Working for Stark Industries had several perks. There were the standard ones of offices and company cars—all utilizing the latest green technology—as well as health benefits, vacation packages, golden parachutes and countless other goodies that enhanced or off-set the singular honor of working for Tony Stark.
Most of his employees were loyal; the upper echelon fiercely so. Every one of them knew they were among the most envied in the world, and that helped to forge the espirit de corps that kept them together through the disasters and triumphs of Tony's leadership.
To a person each employee was expected and encouraged to participate in company retreats and picnics, to promote Stark products, and to practice charity throughout their communities. One of the most popular ways the main office did this latter directive was through the annual sale of the We Are Stark Industries Calendar. The calendar was a lovely full-color creation of on recycled paper that starred employees of Stark Industries in their daily routines, working hard and showing off the better, softer side of the corporation. It was sold for a limited time, and one hundred percent of the profits were given to the favorite charities of the featured employees.
In an impish and very Tony twist, the We Are Stark Industries bootleg Calendar was the other side of the coin. This particular product was completely unavailable to anyone outside Stark Industries, and in-house, was limited to a run of five hundred copies. Sale was by lottery and the average cost was exponentially higher than the legitimate calendar, but for good reason. Instead of going to charity, the profits from the Bootleg went to the Stark Industries Scholarship fund, available only to the children of SI employees, and in the last ten years, the fund had sent over two thousand students to colleges all over the world.
The Bootleg featured the same employers, but in much more . . . risqué poses. To be asked to pose for the calendar was a double-edged sword, but most employees were honored to be considered, and most were more than willing to do both calendars since the make-up artists, and photographers were the best available. Not all did both, but the majority did, and since there were several very attractive people working for Stark Industries, this made calendar time a lot of fun, and made the models stars for a while.
Through the years there had been silver foxes and differently-abled models; babes and boy-toys, serene cougars and amused potential sugar daddies all displayed in tasteful pictorials. Stark himself was always the back page, a smaller shot, surrounded by the thumbnail calendars of the year, his tie of choice covering a multitude of sins.
Obadiah had never posed, but in his time, he gave his genial unspoken support for the calendar, knowing it to be a good morale and PR move for the company. Pepper thought the same, although she considered it a little juvenile as well. She'd been asked to pose almost yearly, and declined each request with her usual grace, pointing out that there were other employees who deserved the limelight far more than she did.
In truth, Pepper had no problems with posing in and of itself; she'd been a model years earlier and knew far better than most people how to work with a camera. The problem lay in keeping her professional dignity afterwards. It was difficult enough to work for the greatest playboy the western world had ever seen without the added complications of fueling the continuous debate over whether or not she was sleeping with the boss.
Then Afghanistan happened, and with the loss of Tony, the calendar project seemed like a poor idea and was shelved for the duration.
Tony returned three months later, tempered by reality, augmented by palladium, and just as Stark Industries was attempting to adjust to the new 'no weapons' policy, Obadiah's betrayal and rampage dealt another blow to the corporation. Iron Man, Tony's armor-encased super-ego, took on the task of righting wrongs throughout the world, and in consequence, piffling little matters like the We Are Stark Industries Calendar and its bootleg were left by the wayside.
But as Tony picked up the reins of his company and began to plan the Stark Expo, he also came across an early copy of the bootleg tucked away amid the files, and the sight of voluptuous, half-undressed Rochelle Moon seductively smiling as she leaned over a copy machine was enough to bring an answering grin to Tony's face.
From: Tony Stark
To: All interested personnel
It's been too damned long since we saw a little skin around here. As of tomorrow, the We Are Stark Industries Calendar project is back on, as well as the bootleg. Start thinking about who you'd like to see on display, and get your suggestions in to Rochelle Moon over at HR.
NB: Rochelle, you're in charge of this BTW.
Pepper was fairly sure her brain was going to overheat. Being Tony's assistant had been challenging, but now being given the CEO position was nothing less than massively overwhelming. She did as she always did when faced with the impossible: buckled down and got to work.
Then the menace of Ivan Vanko and Justin Hammer hit, and Pepper found herself watching the utter destruction of the Stark Expo. The added agony of finding out Tony had been slowly dying of Palladium poisoning hadn't helped matters much either, so much so that when everything turned out all right in the end, she'd resigned as CEO. Slightly hysterically, but given the provocations, understandable.
