Author's Note: My muse was finally awakened, by the thudding steps of Robert Downey Jr. in armor. Yes, I'm writing an Iron Man one-shot, that (hopefully) will find room with my long-range plans regarding Spider-Man: The Goblin Wars. This takes place a few weeks after the events of the movie, so spoilers, natch. Spoilers as well for The Goblin Wars.

Oh, and Iron Man and all related characters are owned and copyrighted by Marvel Entertainment.

Summary: Tony Stark and Pepper Potts deal with the fallout of his latest bombshell, while events in New York grab Tony's interest.


Stark Contrast

By Kirayoshi

"Drive it on up and let's cruise a while,
Leave 'em very far behind
You can hedge your bet on a clean Corvette
To get you there right on time.

Now if you're ready to dive into overdrive
Baby the green lights are on,
It's like you're runnin' away on some high octane
Every time she reached the boulevard

Won't you take a ride, ride, ride,
On heavy metal,
It's the only way that you can travel
Down that road.

Satisfied, fied, fied
On heavy metal,
Baby won't you ride
Ride it until it explodes."

--Don Felder
"Heavy Metal(Takin' a Ride)"

"WHOA NELLY!" Jim Cramer blasted from the enormous flat-screen display in Anthony Stark's living room as Virginia "Pepper" Potts finished collating the stack of documents requiring her boss's signature. "Forget Six Flags! The biggest roller coaster this week is Stark Industries stocks! In the last two months, Stark's stocks have gone from a 90 point free fall after his announcement that he was mothballing his weapons manufacturing, to all-time highs after he revealed that he likes to wear metal armor and fight bad guys on his days off! I've heard of celebrity endorsements, but making your own superhero? Looks like Iron Man's got some iron balls, and it seems to be working; after yesterday's press conference, when Stark introduced his ARC generator, his stock's are going THROUGH THE ROOF!(click)"

Pepper Potts smirked with wry satisfaction as she turned off the screen, silencing the loudmouthed financial commentator. While his style was characteristically manic, she had to admit that Cramer was quite insightful in his observations. The business world was still reeling from Stark's announcement two months ago that he was getting out of the arms business. The company stocks took a nosedive. His own board of executives(egged on, Tony later realized, by Obadiah Stane) were all but convinced that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. A situation that was further exacerbated when, at a second press conference, Tony announced, "I am Iron Man." But the buzz surrounding Stark's explorations of alternate energy was giving Stark Industry's major stockholders a chance to breathe again.

At his most recent press conference(once he dealt with the inevitable volley of questions regarding what he was planning vis a vis Iron Man), he formally introduced his ARC generator designs, showing the massive generator that powered virtually all Stark Industry operations, and(in a move that proved that Stark could still surprise her) then he unbuttoned his shirt and revealed the smaller ARC embedded in his chest that essentially served as a pacemaker. He then announced, "Within ten years, ARCs could be used to power everything from factories to cars to iPods." Despite protests from various oil companies that Tony Stark's statement that "inside of the next decade, America will never need another drop of crude oil again" was premature, if not delusional, Wall Street traders started buying Stark Industries shares by the crateful, visions of renewable clean energy resources(and the profits from same) dancing in their heads.

But the roller coaster ride wasn't over yet. Even if Stark Industries was pulling out of a threatened tailspin, the company itself was undergoing a sea-change to accommodate Tony's decision to dismantle Stark's weapons division. To say nothing of the changes in her own life since she first found him in his basement, struggling with his robotics systems to remove the bullet-riddled armor from his body. Even during that stressful period, Tony Stark waved it off with a trademark wisecrack, observing, "Let's face it, this isn't the worst thing you've caught me doing."

She was scared for her boss. Not just because she'd be out of a job if he were to die while wearing the Iron Man armor--and that was a distinct possibility, no matter how invincible it may have made him, his final encounter with Obadiah Stane certainly showed that he was still vulnerable--but because she'd lose, for want of another term for it, her best friend.

He had changed, that much was certain. Who wouldn't be unchanged after being held hostage by Afghani rebels. At Tony's request she had Googled the name he had given her, the Ten Rings, but still didn't find anything of note, even after modifying her initial search to include terrorist cells and other known organizations. Only one vague connection in a conspiracy theorist blog, involving a shadowy figure called The Mandarin. The artist's rendering that accompanied the blog entry depicted this Mandarin as an insulting Yellow Peril villain, a vile caricature straight out of a Sax Rohmer novel, so she simply passed the information on to her boss, with a little yellow note suggesting he ignore the site altogether.

