- There's a sense of familiarity with the hospice - the pathway through the halls, the faces of nurses, the smells and the sounds. Like she's used to it, because she is, after a few weeks. Pepper doesn't like any of it. They brought mom here, and they didn't bring her home. Echoes of following her parents to chemotherapy treatments and doctor's appointments, refusing to be left at home, drift at the edge of the memory. It's not like the hospital - mom always came back, then.
She's been getting worse for months and months and months. It seems like it's been forever, to a six year old. "Why are we here, daddy? Why can't we all go home?"
Virgil pauses in the hallway outside of Joanne's room and kneels down in front of their daughter. "Because mom is very, very sick and--" His voice catches, and Pepper can see how sad he is. "They can take good care of her here. C'mon, let's go in, sweetie."
She has more questions - he still didn't really answer her - but she lets her dad pick her up and carry her into her mother's room. Her mom is laying in the bed; she's awake but she looks small and gray and tired. Her smile had lost it’s glow, her shining red hair had become brittle and thin, and her arms, always warm and soft and comforting, are now cold and pale.
But her mother still manages a smile for Pepper, and Virgil sets her down on the edge of the bed so they can hug. Pepper is stronger than her mother, and she knows that isn't right. She burrows against her, Virgil keeping IV lines and monitors out of the way, and Pepper tries to hide that she's crying. Something is really, really wrong, and no one will say what it is. "I wanna go home," she sniffles, tiny fingers curling into the thin blankets covering her mother. "Why can't you come home, mom?"
Joanne sighs quietly, stroking Pepper's hair. Virgil comes around to the other side of the bed, sitting with both his hands cupped around one of his wife's. The adults look at each other for a moment, and her mother nods. "Mom is dying," Virgil whispers, holding his wife's gaze.
"I know that, but why can't you come home?" Pepper's voice is muffled by the blankets she's turned her face into, but her parents can hear her starting to sob. Even so, there's quiet laughter - not quite mirthful, more like relief. She knew. She knew.
"I need help," her mother says softly. "And it's not something you or your dad can do. You're doing your jobs already. You're here."
"It's not fair," Pepper complains shakily. "It's not fair." Moms aren't supposed to get sick, this isn't supposed to happen. She doesn't want to be alone, and she never wants to let go, and sadness pits in her stomach like nothing she's ever felt. The world is broken and upside down and it needs to be fixed.
Joanne pulls Pepper closer, and Virgil gets up so they can both hug their daughter. "I know, honey, I know. It isn't fair," she agrees. "Shh, shh, I know."
"You can't leave," Pepper demands weakly. This hurts. Mom can't leave. All three of them are crying, Pepper can feel it, and she sobs until she falls asleep in their arms, afraid that when she wakes her mother will be gone, and she'll never get her back. She doesn't want to sleep, wants to stay up so she can make sure her mom will stay alive, but she can't. She's too small and too young and too weak to stay awake, to help her mom.
Pepper can't save her. There's no more hope.
- She's twelve. Her father gives her a pair of handcuffs for Christmas, and she basically ignores every other present. When they're in the car, later, on the way to the Manhattan FBI office, she's telling him proudly how she'll be just like him one day, and all the other agents will want her as a partner. Virgil smiles and agrees, not quite knowing how far Pepper will take that well before she's legally allowed to.
It's not long after New Years, and the office isn't quite full. Pepper watches as her dad displays his badge to the front desk security, and they go through the metal detectors. They've done this before, and she loves it. When they get upstairs, there's casework to be done, and Pepper wanders through the desks showing off her handcuffs. She stops by the Most Wanted wall and stares, determination to catch them beginning to form. Someday, the FBI will be her office, too, and not just someplace she gets to visit, younger-Pepper decides. She and her dad are already a great team - maybe they can be partners when she's old enough.
- Virgil Potts has been working himself to the bone lately; she can always tell, because he always falls asleep on the couch when a case has him going nonstop.
It's past midnight. His laptop sits open on the coffee table, casting a blue glow onto the wall. The session has timed out, so her dad is no longer logged into the FBI database, but the computer is still awake. He hasn't learned yet that he needs to keep physical case files locked away, too, and there's a brown folder labeled 'classified' next to the laptop.
Pepper is thirteen. She tiptoes into her dad's home office, sliding the case file and the laptop towards her slowly.
The computer is her first target. The FBI logo is displayed prominently in the portal, and below that are empty boxes for passwords and ID numbers. She's long since memorized her father's ID and badge number, so that part is easy. The rest is a little more complicated. Pepper opens a command line prompt and quietly taps away at the keys, glancing over at her dad from time to ensure he's still sleeping. Before long, she's got the FBI portal system shell responding to her queries.
It's got a triple layer of security, but it only takes her about three hours to crack. While she's waiting, in the dim light of the computer screen, she reads through the case file, studying the details, and takes notes on a post-it she retrieves from her father's desk. She takes each post-it off the pad before writing on it, though, so she doesn't leave imprints for Virgil to find later.
Finally, the portal screen reloads, having received the correct credentials, and Pepper searches for the case number. After another hour of study, she logs off, returns the post-its, the file and the laptop to where she found them, and sneaks back to bed.
A week later, a diplomat - and the father of one of her classmates - is deported from the United States. After that, she loses all of her friends, but she knew that would be the consequence of her actions. Justice was served, and that made it worth it.
- Finally. Finally. It’s been over a year since Pepper pegged Tony as Iron Man and almost as long since she started operating the suits remotely from the armory. She’s gotten pretty good at it, too; but she’s even better at nagging. She is positively superb at nagging, as a matter of fact.
