“Oh, that’ll be the design consultant.”
“Pep, I still don’t understand why exactly we need a design consultant. I designed the building, I’m pretty sure I can put together a matching interior.”
“Tony, your idea of decorating is Iron Man posters and Captain America memorabilia everywhere.”
“And what’s wrong with that?”
Pepper gave Tony a pointed look and then headed for the foyer entrance. Tony watched her go, holding in a sigh as her heels clicked down the hall. Broken up four months and still she ruled his life with an iron fist. And god he loved her for it. She returned a moment later, a whip-thin blonde in tow.
“Tony, this is Stan Robinson. He came highly recommended to me.” Stan already had a hand extended, his long spindly fingers as fine as china.
“Hi, short-stuff,” Tony said, giving a jaunty little salute before stuffing his hands in his pockets. Stan dropped his hand, face crinkling into a small frown before it smoothed out again.
“A pleasure, Mr. Stark,” he said, standing a little straighter, tone icy and professional.
“Mr. Stark is my father. Call me Tony. Or if you’d prefer, Chief Executive of Awesome.”
Pepper deftly stepped between them and gestured to the empty main room. “So, Stan. This is the living space. If we like what you do, we might also have you decorate for the executive suites a few floors down.”
Stan’s face transformed in an instant, and he stepped past Tony, eyes a thousand miles away. “The lighting is great,” he murmured, one hand creeping up to his mouth and tapping thoughtfully. “Had you thought about color schemes at all?”
He said it so quietly and so distantly that for a moment, Tony didn’t realize he’d asked a question. He stumbled a little, caught off guard, before saying, “I like reds.”
“Never woulda guessed,” said Stan, a wry grin dancing at the corner of his mouth, “what with the bright red suit of armor and everything.”
Something in Tony’s chest loosened a little and he hitched his weight to one side, cocking a hip and matching Stan’s smirk. “Well, I’m not opposed to black, either. And Pepper looks stunning in cobalt blue, so…”
Stan’s eyes jumped between them and his gaze sharpened, almost calculating. Just as quickly, the expression disappeared, and Stan’s face was distant, detached, professional. “I’m sorry, am I designing for both of you? I should be getting your input, too, Ms. Potts.”
Pepper was smiling apologetically, though, already backing toward the door. “No, Stan. Just make your designs with Tony’s tastes in mind. I have a meeting to get to, so I’ll just leave you to it.”
Something in Tony’s heart ached a little as he watched her retreat, but Stan was already opening a portfolio filled with furniture and light fixtures. “Shall we get started?”
“I don’t care what IT says, I’m telling them that the worm had to be planted from the inside. I’ve been rotating the firewall codes every ten hours for six weeks now. There is no way someone hacked through all our defenses in less than ten hours.”
“One second,” Tony said, covering the mic spot with his hand. “Just set up in the main room, Stan, I’ll be with you in a second. And what did I say about calling me ‘Mr. Stark’?”
“Sorry, Tony. Habit,” Stan said, waving as he walked by.
“No, Jack, I don’t want to hear it. I want answers. Go over the security footage. Every second, every passage, every server bank in the building. There’s gotta be something there.” Tony jabbed the phone to end the call and for just a nanosecond, missed the days when he could slam the receiver down. He took a deep breath and then turned to the main room, straightening his jacket.
“Bad day at the office?” Stan asked, several tablets set out in front of him.
“You could say that. We’ve had a breach in our servers and…you know what? I don’t really want to talk about it. What’ve you got for me?”
“Well, I came up with a few things for you. I figured modern lines, but maybe keep some curves. A little softness? Ninety degree angles are boring, really.”
“You speak my language, Robinson,” Tony said, looking over the mock-ups. He frowned down at the colors. “These don’t look computer-generated.”
Stan blushed a little, ducking his head. “They’re not. I…uh. I prefer to do mock-ups in traditional media. Then I just scan it in.”
“You painted all these by hand?” Tony asked, brushing his fingers over the watercolors without thinking. The painting zoomed in and sure enough he could see the tooth of the paper, picked out in the high-res view. “How…1990s.”
Stan raised a pointed eyebrow, but he was still smiling softly. “Well, I don’t know. I can draw on a tablet, but it’s not quite the same. I like the texture of the paper, the…the permanence. You fuck up with water color, it’s hard to take it back. You have to make the mistakes work with you.”
Tony nodded slowly. “Yeah. I guess…I guess that makes sense.”
“Don’t you ever work in analog?”
Tony thought of the texture of rice paper under his fingers, the heat of a forge and Yinsen’s steady presence behind him. “Sometimes,” he said softly, swiping at the screen so the image returned to its original size. After a moment, he shook himself off and passed his eye over the designs again.
“What do you think?” Stan said, eyes lighting up. “I think the red’s a little heavy for your main entertaining room, but this design could easily be transferred to a personal den or office or…”
Tony let him talk without really paying close attention, his mind still elsewhere. Stan’s voice was soothing, his New York drawl smoothing out the “r’s” and sliding the “t’s” into something else entirely. After five minutes or so, Stan trailed off, just watching. “Tony?” he said softly, tilting his head to the side. “You ok?”
