Most of the hostages were huddled in small groups, quietly crying or whispering to each other as they sat on the floor. There were a dozen or so of them still in the room, the ones who hadn't been able to make it out when A.I.M. had burst in.
Pepper Potts brought her legs a little closer to her chest, wrapping her arms around them as she let her gaze drift over the room again. There was no doubt that A.I.M. knew who she was, but so far they had been ignoring her and the rest of the hostages. Their attention was focused on a computer terminal on the far wall, though she couldn't tell from where she was sitting whether or not they were trying to download information or upload something.
One of the armed intruders, a dark-haired woman in her mid-thirties, stopped to eye her warily. "Don't try anything, Ms. Potts," she said, casually pointing her gun in Pepper's direction. "We have plans for you."
Pepper raised an eyebrow. "You're making a mistake," she said calmly, keeping her voice level despite the fact that she could feel her heart pounding in her chest.
The woman rolled her eyes. "Of course we are," she said. "That's why I'm standing here with a gun and you're sitting on the floor."
Out of the corner of her eye, Pepper saw a flash of movement outside the room. The door was gone, blown away by the explosion that had marked A.I.M.'s arrival.
Pepper smiled. "We'll see."
Her voice was harsh and unforgiving, forceful enough to burn.
The fire alarm suddenly started blaring, and the sprinkler system went off just a moment later. Nobody else saw the fast-moving form, clad in black, slip in the doorway during the chaos and disappear behind a desk.
Pepper smiled. Then she shot her leg out, jamming the heel of her shoe into one of the armed woman's legs with as much force as she could.
Natasha Romanoff dashed across the entrance to the room, her eyes carefully tracking the movements of the armed men and woman inside as she dropped to the ground out of their sight. "Five men," she whispered, her voice barely loud enough to be picked up by the microphone she was wearing. "Three women. All armed." She paused for just a second. "Pepper's fine."
Her earbud crackled, Tony's voice coming through clearly. "Thanks," he said, not even trying to hide the relief in his voice. "Keep her safe?"
"Always," Natasha replied, smiling despite herself.
Steve's voice broke in. "Hawkeye is setting up a distraction. He says give him two more minutes."
"Have you figured out how they managed to get all the way up to the fifty-sixth floor of my tower?" Tony's voice cut in again. "Because I want to know how they--"
He cut off, swearing heavily.
"What happened?" Natasha hissed.
There was a long pause. "You focus on getting the hostages out," Steve said, his voice sounding a lot more strained than it had before.
Natasha frowned. "That wasn't an answer."
"Okay, I'm ready," Clint said, breaking in. "Get ready, Nat. It's going to be just like Munich."
She raised an eyebrow. "I hope not," she muttered.
Clint chuckled. "3, 2--"
Natasha ignored whatever else Clint was saying in her ear as the fire alarm went off, water pouring from the sprinklers in the system. She moved like water herself, slipping through the doorway and behind the nearest desk as quickly as she could.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a familiar flash of red hair.
"I think we're about to get another distraction," Natasha said. She couldn't help but let a hint of amusement come through in her voice.
There was a pause. Then, suddenly, Tony was yelling loudly in her ear. "Natasha, get down!"
Natasha's words seemed to echo for a moment, repeating themselves over and over in Tony's head like a mantra. He closed his eyes, letting relief flood through him for a moment. "Thanks," he said. "Keep her safe?"
He could hear the amusement in Natasha's voice when she replied. "Always."
Tony flew a little higher, using the heat sensors in his helmet to take yet another look inside the room he was hovering outside. He couldn't tell who was who, other than assuming the people standing up were probably the bad guys and the ones sitting on the floor were probably on his payroll.
"Have you figured out how they managed to get all the way up to the fifty-sixth floor of my tower?" Tony asked, frowning. "Because I want to know how they--"
Tony swore as something appeared less than ten feet away from him, speeding straight at him. He let himself drop like a stone for a second before he jerked to the side, trying to get behind whatever it was.
"Not now, Cap!" Tony shot back, flying upward and to the right. "JARVIS!"
Tony couldn't keep the skepticism out of his voice. Not that he tried, but still. "Am I being chased by a guy on a flying motorcycle carrying a rocket launcher?"
"It does appear that way, sir."
"Well, at least I'm not hallucinating," Tony said wryly. "Hey, Cap, has Black Widow made it into the room?"
"Tony, what are you--"
"I'll take that as a 'yes' then," Tony said, cutting him off. "Natasha, get down!"
Tony spun around, aiming himself straight at the single covered window on the fifty-sixth floor. He spared a quick glance behind him to make certain that he was being followed before putting on a burst of speed, grinning a little as the wind whistled past him.
He just hoped this worked.
"I can't believe you did that," Pepper said, rolling her eyes as she sat down beside Tony on the bed.
He shot her a hurt look. "I saved the day, thank you very much."
Pepper snorted. "That's one word for it."
Tony shot her a hurt look that would have been more believable if he had managed to keep a straight face for more than two seconds. Before she could say anything, though, he leaned in and kissed her.
"You're just lucky I knocked out the man carrying the armor-piercing rounds before he could start shooting them at you," Natasha said, all but throwing herself at the bed beside the two of them.
Tony grimaced as he pulled away from Pepper. "Thanks for that, by the way."
Natasha reached up to run a finger over his right arm, tracing the still-darkening bruises on it. "I had some help."
Pepper leaned down to press a kiss against Natasha's forehead. "All I did was cause a distraction."
"It was one hell of a distraction from what I hear," Tony said, grinning at them both. "Remind me never to irritate you when you're wearing heels."
Pepper and Natasha met each other's eyes. Then they both burst into laughter.
Tony raised an eyebrow. "I think you're trying to tell me something."
"Look at it this way, Tony," Pepper said, smiling at him. "I'm almost always wearing heels."
Natasha's mouth twitched. "And you think being irritating is an art form."
"I'm hurt," Tony said, bringing his hand up to cover the arc reactor. "Hurt, I tell you. You don't appreciate my skills."
"I wouldn't say that," Pepper said, smiling as she leaned in and kissed one of the bruises on his chest.
Natasha wrapped her arms around Pepper. "Not at all."