"And now that the votes have been collected, we will learn who you have all chosen to be the official leader of the Avengers."
Pepper Potts placed the bowler hat which held all their anonymous ballots on a table and began to tabulate the results, marking down the count on her PDA as she did. The eight people comprising this international squad of heroes waited a respectful distance from her in the conference chamber of Avengers Mansion.
Leaning against a marble column in his gleaming red and gold armor, Tony Stark glanced around the room with a confident smirk. He honestly didn't see the need for an official vote. Everyone knew this whole business was just a formality. Regardless of which angle you looked at it from, there was only one unquestioned leader of such a phenomenal gathering of heroes. Namely himself, Tony "Iron Man" Stark.
His hooded eyes lazily scanned the other members gathered in their underground sanctuary. He had run through all their various qualifications in his head, and no one else could possibly match his leadership ability. The Hulk was incapable of ordering a cheeseburger without losing his temper, so he was clearly out. Hawkeye lacked what you might call 'team spirit' and could not be depended on to come through in a real do-or-die situation. Black Panther's role as Wakanda's king gave him experience at ruling, not leading. Besides, the guy's loyalties were clearly divided between his duty as a monarch and his status as a superhero. No challenge there.
Stark mentally catalogued his other remaining competition (if you could really call it that). Ant-Man… oh, please! He almost laughed aloud at the thought. Seriously, Ant-Man? Heck, Doctor Doom would have a stronger case to lead this team! Then there was the guy's girlfriend, the Wasp. She was a fun lady with a great personality, but the sad truth remained that they weren't voting on den mother at a fraternity house. Guys expected and deserved to be lead by a man. And Janette was missing the equipment. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the mighty Thunder-God Thor, while arguably the most experienced of the group in terms of warfare and an imposing figure in his own right, was simply too ill-informed about the modern era to truly grasp the subtle burden of leadership. He spent half his time puzzling over everyday objects like soda cans and ATMs. A blonde-haired blue-eyed country-fried rube of a god.
The only reasonable challenge came from Captain America. Bright, charismatic, athletic, even what some might call legendary: the man made for a formidable contender. But Tony remained fairly certain that Cap still hadn't gotten the votes. His stiff military posturing failed to engender a true sense of leadership when you really thought about it. The guy had the brain of a soldier, used to being given orders and then following them. He could be relied upon to perform at peak level on the battlefield; however when faced with the need to make a clear intelligent decision regarding complex situations, his down-home upbringing automatically pushed him to defer to an authority figure.
In short, Tony had this thing in the bag.
At last his aide Pepper finished her task and turned back to them. "All right, everyone, the final count is in, and you have yourselves a clear winner."
"The Incredible Iron Man!" Tony whispered under his breath. Remember to act surprised, he reminded himself, and prepared to step forward.
"My congratulations to your new team leader…"
He took a deep breath to begin his acceptance speech.
"The Wasp, Janette Van Dyne!"
The lady in question snapped her head up and screamed, "NO WAY!"
Shock hit him like one of the Hulk's two-ton fists. Iron Man stumbled and looked about to fall over, saving himself from doing so only after much frantic flailing of arms while balancing on just one leg. After righting himself and pausing to replay Pepper's words in his helmet to make sure he hadn't misheard, he hastily glanced about to see if anyone had noticed this graceless display. Fortunately they all seemed intent on flocking around the very startled and in-no-way-acting Wasp. Nobody paid him any mind.
Which really demanded an explanation.
Janette was gabbling a mile a minute. "Seriously, I can't believe it! You guys all voted for me? I mean, I voted for me, but it was just for a laugh! I had a snappy comment all set up for when I lost, and then you just… Wow!" She stopped and glanced around suspiciously. "Hey, wait a minute… is this some kind of joke?"
"It be no jest, friend Wasp," Thor assured her with a smile and a toss of his streaming mane. "I did not hesitate even a heartbeat to mark your name upon my own slip and give it over to the redoubtable Lady Potts."
"Lucky I know Norse runes," Pepper muttered.
"What, you're not turning the job down, are you?" Hawkeye the archer spoke up, grinning slyly. "That might hurt some feelings. Right, Hulk?"
