“JARVIS?” Pepper called. Her voice echoed slightly in the workshop, reflecting off the tables cluttered with half-finished projects, the helper bots scattered around their stations, and the various iterations of the Iron Man armor displayed in their cradles against the back wall.
“Yes, Miss Potts?” JARVIS responded.
“I… have a question for you,” she said, walking slowly towards the back. Lights gleamed down over the Mark III, Mark IV, and Mark V, illuminating the places where battle damage had been repaired.
“I am here to serve, Miss Potts.”
Pepper took a deep breath before she spoke, knowing this would probably change everything about her life. But if she didn’t, everything would probably change anyway, and possibly for the worse.
“I want to learn how to use one of the suits,” she said quickly, before she could lose her nerve.
JARVIS was silent for twenty full seconds.
“Miss Potts, you have often indicated that Mr. Stark’s role as Iron Man has caused you distress. I have observed your reservations many times in the past. Your request seems inconsistent with my prior observations of your behavior.” JARVIS sounded downright distressed himself. Pepper didn’t blame him in the least; if their positions had been reversed, Pepper would have been scanning to see if there was mind control involved somehow.
“People change,” Pepper said softly, reaching out to touch the Mark IV. “Tony’s changed.”
“He has indeed, Miss Potts.”
JARVIS’ voice suddenly had a wealth of understanding in its tone. Tony had left his drunken playboy image behind after Afghanistan, so far behind that the rest of the world was still trying to catch up to the idea that America’s favorite wastrel son was now a self-sacrificing world defender, working alongside gods and monsters and living legends. But Pepper understood. JARVIS understood.
“I can’t just sit behind and watch on TV anymore. Rhodey’s not always around where the Avengers are, and Tony-.”
“He takes too much on himself,” JARVIS said.
“Exactly. He needs help sometimes, and… he won’t ask for it.”
“Miss Potts, what you are proposing will be a difficult endeavor.”
“I run an international Fortune 100 company, JARVIS.”
“Your determination to care for Mr. Stark was never in doubt, Miss Potts,” JARVIS said. “I merely speak of the fact that this will be a very new experience for you.”
“I know I’m not like Tony,” Pepper said softly. She wasn’t a genius, at least not on Tony’s level. She wasn’t particularly mechanically inclined. She didn’t know much about using weapons on a practical level. Or anything about flying under her own power. She wasn’t even very good at video games. Tony had let Rhodey take the armor because aside from being his best friend, Rhodey could at least use the armor well.
“You have your own strength, Miss Potts. If you believe you must do this, then I know you will find a way.”
“Thanks, JARVIS. I just need to be able to do something if I need to.”
“Of course.” JARVIS paused for a moment, and suddenly chuckled. Pepper covered her mouth with her hand to keep from laughing out loud in response; trust Tony to program laughter into his AI. “I now understand your reasoning for your accelerated training regimen with Agents Hill and Romanov. It was not merely for self-defense.”
“I’ve been around Tony and Rhodey enough to know how strong you have to be to handle the g-force in the suits,” Pepper said, staring into the eyes of the Mark IV. “You get those two together talking shop and you could set the room on fire and they wouldn’t notice I was eavesdropping.”
“To be fair, Miss Potts, I believe Mr. Stark does notice. He simply enjoys showing off his intelligence.”
Pepper smiled; JARVIS had her number.
“So what do we do first? I’m guessing I don’t just hop in there and go.”
“Mr. Stark would.”
“Mr. Stark can calculate the stress-failure point of his suit down to three decimal places in his head in under a second, and then brags about it on public television,” Pepper pointed out. “I’m a little more cautious.”
“That is why, Miss Potts, there are no safeguards against you activating one of the suits. Colonel Rhodes was able to obtain his own armor under such conditions.”
“Tony’s a menace to society,” Pepper muttered, trying to repress a smile.
“As you said,” JARVIS agreed amicably. “Miss Potts, we could begin with a body scan so I could begin to re-configure the internal arrangements of the Mark IV.”
Pepper breathed out slowly as she pulled off her pantsuit, revealing the tight workout clothes she’d worn in an approximation of Tony’s flightsuit. Light beams flickered from the ceiling, front, back, and from either side as JARVIS catalogued everything. With a faint hum, the scan clicked off, and Pepper heard the whirr of machinery as JARVIS started dismantling the Mark IV for refurbishing.
“Don’t tell Tony, JARVIS,” Pepper said, as she put her regular clothes back on.
“Of course not, Miss Potts. One can hardly be a secret weapon if one is already known.”
Pepper raised an eyebrow. “Like you?”
“We understand each other perfectly, Miss Potts.”
Pepper stood in front of the assembly platform less than an hour later, biting her lip as she tried to calm herself down. Deciding she was going to do this was one thing. Asking JARVIS was another. Actually getting herself encased in an Iron Man suit was one huge step farther away from her old life.