But Tony was still at the forefront of her thoughts. He had changed, Pepper conceded, and in many ways for the better. He still played the playboy, but it seemed like more of a veneer. Once in a while, the cracks in his armor--she chuckled ruefully at that turn of phrase--would part, revealing his real self; a sensitive, slightly insecure, occasionally bumbling and forgetful but genuinely caring person, someone who had seen the error of his ways and wanted to make amends. And was going about it the only way he knew how; with technology.

She still shuddered as she remembered when he first asked her to help him replace the arc generator cell that maintained his heart. She didn't realize until later that he had secretly visited a surgeon who informed him that the shrapnel that had pierced his chest had been left close to his heart for too long; the stress of his captivity had aggravated his injuries to the point where what might have been a by-the-numbers open heart operation was far too risky for him to attempt without at least six months of relaxation immediately after the surgery. And Tony Stark had never relaxed a day in his life.

So he relied on that power pack in his chest to keep his heart beating, to keep the shrapnel at bay. And to power his exoskeleton, his greatest invention. The Iron Man armor.

And he relied on her that day to help him replace that battery. And she still shuddered when she remembered how close he came to cardiac arrest. She vowed that she'd never stick her hand in that aperture in his chest again, and he simply stated, "I have no one else but you."

It was a rare moment of candor from Anthony Stark. And in the end, Pepper realized, he was all that she had too.

Glancing at the stairwell that led to his basement lab, Pepper knew exactly what Tony was doing. And what he was eating. Before she headed for the basement to present Tony with the latest papers demanding his signature, she turned toward the kitchen. "Jarvis," she asked the computer system that monitored Tony's mansion, "give me an inventory of Tony's refrigerator."

"'Cause I'm TNT! I'm dynamite.
TNT, and I win the fight.
TNT! I'm a power load.
TNT! Watch me explode!"

AC/DC's "TNT" blared from his sound system as he worked. Tony Stark poured over the holographic computer display, deftly manipulating the images with both his hands and a specialized light stylus. The image of the Iron Man prototype dominated the 3D display, and Tony's thoughts. Occasionally he would reach for his glass, gulping a swig of a thick green protein drink.

"Okay, let's go over this again," he instructed Jarvis, and watched as the image before him altered to fit his requests. "Targeting computers set so that they deploy non-lethal weaponry first. Retractable shoulder mounted launchers firing wireless taser flechettes. Fine tune the repulsor beams in the gauntlets so I'll have more control of their intensity; I want the low-level setting to have the same impact as a Mohammad Ali knock-out punch. And I still need sub-sonic propulsion that doesn't wake the neighbors. Magneto-propulsion would be way to cumbersome on something as small as the Iron Man armor, and the repulsor pads in the boots are too noisy. I need some way to silence the repulsors--" he snapped his fingers, sudden inspiration hitting him. "Jarvis, two flat-panel white noise amplifiers molded to the backs of the legs, one here," he indicated by pointing at the back of the armor's left calf with the stylus, "and one here," pointing to the right calf. "The panels would create counter-frequencies to the noise of the repulsors, effectively masking that noise. We have those in stock, right?"

"Indeed we do," Jarvis replied in clipped but deferential tones. "White noise amplifiers would dampen the noise levels of the repulsors by an average of 85."

"Eighty five?" Tony smiled. "I can work with that, maybe tweak those levels higher down the road. Okay, that works for now. Now, from what Rhodes told me about that skirmish between Iron Man and those two air-force jets, my armored form is small enough to give their radar scanners grief. But I need to make this armor completely invisible to radar. We'll need a non-reflective surface. Matte finish, not shiny. Jarvis, paint it black!"

"Certainly sir," Jarvis chimed. "Will that be the Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, U2 or Vanessa Carlton?"

Tony chuckled when he realized his choice of words; even the most sophisticated AI unit in the world was prone to mistakes. "That wasn't a song request, Jarvis. I meant the armor; black non-reflective paint and how did Vanessa Carlton get in my play list?"

"The CD was a Christmas gift from Miss Potts, sir," Jarvis answered simply.

"Oh, right," Tony feigned remembering the gift, but realized how typical that would be of Pepper Potts. "Keep it in," he decided. "Did you say U2?"

"I did sir."

