It takes just over ninety-six hours (which shows remarkable control really, and she does take pride in that fact) before Extremis finally wins and she reaches critical.
It's a familiar tune in a new key. There's mayhem from the threat of the country's near destruction in their immediate wake, and she has a multi-billion dollar international company to run, presidential honors to receive, and Tony on the other hand. Nothing simply stops for a few days just because she's turned into a rather unfortunate ticking time bomb.
So thankfully she's too exhausted to suffer from nightmares, and lives in the fear of her reality instead. She tries to find comfort in the fact that it's easier, somehow, to be plagued by the obvious. Truth is, she’s a danger to herself and others.
But it turns out ninety-six and almost-a-half hours of trying not to panic about death and destruction while still managing responsibilities and life, and acquiescing to Tony's attempts at a solution, will end up leading to the situation she had really hoped to avoid altogether. There's multi-tasking, and then there's not blowing herself up - it's no surprise Extremis wins.
Admittedly, being distracted as she experiments with the limits of her control over this genetic retooling isn't the best decision. But her need to contain the situation (and fine, maybe there's anger and some curiosity there too) borders just on the edge of obsession; she now understands, clearly, why Tony had lived with such single-minded focus.
"It's the perks," he explains as she waits on the thermal plating he'd rigged for the tests. "Baby, you glow."
She gives him a wry look. "That's hardly a selling point."
"Wrinkle-free skin made bacteria sexy. Think of the cosmetic applications."
"Think of the FDA warning," she counters.
"I'm fixing that!"
And somewhere between having control and coaxing the familiar feeling of lava in her blood to a boil, it loosens to become a rush of wild fire. She starts ratcheting up a few thousand degrees too high, becomes an imminent catastrophe, and all she can really do is scream from the agony of it.
"Pepper, honey, you've got this." Peripherally she's aware of Tony moving beside her, hands outstretched but unable to touch as he encourages her attempts to reign in the explosive force before she explodes. "Just like last time. Show it who wears the pants."
But the effect doesn't reverse despite her efforts, and she's quickly in frightening new territory unable to do anything but hear the way her name begins rolling off of Tony's lips in rapid repetition as he registers the impending disaster. In that terrifying moment she is acutely aware of her life moving instantly from years and months down to mere seconds - and it feeds a frantic lance of pain into the liquid heat coursing through her veins.
She's out of time, she's actually going to die, and she desperately wishes with everything she has left that Tony will listen to her for once and run so she doesn't take him with her. It's heartbreakingly futile (he'd refused (and refused and refused) despite her threats), but she loves him for his stubborn loyalty too. She's always been a person to him (which sounds trivial, but she knows the business of men well enough to understand its rarity), and along the way she somehow became the person he couldn't live without.
Extremis takes over her ability to think coherently from there, and she's aware only of pain, of death bright and burning as it fills her vision completely.
So it's not until the suit is rapidly closing down over her, the comforting weight of metal pressing closely against her skin as impossible power roars through her and is guided down through the suit to disperse across the plates in the floor that she begins to understand (remarkably) she's going to be fine. A calm "deep breaths, Ms. Potts" in her ear helps ground her while she shakes from the release and the pain.
"Pepper. Pepper? Talk to me." She hears the fear behind Tony's voice and forces her eyes open, seeing in hues of molten gold. Heat still radiates from her in waves begging for savage release, and she doesn't trust herself to have it locked down enough to speak. Tony is standing directly in front of her, peering into the face mask like he can see through it to her if he finds the right angle. His expression is strained with worry. "Pepper? JARVIS, where's my update?"
Working on it, sir.
"I'm almost entirely sure we're about to die, so let's make it snappy?"
Her hold on Extremis begins to strengthen, while in her ear, JARVIS continues to remind her to breathe. She takes a deep breath, still struggling to accept her survival against the impossible. Her own mortality is again at the forefront, and the close call is an acidic reminder of what Killian’s done to her. The violation is sometimes beyond comprehension.
Sir, Ms. Potts is showing signs of cellular deceleration. Internal temperature cooling to 446 degrees Fahrenheit and falling.
