The party is Tony’s idea, of course. He’s decided it will be fun; a way of unifying the loyal employees of Stark Industries around the new direction the company is taking. The concept of saying goodbye to the past in a legendary bash holds massive appeal, and even Pepper agrees that it will make for great public relations and pointed symbolism.
“A villain party—think of it, Potts! This will be the last time anyone can call Stark Industries the bad guys, right? We’ll dress up, have an evilly good time, and then put away the concept for good—in more ways than one. Give everyone a halo as a parting gift, even, you know?” Tony enthuses, leaning back in his chair, his feet on the desk. Behind him, through the majestic windows, the sun is starting to set.
“Out with the bad, in with the good?” she prompts, typing a few quick memos into her BlackBerry. This will require all three levels of her catering contacts, and probably more, Pepper figures. People and objects are easiest; place can be trickier.
“Yep. A clean sweep, and a chance to thumb our nose at the press,” Tony agrees, folding his hands behind his head. “Facing up to what we’ve done, but making it clear we’re leaving that behind. My one last chance to be a villain in the public eye, so to speak.”
“Really,” Pepper murmurs dryly. “So no more foreclosing orphanages or tying maidens to railroad tracks?”
Tony waves a hand. “Been there; done that—Amtrak has NO sense of humor. Besides, I’d be a more dashing villain than that. I’m thinking Mao suit in silver lamé, with a fluffy white cat in my arms. Sort of a Doctor No, brought up-to-date.”
“More like Doctor No-Impulse-Control,” Pepper murmurs under her breath, but Tony shoots her a lascivious look and crooks a finger at her, beckoning her forward.
“Talk like that won’t get you an invitation to the party, Miss Potts,” he murmurs in a low and intimate voice. “And I really want you . . . to be there.”
She smirks; he’s pushing again, in that dedicated charming and ruthless way of his. Just because the two of them have begun a slightly more personal relationship, Tony has re-doubled his efforts to flirt, and Pepper is enjoying his efforts to seduce her.
But cautious soul that she is, it’s at her pace; a compromise that both frustrates and intrigues Tony. They’ve dated for a month now, and done some kissing and making out; chastely by Stark standards, but Pepper won’t rush something this important.
A year ago, Tony couldn’t remember her birthday; now he’s learning about her every day, and he’s by turns curious and fascinated by the knowledge—which is more than enough for Pepper.
“I’d like to be there,” she assures him.
A lot of people in this world have the wrong idea of how I work. That’s understandable; I go for a lot of misdirection anyway, partially the result of living in the public eye, and partially because screwing with the minds of the majority of the world is a total hoot.
Honestly, ask any person in the United States of America who Tony Stark is, and you’ll get one of three standard answers. According to Ms and Mr. America, I’m A) a playboy billionaire, B) a warmongering industrialist with an agenda second only to the Illuminati, or C) both of the above. I’m proud to say I’ve worked hard to cultivate those responses, actually. My flamboyance feeds the publicity machinations of several tabloids, and my engineering talents tend to keep Stark Industries stock in the triple A ratings.
Still, it’s not exactly easy, particularly in light of my recent past. I’m not and never will be thrilled at how my personal epiphanies came about—it’s no credit to me to have been kidnapped at the orders of my own CFO and trusted mentor—but I’d like to believe I’ve taken some previously neglected truths to my damaged heart.
Lessons learned in firelight and in blood.
So once I got myself out of there, I was determined to put the focus of my time onto things that actually mattered instead of into all the soft and ultimately meaningless perks of my days. That didn’t exactly go smoothly either, but my point is that I’m a quick learner, and being bitchslapped into the realities of the Third World is something I’m never going to forget.
Anyway. Between opportunities to balance the global scale and do my part to bring some justice here and there, I also have been making it a point to clean house at home, as it were. Took a good long look at the lifestyle and figured out just how much of it I needed to keep to maintain the illusion of who I used to be.
Turns out it wasn’t too much. I gave up most of the booze, some of the publicity, all of the women.
Okay, that’s not exactly accurate. Giving up the women was tough. IS tough, although I’ve always got the old manual standby. It’s not that I don’t want women; believe me I do. Very into women, trust me.
