Warning: This fic contains violence and adult themes.

Part 1

The smell of cordite is heavy in the air, mixing with the chemical stink of burned wiring. Their NVDs have mostly adjusted to the cold mist and the flickering lights, but they're all on edge now. All weapons are out, searching for a target in the shadows. "Where did she go?" Barrett demands.

"Fan out, keep your eyes open. I don't want any more surprises." Their leader is Masset, a muscular black man with cold eyes and absolutely no sense of humor. What he planned as a surgical strike has become a clusterfuck of a smash-and-grab, but he can still salvage this. "Keep packing up what we found, get it out of here. We're way over schedule."

Heavy combat boots scuff and thump against the floor, crunching over broken glass and metal. Someone curses, long and profane, and something heavy crashes to the floor. "Another goddamn machine! Does everything in here fucking move?"

"Leave it, that's not what we came for. Finish loading."

"Got her! She's down here! Christ, everything's down here!"

He strides over to the pair of soldiers currently flat on the ground, groping for something through irregular openings in the floor. Before he gets there, Barrett lurches backwards with a howl, blood dripping from his hand. "The bitch spiked me!"

Masset shoves Barrett out of his way, plants the toe of his boot in Spiere's ribs to move him aside. "Prep the truck! Move!" He kneels down, well out of range of whoever's hiding below him. It only takes a moment to find her, wedged in and around what looks like pieces of a giant pair of boots. "So that's where he's hiding the big one. Finally."

The woman's eyes glare out at him defiantly, despite the darkness that must leave her mostly blind; his NVDs are working again, and he has no such disadvantage. It's a damn shame; she's pretty hot, and her torn clothing isn't hiding much. If he had some time to play, he'd sure as hell be using it.

Masset smiles at her, and she tries to squirm further away. "Thanks for showing us this little stash; Stane didn't include it in any of the briefings. Never would have found it without you."

"Go to hell," she spits back defiantly, and yeah, he definitely wishes for more time.

But he doesn't have it, and this woman has already been one hell of a lot more trouble than she's worth.

"Don't worry," he tells her as he levels his sidearm at her head, aiming in between the long falls of hair. She moves desperately, and he can't tell if she's trying to get further away or go for his throat, but she's wedged in too tightly for either. He drops his good hand below the edges of the floor to get the perfect angle. "When I get the chance? I'll be sure and tell Stark you tried."

Masset's eyes harden and his smile gets wider as his finger tightens on the trigger....

Malibu, California
45 minutes earlier

Rhodey took the turn up to the mansion at a reasonable speed; unlike the owner of the mansion, he didn't feel compelled to break the sound barrier unless he was actually in a jet. As it turned out, his self-control saved him from a nasty crash.

He pulled to a stop, staring at the heavy silver gates now blocking the driveway in confusion. They weren't that high and actually looked pretty cool, made of smooth twists and curves that blended with the house, but they hadn't been there three days ago. "What the hell?"

"Welcome, Colonel Rhodes," Jarvis's smooth voice greeted him from the growing twilight. "Please extend your hand to the biometric sensor."

"The what now?" A green light flashed on the flat panel pedestal next to his window; he shrugged and rolled the window down to palm it.

"Thank you, Colonel Rhodes. Mr. Stark is in his workshop." The heavy gates opened smoothly and Rhodey shook his head as he followed the long driveway as it curved in front of the house. Where he said hello to Happy, waiting by the Rolls, and then had to use another palm scanner to actually get in the front door. By the time he'd entered his code in the newly-replaced glass panels protecting Tony's workshop, it was almost starting to be funny.

"You might want to warn people about those gates," he said as he went through the doorway.

Tony didn't look up from his workstation, where he and Pepper were deeply involved in something on the holo display. Pepper used a light stylus to transfer a file from her laptop to join several others on the 3D image, but managed to cast a quick, and stressed, sideways smile at Rhodey in the process.

Rhodey nodded back and waited, hands in the pockets of his dress uniform slacks, looking around the workroom to see what Tony was working on. Pepper's car was parked on the garage side in front of the Bentley, for some reason; the suit was nowhere in sight, but there was a pile of something under a tarp next to the Mark II that was probably suit-related. A wide array of electronics were spread across one worktable, along with... yeah, there was the suit, or at least one red gauntlet, back on Tony's desk. Tony's mechanical henchmen were mostly still, waiting for orders.

"This guy?" Tony asked Pepper dubiously, gesturing at the new display; someone's employment record, Rhodey thought, including a company ID photo of a rabbity-looking middle-aged man. "Not exactly the criminal mastermind type."

With a few quick strokes in the air, Pepper highlighted several lines in glowing green. "He had access at the right times, and he was hired on Obadiah's recommendation. That makes me pretty suspicious right now."

Tony's mouth twisted. "Yeah, me too. He stays in the pile." A flick of his stylus sent all of the files into a virtual cabinet that popped up from the bottom of the display. "Jarvis, run this stack through the usual channels. If you can't get into something, flag it for Pepper's attention and she'll kick it to the lawyers for warrants or subpeonas or whatever. Everything else stays on the private server, access to me and Pepper only."

"Yes, sir."

Tony spun his stylus once in his fingers, staring out into space, then stuck it in a pencil holder and finally acknowledged his visitor's presence. "Hey, Rhodey. You're early."

"No, you're late," Pepper told him. "I'm sorry, Rhodey, we only had a few more files to get through tonight."

"Not that late, and I know you guys are busy. I noticed you finished installing the house security," Rhodey repeated. "Warning people about the gates would be good."

"Oh, yeah. Sorry." Tony tilted his head back to empty a glass of something light green (and probably macrobiotic and healthy as hell) that he kidded himself would offset the amazing amount of alcohol he'd probably already consumed. "The house system still needs some work," he said after he swallowed. "I'll finish it up tonight or tomorrow, then get back to the cars."

Rhodey's eyebrows lifted. He was completely in favor of Tony's recent mania for security, since the vivid memory of Tony sprawled half-dead on the floor of his own workshop wasn't going to go away any time soon, but-- "How much more can you do? This place is turning into Fort Knox."

Tony smirked. "No way; my security's better than theirs." Rhodey snorted and Pepper rolled her eyes as she closed her laptop; Tony made like he was too cool to notice. "Give me a second and we'll get out of here." He seemed to be moving pretty stiffly when he got up, and Rhodey glanced at Pepper, who shook her head slightly and pressed her lips together.

"How's he doing?" Rhodey asked once Tony had disappeared into the small bedroom in the back of the workshop, leaving a disturbing lack of banter in his wake.

Pepper sighed. "He was out again yesterday, a weapons cache in southern Iraq." Rhodey nodded; he hadn't tipped Tony to the cache, but he had quietly confirmed it. "He was thrown around a little, and he still hasn't really recovered from what happened with Obadiah."

Pepper's voice caught for a moment on Stane's name; she took a deep breath to cover it and almost succeeded. "Anyway, between that--" she nodded in the direction of the suit platform, "--and all the work he's doing at the office and here at the house, I think he's just given up sleep."

"I hear that." Rhodey gestured towards the holo display. "How is the mole hunt going?"

"We think we've found Obadiah's main accomplices in Shipping and Manufacturing, but we haven't nailed down who was keeping the other sets of books in Accounting. We need to deal with a lot of areas Obadiah oversaw himself, so...." Pepper shrugged uncomfortably. "It's taking time."

"Yeah." Rhodey put a hand on her shoulder, a little bothered by how fragile the bones felt under his palm. "You know, Tony's not the only one who should maybe be getting some more sleep."

Pepper smiled and stood, dislodging his hand gracefully. "I'm fine, Rhodey. Just try not to let him drink too much after the meeting, okay? Or before it."

"Yeah, because I'm usually really successful at that."

Pepper's expression acknowledged the impossibility of her request. "Do your best."

Tony reappeared with a shiny, dark blue tie in place against his electric blue button-down shirt, shrugging into a navy suit jacket that probably cost more than Rhodey's entire civilian wardrobe. He ran one hand carelessly through his hair as he spoke to the air. "Jarvis, shut down the holo but keep running the files and have some specs ready for me on the new project when I get back. You staying much longer?" he asked his actual live assistant.

"A little while," Pepper said, gathering up her laptop and the stack of hardcopy files that had been spread around her. "I want to finish going over the factory damage reports; Legal has meetings with most of the state of California tomorrow. And so do you."

"Awesome. Get me out of them. Call Happy to take you home when you're done here."

"Thank you, Tony, but that's still not necessary," Pepper said, gesturing over her shoulder at her Audi. "You haven't started on the engine yet and I'm perfectly capable of driving myself--"

"Capable, yes; allowed, no, not until I've finished the mods to your car. Are we seriously going to have this fight again? I pay Hogan to drive people around; right now, 'people' includes you." He pointed abruptly at Rhodey. "Don't sulk; your car's next."

"I wasn't sulking," Rhodey denied, "and you can still do whatever you want to my car." Because he'd seen what Tony's cars could do, and had no objection to getting himself some of that action.

Pepper, on the other hand, still looked pissed. "Happy is supposed to be driving you tonight. It's ridiculous for him to make multiple round trips when I can--"

"It is never ridiculous for Hogan to do something I pay him extremely well to do, especially when that something is designed to keep you as safe as possible." Rhodey recognized Tony's tone; this was one of the rare arguments Pepper was not going to be allowed to win. "Call him when you leave."

Pepper knew it, too; her lips pressed flat again, and her voice got very controlled. "Will that be all, Mr. Stark?"

"That will be all, Miss Potts," Tony returned. Their routine finished, Pepper led the way up the stairs, her heels clicking sharply in as much of a huff as Pepper ever showed. She settled down in her usual chair in the living room without a backwards glance, even when Tony tossed a deliberately annoying "Don't wait up," over his shoulder as they went past her.

Rhodey just kept his damn mouth shut and followed Tony outside to the Rolls.

Part 2

"Elvis has left the building. Confirm he's out of range."

"Copy that. Still no sign of the woman?"

"No, sir. She must still be inside. Go or abort?"

"...We're not going to get another chance at this. We go."

"And the woman?"

