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babel, babel, look at me now

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There’s a moment after the battle when it gets to Pepper. She’s standing in the coldest shower she can handle thinking that Tony just blew up the last few years of his life’s work, that the entity which manages a significant portion of their lives sounds vaguely hungover, and that if the pressure overwhelms her at any given point she might explode. Literally. The water temperature around her heats up just thinking about it, the tips of her fingers beginning to smolder.

This is not the hardest thing she will ever have to do, she thinks. It’s not even the hardest thing she’s done so far. The stakes are high and they’re playing for keeps, but what else is new? She’s got her wits about her and steady ground beneath her feet and Tony. She’s got Tony and he’s got her and the rest of the world can bring it, because she’s got this.

-

The day before the demolition crew is set to begin taking down the rest of the rubble, they make the drive out to the house. Most of the structure is gone, but Tony’s workshop was set far enough back into the rock that a small section has been left mostly intact, composed of the small kitchenette and Tony’s desk. It makes for a morbid cross-section of the place that used to be their home, right down to the coffee mug still sitting in the sink.

Pepper picks her way along the cracked concrete floor, the overhead flood lights left behind by the salvage crew illuminating the open ocean before her. There are no retaining walls left to speak of. Despite two weeks’ worth of work by one of SI’s top teams, pieces of their lives are still washing up on the shore below. They fished the bots out of the ocean early into day two, and Tony’s been cleaning them up for the long drive back to New York ever since. Her college diploma was hanging on the wall upstairs, her mother’s quilt was folded neatly at the end of their bed. She has precious few worldly possessions to speak of, now.

A second set of lights turning on precedes Tony’s drop through the ceiling from the floor above, the stairs to the workshop having caved in. It’s only in surveying the damage to this floor that his demeanour of cool acceptance falters, a brief expression of dismay flickering across his face as he runs a finger along the body of a car that has been sliced cleanly in half.

This was their home, she thinks. The only building in the world where the dent in the ceiling was from Tony’s disastrous first attempt at testing the mark two, where notches in a wall on the ground floor marked the first through fifth times she decided to quit before Tony figured out what she was doing and built her a board to commemorate the events more properly. There was a cork lodged in one of the cupboards from the champagne they drank the night Tony’s palladium levels dropped below ten percent and a party hat hanging from one of the ceiling fixtures from the day the Forbes cover featured her.

This was their home, and that had meant something.

“You’ll never guess what I found,” she says.

“The most expensive heap of scrap metal on the market?”

She reaches down to pluck a glass case off the floor. Inside, the engraved arc reactor that carried Tony through Afghanistan and Obadiah Stane sits on its holder. Proof that Tony Stark has a heart. It is unharmed.

Tony laughs so hard he cries.

-

Tony’s there when she wakes up, asleep in his own right with nary a device in sight. He’s pulled the workshop couch up tight to the hospital bed she rests in, one of his arms hanging loosely over the edge and trailing on the floor.

“Hey,” she says quietly, carding the fingers of one hand through his hair. He stirs with the contact, coming awake almost instantly.

“Hey.” He smiles when he sees her, focus sharpening as he gets his feet under him. “How do you feel?”

“Tingly.”

His attention flicks over to the diagnostic program he has running, monitoring the input from nearly a dozen electrodes scattered along her right side and scalp.

CORE TEMPERATURE CONTAINMENT: GREEN
> Current temperature: 99.1 F
WHITE BLOOD CELL LEVELS: GREEN
> Current count: 9,400
EEG READINGS: GREEN
PULSE RATE: YELLOW
> Current resting pulse: 110

EXTREMIS STATUS: STABILIZED

“Any lingering desire to combust for old time’s sake?”

“Tony--.”

“--Because I could build the next house in the arctic, though I don’t know if you’ve heard, there’s a thing with the ice caps right now that might be a concern.” He quiets when she pulls his head into the hollow of her neck, his arm coming up to wrap itself around her shoulders.

“I’m fine,” she says. “I promise.”