The problem now is that I only want one woman, and she’s not giving in without this long serious attempt at a real relationship.
Don’t you love the irony? The one woman I want is the one who says ‘no’ to me, albeit with more kindness than I deserve at times.
Pepper, Pepper, Pepper. She wouldn’t hurt a fly, she’s gorgeous and smart and has this ass that my hands fit around perfectly, Rawr! And in silk? Please—I’m drooling.
I know damned well that I need her for far more than just her capacity to keep me on course through my career and lifestyle. She started out as an accessory—something I’m not proud to admit by the way—and ultimately, the woman has become a hell of a lot more than I can adequately express.
She’s funny. She’s sweet. She’s always there when I need her, and damn it, Potts finds ways into my psyche and soul and I absolutely love her, no question about it.
Pepper is frustrating me. Big time.
We were in this weird little holding pattern for a while, ever since the press conference where I stepped up and admitted that I was Iron Man. I think that both pissed her off and pleased her; she doesn’t really talk to me about that particular afternoon.
But—and I say this with a glimmer of hope—she’s still with me, and of late, things have been much easier between us. Pepper won’t ever come out and admit it, but she likes taking care of me. Oh she grumbles about my bad habits and tries to round me up like, quote “The hyperactive two-year-old man-toddler” unquote that I supposedly am, but for all her bitching, it’s clear something besides the paycheck is keeping her around.
And I found out what that something was about a month ago, big time, when in the course of one of our disagreements, push came to shove and lips came to lips.
She won that argument.
Needless to say, we’re taking it slow. I’m not crazy about that part, but I’m not going to blow it, either. Pepper is too important to me to rush the issue, even though certain body parts are complaining about it, especially when she hugs me or kisses me. Who would have thought I had a spoiled body too?
Plans are underway, and two days later, Pepper stands outside Tony’s office, juggling a few files before entering. She can hear him on the phone, talking to Jim from the volume and laughter, and that makes her happy.
Not that she wants to eavesdrop, but it’s not often that Tony sounds so amused, and when she hears her name, she’s curious. Leaning in a bit, Pepper guiltily listens.
“No, you’d look good as one, seriously. Gives you a chance to at least try and keep up with my costume,” comes the tease. “At least you’ll look the part, unlike Potts.”
Blinking, Pepper cocks her head. Tony’s tone is light, but there’s a dismissive tone to it that bothers her. Then his next words confirm it.
“Come on, Platypus, she couldn’t be villainous even if you injected her with essence of evil and dipped her in sarcasm! Pepper is the epitome of good girl—as pure as they come, man. I bet her idea of a villain costume is showing up as my fourth grade teacher, Miss Feinberg, complete with detention slips and erasers to clean.”
Pepper stands stock-still, feeling the first heat of fury deep in her stomach. It’s like a tiny dab of emotional wasabi, so hot it numbs before the burn sets in. Her gut reaction sears through the hurt, and she grits her teeth as her entire face tenses for a moment in light of Tony’s jest.
He’s teasing; he doesn’t mean it, she thinks, but right on top of that comes the thought, That is--he didn’t mean for you to hear it. Or know what he really thinks of you.
Pepper feels the heat flare up, but tamps it down and plasters a smile on her face as she waits to a count of ten and knocks on the door. Time enough to deal with this later, when she has more perspective.
And a better idea of what she’s going to do.
So for two days before the party I’m trying to figure out what’s going on with Pepper. I want to chalk it up to preoccupation, or stress or something like that, but the truth is, I’m getting the bland smile in the most elegant way possible.
And I don’t like it much. Pepper is giving me the face she uses for people she has to deal with, and I’m not supposed to be in that category. I used to be, ages ago when the A in A. Stark stood for something besides Anthony, but that was before Afghanistan . . . which also starts with A for those of you keeping score in Scrabble.
Still. Pepper isn’t getting into the spirit of the thing, and that bugs the hell out of me because I want her to lighten up and have fun. She works too hard most of the time, and this thing is supposed to be for her too.
She doesn’t laugh through my fitting for the silver lamé Mao suit—and by the way may I add that I can totally pull it off. Not that I’m looking to get into the villain gig, but I do have the cheekbones for it. That and the eyebrows. Let’s face facts—you’ve got to have a menacing arch to those babies and the ability to use it.