The emerald-skinned giant made a noncommittal grunt and crossed his arms. Those who knew him might have noticed a slight lessening to his ever-present scowl.
When Janette now seemed too astonished for words, T'Chala of Wakanda took up the case in his slightly accented English. "They say the ability to lead is one of the hallmarks of royalty, Wasp. Were we to judge by this category, you would be more fitted to the title of queen than many others I have known."
"We all recognize how integral you are to this team, Miss Van Dyne," Captain America declared in a quiet yet friendly voice. "I knew the first day we met that you possessed the qualities necessary to not only win fights, but to recognize a superior solution to any engagement, on and off the battlefield."
Ant-Man fidgeted in a moment of boyish embarrassment. "Well, knowing you the way I do, Jan, it's rather surprising you didn't see this coming. Aren't you always describing yourself as the more perceptive one?"
She turned a look of frank astonishment upon her longtime romantic interest. "Yeah, but… it's still unbelievable! All seven of you guys voted for me? That is just too SWEET!" The beautiful brunette then transformed into her doll-sized form and began happily flitting about the room with great squeals of delight.
Wait a minute… just wait a…
"… DOGGONE MINUTE!" Tony yelled.
Everyone turned to look at him standing off by himself, all save for Wasp who continued performing loop-de-loops and other aerial feats. Pepper especially appeared surprised by his outburst, and it was upon her that he turned the full force of his rage.
"That's not right!" the billionaire shouted, wrenching off his face-plate to give them all a clear view of his twitching features. He leveled one shiny red finger at his employee. "Pepper, stop teasing her! There's no way Wasp won this, so go ahead and tell them!"
Her freckled face contracted into confusion. "Tony, what do you mean? Wasp got eight votes, there's no dou…"
"No, NO!" He wagged a finger at her. "Uh-uh, Pepper! You and I both know she couldn't possibly have gotten eight, because I didn't vote for her! So if everybody else did, that means she could have only received SEVEN votes maximum! Your count is off, I demand we do this again!"
They all now turned their attention to where the enormous Hulk continued to take up a third of the room. He returned their stares with subdued hostility. "The count's right, Spam-in-a-Can. I voted for her twice. Once for me, and another for Bruce Banner." The great colossus directed a somewhat uncomfortable look up at Janette. "He wanted to thank her for always sticking up for me… er, us." Hulk coughed and swiveled his head to stare at the wall so hard he almost dented the metal.
Meanwhile, Tony was having just a little bit of difficulty accepting the situation.
"I can't believe this," he whispered in disbelief. Astonished brown eyes roved all around the room as if in search of the answer to this perplexing enigma. "How could you guys not have voted for me? You do realize we were voting on team leader, right? Not prom queen!"
"Tony," Captain America said with crisp disapproval in every word, "I can see you're upset, but that doesn't excuse bad behavior. Your badmouthing Wasp isn't going to make the outcome change, and even if it did, it certainly wouldn't be in your favor."
"But don't you see?" Tony persisted in arguing, although clearly none of them were inclined to support him. "I'm Tony Stark! I'M the most suited to be in charge of the Avengers! I'm a mechanical, financial, and strategic genius! My armor can conceivably slag a medium-sized city!" He demonstrated this by firing a repulsor blast that blew a ten-foot wide hole in one wall before continuing. "I run a Fortune 500 company that employs hundreds of thousands of people worldwide! I control a vast web of information, technology, and social innovations! I deal with diplomats, CEOs, terrorists, and world leaders on a daily basis! My name is spoken on the lips of children in Bengali! I've defeated countless supervillains from the Ghost to Doctor Doom! DOCTOR DOOM!"
"Actually, sir," Pepper chose that moment to speak up, "the only time you clearly came out on top against Doom was when you partnered up with Squirrel Girl, and even the Doctor himself admits that she's the one who actually overcame hi…"
"NOT NOW, PEPPER!" he barked.
Everybody in the room seemed to be giving him the hairy eyeball. It occurred to Tony that perhaps now would be a good time to appeal to their better natures. He therefore adopted a more conciliatory tone. "Look, I can understand there's some latent envy you guys might all have towards me owing to my incredible social status and peerless intellect…"
Ant-Man cocked his head in annoyance. "Tony, my IQ is higher than yours, so technically…"
Thor's brow had furrowed, and echoes of thunder rumbled behind his every word. "Your status as a mortal is no cause for a god of Asgard to feel jealous, friend Stark."
