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An Oblique Approach

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The funniest aspect of Pepper’s evolution into a superhero – or at least a superpowered CEO – was that Tony was one of the last people to find out.

He knew, of course, about the original fire-based Extremis powers.  “Plasma-based, actually,” he’d explained in the weeks following their showdown with Aldrich Killian.  “Fire isn’t a thing, it’s a process.  You set something on fire, it burns, it’s gone.  Plasma is a state – convert something into plasma, you can change it back.  Sometimes, anyway,” he said.

“Sometimes?” Pepper had asked, eyebrows arched.  “That’s not exactly a hopeful word here.”

Tony gave her his trademarked[1] rueful grin. “If you’re me, most of the time.  Most especially this time.”  He paused, the grin going a little frowny.  “Although technically, actually it’s you who does the converting.  That’s why you’re still here in the first place, you know – and also why I’m a hundred per cent sure you’re going to stay that way.”

Pepper blinked.  “A hundred percent?”

“One zero zero.”  Tony’s expression took on an intense, desperate conviction she was certain no one in PR had ever seen.  “There’s a reason you didn’t explode back there on the ship.  Your body was in almost total plasma state, but your mind still had the willpower to force it back down to a more stable level.  If Killian had done that to me?  I would totally have gone up in an Earth-shattering KABOOM.”

Pepper had stared at him, disbelieving.  “You have insane willpower.  Staying up for days on end....”

“I have insane powers of concentration,” Tony shot back.  “Not the same thing.  Strength of will is about one’s sense of self – of identity.  Who you think you are.  And you know the issues I’ve got with that.”

Reluctantly, Pepper had nodded, and Tony went on.  “Part of me would’ve wanted to blow itself up that day, in that situation, and I’d have had a hell of a time talking it down.  You, on the other hand, are the most ridiculously stable person I know – and you’re smart and stubborn enough not to take all the shit I throw at you.  You were, and are, totally up for handling this.”

“Handling?” Pepper echoed.  “You said you were ready to fix me.”

“I am.  And I can.  And I will.  But fix and cure are two different things, and what I’ve got right now is a fix.  I want to be totally clear on that.”

Pepper took a deep breath.  “Okay, then.  Let’s hear it.”

Tony took one of his own.  “The problem is that Extremis changes the body right down at the molecular level.  It has to; that’s what enables the plasma-state change in the first place.  And as far as I can tell, that molecular change isn’t reversible.”  He held up a hand.  “I’ve got a couple of people looking at it – biochem is a little outside my usual orbit – but for now that angle is on hold.  What I can do is set you up with a small army – well, technically it’s a really big army, but it’s also small enough to fit in a test tube – of nanotech watchdogs that will monitor every one of your molecules and make sure that they don’t shift into plasma unless you specifically want them to.”

Pepper had been unable to resist the impulse to laugh.  “You’re not seriously telling me you’re setting fifty thousand teeny tiny Iron Men loose in my insides to run around putting out plasma fires – are you?”

Tony gave her a patient, long-suffering look.  “They are not teeny tiny Iron Men.  I don’t want to even think about trying to build a suit that small.  And there’ll be about a quarter million of them – but again, nanotech, so you won’t even notice they’re there.  And nonmetallic, so you can still go through airport security—”

“—like a normal person,” Pepper finished.  “Except for the whole walking-fireball thing.”

“Plasma ball,” Tony corrected automatically.  “Only not, because that’s what the army of nanobots is designed to control.  Speaking of control,” he added, “you could totally program ‘em to set you up with a mask and some moves and join the Avengers.  If you wanted to, that is.  Just to keep me company out on the road.”

This time, the laughter was unrestrained...and had a bit of something else in it.  “Oh, Tony.  Trust me, the very last thing I want to do is go out and shoot fire – yes, I know, but everybody but you will call it that – at things with stupid numbers of people watching.   Also, I’m pretty sure ‘Human Torch’ is trademarked already.”[2]

Tony sighed theatrically.  “I get it,” he said.  “But trust me, you don’t know what you’re missing.”

