A warning – I am about to secure my reputation as an evil bitch in this chapter. But, just remember, things have a way of working out, and "the end" has a different definition in the Marvel universe. :) (And, no, this is not the end of the story. :-D)
It took her a few minutes to both explain things to Steve and gather her courage, but Sharon dialed Phil's number and metaphorically held her breath.
Phil answered casually. "So, it's been awhile."
It certainly sounded like him. Sharon wasn't as suspicious as she felt she should have been, but she still took nothing for granted. "I'll say. Maybe we should get together – a little wine, the opera?" She hated opera, actually, but it was an old joke between them, and his response would tell her everything she needed to know.
Phil snorted. "Screw that. I have a revolution to run." His fondness for Les Miserables extended far beyond his heritage, and it was another thing he and Sharon had shared. They'd seen the show enough times that they could be snobs about which actors they preferred in each role. And they'd laughed that Phil was the leader of the revolution, rounding up his ragtag students to fight the evils of the world, while Sharon supported him and fought at his side but had no desire to take the reins.
Sharon smiled, satisfied. "Don't tell me I'm not gonna get a piece of Fury because I'm here on assignment. Do you think he planned it that way?"
"I don't know," Phil replied, "but if that was what he had in mind, I'd think he'd have gotten himself out of dodge – you know, undisclosed location."
"Yeah," Sharon agreed. She glanced at Steve and nodded confirmation; he returned the nod and watched her, quietly calm. Some might have been assured, but Sharon knew Steve too well for that. This was a deadly calm, the one that meant he was furious and debating how to proceed. The only thing that Sharon was relieved about was that she wasn't the target of his anger. "I'm guessing Maria's not too happy." She knew how close Maria and Phil were, and though they'd never confirmed it, even to her, she suspected there was more between them than friendship. Sharon always knew Phil's public story was a cover, but she wasn't one to pry when he chose to keep the truth to himself.
Phil chuckled. "Yeah, she's pretty pissed. And I've got a room full of dangerous people who aren't too thrilled either."
Sharon knew Fury would have some excuse that probably made some sense in the scheme of things. SHIELD had faked its operatives' deaths before. But they never covered it up internally, not to the extent of telling no one. "Just don't forget about us when you form your mob. Steve wants a piece of the action, too."
Phil sounded pleased. "Really?"
"Oh, yeah," Sharon assured him. "Here, talk to him while I get some work done." It was a flimsy excuse, but she knew it would do both men good. Steve had taken Phil's death especially hard; in his mind, he hadn't just lost a soldier, but a friend he never got the chance to know. She held the phone out to Steve. He looked unsure, but took it.
"Agent Coulson?" Steve asked as he put the phone to his ear. Sharon didn't make out Phil's reply, but it made Steve grin, and that was exactly what she'd been hoping for.
Tony had allowed himself to be more than a little smug when he set up a press conference for that afternoon without making Pepper do it. Technically, JARVIS had done it, but JARVIS was Tony's creation, so that counted – and it was kind of amusing seeing how many people had conversations with JARVIS without ever realizing he wasn't actually human.
Pepper had been vaguely doubtful when informed, but then she'd begun to see Tony's point. Holding a press conference to debut the Rescue Mark I prototype would be a great PR opportunity, especially considering Stark Industries had invested a great deal in programs to encourage young women to pursue lofty career goals. Also, it would likely distract the media from Pepper's pregnancy for a little while longer, considering they were currently poised to jump every time her dress bunched up the least bit. Overall, it was an excellent plan and Tony was happy to accept the credit.
Coulson was another matter entirely. Tony's head was still spinning over that one. Like Sharon, he'd always held a glimmer of hope that Coulson was alive, but it had begun to fade as time went by. A storm of emotions swelled every time Tony thought about it. Delight. Memories of the horror of being told Coulson was gone – Coulson, the agent who wouldn't go away, who wasn't afraid to snark back at him, who'd been there from the beginning. And rage at being lied to. Tony didn't let people under his skin easily, so he didn't take well to it when they left. It didn't matter how much of a push the Avengers had needed to unite; there were other paths Fury could have taken. Knowing Coulson was critically wounded would have been bad enough. The more he thought about it, the angrier he got, and Tony wasn't surprised that Bruce had slipped off to his Hulk-proof workout room. Tony had Dummy leave a change of clothes outside the door.