"If she gets in our way? Collateral damage. Teams 2 and 3, confirm location."

"Team 2 in position, ready to roll."

"Team 3 ready."

"Team 3, start it up now. Team 4 -- shut down the grid on my mark."

"Team 4 ready."

"Let's do this. And... mark!"

Pepper's eyes were burning before she'd gotten more than 20 minutes into the maze of LAPD reports, LA County reports, EPA reports, SHIELD reports (and they hadn't even decided whether to sign on with Fury's damn proposal!) and the dozens of other agencies that got involved when two 'cyborgs' battled it out on a major city street, then destroyed a large energy device (and most of a weapons manufacturing facility) as a finale. It had been three weeks and the paperwork was only getting deeper.

She leaned back against her chair and rubbed first her eyes, then the healing cut on her right shoulder, the worst of the damage she'd taken from falling factory glass. The stitches were already out and it should heal without much of a scar, but it still itched.

She'd been lucky -- the glass could have cut her to ribbons, and if she hadn't made it out of the arc reactor chamber in time, the explosion definitely would have. So very lucky.

She shook her head to clear the thought away -- it was over, done. She'd survived and so had Tony, for which she was grateful even when she wanted to strangle him -- then called up Tony's schedule for the next day. If she could get him to the LA County and FBI meetings, then the lawyers could handle the LAPD and one of the vice presidents could cover the EPA, SHIELD, OSHA.... Absently, she picked up her Blackberry and hit speed-dial.

Two seconds later, she realized what she'd done and disconnected, staring at the screen in horror. She threw the Blackberry across the room, hearing it thud against the wall as she buried her face in her hands.

That was the third time she'd done it this week. It had been second nature for years to call Obadiah about everything to do with the company. He was Stark Industries' strong right arm, the man who handled all the details so Tony could focus on his machines and his computers. The man who brought pizza from New York, and played Gershwin from memory, and helped plan Tony's birthday parties, for values of planning that included sitting around the living room drinking too much while brainstorming ever more wildly indulgent themes and locations until they were all laughing too hard to talk.

Obadiah, who'd tried to kill Tony in Afghanistan. Obadiah, who'd died trying to kill him a second time.

She took deep breaths until her shoulders stopped shaking and the nausea subsided, then carefully stood up to retrieve her PDA from the floor, check it to make sure it was still working, and set it safely on the low table. Her hands shook a little, and she stared at them until they mostly stopped.

"Jarvis? Please contact Happy and tell him I'll be ready to leave when he gets here," she said, pleased to hear that her voice was almost normal -- which didn't mean she was ready to talk to Happy, who was more perceptive than most people gave him credit for.

"I will do so, Miss Potts. It may be some time before he can return; GPS indicates that Mr. Stark's car is still some distance from the base. Traffic conditions are unfavorable this evening."

"That's fine, Jarvis; tell Happy there's no hurry." She stacked her files and closed the laptop; there was no point in trying to get any more work done tonight and, unfortunately, it would all still be there in the morning. She'd heat up something from the kitchen and catch up with CNN until Happy arrived.

But before she could take more than a few steps, the lights suddenly flickered, then went out, leaving her in near-total darkness. She froze, waiting for the backup generator to kick in, and cursed tiredly when it didn't. "Jarvis? What's going on with the power?"

It took Jarvis a moment to answer, which was never a good sign. "Grid power appears to be out, and Mr. Stark has taken the backup generator offline in preparation for installing the miniature arc reactor. However, he neglected to complete his tests and bring the reactor online before he was struck with an inspiration for the prototype."

"He got distracted and didn't finish," Pepper translated with a sigh. "Is the backup generator still hooked into the house grid?"

"Yes, Miss Potts, but the automatic circuits have been disconnected. I'm afraid it will have to be turned on manually."

"Wonderful," Pepper grumbled quietly. "Can you walk me through it?"

"Of course."

"Great. Contact SoCal Edison and report the power outage. It's too early for rolling blackouts to start."

"Already done."

Fortunately, after this many years, Pepper actually could walk blindly from one end of the house to the other, but that didn't mean she was going to enjoy the experience. She took off her heels for safety's sake and clutched them in one hand, keeping the other tightly on the railing of the stairs until she was safely in front of Tony's workshop. With its power-operated, code-locked doors.


"A moment, please, Miss Potts; I am activating the manual release."

She waited, tapping one stocking-clad foot on the cold floor, until the door popped open and Butterfingers' highest appendage leaned out, as if looking for her. "Thank you, Butterfingers," she told it politely, and it raised and lowered its 'head' in acknowledgment in the way that alternately amused her and weirded her out.

"Normal people adopt dogs," she muttered as she picked her way through the workshop, guided by Butterfingers' worklight and the faint moonlight coming through the windows.

"But Mr. Stark would not be considered 'normal' by most definitions," Jarvis pointed out.

"Very true." Pepper moved sideways to avoid Tony's workbench and stepped on something metal and sharp. "Damn it!"

"Are you injured, Miss Potts?"

She grabbed the injured foot as she hopped on the other one, checking for blood. "I'm fine, Jarvis," she said through gritted teeth. "Mr. Stark just needs to remember not to leave his toys lying around."

"I'll be sure to remind him."

"Please do. Preferably when I'm in the room." Because that could be a funny conversation; it might even make Tony laugh. Nothing else had for the last three weeks.

The Mark I arc reactor glowed quietly blue in its new display cube on the workbench; she picked it up and carried it with her for added illumination. For once, she wished she'd worn more sensible shoes; there was no way she was doing this in 4-inch stilettos. "Butterfingers, keep your light pointed at the floor, please. Jarvis, how long will your backup battery hold out? You won't leave me alone in the dark in the middle of turning on the generator, will you?"

"My battery reserve will allow low-level activity for up to 2 hours before I must hibernate to protect my systems. I will not leave you alone."

"Thank you, Jarvis," Pepper smiled, oddly comforted and amused at herself. Jarvis might be 'just' an AI, but at least he was good company.

With the ventilation system off, the workroom was already starting to get stuffy; she pulled her hair up off her neck for a moment's relief, and discovered her earpiece was still in. Proof that she'd been working too long; she hadn't even noticed it. Lacking pockets and knowing it would be buried and lost forever (again) if she put it down in the workshop, she left it in place.

"Jarvis, is the generator room unlocked?"

"It is not. I apologize, Miss Potts; the keys are on Mr. Stark's desk."

Pepper sighed and waited for Butterfingers to turn around so they could backtrack. "That's all right, Jarvis, even you can't think of everything."

The keys she needed were sitting next to a pile of electronic components; she snagged them and carefully made her way back towards the generator closet on the other end of the workroom, juggling the keys in one hand, the arc reactor in the other, and her shoes tucked under her arm.

There was a sudden sound from upstairs, like something large had fallen -- or like a muffled explosion. Pepper froze. "Jarvis? What was that?"

"There's an intruder in the house," Jarvis replied; maybe she was imagining the edge in his voice because her own heart rate had suddenly skyrocketed. She didn't think she was.

Oh god, I'm in trouble. And for a moment, she was back in her nightmares, back in the dark factory, with Iron Monger looming over her and SHIELD agents dying behind her.... The keys slipped out of her suddenly nerveless fingers and clattered against the floor. Oh please, not again.

Part 3

The front door blows as planned, falling inwards and crashing against the floor. The lights stay out and no alarms go off, and Masset smiles at the confirmation that Stark hasn't gotten his new toys installed yet. They've made it in under the window. "All right, people, we are in," he says over the radio. "Stay alert, follow the plan."

"Yes, sir." Masset's cohort goes through the doorway, Barrett high and Massett low, alert for any movement. Still nothing. They move through the living room in near silence, covering every corner, but it's quiet.

Team 2 joins them at the head of the long staircase. "Any trouble?" Masset asks, and Molina shakes his head.

"Smooth like silk, just like Stane said. Too bad he's not around to see it."

"Yeah, right." Cormier jostles him from one side. "Like you'd rather get paid crap from Stane instead of getting a cut of what we're gonna make off this job. Easy money."

Cormier laughs like a creepy little kid; it's always annoyed the hell out of Masset. "Enough of that shit," he cuts them off. "Nobody gets paid until we find the suit. Cormier, take lead. Keep your eyes open and the chatter down; Stark likes toys and he likes them lethal, and I'm not gonna pick up the pieces of your raggedy ass."

"Yes, sir." Cormier shuts up and starts down the stairs into Stark's workroom, 9mm leading the way, and his face professional and cold again.

Just the way Masset likes his people.

Tony shook the glass in his hand lightly, hearing the ice cubes rattle before he took another swallow of insanely old Scotch. Schematics and plans raced over the inside of his eyelids all of the things he had to do now, if not sooner: finish the latest repairs to the Suit, install the experimental arc reactor at the house, debug the prototype, debug the entire Accounting department, finish security upgrades to all of the cars, find and hire a new CFO who wouldn't sell him out, track down that last shipment from the warehouse in Afghanistan...

All of which were way more important than driving all the way out to Los Angeles Air Force Base Area B to meet with a bunch of uptight uniforms who wanted to tell him how to do his job. Being 'responsible' was turning out to be seriously inconvenient. Actually, it sucked.

"...and then they'll bring up the pink goddamn raccoons, and you're not even listening to me."

Tony didn't bother opening his eyes; the alcohol hadn't anesthetized his sore shoulder yet, much less his brain. "Of course I'm not listening to you. You've been repeating the same things for three days. I could have this conversation without you, although I probably wouldn't have said anything about the pink raccoons. Pink raccoons?"

He did open his eyes for that, and found Rhodey staring at him with a mix of strained patience and sympathy. Which, yeah, he knew he wasn't exactly easy to deal with right now (or ever), but he didn't want sympathy, he wanted people to leave him alone so he could work.

"Tony," Rhodey said very calmly. "Some of these guys had to fly in to LA just for this meeting, and they're not happy about that. They're not happy about the suit, or you having it, or you using it. And they're especially not happy that after trashing an F-22 and part of downtown, you want them start to sharing classified information and letting you fly around in their war zones."