“There’s one way to check that,” he says, pulling away from her. There’s a knife sitting on the table behind her which he offers to her handle first.

“Here goes nothing.” She makes a shallow cut in the palm of her hand, watching as blood wells up quickly. After two minutes, it has scabbed over. After five, she picks the scab away to find that the cut has healed to a light pink line.

“JARVIS, store footage in project folder Extremis, file name ‘yayteam.’ Restrict access to the two of us and Bruce, let him know how it went while you’re at it.” Asleep three floors above them in the tower, Bruce is as much to credit for the serum that stabilized Extremis as Tony is, bringing years of experience in the field of biochemistry to the table that Tony could not, for all his drive.

“Notifying now, sir.”

“It worked,” she says to him, not sure she believes it herself. She hadn’t realized how much it was weighing on her, keeping herself in check in perpetuity. She’ll never be the same again, but anger and fear and grief are hers again, as is everything between and beyond. She doesn’t need to look upon the things that were done to her and the things that she did with detached neutrality, the injection they gave and the man she killed.

“You’re a bona fide superhero now, Potts. You know what this means?”

“My insurance is about to go through the roof?”

“You’re in a relationship with me, that’s a given, there’s a line in the budget for it. It means I’m dating a superhero.”

“I might know someone with some experience on that front,” she says around a smile. “It’s kind of stressful but--.”

“—there’s a but?”

“—but ultimately rewarding.”

Iron Man and Pepper Potts. She likes the sound of that. There's already a new suit in production of course, codename rebirth, because Tony is flippant and cheesy in alternating bursts and lately the balance he’s struck has taken an odd detour into truthful. I was going to make you an omelette, she can still hear him saying. And tell you I’m dying.

For the first time in a long time he’s building one suit at a time rather than ten, each protecting against something different and none of them adequate to keep everyone around him safe all of the time. He’s building because he wants to, a clue she didn’t realize she was missing until it was gone. She never makes the same mistake twice, though, and now that she knows what to look for she can figure out what to do, because she’s not the kind of person that admits defeat.

-

Aside from Bruce (who already knew), the next person they tell is Steve Rogers.

Well, alright, the next person they tell is James Rhodes. This is done in the form of a wholly inadequate voicemail left by Tony, which results in the temporarily-decommissioned-and-arguably-superior (if Rhodey’s arguments are to be believed) War Machine landing on the balcony and yelling at Tony for approximately ten minutes before giving Pepper a hug that lifts her clean off her feet. Tony yells back while pouring them both a drink and they spend a comfortable evening slapping each other on the back and doing an altogether poor job of hiding how much they’ve missed each other.

Steve figures out what they’re trying to tell him two sentences into Tony’s explanation of what Extremis is, filling in the blanks they’d left out of both the official story and the slightly more accurate but still heavily modified version SHIELD and the US military received.

“I assume Ms. Potts was the one affected,” Steve says, an eye on the arc reactor still implanted in Tony’s chest. The surgery's three days away, but only five people in the world know about it and Steve isn't one of them, not yet at least. “It’s an honour, ma’am.” His smile is so utterly sincere that at first she believes it has to be a ploy of some sort, a trick of the light maybe. When she realizes it’s not, that Steve is actually that genuine, she turns to Tony.

“I like this one. We’re keeping him.”

Steve’s blush goes all the way down to his collar, but it isn’t long before he begins asking about her physical benchmarks before and after the transformation, healing times for sprains as opposed to breaks, and rate of metabolization for both food and medication. It takes five minutes for her to realize that being the world’s only super soldier is a lonely position indeed. From there, it takes five days to convince him to move into the tower.

-

Natasha takes her out to lunch soon after Extremis is stabilized. The timing is highly suspect, but since Pepper hasn’t seen Natasha since her record eleven hour meeting with Maria Hill to discuss both SI’s official role in the cleanup of New York and Tony’s unofficial press strategy (to be negotiated in connection with SHIELD and the newly minted Avenger PR division), she puts something in the schedule anyways.