#

Somewhat to Pepper’s surprise, Tony’s army of nanobots did precisely what he’d promised.  Within a week of completing the injection cycle, she was back in the CEO’s office at Stark Industries, had entirely caught up with the previous month’s activities, and had only used her Extremis powers twice – once for dramatic effect, to incinerate an embarrassingly awful contract offer from a potential supplier, and once to light a pair of candles on her dining room table five minutes before Tony walked in the door for dinner.

Her newly cheerful office persona was due in part to an unexpected side benefit of the nanobot infusion.  As Tony had put it, she was now carrying around more sheer data processing power than the first three Iron Man suits put together – and as both a result and a necessity, she had acquired a 24/7 two-way link to JARVIS.  The ongoing contact was proving a blessing in more ways than one; JARVIS’ research capability ensured that Pepper was on top of any issue that might come up at the office, and he had proven a wise and sympathetic ally when it came to reining in Tony’s more enthusiastically disastrous technological impulses.

Then came the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.[3]

#

It starts early one morning, when Pepper’s hair dryer short-circuits while Pepper is holding it.

Pepper’s nanobots – and her Extremis-enhanced molecules – are on the job, so the ensuing shock does little more than tingle, and the hair dryer does not melt into goo in her hand.  However, she does drop the hair dryer, which lands on the only wet spot on the bathroom floor.  A cascade of sparks ensues, setting the shower curtain on fire and somehow tripping a circuit breaker so that all the lights in the bathroom go out.

Between them, JARVIS and Pepper have no trouble putting out the fire, but not before Pepper has tripped, twisted an ankle, and severely scorched a patch of hair just behind her left ear.  The ankle is back to normal in five minutes (Extremis powers again), but the hair refuses to un-scorch.  “Too many dead cells, I believe,” JARVIS explains.  “Your nanobots are having trouble making their way into the affected area.  It is correctable; we’ll simply grow out new hair.  But it will take some time.”

This is, of course, a day when Pepper has four important meetings – two of them outside the office – and a press conference.

The dryer incident delays Pepper sufficiently that she skips breakfast at home, stopping at her favorite espresso shop en route to the first of her meetings.  Unfortunately, her regular barista has just left on vacation and midtown traffic is more than usually disastrous, so she is six blocks further down the road before discovering that the substitute has given her a ginger-spice mocha cappuccino, light whip, instead of a spearmint double-chocolate macchiato, extra whip[4]...and while Pepper has no objections to ginger in general, she is severely opposed to finding it in her coffee.

Pepper’s driver gets the cappuccino.  Pepper phones the office and asks for breakfast to be waiting when she gets to the Sokovian embassy.

It is – and the order is miraculously correct! – but there’s no time for Pepper to eat it before her meeting, and a one-on-one with the finance minister of Sokovia is not a meeting in which Pepper can eat while she talks.  Pepper’s admin (who, having taken the subway, arrived a full twenty minutes ahead of her boss) gets her breakfast, with Pepper’s blessing.  Once back at the office, Pepper has barely time to wolf down a burrito sent up from the SI cafeteria before her second meeting, and then has to change into her spare blouse because there’s no getting a salsa stain out of the first one in the time available.

Lunch is a working lunch, but progress on the Morgendahl project is stalled because two of the three engineers on the project team are out, one with a new baby and one with “Martian death flu”.  Pepper sends congratulations to the proud mama and a home-care nurse to check out the death-flu patient.  She also changes into her emergency blouse, because her admin brought in BBQ for lunch, and after three delicious and desperately needed pulled pork sandwiches, the spare blouse is in dire need of a trip to the dry cleaners.