"Their war zones? I thought they were everyone's war zones. I thought they were really into the sharing thing, bringing death and destruction to the entire world, courtesy of the United States."

Rhodey closed his eyes briefly. "And that is exactly the kind of thing you need to not say. Seriously." He leaned forward to emphasize the seriousness. "Because then they point out that you supplied the death and destruction, and it's all going to start getting really ugly from there."

And Tony would like to be offended and wounded by that observation, but it was the truth. "Touche." He lifted his glass at Rhodey, then drained it.

Rhodey sighed, which Tony was also getting a lot lately. Pepper had sighed more in the last 3 weeks than in the entire time she'd worked for him. He suspected she'd also cried more, but she never did it in front of him and he was happy to blame that on Stane anyway. He'd like to blame it all on fucking Obadiah, if he could just convince himself it was true.

"Tony, look," Rhodey said. "I get that you're trying to fix things, I get that. I respect that. But pissing off a bunch of 4-stars is not going to help your cause here. If you want to do this thing right, you've got a choice between their help or that Fury guy's, and at least you know the brass."

"You say that like it's a good thing." Tony reached for the decanter, but Rhodey was closer and a little faster. He moved the decanter out of reach, then crossed his arms and sat back, daring Tony to do anything. Tony considered it -- more Scotch was about the only thing that would make this meeting less incredibly annoying -- but settled for rattling the ice cubes in his empty glass again.

"It is a good thing." Rhodey said as if nothing had happened. "You know what you're getting from the Pentagon, you've worked with us your entire life. Fury's whole 'Avenger Initiative'? I have no idea what he thinks he's doing with that, and neither do you. And I guarantee the Pentagon isn't going to break into your house at midnight to make weird-ass job offers."

Tony snorted. "Yeah, well, no one's going to break into the house again, for job offers or anything else." No black ops government agents, no maniacal former friends wanting to rip his chest open, and yeah, he really did need more Scotch. He reached past Rhodey for the decanter, and this time, he was the one daring Rhodey to do anything about it.

Rhodey sighed again and let him pour. "You know I really am serious about this, right, Tony? That everyone is really serious about this?"

"I'm aware that everyone is serious about this, because everyone keeps telling me how serious they are. Four months ago, all those generals were kissing my ass and begging me to do things for them, and the board of my company didn't care what I did as long at it made money for them." Tony gestured broadly with the glass, aware that his voice was rising and not really caring. "Now that I'm actually trying to do something, you know, decent, all everyone's interested in is telling me what I can't do, including your four-stars and my board, still of my company, which wouldn't exist without my dad and me! And I gotta tell you, it's starting to piss me off!"

Rhodey waited. "You finished?"

Tony thought about it for a second, then loosened his tie and slouched a little further down in the seat. "Yes. For now, I'm finished."

"Good. You can blow up all you want at me, that's fine, but don't ever say any of that outside of the car or the house, okay? Because it's not going to help. And by the way, you might want to go a little easier with giving Pepper crap. She's not having any fun here, either."

"I'm aware of that, too." Tony was also aware that he was sulking, he just didn't give a rat's ass. "Thank you for joining the ranks of people telling me what I can't do."

"You're welcome. What's the board getting on your ass about this time? Besides flying around in an armored suit you won't let them sell to anyone."

"Arc reactor tech." Tony stared into his ice cubes and Scotch, his jaw working as he replayed the previous day's meeting in his head. "Half of them don't think it'll ever be financial viable -- or are afraid it will be and they'll lose all their oil money -- and the rest of them are freaked out by the big reactor exploding. I keep reminding them we did that on purpose, but they don't seem very reassured."

Tony rolled his eyes, grimacing, and Rhodey snorted out a half-laugh. "You had to know this wasn't going to be easy."

"No, as a matter of fact, I didn't know that. My company. Which it turns out not to be unless I'm doing what they want." And Tony was getting increasingly bitter about that, which, hello, wasn't making him any more popular with the board. Pepper had spent a lot of time on the phone yesterday, making nice with the pompous assholes. He needed to give her another raise or something, or she really would leave him one of these days and then he'd be totally screwed.

He emptied his glass again in one gulp and calculated if a refill would be worth wrestling with Rhodey. His phone buzzed against his side before he made up his mind; he tabled the question for later and dug his cell out of his pocket to check the text message. His hand froze around the phone at the two-word message: 'Intruder Alert'.

"Son of a bitch!"

"Tony?" Rhodey sat straight up but Tony ignored him, speed-dialing Jarvis and continuing to curse when an automated message informed him that 'the customer is out of range or has turned off their phone'.

He tried the landline next and got an endless ring, not even voice mail or a canned message. "Happy! Turn around, get us back home now, and call the Sheriff's department, tell them someone's breaking into my house!"

Happy's face was startled in the rearview mirror, but he didn't hesitate for a second. "Yes, sir," he said sharply and cut across three lanes of traffic, wrenching the Rolls through an incredibly illegal U-turn. Tires squealed and horns blared and Tony ignored all of it, because Happy was saying, "Jarvis just called a few minutes ago, Mr. Stark. Pepper was still at the house."

And yeah, that was what they meant by 'blood running cold.' He hated it, had hated it since he'd woken up connected to a car battery, had hated it since he'd figured out that feeling it in connection with someone else was exponentially worse. Pepper's phone gave him the same 'customer out of range' message.

"You're going to have some really pissed-off 4-stars," Rhodey commented expressionlessly.

"Fuck 'em." Tony's hand was clenched tightly enough around his phone to hurt. Pepper still wasn't answering, and her Blackberry had been surgically attached to her body for as long as he'd known her. "If they want to get pissed off, I'll take my toys and go work with Fury."

Rhodey nodded and took his phone out. "Yeah. Thought you'd say that." He punched two numbers and waited a few second. "This is Lt. Colonel James Rhodes. I need security units from Area B or Los Alimitos, whichever can get out fastest. Destination is Malibu, reported break-in at a secure classified facility. Yeah, I'll take responsibility!"

In the front seat, Happy relayed information to the sheriff's department and drove like a bat out of hell. Tony redialed Jarvis and Pepper, over and over, and began making cold, violent plans for what he would do to the bastards who had invaded his home, to anyone who touched Pepper. He flexed his other hand over and over, as if it was wearing an armored glove. As if he was wearing the suit that was too goddamned far away to do any good.

"Faster, Hogan. Drive faster."

He'd been too late for Yinsen, almost too late for Pepper at the factory. He was not going to be too late again.

Part 4


"Hey, they left the door open for us."


"Awww. Maybe you can blow something up later, vato."

"Kill the chatter. Molina, take lead, get the garage door open. Cormier, watch his back."

"On it."

"The rest of you, stay alert; if this door's open, someone went through it."

The volume of Jarvis's voice had dropped abruptly, which made his calm reports that much more terrifying. "Correction: there are multiple intruders, front and back entrances. I am contacting Mr. Stark and the sheriff's department."

"Oh my god." Pepper shoved straight past Butterfingers, no longer interested in the generator. She stepped on something else sharp and banged her shins painfully before crashing up against the side of her car and wrenching the door open. "Please, Tony, please tell me you left the car keys--" They were in the ignition; she fumbled them once before getting a good grip and started to turn them.

"There are now intruders at the garage entrance," Jarvis said sharply, and she released the keys with a gasp. "A large vehicle is waiting to enter, and the outside cameras have stopped functioning."

"Damn it!" No exit there; her little Audi would lose any fight with a truck. She fumbled for her Blackberry, and remembered it was upstairs. "Keep calling the Sheriff's department, LAPD. Call SHIELD!"

"I'm afraid there is no response over the cellular connection; the network is being jammed. There is no response over VOIP protocols or landline, and the outside server connection is not functioning."

"Keep trying the cell! And stop talking!" She scrambled over the front seat and into the back, ducking down into the cover of the foot wells just as she heard the first heavy steps of the intruders on the stairs outside the workshop, boots thudding heavily against the floor. The arc reactor cast a blue glow over her; she squirmed out of her jacket and wrapped it clumsily around the reactor until the light was obscured, leaving her in the dark.

The footsteps descended and came through the open workroom door, accompanied by strange male voices in staccato exchanges muffled by the Audi's windows. She tried not to breathe or whimper as her heartbeat thundered in her ears. Jarvis, please get the call out. Please.

"Miss Potts."

Pepper jumped and almost hissed at Jarvis to shut up before she realized his voice was coming through her hands-free earpiece, somehow still in place. "Jarvis?" she whispered.

"Yes, Miss Potts. I am broadcasting over the wireless router."

"Thank god you're even smarter than Tony thinks you are. Are any cameras still active? Can you see them?"

"The house cameras still active; four intruders entered through the upper level. I'm accessing my webcam.... All four intruders are now in the work area; would you like audio?"

"Not really," Pepper mumbled, then shook her head sharply. Knowledge was power, she knew that. "Yes, give me audio."

The sound was far from crystal clear, but she could pick up most of it. "--get that door open, Molina. Barrett, locate the armor. Any sign of the woman?"

"No, sir," a fainter voice rapped back. "She must be hiding upstairs somewhere. I can do another sweep."

"Negative. She's cut off; even if she gets out, she won't be able to do anything. Focus on the primary targets."

They know I'm still here, Pepper realized sickly. They were watching the house, waiting for Tony and Happy to leave.

One of the men suddenly strode past the Audi; Pepper shrank deeper into the shadows. "Jarvis, are they wearing NVDs?"

"Yes, Miss Potts; I can tentatively identify Generation 5 night vision devices. All equipment appears to be of Stark Industry manufacture."

"Of course." Pepper almost laughed, but it came out as more of a breathy sob. "Supplying the best to the world. What are they doing?"

"Intruder designated Unknown 2 has gone out of range towards the end of the tunnel. Intruder designated Unknown 3 has located the Mark II and is beginning to break it down. Intruder designated Unknown Leader is currently attempting to break into my systems via networked laptop."

"Will he be able to?"

"His skill levels do not suggest a high probability of success," Jarvis said disdainfully, and Pepper smirked in spite of herself. It faded immediately at Jarvis' next words. "The manual release on the garage door has been enabled; the door is being opened."

