Balancing Act

Disclaimer: I don't own Iron Man: Armored Adventures.

Sorry if the summary seems too cryptic. It's one of my quirks.


Chapter One: Miss Mystery

Rain poured steadily onto the sidewalks and streets of Manhattan, imperfections littering the artificial terra firma whilst the skies above were blanketed in dark gray clouds. A cold wind whipped around the impressive skyscrapers of New York City, but that did little to deter the colorful, ostentatious, even bizarrely dressed crowds that littered the sidewalks as they awaited to filter into the Javits Center to attend an event that meant the world to comic book and anime fan alike. New York Anime Fest.

Once a year, from Friday morning until Sunday night, the convention center was split in half to house activities and exhibits for fans of both the Japanese art style of manga and anime as well as American made comic books and cartoons. Fans more often than not were found either dressed as their favorite character from a specific franchise or posed for photographs with another fan who had thought along the same lines that they had.

People swarmed tables that displayed upcoming episodes or chapters for their favorite series while others traversed to glimpse at something that was completely brand new. Wallets were emptied as both souvenirs and overly priced food were bought, large plastic bags filling quickly with freebies and tangible previews. Some arguments even filled the air as attendees argued over one action figure or a character's usefulness versus another one. Although, admittedly it was rather amusing to witness a teenage girl clad in Wonder Woman's uniform debating quite loudly with another woman, this one a busty blonde dressed in a revealing leather outfit over who was the better leading man; the Dark Knight or a gamer whose reliance on luck was just as heavy as his out of place Brooklyn accent.

The coolest part of a con was the opportunity to meet the artists and writers who breathe life into their series face to face. In a room located on the floor above the main showroom of the Fest such a meeting was taking place. A panel of five comic book creators sat at a long table, shooting the fans that filed into the audience relaxed and reassuring smiles as they waited for everyone to be seated. There was one artist in particular fans wished to meet, a woman whose personality seemed to be just as enigmatic yet addicting as the supernatural genre she wrote and drew for.

There was very little known about her. By appearances alone, for there was no public record confirming this, she seemed to be in her early twenties. She was confident and outgoing, clearly a New Yorker due to the accent that melded with her bright tones. She always dyed her hair outrageous hair colors making it near to impossible to decipher her natural shade and her eyes were always hidden by either sunglasses or a hat that sat low enough on her head that her bangs swept into her orbs.

The most mysterious and perhaps strangest aspect of this slightly frustrating yet popular artist was her name. Paprika Demure. Emblazoned onto every volume of her published work, it was one of the first things of the series that caught one's eye, however it just didn't seem to fit! Oh sure, people had unique names all of the time for instance a girl could be named Mercedes while a guy's name could possibly actually be Kal-El, named for the alien moniker bestowed upon Superman by his Kryptonian parents before shooting him off into space.

Yet the most well known thing about Paprika was her series, Ethereal. Ethereal was a series that delved into ancient mysticism paired with the complications of modern day life, particularly that of two teenage girls, one who was royalty while the other one was an outsider, a No Blood or a Nessun'sangue. This combination gave Ethereal a rather comical uplift to the otherwise dramatic series. So far it remained in comic book form for Paprika was still unsure if she was going to turn it into a cartoon as well as have the premises of a franchise despite several offers to do so.

Currently Paprika was grinning at her fans as more and more joined the already currently seated audience. She had her hair up in a high ponytail with two thick sections curving gently around her heart-shaped face. This time it was colored jet black with random streaks of violet cutting through the darkness while rose colored glasses sat before her eyes. She was garbed in a sweater dress that was nearly the same shade as the streaks in her hair while black leggings hugged her slender legs and charcoal boots covered her feet.

Once all the seats were filled, the door closed and a man who was seated at the middle of the panel table stood. He appeared to be about in his mid-forties with a short frame and slight build. Dark eyes peered out of square frame glasses as a broad smile spread across his face. This was Robert Saunders, head publisher of Eclipsed Comics, the same company that published Paprika's own series. He was also a former inker to several comics as well as editor.