Tony kissed her and consented to resume his duties, but the transition was going to take time, and Pepper reluctantly agreed to give it three months to happen.
One of the unexpected surprises was discovering that Natalie Rushman was a tremendous help. Pepper had been prepared to find the woman unable to keep up with her former job, so it was serendipitous when Natalie stepped in and handled it well. Pepper appreciated the support, especially when it came to keeping up with the never-ending paperwork.
Keeping up with Tony was another matter, and at the moment, the phone call was not going well.
"No, Tony, we will NOT donate any more art to the Boy Scouts. Yes, I'm still incensed about that. Honestly, with their track record of homophobia and discriminatory practices, it's going to take a while until I forgive you," Pepper groused into the phone. She busily signed the papers thrust in her direction and sighed. "No, Tony, I don't think it's wise to consider the Girl Scouts as an alternative . . . I love their cookies as much as anyone, but they're not exactly the most qualified trust to hold millions of dollars of contemporary art . . ." She made a face and glanced at the feed on her computer screen, annoyed to see another drop in the stock values.
"I'm just doing my part to support the youth of America," Tony's voice burbled into her ear. "Oh, and I sent a quick email from Rochelle about the Calendars for this year. Still not gonna pose for the benefit of us all, Pep?"
Pepper's expression soured. "My position on that is firm, Mr. Stark."
"Solid," Tony sighed. "Unshakeable. Still immovable, huh?"
"Utterly," Pepper assured him and hung up, only to meet Natalie's chagrined expression. The brunette looked on the verge of fidgeting as she hovered next to Pepper's desk.
"Ms. Potts, I hate to be the bearer of bad news," she began, shifting through the stack of files in her arms and handing over a particular folder. She pointed to a highlighted clause on the papers inside it. "But apparently as CEO, you are in fact, contractually obligated to pose for the calendars."
"It's legally binding, I'm afraid. We can have lawyers resubmit a new contract to the board, but by the time all of alterations would be agreed on and passed, this year's calendars deadline would be long overdue, and subject to lawsuits," Natalie murmured.
"Obadiah Stane never posed!" Pepper protested, feeling herself blush. "How did HE get out of the deal?"
"By definition, Mr. Stane was never officially CEO, ma'am, just CFO. He also headed the committee that wrote up the contract, and if you'll note the wording, it obligates whoever is CEO to the agreement. As I said, it can be re-written, but not in time to void this year's requirement."
Pepper drew in a deep breath and met Natalie's wry gaze. "Does Tony know this?"
Natalie considered it for a second, and shook her head. "I suspect he did the previous calendars out of egotism. He's probably forgotten it's a mandatory duty, although I can't say for certain. Mr. Stark has been . . . pre-occupied lately."
"Thank God," Pepper blurted, then remembering herself, took the file. "Fine. I'll meet the minimum of the contract under absolute discretion, Natalie, which means—"
"—not a word to Mr. Stark," she nodded, flashing Pepper a sympathetic smile. She scooped up the remaining paperwork and strode away, leaving Pepper to rub her eyes and mentally curse Obie once more.
"Great. Wonderful," Pepper groused to the empty office. "My public relations issues were already difficult enough, and now THIS particular duty, which is like, oh, pouring gasoline on a wildfire."
Pepper thought back to the previous years, when she'd helped out with the We Are Stark Industries shoots. She'd had fun finding locations and arranging schedules for makeup artists and lighting crews. She'd enjoyed watching good people having fun, and marveled at how both calendars truly did strengthen the bond among the employees. All of that had been enjoyable—from a distance.
But now . . . shaking off the negative direction of her thoughts, Pepper picked up her phone and dialed an old number by memory.
"Dan?" After a few quick exchanges with the voice on the other end, Pepper cut to the point. "Stark is back in business for the calendars this year, both of them. And I have a HUGE favor to ask . . ."
Twins Dan and Anne Hawthorn had made their reputations as premier photographers by simply being the best. Their work in the world of portrait photography was legendary, ranging from high-art coffee table book collections of celebrities to cutting edge photos of rock superstars and Oscar-winning actors. They were lean, charming, and dedicated to the art of making art in a way that won over the most stubborn subjects.