"Damn it. They know exactly what they're doing, don't they?"

The question had been rhetorical, but Jarvis answered, "It is quite likely the intruders were supplied with inside information."

The rumble of a heavy engine became audible a moment later; Pepper shifted until she could just see up through the windshield. A heavy armored Brinks truck backed down the tunnel, and stopped with the hood still partially inside. As she watched, another man came out from the passenger side and threw the back doors open.

"Get a hustle on," the leader ordered sharply, barely audible over the engine noise. "Load what you've found. Where the hell is that suit? How hard is it to find a ton of red and gold armor?"

"They've very nearly parked on it," Jarvis observed dryly.

Pepper discovered it was very hard to glare at a disembodied voice, even if he was right -- the back of the armored truck was only a few feet from the black assembly platform on the floor, near the driver's side of the Audi. "Let's not tell them that," she settled for saying repressively.

"I've got part of it," someone called from right outside Pepper's window. "One metal glove, red and gold. Looks like it's off the latest suit."

"Congratulations, Einstein, now find the rest."

"I've got something here!"

"Jarvis?" Pepper hissed.

"I'm sorry to say the intruders appear to have located the prototype."

"Damn it!" They weren't going to find Tony's rebuilt Mark III suit, but with the complete Mark II, and the prototype boots and gauntlets, they could do more than enough damage. Another Iron Monger set loose on the world, and all they had to do was figure out how to power it. She touched the arc reactor at her knees for reassurance; at least they wouldn't get that, either.

"The intruders have begun loading the Mark II for transport."

"I can see that, Jarvis, thank you." And she could; two of the bastards were lugging the breastplate of the heavy silver armor across the workshop, and hefting them into the hands of a third in the back of the truck. She was not going to let this happen; she was not going to let these terrorist bastards pervert Tony's work into another horror show. "Jarvis, will the armor on the truck be enough to block the GPS signal from the Mark II?"

"Yes, Miss Potts. I would assume that was their plan."

"So would I." She closed her eyes, thinking furiously. She had to stop them from taking the suits, but she was unarmed and outnumbered 6 to 1. Helpless. What would Tony do? Well, Tony would build a mechanized suit of armor from scratch and blow them all to hell. Not an option. Okay, what would Rhodey do? Order in an air strike? I have a pair of stiletto heels, an arc reactor, and no time!

"I hate this," she hissed out loud.

"Agreed," Jarvis said wryly, and Pepper huffed out a short laugh. At least Jarvis had kept his word. He hadn't left her alone in the dark....

Wait. Maybe she wasn't so outnumbered. "Jarvis, how long will the batteries on the robots hold out?"

"All of the robots are at nearly full charge; Mr. Stark didn't require them for his evening work. They should function for several hours."

"Is Dummy still loaded for fire control?"

"Despite Mr. Stark's reservations, yes."

"Okay." This was such a stupid plan; this rivaled Tony at his most impulse-control challenged. So, like Tony, she refused to admit the possibility of failure. "Okay, Jarvis, this is what's going to happen."

Part 5

"We've got the full suit loaded."

Masset looks up from his laptop, which is stubbornly refusing to hack into Stark's system. Shooting the computer is starting to look like more and more of an option. So is shooting his subordinates, who can't locate a big-ass pile of red and gold metal. "Good, finish the other pile of crap. Where is Stark hiding that goddamn flying armor?"

"Time is eight minutes," Spiere calls from the truck. "Three minutes to first projected police response."

Molina hefts one of the boots from the pile of armor they found under the tarp. "Come on, no way the system got a signal out, I don't care how smart it is."

"Close your mouth and stick to the schedule, brain trust. Unless you want to give Stark the chance to do to us what he did to Stane?"

"No, sir."

"Then keep humping. Check the-- What the hell?" Masset jerks away from the computer as a wall of sound suddenly crashes over him, heavy metal cranked past eleven until it hits with almost physical force. He curses, unable to hear himself over the brutal noise, and searches for whatever he did to turn it on, until he hears a sudden panicked shout from Cormier.

Masset looks up and sees a form from a nightmare looming over him, reaching out for him with claws. He jerks backward, almost falling off the chair, and draws his sidearm in trained reflex. He aims at the thing and fires, just as a bright light shines directly into his eyes.

He flinches back, blinded for a moment as his NVD flickers to compensate, and the pinchers close crushingly around his wrist, jerking him away from the computer and onto his knees. His weapon clatters to the ground, but the pain is momentarily too blinding for him to care.

More lights flare and the NVD flickers again and again in disorienting arrhythmia. It's the monitors, he realizes in the cold back part of his brain; the freaking computer is attacking them. Somewhere nearby, Molina curses, Cormier shouts in pain or fear, and a quick, panicked burst of gunfire echoes deafeningly through the space. Two more answer it, followed closely by another sharp cry. The monitors dim, then flicker up to brightness again, and a cloud of freezing mist suddenly fills what little remains of his vision.

The robot jerks him forward again, away from the computers, and the pain from his broken wrist is intense. He uses the pain as a focus, braces himself against the floor, and fumbles with his left hand for the backup weapon on his ankle. "It's just the robots!" he yells. "Weapons free, close range only!" Snarling, he levels his automatic at the robotic body he can barely make out, and shoots again and again.

The moment Dummy's extinguisher fired, Pepper moved, rolling out the back door of her Audi into the narrow lane between it and the line of sports cars under the windows. She kept the CO2 mist between her and the intruders; Jarvis had calculated that the cold and the lights would obscure her thermal signature for several seconds. She hoped he was right.

The music pounded against her ears as soon as she left the safety of the car, and she could no longer hear Jarvis, but the familiar screeches of Metallica -- "Jump in the Fire" and "Seek and Destroy" at the same time, for maximum effect -- were almost soothing under the circumstances. The flashes of light from the robots, the TV and Jarvis' monitors were enough to guide her, even through the smoke; she stumbled a few times, unable to catch herself with both hands full. But she made it to the truck without being spotted, then crouched behind it, using its bulk for cover as she fumbled with the undercarriage.

She flinched at another burst of gunfire, losing her balance for a moment at the shriek of bullet tearing into metal, and wondering a little wildly which of the robots had just been damaged or destroyed. But Tony could rebuild them; he could. Tony could fix the robots, but he'd never be able to fix the damage if these bastards took his suits.

There. Done.

She risked a glance around the back of the truck just as Dummy cut loose with another cloud of CO2. Her teeth chattered from fear and cold, but she moved backwards, past the side of the truck, making for the tunnel out of the house, to safety and freedom--

"What the hell?" Her head jerked up and she froze, her vision suddenly limited only to the barrel of the weapon pointed at her. A Stark Industries 9mm, the back of her mind noted with strange clarity. Well, Tony was going to be pissed when he found out what had killed her.

"Now just what the hell do you think you're doing?" the intruder demanded, gesturing furiously with something bright and heavy in his left hand. Pepper's focus suddenly shifted -- it was the gauntlet from the Iron Man suit. Tony's suit, and this son of a bitch was taking it.

The wave of anger was sudden and overwhelming. She could feel it surging all the way to her fingertips, overtaking the fear and leaving only rage in its wake. And when the intruder made the mistake of taking his eyes off her for a split-second to yell towards his team, she stepped forward and swung her four-inch stiletto heel at his temple with all her strength.

He jerked and ducked and she didn't manage to kill him, and that made her furious. But the heel caught him across his left cheek, ripping a gash deep into his face and twisting him off-balance, stumbling into the truck. Blood spattered across her and the door, but another dark form came up behind him, summoned by his shout, and there would be no escape through the tunnel. Pepper scooped up the gauntlet he'd dropped and turned to run, back towards the safety of the cars -- which weren't safe anymore. She'd never get inside one without being seen, and they'd come in after her.

"Jarvis!" she yelled into her earpiece. "Plan B!"

The second man tackled her legs from behind and they skidded a few feet across the floor, the hard concrete knocking the breath out of her. She kicked frantically, aiming for his shoulder and his face, swinging backwards at his head with the heavy metal gauntlet, and managed to force him away just enough to squirm free.

And the pieces of the black assembly platform began opening in the floor in front of her. Slowly, so slowly, as Jarvis' backup batteries were pushed to their limits -- his processors were controlling the monitors, the robots, and now the platform servos and robotic arms that handled the bottom half of the Iron Man armor, as they slowly lifted and unfolded to begin the complicated process of assembly. Tony wasn't waiting for them this time, but Pepper had other plans.

She heard a shout and a shot, and a bullet ricocheted off the car a few feet beyond her head. Someone grabbed her ankle and she kicked again and again, her heel smashing something soft. Then she was free, and slithering forward through the platform into the suit chamber below the floor.

She was sure for a panicked moment that there wouldn't be enough room, but fear and adrenalin lent her agility, and she wrapped herself in and around the boots and shin guards and shifting robotic arms, pushing herself as far down and back into the depths as she could. It wasn't far, but maybe it would be enough. Hard, sharp edges dug into her legs and shoulders, and her sweater tore as something cut into her back, but she barely noticed. "Close it, Jarvis!"

There was a burst of gunfire and the music suddenly squealed in deafening feedback, then went dead silent, and the platform and mechanical arms stopped moving. Jarvis didn't answer.

"Jarvis! Close the platform! Jarvis!" she screamed, then cried out again as hands thrust through the floor a few inches in front of her face, groping for her.

"Got her! She's down here! Christ, everything's down here!" someone yelled. Pepper worked her arm around a shin guard to brace herself, and drove the heel of the shoe she still clutched into the closest reaching hand, smashing it against one of the bright yellow arms. Blood spurted again and the same voice screamed; the hand yanked out and away, wrenching the stiletto from her grip. Her best weapon fell into the shadows a few feet away, hopelessly out of reach. She tightened her grip on Tony's gauntlet in her other hand, trying to find an angle to swing it or smash with it.

"Prep the truck! Move!" The voice was authoritative and angry -- the leader. Pepper could barely make him out against the flickering lights and lingering CO2 mist as he knelt down above and opposite her. "So that's where he's hiding the big one. Finally."

