"Yes. He did." Pepper's laptop beeped insistently at her with email alerts; she slammed it shut so she couldn't hear it anymore, and glared at the three people hovering around the door to her office until they skittered away. Just this once, it could all wait.
Unfortunately, her voice messages were harder to ignore, some of them flagged for immediate attention. She groaned softly and let her head fall against the back of her chair. "Can you unofficially ask Josh to stop calling? I have 13 messages from the White House, and only 2 of them were you. I really don't have anything for him at the moment."
"I'll pass on your request, but I don't think it will do much good; President Santos' face when Josh told him was... interesting. And kind of appalled. Tony announced it on CNN?"
"It was a press conference," Pepper clarified with determined calm. "Mr. Stark made his announcement to multiple media outlets simultaneously."
"Tony Stark announced that he's a superhero on live television."
"Please don't call him a superhero to his face. This could get very ugly. There will be new personalized license plates, and a succession of embarrassing sidekick names for me and Happy, and I bet he comes up with something to call his workshop, like The Sanctum, and wants me to order a sign."
"Yes, and all of that would be awful -- and, honestly, kind of funny -- but... he can fly. Without a plane. Doesn't that sort of automatically qualify him for superhero-ness, as weird as that may be?"
"I... Yes. I suppose. I've been trying not to think about it. Which hasn't been easy." And Obadiah loomed over her, huge and threatening and inhuman, and she was dead, except that Tony was there, repulsors blasting, and they were both crashing through walls and away from her....
Donna was saying, "I'm sure it isn't easy. But you have to admit, it is kind of cool."
And Tony dangled off the roof, and yelled at her to push the button that would kill him, because it was more important to stop Obadiah than to live, and she did it... "No. No, it's not. There is nothing cool about it, but apparently it's now going to be my job. I'm no longer just coordinating Tony's dry cleaning, coping with his email, and scheduling his life. I'm also going to be helping him save the world on a regular basis, and quite probably bandaging him afterwards. I can't tell you how excited I am."
"So, that was sarcasm, right?"
"Yes. That was sarcasm."
"I just... What was he thinking?"
"He was thinking how cool it is!" Pepper yelled, startling herself. "He was thinking he wants to be a hero, he was thinking he wants to atone for god knows what sins mostly committed by other people, he was thinking how awesome all of the praise and adulation is going to be and how many more women he's going to be able to pick up, as if there was a shortage before. Unfortunately, he didn't think about the large target he just painted on his back because when you save the world from people who don't want you to do that, they are going to do things like shoot at you. With rockets and tanks."
"...Oh. Good point." Donna suddenly gasped. "Oh my god, that wasn't an exaggeration, was it? Tanks?"
Pepper took a deep, deep breath. It scared her that she'd just lost that much of her hard-fought control, even to Donna, but everything seemed to be out of her control at the moment. "Yes. Tanks. At least one that I had to overhear him telling Rhodey about because he didn't tell me. And I'm not even going to discuss what happened at the lab last night because I'm not ready for that nervous breakdown yet. Soon, but not yet. I have too many phone calls to return."
"Because he just went and outed himself. On CNN."
"Why are you hung up on CNN? A lot of people were there. Would you prefer it had been a Fox News exclusive?"
"Not even in jest. God, what did you say to him, after?"
"Nothing. I didn't trust myself." Pepper slumped forward in her chair, dropping her face into her hands. "I wanted to hit him, Donna. I actually wanted to hit him. He was bouncing along completely amped from the press conference, totally ignoring the fact that he just did something incredibly careless that the rest of us are going to have to clean up after, as usual, and I almost convinced myself it would be okay to slap him, because then I wouldn't be hitting him over the head with my laptop."
"I'm not unfamiliar with that urge. That's not a good urge."
"No, it isn't. It's extremely bad, especially since he has a concussion. But I still might have done it except he actually noticed I was angry and ducked out before the urge could override my professionalism. So I had to leave the press conference with Rhodey, who was too furious to complete sentences, then elbow my way through more reporters downstairs in the lobby -- while avoiding annoyed government agents, also in the lobby -- and now I'm sitting here debating whether I should update my letter of resignation again, or just start screaming."
"I'm going to go out on a limb here and say you might need a vacation."
"I can't take a vacation. He'd blow up the house, or build another giant robot, or take over a small, third-world country. He'd do it accidentally -- or worse, on purpose -- and then he'd leave it there, and wander back to his workshop to do something else, and all the paperwork would be waiting for me when I got back. I don't need a vacation, I need a boss who isn't insane!"
