The Pacific island of
Ulavuta lay fifteen miles south of the equator, an independent nation
of three square miles with several beautiful beaches left over. The
island was lush, isolated, fairly undeveloped, and at the moment,
sitting on the largest deposit of palladium in the world.
This latter was of extreme interest to Stark Industries.
Ulavuta was ruled over by Queen Nonanithuqui the Tenth, a large and round woman in a green and gold cotton muumuu who looked as if she would be completely at home in a sumo ring. She sat across from Tony Stark on pillows in the open air courtyard of her limestone palace, watching him with amusement as he attempted to personally sweet-talk her into negotiations for the mineral rights to Tinglotiva Mountain.
“Would you like more pineapple juice, Mr. Stark?” she asked, her English a lovely blend of British accent tinged with Samoan inflection. Behind her a saronged young woman waved a palm frond fan, creating a breeze through the sun-dappled courtyard.
He shook his head, graciously but impatiently. “Thank you, but no. I’m good.”
“As you wish.”
“Now according to my sources, I know you’ve been approached by a few other conglomerates—”
“A few,” Queen Nonanithuqui admitted demurely, sipping her glass of juice in a dainty way. “The Russians primarily of course, but I have no interest in dealing with them. And may I say, your young lady is hot.”
Startled, Tony looked over to his right, where Ms. Potts sat on a stuffed pillow, her long legs folded to one side in an attempt to look presentable in her dark wool business suit. Pepper’s cheeks were flushed and she gave a weak little smile, clearly struggling with decorum and humidity. Tony looked back to the Queen, his own expression deliberately bland. “Yes, very lovely. Good cheekbones, knockout legs.”
“All true, but what I meant is she seems uncomfortable, Mr. Stark,” the ruler of Ulavuta murmured sweetly. “I suggest that while we continue our talks, that it might be agreeable to have her go and spend the afternoon with my nephews. They can entertain her while we come to terms.”
“Um--” Tony hemmed, clearly startled by the suggestion.
The Queen spoke again, her tone mild and coaxing. “Be sensible, Mr. Stark. Whatever we decide between us will be fully documented by my stenographer here, and hammered out by both our legal teams. I would rather be a gracious hostess and have the both of you at ease before we continue.”
“It’s all right, Mr. Stark. I’d be delighted to spend the afternoon with the queen’s . . . nephews,” Pepper murmured, her tone making it clear that she was resigned to babysitting in the name of smoother negotiations.
Tony shot her a look of wry gratitude and leaned over, murmuring for her ears only, “Way to take one for the team, Potts. I’ll remember this.”
“You certainly will,” she replied, her smile soft, but her glance wry, “because I’m going to remind you of it every time you want to jet me off to the tropics without a chance to pick up something cooler to wear.”
Tony didn’t acknowledge the jab at all since he was too busy watching her climb to her feet and stealing glances at her legs. Pepper smoothed down her slightly wrinkled skirt and shot an apologetic look at the queen, who winked at her.
“Essex and Bram will be SO delighted to have a new friend,” the queen murmured. “They’re both well-behaved boys.”
“I’m sure they are,” Tony replied shortly, eager to return to negotiations. “And Ms. Potts is a very responsible woman, good with kids.”
This last was an assumption; Tony didn’t know any children personally and had only seen a few of them briefly during certain charity events. Nevertheless, he had faith that Pepper could hold her own with two rambunctious boys, if only for the afternoon.
The Queen smiled again, beckoning towards the back of the courtyard. “Ah here we are!” She spoke briefly in her native tongue and two figures stepped forward, one of them carrying a plumeria lei.
The Queen gave a soft laugh. “My nephews, Essex Hole’emani and Bram Chuuluk.”
The boys—clearly twins--both stood at just under six feet tall, with broad, bare shoulders and stomachs flat and firm enough to crack coconuts on. One wore a loincloth in tropical red print, the other in blue. Each young man had gleaming straight black hair that hung halfway down his back, and dark, wide eyes. They looked at Pepper and smiled shyly, revealing perfect white teeth.
“Welcome to Ulavuta, Miss Potts,” one of them said in a deep voice.
