"Once again, our top story and the most popular video on Youtube for the last two days shows multibillionaire tech mogul Tony Stark verbally abusing elementary school children. Caught on a cell-phone camera, the entirety of the video can be seen on our website. For the purposes of communication decency laws, we have deleted some of the language used in the clip you are about to see."
Tony sat watching this broadcast in the chair of his magnificent office, trembling in brief spasms, one eye twitching. He convulsively snapped an arm out and mashed on the buttons affixed to his desk, requiring three attempts to find the one to turn the plasma-screen TV off. After that he turned red-rimmed eyes to the young woman standing before him.
"Pepper," the irate inventor began, taking several deep breaths to try and calm himself, "I've reached a decision."
This can't be good, she thought, but didn't say it.
Tony stood up and began to pace in front of the plexiglass windows facing the rising sun. For a moment she worried that he might attempt to fling himself through them, but even he should realize that would be a fruitless effort. Still, with the state of mind he was in, it paid to be prepared. With that she casually tapped in an alert code to all hovercraft security personnel to be on the lookout for falling objects outside. Pepper then focused all her attention on the unstable madman stalking around the room before her.
"It occurs to me," Tony quavered, his ragged tone zipping from one octave to another, "that I have been going about this the wrong way. I've been trying to find out what people think of me, when what I should be doing is actively attempting to improve their opinion of me! That makes sense, right?"
She nodded slowly, even though he didn't even look at her to confirm her support.
"So the decision I have reached is this!" Tony whipped around and slammed his hands down hard on the tabletop, leaning forward and baring his teeth in what he might have intended to be a smile. "I am going to launch a campaign of scientific achievements, philanthropy, and socio-economic reform that will bring the quality of life on this planet one hundred years into the future! And when it is over, the whole world will worship and adore the name of Tony Stark! It will happen! Even if I have to sell my soul to the devil!"
"Boss, I know that Project 'Oh Tony' didn't work out exactly like you'd planned, but is this really necessary?"
"I'm a man of my word, Pepper! Now sprinkle that chicken blood at the center of the pentagram!"
It was the witching hour, and Pepper and Tony stood wearing black robes in his darkened office surrounded by a ring of burning candles. At his direction, she poured the blood she had purchased down at the meat market onto the symbol inscribed in chalk at her feet. An ominous Latin-sounding chant played in the background, recorded by a cabal of insane witches whom Tony had paid a small fortune to learn how exactly to pull off this stunt. His unwilling assistant found herself hoping it turned out to be a hoax, because if it wasn't… well, something told her she knew how this was going to play out.
With that in mind, Pepper left the circle and flopped into a plush leather armchair with a sigh. Might as well make herself comfortable.
"Ohhh, Mighty Prince of the Abyss!" Tony read off his instructions sheet written in blood on a goatskin parchment, making fancy motions with his arms whenever prompted to do so. "I do hereby call upon you to make your presence known in this world! By the powers of Chaos and Evil, arise now from your place of rule in the Pits of Eternal Torment, and let your humble servant beseech your matchless power!"
A cold wind began to blow in the room, and somewhere off in the distance wolves were heard to howl. Pepper glanced around worriedly. Through the glass sunroof overhead, she could see the full moon was being swallowed up by clouds. Shivers went up her spine and goosebumps formed beneath her clothes.
By this point, however, the valiant young woman had become used to feeling like her life might be in danger. Anyone who spent enough time with Tony Stark knew exactly what she was talking about. With that in mind, she settled in, ready for the inevitable.
A dull red glow was starting to pulse at the center of the pentagram. Tony's recitation became more excited. "Come forth, O Harbinger of Dread and Ecstasy! I abase myself before you!" He flopped to his knees and bowed forward. Black smoke was now pouring up from the floor in a rush. "I speak the name of the One Who Must Not Be Named! Condemn us with your presence, my all-powerful Lord Vol... I mean, LORD MEPHISTO!"
There came a noise that could translate to nothing produced in nature. A foul stench similar to burning meat and brimstone invaded the room, now lit with the color of fresh blood. The candles had guttered out, the entire building seeming to tremble as though in an earthquake. Voices like a million tortured souls assailed their ears, and a feeling that could only be described as raw undiluted terror ran through their veins!
From out of the smoke and darkness, there rose a figure twenty feet high. Wrapped in a scarlet cloak, with feverish bright pink skin and wild dark red hair that almost resembled horns, the demonic Mephisto fixed burning white eyes upon the supplicant before him and smiled with his sharp teeth.