Thanks to my mother, I do.
Anyway, Potts is not amused, not by the suit, or the quest for a cat I can carry, either. I’m not so shallow that I’d buy a Persian to haul around all night, but renting isn’t out of the question, and through the good graces of an animal rescue associate named Bebe Dang, I have a good-natured retired show business cat for the night; a seven pound fluffball named Doof, who adores being carried around.
Bebe’s coming to the party as well.
Doof used to star in cat food commercials and his weight bears it out; I’ll be getting my workout big time at the party, that’s for sure. He’s purring like an Evinrude motor too, and Pepper pets him a little, but doesn’t give me the time of day and keeps her clipboard up like it’s a force field.
And I can’t get a clue out of her what she’s coming as. That’s driving me batshit, frankly. If these were the old days, I’d tell her that if she didn’t ‘fess up, I’d leave her name off the guest list.
Which is really a useless threat, since she’s the one setting up the party, but that’s not the point. I just want Pepper to break down and admit she’s coming as a crooked Meter Maid, or a knife-wielding librarian or something.
Come to think of it, she’d look hot as either of those.
She makes the calls and pulls out the favors owed; Pepper doesn’t give herself time to think about what she’s choosing to do, because if she did, she’d talk herself out of it, and that tiny little core of rage within her is driving this.
Rage, Pepper admits. That’s what it truly is.
She’s tried hard not to let Tony know what’s coming, but he’s not as easy to dupe these days. He’s much more attuned to her, and Pepper doesn’t want to give up being angry right now, because a part of her knows he needs this lesson.
She needs to give this lesson.
So swiftly, Pepper pulls together her outfit for the party, making sure the ensemble stays hidden away from her notes and responses to Tony. She slips away for a fitting, collects the accessories, and by Saturday morning, the day of the party, she is ready.
By three in the afternoon, Pepper has checked all the arrangements at the hotel—from food to security to media coverage—and has managed to keep Tony distracted enough to ensure a quiet getaway. At her apartment, she lights candles and sets out the oils, drawing a long, serene bath for herself. Amid the heat and perfume, Pepper meditates, letting her mind analyze all the possible scenarios that might unfold at the party. She focuses on the one she’d most like to see happen, and smiles to herself.
This part is fun, she acknowledges. Giving in to the small bit of ruthlessness she possesses is something she doesn’t do often (usually she only pulls it out during shoe sales, or run-ins with certain pissy clients of SI) but turning it on Tony will draw a line in the sand once and for all.
He may not take it well, Pepper knows. He may be furious, and she prepares herself for that particular circumstance, hoping like hell that it’s not going to come to that. Tony can be unforgiving at times; Pepper has seen that in action.
But far more likely is that matters will go her way, and Pepper chooses to focus on the promise of that. Tony Stark, the bluffer, the party boy, the king of confidence—it will be a pleasure to bring him to his knees.
Pepper loops one elegant toe through the big metal ring of the bath plug and pulls it before getting out of the scented water.
Party! Man, I’ve missed this. I used to have so many that they were boring, but it’s been a while since I threw one and it feels good to see things hustling and bustling around me. Pepper picked a nice spot for it—the Noir Lounge at the Omni hotel. We’ve got the entire top floor and lounge for the bash, with great views, a dance floor, three Moroccan-style hot tubs and a catering staff done up in dancing girl and cabana boy costumes.
Good times, no matter what your flavor, you know?
From where Doof and I are standing up at the far railing, I can see down to the main elevator doors between big potted palms, and I’ve been watching guests come up. So far we’ve got three Nazis, a Mad Scientist, some vampires and a Kim Jong-il . . . not bad. Nice to see people getting into the spirit of the thing. Hogan cracks me up—he’s got on a black turtleneck sweater with the letters ‘Henchman’ across his big chest in red. Henchman—yeah, he qualifies, and I wonder if his sweater was his idea or Pepper’s.
There are others with sweaters too—some say ‘Thug’ or ‘Minion’ or ‘Goon’ on them. Kinda remind me of guys out of that old TV version of Batman. It takes me a minute to realize they’re the security for the party. Nice. Definitely a Potts touch there.