They'd shot the calendars every year, working with a speed and impish intensity that amped the game up considerably. Dan was the principal, and Anne did the quick candids, the two of them able to work in tandem, making what could have been a tedious job into something fun for everyone involved, from the shy to the bold.
Anne was the chattier of the two and had a gift for helping people open up. She and her brother looked very much alike though, with the same with their long dark ponytails and hornrim glasses. Dan had a goatee; Anne wore enormous hoop earrings, but other than that they even dressed the same in khaki cargo pants and black tee shirts.
And they both had wanted to photograph Pepper for years.
Pepper met them for a quick lunch at the Neon Palms, slipping into the booth opposite them and pulling off her sunglasses in the dim coolness of the tropical themed restaurant.
"Finally, Miss Potts! This is a dream come true!" Anne burbled. "Those legs, that delicate coloring—"
"This isn't going to happen if Tony gets even one WORD about it," Pepper warned them both. "Not a syllable, you hear me?"
"Lips sealed," Dan agreed. "So are we shooting him too? I mean, if you want to keep *your* session under wraps, maybe setting up a diversionary one with Tony would help."
Pepper nodded. "Brilliant. That should help keep him occupied and I'm sure you can use them. Do you have that preliminary list of models?"
Anne pulled out an iPad and flicked through it. "Yep. A few repeats from previous years, and a lot of new faces. I'm not familiar with these three . . ." she turned the pad and held it out to Pepper, who glanced at it and smirked.
"Cedric's my former and soon-to-be reinstated personal assistant. He's a doll, you'll love him. And . . . Happy? Happy agreed to be in the calendar?" Pepper blinked, slightly stunned.
Across from her, Dan gave a satisfied smile. "Anne's wanted him for a while as well; you know how she is about boxers."
"Shut up!" his sister snapped, grinning.
"You and your athletes. Anyway, he's agreed to do it this year, God knows why and I'm not asking too many questions. How about that last one?"
Pepper rolled her eyes. "Natalie Rushman. Why am I not surprised?"
"We could take her off and go with an alternative," Anne offered, looking slightly worried behind her horn rims, but Pepper shook her head.
"She's modeled professionally before and she's gorgeous—she'll be an asset to the project." Hard to admit, but Pepper knew it was the truth, no matter how annoying it was.
"A ringer, huh?" Dan murmured thoughtfully.
A thought struck Pepper and she laughed; both photographers looked at her and she drew a breath, touching her finger along the pad. "I just figured it out. Happy agreed to pose only because Miss Rushman—Natalie—is posing. I bet she told him she wouldn't do it unless HE did it."
"Oooohhhh, so it's that sort of relationship," Anne murmured, intrigued.
Dan gave a knowing nod. "Men in love do weird things."
Pepper thought back to a mangled omelet and a paper basket of strawberries and said nothing.
She and Tony had kissed, several times now. They were taking things slow, a process they'd both agreed on out of caution. It was the right way to start, and yet she felt . . . unsettled, slightly out of sorts.
Or, if Pepper was being completely honest with herself, horny.
This was not a totally uncommon situation for her; Pepper knew she was only human, and that Tony had been her secret desire for quite some time. Good old common sense had kept her from accepting any of his outrageous propositions over the years—that, and the emotional intimacy that had grown between them around and despite their sexual attraction.
The next logical step was obvious, and yet Pepper wasn't quite sure how to make it clear to Tony that it was time. He was being extraordinarily considerate these days, and there just didn't seem to be any subtle or romantic way to announce to him that she for one, was ready to shift gears upward.
"Anyway," Pepper broke up her own tangled thoughts and spoke with authority, "The releases are coming in, and I have a list of locations for you that have been cleared as well. Rochelle Moon is pulling it all together as you know, so when do you think you can start?"
"Two days," Anne responded. "We have a quick brochure for a big cat rescue to do, but by then we'll be ready to go. I'm guessing we're doing you separately from the group?"
"You guess right," Pepper assured her. "I'll go last, that way Tony will think the project's done and we can do it with no interference. Hopefully."
"All right then," Dan agreed, and flashed a smile at the young waiter who came up to the booth to take their orders.