Pepper takes the last of her t-shirts from the hospital room dresser and stacks them neatly into her suitcase. Tony had been kind enough to bring one that she kept packed for unexpected trips; it had worked just as well for an unexpected medical leave. It would keep on working fine through leaving the hospital without her doctor’s permission.
Dr. Paran stands in the doorway of the room, not quite blocking the way out. “I think you should stay for the rest of the week,” he says again, as if she would somehow change her mind through sheer repetition and the dourness of his expression. “The side-effects of Mr. Stark’s serum could show up at any time.”
Other than the part where she hasn’t exploded from the Extremis that Killian gave her, Tony’s serum is showing no side effects at all. Four days in the hospital, waiting, have been more than enough, as far as Pepper is concerned. Her vital signs are stable. Her blood work is as normal as it’s going to get. Stark Industries, on the other hand, is beginning to implode from the rumors circulating about her condition.
Pepper needs to go back to work.
It doesn’t hurt that she wants to go home to her own bed, where the only person who will watch her sleep is JARVIS. He can keep an eye on her as well as the SHIELD doctors ever could, and significantly less obtrusively.
“Are the side-effects any more likely to show up this week than next week? Or the week after?” Pepper zips the last compartment while she speaks, and slides the suitcase off the bed in a single, well-practiced motion. “The truth is, you don’t have a timeline. It may never happen.”
“We can’t be certain of your safety --”
Pepper realizes that her laugh is too loud for the small room, and makes herself stop. She and Dr. Paran stare at each other for a moment in silence.
“I see no reason to stay here as your lab rat while my company suffers in my absence.” Pepper says it as gently as she can, when she’s gotten her voice under control again. “You know how to reach me, if you find anything new to say.”
She doesn’t say: you can’t keep me here. He could try; there are armed agents at the end of the hall. There are almost certainly syringes filled with the kinds of drugs that knock people out too quickly to fight. It’s a hospital, but it’s a SHIELD facility first, and Pepper has lost her faith that the CEO of Stark Industries is too well-known to be silenced.
She doesn’t know what she’ll do if Dr. Paran won’t let her go. She might sit in this room until Tony comes to break her out; she might burn through those agents with her bare hands and the virus still circulating in her system. Both of those choices make her feel helpless.
So she just looks the man in the eye, as calmly as she can, and waits for him to back down.
She’s very glad when he does.
On her way out, Pepper is given a packet of aftercare notes, which mostly boil down to eat regularly, stay hydrated, and call the doctor if she has any symptoms on a ridiculously long list. Mood swings, headaches, muscle pains, flashes of heat or cold... She could check off most of those every month during her hormone cycle; unless Extremis weaponizes her pms, she should be fine.
Pepper leaves the pages in the car when she gets home.
She doesn’t tell Tony about them the next day when he asks how she slept.
They aren’t even nightmares; some people would call them good dreams. One where Tony rescued her before they injected her with the Extremis serum. One where she’d managed to escape on her own. She’s had several where she realized in time that Dr. Hansen couldn’t be trusted and was never kidnapped at all. They’re just her brain running through all the what-ifs she won’t let herself dwell on when she’s awake.
But this is what it is. She accepts that.
Or rather, she will accept it, because there really aren’t any other options.
Pepper takes the monitoring bracelet Tony makes for her in the spirit in which it’s offered. She doesn’t have shrapnel trying to work its way into her heart; no prosthetic power source will keep her body from betraying her. But an early warning system might help her manage this condition, and it’s what Tony can do to help. Tony needs to feel like he can help.
Now she has a bracelet whose little blinking light means panic. Or stop panicking, she’s not sure. Maybe she should call Bruce and ask him how he felt about his heart rate monitor.
It’s a full week. She scheduled a press conference first thing this morning, to reassure the investors and halt SI’s plummeting stock prices.
After that, she has two days of conference calls with a dozen of SI’s foreign subsidiaries, as well as half the staff of the US Secretary of Energy. Getting kidnapped right before the end of the year -- and the associated contract renewal season -- threw a horrible wrench in her plans. Meetings that should have been spread out over two weeks now have to be crammed into less than one.
She schedules the emergency Board meeting for Friday afternoon, which is the earliest that everyone who needs to be there can come to New York.