Donna waited as if to make sure Pepper was done, then said carefully, "Okay, it's possible you just went a little over the top, there."
"No. No, I didn't. This isn't being late for a board meeting, Donna, or even three of them. In one day. This isn't the brunette twins who both lost their left shoe and their underwear somewhere between Disneyland and his bedroom. This isn't 'Butterfingers just blacked out half the Western seaboard, which I personally had nothing to do with, how about pizza?'. This isn't forgetting to eat, or forgetting to shower, or the usual reflexive sexual harassment which I would object to if I thought he was serious, except that he usually isn't--"
"On the balcony, at the Disney Hall, there was this... but that was mostly my fault, except that he started it, and... Never mind. I'm not talking about that. I'm not even thinking about that."
"Well, you should be, because I definitely want to hear about it."
"Donna! Please focus!"
"Sorry. I'm focused. This isn't any of the normal things...?"
"No. It's not. This is... I mean, honestly, how many times did your boss try to get himself killed?" A resounding silence followed, and Pepper winced. "I meant on purpose. As opposed to random racists shooting him more as a function of bad aim than out of intent. Which was completely horrible, but definitely not his fault."
"...Only the once, if we count the aforementioned random horror. And I think the explosion in Gaza made us even. Also, we agreed not to do that anymore."
"Exactly, because that's what normal people do. This... this is not normal!" And Tony talked about The Mission like it was obvious and necessary, like there really was nothing else, and even Rhodey telling her Tony had been kidnapped wasn't as scary as Tony at that moment, committing to something that could kill him as if there was no other choice. "He went into a war zone, Donna. He flew into a war zone that he almost didn't get out of alive the first time. There were tanks and rockets and F-22s and they shot at him and hit him, and he's still planning to do it again, I know he is--" Pepper stopped herself with an effort, then forced herself to mentally backtrack. "Wait, forget about the F-22s, I don't think you're cleared for that. Or any of what I just told you. Oh my god, what am I thinking?"
"You're admittedly a little stressed, but yes, you're lucky it's just me. At least I used to be cleared for it." Donna's pout was restrained, but still audible.
"That was before you were the First Lady's chief of staff," Pepper pointed out, still upset with herself, "and you have a lot more fun now then you used to. Also, your current boss is much lower maintenance."
"All true," Donna conceded.
"And people don't try to kill your current boss."
"Well, some of them think about it, but there's the Secret Service."
"Pepper... Seriously, you do have every right to quit if you need to. This really wasn't in your job description, and I'm kind of worried about you right now."
Pepper leaned back in her (incredibly expensive, totally ergonomically correct) chair and stared at her Blackberry, still blinking with new messages. Yes, the job had perks, but the downsides... "I thought it was all over, Donna. Rhodey called from Afghanistan and he said that they found him and I thought, 'He's coming home. He's alive and he's coming home and everything will be all right. I don't have to hold it all together anymore. It'll be back to normal. Thank God.' And he is alive and he's home, and I'm really happy about that -- except now he puts on a suit of armor and goes flying out to right injustices and let people shoot at him, and probably he's going to get himself killed, and 'normal' is never going to happen again. And I'm furious and I'm terrified and..."
And Tony looked at her with the naked honesty that somehow always makes her feel ashamed, because she can never risk showing that much of herself to Tony, and he does it like it's easy. And he meant it when he said he doesn't have anyone else.
She closed her eyes. "...And I have no intention of leaving him. Am I completely crazy?"
"I... don't think so, but I stayed with Josh for almost 8 years, so I may not be the best judge of that kind of crazy."
"And then I married him, which makes me an entirely different kind of crazy."
"You weren't supposed to agree with that. So, are you going to hit your boss?"
Pepper surprised herself by smiling. "No. Of course not."
"Good, because it's unprofessional, and also, he has a concussion. Or, wait, can any of this be blamed on the head injury?"
"If only. The board of directors is already feeling very insecure about his sanity, they don't need any more reasons to worry. Oh damn, has this hit the markets yet? I need the stock quotes." She called the latest data up on her laptop, and studied it anxiously. "Good, it hasn't hit yet. Or the 'oh my god, he's a superhero' factor is canceling out the 'oh my god, he's insane' factor, which is certainly possible."
"And how are you feeling about his sanity?" Donna asked carefully.
Pepper let out her breath slowly, and gently closed her laptop again. "I... He is sane, Donna. I know he's sane. He knows what he's doing and he feels strongly about it. I've actually never seen him this intense about something that wasn't mechanical, robotic or female.... No, wait, not about the women, either. He's just... I suppose I just need to resign myself to being scared, because he's not going to stop."