She can see the relief on Tony's face and knows that look well - remembers wearing that look all too frequently.
"Who was worried? We got this," he says as he pulls up a display. "Suit integrity?"
Stabilizing. Carbon composite weakened by 71% at highest recorded temperature.
Nickel alloy coating failed at a rate of point zero one three parts per microsecond. This is what I believe you would call a one-time success, sir.
"Thank you; I accept." He turns back to face her. "Pepper? Honey, you doing okay?"
She is not going to die today; Tony is not going to die. She keeps that thought in her head and wills her heart rate back to normal as the stats displayed on the HUD catch her attention. Extremis has fallen below registered levels and is dormant, but she can see the shocking amount of damage being reported from where the heat was absorbed by the suit and deflected.
She finds her voice. "Is this one of your suits?"
"Ah…" Tony pauses and looks momentarily guilty. "I can explain."
She knows where this is going. "Tony-"
"Okay, technically, yes," he admits.
"It's not what it looks like…"
"Well it looks like I'm standing in a suit that you said self-destructed four days ago," she states, and holds her arms out for emphasis. The Mark 16 identification is impossible to miss although the suit is scored from the numerous hits it took in the fight. “Am I wrong?”
“You sound mad. I might have-”
“You bet I’m mad!”
“-forgotten to mention Nightclub,” he continues. “And a few others. Just in case. You know what, that’s not important. Pepper, this stabilization will work. The suit will work. With some tweaks, a couple of days… honey, I’m going to fix this.”
She doesn’t want to hope – the initial discovery that Extremis couldn’t simply be removed still sits raw and unsettled with her. She knows her expectations are best kept to the manageable when dealing with her newfound unpredictability, but Tony’s confidence is heartening. “So what’s the plan for the suit? And don’t even think we’re finished with that other conversation.”
“Are you still mad? Because you know I don’t work well when we’re fighting-”
“You’re right. Not the time.” The suit opens to release her and she steps out while Tony spins a display around. She skims the schematics for what appears to be an updated version of the suit that just saved her life, and notes the Mark 1616 stamp in the corner. It’s clever, the suit safely guiding Extremis to power its stealth technology and some sort of electromagnetic generator, while simultaneously preventing the energy from climbing beyond manageable levels. Other notations in the design catch her eye and she zooms in to identify the modifications.
“Are those weapons?” she asks, appalled.
“Too much? It’s too much.”
“Anti-ballistic missiles? Short-range defense system?! What exactly am I doing in this suit?”
“Flight, stealth, reconnaissance, combat.” He lists them off, but there’s tension in his tone that gives her pause. It’s anxiety, she realizes as her gut wrenches with guilt. She’s spent her fair share of time worrying about Tony’s safety and general wellbeing for years, but she’s not used to seeing it so plainly in reverse. She stepped fully into his world with Extremis – and Tony’s understood far more quickly that the target on her back is only bigger than it’s been before.
“No weapons,” she says, but she softens her tone. “I’m already armed, remember?”
She calls Natasha.
“I need your advice,” she says by way of hello. It’s not a traditional friendship with established social norms, but it works for exactly that reason.
Natasha uncharacteristically hesitates before answering. “There are still others out there.”
“That wasn’t...,” Pepper starts and then stops, thrown by Natasha’s insight and information. “That’s not what I was asking.”
“Did it answer your question?”
It’s complicated her question. The clean-up operation was handled by S.H.I.E.L.D., but it’s not a surprise to learn they found evidence of other Extremis soldiers beyond those killed on the tanker. She’d only lacked proof to confirm what she had guessed at knowing Killian, and from the defenses Tony had planned to incorporate into the suit, is sure he already accessed the S.H.I.E.L.D. reports.
Extremis is not a choice she was given, and she’s starting to wonder if anything ever will be again. She sighs. “Does it ever scare you? All of this?”
“It gets… predictable,” Natasha offers. “There’s always someone out there who wants something. Fear is when you forget what you’re fighting for.”
“And what is that?” she asks, curious.