The Board meeting is mostly a formality, thank God. Anyone without the stomach for surprises had left after the Chitauri attack, so the new Board could handle the occasional superhero-related emergency. But the last time their CEO was kidnapped by terrorists, Tony completely destroyed their business model, came out as an international vigilante, and ended up in Congressional hearings on treason charges. They just want to know that it isn’t going to happen again.
It isn’t going to happen again.
Pepper can feel the beginnings of a tension headache gathering behind her eyes. She doesn’t want to think about AIM, or Extremis, or... any of the other things she isn’t thinking about right now. She deliberately puts them out of her mind, dry-swallows two aspirin, and reaches for her tablet to review her statement for the press conference.
The door opens, and Pepper pulls on a smile. “Emma, please --”
It isn’t Emma. The red-head in the door isn’t even Natalie Rushman, though the skirt suit does say more ‘personal assistant’ than ‘Black Widow’.
“Good morning, Ms. Potts.” Somehow, Natasha manages to look meek, hovering in the doorway like an uncertain employee faced with the CEO.
“Nat -- ” Pepper stops herself from using the wrong name. “Natalie. I wasn’t aware you were back in New York. Come in, and please close the door behind you.”
Natasha does; once the door is closed, she slips further out of character with a wry smile. “I wasn’t sure I’d be welcome.”
“Of course you’re welcome,” Pepper replies, the words automatic. She worked with Natalie for months; she barely knows Natasha, except from Tony’s reports. But the Avengers are always welcome at SI. “Unless you’re here to recruit me into the world of superheroes and spies, in which case I’d like you to make an appointment.”
“I’m not here to recruit you.” Natasha leans against the corner of Pepper’s desk. “Besides, you’re too well-known to be a spy.”
“And not particularly cut out to be a superhero.”
“Many people aren’t.” Natasha shakes her head, and Pepper can’t help remembering her scathing write-up of Tony for the Avengers Initiative. “But as I said, that’s not why I’m here. I thought you might want back-up, for a few days.”
Pepper deliberately misunderstands, and says breezily, “I can handle it. Lord knows, I’ve covered up enough of Tony’s sins in my time.”
Natasha isn’t falling for it. “It’s different when they’re your sins.”
Pepper doesn’t want to have that argument, so she doesn’t. She sends Emma on a well-earned Caribbean cruise, and takes Natalie Rushman with her to the press conference.
The only bad moment is when Pepper realizes that she’s wearing the monitoring bracelet, and she doesn’t have an answer if anyone asks why it’s blinking. It isn’t blinking. She keeps the fingers of her other hand wrapped around it, trying to make it seem natural for the cameras.
It doesn’t blink, but the moment of panic is a problem she’d like to avoid in the future.
Pepper takes it off after the conference and has Natasha send it back to Tony with a note that it needs to be more subtle. Tony sends it back by courier that afternoon; now it vibrates instead of blinking. It comes with a message from Tony that he should have thought of that before.
(What he actually says is that he should’ve thought of that before, considering how fond she is of vibrators, and he could really expand his repertoire to sex toys, and maybe she should let him know all her ideas for sex toys, though he understands why she wouldn’t share those with the R&D department -- )
But Pepper tunes out the rest of his message with practiced ease. Tony wants to make this easy on her, if he can.
The monitoring bracelet stays blessedly quiet.
It’s comforting to get back into the rush of business, at least. Back to twelve hour days, meals when she can catch them, and putting out strictly metaphorical fires so they’re on target to renew all their contracts for the next year. She’ll have good news to share with the Board. It’s a perfectly normal week, or so she keeps telling herself.
This isn’t a new state for him; he usually tries to monopolize Board meetings to talk about space exploration and why SI should partner with NASA on a manned mission to Mars. It isn’t a terrible idea, and various proposals have been pushed to the R&D department for more work. But he won’t wait for solid results; he just keeps badgering Pepper for a timeline, as if she’s withholding a breakthrough in space travel out of personal spite.
Pepper can usually shut him down and move on with the meeting agenda. But today’s emergency session required her to open the floor for general comments. Which, in Darwin’s case, have been going on for twenty minutes and show no sign of stopping.
Natasha-slash-Natalie is supposed to be taking notes, but Pepper can tell she’s just doodling on her tablet at this point. Some of the other Board members are checking their phones under the table, but no one looks as ready to mutiny as Pepper feels at the moment.
The tension headache that she has been carrying around all week begins to throb steadily in time with her heartbeat, and she has a moment to wonder if she’s finally going to have a stroke from sheer annoyance when she realizes that the monitor bracelet is rattling softly against the table.
