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Support and Opposition


Pepper is angry. I can tell. It's less obvious than it is with most people—something about the ramrod straightness of her back, or maybe way that her expression seems just a little too pleasant. She's not looking at me much, either; I mean, she meets my eyes enough that I can't really say that she's ignoring me, but she seems to be staring straight over the driver's shoulder and through the windshield whenever she thinks that she can get away with it. I clear my throat. "… Ms Potts…"

She turns to look at me, her eyebrows going up over cool eyes, and then flashes me a matching, frostily polite smile. "Yes, Mr. Stark?" The current ice queen thing she's doing for some reason draws my focus to the tense, streamlined muscles of her throat—Not now, Tony.

"You're upset with me," I say lightly, leaning back in my seat and retrieving my Coca Cola from the cup holder next to my armrest. Taking a small sip, I try to exude relaxation. If she can pretend, then so can I, and dammit, I am much, much better at it than she is.

She's already sitting stiffly, but at that she practically freezes-- a rabbit hiding in the open, as they say. "No, I'm not," she says after a moment, her tone noncommittal. Her eyes flick down to study her dark, business-skirt clad lap, and her chin simultaneously takes on a bit of a defiant tilt.

"Yes, you are," I inform her, still using that relentlessly cheerful tone of voice, "Come on. Don't be mad."

She shakes her head slightly, tersely, like someone trying to get rid of a particularly persistent gnat. "I'm not," she replies steadily. Underneath, though, her voice has gained a definite sharp edge.

"I'll buy you an ice cream," I tell her, my tone coaxing. "It'll cheer you up! What's you're favorite flavor, again? Strawberry?" Something in her face goes tight, and I have the sudden feeling that I should really back off. I ignore it. I feel like I have to snap her out of this some how, and since my first choice—kissing her—would just get me thrown into exponentially hotter water, this will have to do. "Honestly, Pepper, what is so wrong with admitting that you're upse—"

"You almost died," she cuts in suddenly, her voice sharp. Surprised by her tone, I look at her more closely; she responds by quickly turning and staring out the window next to her. My eyes are inexplicably drawn to a little crescent of strawberry blonde hair that rests on the shoulder of her dark blazer. "And not just once. First with th-the kidnapping thing, and then l-last night—I thought I was going to die, and I thought that you were—When we found you, and you weren't moving, and your chest…" She gestures helplessly. "… Thing…"

"Miniaturized arc reactor," I hear myself mutter. I didn't expect this kind of… whatever this is.

"It wasn't ON, and I didn't know what to do; I thought I'd killed you by going through with that overload sequence." As though sensing my gaze, she sends the wayward strand of hair behind her shoulder with an abrupt little flick that suggests extreme impatience--- or agitation.

How can she think that? I told her to activate the damn overload! "Pepper," I say blankly, "That's not even…" I can't finish the sentence for some reason, so I start a new one. "And anyway, aside from a couple of broken rips and a few cuts, I'm fine! You're fine, Rhodey's fine, and…" I almost said something about Obie—I mean… Obidiah. God, I'm still having trouble getting my head around—

But Pepper is talking again. "Exactly!" I suddenly notice that her slim, well manicured hands are digging into her skirt, clenching the fabric, and something large, heavy, and rather painful settles into the pit of my stomach. "Everyone was pretty much okay, so I didn't say anything. I thought the whole nightmare was just going to fade. You had your note cards, and the Strategic Homeland—Those SHIELD people said that they were going to take care of everything." Uh oh. I think I can see where this is going, now. "And so, naturally, you just—" Her fingernails are probably digging into her thighs at this point; I have to physically hold onto the armrests to keep from reaching across and grabbing her hands. Stop doing that, Pepper…

I have to take a few seconds to think of an appropriate response, something I've been having to do more and more these days. "The cover story was idiotic," I snap, turning to look out my own window. I hate how defensive my voice sounds. The city lights whiz by in the darkness. "It would have come out, anyway."

She's looking at me, now; I can feel it. I've always disliked the clichéd phrase, 'His/Her eyes burned a hole in the back of my/your/his/her/its skull.' Stupid, trite, and inaccurate. At this point, though, I can see where it comes from. Not really a pleasant sensation. Still, I don't turn around; suddenly I'm not sure if I could maintain my composure if I saw her expression right now. "That's not why you did it," she whispers after a moment. It is not a gentle whisper. There is no forgiveness in it—discretion, yes; forgiveness, no. "You did it because you wanted everyone to know that you were a superhero. You wanted everyone to be impressed."

My head snaps around involuntarily, and I'm suddenly too angry to notice the expression on her face at all. "Everyone was impressed," I hiss back, "When I was making BOMBS. If I wanted everyone to ooh and aah over what a genius I am, I'd start up an assembly line and make fancy suits for the American Government. In case you missed that seven hour-long briefing that we're just NOW driving home from, most of the country is royally pissed at me right now. Not amazed. Not impressed."

I would like to give her my foolproof reasoning behind coming out of the superhero closet not a month after I entered it in the first place, but… I don't know. I just remember staring at the note cards (those STUPID note cards), and thinking… No. This isn't how this should be done. Worst of all, I'm not sure that her guess is entirely off base. I do this because I know that I have to. I wanted people to know that I do this…. because…?

"Fine," she says, holding up a hand in a placating gesture. She seems to have regained her iron-clad (ha) poise in the face of my lost temper. "… But the point stands. Not only are you going to be running off to all corners of the globe to deal with God only knows what, now you're going to be doing it without any anonymity. What if somebody like Obidiah comes after you when you don't have your suit, Tony? And what if they aren't interested in your arc heart power—"

"Reactor—"

"Tony." I shut up. Her eyes—very blue eyes—are incredibly serious. And angry. And frightened. "What if they just want to hurt you? Kill you? What then?" She pauses, those intense eyes locked onto mine, and I realize with a start that she's waiting for a response. After a few moments, I silently admit that I really don't have one to give her. She sees this, purses her lips slightly, and looks away.

We're both silent for the rest of the drive to my house, which only takes a few minutes. The car comes to a stop, and the driver gets out to walk around and open my door for me. In the few seconds of alone time, I (kiss her!) catch her eyes. "I have to do this," I tell her simply, "It's the right thing, and I didn't want to be stuck lying about doing it."

She looks back at me for several moments, then smiles slightly. Unfortunately, at that exact moment, the driver opens my door. I shoot him an exasperated look, which he takes in stride.

"Cherry Garcia."

I blink and look back at her. "What?"

Her smile doesn't widen, exactly; it's more like …it warms up. "My favorite ice cream flavor. It's not strawberry. It's Cherry Garcia." I feel a smirk curling around the edges of my mouth, and suddenly feel disproportionately pleased with myself. She notices. "Goodnight, Mr. Stark," she continues, her tone firmly professional.

I get up out of the car, still trying to wipe that stupid smirk off my face. It won't leave. "Goodnight, Miss Potts."