Coulson had departed a few hours after his arrival, claiming he needed to rendezvous with Agent Hill on...something work-related; Tony hadn't really been paying attention. Honestly, he didn't care – SHIELD administrative business was about as exciting to him as a dead weasel on a stick. Coulson promised to return later with Hill so that the team could discuss a plan for confronting Fury. Apparently, Fury hadn't even let his second in on the secret – not a good plan. Tony didn't know Hill well, but he knew she was formidable and he was sure he never wanted to be on her bad side. He rather suspected she wasn't terribly fond of him, but she wasn't out for his blood, and that was good enough for Tony.
Pepper had no idea how much of her wild emotions were hormone-related, but she suspected it was actually the lesser portion. Too much was happening, things that would have overwhelmed anyone, pregnant or not. She was relieved to have Phil back, angry over the betrayal, worried for Tony...and, still, thrilled about the good things in her life. She ran her fingers over Rescue's smooth orange and silver casing, awaiting the press conference – another surprise. Tony couldn't remember his own staff meetings without a reminder, but he'd organized a last-minute press conference. It was rather impressive, even if they'd had to hold it off-site, as the Stark Industries press room was already booked for an event.
Out of habit, Pepper checked the messenger bag she thought of as a the go-kit. Her mother had passed away after a long battle with a degenerative disease, and she'd had a tracheostomy at one point. Every time they left the house, they had to carry emergency supplies – backup trachs, suction equipment, anything to handle the unexpected. A nurse had nicknamed it the go-kit, and Pepper had designed something similar for Tony – except instead of breathing tubes and an awkward suction machine, this bag had a backup arc reactor and wiring and other essentials for keeping Tony alive. He had a habit of forgetting it when he went out alone, which Pepper had hounded him about many times, but it gave her peace of mind to have the bag ready – and the fact that it looked like any other businessman's bag kept it from drawing attention to the valuables inside. Tony didn't like leaving reactors unlocked, due to the value of the Starkanium core, but Pepper didn't like knowing Tony was more than a few minutes away from life-saving technology should an emergency occur. To calm Tony, she'd put fingerprint scanner on the clasp, keyed to only her and the Avengers, who had all been trained to replace the reactor if necessary. It was an acceptable compromise. Tony's sternum and most of the ribs surrounding it had been destroyed when the shrapnel tore through his chest. Yinsen had replaced them with the high-quality steel he had on hand – ironically, pieces of the same weapons that had nearly killed Tony in the first place. The metal was fused throughout Tony's chest and that plus the depth of the reactor housing meant CPR was useless for Tony.
It scared Pepper that Tony was so entirely dependent on the combination of the reactor and pacemaker to keep his heart beating. Stark Medical's surgeons had looked at the scans many times and determined that between the placement of the shrapnel and the physical damage to Tony's heart, surgery was too risky, even with all the innovations they had at their disposal. So they continued this dance, technology meeting willpower.
Pepper wasn't used to sitting around waiting for a press conference to start; she was usually running around making sure everything was in place. But that was being done for her, and as weird as it seemed, it was nice. She chuckled as Tony ducked in to check on her and nuzzled his neck briefly, not caring if the cameras caught them. It wouldn't be the worst publicity they'd had to deal with.
"How you doing?" Tony murmured.
"I'm good," she assured him.
"See?" he asked, gesturing at the organized chaos around them. "I can do this stuff."
Pepper chuckled. "Then why don't you do it more often?"
Tony shrugged. "Because then I'd just be paying you for companionship, and I'm told some people take a dim view of that." He smiled and kissed Pepper quickly on the lips before moving away to continue supervising the setup.
Pepper shook her head, smiling fondly. He really was one of a kind.
The conference room Tony had secured for the press conference was not as brightly lit as he was used to, but that was fine, since most of the presentation was computer-projected anyhow. The podium was lit for pictures – always a good thing – and Tony really didn't care how brightly he could see any of the reporter's faces. Reporters were like lawyers, as far as he was concerned – useful, necessary, but obnoxious to deal with. Government agents were much the same, except there were very few of them Tony considered necessary or useful. Coulson was a rare exception, and Tony didn't really think of Natasha or Clint as SHIELD agents anymore.
