Author's Note: Sorry this one is a little late!
He was badgering her. An hour before an important press conference at which Rhodes insisted that Tony be present. She wished she could ship Tony back to his place for two reasons: One, because she had spent way too much time with him in the past week and two, she was deathly afraid for his life. She hadn't heard anything from the men threatening Tony's life, and she hadn't even started looking for the files that they had asked for. Usually she would agree that avoidance was not an acceptable coping mechanism, but she didn't think she had a choice. No – she did have a choice. She just wasn't strong enough to make a decision.
"By the way, it has now been two nights we've slept together and nothing's happened."
"That's because one of the nights you had a bleeding chest wound and the second night you took two Vicodin with scotch and couldn't find the bed when you were standing right next to it."
"Not now, Tony," Pepper snapped, extremely on edge. The conference room was stifling; even more so when she thought about the reporters waiting outside and everything that could go wrong. "Do you know what you're going to say?"
He sat back in his chair, fingering his chin thoughtfully. "People of the world. I am alive. Thank you."
She stared at him. "You're not serious?"
"I'll figure it out when I'm up there."
"I knew we should have given you cue cards."
" 'Cause that worked out so well last time."
"If you had stuck to the story –"
She pursed her lips and went back to dabbing concealer on the healing cuts and bruises on his face.
"I still don't think this is a good idea," she directed her comment to Colonel Rhodes, who stood against the wall, his arms crossed.
"The people need to see that Tony is still okay and in charge. You know that certain people would love to declare Tony unfit and legally order him to give up the suit."
"Yeah, well. Tony isn't okay."
She whirled around, throwing her hands up. "Would you stop saying that? You can barely walk!"
Rhodes didn't move from his spot on the wall. "If Tony says he's fine, then he's fine."
"He's an asshole and he's gonna kill himself, but if he says he's fine…" Rhodes shrugged.
Tony narrowed his eyes. "Why are we friends, again?"
"I ask myself that same question every day," the military man deadpanned.
Pepper stifled an unladylike snort just as one of Tony's aides stuck his head into the room, looking frazzled. "Mr. Stark, you're on in five."
Tony reached for his crutches, waving the two of them away and lifting himself out of the chair. "Time to get this party started, people."
He swung away from them, stopping just before the doorway. "Wait. Pepper, c'mere."
Pepper stood behind him, hands on her hips. "Yes, Mr. Stark?"
And he planted a kiss on her open mouth. She pulled away, blushing, when Jim Rhodes cleared his throat. She didn't dare look at Tony.
"Always wanted to do that," Tony grinned, squaring his shoulders and pushing the door open with one crutch, leaving Pepper and Colonel Rhodes to hurry after him. Happy had to clear a path as Tony walked towards the podium (although limped might be the better word choice, Pepper thought with a wince). She stood near the stage, glancing up at him anxiously as he stood in front of the crowd. He gripped the podium with both hands, his crutches discarded on the ground. She could see the strain in his face.
"Oh, Tony," she murmured, admiration and exasperation warring in her voice. She listened with half an ear to the mutterings of the crowd as Tony adjusted the microphone. She scanned the group of reporters as if she had x-ray vision, determined to recognize the shadowy man in her apartment.
"People of the world," Tony began. Pepper's attention zoomed to the front of the room.
"I am alive," he said, spreading his arms in a self-satisfied way. Pepper groaned audibly. Tony caught her eye and winked. She glowered at him.
"No, but seriously. I know you're all here today hoping to see me fall on my face," –a small ripple of laughter – "but it's not going to happen. I'll be back in the suit in a couple of days." He sounded confident and sure of himself amidst the clamor of questions and cameras flashing. Pepper strained her neck, still trying to look for any suspicious behavior. They wouldn't shoot Tony in such a public place, would they?
"You. Low-cut shirt girl."
"Tripped and fell," was his simple answer.
Low-cut shirt girl looked skeptical. "You tripped and fell? On what?"
"I wasn't high, if that's what you're asking," Tony said, feigning indignant.
It stopped her in her tracks for a second. "No, I mean, what did you trip over?" she said, wording her sentence carefully.
"The stairs." He tilted his head, daring her to challenge him. The young reporter sat back down. There were more questions – Pepper tuned them out, focusing on a Chinese man on his phone. He was standing off to the side, not exactly conspicuous but enough to catch her attention. She inched closer, trying to hear his voice. He shut his phone abruptly and stared at Tony, taking a few steps closer. And then she had an argument with herself.
He looks suspicious. Doesn't he look suspicious?
What, just because he's Chinese?
No, look at him. Very shady.
He's doing the same thing as everyone el – Oh my God, what is he doing? He's reaching into his jacket, ohmyGod
"Tony!" Pepper blurted out. The room fell silent. The Chinese man pulled some breath mints out of his jacket pocket. Shit. Pepper smiled awkwardly at everyone staring at her. Tony quirked an eyebrow.
"Ms. Potts?" he said inquisitively. Suddenly all the mics and the cameras were pointed at her. She felt like she might throw up all over her new Manolos.
"Ah…nothing. I was just…"
"Trying to stop me from another PR disaster?" Tony supplied smoothly. He held up one finger to the crowd, beckoning Pepper over to join him on the side of the podium.
"That was weird," Tony whispered. Like this was just one big game.
"Sorry," Pepper whispered back. "I thought someone looked threatening."
"Pepper, when did I hire you as my bodyguard?"
"Oh, that's nice. Sorry for caring," Pepper sniffed childishly, straightening her skirt and marching back to her spot. She didn't dare look back at Tony. He answered a few more questions as she stood there and tried not to turn red.
"Conference over, people," he said finally, grabbing his crutches and turning to leave. Happy Hogan followed him out the back, and Pepper stayed a few more minutes to do some damage control.
"Tony, please stop asking."
"But what was that?"
They were sitting outside – well, Tony was sitting and Pepper was pacing - outside of Tony's house. She didn't know how long she could function under this much stress.
"You're having daydreams about me, aren't you?"
His smug voice jolted her out of her worried haze. She made a noise of disbelief. "Please. Like you're God's gift."
"You don't even –"
"I am not dreaming about you, Tony Stark." She sighed and collapsed into the chair next to him, squeezing her eyes shut as her phone rang for the hundredth time.
"Shut it off," he said, his tone light. She looked at him and laughed weakly. "I'm serious."
"Right. So then everyone can think that you're hiding something and I'm insane."
"You are insane."
"I was perfectly sane before I started working for you!"
The vibrating noise of her blackberry was insistent, but she couldn't bring herself to answer any more questions. She tilted her head back and tried to enjoy the rays of the sun. Even though she knew it was bad for her skin and she would probably start to freckle and –
"I shut the phone off. You looked preoccupied."
It was oddly silent besides the cry of the seagulls over the surf. She couldn't even summon up any anger at him, because at that moment, silence was the only thing she wanted to hear.