At least it isn’t flashing. Still, she moves her hands to her lap, just in time to watch the lava glow of Extremis shimmer under her skin.
Darwin is still droning on, but Natasha is eying her with concern.
“Excuse me,” Pepper says, pushing herself to her feet. She intends to simply leave the room as unobtrusively as she can -- but standing up brings a wave of nausea and heat flashing up her body, and she thinks she might actually pass out --
“I’m sorry to cut this short,” Natasha interjects smoothly, “but Ms. Potts has a conference call in five minutes. If you’ll please step this way.”
Natasha has the Board members on their feet and headed for the door almost immediately. Pepper isn’t sure if it’s the tone of Natasha’s voice or if she has secret herding skills they teach in spy school, but at least it’s effective. Pepper is too busy trying to regulate her breathing against the pounding in her head to help.
There’s a bad moment when Darwin reaches the door and turns back, blocking everyone else’s exit. “Pepper?”
Pepper pastes a smile on her face, but she knows it looks strained. She really needs them to leave, now --
-- and then the sprinkler system turns on, water raining down from the ceiling, startling and chilly. The Board members bleat like goats and push their way out of the room, carrying Darwin with the tide.
Natasha turns back at the door to look at Pepper.
“Go, I’m fine,” Pepper says. The glow reaches from her fingers to her elbow, and she can feel the waves of heat moving along her torso. Her clothes are steaming faintly. She’s pretty sure her hair looks like a drowned rat. “I’ll be fine. Just get them out of here.”
Natasha closes the door behind her, and the room is empty. Except for Pepper and JARVIS, and JARVIS has certainly seen worse.
Water patters on the table and cascades down to the carpet. It streams in rivulets down Pepper’s neck, until it hits skin warm enough to burn it off.
The links of the monitor bracelet finally melt, and it falls to the floor. The puddle it lands in bubbles and steams, carpet fibers melting, but no smoke comes up.
Pepper gets tired of standing and waiting for it to pass. She finally lowers herself to the floor, closes her eyes, and just lets it happen. JARVIS won’t let her burn the building down. If it takes her a while to stop trying, nothing worse will come of it.
She tries not to think about how she’ll handle the Board if they saw. That. Isn’t going to help.
She’s not sure how long she’s been sitting there when Natasha comes in and sits down beside her.
“You’re okay. Pepper. Listen to me, you’re okay,” she says, in the tone of someone who’s been talking for several minutes.
She might have been; Pepper isn’t tracking very well. “I’m not okay.”
“It’s a relative term,” Natasha tells her. “You didn’t set anything on fire, at least. That’s a good thing.”
“I feel so...” Pepper trails off, because she doesn’t know how she feels. Other than wet, and cold, and terribly embarrassed.
“Yeah?” Natasha prompts. When Pepper doesn’t answer, she goes on. “JARVIS, could you turn off the sprinklers?”
“Of course, Ms. Romanov.”
And then there is nothing but silence in the room, stretching out toward the floor-to-ceiling windows and the afternoon sunlight filtered through the New York business district. It’s peaceful, even if it’s the peace of exhaustion.
“Tony’s never going to let me live this down,” Pepper says finally.
“You could tell him you panicked.”
Pepper glares at the other woman; she doubts if it would be effective even if she weren’t dripping wet and sitting in a carpet puddle, but she has to try for the sake of her own pride. It wasn’t panic that triggered the virus; but she doesn’t want to admit that it might’ve been the light-headedness from skipping lunch. Don’t forget to eat is right up there with Don’t set anything on fire in the great list of Things Pepper Tells Tony That He Should Already Know. He’d really never let her live this down if he knew.
Natasha just smirks at her effort. “On the bright side, I don’t think they saw anything untoward. Though I may have hinted that you were working too hard for someone recovering from your ordeal.”
“My ordeal.” Pepper has to laugh, though even she can hear the cracks in it. “I’ve spent all week pretending it didn’t matter.”
“And now?” Natasha asks, and under the smile, Pepper has a sense that she’s paying very close attention to Pepper’s answer.
Pepper doesn’t have to think very hard about that, at all. “I think I’ll keep pretending, until I get it right. It’s always worked before.”
“Well, then,” Natasha says, and Pepper can’t tell if there’s approval in her voice or not. But she stands and offers Pepper a hand up from the floor. “In the meantime, can I get you a towel?”