Tony shrugged his shoulders. "Don't think I heard that one. Play it. And show me the stealth prototype in anti-reflective black finish."

The atomic guitar of Angus Young was replaced by the whiskey-smooth vocals of Bono, singing, "I see a red door and I want it painted black." Tony nodded with approval as he observed the modified hologram. "Yeah," he murmured. "Black is good. Practically invisible in the night sky, badass up close." He scribbled more notes on the pad with his light stylus.

"Recommendation, Mr. Stark," Jarvis announced. "By shaping the white-noise amplifier panels into fins along the backs of the boots," the hologram reshaped slightly to demonstrate, "their radius would increase to include the palm repulsors, while providing increased stability in flight."

"And I could reduce power to the stabilizing thrusters in my palms," Tony completed the thought, "using the fins as aerodynamic stabilizers. Looking good." He doodled with the stylus a little more to reshape the fins slightly, to make them more aerodynamic.

"Mr. Stark!" an exasperated voice announced from the stairwell. "I thought you were relaxing!"

Tony turned around at the voice of this most welcome intrusion. "I am, Miss Potts," Tony assured her. "I'm thinking, doodling, listening to ear-splitting rock and roll. That's how I relax."

"You're designing another Iron Man suit," she arched her eyebrow editorially as she glanced at his 3D blueprints.

"No, Miss Potts," he announced, "I'm designing four suits. This is the stealth model. I'm also working on an upgrade for my original Mark 2, a heavy-armor suit, and a deep-sea explorer suit." Noticing the telltale crinkling between Pepper's eyebrows, Tony added, "Don't worry, I haven't built any of them yet. Purely in the theoretical stages currently."

"Good," she huffed slightly as she placed the stack of papers she carried with her on a nearby table. "Agent Coulson did insist that you take it easy, especially after--"

"After my disagreement with Obi?" Tony nodded. It still galled him; his father's closest friend, his business partner, Obadiah Stane, selling Stark Industries' weapons…his inventions…to America's enemies.

Tony Stark had believed in peace through strength of arms; as his father had said, "Peace means carrying a bigger stick than anyone else." But his experience with the Ten Rings, and the sacrifice of a good man named Dr. Yinsen, showed him a different strength. Anyone can pick up a weapon. Any coward can kill.

The truly strong don't need to.

So he vowed that his inventions would never be used to kill innocents again.

However, Obadiah Stane didn't share Tony's newfound conviction. Obadiah only believed in his own enrichment, his own financial security by whatever means necessary. Anyone that got in his way, Tony realized with a sickening finality during their final duel, was as Obadiah himself called the passengers of the car he used to attack Tony; "collateral damage".

Not for the first time, Tony's glib words to reporter Christine Everhart came back to haunt him; "It's an imperfect world but it's the only one we got."

"I won't be using the armor until all four suits are fully tested," Tony assured Pepper. "Which won't happen for two more months; Rhodey called the other day, said that the Air Force and SHIELD insisted on being kept in the loop, and that they wouldn't be able to clear a full test run in the Utah Salt Flats 'till then." Turning back to his desktop, he announced, "That'll be all for today, Jarvis. Save file under 'Mark V Stealth', pass-code, 'Yinsen', then close program. And kill the stereo." The music stilled, the blueprints disappeared, and Tony's workbench computer lights dimmed to 'sleep' mode. "So, Miss Potts," Tony greeted his Girl Friday, "What's the good word?"

"You, Mr. Stark," Pepper smirked, "are something else."

"You've been my administrative and personal assistant for how many years and you're just now figuring that out, Miss Potts?" Tony chuckled as he took another swallow of energy drink. "I've been considering adding that to the company letterhead."

Pepper regarded the dark green drink in Tony's hand with suspicion. "What the heck is that?"

"Protein suspension drink," Tony explained. "Some high-energy content soy-based stuff, at least that's how the label read. Personally I think someone just ran the lawn through the Cuisinart."

"It looks like Soylent Green," Pepper commented, wrinkling her nose in distaste. "And now that you've freed yourself of your 'mission', for tonight, you have some papers to skim over and sign."

"Ah, the minutiae of being a bigshot tycoon," Tony announced theatrically. "Anything of note?"

"Some general invoices, the monthly expense report, a couple of nuisance suits," Pepper displayed the papers in front of her boss, "stemming from your bout with Obi, both of which have already been forward to legal--"

"Whom I trust will do that voodoo that they do so well," Tony chimed in dismissively, "and make the whole thing disappear? I'm going to talk to legal tomorrow. If anyone was harmed by my confrontation with Stane, I want proper restitution made."

