.
Still, Pepper knows better than to take other responsibilities he might have as enough to distract him from her. "You think I don't know what its like to be worried about someone doing this stuff?"
"You always seemed a little bit more worried about yourself for getting caught up with me. Righty so, I might add."
"Well, I was more worried about you," she answers.
"I didn't know that." His tone is equal measures surprised and contrite. He had not known she felt that way, but is sorry, in retrospect, that she did.
"I don't know how you missed it," she says with exasperation. She knows she threatened him at least once to take care of himself, lest she put on a suit and come after him. Funny, what was once a threat she never actually had to carry out as since become her day to day life.
"I guess all those times you told me to get out of your life because I was going to get you killed clouded my judgement," Tony grouses.
The guilt stabs at her, like millions of tiny arrows striking her chest with perfect precision. "Tony, I -"
"- used to have an interest in continuing to live." He observes. They've left Seattle airspace by now, drifting over the Pacific ocean. "Now your hobbies include getting cut open so that I can put experimental electro-magnetic batteries inside of you. People change. Personally, I used to enjoy horseback riding."
He turns back towards land, his boot jets spitting out a massive burst as he flings himself over the city. Wyche had generously donated his own facility to the cause of Stark Resilient. It was a small, secluded building, but there were only six of them and it more than accommodated the entire company. Iron Man lands with a thud. Rescue follows in suit, though she cannot mimic the way his armor melts away and disappears inside of him. He's naked, with his back turned to her for scant seconds before the liquid is running all over him again. It is not the suit of armor solidifying around him this time, but a simple button-up shirt and slacks. He finger brushes his hair to slick it back and stalks through the house, every bit the master of all he surveys. Pepper trails behind him, unsure of where exactly he's going with this, but knowing their conversation isn't finished.
"That's it exactly. People change. I've changed." As she says this, Pepper is aware that Tony is hearing it in her mechanical, modified voice. That voice...that is undeniable proof of her changing. "I'm not going to be a victim anymore. That's me changing. Growing. Becoming something better. You get that, don't you? All you want is to become better than what you used to be."
He stops in his tracks for just a moment to toss a glance over his shoulder and say, "What you used to be wasn't that bad. I was pretty fond of her, you know."
It hurts, shockingly so, to hear him word his affection for her with a past tense. She plays it off. "Don't even try to tell me that you aren't completely turned on by the suit."
"You don't play fair."
"I call 'em like I see 'em," she says with a metal shrug.
"We'll see what you're calling once I get around to fixing our little magnet problem." He's found the room he was looking for - a long abandoned office where he's temporarily stored most of his things. He liberates a t-shirt and sweatpants from a duffle bag on the floor. "I suspect it will be my name."
"You can't possibly think that line is going to work." Behind the helmet, she's grinning. It was such a disgusting thing for him to say, but it brightened her spirits. One comment can demonstrate so many things. His confidence. His attraction to her. That he's comfortable enough with her to joke about things like that.
He lays a delicate hand over his chest. "You aren't going to be satisfied until you've completely ripped my heart out."
"I think you'll live," she observes.
"I'm surrounded by cruel women. Cruel, yet beautiful women."
"No, you know, it's actually not that bad. There are worse ways to go." He tousles his hair and finger combs it back.
She rolls her eyes. "Speaking of going, I should probably go back to the party."
"It's fine," Tony protests, "Let Bambi have the fun of scheduling all the meetings for jackasses who are ready to come crawling back. As much as I know you hate to miss the drunken spectacles that the open bar will undoubtedly provide, you've earned the rest of the evening off."
"Dare I ask what you have in mind instead?" Pepper asks, crossing her arms and cocking her head.
"Brain out of the gutter, darling," he says as he tosses the shirt at her. It's one of his and much to large for her. Evidently, Tony was aware that the cut of her skirt had not fit as nicely into armor as her more casual attire. All she was wearing underneath were panties and breast petals. Had he given her a heads up about this new headquarters for Stark Resilient, she could have sent a bag of her own ahead.
All of her things are downtown at a hotel.
Rescue turns the shirt over in her hands. She likes being inside the armor. It's exhilarating and liberating and makes her feel powerful like she had never been before. It gives the weight in her chest purpose. And even though she knows that the suit of armor she is wearing right now is made from old armors of his, melted down and turned into something new, actually wearing his clothes seems too intimate. It's silly. The Iron Man will always be closer to his heart that a set of sweats.
Part of her would be just as happy to stay armored up. She doesn't need to take it off for any reason. Though she also doesn't need to have it on. And she can't claim that talking to Iron Man when she wants to be talking to Tony has ever been one of her favorite things.
She hears herself saying, "Turn around," and watches him comply before she's really consciously decided to shed the armor. It's easy enough to peel back the armor and slip into his shirt. It smells like him and she flushes, remembering soft sheets and sweaty skin that he's forgotten. Mechanically, she takes the pants from his hand without stepping in from of him. The fit is terrible. She's off-balance.