Iron Man continued as though he hadn't heard. "… but that's no reason for you to put the security of the Avengers at stake! You've all got to move past these childish insecurities that are holding you back and recognize that I am the better man for the job!" His bright, slightly feverish eyes zipped from one person in the room to another. The smile he directed their way was somewhat ruined by how forcefully he was clenching his teeth. "Okay?"
No one spoke.
"Oh, please," Hulk finally grunted, not bothering to hide the scorn in his voice. "At least she doesn't stash liquor bottles in her spare armor."
"Yeah, don't you have an AA meeting to attend, Stark?" Hawkeye drawled before crossing his arms behind his head and leisurely sauntering towards the exit.
The accusations left Tony speechless. When nothing more came from his end, Ant-Man called their giddy new leader down from flying high, after which the two of them departed. As the rest were doing the same, Iron Man shook free of his paralysis and rushed forward to grab Captain America's arm.
"C'mon, Cap, you're an old-fashioned guy! You don't have to act all pro-feminist to fit in with us 21st century folk! Just back me up here, they'll all follow your lead. How about a little loyalty to the gender, huh?"
The star-spangled patriot glanced down at the hand holding him, then up at Stark. "Tony, maybe you should just accept that no one really likes you." He then disengaged himself and followed the others out.
The door shut behind him, leaving the tech magnate alone with his staff.
Stark frowned moodily. A panel on his armor's leg slid open, and a silver flask shot out. "That's not true," he muttered, unscrewing the lid and raising it to his lips. "Lots of people like me." He paused on the brink of taking a swig and looked at the woman beside him. "You like me, don't you, Pepper?"
"I try not to think about it," she declared, and promptly snatched the flask from his grasp before walking off.
He watched her go. A hatch on his other leg opened to reveal a bottle of chilled vodka, but he was too busy fuming to notice.
"Nobody likes me, huh? Well, let's just see about that!"
"Tony, nobody's done more for this country than you, but I can't in good conscience make your birthday a national holiday!"
"Mr. President, you don't have to worry about a thing," Stark assured the worried-sounding man on his video-link. "Hold on one second." Sitting behind the desk in his high-rise office, he tapped some keys on his computer, relayed a few orders into the hands-free headset he was wearing, and finally turned back to the chief executive. "As I was saying, just take a holiday that nobody really remembers anymore, like, I dunno, the day we bombed Nagasaki! Say, when was that day, anyway?"
"August 9th," the president chewed out bitterly. "But Tony, that's not even a holiday! And considering the current state of affairs over in Japan…"
"So anyway, like I was saying," Stark continued amiably, "you take Nuke-Nagasaki Day, and just rename it Tony Stark Day! Not like the name of every holiday has to make sense. I mean, Easter! What the heck is 'Easter' anyway? Nobody knows!"
"Tony, I'm hanging up now."
At that moment the door to his office opened and in came Pepper holding a report. Immediately her boss perked up. "Mr. President, I gotta cut you off, something important just walked in. We can talk later, bye!"
"I'm changing my number, Stark, if you call me again I'll ship you to Guantanamo in a crate and…"
But Tony had already severed the connection. He finished up his trading as swift as humanly possible, then turned eagerly to the woman waiting at attention before him.
"Did we get it?"
"Yes, sir," she responded in a brusque tone. Pepper seemed to be looking everywhere but at him. "After two months, the last of the votes in Stark Industries' 'Choose the Greatest Superheroes' contest has been counted. We now have a fairly accurate display about who ranks highest with the American public."
"Perfect!" Tony declared, and spun in his seat. Coming back to face her, he leaned forward and rested his chin on his hands, gazing up with excitement. "Well, don't keep me in suspense! Tell me, am I in the Top Three?"
If she flinched at the question, Pepper covered it well. "No, sir. In no particular order, the Top 3 were Spiderman, Wolverine, and Captain America."