The press conference and the first afternoon meeting both involve a venture capitalist who is very, very interested in allying with Stark Industries on a solar-energy initiative employing tech that greatly intrigues both Tony and Pepper.  Unfortunately, the investor is also very, very interested in making a more personal connection with Pepper.  During the press conference, this is mostly an annoying but ignorable distraction.  During the private meeting, however, the investor’s attention becomes both more determined and more physical – to the extent that Pepper is ultimately forced to have her thrown out after an incident in the ladies’ room.  On one hand, Pepper is looking forward to showing Tony the security footage (and pleased with herself for not quick-frying the woman to a crackly crunch).  However, she now has bloodstains on her emergency blouse, and – Extremis-powered digestion notwithstanding – is beginning to think that eating all three sandwiches for lunch may have been a mistake.   Also, she discovers that the backup emergency blouse she usually keeps in her bottom right-hand drawer isn’t there.  (Her admin, it turns out, had to borrow it two days earlier after an incident involving a Saint Bernard, two guinea pigs, and a parrot.  All the animals are fine, but the admin’s outfit was a complete loss.)

The second meeting is actually an inspection tour of a Stark Industries manufacturing facility in Brooklyn’s Red Hook district.  On the plus side, Pepper is able to borrow a lab coat for the visit, which mostly covers the bloodstains on her emergency blouse.  On the minus side, by the end of the afternoon, the lab coat is severely spattered with five different kinds of experimental rubber in no less than seventeen different colors.  As one of Pepper’s escorts puts it, “you could sell that for serious money at a ‘60s flower-child convention.”

Pepper graciously returns the coat (and passes on the suggestion to its owner).  The bloodstains on her emergency blouse are now slightly less conspicuous – having dried long since – but removing them promises to be a nightmare.  Thus, Pepper is not remotely at her best when she glances out of the production facility’s glass-walled elevator as it descends, notes the presence of a half-dozen paparazzi on the fringes of the parking area, and realizes that they are staking out her car.

“Oh, please,” she murmurs fervently, just as glad that she’s alone in the elevator, “don’t let any of those idiots recognize me.”  She has just time to text the driver – leave w/o me; send taxi to Sbux 3 blks E, 15 mins. – before she reaches the ground floor.

As she steps out into the lobby, Pepper suffers several moments of unusual dizziness, which she ascribes to her excesses at lunch.  But she manages to dodge out of a side exit without drawing the eyes of most of the paparazzi, and the two who do glance her way shake their heads at one another and promptly turn back toward her original ride as the driver starts his company-issue Lexus.

She has reached the coffee shop and put in her order before her own gaze happens onto one of the mirrored pillars flanking the service counter – at which point she blinks sharply, takes a step backward, and narrowly avoids knocking over a newspaper rack.  The barista asks if she’s all right as he hands over her cup, and Pepper is just able to nod before taking several rapid, none-too-steady steps toward a small table at the rear of the shop, half-concealed by a potted palm.

That wasn’t me.  The reflection in the pillar belongs to a brunette, darker-skinned, rounded in places where Pepper is angular, and possessed of a wholly wrong-shaped nose.

Pepper is too flustered to sub-vocalize, but not so much as to shout.  “JARVIS,” she demands in the fiercest whisper she can manage, “what the hell just happened?”

“Analyzing,” the AI says calmly into her ear.  “Ah, I see.  It is a logical extension of the Extremis technology.  You asked not to be recognized, and the nanobots responded accordingly.”

Pepper blinks.  “You mean, by turning me into someone else?”

“Essentially, yes.  Not into the image of a specific person – at least, not one in my primary data net – but into a sufficiently different form that no one seeking Pepper Potts would associate you with that physical persona.”

“And that was all the bots,” Pepper murmurs, slowly, “not anything you’d worked up ahead of time?”

“I assure you, I had nothing to do with your transformation,” JARVIS replies, sounding slightly miffed.  “As my prior response may have implied, I had not foreseen this capability.  It is, however, one that follows logically based on the flexibility of Extremis-enhanced molecules.”

“Hold on a moment, then,” says Pepper, reaching for the compact in her purse and flicking it open.  She takes a breath, then says softly, “All right, guys, game over.  Time to be me again.”  She concentrates on the self she’s used to seeing...