I’m getting a little antsy though, waiting for her in fact. She hasn’t dropped clue one about what she’s coming as, and I’m curious as hell to see what she’s chosen. Frankly, I’d love it if she did the whole Bimbo Girlfriend thing. Every good Evil Übervillain needs a Bimbo Girlfriend, and Potts would be cute in a little silver Spandex number to match yours truly here.
With strappy stiletto heels and bright pink lipstick maybe, hubba, hubba.
Mostly likely not gonna happen. Pepper doesn’t do Bimbo, not even for parties. She’s got too much class, and I respect that, even if I occasionally dream of naughty giggles and big bubble gum bubbles.
Between you and me, if Potts ever gets in a schoolgirl uniform for me, I will probably implode into a pile of Iron Mush.
Anyway, Doof is rumbling away, and I’m just about to go check out some of the canapés when the elevator doors open and two guys in Chinese livery step out. They move to either side of the doors, and an apricot-haired woman glides out.
Tall, willowy, and Christ, wearing an arsenic green cheongsam so tight it’s practically molded on. She turns and I realize two things at the same time as she puts a long lacquered cigarette holder to her red, red lips.
First is that her dress is slit on the side up to her waist, exposing one hell of a gorgeous view of peach-tinted leg, thigh and hip.
Lushly naked leg, thigh and hip.
And second, that the lushly naked thigh and hip belong to Potts.
That’s when I damned near drop Doof over the railing.
She senses the little ripple through the room at her appearance and Pepper holds her pose for a moment, feeling smug. She hasn’t watched Tony through the years and not picked up a thing or two about the art of making an entrance. Normally she’d blush at this many eyes on her, but tonight, in the dress and make-up and persona, it’s easy to hide behind a cool and perfect mask of indifference.
Pepper lets her glance turn up, briefly, to where Tony is struggling with the cat. Doof is protesting about being manhandled, and is attempting to claw his way up Tony’s arm. Tony is trying to regain some sense of composure, but it’s comical to see him at a loss, and Pepper nearly smirks before turning away and taking a puff from the cigarette holder. She nods to the two men who escorted her in and they blend into the crowd, dismissed for the moment.
Pepper has her hair sleekly pulled back in a low chignon wrapped with thin strings of green pearls, and wears dangling earrings of the same. Her dress has one long and shimmering dragon coiling around her slender body; a embroidered dragon with hints of cool silver and tiny flecks of red that match her deadly lipstick and long, mandarin nails.
Happy glides over with a tray; a perfect jewel of a vodka martini sits in the center of it, chilled, olive-loaded and gorgeous.
Pepper takes it and reaches over with her cigarette holder, lightly using the stem of it to stroke under his chin. “Very good, Hogan,” she whispers. “You please me.”
They have a rapport, the two of them, and it’s empathetically clear in an instant that Hogan knows what she’s doing. Knows, and approves. He tucks the tray under his arm and steps back, falling a few steps behind Pepper as she glides into the crowd. Unsurprisingly, they part for her, some awed; a few in stunned lust.
Pepper moves towards Hagler, one of the more obnoxious managers in Acquisitions. He looks like a fat little bunny in a tuxedo staring at the headlights of a Peterbilt as she stands before him. “Derrick,” she coos.
“Are you still double-billing Accounting for those ‘business’ trips to Montana, darling?” Pepper asks softly. People standing near them make a noise; most are snickers.
“W-what? No! Wait, those are legitimate . . .” Hagler protests feebly, his vampire make-up melting a bit.
Pepper sighs and blows smoke in his face. “I’m sure they are, along with those conveniently acquired hunting and fishing licenses.” She turns to the younger woman hanging on Hagler’s arm. “And you know, Derrick’s wife says she can’t remember the last time they took their children on a vacation, or even attended a party together. Imagine that!”
She glides away, feeling a frisson of triumph as the woman snarls at Hagler. “You told me you were divorced!”
Evil. Pepper is enjoying this, and the best is yet to come.
Sort of freaking out here. There’s a really, really big disconnect going on between my brain and my body, most of it directly attributable to the appearance of Potts down below. I can’t get any sort of coherence going because there’s no blood anywhere north of my arc.
Eyes seared by the Oriental hotness.