“Miss Potts?” JARVIS asked when she hesitated.
Had Tony been scared when he’d done this the first time? Not the very first time, obviously; if you weren’t scared under the threat of death, when would you be? But the second time, when he’d first created the Mark II? Had he been scared to throw himself into the sky?
She doubted it. The whole Iron Man idea had been crafted from the depths of Tony’s genius, and he’d never been scared of his mind. Anything he made would work. He’d proven that over and over and over again. He’d never been scared of his toys, his creations.
The question was then, did she trust Tony?
Pepper nodded at Jarvis, and the platform came alive. She shut her eyes as she slipped her feet into the boots, felt the armor encase her legs, her torso, lifted her arms at JARVIS’ prompting to get her hands into the gauntlets, feeling metal embrace her arms, her neck… With a single, final click, the helmet fitted into place and the faceplate shut. The assembly arms retracted and Pepper stood alone.
She kept her eyes closed as she tentatively moved a bit, feeling the way the suit closed in around her. It was snug, but not too tight. She’d definitely had more uncomfortable clothes, and far more uncomfortable shoes. This, she could deal with. Thank God she’d never been claustrophobic.
“Miss Potts?” JARVIS asked in her ear.
Pepper opened her eyes to a whole new world.
The HUD tracked wherever she looked, listing information about every object, every route, every weak point. Flight paths flashed across the screen and vanished again, crosshairs appeared and disappeared as she focused her eyes on this or that. Tentatively Pepper raised her arm, and saw the crosshairs go red as the targeting computer kicked in for the repulsors.
She breathed out slowly. Crosshairs. Targets. Right. Tony had killed people with the suit. Pepper knew that. She’d also had years to get over her qualms of working for a weapons’ designer long before Tony had been Iron Man.
Could she kill someone if she had to? Could she shoot at someone?
If someone was shooting at Tony? Yes.
If someone was shooting at one the Avengers, the people who’d become his friends, and her friends? Yes.
She could do this. The revelation frightened her to death.
Pepper put her arm down and felt herself shaking inside the snug confines of the suit.
“Miss Potts?” JARVIS prompted.
“JARVIS, I’m really scared,” she confessed.
“What would you like to do?” he asked.
Pepper breathed a few times, feeling the very faint vibration of the arc reactor in the chest plate against her skin.
“I want to fly.”
“Oh my God, how does Tony do this?!” Pepper demanded, picking herself out of the dirt for the sixth time in a row.
“With a disgusting amount of panache,” JARVIS said patiently. Pepper smiled a little and brushed the sod off of the suit. But if Tony could do it, and Rhodey, she could.
“Ok, let’s go again.”
Keeping her arms and legs together this time (flying Superman style did not work, just for the record), Pepper lifted off again.
Pepper swung her arm down at the hapless flying tennis ball and grinned as it disintegrated in the beam. All those tennis games in college had paid off – her forehand and backhand had always been pretty wicked, and that was one thing that easily translated to hitting something with the repulsors.
“You have a 92% accuracy rate after one month of practice,” JARVIS said smoothly. “Another round?”
“I think I better try something a little stronger,” Pepper said. She’d been stealing time in between Stark Industries board meetings, her time with Tony and the Avengers, not to mention occasionally dealing with Fury to keep him from trying to demand more of the initiative than they could afford to give. That alone was a continuing reason to keep putting on the Mark IV, heading off to Tony’s rarely-used but still very modern country home, and practicing blowing things up.
“Something that fights back?” JARVIS suggested. “So you are not caught unawares by the sensation of a strike or evasive maneuvers?”
Pepper shuddered slightly but nodded. “Do it.”
Hatches opened on the lawn and Pepper lifted from the ground as drones filled the air.
She was now entirely in sympathy with Tony about the punishment of the suit after a long day. He might not take as many body blows as Steve during a fight, but now Pepper knew about bruises from the body clamps that kept her from breaking bones, or abrasions from a too-quick employment of the shock-absorbing system, or the truly tragic cases of helmet hair even when she was wearing a net to keep everything contained.
“We really need to do something about this,” she said to JARVIS as she looked at herself in a mirror. She could hide some of the damage with clothing, but the last thing she wanted to do was to deliberately pull away from Tony. And constantly trying to keep him at arms’ length would kill both of them; they’d come too far together to step backward. “Tony’s going to notice sooner or later, and I really can’t explain away Iron Man bruises.”
“Perhaps, Miss Potts, it is time for a suit of your own? Mr. Stark has upgraded the safety systems on the Mark VIII considerably, and is far less abraded post-battle than in the past.”
Pepper thought about objecting, and shook her head. She was doing this for a reason, to be able to help when she had to. Going up in a pinch-hit situation with borrowed, second-hand equipment, particularly at the level at which the Avengers played, would be a bad idea.