...and in the space of some thirty seconds, with noticeably less dizziness than before, she is able to take stock and establish that yes, she is exactly who and what she should be, right down to the odd little mole high up on the back of her neck.  And as a bonus, the last bit of scorched hair from the morning’s misadventure is gone.

“Well,” she says to JARVIS.  “That was – interesting.”

“Indeed,” comes the response.  “If I may say so, I believe this ability is worth exploring more fully.”

Pepper blinks again.  “It was definitely handy just now.  But you’re talking about more than just dodging reporters.”

“Correct.  At the least, I believe we must assess the parameters of this ability – whether, for example, you can mimic another person well enough to fool a retinal or fingerprint scan.  If that is the case, upgrades to various security systems will be required to minimize the potential risk exposure.”

The prospect is tempting and horrifying in roughly equal measure.  “Yes, well, then the obvious test would be to impersonate Tony.  After all, you’ve got all his biometrics right there on file, and I’m...” she pauses, shaking her head in amusement, “very well acquainted with what he looks like.”

There’s a moment of silence; JARVIS is clearly considering how best to respond.  “A valid consideration,” he says, “but I hesitate to recommend that as your first conscious effort.  Altering physical gender would introduce unnecessary variables into the experiment.  Also, I would prefer more data on the reversion process before attempting such a test.”

Pepper has to laugh.  “Your research protocols are a lot saner than Tony’s.  Though I notice you’re not actually ruling out the idea for down the road.”

“It addresses an entirely valid practical issue,” JARVIS says mildly.  “And I am programmed to follow the highest standards of responsible scientific inquiry.”

“Of course you are.”  Pepper thinks for a moment.  “In that case, what about Natasha?  I assume you’ve got enough data on her to pull that one off.”

“Affirmative,” JARVIS replies, sounding thoughtful.  “Certain aspects of Ms. Romanoff’s physiology are unusual, but for the present purpose we need not attempt to recreate them.”

A deep breath.  But before she frames her reply, a thought pops into her head.  “Um, JARVIS?  Where are Tony and Natasha right now?”

“At present,” JARVIS says at once, “the Avengers are in Minneapolis, confronting  a criminal styling himself Master Wyrd – W-Y-R-D, as in ‘destiny’.  It is not,” he adds, “going as well as might be hoped.  Master Wyrd’s abilities are evidently of arcane origin, and Iron Man is…less effective against such powers than certain of his teammates.”

Pepper laughs again.  “In other words, Thor’s making a better fight of it than Tony – and Tony’s mad because magic offends his sensibilities.”

JARVIS makes an annoyed noise.  “Magic is an offense to the scientific intellect.  Asgardian technology, for example, is not magical; it is merely sufficiently advanced to appear so.  This present adversary, however—”

“Point taken,” Pepper says.  “Now, back to business.  Let’s do this while I still have the nerve.”

“As you wish,” JARVIS replies.  “Accessing needed biometric data – now.  You may proceed at will.”

Pepper thinks for a moment, then scoots the café chair further behind the palm tree, relaxes as best she can, and takes another deep breath.  “All right,” she says, calling up a mental image of Natasha Romanoff, aka the Black Widow, from the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent’s brief tenure as Tony’s assistant.  “now.”

This time, the sensation is not so much dizziness as a fuzzy sort of head-to-toe tingle, reaching just a touch more than skin-deep, and it lasts for almost a full minute before fading.  Pepper glances into her compact, and can’t help being startled yet pleased to find Natasha’s face (and the attendant cloud of bright red hair) looking back at her.

“Amazing,” she murmurs.

“Indeed,” replies JARVIS.  “I am acquiring preliminary telemetry now, but a direct test would be useful.”

“Yes, well,” Pepper says, grinning, “my ride should be here any moment now, and I should be back at the tower in – half an hour?”

“Not during the afternoon commute.  I calculate forty-seven minutes by way of the tunnel, seventy via the expressway.  Do you plan to retain Ms. Romanoff’s appearance for the journey?”

“Is there a reason I shouldn’t?” Pepper asks, genuinely curious.