She can almost see Natasha’s slight smile. “That’s for you to answer.”
Mastering the suit takes no time at all with Extremis along for the ride. Her reflexes are shockingly swift, and her control over the fluctuations in her core temperature strengthens with the practice. The suit (her suit) is less of a necessity than she feared, and more (dare she say it) exciting than she imagined.
Tony adds dampeners on the repulsors to keep the full power of Extremis in check, and when she’s no longer blowing three inch holes in walls, he teaches her to fly. She isn’t tempted to test her newfound healing abilities from ten thousand feet, but any fear of falling was effectively eradicated after the tanker incident, so flight is something she picks up relatively quickly despite her reservations.
It’s neither the height nor the speed that’s exhilarating – it’s the freedom. There’s so much space, and no one else close enough around for her to feel remotely concerned about meetings or Extremis or exploding. And maybe she pushes it to Mach 3 for a minute, and maybe she actually enjoys it.
Tony swings past her with a long holler like he’s eight years old. “I’m fanboying a little here.”
She laughs. “I don’t even want to know.”
“You and me, Pepper. Anywhere you want to go.”
So it’s not until they’re over Ontario, crossing international lines and through commercial airspace easily with no advance notice or permission that she’s reminded of the power she truly wields. All the responsibility is hers; she is accountable to no one, and the thought suddenly makes her sick. It’s too easy to forget the suit is simply supposed to be for protection.
“I don’t think this will be necessary,” she says to Tony as they return from the diagnostic flight test. “I’m not intending to fly anywhere.”
“God you’re gorgeous when you’re being serious.”
“I mean it, Tony.” She looks over at him as her suit retracts and she steps free. “What am I even doing? Learning to fly, controlling this suit like I expect I’m going to be out there with you? It’s too much.”
“Pepper, hey, you’re a natural. I'm even getting a bit jealous-"
“This wasn’t supposed to be fun.” She frowns, torn between needing to go back to whatever normal it is she misses, and wanting to explore that unbalanced rush of freedom she feels at the edge of her control. "We agreed the suit is just a failsafe. I'm always going to be a potential danger otherwise."
"You could be a super hero."
"No, I have super powers," she corrects and shakes her head. "I'm not a hero, Tony. I can't do what you do. Saving the world - that scares me."
He winces at that and is silent for a moment. It’s an unintentional reminder of the alien invasion in New York, and she knows he needs time to process what it brings up. He died and came back, in a manner of speaking, and now, so has she; sometimes she feels like they’re the only two who will ever understand what that’s like to live with.
“It’s not the world I’m saving; it’s you I’m protecting. Always has been,” he confesses quietly. He gestures toward her. “The suit is for you, Pepper. Whatever you want to do with it.”
Normalcy, albeit with additional strength and speed and some disregard for danger, settles in after the first few months. She returns with Happy to Stark Industries while Tony inserts himself in the S.H.I.E.L.D. contingent charged with locating and neutralizing the remaining Extremis soldiers. It’s not exactly their normal normal, but with S.H.I.E.L.D. agents coming and going at all hours, and Steve or Bruce or Director Fury popping by to deal with whatever situation Tony’s created, she’s adapting to the new definition.
It’s easier than she thinks.
Natasha calls just before sunrise. “Four Extremis operatives have been located in Mexico outside Monterrey.”
Pepper stares at the ceiling as she struggles to wake fully and comprehend the message. “Did you want to talk to Tony?”
“There are hostages,” Natasha continues without acknowledging the interruption. “We also expect there are some casualties.”
“You’re not being recruited.”
She almost laughs. “Well, that’s a relief.”
“I’m sending the coordinates.”
It finally registers that there’s something unusually evasive about Natasha’s remarks. “Is this an official call?”
Natasha pauses, the silence loud. “I thought you should know.”
After the call is disconnected, Pepper takes a deep breath. She’d be lying if she didn’t admit her adrenaline had kicked in, her heart pumping – whether from fear or anticipation though, she has no idea.