He looked straight at Pepper, and she glared at him at the same time that she tried to squirm further back into the cramped, twisted space. But there was nowhere to go. "Thanks for showing us this little stash; Stane didn't include it in any of the briefings." His smile was all teeth, gleaming white against the darkness of his face, and his eyes were flat and cold. "Never would have found it without you."

Obadiah's name was like a slap to the face, but Pepper refused to show this bastard anything. "Go to hell," she gritted out instead, because if she was going to die, she wasn't going to do it screaming. Except for the little voice in the back of her head hopelessly crying out for Tony, Rhodey, the police, anyone to come--

"Don't worry," the leader said as he shifted his weight lower, pointing the 9mm in his left hand through the gaps in the platform until it was aimed directly at her head. His other wrist was swollen and bloody and she took vicious satisfaction in that. "When I get the chance? I'll tell Stark you tried."

She closed her eyes in spite of herself, bracing for the bullet, and whispered Jarvis's name one last time. "Please, Jarvis. Please."

Then the leader yelled in startled fury as the platform lurched again, robotic arms beginning to withdraw back into the floor as the platform sections started to close above her. Pepper's eyes flew open and she squirmed forward, clawing at a shin guard and a solid metal arm for leverage until she could pull herself just far enough up. The leader was too distracted by the platform to move before she locked her fists around his wrist, yanked down, and bit deeply into his hand.

He let out a strangled noise of pain and yanked backwards, cracking Pepper's shoulder against one of the robotic arms as he pulled her with him, but Pepper dug her teeth in deeper and clawed for the gun. One piece of the platform continued closing on his wrist as the last bright yellow arm retracted into the floor; he made another noise, grimacing in pain, and slowly, slowly, his fingers opened. The gun clattered into the space next to her ribs; she scooped it up before it could disappear into the depths, and released him, spitting blood as she squirmed back into the shelter of the suit.

The leader was still kneeling on the edge of the jerkily closing platform, both hands now bloody and swollen. He started to gesture someone else over; Pepper lifted the gun as much as she could and found a narrow line of sight, making her intentions very clear. The platform slowly ground to a halt, but that didn't matter anymore. They stared at each other past the weapon, through the small, jagged gaps remaining between robots and platform and floor. Pepper's face was grim, the leader's cold and murderous.

"Masset!" someone yelled from the workshop, the voice echoing oddly around Pepper's hiding place. "Sheriff's department is responding! We've got two minutes, max!"

The leader -- Masset -- didn't move, and Pepper breathed sharp, shallow breaths that wouldn't affect her aim at this distance. Masset's hands clenched, frustration rolling off him in waves, but without Jarvis to open the platform, no one would be dragging her or the suit out. Her muscles were so tense, they felt almost locked, but she managed to snarl two words. "Get. Out."

"Boss, we gotta go!"

Masset broke first. Pepper flinched and almost fired when he pounded his fist once against the floor in impotent fury, then he abruptly stood, leaving her staring at his boots. "Load it up! Let's move!"

Boots pounded over her head and something crashed to the floor inches away. She forced her eyes to stay open, fixed on the small gap that was only line of sight she had. Two minutes, the intruder had said, but it seemed infinitely longer before the slamming of doors and the squealing of tires against concrete left the workshop in silence.

Even then, she didn't dare relax, didn't dare breathe. She kept the gun ready, her arm trembling in fatigue, and she waited. Just in case.

Part 6

The armored car handles like a pig, but Spiere still takes it down the twisting driveway at close to top speed.

"Sheriff's vehicle coming in ahead of us," he reports.

Masset has already spotted them, and smiles without humor. "Looks like rich guys really do get faster response times. Take them out."

Spiere nods, more than ready to do some damage in return for the damage he'd taken. The deep gash on his cheek where the woman got him is still bleeding. "Everybody fasten your seatbelts, this is gonna be bumpy."

The Sheriff's car starts the turn up the driveway with a squeal of tires, siren blaring and lights flashing. Spiere never slows down. He rams through the front of the squad car doing 60, and the squad car loses spectacularly; metal screams and tears, and the remaining pile of wreckage spins to the other side of the road, skidding to a stop opposite the driveway entrance.

"Yee haw, just like a demolition derby!" Cormier yells, too loud for the enclosed space in back. "See ya, suckers!"

Barret bitch-slaps him into silence before Masset has the chance. "Rendezvous with Team 3, fast and smooth. I want to be invisible on the 405 before the next response team shows up," he tells Spiere, then reaches for his radio. "Team 4, bail out now."

"Roger that, bugging out," Parks says over the radio. "Last one across the border buys the drinks."

"You're on." They make a brief stop to pick up the rest of Team 3; the two men jump smoothly into the back with their jam-and-scan equipment, then they're back on the road. The ocean stretches out to the side of the car, and Masset leans back in the front seat and relaxes all the way down the PCH, nursing his wounds, but still smiling as he counts the buyers he'll have lined up for tonight's haul.

The Rolls raced back to Malibu in a little over half the time it had taken to drive in the opposite direction. Rhodey was grateful for the tinted glass of the windows that kept him from getting a clear look at all of the laws (of traffic, and of not getting killed) that Happy had broken. After a quick call to let the generals know they'd be late -- and yeah, that had gone over well -- all he'd been able to do was sit and watch Tony.

Tony had spent the entire trip redialing, with no answer until a few minutes earlier. He'd almost jumped out of his seat when Pepper's Blackberry had finally started ringing, then cursed and thrown the phone across the car when he'd gotten her voicemail.

Since then he'd just been sitting, absolutely still except for the way his hand kept flexing, his face set in the flat mask that Rhodey remembered from the first days after Afghanistan, the one that scared the hell out of him because when Tony looked like that, people died. Rhodey couldn't see his own expression, but he suspected it wasn't all that different. Images of Pepper kept flashing in front of his eyes: trapped in the house with armed intruders, unable to hide -- or, worse, trying to stop them. Lying on the living room floor, bleeding into the expensive rug... or worse.

He shook his head, banishing the images with a practiced act of will. As he did, Happy abruptly slammed on the brakes, nearly sending his passengers flying off the seat.

"Hogan, what the hell?" Tony demanded.

"Sheriff's car," Happy said tersely, already bailing out of the front seat. "Wrecked."

Tony and Rhodey nearly dove out of the car, and Rhodey cursed when he saw the tangled mess of metal that had been a response unit, laying in front of the gates of Tony's driveway. It had been spun to the side of the road, half on the asphalt, half on the shoulder, and the front end was nearly ripped away, like it had been hit head-on by a tank. There were two uniformed bodies inside, and only one of them was moving.

Tony had been swearing the entire time, but he'd also been moving, pulling rescue equipment from the Rolls' trunk as Happy raced towards the wreck. Rhodey dialed 911, reporting the situation as quickly and tersely as possible. But he was still talking when Tony finished unloading the rescue gear and jumped into the driver's seat of the Rolls.

"Damn it! Tony!" Rhodey managed to snag a crowbar from the equipment pile, and barely made it back into the Rolls before Tony crushed the accelerator. "We need to--"

"Happy's got it under control," Tony said without taking his eyes off the last 300 yards of the twisting driveway. "Pepper wasn't in that car."

"Yeah, okay, I get that. But Happy's going to need--"

"Pepper is still in the house."

And Rhodey shut up because Tony wasn't going to hear anything else, and honestly, Rhodey couldn't exactly argue with Tony's priorities. Not until they knew....

The garage tunnel was open, drawing another curse from Tony. "Don't go all the way inside!" Rhodey warned as they hit the tunnel still doing 50. "We don't know what's in there, and we're going to need evidence."

Tony didn't look like he cared about evidence, but they screeched to a halt with the car still partially inside the tunnel. Tony started bellowing Pepper's name before he had his door all the way open.

Rhodey emerged more cautiously, wishing for his sidearm, but settling for his crowbar as he checked out the situation. He realized almost immediately that whatever threat there had been, had already happened. Tony rounded the hood of the car towards Rhodey, his footsteps slowing as he took in the wreckage of his workshop, illuminated only by the stark glare of the Rolls' headlights. Cordite fought with the stink of burnt electronics, smoke and some kind of mist hanging in a haze around them. The monitors at the workstation flickered weakly off and on, and Rhodey could make out the unmoving bulk of two of Tony's robots, attachments dangling loosely from exposed wires.

"Jarvis?" Tony yelled, and for the first time Rhodey could remember, there was no answer from the AI. Tony started towards the stairs at a run. "Pepper? Answer me, Potts, or you're fired! Jarvis!"

Rhodey heard it before Tony did, maybe because he was closer, or just because he was quieter. He yelled at Tony to shut up and listened. There it was again, a quiet voice calling from deep inside the floor.


"Pepper." Tony reversed gears, bellyflopping next to the barely-open floor platform only a few seconds after Rhodey. The headlights didn't get very good penetration, but enough light made it through the cracks to reflect off a pair of eyes deep in the depths of the suit storage -- and off the automatic that trembled in a small hand.

"Jesus," Rhodey breathed.

Tony's voice shook with fear, or relief, or both. "It's okay, Pepper. It's me. You're okay, it's me, I'm gonna get you out. Jarvis! Open the goddamned platform!"

"He stopped talking." Pepper said quietly and Tony shut up again, all of his attention abruptly back on her. Rhodey's eyes were adjusting; he could almost make out the details of her pale face against the darkness. "He saved me, and then he stopped talking. I've been alone... for a while."

Tony's breathing was choppy, his face as drained as Pepper's. "Okay. Okay. Don't worry, I'll get you out. Rhodey, stay with her."

"Yeah." Rhodey didn't watch whatever Tony scrambled up to do, just kept his eyes on Pepper, who stared back blankly. "Pepper, you think you might want to put the gun down? It's just me and Tony, and we're not going to to let anything else happen to you. I promise. So you can put the gun down, okay?"

Pepper blinked slowly, and something like awareness began to creep back into her face. "The... Oh." She looked at the weapon like she hadn't noticed it was there, and slowly lowered her arm. The gun clattered to the bottom of the space, and Rhodey took a deep breath.