"Now," she says, and he turns to face her, "what did you want to talk about?"
"I was actually thinking about Rescue," he replies, clear eyes trained on the now empty suit.
"What about her?" Pepper asks.
"She needs a persona, something to feed to the public that isn't camera shy." He wraps on the vacated suit with his knuckles. It produces a hollow sound. "You need your own thing. Spider-Man has his banter. Thor has the fake Shakespeare talk."
"I don't think that's a thing," Pepper answers. "His entire society talks like that."
He looks puzzled. "How do you know that?"
"I've been to Asgard. You were more interested in arguing with Steve Rogers than listening to me, but I was there during the rebuilding. Thor isn't putting on airs. They all talk like that."
"The point is," he says loudly, "the public doesn't know that. It's a PR thing. You need a personality for the public to latch onto. I do the formal snark."
She shrugs. "My thing is I rescue people. It's all on the tin."
"Two things." He holds up a finger. "One, we all do that." He counts off on another. "Two, tin is also mine."
It's her turn to be puzzled. "What? It's a phrase. 'It's on the tin' means its self-evident. What are you talking about?"
"Some people call the armor the tin suit," he answers, as though he takes nicknames very seriously. He doesn't.
Pepper arches an eyebrow. "Our armor isn't that different. If yours is a tin suit, mine is a tin suit. In fact, mine is probably a lot more similar anything anyone's called a tin suit than that liquid metal you've got stored inside your body. If anyone has a right to tin, it's me."
"My point is," he reiterates with a sigh, "you go out there acting like you're me when you need to go out there acting like you're you."
"Only a me that's not me because twenty minutes ago, you wanted me to have a secret identity."
"This time I'm talking about a persona. A role that you can slip into and be comfortable with when the cameras are on you. A way to be Rescue that isn't being Pepper."
"Well..." she says, "Maybe my role that I can just slip into is being like you."
He grimaces. "Did you just imply I'm your role model?"
"How many superheroes do you think I know?" she asks defensively.
"You went to Asgard!" He reminds her. "You were at the big party where no one laughed at my jokes!" Tony ignores her quiet explanations of why his jokes were too soon and really not funny. "You know everyone!"
"Yeah, but not well enough to ask myself, 'What would Mockingbird do at a time like this?' and actually have an answer," she protests.
"You know Bobbi? You really do know everyone," He pauses and composes himself. "Which is irrelevant. You're you. It doesn't matter what anyone else would do because you need to be doing what you would do and not what I would do."
"It's worked so far."
"Sure, it always works. Right up until the morning where you wake up to find it never worked and every thing's gone to shit." He drops down into a stray desk chair and massages his forehead. "Before you start drinking, give me a heads up so that I can have all my sobriety speeches prepared ahead of time."
"I don't follow your example that closely," she says dryly. "I pick and choose the good parts."
He swivels towards her. "You've lasted this long on just the good parts?"
"There are more than you think."
He smirks. "It isn't a problem when there are more than I think. The problem is when there are less than I think."
"Well. You have my promise that I will not allow my ego to rage out of control. I shall learn from your example as well as follow it."
He gives a noncommittal, vaguely insulted grunt.
"And," she says, walking around his chair, "I promise not to shoot anyone into space. Or start my own secret society." She leans over behind him, trying to angle her chest so that their heads are close, but their magnets are far enough away that they do not react to one another. "I will never sell weapons of mass destruction," she wraps his arms around his shoulders, "Or try to run military organizations that I'm not qualified to run. I won't -"
"- I get it. Thanks."
"- throw my own teammates into prison without a fair trial."
"I'm very lucky to have you."
"I won't lie to my friends for their own good." With two fingers, she delicately tips his chin up, so that the ceiling would be in his direct view if not for the redhead standing above him. "And I won't sleep around."
At this angle, her chin bumps his nose when she leans low enough to catch his bottom lip between hers. She pulls away after a completely inadequate amount of sucking on his lip. Tony braces himself against the arms of the chair and lifts himself just enough to take her mouth back. Even though she started it, it takes some coaxing before Tony is able to convince her to part those plush lips and allow his tongue to dart upwards. Her hands and her hair and her sweet mouth surround him and draw him in. When they break apart, he turns, seeking more but is buffered by his own invention. The magnets block him from access and repel the rolling chair a good six inches.
"Damn, I need to fix those magnets," he says, dazed.
Pepper reaches for him, cups his face between her hands, arms extended fully. The space between them feels like an insurmountable chasm. They have shared too much, have done too many incredible things to take it as anything more than a momentary barrier. But when every other piece of their lives are so intertwined and connected, the missing pieces and disconnects are magnified.
Her lips curl wryly as Pepper dutifully wipes Tony's lips with her thumbs. "Might be a while before you get around to it. I hear you have a lot of balls in the air."