"Welcome everyone to the two thousand and eleven New York Anime Fest American graphic novelist panel!" Robert announced to the room at large. "Long name, I know," he added with a grin. "As you know, this is a Q and A, you guys ask us questions and we answer 'em. It's not necessarily a free for all," he cautioned. "Please don't harass our artists and writers with questions that are personal," here he shot Paprika a sideways glance to which she silently replied with a smirk that betrayed her amusement.

When it came to herself, Paprika knew that the fans wouldn't hold back as the questioned her, trying to piece together the clues that would reveal her identity, not that they had much to go on anyway. Very few people knew her real name wasn't Paprika Demure, nor that her true hair color was black. The young graphic novelist leaned back in her chair and nearly laughed out loud as she glanced at her fellow writers and artists, nearly all of whom were eyeing her with knowing looks.

"So," Saunders began, cutting through the momentary silence. "Who would like to start the Q and A?" Hands shot up as soon as the word 'start' left the publisher's mouth. He pointed to a girl with shoulder-length chestnut hair and blue eyes who was seated to the far left of the room. She was one of the rare few who was not dressed in cosplay. "Who would you like to answer your question? And you might wanna stand so that way our panelists and audience can hear you."

The girl stood, a slightly shy smile gracing her face. "Ah, my question is for Ms. Demure…it's kinda personal, but I would really like to ask it."

Hearing her name addressed the way Miss Manners would have wanted prompted Paprika to sit up straight in her seat and give the fan her full attention as she grinned at her. Inwardly however, the graphic novel artist was smirking. Let the games begin.

"Okay," Paprika allowed with a nod. "What's your question?"

"Well, I think you've made it pretty clear that you don't really want anyone to know who you really are, whether that's intentional or not. I mean, you're always coming to a con with either a different hair color or a different style but what I want to know is, why do you always cover your eyes? Why not just wear contacts?"

"Easy," Paprika replied. "My eyesight is too strong for contacts or even glasses. I have twenty/fifteen vision which my doctor has said is even better than twenty/twenty. And I really don't see the point of going through the trouble of damaging my eyes just wear contacts," she added with a laugh. "I will say this, I am beginning to regret coming to the cons not as my true self. I'm not trying to pull a 'Hannah Montana' and keep the real me out of the spotlight, I was just trying to get you guys to focus more on Ethereal and less on me.

Though that's gotten the opposite reaction, hasn't it, not by much, I can see you guys getting ready to protest," she waved a teasingly accusatory finger at the crowd. "But I also have to admit, it's fun coming to these conventions in disguise, I like the mystery and watching my fans try to figure me out."

Satisfied with Paprika's answer, the girl sat back down. Paprika gestured toward an African-American man who seemed to be around her age, silently telling him to stand up. "This question is about Ethereal," he began, a smile coming onto his face when he saw that the novelist brightened at the fact that he wasn't there to put her through the Spanish Inquisition so to speak. "I gotta know, why did you kill off Nadia? I thought she wasn't a villain anymore and had made a real impact with the protagonists! Now all of a sudden she's dead?"

Paprika laughed. "I've been getting a lot of outraged letters about just that very topic from upset fans. I know, I know, killing off Nadia was kind of a surprise," she admitted. "To myself as well. But sometimes in the fictional world such a move is a necessary evil. And you guys should know me by now, I'm all about the cliffhangers, twists and turns. Who's to say that she's really dead? Not that was a spoiler, mind you."

She answered the questions of three more fans, only needing to wittily dodge one personal question before she told the crowd that while she was flattered by all of the attention, it was only fair that the other panelists be addressed as well. She leaned back once more and waited quietly for the time when the audience would turn into a swarm as fans lined up, eagerly awaiting for their books and/or posters to be signed and the occasional photo op to take place.