"Huh," he grunted, nodding his head thoughtfully. "Okay, I can understand that. Guess it was hoping too much that I beat out three of the most popular and well-known." His face brightened then. "But surely I was in the Top 10!"
"I'm afraid not, Mr. Stark." He should have realized then something was wrong, Potts never called him 'Mr. Stark' unless she was deeply upset. However, this did not impinge upon his perceptions.
"No? Well, then… what about the Top Tw…"
Tony shot a look at her. "You didn't even let me finish."
"I didn't have to, Mr. Stark. Anything that has the word 'Top' before it does not correlate to your position on this chart."
He laughed then, a little warily. "Pepper, come on, you're scaring me here. The way you talk it almost sounds… like…" His voice trailed off, and disbelief colored his next words. "Hang on, are you trying to tell me I'm…?"
"Last, Mr. Stark."
Tony sat chewing his lip, trying to puzzle out what this might entail. "And by that you mean…?"
"Out of 18 million people who filled out the polls, none of them voted for you. Every other hero got at least one vote, but you came in dead last."
"But there are thousands of heroes in our database, some not even from this planet! Are you telling me that…!" Hurriedly he brought up some information on his computer and then looked back at her. "Are you telling me that Rom the Space-Knight got more votes than me?"
"He apparently scored big with Tolkien fans."
"But ROM the SPACE-KNIGHT? The guy's retired, maybe even dead, and HE got more votes?"
"Afraid so, boss."
"This is ridiculous, I don't…" Tony then leapt up and grabbed the report from out of Pepper's hands, leafing through it frantically. "Cripes, Amadeus Cho? I can't believe… no, this, this has got to be wrong, how could twenty-eight people have voted for Wong? The guy's a sidekick, Doctor Strange's stereotypical Asian man-servant! Who would…?" He looked back to her with wild, haggard eyes. "Who the heck is HOWARD the DUCK?"
She shrugged slightly. "Apparently a movie star. Hard to compete with that."
Tony had never looked more horrified than at this moment, not even when he had been on the verge of dying. "You're telling me I'm the least popular hero on EARTH?"
"Actually, sir, several people thought you were a villain. According to them, your moustache reminded them of Snidely Whiplash, and the way you behave, well…"
"No." He stood up and began pacing. "This is wrong, it's gotta be! You know what we did wrong, Pepper?"
"Mentioned your name?"
"We limited our scope!" He slapped the papers with his hand. "This doesn't accurately represent how people see me! We left out the most important respondents… the children of the world!"
"Oh, boy," Pepper sighed.
"Tony, this has got to be the most shameless displaying of pandering to the lowest demographic I have ever seen."
"Just keep smiling, Pepper!" her boss trilled from behind his big plastic grin, resplendent in his flashing solar-powered armor. "Don't wanna scare the kiddies now, right?" He waved at the restless boys and girls all sitting in the school auditorium. At last the principal joined them up on stage and moved to the microphone.
"All right, children," the woman announced. "I know you're excited at being taken out of class, but there's a reason behind this assembly. First I am glad to introduce our guest today, whom you should all recognize as the heroic Iron Man!"
The kids all screamed in response, Pepper suspected more for the sake of being loud than at any appreciation for his character. Tony seemed to eat it up anyway.
"Thanks to Mr. Iron Man and Stark Industries," the principal turned and gestured behind her to where the man in question continued to smile, "our school has received a very generous donation that will allow us to build a new gymnasium for you and an interactive science center!"
She and the rest of the school faculty all clapped politely, however Pepper couldn't help but think none of the kids appeared to know or care what any of that had meant. Tony kept right on flashing that big stupid grin of his. Well, denial isn't just a river in Egypt, she thought glumly.
The principal was speaking again. "In addition, we have Mr. Iron Man here to thank for the bags of candy you all received," her voice dipped slightly in modulation, "which we're all very glad he decided to hand out to a bunch of hyperactive elementary school students without running it by us first!"
"Told ya it was a good idea!" Tony mouthed quietly while continuing to wave. Pepper threw him a disgusted look which he failed to notice. Was he intentionally being this obtuse?
"But now we come to the real reason behind all this. In exchange for his generosity, Mr. Iron Man would like the students here to take part in a very small popularity contest. You'll find voting pads under your chairs," there was a lot of scooting and shuffling, along with excited murmurs at locating the fancy-looking electronic toys, "and with them you are going to cast your vote."
