Title: Stick to the Cards

Author: A. X. Zanier

Rating: PG-13 (language)

Fandom: Iron Man (movieverse)

Pairing: N/A

Summary: post-movie. SHIELD's response to Tony's little announcement

Spoilers: for the movie, of course

Disclaimer: a) The characters and basic story ideas of Iron Man are the property of others including, but not limited to Marvel Studios, Marvel Entertainment, Dark Blades Films, Fairview Entertainment and Road Rebel. Any additional characters or story ideas are mine. I make no money from this intellectual exercise. b) This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any opinions or views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the author and are used for story-telling purposes only.

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Stick to the Cards

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The view from his office window remained as impressive as ever, even with the damage to the arc reactor building visible off to the far left. Workmen could just be made out, tiny vertical blobs moving about on what remained of the roof of the building. Sadly, the reactor itself hadn't been salvageable, the glass toroid that contained all that startling power cracked beyond repair. Not that it mattered, he'd spent a sleepless night building two smaller arcs - one to replace the nearly depleted one in his chest - and with some quick modifications had the company back online, powered by a reactor the size of his palm. He'd already decided to rebuild the original one; a sudden wave of nostalgia for his father and the seemingly simpler times they'd lived in winning out over pure practicality. One thing that beast of a generator wasn't, was practical. He'd get it online, run tours for students (AKA prospective employees) like his dad had done years ago, with the added bonus of knowing the tech not only worked, but was completely and utterly viable as a clean source of energy for the world.

The target the military had painted on his back for closing the weapons division would be superceded by the massive one sure to be put in place by the oil and energy companies once he made the announcement in a few weeks.

Yes, weeks. Right now, he still needed to deal with the fallout of his last press conference. He'd already given Pepper not one, but two raises - the first for the look on her face after his (possibly idiotic) decision to be honest and truthful to the press and public for what might have been the first (okay, second if you count the press conference right after his return) time in his life. The second had been for all the extra work she'd been stuck doing the last several days, fielding the press and the board and SHIELD and who knew who else, but all of whom seemed to need a piece of Tony Stark right now thankyouverymuch.

It seemed everyone had suddenly realized that this new version of Tony Stark (Tony 2.0 if you like) had nothing to do with post traumatic stress disorder and everything to do with his captivity. And, no, they weren't the same thing. Somehow, some way, he'd grown up (finally, some would say) at least a little in those three months he'd been held captive in a cave in some godforsaken mountain range in Hellandgone, Afghanistan. Tony found himself almost as shocked and surprised as everyone else.

He turned away from the window with a small sigh; today he would be dealing with the board of directors, which was the last thing he wanted to do, but with Stane gone, he had little choice. Tony was just going to have to knuckle down and run his own company. He would never trust it to anyone else ever again. He expected little or no resistance, the arc tech alone should be enough to whet their appetites and put big glowing dollar signs in their eyes. And if it wasn't... well, he'd dangle the suit tech in front of their noses. Not that he currently had any intention of sharing, but if necessary, he would indeed use it as bait.

The injunction would be lifted and he'd be de facto CEO by dinner, New York time.

He sat down at his desk, eyes drifting to the stack of newspapers on the left. Business-related, like the Wall Street Journal, were at the top of the pile, and fluff like the LA Times (which had been running little more than supposed Iron Man sightings for days even though the suit still sat in his workshop broken beyond repair) further down. As he had for the past several days, he reached for the fluff first.

Today's headline read, "Who is Iron Man?" and for a second, thought he held in his hands the paper that had been printed the day after the battle, except that headline had been in the Chronicle, not the Times. This one had another cell phone-captured photo from the street battle, plus a smaller inset photo of himself in a suit he didn't remember owning, with a brunette he didn't remember meeting (not that that was unusual in any way) in a location he didn't specifically recognize. His eyes dropped to scan the article even as his blood pressure rose. And it didn't drop over the next few minutes, the article citing numerous witnesses and sources and assorted other bits that proved on the night of the battle at Stark Industries that he, Tony Stark, had been at a party, miles away. There were even dramatic descriptions of the arc overload as seen from said location. The whole "party on a boat" story seemed vaguely familiar, but it still took him a moment to remember from where.

He set that paper aside and picked up the next, and the next, and the next. Each one had its own version of the same story.

With seeming calm, he set the paper he currently held on his desk then pressed a button on the phone.

"Yes, Mr. Stark?"

"Get Agent Coulson in here now." He kept his temper, or so he thought. The extended pause from Pepper seemed to indicate otherwise.

"Right away, Mr. Stark."


Right away turned out to be a couple hours. Coulson might have been appointed liaison between Tony and SHIELD, but he wasn't exactly at anyone's (except maybe Nick Fury's) beck and call. Tony managed to work on other necessary things while impatiently waiting for the agent to arrive, but still had a full head of steam ready to vent when the man, escorted by Pepper, walked through his office door.

Tony got to his feet, newspaper in hand, and stalked over to Coulson. "What the hell is this?" he snapped, shaking the paper in the SHIELD agent's face.

"A newspaper." He tipped his head slightly. "The Los Angeles Daily, in fact." He straightened. "Nice picture."