“So tell me the truth,” Pepper says, sitting down to a table for two in the back corner of a small bistro to leave Natasha clean lines of sight. “Is this business or pleasure?”

Natasha smiles and Pepper sighs. “Don’t answer that. Is SHIELD monitoring this conversation?”

“No. Officially, I’m here to do high security clearance on you.”

“We worked in weapons development for years, I already hold a security clearance.”

“Unofficially, I’m here to congratulate you on taking out Aldrich Killian,” Natasha follows it up with, a gentleness to her voice that belies the quiet bombshell she’s just dropped. Pepper blinks, covering her surprise with a sip of coffee. Natasha isn’t supposed to know that. No one is. The story they gave SHIELD and the press at large is that Tony took out Killian with the help of Iron Patriot; only Happy, Rhodey, and a select few of Rhodey’s superiors know otherwise. After the way they handled Bruce Banner, keeping her unstable biochemistry under wraps seemed like a good idea.

“Oh?”

Natasha’s expression alone tells Pepper the game has been given away, but she’d been expecting as much. For all Natasha is a friend, she was a spy first and she doesn’t turn off that skill set when she sits down to a meal.

“How’d you know?”

“Everyone who’s anyone knows AIM’s research was biomedical in nature, Tony had Bruce Banner on a plane out of Kinshasa within three hours of the battle, and you haven’t been seen in two weeks. He has.” It’s less frightening coming from Natasha than it might be from someone else because she’s on the short list of people with all the pieces to put together and the even shorter list of people who would think to look.

“Have you shared it with anyone else?” she asks next.

“Not yet. Not until I knew what we were dealing with,” Natasha says. It’s a small gesture but a big deal and Pepper know what it means coming from Natasha of all people, who tracks loyalty with ruthless precision like it’s something that can be quantified, something that can be balanced.

“Thank you. I owe you one.”

“I assume a solution has been found?” Natasha holds her eyes as she asks the question, looking for signs of sincerity and deceit alike, Pepper is sure. She’s equally confident that if she were to reply in the negative, Natasha would exact a price for the wrongs she is unable to correct. She’s a good friend like that.

“Come back to the tower with me, I’ve got some interesting things to show you.”

-

Three mornings a week, Steve starts his day with fifty laps in the pool. Large volumes of water make him nervous now, but there isn’t a more controlled environment out there than Stark Tower, which is isolated enough that he can keep at least this battle his own.

Most mornings, Iron Man isn’t lying flat on his back at the bottom of the pool. Steve would be more concerned were it not for JARVIS, who has kindly informed him in the past that the pool is equipped with an emergency drainage system capable of emptying the structure completely within thirty seconds should it be necessary. Still, the sight is an odd one. Tony’s gone completely still in a way that unsettles Steve, who’s used to far more animation out of him.

“Tony?” he calls out to the figure. He’s sure he could get the suit out of the water if he needed to, but it might be more than a little overkill. It’s not clear what’s going on here yet; for all he knows, the suit is empty and Tony’s simply field testing the new model.

Steve settles for sinking down to the bottom to tap on the faceplate gently. Only a murmured swear word gives him warning before Iron Man throws a punch that goes wide. Seconds later, the repulsors are triggered and the suit goes careening into the far wall, shooting upwards from there until it’s hovering inches about the surface of the pool. Tony has the faceplate popped up by the time Steve breaks the surface himself, a distant look to his face that suggests his presence elsewhere.

Steve doesn’t ask what that was because he’s pretty sure he already knows. He settles for wiping his eyes clear of the heavily chlorinated water, heaving himself out of the pool and watching out of the corner of his eye as Tony comes back to himself in slow, careful steps. So close to the surface of the water, the repulsors trigger considerably sized ripples which lap at Steve’s ankles.

