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EDIT: Now with AMAZING art by leperu. I commissioned two pieces that can be found here on AO3

Title: Won't let you choke (also on AO3)
follows Girl that glitters
Author: Enmuse
Character: Toni Stark, Pepper Potts, Janet van Dyne, Coulson
Universe: MCU (first Iron Man)
Rating: Teen
Word Count: ~1200
Warnings: Mastectomy referenced
Summary: When Toni has to face the press to explain Iron Man, she has to decide whether or note she's going to stick to the cards.
Notes: See after story.

But I will hold on hope
And I won't let you choke
On the noose around your neck

And I'll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I'll know my name as it's called again

"The Cave" - Mumford & Sons

~ * ~

Toni hadn't made a conscious decision to keep her new chest accessory well-hidden, but by the time she looked up at Pepper's face through bleary eyes after blowing the original-sized arc reactor, she was damn glad few people knew about the one in her chest. Hell, she would have been a lot happier if even fewer people knew. Pepper was okay, Jan was fine, Rhodey, too, and obviously she'd need a doctor or two, but Toni did not like the little cheap-suited crew with the mysterious Agent Coulson and S.H.I.E.L.D.. She didn't have much choice about S.H.I.E.L.D., though, given that she had sort of been dying on the rooftop when the agents poked their heads up to investigate what had become of the metal "men" who'd been fighting up there.

The meeting that followed Obediah's death (Toni wasn't sure she could ever think of him again without a sick twist in her gut) was loud and exhausting. Coulson hadn't wanted to let Rhodey join, to which Toni objected loudly, and even Pepper was present mostly because she'd been on-site. (It probably hadn't hurt that she looked ready to stomp with her pointy heels on anyone who dared deny her.) In the end, Toni had her friends at her side as Agent Coulson asked them questions to debrief, waiting out Toni's sarcastic replies or responding with deadpan prompts for clarification. The debriefing turned into planning a press conference, though Toni was mostly tuning out by that point due to exhaustion. Pepper, bless her heart, knew to cut things off and demanded further details be postponed.

~ * ~

Jan turned up at the house the next morning with a cardboard tray of impressively tall coffees. The smell lured Toni close enough that the shorter woman could reach up and smack the back of her head. "What the hell were you doing?" Jan demanded as she jerked the enticing coffee away from Toni's searching hand.

"C'mon, it was a long night," Toni begged, wriggling her fingers at the tray.

"Were you even going to tell me? I had to pry it out of Pepper!" Jan continued as she elbowed Toni in the ribs. Toni's pained wince seemed to deflate some of Jan's frustration. With a sigh she moved the tray within grabbing distance. "Take one. We need to get moving to have you ready for the press conference."

Toni wrapped her hands around the coffee and just inhaled the aroma for a moment. She'd barely slept, more like dozed for a few minutes here and there, since Pepper had gotten them home the previous night. Despite her assistant's best efforts, Toni had gone back down to the lab and started investigating what had happened to JARVIS. Even with the looming press conference, Toni's thoughts were more focused on making significant security upgrades so that no one could ever mess with the AI again.

"Earth to Toni? Did you get concussed?" Jan snapped her fingers in front of Toni's face.

"I'm fine, get your hand out of my face." Toni turned away and started drinking her coffee.

Jan huffed. "Drink some coffee, take a quick shower — and I mean quick! Happy is driving us out in a half hour — and I'll sort out your outfit and pack up your make-up."

"Who put you in charge?" Toni grumbled as Jan marched her up the stairs. "And where's Pepper?"

"I didn't need anyone to put me in charge, but I have Pepper's endorsement if you're going to waste time asking questions. C'mon, into the shower!" Jan gave Toni a shove towards the bathroom. "Pepper's already at Stark Industries and running around setting things up. Did you give her a raise yet? She's going to need one if you're adding this whole other identity to your life."

Toni rolled her eyes as she heard Jan open the closet doors. With the shower started, Toni slipped out of her sweats and tee combo she'd been wearing all night; now that she was more awake and grounded in the present she realized that she definitely smelled unpleasant. Nose wrinkling, Toni stepped under the water and started soaping up. She determinedly kept her mind blank as she scrubbed her chest.

"Twenty minutes!" Jan called from the other room. A few moments later Toni heard her groan loudly. "Toni, you're not using these damn pliers as tweezers again, are you?"

~ * ~

Jan worked her magic with Toni's makeup as Pepper stood by with Agent Coulson, coaching Toni on the prepared statements.

"Really, bodyguard?" Toni asked incredulously. Jan took Toni's chin in hand and firmly moved her head back into position.

"You've already made quite a few enemies, Ms. Stark, distancing yourself even a little will help keep you safe."

Pepper cut in before Toni could say "fuck that." "Toni, before you say anything think for a few minutes. It's going to be hard enough dealing with the media circus surrounding 'Iron Man' and Obediah's disappearance. I've been fielding calls from board members since three a.m. — and you're going to have to deal with them as soon as we're done here. Letting the world know that you're the person in the suit, you're going to have to deal with even more people. Rhodey says the military's already demanding answers and he's worried about you being dragged in for questioning. I'm not sure if keeping your identity separate is going to spare us that nightmare, but it should to help."

Toni pursed her lips even as Jan rolled her eyes. She still wanted to tear apart Coulson's plan.

Ten minutes later she stood at the podium in front of a large crowd of journalists. At the back she could see Coulson standing next to Pepper, Jan, and Happy. Pepper was the only one looking truly concerned, her lips curved in a small frown and her eyes tight. Toni could see Rhodey in her peripheral vision as he stood at parade rest off to her side. Cameras were flashing, microphones held up, and dozens of eager faces looked toward her.

She cleared her throat as she shifted Coulson's damn cards in her hands and shot the crowd a smile.

"I'm sticking to the cards this time."

The tempting words welled in her chest but never made it to her lips as she charmed the crowd and downplayed her involvement in the previous night's events. Yes, Iron Man was her bodyguard. Yes, he'd been involved in her rescue from the Middle East. No, he was not open to speaking with the public at this time. Why had he been at the warehouse last night? Oh, he had uncovered some industrial espionage and Stark Industries was following up on the incident to straighten things out. No, the explosion hadn't caused any fatalities.

In her mind she cried, I am Iron Man!

Toni's gaze returned to her friends time and again as she dealt with the painful question session; their presence reined in the worst of her frustration. She thought of Obediah standing over her paralyzed body as he removed the arc reactor from her scarred chest and realized that despite the strength she gained from the armor, it also gave her new vulnerabilities. She remembered Pepper's frantic voice over the phone as she'd been caught in the middle of the fight. If Iron Man's identity was known, it would expose more than just Toni.

So for one of the first times in her life, Toni swallowed her pride and put herself aside.

~ * ~

Notes: I have a major weakness for secret identity fic. As much as the lack of Tony's secret in MCU fits his character, I feel like secrecy is far more in-character for the Toni I'm shaping here. And yeah, that's largely driven by the fact that here we have a woman. A woman facing PTSD, decades of other issues, center-stage in the business world and public eye, and now exploring an area where suddenly she's free of expectations. While I haven't touched on it in this fic, I think Toni will come around to the separate identity in large part because she gets the opportunity to be someone else. While her personal self has changed (and matured and suffered), the public still sees her in a certain way and that burden's a heavy one to carry. As Iron Man she's somebody new and at least at the beginning, has no expectations placed on her.

Oh. And the pliers-as-tweezers thing was inspired by seeing this tweet: https://twitter.com/ToryBelleci/status/343084490081579008

P.S. I'm proofing/editing this on my own right now - no beta. Politely pointing out errors is always appreciated!