Tony is awake, watching her. “What’d I do this time? I can send something. Pineapples, maybe. Mangoes. JARVIS, make a note.”
“Eat the season, honey.”
She knows he overheard the conversation and is just giving her time to think it through. But she’s fully aware what Natasha intended, and has a pretty good idea how she’s going to respond to that indirect summons. Normal or not, there’s a vengeance she wants to satiate.
Tony nods as though he’s heard her thoughts, and rolls over to press a kiss to her forehead. “We’ll leave in ten. Want a waffle?”
They fly in with their backs against the sun to help mask their approach while JARVIS scans the compound and adjacent structures. Heat signatures flare up – little dots of light on a blueprint the HUD displays in pieces as information is gathered. There are over a dozen people in the building, most clustered along the northwest corner on the second level, but there are hostages enough for things to go very badly.
Cursory analysis complete, sir. There appears to be a laboratory on ground level. Holding cells are occupied and located one floor above.
Suddenly, five dots turn red, a sixth blinking rapidly.
Extremis soldiers identified. Abnormal heat signatures indicate two Extremis test subjects in the laboratory. One is unstable. Readings are fluctuating, and climbing.
She looks over at Tony, and he quickly motions in that direction. “Go. Take it. I’ll get the others.”
She doesn’t wait for further prompting. The HUD display adjusts as she angles around the building for a side window entrance – the blueprint resolving into a 3D map to give her a detailed layout of the lab and positions of the occupants within.
I recommend swift action, Ms. Potts. The subject’s internal temperature will reach critical in less than two minutes.
She takes one last glance at the map and makes note of the soldier standing guard against the far wall, and the two test subjects restrained in some sort of shielded chamber within the lab. A very rough plan starts to form and then she’s breaking through the window – glass shattering as she fires off a barrage of repulsor rays at the soldier to throw him back into the wall. The force of the action surprises her, but she stays committed to the cause, and follows it with an Extremis powered punch to the face that sends him crumpling to the ground.
It’s only a temporary measure, so she wastes no time getting to her primary objective and turns to the secured door on the internal testing chamber. As she already guessed, the steel is too thick to strike through, and the tempered glass viewing portals too small to access. She retracts the suit from around her hand to place her palm against the locking plate near the door’s frame.
Just under 90 seconds, Ms. Potts.
The HUD continues to register the temperature readings coming from the subjects in the chamber, the level of one still spiking wildly causing a clench of fear in her chest. She’s suddenly very aware that she’s rescuing people, saving people in the midst of violence and chaos – that she’s jumped in the middle of exactly the kind of Iron Man situation she was not prepared to face. It takes stern self-control to refocus and turn her attention to the heat in her blood as she sends it into her hand. The temperature rises sharply, and the metal glows hot - Extremis slowly turning the locking mechanism to molten steel.
Mr. Stark attempting to establish video contact, Ms. Potts.
“Not now, JARVIS.”
It seems to take forever, crucial seconds ticking by, but it finally works and the lock melts through to allow access into the chamber. She pushes the door in and enters while the HUD lights up brightly and the system immediately scans the room for threats. Nothing significant is identified, the room filled with diagnostic equipment and medical supplies she’s seen before. It’s evident Extremis testing is underway, and the memories of Killian in the back of her mind come up fresh and painful.
Communication override. Mr. Stark has secured-
JARVIS abruptly cuts out as Tony’s video feed pops up on her display.
“I’m fine,” she reassures him. Despite the circumstances, she is fine. She feels oddly powerful and only a little out of her league.
“60 seconds, honey. Time to haul metallic ass.”
“Now isn’t really the best time, Tony.” She moves quickly toward the two people secured to the wall. Anger rushes through her when she realizes the soldiers have been experimenting on teenagers, the two young boys barely more than children. “God, they’re using kids.”
“I’ve a half dozen up here,” Tony adds in agreement. “Annoying bunch. Won’t stop touching the suit.”
She aims at the restraints, the targeting system highlighting the weakest points on the shackles as she blows them away. The boys drop to the ground, but only one finds his feet, bounding over to her in terrified panic.