"Okay," he repeated soothingly, "That's good, that's a lot better. We've got enough of a mess here, we didn't need any more. Tony and I are going to get you out, and it's all going to be good. Just hang in there, Pepper, we'll have you out in a minute."

He kept talking without really listening to himself, just trying to keep Pepper's attention focused on him and not on where she was. Because the way she was crammed in and around the components of Tony's suit didn't say 'safe' -- it said 'hiding for her life' and 'completely terrified.' But if he thought too hard about that he was going to lose control, and someone needed to keep it together here, so he didn't.

"Tony?" he called over his shoulder, keeping a reassuring smile aimed at Pepper.

"Got it!" Tony reappeared next to him and started yanking at sections of the platform, which gave way slowly but surely. "Help me!" Rhodey was already on his feet, hauling at the closest bit of metal. His back and arms protested, the edges cut into his palms, and it felt like forever before Tony was able to reach in and grab Pepper's hand.

It took both of them to help Pepper unwrap herself, and Rhodey bit back more curses when he saw the deep bruises on her arm, the blood on her back and feet. They knelt on the edge of the storage chamber, each of them holding one of her wrists as she climbed carefully out. Rhodey felt her body trembling as he wrapped his free hand around her elbow, giving her a final boost into the open. She was clutching the gauntlet from Tony's suit in her left hand; it hit the ground next to her with a dully ringing 'thunk'.

She couldn't quite make it past her hands and knees, just knelt there with her eyes closed as she took deep, shaking breaths. Tony yanked his suit jacket off and put it carefully around her shoulders, then wrapped his arms around her, cradling her tightly against his chest. Pepper's hands fisted themselves in the front of Tony's shirt, her hair hiding her face as she buried it in his shoulder and he pressed his lips, then his cheek, to the top of her head.

It might have been the first time Rhodey had ever seen Tony hug anyone, ever, when sex wasn't involved. He sat back on his heels, scrubbing his hands over his face, then reached out to rub Pepper's shoulder gently, not sure whether he was reassuring his friend or himself.

Pepper leaned against Tony for what seemed like a long time, but probably wasn't, before she started struggling to sit up. Tony let her move away a little, but didn't drop his arms. "Are you okay?" he demanded, his voice no less intense for being amazingly gentle. "Are you hurt? Did anyone hurt you?"

Pepper swallowed hard, but shook her head. "No. Or, not really. We -- Jarvis and I -- we... Tony, they took the suits!"

Rhodey and Tony looked at each other in confusion, then Tony whipped his head around towards the corner where the Mark II usually stood. "Son of a bitch!"

"We couldn't stop them." Pepper's voice trembled badly and Tony tightened his arms around her, still staring at the empty corner with furious eyes. "We kept them away from your suit, but they took the Mark II and Rhodey's prototype. They knew what they were looking for, they worked for Obadiah. They loaded it all up in an armored car, to block the GPS, but--"

"Wait, my prototype?" Rhodey demanded. "What the hell? You were building me a suit? And they took it?"

"Yeah, happy birthday. Fuck!" Tony started to jump to his feet, but Pepper still had a good grip on his shirt and she jerked him back down.

"No, Tony, listen!" Tony's attention snapped back to Pepper, who looked like she was clinging to control with her fingernails. She said each word like it required all of her concentration. "We planted the GPS transmitter you installed in my Audi on the back of the car. It was a Brinks armored car, you can track it if you get Jarvis back online."

Tony blinked. "You planted a GPS? Nice. How the hell-- No, tell me later." He started to get up again, then changed his mind mid-motion, cradling Pepper's face in one hand. His eyes sharpened and he wiped at a dark stain on Pepper's chin with his thumb. "You okay? I've got to get the generator going. You okay?"

Pepper nodded, visibly forcing herself to release her grip on Tony's shirt. Rhodey put his arm around her shoulders, which seemed to help. "I'm fine," she lied. "Go."

Tony looked torn for another second, then bolted to his feet. "The keys are by my car!" Pepper shouted after him. She needed Rhodey's help to stand up, but only let him support her for a few moments before she straightened, pulling Tony's jacket around her shoulders with both hands and taking a deep breath that seemed to steady her. Her chin lifted and she started to look like Pepper again.

"Way to go, Pep," Rhodey said quietly.

Pepper shook her head. "It was Jarvis and the robots. I couldn't have done anything without them."

Rhodey looked around him again, seeing the blood on the concrete next to the platform and what might have been more to one side of the Rolls. "I kind of doubt that." The dark red spatter on her chin was still there; Rhodey pulled out his handkerchief to wipe off what Tony hadn't been able to get.

Pepper looked at the stained cloth, then looked away.

The overheads suddenly flickered, then flooded the workroom with light, and Tony re-emerged from the generator room, flicking a glance towards Pepper to check on her before charging back towards his workstation. Rhodey left him to it, gently steering Pepper towards the bathroom and the first aid kit. "Come on, let's get you cleaned up."

"He'll need help," Pepper said, but went along quietly enough. Her eyes never left the workstation. "Tony? Can you get Jarvis back online?"

Tony glanced over his shoulder at her and flashed a quick, tense grin, then immediately went back to the half-shattered component he was extracting from the wreckage. "Got it all under control, Potts."

Looking at the damage, Rhodey didn't believe him. He didn't think Pepper did, either, but she faked it pretty well. She patted one of the ruined robots as Rhodey led her past it.

Part 7

"Police scanner's reporting an accident at Rosecranz; traffic's backed up a few miles."

"Just chill; we're in no hurry. Even if LAPD has the word, we're just another armored car sitting in traffic and we've passed three of those already. Get a check-in from Team 4."

"They took sidestreets; they're already past Torrance. Parks wants to know how you'll be paying for his margaritas."

"Parks needs to stop--"

"Masset, the LAPD radios just lit up. They're looking for us."

"Let 'em look. Just play it cool."

Tony's focus was absolute -- cold and clear, system schematics rolling through his brain like Jarvis was feeding them to him. He was vaguely aware of sirens somewhere in the distance, of Rhodey and Happy dealing with the invasion of several sets of freaked-out uniforms. But that was all secondary, totally unimportant next to the clock ticking off seconds in the back of his head -- the time before the bastards who'd stolen his weapons would be too far away, would ditch the truck, would manage to escape.

There was no way in hell he was letting them get away. Not with his suit. Not with his prototype. Not without paying for the ruins of his workshop and the blood on Pepper's face. He channeled the rage, focused it, and worked.

With the lights back on, it was obvious that the worst of the visible damage was to Jarvis' audio system; Tony yanked both that and the smashed monitors to save time, then took the main drives offline to reboot from the shadow drives. The backup batteries were totally drained, and the back of Tony's mind started planning Jarvis's very own arc reactor while the rest of him methodically flipped switches and rerouted around processors that hadn't survived. On his back under the work station, he yelled once for Dummy to bring over a light, remembered with a surge of anger that Dummy was currently a nonmobile heap, and started to slide out to find one himself.

A flashlight clicked on just over his head, aimed exactly where he needed it. Pepper was still swathed in his suit jacket, looking more fragile than he could ever remember seeing her, but her hands were steady. "Thanks," he said quietly, and got back to work.

It took too long, but finally the last unit was reset, the last cable was replaced, and he started the full system reboot, refusing to accept any possibility other than success. He needed this to work, so it would. He leaned against the workstation with both hands, tapping his fingers impatiently against the surface and staring at the two functioning monitors as if he could will them to life.

Pepper hovered over Tony's shoulder, holding her breath, as the screens flickered back to life, but remained empty. He jerked the keyboard over, raced through the keystrokes to manually boot the AI. The cursor blinked at him for a long moment -- then started scrolling calm white-on-green letters.

//Good evening, Mr. Stark.//

"Hell yeah!" Tony banged his fist against the desk, and Pepper's breath came out on a choked sob of relief.

//My systems indicate I have sustained extensive damage; my vocal components are offline. An intrusion was logged nearly 60 minutes ago; I regret that I was unable to contact the authorities.//

"No apologies necessary, Jarvis, believe me." Tony tapped the closest monitor a few times, then pushed his satisfaction aside. "Run diagnostics, but confine to suit protocols. While you're at it, activate the backup GPS from Pepper's car and get me a current location."

//The satellite link has been reestablished; I am now tracking the GPS unit. The unit is traveling south on the 405, approaching the airport.//

"Awesome, the 405's a parking lot. They're going nowhere." The status bar for the diagnostics was at 42 percent already, no errors logged. Tony yanked his tie off and started pulling his shirt over his head without bothering with the buttons. "Start suit assembly protocols as soon as diagnostics are complete."

//Yes, sir.//

He hadn't heard Pepper move, but when his shirt cleared his eyes, she was already holding out his neoprene flight jacket. He changed at top speed, fighting his way into the heavy fabric, and was ready when Jarvis announced that the suit controls were clear.

"Rhodey! Clear this place out!" he yelled on his way to the assembly platform. It took Jarvis a few too-long minutes to reset the platform after the damage he and Rhodey had done, but it gave Rhodey time to pull rank on the uniforms and get them the hell out of the way. Then, finally, his armor began locking into place around him, cold purpose replacing forced helplessness with every piece.

He looked over at Pepper just before the helmet settled into place. Her arms were crossed protectively over her chest, but she met his eyes and nodded once, sharply. Go get them.

He nodded back in acknowledgment, then the face plate flipped down. "Engage heads-up display." The HUD flickered immediately into life, the dot that was Pepper's GPS unit already blinking against a glowing green map. The rest of the gauges showed he was good to go.

"Suit assembly is complete, sir," Jarvis said through suit speakers, and Tony cracked a grin.

"Nice to have you back. Thrusters at 5 percent until we're clear, then go to maximum."

"As you wish, sir."

"Do it."

He blasted through the tunnel and over a knot of police cars, ambulances, and Air Force security units; heads whipped up as he screamed overhead, but he mostly ignored them. There was nothing for him right now except that green dot, currently crawling along the 405 just north of LAX. He followed the PCH, the suit retracing in minutes the side streets Happy had driven them through not even an hour ago, until he hit the 405.