"Earlier this week, Stark Medical released a new line of apnea monitors intended to protect the most vulnerable infants." Tony flashed his best grin as cameras flashed all around. "Today, the engineering arm of Stark Industries is stepping up our commitment to humanity with a new type of armor for a new type of mission." As the holographic image of the Rescue armor rotated on the screen, showing off the compartments meant for first aid supplies instead of tank missiles, Tony had the audience's rapt attention, and he hadn't even gotten to the best part of the demonstration. A hand went up, and Tony nodded, privately betting he already knew what the question would be.
"That chest plate, is it designed for-"
Tony cut the guy off, not to spare the awkwardness, but to make his move. "Yeah. Those are breasts." There were a few chuckles, and most of the women looked wary – not totally unexpected, given his history with women. "Let's face it, folks. Women are better meant for tight spaces. They're flexible, agile, nurturing. And there's one woman in particular who's saved my ass more times than I care to count." The room murmured knowingly as Pepper stood up. Tony loved riling extreme feminists up just to chill them out – there was no way they could argue with Pepper and win. "The Iron Man, as you know, is mine. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to be the first to introduce you to Rescue – commanded by the lovely Ms. Pepper Potts." Tony moved to kiss Pepper cheek, then stand back as she tapped her bracelet to activate the armor. He admired his handiwork – and his girlfriend – as Rescue came together, the audience falling silent as they watched, cameras snapping all around.
Then everything went dark.
Tony groaned as his tech crew started scrambling. "I swear I had nothing to do with this!" he called out, trying to lighten the moment. The glow of his arc reactor and the one that powered Rescue gave him some light to see by as he headed for the techs to see what the problem was. Rescue's face plate slipped up and Pepper gave him a puzzled look. "I don't know, Pep. I'm gonna check on it." He ignored the commotion and protests of the crowd as people tried to push their way through. Humans had a tendency to get stupid in the midst of the unexpected, even something as simple as a power outage.
Happy was using the light of his phone to navigate, when he suddenly turned as someone bumped into him. He yelled to Tony. "Gun!"
Tony reacted without thought, wishing he'd brought the Iron Man armor for a comparison. His power bands were on, but the armor was several miles away and it wasn't yet able to navigate Manhattan streets without him. But thanks to training sessions with the Avengers' resident assassins, he'd gotten pretty good at disarming people by himself. "Pepper! Get down!" He was grateful she had Rescue to protect her, but she had no training yet. He was sure someone in the room thought this was a set-up, to show what Rescue could do. But Tony was just as out of the loop as anyone else.
"Tony!" Pepper shouted as she raised her palms defensively.
"JARVIS! Activate program Defend and Protect!" Tony called before moving toward the man with the gun, who was raising it. Tony pounced on his back – unconventional, but effective. They tumbled to the ground together, wrestling for control. Tony tried to feel for the gun's safety to put it on, but he couldn't keep the weapon steady long enough. He felt a sharp pain, then a stinging in his neck, before the floor rushed up to meet him.
Tony shouted a command into the chaos, and Rescue's face plate slid back into place. Pepper was momentarily disoriented as she adjusted to the heads-up display.
"My apologies, Ms. Potts," JARVIS told her, "but I am obligated to assume the controls. You may move freely, but I have ultimate command of the armor."
"No, that's okay! Do it!" Pepper was happy to help, but she had no idea what this suit did. It felt natural, though, as she moved with the armor as it brought an arm up to deflect a stray bullet. People screamed at the first shot and began to flee the room. Pepper jumped from the stage to an empty spot, moving to shepherd people out of the room. She wanted to help Tony, but she knew they needed to get the innocents out of the way first. As the crowd lightened dramatically and it was clear there weren't multiple shooters, Pepper turned to run back to Tony. She gasped in horror as the gunman had him pinned to the floor and wrestled the rifle back. Pepper knew Rescue wasn't meant as a weapon, but she had no hesitation as she snapped, "JARVIS, how do I shoot this guy?!" People were rushing on either side and she had no idea if she had a clear shot.
"Quite easily," JARVIS replied with his trademark wit. Pepper's arm swung up into position, firing a blast from the palm repulsor. The sound of the blast echoed in her ears, and she hurried forward as the gunman collapsed onto Tony. She prayed the gunshot she thought she'd heard right before the blast had been something else.
Bruce had retreated to go vent off some of his anger after Coulson left, and Clint and Natasha had pretty much done the same. The only difference was, instead of reinforced gym, they took to sparring – or, as some at SHIELD referred to it, beating the crap out of each other.