JARVIS may not be programmed for amusement, but his tone suggests it anyway.  “That,” he says, “depends on whether you have sufficient funds available to pay the cabbie in a form not requiring identification or a signature.”

Pepper barely avoids snorting coffee through her nose.  “Right.  Considering how this day’s gone,” she says, checking her wallet, “—aha.  Cash, I’ve got.  Things may just be looking up.”  And she stands up, heading for the shop entrance just as a cab pulls up outside it.

The driver, in typical New York fashion, doesn’t blink at Pepper’s appearance.[5]  And during the ride, Pepper has a brainstorm: by running her fingers very lightly over the stains on her blouse and giving a carefully specific mental nudge, she persuades her nanobots to draw the blood right out of the fabric. 

#

Back at Stark Tower, Pepper-as-Natasha strolls calmly through the main atrium, nodding politely to the service and security staff as she passes.  She passes her right wrist and its microchipped access bracelet over the scan pad beside the entrance to the Avengers’ elevator lobby[6]; that door slides open, and she passes through.

“Now,” she murmurs to JARVIS, “for the serious part.” 

“Quite so,” comes the reply.  “One warning: to ensure a fair test, I am temporarily delegating Avengers access screening to SUSAN.[7]  I will reassume control after you enter your residence.”

Pepper nods.  “Understood,” she subvocalizes.  “So anything I say out loud has to be in character.”

“Correct.”

The express elevators to the Avengers’ section of the tower are guarded by a two-stage system: summoning them in the first place requires a palmprint scan, and retina scanners inside the elevators govern access to specific floors.  She brushes back Natasha’s hair – the Widow’s is longer than Pepper’s by several inches – sets her hand against the scanner, and waits.  Several seconds pass as the reader cycles...

...and then the light-panel above the scanner glows green, and ROMANOFF, NATASHA flashes on the text display.  “Access authorized,” says SUSAN’s voice, and the elevator door opens.  Pepper steps inside, gazes more or less calmly at the wall-mounted scanner panel, and says “Eighty, please.”

There’s a familiar twist-shimmer of red and blue light as the retinal unit does its work. “Destination confirmed and authorized,” SUSAN tells Pepper, and the elevator races promptly upward.

“Should I be pleased, or freaked?” Pepper asks JARVIS as she ascends.  “I mean, on one hand, I got past SUSAN – so, go me! But that means you’re right.  If anyone else can do what we did, that’s a non-trivial security problem.”

Before JARVIS can answer, the elevator decelerates and stops, and the door slides open to reveal the foyer of Pepper’s and Tony’s New York apartment.  Pepper takes a relieved breath, steps quickly forward, and heads for the nearest of several well-cushioned couches with every intention of collapsing onto it.

She is halfway from vertical to horizontal before she registers the other presence in the room, which is making the same transition in reverse – halfway from being languidly stretched out on the second-nearest sofa to standing bolt upright beside it.  Pepper’s gaze locks in a flash with that of the other figure, and both sets of eyes flare wide in perfectly mirrored shock – because they are, in fact, twin to one another.

Two voices sound in near-perfect unison:

“JAARRRVIS!”

“Please relax, ladies; there is no cause for alarm.”  JARVIS’ tone is doing its best to be soothing, but the genuine Natasha Romanoff is doing an excellent impression of a cobra coiled to strike.  Pepper concludes at once that truth, however improbable, is her best and only possible defense.  It takes three full, measured breaths before her thoughts are in good enough order to do so, but she then wills her nanobots to restore her normal looks without the slightest hesitation.

The shift is enough to startle the Black Widow at least slightly out of combat-ready mode.  “What the Hell?”

Pepper had been about to ask precisely the same question,.  “JARVIS,” she inquires, her tone at once all silk and all steel, “please tell me you didn’t set this up on purpose.  Unless of course you did set this up on purpose, in which case give me one good reason I shouldn’t box you up and send your mainframe to the Moon.”

