Story: The Emperor of Death, Destruction, and Despair

Summary: "Once upon a time," she said, standing up a giving a little smile, "I met Tony Stark." On beginnings, endings, and middles. But mostly just on life with Tony Stark, as read by Pepper Potts.

Notes: The absolute truth is, no fracking idea where this came from, except I read BatmansBabe's four or five completely stunning Ironman ficlets (GO READ) and they sort of whispered to me . . . ooh, new fandom. Plus, who can resist the siren lure of a ship whose name sounds like a pizza topping? (Just saying pepperony makes me giggle.)

Disclaimer: Trust me, if I could own Tony Stark, I would not be writing fanfiction in an attempt to fulfill the lack of him in my life.

It is a bit like running a circus – but then again, she has a lot of experience in running circuses. She handles the details with her customary swiftness, and never quite relaxes, even when the event is mostly done and all but one of the important things have been finished.

The last stands before her, a roadblock that she isn't quite sure, given her incapacitating wardrobe selection, she can pass.

But she does, when the silence settles over the lawn.

"Once upon a time," she says, standing up and giving a little smile, "I met Tony Stark." Not quite used to public speaking, she gives a small pause. It is well-timed, though, giving weight to the simple statement. It gives her time to gather her thoughts.

Now she deviates in her telling; the truth is that in the beginning, he almost ran her over with his car, proceeded to sexually harass her, and ultimately failed to recognize that the name of the leggy redhead with gorgeous ankles and his newly-hired assistant were one and the same. It is his first oversight, and certainly never the last.

But the lie: "I was the fifth assistant that Stark Industries had hired in the first five weeks after his take-over, and I had a feeling they were getting a bit desperate. They told me not to be put off at first, and thank goodness they did, because on the day I was due to begin working, Tony didn't even get out of bed."

This was true, in a way. He didn't get out of bed. He actually invited her to join him in it, smirking, I like your shoes.

"I guess you could say that Tony and I had a bit of an unconventional work relationship. Then again, very few people could work with him and be conventional. Generally his inability to make proper conversation got in the way . . ."

This is greeted with a few good-natured laughs. No one here knows Tony Stark like she does, but they know the gist of it. The supposedly important parts, the summary. The highlights. They know the eyebrow lift but they don't know the banter, the You quit? What? You want a raise? That's it, isn't it? You drive me to ruin, woman. Five percent. (Mr. St—) No? Ten percent. (Fine.) Jesus, don't twist my arm. Twenty percent.

"Ten years is an awfully long time," she says, begins, and her voice never clogs. She gives a small smile. She isn't the type to cry in public, especially not in front of the people that don't matter. "I learned a lot about Tony and myself working with him."

She hates airing all of this, considering how by tomorrow morning it'll be on the cover of every newspaper and there's probably a waiter in the back with his camera-phone who will post the thing on You-Tube and now she definitely can't ask Tony to take it down (not that she ever would have, in the first place).

"His personality wasn't really made for concealment" – which is a lie because his life was a Brooklyn street like the one she grew up on, riddled with potholes and secrets – "and when he put his life so brusquely and unapologetically, it was hard not to do the same." Truth, with a dash of circumlocution to make it interesting.

"Tony had his quirks and his . . . vices. Like everyone. His just usually made it on the cover of the Times. A lot of the good he did has been buried by the headlines that named him the Merchant of Death." Merchant of Death? They make me sound like a low-grade tradesman. I want something with more pizzazz. Pepper, call that weird guy with the tick – (Hank Ridge?) yeah, Rigley (Ridge) whatever – at the Times and tell him I want to be the Prince of All Horrors and Despairs. No – the king! Considering how fucking big this house is, I should be the Emperor of Death, Destruction, and Despair. (Are you sure the alliteration gives you the effect you were going for, Mr. Stark?) C'mon. Don't you want to say you work for an emperor?

"I hope that his later legacy will show that Tony wasn't just the Merchant of Death; he brought justice and law to those places, and at the risk of sounding cliché I'm going to stay that he righted wrongs. He certainly made plenty of his own wrongs, but he tried to fix them."