Oh, look, there is blood . . . it seems to be leaking from the claw marks inflicted by the annoyed cat in my arms. I look around for Bebe so I can foist Doof off on her and go track down a certain Demon in the green dress.
No Bebe of course.
Not making a friend of this cat as I tuck him like a football under one arm and make my way down to lounge level. People want to talk; grab my sleeve but I’m focused.
Man on a mission here, move outta my way.
Doof is making an effective threat now; people are scattering quick as I hold him out in front of me to clear a path.
By the time I get to the black and white tiled floor of the Noir, the crowd is much bigger and I’m not sure what direction to look, so I scan around, feeling my pulse jumping.
Was that really Potts?
I’m having doubts now— is this all an illusion brought on by waaaaaay too much wishful thinking, excess testosterone and not enough time to spank the monkey?
I turn towards the picture window, and whoa, there she is, standing in the center of a circle of men who all but have their tongues hanging out.
Holy crap. I’m not seeing panty lines, and what I AM seeing is making Iron Man Jr. perk up big time. Hint of carved hip and naked thigh that begs me to lick it.
Did I just growl?
Time to end this charade, because nobody’s getting near that hip but me.
“Hi, have we met? I’m Doctor ÜberEvil, fiendish Mastermind and your host for the evening,” I babble and move in. Doof is really pissed now, but Pepper reaches out a hand and Jesus, her talons . . . she scratches Doof under the chin and he goes right into motorboat mode. So loud we can ALL hear it.
“What a lovely pussy you have, Doctor,” Pepper murmurs.
Everybody laughs, oh hardy har-HAR because it’s such a hilarious joke that I have just been disrespected, in public by my PA.
My drop-dead gorgeous Dragon Lady from HELL PA.
So I want to make some snappy comeback about how hers is nicer and how we could arrange for a private comparison, but somehow my tongue is drying up because watching Pepper run that long black cigarette holder along her glossy red bottom lip is . . . distracting me.
I can smell something musky and herbal to that smoke. Something exotic. Pepper smoking?
Iron Man Jr. is on the verge of doing the Wave.
Annnnd, I’m not the only one here in the Circle of Lust, apparently, so I do what I do best.
Yes, I order people around.
“So, hey! It’s a party, go grab some drinks, have some of those painfully expensive squid kabobs and fried wombat testicles. I need to have a little talk with Miss Shanghai here. Go-go-go, folks! Make that catering bill hurt!”
They reluctantly move out and I hoist Doof on one of them—the skinny little guy from Cybernetics who came as Sid Vicious. Doof is giving the guy a ‘Oh let me shed all over you’ look.
“But I’m really allergic to cats, Mr. Stark,” The father of Punk whines at me, holding Doof out at arm’s length like the big furry bomb he is.
“That’s Doctor ÜberEvil, Sid, emphasis on the umlaut,” I snap. “First Aid’s over by the bathrooms, I’m sure they’ve got Benadryl.”
I turn, ready to take on the extra hot Pepper---
And she’s gone.
Pepper is glad she took the time to study the layout of the Noir lounge earlier. Generally she does for matters of security, but this time, it’s fun simply to be able to pull a Houdini on Tony, and leave him stranded.
At the moment, she’s in a quiet alcove, sitting and enjoying the view of the city lights below. The martini is warming her stomach nicely, and Pepper debates having another one. She doesn’t want to get drunk of course—that would be counterproductive—but if she paces herself, Pepper might let herself have one more lovely, lovely martini tonight.
A man walks up; he’s dressed as a mercenary, bare arms oiled to show off his muscles.
McDermond, the burly head of Plant Operations. She can smell the alcohol on his breath, and see the lurch in his steps.
McDermond: one of the ones who used to harass her a lot before she got the promotion to being Tony’s PA, and intermittently afterwards.
“Someone told me you were hot tonight,” he rumbles. “And shit, they were right! Damn, Virginia baby, you look good enough to eat. Mind if I have some of that tasty thigh?”
He laughs as if he’s made the world’s greatest joke, and to re-emphasize his own appeal, flexes his muscles for her as he moves in closer, confident in his size.
McDermond, who used to trap her in elevators and make comments worse than this.
Pepper manages an elaborate yawn.