There is a full twelve seconds of silence – long enough to make it clear that JARVIS is framing his response with unusual care.  “It was necessary,” he says at last, “to update Ms. Romanoff’s Tower access permissions to include this floor when you chose to mimic her appearance.  When that was done, an automatic notification was – as is customary – sent to Ms. Romanoff.  If I had forestalled that notice, I estimate a 94.3% chance that this meeting would not have taken place.  Given that I did not, there was an 86.7% likelihood that the present confrontation would in fact occur.  The question of intent is therefore irrelevant; mathematically, my actions clearly led to this situation.  If I may say so, however,” he adds, “relocating my hardware components to the Moon would serve no practical purpose, as I would still be readily able to perform the many duties with which I am currently tasked.”

By the time JARVIS is finished, Pepper has rearranged herself from collapsed to lounging, her expression has gone from stormy to bemused, and both women are nursing drinks delivered via automated valet cart.  “”I’m impressed,” she says.  “That’s nearly as good a dodge as some of Tony’s.  However,” she adds, “you did take responsibility, and you would keep right on doing your job from the Moon.  So I’ll let you off the hook this time – but if you try anything like that on me again, I will send half your hardware to Asgard and drop the other half in the nearest volcano.  Are we clear?”

“Most assuredly,” says JARVIS, his tone uncharacteristically meek.

Natasha, meanwhile, is chuckling.  “Now that we’ve got that out of the way,” she inquires, “let’s get back to the other burning question: how in Hell did you manage to pull off the ‘evil twin’ thing back there?”

Pepper winces.  “Did you have to say burning?” she asks.  “Because that’s actually right on the nose.”

Ohhh,” says Natasha, the light bulb going off.  “An Extremis thing, then?  I thought Tony had that fixed.”

“Fixed, yes, cured, no,” Pepper tells her, running through Tony’s explanation, the mechanics of the fix, and an abbreviated version of the day’s cascading disasters.  “So we’re still working out what the bots can and can’t do.”

Natasha’s expression has gone thoughtful.  “I see what you mean,” she says.  “Offhand, it sounds pretty unwieldy for out-and-out impersonation.  Voice, for instance – yours didn’t match mine very well.  And it doesn’t sound like you could mimic someone’s DNA.”

“Agreed,” JARVIS puts in. “Accurate voice duplication would require extremely precise copying of the relevant internal physiology.  As to DNA mimicry, a full shift might be possible in theory – but I would not assist in the attempt.  I estimate a minimum 68% chance that such a change would irreversibly erase the subject’s original physical identity.”

Pepper and Natasha both whistle.  “That’s definitely off the table, then,” says Pepper.

“On the other hand,” Natasha observes, “I have to say, your version of me was pretty damn convincing there for a minute – and sometimes that’s all you really need.  If you ever want a job in covert ops....”

The look Pepper gives her is more than a little frayed.  “That’s just it,” she says.  “I don’t want a job in black ops, or capital-A Avenging, or anything like that.  I’ve already got one more-than-full-time career I never really asked for.”

In less time than it takes Pepper to blink, Natasha has crossed the room – yet somehow the motion is soothing rather than alarming, perhaps because the Widow’s fingertips are gliding carefully across her shoulders, carefully assessing what they find.  “God, you are stressed,” Natasha observes, “and no wonder.  If you just stretch out that way—”

For the next several minutes, Pepper simply relaxes into one of the best massages she’s ever had as the Black Widow more or less magically leeches stiffness from her bones and tension from her muscles.  “Acupressure is not magic,” JARVIS objects when she says as much.  “Also, recent experiments suggest that what is sometimes called chi power is merely electrical energy generated by the human body, which some practitioners have learned to focus and channel to an unusually high degree.”

“Wherever it comes from,” Pepper responds tartly, “I approve of the results.”  She tilts her head up to meet Natasha’s gaze.  “I think I’ll live, now.”

“I should hope so,” the Widow replies, seating herself cat-like on the arm of Pepper’s sofa.  “You know, you could just retire and move to the Bahamas if you wanted.”

Pepper sits up, chuckling.  “Someday, maybe.  Do not tell Tony this, ever, but most days the CEO gig is the best job in the whole damn world.”