She is getting too personal, thinking of the little boy buried inside Tony Stark (the one who, her very first Christmas with him, fell upon her gift with reckless abandon and very easily admitted that other than shoes and highlighters, he had no idea what she liked, so he forewent a present all together), and she reigns in her meandering sympathies. She knows that her audience doesn't have the patience for much more forced remembrance.

"I'm glad that he spent the rest of his life fixing them." She doesn't mention the suit. She raises her glass, the bubbles hiding her eyes from the skulking vulture audience, and the audience from her accusing gaze, and says in a firm voice, "Please, raise your glasses. To Tony Stark."

They repeat this phrase, drink, and settle down. They are all wearing black, including Pepper (except that underneath the table she is wearing yellow stilettos, as per scribbled postmortem orders. They have straps around the ankle and look like they should come with a stamp from the Federal Patent Office.) The murmur of their conversation crescendos and falls, and she can almost sent a concerto to it, one of Vivaldi's, which was always so incongruent in the playlist in the lab between Bloodhound Gang and the Ramones.

Eventually, when she is tired of accepting people's condolences – they treat her like the primary mourner, as if she is the grieving widow throwing her apron over her head to hide her tears – she makes her way across the lawn into the house, which JARVIS has locked up so no guests can worm their way inside.

"Hello," murmurs JARVIS when she taps the keypad, and she makes no response.

She doesn't take the stairs down to the lab, because they were blown out by the (fourth, in total, but the only important one) explosion two weeks earlier, and everyone was so preoccupied with the idea of Tony being dead that they didn't bother worrying about little things like architecture or structural stability or clearing construction zones.

It takes her a little while to shimmy down the hole – What hole? (Mr. Stark.) Oh. That would be the hole in the middle of the house. I guess it was too much to hope that you wouldn't notice. (It's rather large.) Eh, hazard of the trade. Get someone in to fix that, will you? – in her sleek skirt and four-inch heels, but she manages to do it gracefully and confidently, even if some of her hair falls out of its chignon.

Blinking at her are the remnants of the lab, the glass table, the little empty pedestal that still has her inscription on it, the bumpers of the cars that were crushed, all of it crumpled and scattered like breadcrumbs in a trail across the room. The cement walls are bare without his complex machines (I love ya, Pepper, honestly, but touch a man's power tools and no force on Earth can save you) and computer projections.

She walks through the rubble, into the little dark room in the back, which opens to an even larger dark room (full of everyday things that she can't see), and she hasn't gone three steps into the darkness before there is a hand on her arm.

She doesn't think, just turns and slides into him, and his lips are warm as they skim (years of practice, in the dark, with other faces that don't matter anymore) from her cheekbone to her lips. A hand goes to the back of her neck and impatiently tugs from her hair the remaining pins, which scatter and clatter noisily to the ground. She doesn't much care and sways in her shoes, as much as the ankle straps allow.

They stand like this for a little while, warmer and softer, until the even, military stride of Rhodey sounds through the lab. He respects their privacy, and perhaps his own mental fortitude, enough not to venture where he can see them. "I realize you two lovers need all this affection, and fine. But we've got a funeral to orchestrate out here, people."

"Sorry," says Pepper, even though she's not.

"Five more minutes, Dad," says Tony, and does something with his left hand that proves that, despite the fact that his funeral reception is going on two stories above their heads, he is very much alive.

Rhodey just mumbles something and steps around the rubble to find the yawning hole that was the garage entrance – the only way, now that the stairs are gone, to leave.

"Well," says Tony, after a few seconds of very active silence, "how was it? Did you send me off in style?"

"Yes," says Pepper, looking at his face, which is lightly tinted blue under his chin. "Very Greek."

"Did you beat your breast and tear your clothing?" asks Tony, nipping on her earlobe.

"This skirt," says Pepper, turning her neck to give him better access, "cost five hundred dollars. There will be no tearing."

"Really?" purrs Tony. His hand presses against her lower back. "Wanna bet?"

Honestly, who doesn't love Tony Stark? I mean, the man could make granny panties sexy. No actually wearing them, of course, but you know what I mean.

Assume what you will about why they staged his death. For Ironman? For Tony Stark? For shits and giggles? I'm actually interested in people's theories . . .