Before she knew it, it was close to six in the evening which meant that the final day of the con was winding down and Paprika was free to go home. She smiled and waved as the fans slowly trickled out of the room and into the large ballroom where the main area of Anime Fest was being housed. Standing, she gave a slow stretch before bidding her fellow graphic novelists farewell. Paprika then made her way to the ladies' room located on the far side of the Javits Center second floor.

Her readers were right, they had always been right, Paprika mused as she stood in front of a sink in the empty restroom. She grinned at her reflection, black hair with purple highlights, that hadn't even been borne from her imagination, her best friend came up with that guise. She double checked to make sure that she was indeed alone before reaching up, Paprika slipped off the rose colored glasses and blinked her now free honey amber orbs. She then raised her hand further to the black hair which wasn't dye at all, not like her fans believed, but a wig which came off to reveal fiery crimson hair tied up in a bun.

Undoing her bun and allowing the long locks to fall toward the middle of her back, Paprika Demure faded away, to make way for the twenty-four year old artist's true self, Patricia Potts. Better known to her friends as "Pepper". Slipping her wig and glasses into her large black purse, Pepper then made her way out of the bathroom and joined the slightly emptier ballroom, mingling amongst the crowds as she headed toward the exit.

Honey amber eyes roved as she searched the premises for a particular familiar face. She grinned when she found who she was looking for. Leaning against a column close to the door was a woman the same age as Pepper, though a good head taller. Inky black hair with natural blue low lights spilled toward her waist, her skin sun kissed and eyes a deep, startling green; eyes that were tearing up as she worried her lower lip.

Pepper frowned. "Skye, what's wrong?" Concern flooded her voice.

Skye Troia, Pepper's best friend since the second grade and roommate whose job at a pediatrician's office as a receptionist was done for the day, glanced up at the red head as she clenched her blackberry. "My father's sick," she whimpered. "Really sick and the doctors don't know what's wrong…"she trailed off into a sob.

Pepper wrapped tanned, yet freckled arms around Skye. "I am so sorry. But your dad is a strong man, he's going to pull through." She kept the girl in her embrace before leaning back and asked, "And you're not on a plane towards your home because?"

Skye sighed and began walking out of the Javits Center, Pepper keeping in step. "My sister Layla thinks I should stay here for the time being," she dropped her voice. "Many think it could be an attack. What if they're right?"

The graphic novel artist bit her lip as she looked away, unsure how to answer. Skye hailed from a small, yet lush and thriving island not too far from Greece. It was a principality called Thalaria, and her father, John Troia was king. Her older sister Layla worked for the UN as a special ambassador to their homeland. With their father sick and certain rules and regulations, ancient ones, preventing their mother from acting as regent, Layla would undoubtedly have to return to Thalaria to rule in John's stead, which then meant that Skye would more than likely have to take up the position of ambassador.

Normally being ambassador for Thalaria wouldn't be such a problem, one did not have to be in the United States for long periods of time, they could stay within the principality. Yet because it was having disputes with Tropidor, a neighboring, yet more powerful island country, both ambassadors were required to be at the UN in hopes of reaching peace. Another problem was Skye herself, the Council of Thalaria, comprised of its elders believed her to be too tame and down to earth for such a position of responsibility.

And now there's the possibility of an attack on the royal family? Pepper thought with both exasperation and frustration. No one needs that much pressure looming over their heads.

Skye let out a bitter laugh. "Who's to say that this is even an attack on my family? You know, I don't think Layla even mentioned such a thing, it's probably just nerves and paranoia getting the best of me."

"It could be," Pepper conceded with a nod. "After all, you're suddenly being thrust to the forefront of the political world and not during a time of tranquility."

"'Not during a time of tranquility'," Skye couldn't help but gently mock. "Since when you do sound so eloquent?"

"After watching one too many episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars," her best friend readily answered. "Looks like she's back ladies and gents. Feeling better?"

"Not hardly," Skye snorted. "But I've decided that freaking out is going to do me no good."