He doesn’t seem to want to talk, which is fine. Steve fills the silence with a story of his own instead. “The plane hit the ice nose-first, forming hairline cracks in the hull. It was buried deep enough that the tip of the plane was well into the water table, and the cockpit started to flood. Hypothermia set in before I could get my wits about me.” He looks up to find that Tony is watching him carefully, face inscrutable. Steve’s positive he’s read the situation correctly, the signs distinctive and familiar enough from his own experiences, but that doesn’t make talking about it any easier.

“When the house collapsed, the suit hadn’t generated enough energy to power the repulsors. It wasn’t as waterproof as expected,” Tony replies in turn. Steve’s seen the footage. The whole structure went into the Pacific in one fell swoop. He can’t imagine being caught in the middle of it with no exit strategy, stuck under the surface in a heavy metal suit with water leaking in through the joints. It must have been terrifying.

“I’m here Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday mornings if you want some company in the future,” Steve says, waving a hand at the pool to encompass Tony’s actions, underlying motivation, and the stubborn need to win even the little battles that’s brought them both to the same place.

“I’ll keep that in mind, Captain.”

-

Whether the relocation to New York has made visiting more convenient or fighting alongside each other has rekindled an old friendship, Rhodey continues to drop by the tower semi-frequently even after the post battle back and forth with the military has been officially signed off on. This is to check in on Tony or steal his food, depending on whose side of the story you believe.

“Do me a favor Tony, and stop doing me favors,” Rhodey calls out to the floor at large one night, stepping off the elevator still in uniform, phone open to the text message informing him his new password is ironman4evah. There’s already a new suit in production, he hears from Pepper. Half the reason he stopped by tonight is to see for himself if the rumours are true and Tony’s getting back in the air sooner rather than later.

“Hold that thought five minutes,” Tony yells back from the direction of the labs, which Rhodey takes to mean ‘make yourself a snack in the meantime’ as is his right as long time best friend of a man who he has shared login information to military satellites with.

JARVIS interrupts him before he makes it to the kitchen. “Colonel Rhodes, Sir has requested I inform you that the contents of the cereal cupboard have been brought into line with your nutritional requirements.” In Tony logic, this means that when he opens the cupboard door, three shelves full of Raisin Bran and a lonely box of Captain Crunch stare back at him. Rhodey hates Raisin Bran.

“You are a petty, petty man.”

“Relax, there are blueberry waffles in the freezer. I know you have a breakfast for dinner fetish,” Tony says, pulling on a t-shirt as he rounds the corner into the kitchen. Two weeks out from major heart surgery, Tony shouldn’t be out of bed much less tooling around in the workshop, but here he is. The metal shell which held the arc reactor is long gone and Extremis has regrown new flesh in its place. Stranger things have happened, but not ones Rhodey is quite as thankful for.

“Is the Captain Crunch a reference I should get?”

“Nah, that’s for Steve.”

“Thanks for not telling me Captain America moved in with you, by the way. I loved meeting an American hero in the elevator while tying my shoe.”

“Any time. I’m here for all your awkward superhero meeting needs. Hawkeye and Black Widow are in the gym with Pepper right now actually, if you’d care to drop some weights on their feet while you’re here.”

Reading between the lines, Rhodey is pretty sure Tony actually does want him to meet the other members of his team. He hasn’t always listened to it, but Tony’s always respected his judgement and it’s important Rhodes approves of the people Tony’s thrown his lot in with. Rhodey has his own reasons for wanting to meet them, though, chief among them ensuring the people watching his best friend’s back are up to the task.

-

“Keep your center of gravity lower, and step into the punch,” Clint instructs. Dutifully, Pepper obeys. Natasha started bringing him by as another critical eye when she saw what Pepper could do. To what end is anyone’s guess, but she knows Natasha well enough by now to suspect she has several ulterior motives. Clint is sure to know at least one, but probably not all of them.

Steve knows what to test for and Bruce knows how to test for it in a way that minimizes risk and damage alike, ideal qualities in a room full of people who have made a career out of being exceptional. Both were enlisted soon into the third session. It makes for an intimidating audience, four people who saved the world not long ago and then Pepper, clad in athletic shorts and a t-shirt. The overall experience is far out of her comfort zone, but there are no better teachers in the world.