"Like 'American Idol'!" one boy in front cried.
"Yes, just like that." She waited for the excited tumult to die down before continuing. "What you are voting on is this: which of these two people do you like more? Mr. Iron Man…"
Tony lifted his arms and colorful fireworks erupted from out of his metal shell, lighting up the area with bright flashes and frantic noises. The kids went wild with delight. Meanwhile, Pepper Potts had grabbed the principal and ducked down with her to prevent their hair and clothes from being set ablaze.
When the extravaganza was over and the fires had been extinguished by frantic janitors, Pepper helped the unsteady public servant back to her mike. The principal took a deep breath and cast a venomous look at her new benefactor who was still wearing that sappy smirk. "Yes, as I was saying…" She took a moment to collect herself. "The two people you have to choose from are Mr. Iron Man," they both flinched but no further pyrotechnics occurred, "and Mister…"
Here the woman took a piece of paper out from her pocket and looked at it. She then read carefully, as though wanting to make certain she got this right.
"Mr. Thanos the… Mad Titan?"
As she spoke, there suddenly appeared up on stage beside them a great menacing figure seated on a floating throne. Even sitting down he was taller than anyone else in the room, his broad powerful body bulging with over-developed muscles that lent him the appearance of a kind of troll dressed in an orange and blue outfit that left only his face exposed. And a more frightening face could not have existed in your nightmares. His hairless skin was dull purple, outthrust jaw gnarled like a knot on a tree, and where eyes should have been there were only deep black pits with no visible glint of light or human feeling. You could not look at him without feeling as if your life was in imminent danger, and this ominous foe looked down upon the gathering of school children.
The kids had gone dead silent. Even their innocent minds seemed to recognize the peril represented in that darkling giant. For her part, Pepper was clutching her boss' arm and trying her best not to freak out.
"Sweet mother of creation, Tony!" she hissed, casting frantic looks between him and the intergalactic mass-murderer floating ten feet away. "I thought you were just going to hire a supervillain, like, I dunno, Dr. Octopus, or Absorbing Man, or Red Skull, even! That kinda guy!"
"Pfft!" Tony snorted derisively. "Those guys are all human! There was a chance some of these dumb brats might even like villains. I wanted somebody so monstrously evil they'd be quaking in their Crocs just looking at him! A vile, stone-cold, thoroughly heartless, mentally disturbed alien freak!"
"Tony, I think he can hear you!" she hissed fearfully, flashing a quick look at where that cosmic lunatic floated beside them. Seriously, this sort of crap had not been part of the deal! Sweet mercy, had he really lost his mind this time? "How in heaven's name did you even get in contact with Thanos?"
"Don't sweat the small stuff, doll-face."
"Sma… you call this small stuff?" It was getting harder and harder to keep from screaming at the top of her lungs. There was the distinct possibility that their entire planet was about to be destroyed just so this egomaniac could satisfy his all-encompassing need to feel loved.
Apparently being somewhat uninformed about the roster of historically major threats to the universe, the principal was now warmly greeting their new guest. "We are pleased to welcome you to our school, Mr. Mad-titan. I hope you enjoy being here."
Thanos merely flicked a glove in what was clearly a signal to get on with it. Recognizing this, the woman turned back to her awed charges. "Now kids, you all should have a voting pad. On the screen is a picture of Mr. Iron Man and another of Mr. Mad-titan. To vote for whichever one you like more, just touch their picture and then hit the green button at the bottom of the pad. The results will show up on the display board." She indicated behind her to where the tech guys had rigged a basketball scoreboard. There was a bright red 'I' for the home team and a 'T' for the visitors. "All right, begin!"
While Pepper was trying to think of a way to send out a distress signal to anyone and everyone without getting killed, the students had gotten over their temporary paralysis and were busily engaged in this new game. Their teachers hovered in and out to help any who were having difficulties. The sound of hundreds of excited little voices buzzing was a steady backdrop to the pounding of Pepper's heart. She could almost see the headlines in tomorrow's paper: Schoolchildren Massacred! Tony Stark to Blame! Come to think of it, how would Thanos react to losing this contest? Did he even understand what was going on? For that matter, what in blue blazes was the Titan doing here in the first place? It made absolutely no sense!