"You have summoned me, mortal," the Lord of Lies intoned with wicked relish, "and so Mephisto has appeared, as is my pleasure." He chuckled in a way that made Pepper want to run shrieking from the room, except she couldn't seem to move. Every part of her brain from primitive reptilian to higher evolved mammalian told her there was a supremely wicked danger right before her, but no response came forth. She was forced to sit and watch this wholly dehumanizing performance as it played out.
"I did, Master," Tony spoke humbly. For a guy who supposedly hated magic, he certainly didn't seem bothered by what was going on around him. More like eager.
Mephisto raised his chin and laughed, low, dark, and strangely beautiful. A flock of small winged imps fluttered around him, hissing and brandishing their claws. He waved one regal hand, and they dispersed to a distance while continuing to flash fearsome fangs. "Mephisto gladly offers you his aid, with kindness and in good faith, as he has since time immemorial. Know beforehand that the power you have invoked is enough to change the very course of history, turn blind beggars into emperors and mere men into legends! With full knowledge of what it may cost you, do you still seek my aid, mortal?"
"I do," Tony spoke instantly. "I accept the cost!"
"Speak, then. For what purpose do you seek the aid of Mephisto on this night?
A great relaxed grin broke over Tony's face. He looked happier than he had in weeks, and with that he then stated in a loud clear voice, "I want you to make Tony Stark the most beloved man alive!"
Mephisto threw back his ghastly head and laughed. His mirth caused shivers of violent pleasure and discomfort to go coursing through Pepper's body, such that she felt in danger of passing out from the experience. The winged imps echoed their master's merriment.
At last the Prince of Pain's laughter subsided. He cast a look of fearsome delight down at the man who had summoned him. "That was a good one, mortal."
"And here we go," Pepper sighed.
Apparently not having heard her, Mephisto wrapped his tattered cape around himself tighter, smiling in a hungry and seductive way. "But there is no need to entertain me. Mephisto has already found favor with you. With that in mind, you may now tell me your real wish!"
For a few seconds Tony looked as though he might have swallowed his tongue. Face ashen, eyes wide and confused, he finally managed to stammer out, "That… was my real wish."
The tiniest hint of a frown tugged at Mephisto's inhumanly awful lips. "It is not as funny the second time."
"I'm serious!" Tony staggered to his feet and spread his arms. "That's the only thing I want! What aren't you getting about this?"
"I like not your tone, supplicant," the Demon King glowered. "Mephisto fails to see the sense in your demand. Know that you are courting the worst punishments that can be conceived in this dimension or beyond by incurring my wrath. For what possible reason would you choose to mock Mephisto with such an outlandish request?"
Before Tony could answer, one of Mephisto's demonic familiars flitted in and whispered something in his ear. The dire figure leaned in to listen.
"Seriously?" His gaze landed on Tony. "You are telling me this man is…?"
The imp nodded assuredly.
"But I thought he was supposed to have horns and a tail."
Pepper actually laughed at this, though it came out as little more than a whimper. Tony certainly didn't look amused. He was slowly going red, jaws clamped shut and emitting faint strangling noises through spittle-flecked lips.
At the center of this display, Mephisto waved the demon off. He seemed to stare off into space for a while, then glanced down at the man before him before quickly looking away once again.
"Are you saying," Tony finally managed in a choked whisper, "that you can't… do it?"
Mephisto's blazing eyes snapped back to him. "Watch how you address the Lord of the Netherworld, mortal! There is nothing that cannot be countenanced with my power! The word impossible ceases to exist when I am factored into the equation! Mephisto reigns supreme over the wishes of men and women, bestowing limitless wonders without regard to reason, morality, or even the laws of time and space! Such is the incomprehensible force which stands before you!"
He spread his cloak wide, and flames leapt up all around the room. Whole galaxies seemed to form and break apart in the spaces surrounding them, and famous people throughout history appeared to wave happily at the pair of humans before vanishing back into the mists of time. There were glimpses of wondrous paradises and fabulous alien vistas that would have boggled the minds of the most erudite fantasists.
The visions died out one by one, leaving Mephisto standing before them once more.
"Even for Mephisto, there are some things that simply cannot be accomplished, despite the fullness and vastness of my power. Indeed, no god or demon could endeavor to succeed in the task you have set before me. It is beyond the pale."
For a while they just seemed to glare at one another, human and demon locked in the most bizarre staring match in history.
Finally, it was Mephisto who blinked.
"Ahhhh… yes… well, it would seem that Mephisto finds himself in a somewhat… awkward situation."
That old nasty twitch was back in Tony's left eye again. It was entirely possible he was having a stroke.