Clint grunted as Natasha swept a leg under him, knocking him flat. He sprung up before she could land on him and put a knife at his throat – though, for safety, they only used training weapons during their matches. They both had ugly scars from the first and last time they'd introduced live steel during practice. Clint didn't remember their fight on the helicarrier, and he was grateful for it, but they were lucky they'd both come out alive. They knew each other's strengths and weaknesses intimately. Natasha often laughed about Clint's use of a bow in hand-to-hand combat; as far as he was concerned, it wasn't just a range weapon. Hitting or choking people with it was also a valid option. He preferred not to get that close, but that didn't mean it never happened.
There were no heart-to-heart chats during their sessions; talking was a waste of time and breath, a way to get slammed against the unforgiving floor. Sometimes they went their separate ways afterward, each in search of a shower and some downtime. This time, Natasha fell into step beside Clint as they left the gym, toweling off. It was going to be one of those times when they took turns in the shower and then collapsed together on the couch. There might or might not have been conversation. Clint knew he was pretty spent; the unhappier they were, the harder and longer they fought.
"So do we actually think ganging up on Fury is going to work?" Clint asked, snapping his towel at Natasha's leg playfully. She snatched it away in retaliation. "I mean, he's...Fury. Do you know how many shits Fury gives about what we think? None."
"I don't know if it'll accomplish anything," Natasha admitted. "He always has his reasons. But that doesn't mean we can let him think he's got a free license to screw with us."
"Yeah, I guess." Clint was just about to provoke Natasha into an argument for first shower when JARVIS' emergency tone sounded, stopping them both. There were six very jumpy people who called the tower home, so "emergency" always meant an actual emergency. They had different tones for practice drills.
"Code 13F, Regency Plaza Hotel," JARVIS said, and Clint cringed internally. They'd developed codes for various emergency situations, in order to avoid mass panic among any civilians that might have been in the building. JARVIS only broadcasted the alert to levels the Avengers were actually on, but they didn't isolate themselves to their private levels entirely. 13F: one of the team was in trouble. Clint cursed. He really, really hated that one, especially knowing that it had to be Tony. He was at a press conference at the Regency. And Pepper was with him.
Natasha had an odd habit of swearing in languages other than Russian when she was displeased; she started in her native tongue and branched out. By the time she and Clint were in uniform – no time to shower – she was working her way through Arabic. Though they could change in minutes, Bruce didn't actually need time to get ready, and he'd already left. He'd offered to stay and give them a lift, but Clint had experienced Hulk's rocky ride once and that was enough for life. JARVIS had one of the auto-pilot cars – built for speed and equipped with enough tech to get them through crowded streets in record time – meet them out front.
"What the hell did Stark get himself into at a press conference?" Clint asked, slamming the car door closed as he leaped in after Natasha. She growled something about no place being safe, using the short trip to double and triple check her weapons. When Clint saw the crowds pouring out the door of the hotel, he jumped from the car before it was fully stopped, rolling into the fall and pouncing to his feet. He saw no sign of the Hulk – who was pretty hard to miss – and Clint had a bad feeling that wasn't a good sign.
Pepper fell to her knees beside Tony, shoving his attacker off him. She gasped in horror as she saw the damage – it had been a gunshot she'd heard indeed, and more than one. Her hands automatically went to the wound in Tony's shoulder to stem the flow of blood – and it was disorienting, not being able to feel beneath the armor. She had JARVIS dispense the trauma kit, then tapped the chest plate to remove the armor, wincing at the bloody smears on her gloves. She was snapping instructions to the people closest, whether they were her employees or not. Someone to call for an ambulance. Someone to grab the bag from under the podium. Someone to put pressure on the shoulder wound so Pepper could deal with the far more pressing concern.
Whether the shot had been aimed or part of the tussle, a bullet had shattered the arc reactor. The outer covering was reinforced to protect against that sort of thing, but at point-blank range, there wasn't much that could be done. Even the Iron Man's bulletproof reactor cover wouldn't have stood up to it. Unfortunately, Starkanium was a reactive element, and upon the reactor's destruction, it had exploded as well, melting Tony's shirt into the burns on his chest. It wasn't toxic and it dissipated quickly, so Pepper knew she could touch it, but her heart sank. This was far more than replacing a dead reactor. What was left of the reactor had fused with the housing, making it impossible to remove without tools. The wiring was underneath, so Pepper couldn't just switch reactors and leave the new one attached but not settled into the cavity. This was going to require tools and experts – and judging by Tony's color, he didn't have that kind of time. He was unconscious – a blessing, she supposed – and his pulse was crawling. The pacemaker automatically dropped his heart rate when the reactor was off in order to slow the advance of the shrapnel, but Tony's heart was going to stop any minute. The shrapnel would be at gravity's mercy again; it was probably already on the move, and that was if there wasn't more from the reactor's demise. Pepper had no idea what the underside of the reactor looked like. Tears streamed down her cheek, but she fought to keep it together; for Tony, she had to keep her head.
