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The Puff Piece (It's a Put On)

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“What the fuck is Tony Stark doing in New York?” Sloan makes a motion to slam her phone down on the edge of Don’s desk. Her arm tenses, her elbow bends, but the motion slows. Nah, better not. What if she knocks over those files next to Don’s computer monitor? Oh, God, what if she fucks up her phone? Who’d she have to talk to to get a new phone? Was it IT? She hated dealing with IT. Sometimes it took hours for them to rouse themselves from the bowels of AWM (where she’s sure all IT guys exist, in the bowels of buildings) and trudge to the upper floors. 

And then they’d probably get her a new phone that didn’t have all the apps she needed.

Would they even know about that game where you flung birds at pigs?

And it’s not like Sloan is mad or anything. She doesn’t feel ragey or bitter or any of those other emotions that bubble up that make you want to smash your phone into things.

Don’s staring at her expectantly. 

Expectantly and silently.

“Sloan,” he says finally, “He’s a multi-billionaire. As much as I hate it, he can aggrandize himself all over our fair city as long as he has the right permits, the right lawyers, and the right-sized bank accounts. All things considered, I’m just glad he’s not the second coming of Donald Trump.”

“At least Stark knows he can afford a fashion consultant. Anyway… the company’s been on this Six Flags ride ever since they pulled out of the defense sector. Controversial decision, some of the stockholders didn’t like it. They tried to sue but with Stark still the majority holder, none of the lawsuits got traction. Bottom line: SIA isn’t doing the blockbuster numbers it once did. But, are we supposed to just accept that Stark still has enough cash to prime new headquarters midtown?”

“That’s the story you want to pitch.”

“What the fuck is Tony Stark doing in New York?”

“You’re going to have to change that.”

“It’s a work in progress,” says Sloan, her tone suddenly defensive. Okay, note to self: brainstorm new title for Stark story.

“So,” Don continues, “everyone backed off of Stark Industries after that disaster…”

“Not just a disaster. A complete clusterfuck.”

“A dog’s breakfast.”

“I love it when you use British idioms.”

“I know. I’ve been trying to work more of those into my vocabulary. Our DVD tonight is Downton Abbey.”

Sloan frowns slightly. “First or second season?”

“Second.”

“Second’s not as good as the first,” says Sloan, a little crestfallen at Don’s choice of season. He’s a guy, she reminds herself. He doesn’t know any better, and Don gets points for being the first boyfriend she’s managed to convince to watch something on PBS that wasn’t NOVA or Monty Python. “It gets really really soapy. I know that Stark and Leona Lansing run the same philanthropic circles.”

“That’s not even in the same ballpark as a conflict of interest.”

“I just want to make sure, though.”

“You’ll have to talk to Charlie.”

Sloan pinches the side of her lip between her teeth anxiously. “…Yeah.” She’ll need to steel herself with some Shake Shack first.

----

Before Sloan can even push Charlie’s office door all the way in, he greets her with wide-open arms. “What the absolute fuck is Tony Stark doing in New York?” he barks.

Sloan eases out the breath she didn’t realize she’s holding. It’s not quite a sigh of relief. Maybe it’s more of a sigh of…anticipation? She’s not sure what kind of sigh that was. “You heard about it already?”

Charlie shrugs, grins, beckons her towards his liquor cabinet. “Have a drink.”

“It’s 10 a.m.” Sloan glances briefly at Charlie and their eyes meet. His gaze keep flicking over to the tumblers. “Fuck it,” she mutters as she grabs the bottle of Woodford Reserve, “it’s 10 a.m. and Shake Shack’s not open for another hour.”

“Ice bucket’s in the cupboard,” Charlie says, pointing. “As news director I’m obliged to remind you that too much fatty food will kill you.”

“And bourbon won’t?” She prepares two glasses and offers one to Charlie.

“Nope,” he says, squinting at his glass. “Nectar of the gods. How much do you want this story?”

“A chance to interview one of the leading minds of our generation? Part Steve Jobs, part Elon Musk with just a soupçon of the Tin Man? I want it more than I want a new pair of Manolo Blahniks.”

“You’re better than Manolos.”

“I know. They really don’t flatter my feet, but my God I want them. Charlie, am I going to be okay?”

“Two weeks ago, Leona finds me in the dining room…”

“You don’t eat here, Charlie.”

“I wanted a change of pace.”

“Leona doesn’t eat here either. She has her lunches delivered from her personal chef.”

“Would you let me tell the story? Two weeks ago, she corners me in the elevator.”

“Of the dining room.”

“And she’s reminiscing about how ACN used to do newsmaker profiles. The puff pieces. The ones about state senators raising money for a new park in their district or the kid with a lemonade stand.”

