Barely Business

Summary: Pepper and Tony's 'not a couple' routine hits a bump. Pepper's mortified. Tony fails to see the problem. Inevitable bickering ensues.

Notes: What can I say? The delightful banter and unparalleled sarcastic chemistry between Pepper Potts and Tony Stark finally got it's vice like hold on my muse. As a result, here goes my first foray into 'Iron Man' fanfiction. Enjoy.

Disclaimer: Nothing's mine.


Barely Business
by MiraJade

It's seven o' clock sharp when Virginia Potts walks into the office. Her arms are masterfully juggling a daunting stack of eleven manila file folders, two purses – one doubling as a cute excuse for an effeminate briefcase, and two Starbucks coffees – one tall and black, no cream, no sugar; and one mocha latte with an extra shot of expresso. Not even God himself could begrudge her caffeine when working a twenty-four seven work week for Tony Stark.

It's one after seven when she passes Sue from accounting, and passes her the majority of the file folders – all the while managing not to spill even a single drop of coffee - and inquires after Sue's daughter. Samantha's five now after all, starting kindergarten, very traumatic, Pepper agrees before heading over to Jamie at the main desk. Here the rest of her folders are deposited, with another inquiry after family and such. By now it's five after seven, and Pepper has exactly five minutes to meet and prep Mr. Stark for his meeting with Ian Bracken from Quest Aerospace.

By this time two pagers and one cell phone are ringing incessantly, and she's mediating five meetings in four different time zones while jogging in six inch heels to where Stan from billing was holding the elevator for her.

"Thank-you," she thanked him quickly, successfully navigating her palm pilot with the hand that was not clutching the coffee – still not a drop spilled, thank you very much.

"Busy morning, eh?" Stan inquired with an amused smile.

"You have no idea," she responded with an answering smile of her own.

He nodded sympathetically before turning his gaze to where the floors were flashing by in brightly lit numbers. Behind them another woman, Jill from PR - Pepper recognized from where she had ordered a cab for the one night stand after Tony's last Halloween party – snickered softly. Pepper turned to look at the girl over her shoulder, an eyebrow raised.

"Perhaps too many nights spent working late?" Jill suggested in a simpering voice, her bleach blonde hair fluttered around her as she shook her head mockingly.

"I beg your pardon?"

There was no mistaking the smirk in Jill's eyes as she held up a small stack of magazines. With a roll of her own eyes, Pepper rearranged everything she was holding, and took the magazines from the other woman. Not sure what to expect, she held up the latest copy of 'People' only to almost drop it when her eyes happened across the bold printed title. "Stark Finally Taken?" exclaimed the magazine, right under a high gloss photo of her and Tony from the last week's New Year's Ball.

And oh, her life was over . . .

Her eyes widened with horror as she looked over the other four magazines – everything from 'US' to some third rate celebrity tabloid she didn't even want to remember the name of. All supported the same smug inquiry as to her boss's availability, and all were covered – quite cheerfully too – with some lucky photographer's shot of what had been an accident! An accident! A slip, a mistake she'll never, never, ever, EVER repeat again!

At this point even Stan from billing was looking intrigued, not even turning as the triumphant Jill from PR sauntered off of the elevator and onto her floor.

Her mind suddenly engulfed in a foggy haze, and she reached out her other hand to clutch the magazine tighter, hoping that somehow that would make the picture morph, change, disappear even! But no, there was and there still was the same picture. You know, she had told Tony she hadn't wanted to dance – she hadn't wanted to be there at all, actually. Yet, it was her job to make sure that Mr. Stark didn't have too many drinks, or hit on too many of the girls. The last thing she had wanted was a repeat of the last office bash – where Tony had somehow slipped more alcohol than her noticing, and somehow ended up in a fist fight with an enraged boyfriend of one of the girls he was trying to flirt with.

Three boyfriends, actually; if she counted correctly. And for that even Iron Man took a black eye – two of them, and she could not feel sorry for slapping the ice pack a little un-gently on his face.

It was besides the point that he was doing better lately. She didn't want to think of that when looking at a picture like this. For there in the picture, with all of her professional demeanor, was Pepper Potts quite comfortably snuggled up against Tony Stark during one of the slow dances. Her face was down turned, and oh, she thought she could hide how surprisingly blissful she was in that moment as she buried her nose in his chest, feeling the soothing humming of the arc reactor and the spicy sent of the after shave she had forgotten the name of – silly, she should know, she bought it for him every week . . .