Which was wall-to-wall with Friday night traffic, and even through his cold, furious focus, Tony admitted that was a problem. "We need some room to work here, Jarvis."

"Yes, sir. Will this do?"

Tony checked the display Jarvis projected to the side. "Nice. Get me Rhodey."

"Contacting Colonel Rhodes."

The GPS map and the video feed of the freeway below suddenly merged into one display, a steady tone beeping as the light flashed a virtual marker on the roof of a white Brinks truck. He'd flown over two others already; without the GPS, he'd never have found the right truck in that mess.

With it, they had a bulls-eye painted on them.

"Boom," Tony muttered, as Jarvis locked every targeting beacon the suit had on the truck.

"What's happening?" Rhodey demanded as soon as he answered his cell.

"The 405's packed, too many innocent bystanders. I need some room to work. They're past the airport, can't get them there, but they're about to hit El Segundo--

"We've got them," Rhodey interrupted, "Jarvis has been feeding the GPS signal to us. Half of LAPD is on the way."

"Good. I need them off the freeway; tell LAPD to herd them towards Area B, and tell Area B to get the ground access around the base clear."

"On it." Rhodey started yelling away from the phone towards someone else; Tony kept his attention on the cars below him. Jarvis pulled the map display back, highlighting the five -- no, six -- response units racing up the shoulder from both ends of the freeway, lights flashing.

The bastards thought fast; as soon as they realized how trapped they were, the driver hit the gas and wrenched the steering wheel to the side, plowing ruthlessly through the cars that were between him and the shoulder. He left wrecks behind, but got into the clear, and hauled ass for the exit ramp.

"Oh yeah, that's good, you just keep running," Tony smirked as he followed. The car raced down La Cienega and hit El Segundo, where two more LAPD units joined the chase, forcing the thieves west. The back door opened and automatic weapons fire streamed out towards the response units, who swerved wildly but still took some hits. Tony bit back a curse, but more squad cars were already coming off La Cienega, still in pursuit. The traffic was lighter on the surface street, less collateral damage available -- and there was that massive, bare-dirt construction site, right across from the base.

"Rhodey, tell LAPD I'm taking over now. They need to get out of the way."

Without waiting for an answer, he made a hard dive towards the ground, on a vector that set him on a collision course with the armored truck's windshield. He took a second to enjoy the shock and fear on the faces of the men in the front seat the moment they saw him coming, before the driver again hit the brakes and wrenched the steering wheel to the side. Tony let them turn, lashing his arm out to shove the fender in passing; the vehicle spun out of control across the opposite lanes of traffic, crashing through the light fencing around the construction site.

Tony's repulsors counterbalanced the recoil from the impact and stabilized in time to watch the driver barely manage to avoid slamming into a bulldozer. Dirt kicked up from his tires as he somehow pulled a 180 back towards the street, only to find Tony hovering in front of him, repulsors raising clouds of dust around his armored legs. "Nice driving," Tony said over his external speakers, as the HUD painted two targets, one on either side of the car. Mini rockets exploded inches from the wheels.

"So, the only reason I'm not just blowing the crap out of you right now is because you have some things in there that belong to me. But if you don't come out right now, unarmed, and plant your faces in the ground, getting my stuff back is going to seem like a lot less fun than just destroying you. No, actually, it already seems like a lot less fun."

The guys in back probably thought they were being stealthy, unpacking and aiming their own mini rocket launcher in the shadows, but the NVD built into Tony's helmet lit them up clearly. His eyes narrowed. "Bad call."

The blast from his right gauntlet shattered the windshield and blew both men through the back of the truck. He landed, then took three long strides and rammed his fist straight forward through the engine block, sending the truck flying several yards backwards.

"Everybody out," Tony advised them coldly when the vehicle stopped shuddering from the impact. He met the eyes of the big black guy in the front seat, the one he had pegged as the man in charge. "Or I stop playing nice."

The big guy stared back at him expressionlessly, ignoring the bloody glass cuts covering his face; Tony raised his arm again, this time aiming the repulsor right at the center of the man's forehead. "Come on. Seriously. Make my day."

The standoff stretched out for another long moment. Then the leader spat a curse, and held his sidearm up so Tony could see him drop it. LAPD and two security units from Area B took their cue -- as the rest of the truck doors opened and bad guys in flak jackets began emerging, good guys were waiting to slam them to the ground and against the vehicle, slapping on handcuffs.

Tony waited for them to clear out, watching for anyone who might be planning to try anything stupid, and distracting himself from the urge to kill them all now that they were in the open by calculating the potential entertainment value in heading over to Area B and making Rhodey's meeting after all. He was sure the 4-stars would love an up-close look at the suit.

He reluctantly gave up the idea (conclusion: entertainment value pretty damn high) in favor of inspecting the back of the armored truck. The Mark II and the prototype were both there and looked pretty good; he got Rhodey back on the line to get an Air Force security unit assigned to guard the equipment until the Stark Industries team Pepper was putting together could retrieve it.

Then, with a humorless smirk, he reached under the back of the truck, retrieved the GPS unit, and went to make one last stop before heading home.

Masset ignores the cop reading him his rights -- like he's just some criminal -- and barely flinches when the handcuffs snap closed over his broken wrist. His chest shoved against one of the squad car the remnants of his team are being loaded into, he runs the op over and over in his mind and still can't figure out how it went wrong, how the hell Stark found them so damn fast. They'd been so careful, so goddamn close, until that metal-bound bastard dropped out of the sky.

He hears the whirring of servos and the clank of metal, and almost refuses to turn his head to look. But even now, he's not going to back down from some rich man playing at being a hero.

Iron Man's mask is smooth and unmarked, the glowing slits of his eyes the only thing remotely human about it. In one hand, the same one he used to casually kill Cormier and Barrett, he waves a small black box lazily back and forth in front of Masset's face.

A GPS tracker, magnetized to fit under a dashboard -- or under a truck. And Masset finally figures out why that redheaded bitch came out of hiding.

"A little gift for you, courtesy of Pepper Potts," Stark confirms, his voice smug even through the speakers on his suit. "Just so you know who actually took you down."

Masset's vision is lost in a red haze of fury, and he fights for control; he's not going to give Stark the satisfaction. But something must have made it through on his face, because Stark tosses the GPS in one armored hand and laughs as the cops wrestle Masset into the car.

Stark turns away, saying, "That's enough video, Jarvis. I'm heading home," as the door slams shut in Masset's face.


Clean-up took the rest of the night -- and that was just the legal part.

Unlike the mess at the factory, Tony was awake and undamaged this time, and he and Rhodey fielded the bulk of the questions and demands from the Air Force, LAPD, the Sheriff's department, the mayor's office, and SHIELD (when they got around to showing up). Pepper only had to tell her story twice, both times with Tony and Rhodey flanking her supportively, and three Stark Industries lawyers flanking them.

Fox News had the story, of course, complete with footage from someone's camcorder, and why were there always tourists around where they shouldn't be? The 'Breaking News' headlines seemed focused on "Iron Man involved in second lethal shootout on LA freeways", but the LAPD press reps had already started spinning it. Their approach was more "Iron Man helps police capture armed terrorists", with the emphasis on the injured deputies and the property damage Masset and his men had left in their wake.

Los Angeles city officials in general suddenly seemed much more in favor of Iron Man (in a publicly restrained way) now that he'd kept them from having to somehow take out an armored truck full of heavily armed mercenaries on their own. Pepper had decided to be grateful for small blessings, especially since they seem inclined to categorize the two men Tony had killed in the process as some variety of self-defense/defense of others.

The clean-up of the lab was going to take weeks. To give herself something to do after hours of watching uniforms mill around, Pepper had started scraping together the mass of destroyed electronics from Tony's workstation, until he'd told her to stop and go upstairs and rest for christ's sake. She'd obeyed, needing desperately to escape from the workroom and feeling guilty for it; she looked back once on her way out and saw Tony standing in the middle of the ruins, his hands dangling helplessly and his face bleak.

She broke one of her own rules and used a guest bathroom to take a long, long shower, tilting her face and head up into the steam, blocking out all sight and sound and feeling except for the heat and the flow of the water. Her bandages had gotten wet in the shower, but she didn't need stitches this time, so she didn't worry about it.

She brushed her teeth four times before the taste of blood was washed away, and even then, she could feel it on the back of her tongue.

Pepper walked barefoot to the living room and paused, looking at the stairs down to the workroom. Then she detoured as far around them as she could, slipping through the glass doors onto the wide, curving balcony that overlooked the ocean. It was almost sunrise; Pepper curled up on one corner of the huge sofa, tucked her chin against her knees and brooded, watching the sunlight flow up into the sky from behind her, and begin streaking across the ocean.

The sun was fully up when Tony opened the balcony doors; he walked outside and stood over her. "I thought you were asleep," he said, his voice suggesting he found it slightly offensive that she wasn't.

"I didn't want to sleep," Pepper answered evenly. "I just needed some peace and quiet."

"Ah." He took a sip from the glass he was holding, filled with one of the smoothie concoctions that were his major culinary accomplishment, then looked at her like he'd just noticed what she was wearing. "Is that my MIT sweatshirt? My favorite sweatshirt?"

"Yes." She didn't bother being embarrassed or defensive. She'd only had yoga pants and a tank top in her workout bag; Tony's sweatshirt was soft and only a little too big, and she needed the warmth. And he tended to leave this particular sweatshirt lying all over the house, so he deserved to have it stolen.

Stolen. Pepper flinched at her own word choice and closed her eyes again, leaning her head back against the sofa. Tony stood there for another few seconds, then moved away, his bare feet quiet against the tile floor. Glasses clinked in the bar and she listened with resignation; at least he'd managed to lay off the scotch in front of their official visitors.

"Here," he said when he came back, and she started to refuse before she had her eyes open. But the glass he was holding out didn't contain alcohol -- it held half of his smoothie.

"Oh. Thank you." Mango, pineapple, banana, the slight grittiness of protein powder, maybe some strawberry. It was pretty good. Pepper sipped quietly at her smoothie for a while as Tony leaned against the balcony a few feet away, drinking his and looking out over the ocean.