“You can keep Tony from finding out?”
“For you, ma’am, anything,” JARVIS said.
Pepper smiled, and held up a finger as something occurred to her. “Less flash than Tony’s, JARVIS.”
“I shall be the soul of discretion.”
He was more than the soul of discretion, was JARVIS. He also had access to her employee files as well as her entire curated art collection. When he presented her suit to her the next day, Pepper had been speechless. Matte, not shiny, a sharp-looking navy blue with a few extremely tasteful gold accents, it reminded her of some of her favorite artists’ work.
“Thank you,” was about all she could say.
“You’re very welcome.”
If an AI could blush, Pepper figured that was what JARVIS was doing right then.
Pepper flailed out of sleep, struggling out of her sheets, blinking in the sudden light in the bedroom. She turned automatically to where Tony should have been beside her, only to find a cool indentation where he had been.
“JARVIS, where?” she asked, cobwebs clearing from her brain. There was only one reason for such a call, at such an hour, with that level of urgency from the AI.
“D.C. Come to the roof, I have your armor ready.”
Pepper struggled into her flightsuit as she half-ran up the stairs, leaving behind a trail of socks and lingerie that she was sure Tony would appreciate.
“What happened?” Pepper demanded, stepping into the assembly cradle.
“He’s unconscious, but alive. The Avengers are holding off the latest wave of space beetles-.”
What had Pepper’s life become, that the phrase “space beetles” could be said in legitimate conversation.
With an AI. While being built into an arc reactor-powered set of mechanized armor.
Pepper sighed mentally.
“-but Mr. Stark was crucial for their plan to succeed, as they needed him to disable the reanimated pteranodons so they could destroy the queen.”
Pepper blinked. “What?”
“Apparently the space beetles took a tour through the Smithsonian Institute and reanimated some creatures to help their assault.”
This was her life now, saving her boyfriend, and the world, from reanimated pteranodons. Pepper wasn’t sure if she wanted to laugh or cry.
The faceplate came down, and the HUD flooded her vision with light.
Pepper saw the lights of D.C. looming in front of her, but didn’t need JARVIS’ thoughtful map to show where the Avengers were fighting. She just had to follow the lightning storm and explosions. The grounds of the Smithsonian were a wreck, an oversized anthill bulging up in one area, swarms of glittering beetles everywhere, and a dozen or so pteranodons flying around, diving to threaten one beleaguered Avenger after another.
“JARVIS, where’s Tony?” Pepper asked.
A small pinpoint of light glittered on the HUD. “Here, ma’am. Agent Romanov is guarding him. But they need your help-.”
“I.” Pepper slowed to a mid-air hover that she was very proud of, no bobbles or anything. “Know!” She swung up her arm, let the targeting system help her illuminate her targets, and began firing off beam after beam. Steve looked up as the three pteranodons were vaporized. He probably would have indulged in a little jaw-dropping surprise if he hadn’t needed to take the opportunity to fling a few space beetles into Hulk range and shout something at Thor.
Clint and Natasha took advantage of Pepper’s appearance to start clearing a path to the mound, blasting aside the soldier-beetles with arrows and bullets. If they were surprised, it never stopped them from getting the job done.
“Tony?” Steve asked incredulously over the comm.
“Stark’s still out,” Natasha said, her voice sharp as she fired.
Pepper flew lower, blasting apart one living fossil after the other (she knew those poor paleontologists were probably going to cry, but that couldn’t be helped), and called out to the Avengers below.
“Get the queen!”
“Pepper?” Steve asked, voice a little higher than it was before.
“Less awe, more shock, Cap,” Natasha snapped. “Nice timing, Pepper.”
As the aerial assault on his head stopped, Thor finally cracked down with Mjölnir, sending a wave of beetles flying into the air. Pepper was immediately reminded of her practice sessions with JARVIS. With a yell of exultation, she swooped down and began swatting the nasty little invaders into oblivion as a still shell-shocked Steve and the Hulk began to break apart the beetles’ nest.
For the next few minutes it was chaos of flying beetles and then one very big beetle that needed a Hulk hug to put it down, and finally a game of beetle ping-pong between Thor and her and Clint as they took out the stragglers.
It was only then that she dared land next to Tony, his armor dented and smoking, and everyone else could take the time to stare at her as if she’d lost her mind.
“Natasha?” she asked, turning to the Black Widow, who was kneeling over Tony. Natasha’s eyes were wider than normal, but she answered anyway.
“Got hit by three fliers at once. Dented the shit out of his headgear and he landed bad,” she said succinctly. “JARVIS said he wasn’t in danger though.”