Oh no, no, no, no! From her position she had been determined not to look Tony in the face, not wanting to see the insufferable smirk he had to be wearing – but no. Instead his expression mirrored hers. Quiet and contented, not even glancing at any of the scantily clad, beautiful woman who were all vying for his attention.

Her heart started to beat that much faster, and she cursed herself.

All of this paled next to the fact that she had dropped the coffee in her shock. And the caffeine that was meant to get her through the day was now running off of the elevator tiles into the unsuspecting carpet on the thirtieth floor.

It was ten after seven. She was late – she was never late, she was coffee-less, and she was facing what undoubtedly was one of the worst days of her life.

OoO

It was a quarter after seven, and Mr. Stark was already in his meeting with Ian Bracken. Pepper paced outside of his office – having already accomplished her morning paperwork, and even sending an unsuspecting mail boy out for coffee. And now not even a phone would ring, demanding her attention be drawn away from the innocently lying magazines on the desk.

Here her attention stayed until a quarter 'til eight, when Mr. Stark came out of the conference room, laughing and clasping hands with Ian Bracken. It went well, she noted by the smug smile on Tony's face – too well actually, said the small glow in his eyes. Ah, so Mr. Bracken was not the most shrewd businessman. Fighting a smile of her own she picked up the folder that contained a detailed schedule that they had to go over now since she was . . . otherwise engaged earlier.

A moment later Mr. Bracken was gone, and Tony was shaking his head. "Most insincere schmuck I've had the pleasure to do business with in a long time," he lamented, unscrewing his fake smile from his face with an exaggerated grimace.

And even though it's the worst day she's had to date, she can't help but hide a small smile. "I must remind you that it was your idea to do business with them."

"Ah, that was my idea, wasn't it?" Tony pondered this for a minute before shaking his head. Out of the corner of his eye he spied the folder in her hands. His face contorted like a child confronted with a plate of vegetables. "Well, go on, Potts. I know you're just itching to recite to me everything we have to do today since you were MIA earlier." He paused, frowning, as if he had just processed that little piece of information. "As a matter of fact, I have to ask what kept you? I was under the impression that it would take a natural disaster - or an act of God to make you late for work."

Her customary eye roll and cheeky retort were cut off by the knowledge of what had kept her. "I had a run in with Jill from PR." Well, that much was true.

She could see him run the name through his mind. "Jill, Jill, Jill . . . Oh, That Jill?"

"That Jill," she said, her voice tight.

He had the good grace to look sheepish. "Oh, um . . . continue."

Deciding that a picture could say a thousand words, she walked around him, her heels clicking a loud cadence on the marble floor. On top of his desk were the incriminating magazines, and she picked them up between two manicured fingernails. When she passed them to Tony, she had to fight to keep her hands from shaking. "She gave me these," she explained.

Tony raised an eyebrow, and then looked down at the front cover of 'People'. A second passed, and she thought that she was fidgeting more by the minute – which was something Pepper Potts did not do. And then he said, "Oh? It's a very nice picture. Can I keep this one?"

Words escaped her as she gazed at him, open mouthed.

His eyebrow raised a little higher. "Did you want to keep it?"

She sputtered – see how much of a mess she was without her coffee?

"Because you can . . . Pepper?"

She found her voice again, "This doesn't bother you?"

"Should it?"

"Yes! This morning's tabloids feature photographs of me plastered all over you with THAT look, and inquires of your continued bachelor status! This should very well bother you!" She finished with a small stomp of her heeled shoe, which ended up louder than she intended it. Her mouth curled down in distaste.

His eyebrow had returned to it's proper place, but she could tell that he was fighting back a smile. She couldn't handle that just yet. "I'm serious," she insisted.

He sobered. "Right." He looked down at the picture again before thumbing through the magazine, looking for the article that featured them. "And yet, I doubt that this will be the last time I'm on the front cover of People, nor is it the last time they play off my love life. Certainly isn't the first," he smiled ruefully.

