a coda to Iron Man 3.
crossposted to here in AO3.
Summary: Tony would deny Pepper Potts had anything in common with Ellen Brandt. But the lives of each had been shifted by Iron Man, and Extremis coursed through their veins.
...or, how Pepper came to her end-of-movie decision.
Disclaimer: None of them are mine. I make no $ or other compensation from this.
Tags: Ellen Brandt & Pepper Potts; Pepper Potts, Ellen Brandt; Iron Man 3, Coda, Missing Scene, Pepper's agency, Minor Pepper Potts/Tony Stark, momentary reference to She-Hulk
It kept cycling through her brain, circling all her other thoughts like the stereotypical vultures that should be overhead with her mood:
...And then I fell two hundred feet into a fireball.
The news crews were gone by the time Pepper got back to what remained of the house she and Tony had shared. There's only so much you can milk a scene like this for, the ruins of a tech genius' palace destroyed in a minute for a statement fueled by rage and a bit of ego, though some would say there was hubris in there too. It's Tony Stark, of course you can find hubris if you look, she mused as she stood only a foot away from where the floor came to a ragged and sharp end over an abyss to the rocky breakers and ocean waters below.
But even if some of the last reporters to leave had thought there was another angle to be covered here, breaking news had called them away - an attack on Air Force One certainly qualifies, even if explosions and a literal firefight on an oil tanker don't. And that left her alone here, something she was not ungrateful for.
Tony had dropped her off her when she'd asked him to, though he had spent the trip out by offering to start work on a way to get every last bit of Extremis out of her.
Yes, it was Killian who injected Extremis into me. Yes, it was your old flame Maya who made Extremis as potent as it is, and who saved your life so you could save mine, Tony. But I never walked away from you, not even when you started down the road of building suits because of the shrapnel boring closer and closer to your heart. I never urged you to find a way to get rid of what was ultimately killing you - I could have, sure, definately; I expressed concern over the path you were taking, over what you were poisoning yourself with, but I never went that next step. It was, Pepper felt, typical Tony in failing to see parallels. And she knew in her bones that, no matter what answer she had given him, that he would have started lines of inquiry and study - 'just in case you change your mind' he'd rationalize it as.
Of course, years of dealing with Tony Stark - and what came with working for Stark and Stane - had honed Pepper's situational awareness into a weapon all its own. The Extremis merely expanded its scope. "Can I help you?" she asked whomever was standing at what would have been the doorway if the house had still been standing.
"I'm here to talk to -"
Pepper interupted her: "I'm sorry, but Mr. Stark isn't here right now. If you could come back or make an appointment..." and hoped this woman would take the hint.
"I would, if I were here for him. I came here to talk with you."
"Why would I want to talk?" Pepper asked her.
"Extremis runs in our veins."
Extremis. It wasn't ripping through a wall, not really, not when you were the hot knife and the wall was barely even as strong as warm butter when faced with your power. "I already have a therapist, but thank you."
"Do you want sympathy, or understanding?"
And Pepper knew which one she wanted. And she knew which one everyone would give her. Even Phil's friend in SHIELD would only be so useful. "Do you have a card? I just need to be alone for a while longer."
Pepper imagined she heard the woman nodding before there were footsteps quietly - but deliberately not silently - approaching, tucking a business card between two of Pepper's fingers, and then walking away just as quietly. Heard a car door, and then the car drove off.
She recalled that SHIELD file - which, technically and legally, I shouldn't have seen - in which side-by-side screens compared the physical strength of both the Hulk and Captain America. And now there's me...and whomever that was, who somehow managed to survive that battle royal. Pepper had a feeling it was only a matter of time before SHIELD came around to offer her a job in one of its fighting units, not unlike Tony and the Avengers. She wondered if Tony was going to come back and try - again - to talk her into getting rid of it, of purging Extremis from her body.
Pepper raised her hand, looked at the card, at the name typed in just above the phone number: Ellen Brandt.
Ellen Brandt returned to the land of the living with phone lines and empty air under her back and legs, and with her head feeling like she was spinning, rolling, vehicle out of control. Balance had always been the second thing to return, a little after consciousness.
It was dark out, her skin feeling the absence of sunlight.
Her body healed itself with a slower burn than it had before. Slower but no less intense, cutting through the phone lines to drop her hard against the ground, which made more damage to repair. Could barely spare the air to groan, but felt every bit of the regrowth and knitting back up. Shoulders and other joints aligning back into place, popping in where they'd come out, mending what had shattered. She knew what she looked like when her body went into repair mode for something this bad over just a part of her, so she could picture the process encompassing her entire body.