“And you’re damned good at it,” says Natasha.

“Endorsement noted,” Pepper says wryly.  “So you see why I’m not really looking for a side job.  That I also didn’t ask for.”

“Sometimes we don’t get to choose.”  It isn’t often that the Black Widow looks anyone straight in the eye, but she meets Pepper’s gaze now.  There is old pain in those eyes, and long-standing weariness, but there’s also infinite patience, wry humor – and understanding, where shock had been only minutes before.

Pepper shakes her head for a moment, breaking the contact.  “True,” she says, the single word standing in for many left unspoken.  “But I am not going to put on form-fitting anything – not Spandex, not leather, not one of Tony’s suits – just to prove I’m part of the club.”

Natasha laughs out loud.  “I think we can work with that.  Actually,” she adds, a touch of mischief in her voice, “I have an idea.  I think we should keep you totally off the books.  Fury will be a lot happier not knowing Stark Industries’ CEO has powers now, for one thing.”

Pepper bobs her head emphatically.  “And as much as I hate keeping secrets from Tony – the longer this one stays secret, the happier I’ll be.  Got that, JARVIS?” she adds.  “We file everything about today under an Avengers code-name – and Tony does not get access to that file without my say-so.”

JARVIS produces the electronic equivalent of a sigh.  “So noted,” he says.  “And the code-name in question?”

#

The Avengers’ records note the existence of a member identified only as ‘Oblique’.  However, the security clearance attached to that record is uniquely specific...and provides that only the individual code-named ‘Oblique’ is authorized to view that particular file.

Which is probably just as well, considering.

# # #

 

[1] This was literally true.  During the boom years when Tony had been generating most of his own buzz, the Stark Industries PR Department had trademarked seventeen different Tony Stark facial expressions for use in various licensed media.  The “rueful grin” image consistently scored in the top three for T-shirt and coffee mug sales.

[2] This was also, in fact, true.  A small New York company calling itself Feige Enterprises had quietly registered character trademarks in such personae as ‘The Human Torch’, “Spider-Man’, ‘Victor von Doom’, and ‘Magneto’ a number of years earlier.  Curiously, however, Feige Enterprises’ office address is that of the same mailbox-rental establishment known to be forwarding mail to Asgard for the Mighty Thor...and the company mysteriously allowed its rights in ‘Spider-Man’ to lapse only a few weeks prior to the appearance of a costumed character by that name in New York City.   Company spokesman Uatu Watcher could not be reached for comment.

[3] Somewhat surprisingly, this phrase is not trademarked (though the title of the Judith Viorst book from which it comes may be).

[4] As the thoughtful reader may already have deduced, Pepper’s enhanced molecules throw off so much free energy that gaining weight is essentially impossible.

[5] This is due at least in part to Stark Industries anti-paparazzi protocol.  Per standard procedure, the Stark driver’s instructions to the cab dispatcher reference “Ms. Peters”, not “Ms. Potts”. 

[6] Officially, this door doesn’t exist; there’s a separate entrance on the opposite side of the building for Avengers personnel.  Pepper, however, had it put in during the post-Chitauri remodel, when S.H.I.E.L.D. insisted that a degree of separation be established between Stark Industries’ activities and those of the Avengers. “I refuse,” she told Nick Fury, “to walk around an entire city block just to prove that I’m not one of Tony’s robots.”

[7] SUSAN – for “Simplified Universal Security & Administrative Network – is JARVIS’ official counterpart in the Stark Industries sections of the Tower, and another artifact of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s post-Chitauri insistence on distancing SI from the Avengers.  At Nick Fury’s direction, SUSAN is explicitly designed not to be sentient. Many Stark employees, however, are convinced otherwise, describing it as acerbic, superior-minded, and persistently surprised that the humans with whom it interacts are able to function without its help.  It may or may not be coincidental that the voice actress hired to record SUSAN’s vocabulary is best known for playing the chief nemesis on a popular musical TV series set in a midwestern high school.