This does not go over well, and McDermond moves closer again, his expression not so pleased this time. “What’s the matter, Potts? Stark keeping you on a busy schedule these days bending over and blowing him?”
Pepper stares at McDermond, letting the tension draw out between them. Normally she’d be flushed and furious at this point, but tonight, it’s different.
Evil is the theme, she remembers. And Evil can be fun.
“Tell me, Lyle,” Pepper purrs. “Have you erased all that bestiality porn off your laptop yet?”
He goes brick red, and sways a bit. Pepper sighs, standing up slowly. “It’s a funny thing, but with my security clearance, I can take a peek at anyone’s downloads on any company issued computer, and you’ve got quite an interest in donkey shows. I wonder, does your fiancée know about your love of animals, dear?”
McDermond is making a choking noise, a gurgly sound that’s music to Pepper’s ears.
She manages a smile with those scarlet lips of hers, and brushes past Lyle, adding, “Get your resume in order, Lyle sweetie, and start sending out letters, because after tonight, your career with SI has come to a gentle parting of the ways.”
Pepper glides away, and yes, she will have that second martini, complete with extra olives as a reward for taking out the trash in style this time.
Why is it when I’m looking for a woman, I can never find the one I’m actually after? I’ve got dozens of them in my face right now—an Imelda Marcos, an Eva Braun; two, count them, TWO Joan Crawfords, but no Dominatrix Potts in sight.
This is turning into a night of very surrealistic proportions, and believe me, I know what I’m talking about. I try to push off the ladies with a few complimentary words, but my radar is up and at the very least I spot Platypus coming in the door.
Not bad. He can carry off the three-piece suit and fedora pretty damned good, and the violin case is a nice touch, along with the two-tone shoes and cigar. Rhodey is classic Gangster—I’m guessing Black Irish.
I make my way to him, giving a nod to his costume.
He preens and then eyes me critically. “You look like a walking baked potato, Tony.”
“Yeah, thanks, that was just the look I was going for: Carbohydrates of Death,” I snap. “Sil-ver, lamé okay? This is vintage Bad Guy—didn’t you ever see any Bond movies?”
“Which one--Doctor No Sour Cream? Or To Russet with Love?”
I want to be annoyed. I do, but damn it, it’s funny. I cross my arms and try to glare. “Don’t make me sic the sharks with lasers on you.”
“Tomorrow Never Fries?” Platypus continues, cracking himself up. “For Your Chives Only?”
“Yeah, yeah, and Diets Are Forever,” I finish up wearily. Love the guy, but I have an agenda here and I need his help. “All done? Is it out of your system now?”
“Sure, GoldenFry,” he tells me. “You bet. Where’s Pepper, man? You need Pepper. And some butter.”
“Platypus, don’t take this personally, but shut up. Tonight I am Doctor ÜberEvil, and I’m NOT in a good mood. Pepper is here somewhere and I need to round her up pronto.”
“Okay, okay,” Rhodey tells me, brushing his lapels and looking a little pissy. “You don’t need to get, you know—steamed.”
“No sharks for you,” I growl. “You’re getting the spiders with the machine gun eyes. Come on; Potts is out there making trouble.”
We start moving through the party and Rhodey is glad-handing while at the same time, talking out of the corner of his mouth at me. “Pepper? Making trouble? Um, I thought you said she was the epitome of a good girl?”
It hits me then, in a nice big Mach 5 mental roundhouse. “Shit.”
“That’s not good,” Rhodey shoots back. “What?”
“Somebody heard me say that,” I realize out loud. “Somebody who is now really, really pissed about it.”
Rhodey holds up the hand not carrying the violin case. “Dude, you are on your own now. Not getting in the line of fire on this one!”
“Some friend,” I sneer, feeling this weird mix of relief and annoyance. Platypus has generally been good about watching my back, but once he gets a look at Pepper tonight, I may have to Rochambeau him pretty hard.
Am I a total ass for looking forward to that?
“Tony, you’re the one who blew it, man. Time to consider doing some Über groveling. Me, I’m checkin’ out the bar. See you,” Rhodey says, and heads off. It’s okay though—I’ve just spotted She Who Is Too Damned Hot in the distance, and I’m locked on target.