Result: she finally gets to pilot a suit for real. This could very well be the most exciting thing ever in the history of ever. The faceplate slides closed, and she’s ready to soar like Iron Man.
It’s, uh, a lot harder than it looks.
- Tony's armor shorted out inside Stark International, inside the vault. It's a problem. Actually, it's a mega big, seriously huge problem. If Stane finds it... well, there's no way that'll end well. But Tony has also been barred from entering the building. He's been barred from a place that should be his home.
That's okay. Pepper has a plan. All they need is a field trip.
The goal is to get to the armor, get it working, and get out of Stark International without anyone seeing them. Step one: get whatever tools, gizmos or batteries they need to make the armor work again. Then, Tony calls whoever he still knows at Stark International, someone who owes him a favor: Trisha, formerly Howard Stark's assistant. She can authorize a tour for the Tomorrow Academy.
Pepper takes care of getting the trip authorized by the school. She knows the principal is all about students showing initiative, and that he loves paperwork even more. As hall monitor, Pepper has busted just about every kid in the Academy hallway violations, which means she has all of their parent's signatures, and she can forge permission slips with zero problems.
Rhodey's job is to handle transportation and their physics professor, Klein. He doesn't take much convincing; the man is terribly excited about the idea of seeing the Stark International fusion reactor demonstration, and agrees to hold class there. Rhodey gets a bus waiting outside for them.
Once they arrive at Stark International, they just need to get inside, cause a distraction, split off from the rest of the tour and find the armor.
"Pepper, if you ever go evil, we're all in trouble," Tony tells her.
Pepper snorts gleefully. "Tell me about it."
Gene notices that they're up to something, and he's suspicious, but he doesn't try to stop them. Unfortunately, Stark International security stops Tony before he can get inside, but with Gene right there he's able to hand off his backpack in the hopes that Gene will get it to Rhodey (and he does, fortunately). Plan A was awesome, and Pepper hadn't come up with a Plan B, which means improvising. Either Pepper or Rhodey needs to get to the armor, replace the power cells, and fly it out.
Down in the fusion reactor lab, Trish is telling them all about the fusion reactor lab, where they're trying to create new, clean, and inexpensive power sources for the 'good of the world'. Or weapons, as Pepper snipes under her breath to Rhodey; he, of course, reminds her to focus on the problem they're here for. Rhodey knows the armor inside and out, and Pepper doesn't, so she's willing to admit that he should be the one to split off. That leaves the diversion to her.
The diversion involves getting herself covered in hazmat foam for a 'fire' that totally wasn't there. The Stark International staff is seriously not happy, and neither is her professor, but it gives Rhodey time to sneak away. She gets dragged to the security station, to wait for the chief, who will probably chew her out. Everything seems to be going okay, until--
An alarm goes off. Nuts.
Tony's inside the building, and both he and Rhodey are down in the vault, Pepper can see them on a screen from where she's being held. She needs to do something, and she needs to do it now, to distract the security team from seeing the armor.
So she has a fit. She gets absolutely hysterical about the possibility of a meltdown in the reactor. They should give her an Oscar award. Instead, they zip tie her wrists behind her back. Very unprofessional; they should have tied her arms above the elbow, too, if they wanted to be effective.
Stane comes in to the security hub, along with the chief of security and his daughter, Whitney; the guards notice that drones are trying to cut through to the vault, and just as Stane requests a visual, the power goes off. And that can only be done from right where they're standing: points to Whitney for being useful. In a continued effort to get her dad to pay attention to her (and probably to help Tony), she tripped the mains. In the time it takes to reboot the grid, Tony is able to get the armor out of the building by punching a nice hole in the side of it.
Pepper is displeased by the fact that she got hazmat foam up her nose, but somehow, somehow they manage to get off without being caught. The security footage even got erased by the power outage. Things went perfectly, except for every single detail.
- She's walking, but she can't see. There's a blindfold over her eyes, and Rhodey is guiding her with his hands on her shoulders.
"Aaaargh, where are we?" she demands to know.
"Just calm down, Pepper, we're almost there," her friend soothes.
"Calm down? Rhodey, how do you expect me to behave when you've had me walking around blindfolded for, like, forever plus one?"
"We're very, very, very close."
There's the sound of a door sliding open. "What's with this whole surprise thing anyway? I mean, my birthday isn't for three months."
"Well, I guess Tony just couldn't wait that long," Rhodey says, and she can hear the smile in his voice as he takes off the blindfold finally.
"Tony? What-- ?" Pepper looks around; they're in the armory. And then she spots it. "No. Way" Pepper turns around to look at Rhodey. "Is that--?"
"Yep," he confirms.
"Pepper Potts," Tony interrupts, grinning. "You are now the proud owner of the new Stark Solutions X51 Stealth Infiltrator armor."
"TONY!" Pepper races up to the armor, takes in the purple and silver lines. "Oh. My. Gosh. Oh my gosh oh my gosh oh my gosh!!" She squeals with delight and jumps into Tony's arms, and he spins her around. "This is only the best present in the entire history of the known universe!"
"So, does that mean you like it, or...?"
"Love it, I absolutely love it!."
And now, of course, she has to figure out what to call herself, as Tony reminds her. She needs a superhero identity.
"Ooh, uh, what about Iron Girl? No, no, no, Ironette. No wait, Iron Woman. Ugh, no, it's all so derivative. It's gotta be something unique, timeless. Something that screams hero!"
She'll figure it out later. Right now, it's time to fly.