In repair mode, skin could only register pressure and light or the lack thereof. So when Ellen could feel rubble and burnt plants under her arms, she knew it was time to get up. She hadn't heard anything that sounded like a fight, or anything which could be mistaken for demolition, which meant everyone else was long gone - Stark, asshole, and what was that kid's name?
"And up I am," she muttered as she hauled herself upright. "Yeah, I wasn't wrong. They've all left," Ellen said to herself as she looked around, taking the scene in. Killian's asshole of a pit bull hadn't left any forwarding instructions, like where to report or what to do until contacted...Which means the prick thinks I'm dead.
A moment's passing thought made her wonder if it would be better - not safer, never safer, not any more - to go to ground, to lie low and blend in with the civilians of the nation. Til when? Until Killian's mess turns nuclear? Until I blow up, one way or another? And her eyes fell on the payphone down the road.
"Change of clothes, first," she knew, having seen what even mild to moderate healing could do to one's outfit. It was far too easy to melt the back door's knob off, slide into the nearby clothing retailer, get a new pair of pants and shirt, and leave again...all while evading the security cameras present.
Having changed in a convenient bathroom, Ellen approached the payphone. Even this far from the main fights, there was damage thrown here and there. And yet a piece of glass had somehow escaped being melted, shattered, or weaponized during the melees. Ellen didn't need to look at her reflection in it to know which part of her hadn't become as flawless as the rest of her, as the rest of the recruits. My cheek, she thought with perverse pride; beyond the reach of even Hansen's little toy. My arm came back, but my cheek didn't so much as twitch.
Had no hesitation in picking up the phone - her hand wasn't warm, so why worry? Didn't concern herself with Killian and the recruits either. They think I'm dead. And if they don't, they'll find me no matter what I do. Dialed a number that had sat buried in the back of her skull, burned into permanence just like all her other memories, thanks to Extremis. And waited. "Jenn, hi. Yeah, it's me, Ellen. Look, can you come pick me up? I kinda need a ride. Yeah, tell you all about it, no problem." Gave her old friend an address to meet her at, and said goodbye.
CODA + 1 Day:
Arriving in the coffee shop - a Cafe, she knew - Pepper looked around at all the people who could been Ellen Brandt. A woman nursing a mocha, another arguing with whomever's on the other end of that phone conversation, a woman doing the crosswords, or - And her train of thought stopped abruptly when that last one's cheek did something distinctive: a little red tracery made a circle around the scar tissue of the cheek, its path fading away once it had moved on.
Pepper could feel a little worm of heat making a circuit around her own eye in response, then cooling to body temp. She sat down at the same table. "You're Ellen Brandt?" she asked.
"I am. Lt. Brandt. Stationed in Afghanistan until," and let her left fingers do a quick drumming on the tabletop, each fingertip tapping once, twice, done. All she volunteered was "My unit was tasked with looking for him, when he first disappeared."
"Maya and Aldridge helped you," Pepper said.
"At cost. But I'm loyal. Chain of Command's what I followed, every step of the way."
Pepper frowned. But that means...
"But you didn't agree to see me, to hear about my recovery or my service record," Ellen said. "You're thinking about whether or not to keep yours."
And Pepper Potts knew she wasn't talking about any military service on Pepper's part, though you could say recovery is part of it. "I can definately see the appeal it has," Pepper said.
Ellen nodded, "Definately makes it easy to find a hot cup of coffee if the lights've gone out."
"Just warm up the cup."
"That works. Or just head towards the little heat signature."
Huh. Didn't know about that side of it, and held onto that tidbit, in case it would tip the scales later.
"He wants you to get rid of it?"
"No," Pepper said reflexively. "He's just...concerned. Worried something'll happen to me."
"Nothing can happen to you," Ellen said. "Not now. I've been hit by concussions, walked through flames, fallen on phone lines, slammed into a sidewalk. Not a typical day, but survivable."
"And not a mark on you."
She agreed, "Not a mark - one of Extremis' selling points."
"And the downsides?" Pepper asked.
Fair's fair. "I didn't have much of a social life before, and had none with it - but that could as much be from the ass I was working for."
"Killian," Pepper said with a nod.
"The asses, then," Ellen said, her nod agreeing with Pepper.