The Hulk's outraged roar made Pepper jump, but she was too focused on Tony to worry about it. She was terrified, but not of Bruce's alter-ego at the moment. Every ounce of fear she had was otherwise occupied. The room shook as the Hulk lurched forward, but it was Bruce who landed on his knees at Pepper's side – disheveled, shirtless, but definitely Bruce. Sometimes it took him a moment to recover from the transition, but this time, he was completely focused. Pepper updated him quickly. "I've got an ambulance on the way; they're waiting for us at Medical. What can we do now?"
Bruce shook his head, his hands running over the destroyed reactor. "Nothing. It's melted; there's no way we'd have enough time to pry it loose. They can do surgery to replace the housing, but..." He checked on the shoulder wound briefly, but only gave it a glance. His eyes were a vivid shade of green, but he was keeping it together somehow. The control he'd gained was amazing.
Tony coughed, causing his upper body to spasm, and it was pure blood. Pepper shook her head. "No, no, no...Tony, come on, fight this! Hang on. We'll get this fixed." She knew she was lying. She knew there was blood in Tony's lungs if he was coughing it up, and she could think of several reasons why. Even so, she turned to Bruce as Tony fell back, still once more.
Bruce was feeling for a pulse, desperately moving from Tony's wrist to his neck, fingers probing. He was muttering to himself. "Pacemaker prevents fibrillation, standard AED would diffuse the electricity along the sternum and ribs..."
Pepper put a hand on Tony's chest, trying to feel him breathe, and there was...nothing. Heat radiating from the burns. No rising and falling. Too still, too quiet, too pale. She almost lunged forward to breathe for him, despite his bloodstained lips, but she knew it would be no use. It finally hit her that there was nothing she could do, even as paramedics arrived and looked to Bruce for guidance. At some point, Natasha and Clint had arrived, but Pepper couldn't have said when. She fell back onto her butt, all concerns for dignity gone as the dam finally broke and she began to sob. "Tony..." She gasped his name, half desperation and half prayer.
Bruce put a hand on her shoulder, having moved away. That was only confirmation in Pepper's head, and she began to sob harder. "I'm sorry, Pepper. I'm so, so sorry." Tears were gleaming in his eyes, too.
Pepper got to her feet, pushing past the medics with nothing to do. One of them reached for her, but Clint put a hand on his arm. "Don't, buddy. Just don't."
Pepper ran her fingers through Tony's hair, dropping her forehead to his. She didn't care who saw her or what she looked like. That morning, she'd been walking on air, knowing her world was changing forever. Hours later, it was falling apart.
They were nearing the target site, and Sharon could feel herself getting into the mode of the mission. Talking to Phil had really pumped her up. It was such a boost that she could almost forget how pissed she was at the director.
Steve's phone rang and he pulled it out, glancing at it. "It's Agent Coulson."
Sharon held her hand out. "Here, let me take it."
Steve raised his eyebrows, curious, but handed the phone over. Sharon answered it. "Live la France."
"Sharon." Phil barely reacted to her answering Steve's phone. "We have a lock on your location. Stay there; Agents Emerson and Riley will be arriving in the next few minutes to relieve you."
"Okay." Sharon was baffled. It was definitely a mission junior agents could handle, but why pull her and Steve out so late? "What's going on, Phil?" From his tone, she knew it was serious.
"Not over the phone," Phil replied. "We'll talk on the way back to New York."
Sharon nodded. "Okay. We'll be ready. Did you need to talk to Steve?"
"No, you can relay the message."
Sharon sighed, growing uneasy. That spoke volumes. "Okay. I'll talk to you later." She hung up and handed Steve his phone. "We're being pulled. Something's going on."
Steve frowned. "What is it?"
"I don't know." Sharon shook her head. "Whatever it is, it's bad."
Again, I am aware that I am a terrible, horrible person – but remember what I said before about the end not always being the end... ;)