“Sorry. My head’s…my head’s not really in this right now. Can we, can we reschedule? Over dinner?”
Stan was still frowning, concern written into every fine line on his face. “Of course. When would be best for you?”
“Sir is available Friday evening at seven o’clock. Shall I make a date of it?”
“Date? JARVIS, are you meddling?”
“I wouldn’t dream of it, sir.”
Across from him, Stan was smiling again, something a little mischievous in his grin. “Well, I wouldn’t be opposed to a date setting?”
“You don’t have some fraternization policy with your clients?”
“You’re only my client until the designs are done. Then we’re just friendly acquaintances.”
“Well, when you put it that way. Friday at seven it is.”
Stan was a prompt date, and he showed up at the penthouse at exactly 6:50, a single yellow rose in hand. Tony strolled out to meet him with a rolling predatory prowl, a whiskey glass held in one shaking hand.
“Boy, you must think you’re something,” Tony said, his gaze sharp and glittering, ice clinking in his tumbler. “You nearly had me fooled. But see, I learned after Miss Rushman. Look into things that seem too good to be true.”
“Tony,” Stan said slowly, holding up a hand. “What’re you…”
“Security footage, Stan. You did a damn good job of avoiding the camera, but you didn’t check for infrared. I know when temperatures change in the server banks. And we caught footage of you slipping in the door on the 24th floor.”
As if to damn him further, the footage popped up on a window, showing as Stan checked both his left and right before swiping a key card and slipping into the server room.
“And then I asked Pep where she got your name. Surprise, surprise. Natasha recommended you. You people must really think I’m an idiot.”
“Tony, I can explain…”
“Explain in court with Fury squirming at your side. And give me a copy of the worm. I need to fix the systems and get your corrupt government fingers out of my code.”
“I don’t have it.”
“The hell you don’t, you little boot-licking SHIELD dog.”
“Tony, I really don’t. I was sent here to find out who did.”
“Sure you were,” Tony said, raising a hand. A gauntlet found him, latching on so that he could level the palm at Stan. “Give. Me. The file.”
“Don’t, Tony. This is a misunderstanding.”
“The hell it is.” Tony advanced, and the repulsor whined threateningly in front of him. “You got three seconds, Stan. If that’s really your name.”
“Tony, don’t do this.”
“I don’t want to hurt you.”
“Please hear me out.”
Stan dove under the repulsor blast and came up swinging, catching Tony on the edge of his jaw and sending him reeling. Stan didn’t leave it to chance, but swept out Tony’s legs and quickly straddled him, pinning down the gauntleted hand. “You’ve seen Natasha work. You know what I’m capable of. Now hear me out!” he shouted, his face bare inches from Tony’s.
“Well, since your knee is cutting off the circulation to my arm, I’m not sure I have much of a choice,” Tony spit, bucking his hips once just to test Stan. His hold never budged.
“Does the name Zeke Stane ring any bells?”
“Stane?” Tony’s blood ran cold, and he froze, his bare fest clenching. “Obie didn’t have any relatives.”
“Well, none that you knew of.”
Tony felt a curl of rage in his chest, that quickly fanned into fire. “If you’re just gonna feed me bullshit, we can go back to wrestling on the floor. That would be infinitely preferable.”
“Zeke Stane is Obadiah Stane’s illegitimate son, a well-kept secret to protect Obadiah’s reputation. But he was raised under the umbrella of his father’s wealth and power, and he bought all the same philosophies Stane did. He’s been making waves in the underground almost since you killed his father. I’ve been tracking his movements and actions for more than a year, trying to find evidence strong enough to convict him and put him behind bars. He’s currently working in your programming section under the alias Zacharia Stone, and I think he’s the one who planted the worm on your servers. I can give you proof if you promise not to shoot me.”
“That’s not possible,” Tony said, but there was no real bite to his words. It’s not like he’d ever realized that Obie was a homicidal maniac either. Of course he’d had some illegitimate kid tucked away. Of course he had.
“I’m afraid it is, Tony. I’m sorry for the subterfuge. I told Director Fury you wouldn’t appreciate another undercover agent, but when the Director makes up his mind, he can be…”
“Not my place to say,” Stan said, but he was failing to hide his smile. “So if I get up, you promise you won’t shoot me?”
“Well, I can’t promise anything, given that we skipped our date and went straight to the foreplay. I feel cheated.”
At that, Stan blushed and scrambled up, quickly offering a hand. “My real name’s Special Agent Steve Rogers. I specialize in domestic terrorism.”
Tony considered Steve’s thin fingers for a moment, before taking his grip and getting to his feet with a groan. “Does this mean I need to hire a real designer?”
“No,” Steve said quickly, cheeks pinking. “I really do design, too. Hobby. On the weekends. I’m an art guy really. I…uh…”
Against his better judgment, Tony grinned. “You are just adorable. I’m, uh, not exactly in the mood for a date anymore, but show me your evidence and maybe we can reschedule? Provided of course that you don’t stab me in the neck like Natasha did.”
“Sounds like a fair trade,” Steve said, expression warming a little. “I don’t stab you, you don’t shoot me with your repulsors, and we have a lovely date.”
Tony flashed his teeth, watching as Steve pulled out a USB from his pack. “Deal.”