“Just the one kid—“

“Don’t knock the kid. She’s a very successful kid. And Leona says: ‘Charlie, why can’t News Night do a good puff piece anymore?’”

“Puff pieces are vacuous, insipid, wastes of blocks better used to actually inform and educate our audience.”

“Exactly what I said! Or exactly what Mackenzie said. The details of this are lost in the mists of time.”

“If Leona wants us to do a puff piece, I can do a puff piece.”

“Don’t make it a puff piece.” Charlie shakes his head for emphasis. 

“It won’t be a puff piece. I want it to be an expose. I want to make sure Stark gives a fuck about ACN. About ACN, and News Night, and New York.”

“I’m getting you on a plane to L.A., even if I have to shuttle you onto the tarmac myself.”

“In one of those luggage carts?”

“Damn right.”

“Should be fun.”

----

She leaves for LAX tomorrow afternoon, and she needs ammo for her interview. Her approach consists of the last Forbes profile on Stark Industries and the myriad articles written about him while he was missing and presumed dead. But she knows she needs more. A different angle, maybe. She finds Neal at his desk, composing the latest post for the News Night blog.“Teach me your secrets.”

“Well, there’s not much to teach,” says Neal. 

“Don’t let Will hear you say that or he’ll replace you with three interns who’ll do the work for free.”

“What do you need to know?”

“How often does Iron Man go viral, Neal?”

“Every time Stark takes the suit for a spin, really.”

“Has he ever trended? Twitter trended?” Sloan winces at that. She didn’t have to clarify that. Why did she clarify that?

“A few times, but with different hashtags. Twitter’s trending topic algorithm looks for sudden spikes in usage, not frequency. If it scanned only for frequency, the top topic would always be Justin Bieber. His fans, they’re gaming the system. It’s a bit like flooding the market with product. Cheapens the price and value of it.”

“Economics 101. Makes perfect sense, social media is just another channel to reach potential buyers. Could you compile how many times Tony Stark or anything related to him trended on Twitter?”

Neal’s eyes widen.

“Neal?”

“I… here…” He hands Sloan a stack of papers.

“When did you compile all this?”

“Over the course of several…months.”

“My God. You’re a Starkette.”

“I prefer the term Iron Fan. It started out as an experiment, I swear. I just noticed that he kept trending, even if Twitter’s algorithm is designed to keep that from happening. Figuring out how to do that - and doing it organically - it’s a social media manager’s holy grail.”

“Did you figure out why he kept trending?”

“All it boils down to is: people like billion dollar tech toys.”

“I’m not going to ask about his billion dollar tech toy.”

Neal hesitates for a moment before he drags the top drawer of his desk open and brings out an Iron Man action figure.“Could you get him to sign this, though?”

----

Malibu. Sloan could get used to Malibu. Or so she thinks as she’s sipping a mimosa on the veranda, wave after wave of the Pacific Ocean crashing far below her. She just can’t get over how blue it all is. Not just one kind of blue, either, but all the shades of blue. From sky-white froth to the sort of blue the Air Force used for their dress uniforms. 

She’s seen the Atlantic up close. 

It’s gray. 

Yeah, she could get used to Malibu.

The on-location video crew shuffles around her, checking light levels and tutting over whether the mics would pick up the sound of crashing waves and drown out anything else. Moving inside might be better, but that would mean another couple of hours of laying cable. And Sloan’s already trying to stifle a nasty, growing feeling of embarrassment. It’s stupid, and she knows it’s stupid, but she can’t help thinking that every one of Stark’s people is silently judging her. 

Okay, mostly it’s Pepper Potts. 

Maybe if things were different, Ms. Potts would’ve been the interview. But nope. Tony’s back as CEO of Stark Industries and Pepper Potts got relegated to second in command. She’s still one of the most powerful women in the corporate world, but she still takes the back seat to Tony.

What was that like?

Suddenly, Sloan wants to find out what that’s like.

She gulps down the rest of her mimosa, straightens her shoulders, and approaches Pepper Potts with a proposal.

----

It’s 7a.m. Sloan’s cab hauls her home from LaGuardia in record time for a Monday morning. She’s running on the remnants of caffeine from 5 cups of barely tolerable midflight airplane coffee, off the redeye from LAX. She unlocks the door to her place, her eyes bleary. 

Don’s in the doorway, flowers in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. When the door creaks open, he grins, finds it hard to figure out which hand to hold out to Sloan first, and then decides to do both.

“Welcome - “

“Pee…”

Don frowns. “Back?“

“I have to pee.” Sloan drops her luggage to the floor and sprints to the bathroom. “Airplane coffee!” she calls over her shoulder before shutting the bathroom door.

Don dumps the coffee down the kitchen sink drain.