“Hold on,” she tells him, not even sure if he’ll understand, and pulls him into her arms. It kills her to leave the other boy where he’s curled on the floor, fiery orange and glowing as he screams from an uncontrollable pain she knows too well, but she has no choice.
30 seconds, Ms. Potts.
“Pepper.” Tony’s voice has lost all amusement. “Get out of there.”
“I’m leaving,” she promises. “You need to get everyone clear. I don’t think this room is going to hold.”
“I love it when you’re bossy!”
The video feed ends, and she turns away from the boy on the floor, heart aching, just as the Extremis soldier enters the chamber. Her mouth goes dry, but fury at what’s been done to the boys and its similarity to what was done to her fuels the adrenaline, and she runs through any last second options that come to mind. It’s a terrible idea born out of complete desperation, and she briefly wonders what Tony would say if he knew what she was planning to do.
“Do not tell Tony about this,” she mutters in warning to JARVIS. And then she moves.
With one arm she pushes the boy in her grasp toward the wall behind her, putting herself between him and the soldier preparing to advance. With the other, she does the only thing she can think up (as foolhardy as she knows it is), and sends the suit to the boy on the floor. The accelerated armor assembly is a modification that Tony built into the Mark 1616 for her benefit due to the rapid temperature escalation she’d been prone to in the early days of Extremis, and it comes in handy. The suit zooms over to envelop the boy just as the soldier hits her with enough force to send her staggering back a few steps, a blossom of pain in her chest erupting and then fading quickly as Extremis reacts.
She doesn’t have time to worry about the possibility of an impending explosion, and simply responds on instinct – rage and heat overpowering as she strikes back. She’s lighter, and therefore faster, and she manages a rapid series of gut punches and then a massive roundhouse kick to the head that sends the soldier flying out of the chamber and back into the lab. She follows closely, trying not to be aghast at her own act of violence. But any lingering doubt that this is a life or death situation promptly evaporates when she takes a fist to the chin and finds herself slamming up against the wall, her throat compressed in the soldier’s vice-like grip.
Her head reels, vision blurring, and fleetingly she thinks about calling Natasha later if she makes it through this, getting some fighting tips just in case. Maybe it’s high time she did more than simply try to keep Extremis contained.
The soldier suddenly stumbles sideways. It’s enough to give her an opening and she lets Extremis take over, her body delivering the blows needed to free herself. Once out of his grasp, she sees her unlikely savior – the boy she rescued standing with the remains of a shattered glass instrument in his hands. He looks equally scared to death and thrilled, his eyes wide with uncertain confidence she knows she shares. The boy in her suit is nowhere to be seen, but the continued lack of an explosion gives her hope.
The soldier uses her distraction to his advantage and she’s halfway across the room with pain flaring up everywhere before she knows what’s hit her. For one frightening moment the boy makes a brave move to step in, but she throws her hand up to stop him. “No!”
Even with his new Extremis abilities, she knows the soldier would kill him in seconds. She finds her feet and rips a metal bar from a shelf next to her.
The soldier grins widely, his eyes blazing. “We were hoping you’d show up. Time to get rid of the loose end.”
She braces herself. “Then what are you waiting for?”
He runs at her, and she nearly delivers a hit that Derek Jeter would envy. But the soldier turns at the last second, anticipating the move, and she gets a solid jab to the stomach that knocks the wind from her lungs. The bar is torn from her grasp and she feels it crack into her side before she collides with a table and hits the floor hard.
She tastes blood, sickening copper on her tongue as her bones knit and flesh heals. She’s filled with a curious mix of horror and anger, not quite believing what she’s capable of and yet knowing simultaneously that she’s capable of so much more. The power may have been forced on her initially, but it’s fixed in her DNA now, and amazingly, it waits for her orders.
She makes the choice to act. Extremis burns hotter in response and she launches at the soldier in a blur of emotion and speed, her fist made of fire as it meets his chest and then pushes through into his heart, his spine, and all the way out the other side.