She fumed, "But, I am not a part of your love life, nor will I be!" Her heart gave a little leap, and she shoved that rebellious feeling away. "I've already had to deal with enough speculation without little things like this to add to the mess!"

"Pepper, our relationship has never been completely professional."

"It's not my fault that you can't order a cheeseburger on your own! Nor is it my fault that you need a personal babysitter to make sure that you eat regularly, sleep regularly, and, of course, don't make a complete fool of yourself in front of too many people!"

He winced, "Ouch. And that incident with the cheeseburger was a one time thing." He complained.

She raised an eyebrow. "I didn't even mention the fiasco with that poor pizza delivery kid."

Tony's eyes darkened. "You promised that you would never bring that up again."

"Did I?" she asked, a falsely saccharine smile on her lips.

"Yes! You did. And, I'll have you know that I'm an expert at Chinese take out. So there. I can feed myself."

"Can you even use a stove?"

"You won't let me!"

"And you know exactly why I won't!"

"I program nuclear missiles for a living, and taking food on and off the stove before it burns is a task you deem me to be incapable of?"

"Do you even remember the events leading up to the pizza incident?"

"You said you wouldn't talk about that."

With a long suffering sigh, Pepper shook her head. "Do you even know the contents of your fridge, Mr. Stark?"

"You're always in there for me – and when did this become an interrogation about my dietary habits?"

"It did degenerate into that, didn't it?"

"Yes. And for the last word, I'll have you know that I'm a genius. I'm sure that I could handle the grocery shopping on my own."

"Says the man who went out for milk and came back with three dozen kinds of chocolate."

"The chocolate was for you, and let me tell you, you really needed it because of certain fema-"

" - I quit right now if you finish that statement."

"Fine, I retract."

He looked at her expectantly, waiting for her next line – after all, the banter and the inside barbs were something of a routine for them. And, she had only threatened to quit once – he usually got up to three before the morning reports were done. Yet, Pepper was looking at him curiously, a look on her face that she usually wore when trying to figure out the most precarious scheduling problems. "We really don't have a typical relationship, do we?"

He shrugged. "Where's the fun in typical?"

"It's business, it's not supposed to be fun, Mr. Stark."

"I guess that I'm just a naturally fun guy."

Her look was back to something he was more familiar with. He placed the magazines on his desk, and came over to her, reaching out to lightly clasp her arms. "Yes, Pepper, I'm afraid I'm going to have to be the one to inform you that you are more than my assistant."

She was looking at him with a guarded glower in his eyes. "You happen to be one of my dearest friends. If a lucky reporter catches you in a particularly riske dress with that look in your eyes, taking pity on your boss, and dancing with him in order to starve off the vultures loitered on all sides; don't let it bother you. You never have before."

She wasn't smiling, but the mortified anxiety was gone from her eyes, so he considered his job half way done.

"Besides, what particularly is that look?"

There. The rest of the concern was gone as a blush rose up high on her porcelain cheeks. She fumbled for a moment before going back to the black folder that she had set aside. "I can assure you that I have no idea what you are talking about, Mr. Stark."

"Sure you don't. And what's with the 'Mr. Stark'? Come on Pepper, if we're going to have a barely business relationship, then I'm pretty sure that you can call me Tony."

"Mr. Stark," she pronounced firmly. "In the interest of convincing others that we have a strictly business relationship, I believe I will stick to formalities."

Tony shrugged, "Have it your way."

Pepper shook her head one more time, and looked over past Tony to the kid who was back with the coffee. Feeling like she was getting some semblance of control over her day she sauntered past her employer to pay for the drinks. "Thank-you," she said, and the turned to Tony. "Here you go," she said, handing him the black one.

He nodded his thanks to her, and then she collected her bags. "I have some reports to get together, so Mr. Stark, Chinese or Cajun for lunch?"

"Chinese, I'll order too," he said, proud of himself.

"If you stop for lunch," she chided. "I'll order, and break you out of whatever project you're immersed in."

He smiled. "You're a life saver."

"And don't you forget it."

And at eight thirty, Pepper Potts left his office, considerably more at ease than she had been earlier in the morning. Tony watched her leave, and once the elevator doors clicked shut he picked up the offending copy of 'People' again, his gaze coming to rest on the contented look on Pepper's face.

His eyes stayed there for a long, long time.

FIN

MJ