"How's Jarvis?" she finally asked. "Is he... going to be all right?" Which still seemed like a strange thing to ask about a computer, but Jarvis was unique. And she didn't know what Tony would do without him.

"I am doing very well, Miss Potts," Jarvis himself answered over the balcony speakers. "Your concern is most appreciated. Mr. Stark has already begun repairing my external peripherals, and I expect to be completely functional within 2 days."

"That's good news, Jarvis. It's... really nice to hear your voice again."

"Thank you, Miss Potts. I'm quite pleased to hear your voice as well." He really did sound happy about it, and Pepper wondered again just what Tony had managed to create.

"He really was amazing," she told Tony quietly. "He saved my life."

"Yeah," Tony said without turning around. "I was going to give him a bonus, but what do you get the computer that has everything? You know, you should quit."

It took Pepper a second to catch up to the conversational U-turn. Tony was leaning on his forearms against the railing, his glass hanging carelessly from one hand, and he sounded almost casual. But his shoulders and back were so tense, Pepper could see the individual muscles through his thin white tank shirt.

She took a deep breath and let it out, resting her glass on her knee and rotating it slowly. The sun caught the facets in the cut crystal and reflected it in little sparkling rainbows. "Did Rhodey leave?" she asked finally.

Tony tilted his head a little towards her, equally thrown by her return non sequitor. "Yeah," he said after a moment. "He shooed all of his Air Force minions out and went to go talk the 4-stars off the ceiling. I don't know what kind of problem they could have with me missing their meeting to, you know, keep my armor out of the hands of every third-world country or terrorist cell with a big enough bank account, but that's Rhodey's gig, not mine."

"You'd be in a lot more trouble without him." Pepper's observation covered much more than just that night's exploits; it had been Rhodey who'd run interference ever since the destruction of the factory, Rhodey who'd refused to allow the search in Afghanistan to be called off.

Tony's mouth twisted for a second, then he shrugged one shoulder. "Yeah." Being Tony, he immediately and tenaciously returned to his previous topic. "You should quit. I've almost gotten you killed, what? Twice in the last three weeks? I don't pay you enough for that. But, and let's face it, I'm way too selfish to fire you, plus no one would believe me if I tried, since you're in charge of pretty much everything. So you should quit."

Actually, her own mental tally for near-death was at three, since she was increasingly sure that, without Agent Coulson's presence, Obadiah wouldn't have let her leave Stark Industries that day. But there was no way to prove that, and it was the only time Tony could actually be blamed for sending her into danger. The other times.... She sighed and played with her glass some more.

Silence made Tony crazy; he turned around abruptly, gesturing with his own mostly-empty glass. "I'm serious, Pepper. I walked off and left the generator unhooked, and I left you alone in here, and they would have killed you if you weren't so much smarter than they are. Coulson ID'd them; they're part of a 'private security firm' Obadiah used to pay under the table to do his dirty work for them, and most of it was pretty goddamn dirty. I didn't kill enough of them."

His voice broke off sharply when he said the last part, as if hearing it had surprised him, and he jerked back around so she couldn't see his face. She'd seen the bodybags on the news, knew more than she thought Tony wanted her to know about what he'd done in Afghanistan and at Gulmira, and she remembered how he'd looked when he'd woken up in the hospital and she'd told him Obadiah was dead.

She'd missed the moment when he'd gone from being the "Merchant of Death" to being a man who killed people, but she'd seen it in him every day since. It scared her, she admitted, more because of what it was doing to him than because of what he had done.

But what she had done scared her even more. She'd been the one who pushed the button that had overloaded the arc reactor, and she would have killed any of the men who'd attacked the house, attacked her, if she'd had to to survive. She felt the knowledge churning in her stomach, and knew it would show up in her nightmares for a long time to come.

She wanted to ask Tony how far he was going to take this, how far he'd go before he decided he'd gone too far. If it would already be too late by then.

She would have to ask him sometime -- sometime soon. He wouldn't have the answers any more than she did, but if she could keep him asking the questions, maybe it would be okay....

She asked something different now. "Do you feel guilty about Obadiah?" And she forced herself to say the rest out loud: "That we killed him?"

Tony rocked forward a little, like she'd physically hit him, and she wanted to call the question back, but it hung in the air between them. Tony's head bowed forward between his arms, his hands braced wide apart on the railing as if the weight of the words could pull him over the side.

"Yeah," he finally said, his voice so quiet it was almost swallowed up by the breeze off the water.

Pepper nodded, fighting back tears. She grieved for the friend she'd lost, and she hated the bastard who'd tried to kill Tony, and she felt so, so guilty about killing him instead. "Do you miss him?"

Tony's head dropped even lower for a second. Then he sighed and turned around, walking slowly over to the sofa and dropping heavily to the cushion next to her. "Yeah. I miss the son of a bitch."

Pepper unfolded her legs, wincing as bruises and sore muscles protested and the cut on her back pulled, then she shifted until she could rest her head carefully against his shoulder. She and Tony had never really touched much -- or at all -- because if Tony was given that kind of an inch, he'd take three miles. Distance was her best defense.

But he'd hugged her fiercely when he pulled her out of the floor, and today was going to be really bad, and just for a little while, just this once, maybe it would be okay....

"I miss him, too," she said quietly. Tony didn't answer, but she hadn't expected him to. They stared out over the ocean, watching the sunlight on the waves.

Pepper eventually broke the silence again. "I want a raise."

She felt Tony tense at the tacit declaration that she was staying; she thought he was going to argue -- almost expected him to -- but instead he was quiet for a long time. Then, finally: "I just gave you a raise."

She smiled a little. "I know. I deserve another one."

"Yeah, you do. Okay," he agreed at last, "but no more bitching about Happy driving you around."

As if Pepper was going to have a problem with that ever again. She saw Masset standing over her, gun pointed at her face, and she forced herself to take slow deliberate breaths until her heart stopped racing again. "Deal."

If Tony noticed, he didn't say anything. But his weight shifted a little closer to her.

"Excuse me, Miss Potts," Jarvis interrupted a few minutes later, after they'd gone silent again; she ought to tell Tony to program Jarvis to be able to clear his throat. "You have a conference call scheduled for 8:00am with the Stark Industries legal team. You wished me to remind you."

Pepper blew out her breath out hard, closed her eyes, and decided that today, she just didn't have enough energy to care about the legal team. "Reschedule it, Jarvis. Please."

"Why, Miss Potts." She opened one eye just enough to look up at Tony; his faint smirk was actually oddly comforting. Almost... normal. "Are you shirking your responsibilities to my company? And after I just gave you a raise?"

"Oh, bite me, Mr. Stark," she groaned quietly. Then her eyes went wide with horror as she realized what she'd just let slip, and the opening she'd given Tony. "No, wait, excuse me, I didn't mean...."

But Tony was already snickering, the quieter version of his usual insane laugh, and Pepper gave up and let her head fall back again, knowing she was going to be hearing about this for a long time. Then Rhodey called to check in on them, and tell them that the 4-stars had agreed to reschedule, then Tony told Jarvis to put the legal team on the balcony voice system for the conference call, in which Tony actually participated, and then there was no more time to think.

The stairs inside were still waiting for her, and she was going to have to face them soon, even though the thought made her hands tremble and her stomach turn. But Tony Stark couldn't have a personal assistant who was too scared to walk into his workroom. It would wait a little while, though, until the smell of burned wires had faded, and the arc reactor was installed, and Tony had started the repairs on Dummy and Butterfingers.

She'd go down later, Pepper thought after Tony had gone back inside to work, as she reviewed another stack of CFO resumes. She'd argue with Tony about who needed to get some sleep, and who paid whose salary and got to give the orders, and it would distract her too much to remember what else had happened there.

But she planned to stay outside in the sun for a little while longer. The workshop, and Tony, would still be there.



Phil Saunder's blog was completely invaluable -- he posted the house designs he created for Tony's mansion, along with information about Point Dume that allowed me to get really obsessive with Google Maps. I had to rewrite Part 1 for the fourth time after I found this blog, but it helped amazingly.

Google Maps rocks my socks; it enabled me to go into an insane amount of detail figuring out exact routes, locations, destinations and timing for the whole story, and believe me, the timing was a big problem. I know every route everyone drove, what sidestreets they used, how long it took, and what street you have to follow to get to Tony's driveway. Plus, the satellite view gave me the gift of the construction site where Tony captures the bad guys, which I didn't make up -- it actually is right across the street from LAAFB Area B. (BTW, if you can possibly avoid taking the 405 at any given time, do it -- it seriously is a parking lot.) (Also, did you know the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department contracts out to cities like Malibu that don't want to maintain their own police force? Well, now you do.)

However, the real heroes of this story are my betareaders, who deserve a standing ovation for all of their work and patience:

natmerc contributed really comprehensive, thoughtful and grammatically correct beta work and was a truly awesome physics geek, who insisted that the science make sense. If I screwed anything up, it's in spite of her very best efforts.

Dad would get major props just for not blinking at the language being used by his innocent baby girl. :) But he also critiqued the dialogue, contributed to the battle plan for defending Tony's workshop, sympathized with the throwing of virtual Cheetos at Tony when Part 8 stubbornly refused to come together, and invented the term Shoe-Fu (which I couldn't use, but still makes me giggle).

The endlessly outstanding Kiki listened to me moan, complain and plot for well over a month, and still betaed everything with a day or two of getting it, feeding me good lines and assuring me repeatedly that it didn't suck. My nerves thank you, Kiks!

batwrangler found a table at WorldCon so she could plow her way through the last of her printouts and contribute edits to the final version -- now that's dedication!

And Jen (lunalibre) made time in a couple of weeks from hell to send exhaustive comments, and do her usual stellar job of calling me on everything I was hoping no one would notice -- from picking apart the Part 5 fight choreography I was wafting past, to spotting the places where my own dialogue quirks crept into Pepper's. She tolerated my whining and moaning as I rewrote the fight scene again, she threw in some really lovely technobabble, and she did a round of last-minute copyediting before posting. Any story she touches becomes dramatically better, and I can't tell you how much I appreciate it.

All of them are rock stars!