"Maybe he will. Tony's attention span isn't that long, historically speaking."
"For this? I really think it's going to be."
There was a long silence, as Donna apparently tried to think of something comforting to say, and came up short. She finally settled for changing the subject. "Okay, if you're not going to quit, will you at least drag him to the Lincoln Center thing next month?"
"Will it have a bar and women in low-cut evening gowns?"
"I believe so."
"Then there might not be any dragging required, as long as the 'flies around in a metal suit and won't sell any to us' issue doesn't destroy his Presidential clearance."
"I think the President, Josh and most of the Secret Service are secretly dying to fly around in a metal suit themselves, so it shouldn't be a problem. I'll confirm."
"And once they get started with the geeking out, we'll go mock our bosses while getting completely drunk, in memory of our first meeting at the Lincoln Center all these years ago."
"God, yes. Thank you."
"What are friends for?"
Another incoming call flashed up on her private line, and Pepper groaned. "Are they also for getting the White House Chief of Staff to please stop calling me?"
"I'll try, but no promises -- do you know how Josh spent an entire 10 minutes in between calling you? Calling me to demand I tell him why your boss is crazy. Apparently I'm supposed to have insight into this question through some form of assistant-slash-friendship telepathy."
"An interesting theory, but it would require that I have insight, which I don't, really."
"Tell Josh that."
"I would, except that would mean answering the phone."
"Then ignore Josh. And tell Tony to stop being crazy. And go buy yourself a really good Employee of the Year present."
Pepper's Blackberry dinged with yet another call, and Tony's picture appeared this time. "Great. Donna, hold on, it's him." She took a deep breath, then pressed the flash button on her earpiece. "Yes, Mr. Stark?"
"Good, you don't sound like your head is going to explode anymore. I thought it was going to for a few minutes."
And it was almost funny, how normal he sounded. "Did you need something, Mr. Stark?"
"Yeah, do you think Rhodey has calmed down yet? Because I was looking at the suit and if he really wants one, I could build it, as long as he promises not to share with the other kids. Tell him to bring Chinese."
Pepper glanced back over the text message she'd gotten a few minutes earlier from Rhodey, the one that started, 'I am not getting paid enough by anyone in the world for this crap, much less Tony, tell him I said so', and didn't get any better from there. "I think Colonel Rhodes could probably use a little more time. I'm sure he's quite busy right now explaining to his superiors why you ignored his advice on international television. Also, the White House and the Pentagon have called several times, and Agent Coulson would like a word with you."
"...Yeah. Let's schedule that for, let's see, next year, maybe?" She heard his fingers tapping a quick rhythm against something metallic. "Okay, you can pick up the Chinese on the way back here. Don't drive, I sent Hogan to get you. In fact, don't drive until I do some things to your car. And your condo. Oh, and send Rhodey some beer, the good stuff."
Pepper sighed. She could quit, she honestly could; headhunters contacted her constantly. She could go work for SHIELD, or for the White House; Donna would hire her in a second, if Josh didn't beat her to it.
And she picked her way through the remains of the lab, smoke and heat choking her as she yelled Tony's name, and finally found him in the ruins of his armor, battered and so still, terrifying her until she found his pulse, felt his heart still beating under her fingertips.
"Pepper? You still there?"
She sighed again, then brought up the menu from The Golden Wok. "I'm fine, thank you. I'm placing the order now. Will that be all, Mr. Stark?"
"That will be all, Miss Potts."
He hung up and Pepper stared at her screen for a long moment, then switched back to Donna. "He wants Chinese."
"Oh. Is he...?"
"Starting to feel moderately guilty and inventing ways to bribe me and Rhodey into forgiveness. I have approximately an hour to exploit this before he moves on."
"Come up with something good, and tell me about it later."
"I will. Thanks for listening, Donna. And if you could forget almost everything I just told you...."
"As if you even need to ask. Do you feel any better?"
"...Yes. I do. For now." The Golden Wok confirmed the usual (ridiculously large) order, and Pepper started gathering the file folders she would need at the house. "I should go; Happy will be here soon and I need to do a walk through the office before I leave, make sure everyone knows it's business as usual."
"Such as it is. Since their boss is a superhero."
"I'm going to try not to remind them of that. Give my best to Josh and the First Lady."
"Of course. And if, by any chance, Tony should ever feel like actually giving flying metal suit rides....?"
And Pepper actually laughed. "You'll be at the top of the list. I promise."