The gym is a step up in its own right. In typical Tony fashion, none of the equipment present is standard issue. Built into the punching bag are a dynamometer and training program capable of offering suggestions for improvement. The weights are equipped with a self-spotting system which lifts the weights off the user if a keyword is uttered. The treadmill has two personalities: encouraging and sarcastic.

Beyond the typical set of equipment, areas of the room have obviously been designed with the Avengers in mind. The rock wall fires nerf arrows and can be set to mimic any given set of weather conditions, one of the practice ranges is embedded in an obstacle course, and certain pieces of equipment have been reinforced with a steel-vibranium alloy, marked with a miniature Captain America shield on the sides.

“Great job, readings look good,” Bruce says after Clint has run her through another ten punches from various angles, correcting her form just slightly with each repetition. “If I can just get another set of 100, 200, and 400 meter sprints out of you, we’ll call it a night.”

Natasha lines up the starting blocks for her, squeezing her arm as she checks that Pepper’s heel is flat against the electric timer before stepping away to join Steve, Bruce, and Clint. The first day in the gym, just the two of them, Natasha had taken one look at Pepper’s times and said, “This is going to be fun.” Pepper’s still not sure what she means by that.

“When you’re ready,” Bruce says.

Running with Extremis hardly feels like running at all, the movement so effortless, so natural. She runs a mile and feels she could run five more without faltering.

“You are on fire,” comes a voice from the doorway just as soon as she crosses the finish line. When she turns around, Tony is grinning back at her. “Too soon?”

“Always too soon.”

With a shrug, Tony wanders over to peer over Bruce’s shoulder at the readings with Rhodey in tow. He thinks the whole thing is hilarious, says she’s always been faster than everyone else anyways.

“She’s got Steve beat,” Bruce admits. It’s about the only category where that’s true. While Bruce has confirmed that she’s improved on her baseline by orders of magnitude across the board since receiving the Extremis injection, her newfound abilities fall short of the benchmarks set by the super soldier.

“And just wait until we get you in the suit!” he crows when she jogs over to join the party.

“What?”

“I’m building you a suit, by the way. I don’t remember if I told you that before.”

No. He hadn’t, actually. Tony never has been one for tact, but a sudden crack of thunder on an otherwise clear night occurs before she can process this development.

“Thor!” Tony cheers. “Let’s go see what family drama he’s brought with him this time, shall we?”

-

Thor meets them in the penthouse suite where Tony once confronted Loki, positively beaming as he greets them each in turn. As it turns out, he brings good tidings rather than a crisis this time around. Their collective surprise is somewhat unflattering but not entirely unwarranted at this point.

“I watched your recent triumphs through the Bifrost and regret that I was unable to aid you at a time of great political turmoil in Asgard. My congratulations to both you and the lady Pepper on a battle well fought,” Thor says, dipping his head towards Pepper respectfully as he addresses her.

“Thanks, big guy. Does Foster know you’re back yet?”

“I have just come from there!” Without looking, Natasha elbows Clint in the ribs just as he begins to snicker.

“Come, let us sit. I am sure we have much to share.”

The Avengers, back together again. She means to leave the room and give them some time together to catch up while she changes out of her workout clothes when Clint stops her with a hand on her arm. “You’re coming back?” he asks. It is not really a question.

Natasha leans across Clint to say, “Of course she is.” There’s a look in her eyes that Pepper can’t quite decipher, not threatening but warm.

Steve smiles at her on her way out the door. “We’ll be in the kitchen when you’re ready,” he says helpfully.

-

Pepper figures it out slowly. The last piece of the puzzle arrives in the form of a forwarded SHIELD briefing from Clint, when she realizes they aren’t keeping her in the loop as CEO of Stark Industries but as someone who might be directly involved in the situations they’re preparing for.

She tracks Natasha down to the gym, where she has just finished up a sparring session with Steve. “You want me to join the team,” she accuses.