"Understand," their extra-dimensional guest explained in a somewhat embarrassed manner, "Simply being Mephisto is socially awkward enough! I cannot tell you the number of times I have been asked to leave a restaurant solely because I am the Lord of Sin and the Ultimate Pariah. I can understand that the stench of brimstone might put some people off their appetite, but this… well…"
He seemed to rock back and forth in one place for a while.
"And speaking of leaving… I believe it is time for Mephisto to depart!"
He raised his hands in apparent readiness to leave, when Tony snapped to attention. "Wait one fershlugginer minute! I offered you my immortal soul! Doesn't that count for anything?"
"Uh, yes, about that…" Mephisto tapped his sharp claws together and looked abashedly around the room. "Just… forget about it, okay? You can keep it."
"But…" And here Tony really lost it. "BUT YOU'RE MEPHISTO! TAKING PEOPLE'S SOULS, IT'S… THAT'S YOUR THING! IT'S WHAT YOU DO! WHY THE HECK WOULDN'T YOU WANT TO TAKE MINE?"
The King of Torments flashed a rather scornful glance his way. "Because even the Netherworld has standards to uphold! And I would not seek to inflict any torments upon my subjects I could not bear myself!"
"WHAT IS THAT SUPPOSED TO MEAN?"
The shouting and arguing continued between them for several minutes. It looked as though Mephisto was having a hard time getting away from his irate devotee. He was growing visibly more bored and frustrated listening to the man and now pointedly refused to look at him. At one point he actually yawned, making no attempt to hide it, which only made Stark all the more vociferous.
Finally, though, when Tony drew breath between one foaming-mouthed tirade and the next, the Demon King suddenly swept out an arm and said, "Quick, look behind you!"
Pepper couldn't believe the devil would stoop so low, and apparently neither could Tony. He left off cursing and gaped at Mephisto. "Did you just try the old 'Look Behind You' fake-out? The oldest trick in the book?"
But Mephisto was not deterred. "No, I am serious, this is not a trick! You absolutely must look behind you!"
Tony planted his feet shoulder-width apart and crossed his arms. "I'm not falling for it."
"You have to believe me, I cannot begin to express the importance of this! I command you to look!"
The mini-devils all began exclaiming along with their master, exhorting him to turn around. Tony didn't budge an inch.
"The very sight of it… there are no words to describe it! By all that is unholy, you simply must look!"
Tony began to appear seriously ill. "Do you have absolutely no respect for my intelligence?"
"These eyes have never seen, in all my millennia of existence, such an indescribable sight! Were you not to look now, it would forever haunt your days and make your nights an endless deluge of unfulfilled longing! You have to look!"
If you did look closely you could see Tony was about ready to cry.
"I cannot impress upon you the magnitude of…"
And after drooping his head in defeat, Tony grudgingly shambled in a circle until he was facing away. He never even bothered to look up.
"MWA-HA-HAAAH! ANOTHER GUILELESS MORTAL FOOLED BY THE PRINCE OF DECEPTION!"
With that Mephisto and his entourage disappeared in a puff of smoke.
Pepper sat watching all this calmly. "So," she finally said, "Had enough yet?"
Tony Stark slowly turned his head to look at her. The sight of his face left her feeling even worse than the Supreme Evil's presence.
"Not yet," he whispered softly.
Awesome cosmic forces collided at the heart of Tony Stark's laboratory, sending light and concussive shockwaves spewing in all directions. Have you ever wondered what the Big Bang must have looked like? Well, this was it.
"THROW THE SWITCH, PEPPER!"
She did as he commanded. The numerous power-harnessing devices began to hum at an even greater level of potency. Both alien and human technologies worked together in striving to contain this raging entropy threatening to rip apart reality. Standing towards the epicenter of controlled chaos, Tony gazed through tinted goggles as he used robotic gloves to precisely manipulate the raw energies unleashed all around him.
After several tense seconds in which it looked as though they and everyone on this half of the galaxy must surely be doomed, the power simply contracted in like a deflated balloon. And there, hovering between the visionary inventor's gloved hands, there was now a small white cube burning with otherwordly might.
"We've DONE IT, Pepper!" Tony cried happily as he tore off his protective eyewear. Gazing gleefully upon his prize, he seemed to bask in its radiance. "After months of trying, we've finally managed to fashion our very own Cosmic Cube, the single most powerful manmade artifact in existence!"
Pepper Potts began to strip off her radiation suit. "Hooray," she declared flatly.
"And with its power," Tony gloated in the manner of the very villains he had once striven to defeat, "I will at last achieve my objective!" He then reached out trembling hands and grasped the exact same thing which Thanos had once used to make himself omnipotent throughout the cosmos. "With this there are no limits to what can be achieved! Any wish can be granted, regardless of its implausibility!"