"No, it is not."

"So, just for the sake of preserving the shred of my sanity that is left, how did the panel at the Con go?"

"Oh, it was the usual," Pepper replied with a shrug. "People trying to figure out the girl behind the insane hair colors with the sporadic question or two that were actually about Ethereal."

"Another day, another donut?" Skye asked as the pair came to their apartment building.

"You got it."

Entering the lobby, Pepper frowned. That earlier conversation with Skye about the troubles of home was way too easy. Before she could press her best friend for more insight on what was going on with her, the princess turned ambassador shot her an uncharacteristically sharp look. "Glass Menagerie," she told Pepper in a firm voice.

Damn! The graphic novelist had to hold back the childish urge to throw a mini tantrum as she felt it swell up within her. Glass Menagerie had become a code between the two to drop whatever subject one was pushing onto the other for the time being. It was also the title of a book both girls read during one of their college freshman English lit classes. Skye had been the one to use the name of that book for their code, never once saying why she chose The Glass Menagerie, though Pepper had a sneaking suspicion it was because she liked the character Laura.

Sighing heavily, Pepper murmured a "fine" before walking over to the mailroom and getting out her key to insert it into the lock, Skye following. Pepper didn't get very far for a child's voice cut through the air screaming, "Pepper! You're home!"

Pepper looked down in time to see a darkened blond blur come barreling toward her and knocking into her side. She laughed as she looked affectionately at her seven year old neighbor while he clung to her waist. Nicky Romano, a sandy blond haired boy with big hazel eyes was an adorable ball of energy who lived two floors beneath her own apartment. His mother Isabella was a kind woman, though often busy for she was a curator for a museum whose name often escaped Pepper's memory. His father, Joseph was overseas, having been stationed there due to his work in the military.

As a result of having one parent being away from home and another constantly at the museum, Pepper often spent her spare time babysitting the little boy. He was easy to take care of, despite sometimes being the type to bounce off the walls, and like Skye, he too knew her little artistic secret of being Paprika, often finding it funny when she showed off her different wigs. The only quirk about Nicky was that he was very particular about who babysat him and as a result, ran away from the unlucky teen to Pepper who laughingly agreed to take over watching him until Isabella came home from work.

"Hello, Nicky," Pepper greeted, tousling his hair. "Have fun today?"

"Yep," the boy replied with a nod, he looked around the red head. "Hi Skye."

Skye, who had begun laughing when Nicky ran into her best friend was still giggling. "Hey, kiddo."

"Mommy and I went to the Central Park Zoo," Nicky informed the both of them. "I liked seeing the penguins and the lions the best."

"Really? The lions are my favorite," Pepper said, unable to stop grinning. The boy's spirit was truly infectious. "So, where is your mommy?"

"Here, I am," came Isabella's weary voice. Looking up, Pepper saw that she was indeed tired. "Hello Pepper, Skye." The statuesque brunette looked at her son. "Nicky, how many times have I told you not run away from Mommy? And how many times have I told you not to knock into poor Pepper?"

"Puh-lenty of times," Nicky replied with a nod.

"Cheeky," Isabella retorted. "Just like your dad."

"Have you heard from Mr. Romano?" Skye asked, echoing Pepper's own thoughts.

"It's hard getting contact from him," Isabella said with a sigh. "But last I heard, he's hoping to have finished his tour of duty sometime in the spring and be back in New York close to June." She pulled Nicky toward her, a somber look in her eyes. "I get so worried that it might not be the case."

"Don't think like that," Pepper admonished gently. "I know you can't help but worry, but you must have faith that your husband will be home safe and sound."

"You're right," Isabella agreed. "I must relax a bit." She picked up her son. "C'mon Nick. Pizza night!"

"Yay!" Nicky cheered. He waved to Pepper and Skye over his mother's shoulder. "Bye, Pepper! Bye Skye!"

"Bye!" The two chorused, waving back.