Pepper sighed dramatically at Tony's intentions. "You know, Mr. Stark," Pepper groused, "none of this would have happened if you could have just read the damn cards. Seriously, my job was a whole lot easier before you announced that you were Iron Man."

Tony's expression changed slightly as he regarded Pepper a little more soberly. "If it makes you feel any better, Pepper," he answered, "so was mine. But like I said just after Afghanistan. Zero accountability. That's not how I do things, not anymore." He opened the door to his mini-fridge and pulled out a bottle of mineral water. "From now on, Stark Industries needs to be accountable for its actions. Which means that Tony Stark needs to be accountable. And I can't be accountable if my 'bodyguard' takes the rap for whatever Iron Man does, good or bad. Care for one?" he added, offering her his bottle.

"Thanks," Pepper answered, accepting both the bottle and Tony's logic. He wanted to make things right, to undo the damage his weapons caused on innocent lives. And he didn't want to hide behind espionage or masks. Shrugging her shoulders, she returned her attention to Tony's papers. "Oh, and you have a memo from Harry Osborn, the CEO of Oscorp."

"Oscorp," Tony mused for a moment, the name triggering a memory. "Oh right, Oscorp," he reached for a magazine on his workbench. "Harry Osborn actually managed to knock me off the front page of Forbes last week when he announced his Ad Astra program. New York's Daily Bugle published a feature about him in their weekend supplement. He's steering all of his company's resources toward the world's biggest privately funded space program. Even booked NASA astronaut John Jameson to spearhead a planned Mars mission. What does the new wunderkind want with yours truly?"

"Well," Pepper cleared her throat as she scanned the letter, "he says, quote, I followed your most recent press conference with interest, and would like to speak to you at your earliest convenience, concerning applications of your ARC generator toward space exploration, unquote. Seems like he--WHOA!"

Without warning, Tony grabbed Pepper by the waist and lifted her up off the floor, whooping joyously, "HOOYAH! This is incredible!"

"Mr. Stark!" Pepper protested, half-shouting, half-laughing as Tony's excitement was infectious.

"This is exactly what Stark Industries should be involved with!" Tony whooped joyfully, lowering Pepper to the ground and reluctantly letting her go. "Cutting edge of space exploration. Hey, how's this for an idea; spacesuits based on Iron Man tech; they'd offer full protection from hard vacuum without hampering mobility." He rushed back to his display and picked up the stylus to start jotting down notes.

"Mr. Stark, back away slowly from the computer," Pepper insisted levelly, in a tone of voice that Tony Stark knew all too well. It was the voice she used when she threatened to quit after she first found out about the Iron Man project. The tone she used when she knew she was right about something and would brook no argument. Tony calmly put down the stylus and stepped away from the desk.

"Tony," her voice was calmer but still edged with worry, and the use of his first name did not escape Tony. "You've been cooped up in your basement for God knows how long—"

"Two days and fifteen hours, Miss Potts," Jarvis' politely condescending tone cut in, prompting Tony to mutter "Traitor."

"Thank you, Jarvis," Pepper answered in a sing-song tone, smiling. "The point is that even the great Tony Stark needs to relax once in a great while. And by 'relax' I don't mean 'redesign your biggest invention'. So," she added as she dropped the papers on the desktop where Tony had been fine-tuning his Iron Man technology moments before, "you're going to look these receipts and sign them, and then glance over the monthly expense report, and that is all the work you're going to do tonight." She glanced at her watch and added, "And you have forty-three minutes and thirty-two, thirty-one, thirty seconds to finish up here."

"Why so precise?" Tony reached into his mini-fridge and pulled out a bottle of mineral water.

"Because that's about when the meatloaf will be ready," Pepper answered just as Tony had the mouth of the bottle to his lips.

Tony did a spit-take and whipped his head toward his assistant, noticing her lips turned upward in a smile of absolute victory; she managed to gobsmack him and she knew it. "Meatloaf, Miss Potts?"

"Even us professional women need to know how to cook, Mr Stark," she observed candidly.

"I was unaware that cooking was in your job description," Tony challenged Pepper.