She’s literally shoulder deep in his chest as the light flickers out of his eyes, and it takes several long minutes to realize his body is shaking because she’s shaking. The violence she committed is frightening, and she extricates herself carefully, feeling queasy, kind of proud, and unbelievably unsure of herself. It’s with more than mild relief to recognize that the Extremis in her blood is still and quiet beneath her ironclad control.
In the doorway to the chamber, both boys stand rooted to the ground, staring at her in awe. The suit is intact, the face mask flipped up and the boy inside unharmed if a little small for the metal surrounding him. It seems her impossible plan worked.
“Bueno?” she asks wearily, sinking to her knees as a wave of exhaustion hits her.
The boys nod, and the one in her suit is all smiles. He looks down at the suit and then back up eagerly. “I keep?”
Tony starts speaking to her before the mask is fully in place, video already connected. “Pepper? Is that you? Good god I thought I was going to have to learn Spanish. Are you okay?”
“I’m here. I’m fine. What do you need?”
“I could use a burger.”
She hears the chatter of gunfire followed by a loud boom that shakes plaster from the ceiling as the sound reverberates down the walls. The video signal goes to static momentarily and then settles. Tony reappears looking pleased. “I don’t think they like my missiles.”
She smiles. “Need a hand?”
“I’ve got seven hostages lined up just for you.”
The map reappears in the HUD, projected course plotted. She motions to the boys and they each grab tight hold of the suit the way she had shown them. “I’m on my way.”
Ms. Potts, a reminder that your flight to Dubai for the Tech Symposium is scheduled to depart in one hour.
“Not now, JARVIS!”
Tony is grinning. “I’m giving you a raise.”
“That’s not actually something you can do anymore,” she points out.
“Of course it is. My name is on the tower.”
“You really should read the fine print before you sign things.”
“That’s why I put you in charge of the company,” he says cheerfully. “Now are you coming to this rodeo, or do you want to keep arguing the raise I already gave you?”
A second boom shudders through the building, and she doesn’t wait around to answer. The suit engages, one of the boys giving a whoop as they get airborne and clear of the laboratory.
“And Pepper?” Tony adds, his video feed reappearing as he offers her a smile. “Sure looking like a hero to me.”
S.H.I.E.L.D. arrives nearly ten minutes after they’ve secured the complex, the lone surviving Extremis soldier at the entrance in tight restraints.
“You’re welcome!” Tony calls out when Director Fury steps from the SUV looking stunned.
And even with that she still makes it to Dubai on time.
She’s CEO of Stark Industries after all.
A few weeks later, Natasha sends over the report. It’s a mostly accurate recounting of events although her name is redacted and the Mark 1616 listed instead like some kind of secret Iron Man counterpart. But she prefers the anonymity, not yet ready to actively take on the super world where she belongs.
She has enough on her plate anyway - the added combat drills with Natasha, Extremis training sessions at S.H.I.E.L.D. with the two boys, and the occasional R&D brainstorm with Tony is more than satisfying. It’s that normal normal she’s getting used to having around.
“We know of at least six additional Extremis operatives out there,” Natasha says when she calls. The danger is never over.
She nods. “They want an army.”
“Ours is bigger!” Tony counters as he cuts into the line. “Agent Romanoff, what sort of unauthorized mission are you sending my CEO off to now?”
Pepper sighs. “We were just discussing the report.”
“Sounds boring. Less talk, more mangoes.”
Natasha sounds surprised. “Mangoes?”
“You don’t want to know,” Pepper advises with a shake of her head.
“Everybody loves mangoes!” Tony states like it’s obvious. “Agent Romanoff, it’s been mysterious as always. And Pepper, I need you.”
“I’ll be there in a minute.”
“Uh, that’s probably-“ He’s interrupted by a deafening crash. “Oops. Yeah, now is better.”
He drops off the call and she closes her eyes for the brief moment of peace it brings her. She loves the man, but so help her, sometimes she really appreciates when he’s out there saving the world.
“You could kill him, but we need him,” Natasha notes, her usual straight tone laced with a hint of amusement. “Now if you join us…”
Pepper smiles. “Ask me again at the next crisis?”