"So," Pepper began as she turned to complete her task of getting the mail. "Are we still within the terms of the Glass Menagerie?"

"Yep," Skye replied, scanning her portion of the mail as it was handed to her.

"Alright." The two headed toward their two bedroom apartment on the ninth floor, both lost in their own thoughts.

Pepper sighed as she closed the door to her room. It held a queen size bed, desk and closet, and was big enough to double as her studio. Flopping onto her bed, she stared out at the fantastic view of the Manhattan nighttime skyline her large window gave her. The night had been uneventful, Skye so wound up with pent up stress had been silent as they ate the left over Chinese found in their fridge and channel surfed while sitting on the couch. Pepper knew that Skye had her own way of dealing with things, however it was mostly through talking, yet her best friend wouldn't say a word.

She was about to grab her headphones, when she heard a knock on the door. Turning, she saw Skye open the door and lean against the frame. "Hey," she said quietly.

"Hey yourself," Pepper replied.

Skye looked down at her crossed arms. "I'm sorry for shutting you out earlier. I didn't want you to suffer through the immaturity I was feeling."

The red head rolled her eyes. "You've got me as your best friend. I prance around these conventions pretending to be someone else and doing so with crazy hair colors while making every effort to conceal my eyes because I don't wear contacts. And you're worried about me dealing with your immaturity? Well, the roles certainly seem to be reversed tonight!"

Skye let out a soft laugh. "True, I suppose. Look, I've gotta go to the UN tomorrow to get some things straightened out, make things official and whatnot. Will you come with? For moral support?"

Pepper made a face. "I dunno. That means looking nice and proper. And you know my aller-"

"Your 'allergy' can wait for a day," Skye retorted. "Wearing heels aren't exactly going to kill you."

"Oh all right," Pepper let out a long suffering sigh. "If I must."

Her best friend smirked. "Thank you. Night."

"Night!" Pepper chimed as Skye closed her door. Pepper stared at her door for a moment before dropping her head phones and reached for her bag, pulling out the black and purple wig. She ran her fingers through the false hair, quietly reminiscing. She would have never met Skye if it hadn't been for bumping into her as they reached for the same book at the bookstore one rainy afternoon. She laughed softly as she remembered her jaw dropping upon learning that the little girl with swinging black pigtails was actually visiting royalty, fully expecting a princess to be wearing some ridiculously poofy dress instead of the jeans and sweater she did wear.

Pepper frowned as she continued to think. Her best friend was being thrust into a position she did not want to be in, a position that people from her homeland did not believe her to be capable of handling. And Pepper herself? Well, she was a young woman who wrote dialogue and drew pictures for a comic book series that she was positive was only so popular because of the mystery she made Paprika Demure out to be. Life was a little bit complicated, sure, but Pepper knew that the two of them could manage to balance it all, even if admittedly, one girl had more of a challenge than the other one did.

As Pepper laid down, she continued to stare out at the night, not quite ready to fall asleep. She watched as an airplane soared across her field of vision, not knowing that the plane carried someone who would bring more chaos and possibly more adventure than Pepper could ever give Ethereal.


Additional disclaimers: Batman and Wonder Woman, not mine. They're DC property. Any locations mentioned in NYC save for the girls' apartment building and Isabella's workplace, also not mine. I do not own The Glass Menagerie nor do I own the anime characters mentioned earlier in this chapter. Points to those who can figure out who I'm talking about!

Anyone confused? I'm betting nearly everyone is. It's okay, I expected that. Tony will appear in chapter two and hopefully by then things will make more sense. If not, I will explain myself at the end of the next chapter.

I would like to thank and dedicate this chapter to ManaTheCatMagician and Socrates' Prodigy for beta-ing this fic pretty much from the beginning when it was nothing but random scenes. I'd also like to give a big thank you to Soap Lady for putting up with me and my endless questions which she has kindly answered since I first reviewed her one-shot The Lotus Eaters. It's amazing, go read it if you haven't already. And if you have read it, read it again!