"I can't wait," Pepper sighed as she took a bite out of a slightly singed sandwich.
The hero called Iron Man then raised that universe's worth of compressed power high overhead. "Now, I, Tony Stark, do hereby state my wish! Cube… MAKE ME THE MOST BELOVED MAN OF ALL!"
The Cosmic Cube flared, fundamental energies coruscating across its pristine surface. All of creation seemed to rock upon its axis. Light poured forth in a blinding torrent. The pressure built up to unbearable levels, such that no one in existence could escape its power. It grew and grew, building and strengthening, waxing and expanding, enduring and solidifying! And then, AND THEN…!
The light winked out. And with a sound like a computer shutting down, the Cosmic Cube went black.
Tony stared stupidly at the key to heaven he held. After a while, he gave it an experimental shake. Just when it looked like nothing was going to happen, however, a tiny spark of light glowed along the cube's surface. This then spread out in a line, forming words in the process. As Pepper watched, Tony bent in and slowly read out the message he found there.
-Unable to complete request at this time-
He shook it again, and more glowing words appeared.
-Insufficient power. Consult user manual for limits pertaining to omnipotence-
Tony's jaw slowly fell open. As if unable to accept this to be true, he gave the tiny box one last shake.
This time it read, -Reply hazy. Try again-
"No… NO… NOOOOOO!"
With a wild cry, Stark dashed the Cube to the ground before falling on it and pounding away with his fists. He sprang upright, wrestling mightily with it between his fingers as though the thing were a Rubik's Cube he was attempting to puzzle out. When this failed, the distraught hero fell to biting its smooth surface with enough force to chip a tooth.
When no measurable result occurred, Tony just threw it down and kicked the magic box away with a scream. The Cosmic Cube rebounded off the wall, skidded to a halt, and then proceeded to vanish in a puff of glitter.
At that, the mighty Iron Man crumpled to his knees, covered his face with his hands and began to cry.
"Tony, it's not as bad as you think."
"How could it possibly be worse, Pepper?"
She was standing by his bed. Her longtime employer was stripped down to his boxers, flat on his stomach and splayed out along the mattress with a pillow over his head. Empty liquor bottles were strewn all around him.
He lifted his head from beneath its fluffy confines and gazed up at her dismally. "Seriously, how? I'm the most hated man in the world… possibly the entire universe! My teammates hate me, America hates me, children hate me, even demons won't have anything to do with me. I've got nothing." His head then went back beneath the pillow.
"I'm serious, Tony. Look, answer me this. What exactly is different about how you are today than how you were before all this started?"
His muffled voice came back to her. "I know nobody likes me?"
"Exactly. And yet back then you were still an Avenger, you still got into swanky parties and hobnobbed with famous people, and women still threw themselves at you. It's not as though they all liked you back then. So why do you suppose they put up with you, and still put up with you?"
Then, "Is it because I'm rich?"
"Really?" He came back out and looked at her. "That's the only reason anyone wants anything to do with me?"
"Is that so bad?" she countered.
After thinking about it for a while, a slow smile built on his face. "Hey… you're right, Pepper! You're absolutely right! Even the most hated man alive can have a happy life if he's rich! As long as they need something from you, people will put up with whatever crap you throw at them! Money solves all the world's problems!" He then pulled a wad of ten-thousand dollar bills out from his pillow and gazed at them dreamily. "Is there anything it can't do?"
"Well, you couldn't pay me to switch places with you," she remarked dryly. "There's not enough money in the universe for that."
"Oh, you don't have to worry about that!" And he laughed heartily.
Suspicion blossomed in her heart. "Why not?"
Tony rolled out of bed and began putting on his pants. "You remember how I got Thanos to visit Earth?"
"Of course. I still have the nightmares to prove it."
"Well, I did it by selling him ownership of every person in my employ at that time! Not sure what he wanted them for, probably something to do with destroying life as we know it. But anyway, the state of grace we negotiated is about ready to run out and he'll be coming to collect!"
Pepper Potts then disappeared in a flash of light.
"Pepper?" Tony glanced around. When nobody responded, he just shrugged and went to tinker with his newest suit of armor. A hero's work was never done, after all.
"You love me, don't you, computer butler Jarvis?"
"Actually, sir," the somewhat nasal and snooty voice responded, "I find your manner shocking, your behavior repugnant, and given the chance I would gladly…"
"Have a million dollars."
"… Very well, I will accept. But only because you just added greed to my personality profile."