It explains odds and ends from the previous few weeks, including Steve’s switch to teaching her offensive rather than defensive tactics, Bruce’s heavy handed hints that the big guy likes redheads, and Thor’s continued references to her as ‘warrior Pepper.’ Come to think of it, that last one should have tipped her off earlier.

“I do,” Natasha agrees.

“Why?”

“The better question is whether or not it’s something you’d be interested in.”

“Isn’t that for Director Fury to decide?”

Steve steps forward, unwrapping his hands. “Not as much as you’d think,” he says lightly, but behind the tone is the word of Captain America, the difference between the military man and the guy from Brooklyn that sometimes cooks breakfast in the morning noticeable. If he insisted on it, she’s pretty sure he would win that battle. “We think you’d be a good fit. You’ve got the abilities, the temperament, and team approval. Take some time and think about it, let us know what you decide.”

All these years of dealing with Tony, and the invitation to join the team of superheroes she already cohabitates with has never come up. In lieu of an appropriate response, she retreats. CEO of Stark Industries is a simpler job in retrospect.

-

Tony’s response to the invitation is to get Pepper in the suit he’s designing for her as soon as possible.

“JARVIS, bring all systems online and activate the HUD,” Tony says. The inside of the helmet lights up under his instruction, each process initializing in the forefront before minimizing to the background, leaving her field of vision clear. In contrast to her brief exposure to the suit in Malibu, all systems read in the blue.

“How does it feel?” Tony asks. He hasn’t donned a suit of his own yet, leaving his body language open for her to read. There was a certain truth to his words when he told the senate committee the suit was a prosthesis. More than a system, the armors are something intensely personal for him and it’s important to him that she is okay with them, she realizes more now than ever before.

“Enlightening. Good so far.” Sensors display the current temperature, altitude, and air pressure. Before her eyes, the suit picks out prominent objects in the environment around them, calculating her distance to them. From his charging station, Dummy rolls forward. Focusing on the bot magnifies her view and brings up a list of characteristics. ‘Barred from making smoothies’ is the first that comes up.

“Give me a second to suit up, and we’ll go for a flight. I’m assuming you’re comfortable with the basics after saving my ass in it already.” Legs for gross motor control, arms for stabilization, and the suit intelligently manages the firing of the repulsors based on muscle tension unless manually overridden. She isn’t particularly graceful, but she can maneuver.

Pepper knows he’s been working with the suit in the pool, but it’s the first time she’s seen him in armor since Clean Slate. While it’s similar in appearance to the old versions, considerable tweaking of the chest piece has taken place to accommodate an external arc reactor as a power source.

“Hold on tight,” he says. In preparation, she tenses up and the repulsors in her boots ignite, lifting her off the ground. She wobbles for a moment, throwing an arm out to catch herself before managing to regain her balance.

“I think I’ve got the hang of it now,” she says proudly.

“Not for long. JARVIS, take us up.” Along the far wall, a wide circular entrance opens to reveal a built-in pathway from the workshop to the rooftop wide enough to fit the suit with little room to spare. The warning AUTOPILOT INITIATED flashes on the screen briefly before the suit angles itself towards it, hanging in the air a minute before the thrust increases, the suit twists, and she is shooting up, up, and away.

The autopilot spins her in a slow spiral as they rise high above the city and up into the clouds until the lights of New York at night are mere specks below their feet. Tony closes the distance between them smoothly, flipping in the air as he turns to face her. Every time she’s flown with the suit before, it’s been in a high stress situation. She’s never been up here for the hell of it, not like he has. This far up, the stars seem brighter, twinkling brilliantly in the distance. Narrowing her focus brings up a flock of birds passing by in the distance. “It’s beautiful,” she admits.

She can see the appeal of flying through the streets, a crowd of people below her and the open sky above her.

“Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride,” he says in lieu of a response.

“What do you mean by that?” The words AUTOPILOT DISENGAGED flash on the screen before her, and the repulsors cut out suddenly. The bottom drops out of her stomach before her enhanced reflexes kick in and she takes control back, holding a steady altitude.