It was during her fruitless attempt to puzzle out the logical inconsistencies that seemed to abound in her universe that things came to a conclusion.
"And that's it, all the students have voted!" the principal declared. "Without further ado, the results are…"
"Better step back, Pepper," Tony breathed in her ear. "You don't wanna be crushed when they all run up to hug me!"
A tiny groan was all his harried assistant could manage. Unable to respond with words, she was forced to do nothing but listen as the scoreboard above her dinged loudly.
"Thanos the Mad Titan: 287 votes! Tony Stark the Iron Man: 0 votes!"
Tony's voice hit an octave normally reserved for female sopranos. He shoved past Pepper and glared wildly down at the swarm of cherubic faces below. "I don't believe this! What is WRONG with you kids? Don't you have eyes? Can't you see that guy is evil? C'mon, just LOOK at him, he…" His head whipped to one side and back again. "For crying out loud, he's DISSECTING A PUPPY RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU!"
Thanos looked up from the bloody surgical table his throne had transformed into. He gave a disdainful sniff before going back to his gruesome exploration of the hapless canine. Where he got it from was anybody's guess.
"Mr. Stark, please," the principal stated forcefully as she and a few teachers walked up to him. "Do not shout at the students. They are none of them more than ten years old, and this sort of behavior is unacceptable from a grown man."
Tony didn't seem to have heard her as he continued his interrogation. "C'mon, somebody explain this to me! Why would you vote for that soulless alien over ME?"
At the front of the crowd, a little girl with pigtails who couldn't have been older than six stood up and declared without a moment's hesitation, "Because he's Mr. Bubblegum Jaw!"
"Huh?" Stark gaped.
"Yeah!" another tiny tot piped up. "His chin looks like chewy purple bubblegum!"
"Like Hubba-Bubba!" someone else cried.
They all then started chanting, "Hubba-Bubba, Hubba-Bubba, Hubba-Bubba!" With that the children poured from their seats and went streaming up onto the stage in spite of the adults' efforts to dissuade them. Once there they grouped around Thanos and merrily chanted in eager adoration, despite his clearly not bothering to notice their efforts or existence.
Tony Stark stood slack-jawed watching this display. The principal was scolding him fiercely, Pepper was screaming into her phone and pressing an Avengers alert signal for all it was worth. Absolutely nothing made sense.
As he stood staring, one particularly brave child scooted forward and reached up a hand tentatively to touch Thanos' arm.
In each of those pitch-black eye-sockets, a tiny red star bloomed. The Mad Titan's teeth ground in affront, and he turned about, fists suddenly burning with raw destructive power.
Without a second thought Tony rocketed over the children's heads and snatched the kid back before she could touch him.
Everyone around them seemed to freeze. Holding her protectively to his chest, Iron Man locked eyes with Thanos, daring him to try anything. No way, villain. Not while Tony Stark is on the job! To the child he had saved, he asked without looking down, "You all right, kid?"
"B… BAD TOUCH!"
The next thing he knew, she had swung her voting pad up and clocked him in the jaw.
Tony staggered back and fell, more from shock than any real pain. As he sat in stunned disbelief, every single elementary school student suddenly surged forward with their voting pads raised. "BAD TOUCH!" they all screamed, and pounced upon him like a pack of wild dogs.
"GAH! OUCH! Stop it, you little monsters! AH! Quit it!"
His first instinct at being mobbed like this was to trigger a Unibeam from his chestplate. But the attackers were just a bunch of kids! It was this realization that led to the mighty Iron Man simply curling up in a ball and covering his face with his hands.
"YOU SNOT-NOSED PUNKS! OW! WHEN MY LAWYERS ARE THROUGH WITH YOU, YOUR PARENTS WILL BE LIVING ON THE STREEEEEYOUCH! GET OFFA ME, YOU TINY MAGGOTS! AAAAGH! WHO JUST BIT ME?"
Observing this, Thanos of Titan emitted a dark chuckle. His flaring fist died out, and he turned back to resume the puppy's dissection.
To be continued…