“We are delighted to make your acquaintance,” the other added, his voice just as deep. They stepped forward, placed the heavy flower lei around her neck and took her hands.
The Queen made a little shooing gesture at the three of them. “Run along now my dears. Take her to Mama Pelit for something cooler to wear, and then maybe to the spa, or surfing, but be gentle with her.”
“Yes, Auntie Nona,” the young men chimed, and led Pepper away.
Tony finally recovered his voice. “Hey wait a minute! Potts!”
“Oh I’ll be fine,” Pepper murmured, shooting an appreciative glance from one young host to the other. “Really, Mr. Stark.”
“She’s in very good hands, Mr. Stark,” the Queen assured him.
Tony scowled and loosened his tie.
That was precisely what worried him.
Pepper Potts couldn’t quite hid her grin. The day, which had started off in a flurry of heat and boring business details had suddenly shifted, and for once, in her favor. She looked at the two young men flanking her and concentrated. To the one in red, Pepper murmured, “You’re Essex, right?”
“Yes,” he replied, smiling. “Bram and I are identical, so we have to wear different colors. The easy way is to remember—”
“—that Bram and blue both start with ‘b’,” his brother finished. They chuckled together, and Pepper joined in, following as the three of them made their way along a stone path that led to a taller limestone building ahead.
The two men held back to let her enter the building first, and all three of them ended up in a cool foyer with slow moving ceiling fans and several rooms with hanging bead curtain doors.
“Mama Pelit, Mama Pelit!” Essex called. “We have a new friend who needs a sarong by order of Auntie Nona!”
“I hear you, I’m not deaf yet!” came the snappish reply. A little old woman barely four feet tall came out from behind one of the bead curtain doorways and stopped to look at Pepper appraisingly. “Oooh, a pretty one, too! Greetings, Sun-haired lady, I am Mama Pelit, nanny to these two ruffians.”
Pepper inclined her head. “Pepper Potts ma’am, here with Mr. Stark, of Stark Industries.”
Mama Pelit made a dismissive gesture. “Businessman. They are of no account, I tell you. Too full of themselves half the time. You will look good in white, I think. With gold and green in it.”
“Yes, that would be very nice,” Bram nodded. His brother nodded as well, both of them standing easily like bookends. Pepper glanced back at Mama Pelit, who took her hand and pulled her along.
“You two go fetch Miss Pepper something to eat and drink, right away!” she ordered, and looked up at Pepper, smiling. “Good boys, both of them. Come, let us get you out of that hot, hot clothing and into something far better.”
Within minutes Pepper found herself in a short, sweet sundress of light print cotton. It was backless, with long laces that crisscrossed her slender spine, and the skirt came to mid-thigh. She tried to protest, but Mama Pelit shook her head firmly and handed her a pair of thongs for her feet. “It’s by order of the queen, Miss Pepper. Besides, admit it—you’re much more comfortable now, eh?”
She was, Pepper admitted with a blush and a murmur of thanks, smoothing her hands down the front of her new dress. Mama Pelit led her out to the foyer again, and into a larger living room beyond it, where Essex and Bram were busy setting out a large bowl of sliced pineapple and mango along with tall glasses of iced tea.
Pepper gave a little sigh of delight as she took one of the offered glasses. “Thank you.”
“You’re very welcome, Miss Pepper,” Bram murmured shyly. “So what would you like to do this afternoon?”
“I’m not sure,” she admitted after a long drink of tea. “What would you suggest?”
Mama Pelit chuckled. “Well, we have Tamure dance classes, and there is surfing, and I’m sure the boys would be delighted to take you on a canoe ride to the falls on the other side of the island. You’ll need sunscreen of course, and a bathing suit, but there are plenty to choose from.”
“Oh I couldn’t—” Pepper blushed, but Mama Pelit looked stern.
“Oh yes you can. When my niece orders a thing, it is to be done. Besides,” Mama Pelit gave an amused shake of her head, “all work and no play, especially on the islands is just bad karma. Live a little, have fun. It’s what we are alllllll about.”
Pepper looked around at the three pleased faces looking at her and gave a happy sigh. “You know, you make a very good point.”