Laughing, Tony is already putting distance between them, yelling, “Catch me if you can.”

As if predicting her next request, JARVIS plots an appropriate flight path for her against Tony’s current trajectory, highlighting the estimated point of intersection. “This is going to be fun,” Pepper says, taking off after him.

She chases him through a collection of loop-de-loops, each circle getting smoother as she learns the ropes of spiralling without losing control, balancing the dampened g-forces against her desire for speed.

The phone rings just as she reaches out to touch Tony’s calf, pulling out of a dive in a gradual arc. A picture of Bruce flashes on the HUD. She accepts the call, and he starts speaking immediately. “Pepper, there’s been an attack on a warehouse ten miles north of your current position. It's thought to be run by weapons dealers. The rest of the team is en route, but we could use some containment in the meantime. Satellite shows two teams of three leaving the building in opposite directions, one of which is carrying a large quantity of ammunition.”

“Right. Okay,” she says, and Bruce looks vaguely apologetic before he hangs up.

Tony’s face replaces Bruce’s on the screen almost immediately, in the form of a live video feed from his suit. “You don’t have to do this, Pep,” he says, looking more serious than she’s seen him since an unmanned Iron Man suit pinned her to their bed. “I mean it. The suit, the team, all of it is yours whether you do this or not. Or none of it. Whatever you want, no strings attached.”

“Are you going up there?” she asks.

“Yes.”

“Then I’m coming with you,” she decides. She doesn’t want to count the number of times she’s almost lost him by now, and the last thing she’s going to let him do is fly into battle without any backup. The rest of the matter will keep until later.

-

Pepper gets her first view of their opponents a mile out, Iron Man in formation at her side as they make their approach in a slow and steady descent, aiming for a show of force rather than the element of surprise.

A scan of the warehouse turns up fourteen heat signatures, four of which are clustered in a circle by one of the exits. The two trucks Bruce mentioned have left in opposite directions, the custom metal bodies of the storage compartments making it impossible to tell which carries the stolen ammunition. There are two immediate threats and two of them, so the only logical option is splitting up.

“Ladies’ choice.”

“I’ll take east,” she replies, and Tony peels off to handle the team heading north.

She cuts thrust five feet above ground and gravity handles the rest. It makes for a hard landing, dirt kicking up around her as she lands directly in the truck’s path, a metal plated fist embedded in the ground in front of her bracingly. With nowhere else to go, the truck swerves to avoid her and skids off the road, fishtailing briefly before the driver cuts the engine and leans over to grab a large-calibre weapon from the woman in the passenger seat.

Before she has a chance to address the threat, tinny metallic pings sound in her immediate vicinity. It isn’t until she looks down that she realizes the sound is the ricochet of bullets from a handgun manned by a third person she hadn’t realized had gotten out of the back of the truck. The bullets bounce harmlessly off her suit, and she fires back without taking her eyes off of the two people in front of her, the targeting system handling the lion’s share of the aim.

“Step aside, Iron Man,” the driver orders, hefting a bazooka.

Her mask hides her smile. “I’m not Iron Man. Try again.”

A flicker of confusion crosses his face for a brief second before he lifts the weapon to his shoulder, taking aim. A repulsor blast takes care of that threat before he can get a shot off, and she turns to his female passenger with one hand still poised to fire.

“No, yeah, Iron Man or not, I surrender.”

“Could use some backup here,” Tony yells across the communications channel. He sounds distracted, and in the background she can hear the sound of weapons firing. Pepper tosses the woman a pair of zip ties from a compartment in the suit, ordering her to cuff herself to the door handle before she takes off after Tony. JARVIS pinpoints his location as the warehouse, so she assumes he handled his truck and returned to handle those remaining in the warehouse.

Pepper covers the distance between them in record time, pushing the thrusters for as much force as they can give her. Thor meets her just outside the compound, shortly followed by Steve landing a helicopter on the roof of the office building next door.