"So its more lack of opportunity than anything definately Extremis," Pepper said.
Ellen knew what Pepper meant. "Just so."
"If I keep it in my system, is there anything I need to watch out for?"
"Coffee's fine," and not for the first time, wondered how many of the recruits - herself included - would have perished if they hadn't even been allowed coffee. "It's a few of the chemicals that try to replicate pharmacological compounds that get us in trouble - keep clear of the illegal drugs, and you'll be fine. And avoid Asprin."
"Allergic to that anyway."
"If you can control your temper, then you can direct when and where to heat up," Ellen said. "Try to avoid kicking doors and dogs, and you'll be fine."
"This is all while I'm awake, though," vividly remembering trying to wake Tony up - and being pinned down by an Iron Man suit defending him.
Ellen nodded. "A kid in my unit had sleep apnea. Extremis cleared it right up. Should've seen the idiot who asked him if he'd rather wake up in flames or wake up dead. And like he said later, there are always flame-retardant blankets."
After chewing on that for a while, Pepper asked her "Now that Killian's gone, what will you do? Go back to the Army?"
And underlying that final word was the question 'are you sure?' She didn't say it, but like the saying goes, she didn't say it very loudly. I guess a bit of skepticism is called for...given how I landed. "I tore him apart myself," Pepper said.
Ellen breathed, letting out what she hadn't known to have been holding in. "Then I have no idea. I can't go back to the Army - this isn't a prosthetic," holding up her left hand, "its flesh and blood." And Extremis, though neither of them need voice that, and they both knew it. "I was given an honorable discharge, same as a lot of the other recruits folded over into Killian's programme."
"I have a friend...he's in the Air Force, but would you mind if he made some calls?" Pepper asked.
"Call away. I know what the answer will be." But I appreciate the offer. "You want a coffee?" Ellen asked.
Pepper reached into one pocket and pulled out a bill, handed it to her. "My treat." Before Ellen could object or protest or turn the bill into ash, "You're taking the time to talk to me, to go through it step by step. This is the least I can do."
She considered that, then nodded, accepting the money. Before heading up to the counter, "If you're going to make a decision, don't do it by running away," Ellen said. "Don't react from fear. Act, decide, chose."
She's right, I can't make this decision based on fear - even as she viscerally remembered leaping up with the ease of playing on a trampoline, one hand flowing through all the metals of an Iron Man suit. Tempting, tempting, to make my choice so I don't hurt anyone else, even accidentally. But then Killian wins. I killed him, and he wins if he's scared me into rejecting Extremis because of its association with him. Or if I get rid of Extremis because it'll always be linked to Maya Hansen, the woman Tony gave the answer to twelve years ago, making him party to what's running through my body right now; ironic, I'm the one in a steady relationship with him, yet I'm carrying their baby - Maya's and Tony's child of the mind. That thought had occurred to her earlier, while she had been doing chin-ups to clear her mind on the private flight from Florida to California, and it would be a while before Tony could do chin-ups on that jet because of her.
I always do, she knew.
As Ellen returned with their orders, Pepper was thinking If I wanted it easy or safe, I wouldn't have worked for Tony for so long. Even before I cared for him, there was more to it. I could have been secure - financially, socially, in every way that matters. And then...
Pepper faced the little her of the corner of her mind, the voice that laughed when Tony streaked (literally or otherwise) across three pages of headlines, the nerves which stopped any Fay Ray style screaming when Stane in his suit had cornered her, the side of her that kept from shying away when Tony's actions were just barely this side of 'appointing his horse to the job of senator' where apparent sanity was concerned.
"Thank you for your offer," Pepper said honestly to Ellen, holding out a friendly hand, "but I kinda like being sans safety net."
"Okay," Ellen said, taking her hand and shaking it, trying not to think about how long since anybody had done that.. Your call. "But keep the card. Just in case."
Pepper nodded. And, with her free hand, she pulled out her own business card, handing it to her new friend. "Likewise. If you ever need a job, or someone to talk to." I don't know what I can do for the others, but I'll try to help you, at least.
"I will," Ellen said. "And thanks for the coffee," as their hands parted, and Ellen backed up, vanishing in the press of bodies and sea of humanity.
"Anytime," Pepper said, whether she was heard or not. Gathering up her things, she said under her breath, "Okay, Tony, let me see what you've found, but only if its together. For my Extremis and your shrapnel."