"Not in so many words," Pepper answered, "but there's no reason that two friends can't enjoy a quiet dinner together, is there? Meatloaf is in the oven and I'll be preparing steamed new potatoes and salad in the kitchen--"

"Good God," Tony exclaimed sarcastically. "I have a kitchen?"

Pepper chuckled, her laughter lighting on Tony's ears like the chiming of silver bells. "I'll see you upstairs when you're done." She nodded her farewell to her boss and started toward the stairwell.

Tony glanced at Pepper as she began to back out of his workshop. Just as she was about to leave, he said, just loud enough for Pepper to hear, "Jarvis. What is Virginia Potts' monthly salary, before taxes?"

"Miss Potts earns 15,000 in net salary per month, plus stock options of roughly 1,000 per month in her 401K account," Jarvis answered.

Tony nodded, making sure that he had Pepper's undivided attention. "Double it. Effective immediately. Retroactive twelve months."

"The salary or the stock options?" Jarvis asked.

"Both," Tony answered simply, smiling as he enjoyed the shocked expression on Pepper's face.

"Pending an approval of the board of directors," Jarvis announced, "the pay increase will be reflected in next month's pay envelop."

Pepper stood by the stairs, gasping in stunned silence. Tony nodded appreciatively, simply saying, "You've earned it, Miss Potts."

"Th-thank you, Mr. Stark," Pepper answered, smiling.

"Oh, and it's 'Tony' after business hours," Tony added. "Heck, it's 'Tony' during business hours."

"Okay, Tony it is," Pepper nodded, somewhat awkwardly. "But only if you call me 'Pepper', Tony."

"I'd like that," Tony answered. "Pepper." His voice was suddenly low and soft, and Pepper felt a frisson of excitement along her spine when she heard him call her by her common nickname.

After a few seconds of awkward silence, Pepper headed back up the stairs. "And you have thirty-nine minutes and ten seconds, Tony," were her last words as she exited the workshop.

Tony smiled as he retrieved the papers on his desktop and gave them a cursory glance. Over the last few months, since his return from Afghanistan, he'd sensed a change in their professional and personal relationships, but was hesitant to act on those feelings. He found himself looking at Pepper more as a woman than as an employee. But not a conquest. If there was one thing Pepper Potts wasn't, it was a conquest. Tony didn't want that kind of relationship with Pepper.

He wasn't entirely certain what kind of relationship he wanted with her. But friendship was definitely a step in the right direction.

After signing and initialing various dotted lines, Tony glanced back at the magazines on his desk. He fished out one bearing the masthead of the Daily Bugle, glancing at the photos from Harry Osborn's press conference. There were several shots of Osborn, a few of him shaking hands with John Jameson, and a few schematics of his proposed Ad Astra shuttles and Hestia satellite. It was the photograph in the later pages that caught his eye. According to the byline by reporter Ned Leeds, an enormous robot spider crashed through the ceiling and threatened those in attendance, demanding that Osborn surrender himself. New York's resident costumed vigilante Spider-Man arrived at that time and, according to the report, was able to subdue the metal beast. This wasn't the first time that Tony had read about this Spider-Man person, although it was the first time he read about him in the Daily Bugle in a positive light.

He noticed the photos of the battle between Spider-Man and the so-called Spider Slayer. The figure(he assumed by the musculature and by his name that he was a male) was clearly acrobatic, far more agile than even a Cirque de Soleil acrobat, and judging from other reports quite strong, as well as reported ability to cling to any surface and spin weblike ropes from his wrists. Depending on the source he was either a wanted felon or a genuine hero, responsible for saving Manhattan on more than one occasion.

You think you're the only superhero in the world? You've just entered a far bigger universe, Mr. Stark. You just don't know it yet.

Closing the magazine, Tony pursed his lips in thought for a moment. "Jarvis," he finally announced after a few seconds meditation, "remind me tomorrow to write a response to Mr. Osborn's offer; I would very much like to sit down with him and discuss the applications for my ARC generators."

"Very good sir," Jarvis replied.

"And one more thing before dinner," Tony decided, "patch me in to a private phone line." He then recited a phone number that only one other person in the world besides himself knew, and that person lived on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC.

Two rings, then clipped military voice greeted him; "Colonel Fury speaking, Mr. Stark. To what do I owe the pleasure?"

"Fury," Tony answered cordially, as though welcoming the SHIELD director to an informal barbecue. "I wanted to talk about this Avengers Initiative of yours. Tell me, what do you know about this guy in New York, calls himself Spider-Man?"