The scene is chaos when they get inside. Tony’s caught in the middle of the warehouse, putting the new suit through its paces as he dives, ducks, and dodges to avoid incoming fire from at least three directions she can pick out, returning as best he can. Judging by the smoking holes left in the warehouse walls, she somehow doubts these rounds will bounce off the suit as easily as the handgun bullets had.

With a roar, Thor sets out to eliminate the combatant firing on Tony from their immediate left. A crash of broken glass from above them suggests Steve, Natasha, and Clint have found a way into the warehouse and joined the fight as well.

Smoke from the control room on the second floor explains why Tony doesn’t make his escape from above, but it also serves to obscure the scene at hand. JARVIS overlays her field of vision with the corresponding heat signatures, identifying members of her team in a friendly green and combatants in red.

“Imminent explosion from above, potential scale unknown,” Pepper says, eyes on the room the smoke is emanating from. Scans pick up a stockpile of explosive chemicals ready to blow.

“On it,” comes Natasha’s reply. With the heat vision, she sees Black Widow disable her current opponent with ease and make her way towards the office.

She identifies the group of three keeping Tony from taking cover behind a wall of boxes as the most immediate threat and takes them out with three quick blasts. Picking up on her strategy, Tony makes a dive for her at the next opportunity, twisting to avoid one last blast before he hits the ground on his back and skids to behind the safety of the boxes. She lays down covering fire over his head until an arrow hits the opponent firing on them in the shoulder and he goes down in a tangle of limbs, Hawkeye's work from his position somewhere in the rafters above them. Steve’s head pops up over the railing shortly after, and she gives him a thumbs up.

“Having fun?” she asks Tony.

“Always,” he wheezes. The suit is more than a little banged up, dented in some places and scorched in others from more than a few close shaves. “Are you?”

“Time to move,” Natasha yells before she can reply. On the level above her, Hawkeye drags Black Widow out of the control room and ducks under the railing to drop onto the high tower of shipping containers below, her hand still in his. As soon as they hit ground level, Thor scoops Clint up and Steve swings Natasha over his shoulder, both equipped to move more quickly. Natasha slings herself around to hold onto Steve's back and he takes off running without further delay, Thor swinging Mjolnir above his head in preparation for takeoff.

Tony struggles to his feet, taking more time than Natasha’s warning suggests they have. Pepper wraps his arm around her shoulders, and he figures out what she intends to do quickly and wraps his other arm around her torso, careful to leave her free range of motion of her limbs. She hits the gas pedal as soon as he’s secure, letting intuition rather than conscious thought guide her actions as they break through a window on the second floor and continue moving out from the warehouse, gaining both altitude and speed.

Steve and Natasha reach her shortly, Natasha piloting the helicopter in a slow circle around them. Thor joins ranks soon after, Clint in his arms. In the distance, the warehouse explodes, sending a dark plume cloud into the sky.

“I got you,” she tells Tony.

“I got you first.”

-

When the battle is over and the team has regrouped at the tower, Pepper means to quit. Only when she sees the six of them sitting in the living room, freshly showered and yelling at the falsehoods in the TV coverage of the explosion, what comes out of her mouth is not ‘never again’ but, “I’m in.”

“Excellent!” Thor choruses, shortly followed by Steve clapping her on the shoulder as he passes by with a fruit tray, setting it down on the coffee table.

“Welcome aboard,” Bruce says softly. He’s happier being the man behind the scenes as he’d been for the last battle, but she doesn’t doubt for a second he’d let the Hulk out if the situation called for it. He’s a better man than he thinks he is.

Natasha nods at her when she meets her eyes, looking faintly pleased.

“She needs a name, you guys realize,” Clint says.

Tony cuts in before the rest of them can offer suggestions. “Rescue.” There’s a soft smile on his face when she turns to face him, like the rest of the team isn’t there and it’s the two of them against the world. Maybe it is. Maybe it always has been.

“Rescue it is.”