Tony growled and crumpled the paper in his fist. "You retconned me."

Coulson nodded. "Yes, we did," he agreed amicably.

That just infuriated Tony, making him want to smack that smug half-smile off the SHIELD agent's face. Before he could do anything, the man spoke again.

"We told you to stick to the cards."

Tony threw the paper that he'd forgotten he still held in his hand until that moment at Coulson. It bounced harmlessly off his chest. "It won't work. I'll just hold another press conference-"

"Go ahead," Coulson interrupted, still implacably cool and confident. "Tomorrow pictures of your bodyguard will hit the papers, a completely fictitious employee, of course, along with information suggesting that he's just one of many who are 'Iron Man'." He shifted slightly, hands clasped serenely behind his back. "If questions concerning your statement arise, we'll simply explain that as the creator of the suit and having put so much of yourself into the design that your statement, while not literal, was still accurate."

Tony couldn't help the shock he felt. "You really think anyone will buy that?"

"Everyone? Of course not, but the general public will, and hopefully the majority of those who would like to get their hands on the tech in that suit will. Otherwise, we have a serious problem." Coulson's smile had faded and the look in his eyes told the story of exactly how seriously he was taking this situation, and therefore, the implication that Tony was not. "I believe you would prefer the tech to not fall into the wrong hands."

Mutely, Tony nodded. He wanted that tech in his possession and his alone; the damage that could be wrought had already been proven thanks to Stane. "Is that all it's about, protecting the tech?"

Coulson glanced over at Pepper who had remained standing just inside the door, prepared to intervene should Tony have chosen to take his ire out in a more physical manner. "The safety of yourself and others is, of course, a concern."

"Safety," Tony echoed, sounding bemused. "What for?"

"I could be used against you, Tony," Pepper stated softly. "Or Rhodey. Or Dianne in accounting, or-"

Tony held up a hand cutting off her words. He remembered the terror that had burned through his paralyzed body when Stane had threatened her life. Knowing that him being Iron Man in the public eye put her life at risk cooled his anger. He wouldn't have it; his life would be so much less without her in it. "I get it. If it's just some generic employee wearing the suit, they really don't have anyone to target, but if it's me..."

"You and anyone you're close to is in danger," Coulson finished.

"We'll still be in danger," Pepper pointed out, walking forward to stand beside her employer.

Coulson shrugged. "Yes, you will, but no more so than you ever are being Mr. Stark's personal assistant.

"Shit," Tony muttered, realizing Coulson was correct. Pepper could have been used against him at any time over the years, Tony could only be grateful it hadn't happened before he'd been given a swift kick-in-the-head reality check. He'd being stressing accountability since coming home. Taking responsibility for the mistakes made over the years. Shutting down the weapons division hadn't been some childish whim, but one of his first adult reasoned decisions. The thing is, he'd been so focused on correcting the company errors he hadn't looked anywhere else. He had the same responsibility in his... personal life. His friends, few as they were, hell, every piece of ass he so much as glanced at without thinking, could be a potential pawn.

This responsibility thing sucked.

Coulson seemed satisfied that his point had been made. "Is there anything else I can help you with, Mr. Stark?"

Tony just shook his head. "Just stick to the cards from here on out, huh?"

Coulson simply smiled, clearly accepting that Tony had learned his lesson for now, and walked out of the office.

"That went... well," Tony groused, going over to the bar and pouring himself a drink from the decanter there. He didn't even bother with ice, gulping down the two fingers of amber liquid like a man dying of thirst.

"You aren't going to do something stupid, are you?" Pepper inquired, the knitted brow belying the cool professionalism she radiated. She truly feared he'd go out and do something idiotic like fly around town with the face mask up so everyone could see that yes, indeedy, Tony Stark and Iron Man were one in the same. And truth be told, he'd considered it for an instant, if only to spite Coulson. He wouldn't though. Wouldn't put his few, very few, friends at risk. He refused to be responsible for any more innocent deaths if he could help it, even if they were nothing more than some nameless, faceless employees from the mailroom.

There were moments he missed his carefree playboy days, but there was no going back. No undoing what he'd been through and, in truth, he wouldn't go back if he could. He'd had his eyes opened and no matter how difficult this new path he traveled, he fully intended to see it through to the end.

"No, nothing more stupid than usual anyway," he assured her.

"Good. Now, you have the conference call with the board in twenty minutes," she reminded him, back to business as usual in an instant.

"And then?"

"Two interviews, which I've already postponed, then there's the CyTronics YF-22 test at the airfield later today." The stylus scrolled through today's items on the Blackberry in her hand.

"Test? What test?"

Pepper sighed heavily. "It's been scheduled for weeks, and honestly, the only reason it's on your schedule is because Colonel Rhodes thought you'd find it, and I quote, 'fun'."

Tony grinned. "Fun, huh? Sounds like just the thing I'll need after dealing with the board." He sat behind his desk and brushed all the newspapers to the floor. "Have the car ready after the meeting is over."

"I'll inform Hogan." She tucked the Blackberry away. "Will that be all, Mr. Stark?'

"That will be all, Miss Potts."

...

finis