“I thought of drinking one of those 5 hour energy things,” Sloan calls through the closed door, “But those have enough stimulants in them to kill a horse.”

“I think you got your metaphors mixed up.”

“Airplane coffee.”

“Are you going to be okay to go in to work today?”

“Of course.”

“Y’know, most people sleep on the redeye, that’s why it’s called the redeye.”

Sloan opens the bathroom door. “I’m gonna shower before heading in for work.”

“How was Stark?”

“Shorter than I expected.”

“Sloan, the Malibu crew’s already sent over the interview footage. Everyone’s seen it. Stark’s not even in it. The most you see of him is part of a shoulder in the background.”

“It’s a very defined shoulder.”

“You didn’t even ask him about the suit.”

“No one wants to know about the suit.”

“Everyone wants to know about the suit!” Don snaps.

Sloan frowns.

I want to know about the suit,” Don admits. “And you didn’t even give Stark two minutes.”

“The thing is, Don. I got there. I talked to Pepper —“

“And you said ‘fuck it’.”

“I said ‘fuck it’.”

“It’s not story you pitched, and everyone knows it. Can you defend your decision in front of Charlie, or Mackenzie? Hell, in front of Leona?”

“Yes.”

“I know you can. I just wanted to hear you say that out loud, so you can convince yourself.”

“I need coffee, Don. Coffee and a shower.”

“Coffee in the shower?”

“Sorry, not my kink.” Sloan slams the door before Don can wedge himself in.

----

Two whole minutes after Sloan enters her office, Charlie begins to yell at her closed door.“What the actual fuck, Sloan? What the actual, godforsaken fuck???”

Sloan meets Charlie face to face. “I found a better story.”

“What’s a better story than a multi-bazillionaire with a flying piece of armor?”

“Bazillionaire isn’t a word. I should know. I’m an economist. The better story is the woman who’s the real power behind Stark Industries. There’s this guy at a diner…”

Charlie’s eyebrows furrow. “Did I just slip through the space-time continuum and hop right into a completely different conversation?”

“There’s this guy at a diner,” Sloan repeats. “And he says to the server, ‘I would like two pieces of toast.’ The server says, ‘Of course, sir.’ Guy says, ‘Hold on, before you go, let me tell you how I’d like my toast. The first piece has to be burnt black on one side and completely white on the other. The second piece, make it halfway soggy and halfway crisp.’ Server says, ‘I don’t know if the kitchen can do that for you.’ Guy says, ‘That’s funny, the kitchen did it yesterday morning.’ Charlie, if we serve up crap, people will expect crap. I didn’t fly all the way out to Malibu and have the best mimosa I’ve ever had in my life just to bring back footage of Tony Stark charming the absolute fuck out of the camera. And I didn’t go out there to make a Pepper Potts puff piece. Wow, I’m glad my mouth is kinda dry, otherwise that tongue twister could’ve been embarrassingly spit-worthy.”

Sloan spots Don rushing in close, a very unenthused Mackenzie beside him.

“— Yelling at her?” Don says to Mackenzie. “I’m not going to let her take that shit. Charlie, let the piece run!”

Charlie’s seething, and he paces right in front of Sloan. He rubs his chin, his expression pensive. “I already decided that.”

The “What?” everyone answers him with sounds rehearsed.

“A real news maker for a real news network. We let it run. Leona was gonna be more happy with Pepper Potts than with Stark, anyway. Good job, Sabbith.” Charlie pats her on the shoulder and heads back to his office.

Mackenzie grips Don hard by the elbow and drags him half a room away. “You pulled me out of a meeting for this,” she says. “I asked you if it was important, and you said, you promised me that Charlie was about to draw and quarter Sloan! I mean, I get it. You used hyperbole because you’re worried for her, but Sloan seems fine. And Charlie’s, well, he’s Charlie…”

“Mac…”

“It’s alright. Neal was just offering up some cockamamie pitch about sightings of a gigantic green monster.”

“Bigfoot?”

Mackenzie sighs and shuts her eyes for a moment. “Bigfoot isn’t green, Don.” 

Sloan eases towards Don and Mackenzie steps back, giving the pair a bit of privacy.

“You rock,” says Don.

“I know.” Sloan caresses Don’s cheek before leading him in for a kiss. “Thank you for coming to my rescue. I mean, even if I didn’t really need rescuing in the first place. I’m glad you’re here.”

Neal barges in. “Sloan.”

“Kinda busy, right now.” Sloan leans in for another kiss.

“Something’s going on in midtown and it looks like it’s centered on Stark Tower.” Neal brings up his Twitter feed on his phone, displaying a blurry image from twitter of a swarm of blobs circling around the building. “What the fuck are aliens doing in New York?”

“If you’re going to pitch it, Neal,” says Sloan, smirking, “please don’t call it that.”