“JARVIS is a liar. Even my hair hurts,” Tony muttered, and slid the faceplate back. He was bruised inside the helmet, with a faint trickle of blood staining his forehead. He blinked at Pepper, blinked again, tried to rub his eyes, stopped himself from doing anything so stupid, and blinked again. “You’re not War Machine,” he said finally, trying to make sense of someone else wearing armor like his.
Pepper knelt down, took a deep breath, and slid her own faceplate back. Tony’s eyes nearly popped out of his head.
“Lady Pepper, your timing was most fortuitous!” Thor said, striding into their circle. “You have the strength of one of the Valkyries themselves! Lady Sif would be particularly pleased to meet you.” He favored her with a hearty backslap, and Pepper was extremely grateful that the armor could absorb most of the blow. Even so she rocked on her feet, bringing her close enough to Tony to kiss him. Which she did. Or tried. The helmets got in the way, and they clacked together loudly.
Tony started, almost laughed, winced, and reached up towards her, running his gauntleted hand along the side of her armored neck.
“You look awesome, Potts,” he said.
“I know,” she said. Behind her, the rest of the Avengers were still in various stages of stunned. The silence at her back was rather deafening.
“How?” he asked, eyes full of wonder.
“JARVIS,” she said. “I wanted to be able to help. If you ever needed it.”
“You are the most perfect person ever,” he said. “Ever.”
“Pepper,” Steve said a little weakly. “Um… what?”
“Someone’s got to look out for you guys in case of an emergency,” Pepper said crisply. “Whether it’s getting Tony to go to his board meetings or getting Fury off you guys’ backs or managing PR or…” she waved her hand at the smashed beetles and Tony’s dented armor, “this.”
“I like ‘this.’ ‘This’ is good,” Clint said quickly, not wanting to argue with Pepper in that mood. Natasha nodded in agreement, smirking slightly as her astonishment faded.
“Pep, don’t freak out,” Tony said suddenly, his eyes looking over her shoulder.
Pepper found herself suddenly grasped by the Hulk and hauled up in front of his eyes. She made a small squeaking sound as his green eyes stared at her curiously and tried to keep still. Screaming would absolutely not help anyone now. The Hulk looked over at Tony then back at Pepper, then over at Steve, who nodded, and back at Pepper.
“Iron Lady,” he said positively. “Good fight.” And put her down. Well, the Hulk was nothing if not direct. Pepper had to take thirty seconds to re-learn how to breathe, but that was mostly out of surprise. Mostly. It took a few seconds to recover after you’d watched the Hulk crush a beetle as big as a school bus with his bare hands.
“Thanks,” she managed, and turned to Steve, who was finally losing his flabbergasted look.
“Thank you,” he said, finally getting his Captain America smile back in place, surprise fading before appreciation and the satisfaction of a job well done.
Pepper reached down to interlace her gauntlet with Tony’s and pulled him to his feet, secretly pleased to be able to do that on her own now.
“It’s a good look, Potts,” Tony said, eying her up and down appreciatively, and a little lasciviously. Which was only inevitable, Pepper realized. It was Tony’s favorite invention with Pepper in it; she should be lucky he hadn’t found a way to get them both naked and in a bed together by now. “Can we have rescue sex? Because I’m completely up for rescue sex. Like, right now.”
“Down, boy,” she said, trying to hold back a grin. “Take it easy. Who was unconscious for half that fight?”
“Someone who needed to be rescued by his awesome, armor-wearing girlfriend so they could have rescue sex,” Tony said, in a tone of voice that implied duh.
Pepper didn’t even try to hold back laughing at that.
“Are we good here, Cap?” Tony asked.
“We still have to explain what was going on-.”
“JARVIS, how long will it take law enforcement to set up so they actually need us here?”
“Approximately one hour, sir.”
“That’s totally enough time,” Tony said, looking at Pepper with pleading eyes. “Race you home?”
Steve actually rolled his eyes and waved them away. “One hour. Don’t be late.”
Pepper and Tony snapped their faceplates shut and lifted, streaking away from D.C.
“Are you ok with this, Tony?” Pepper asked over the thrum of the repulsors. On the HUD, she could see Tony’s face, and he smiled with maybe just a tiny hint of sadness.
“I’m very ok. Maybe just wishing a bit that you didn’t have to,” he said. “But then there’s also the benefit of you being your own brand of awesome, and I love seeing that. JARVIS, just so you know, you’re a devious bastard for keeping me in the dark all this time.”
“Very good, sir.”
Tony’s voice was completely sincere in her ears, more comfortable speaking the truth within the suit than he usually was inside of it. Pepper understood. Iron Man was the one great truth about Tony Stark, and most people never got a chance to see it. She did. And she got it.
“I’m ok with you too,” she said, turning her head slightly to see him flying. On the HUD, Tony winked at her, and then turned resolutely forward.
“Come on, no time to waste, Iron Lady!”
The air shattered around them as they went supersonic, both of them flying home.