This late night that was more of an early morning. The crème de la crème enjoyed a night in Cleopatra's Boudoir (or so the invitation had called the ballroom for the night). The now-missus Juliard had dressed herself as the legendary pharao. Her poor husband, as Ptolemeus, sat on a small throne besides her ostentatious confection. She held his leash, which was politely ignored by the guests ascending the steps to greet her with elaborate bows, until they could find a champagne of glass to hide their lips while they gossiped.
The all-male serving staff was quite happy to wear skirts rather than three-piece suits in the crowded ballroom. Most guests had been happy to play along and come in fine linen togas and piquant versions of Roman armour.
Tony, dressed by Pepper, had taken off his leather vest. He wore no shirt beneath it, only a gaudy torque with a dragon head that hid the puckered scar where the arc reactor had been. “Tell them you're a Vandal, Tony,” she had told him, an impish curl to her lips that he felt compelled to kiss. “It'll play out well in the media, with the lingering buzz you created when you took responsibility for the Avengers' collateral damage.” He had taken the compliment and melted into her arms further when she whispered compliments about responsibility and maturity being sexy. He held her, soft and pettable in her travel clothes, loose cotton pants and a long vest, her hair down. He had reluctantly let her go when downstairs arrived that her driver was ready to take her to the airport.
So there Tony was, in a leather skirt and sandals with a big necklace, stag at a theme party, on the balcony of Mrs Juliard's penthouse ballroom. His tower was half again as high as this one, he thought a little smug.
A drone that had been spiraling up the tower suddenly reared its head above the balcony railing. A skeletal shadow against the starless, orange-grey sky. He smacked right hands against the thick gold-titanium armlet around his left bicep. He pointed the resulting gauntlet at the drone before it could unleash whatever it carried.
It swayed just across the railing, into the light. It had the look of a Stark Quardcopter, the ones his company made specifically for sensitive deliveries. He had signed up as the first customer for the joint venture between him and Amazon to start using them across New York. Still, no one had ever sent him a package through the service. And he trusted random robots even less than human strangers when it came to handing him things.
The drone seemed to interpret the held-up hand as a sign of acceptance. A hatch opened, cool air dropping out of a refrigerated hold. The robot arm that had held the package in it now descended. It pressed a bouquet of gold-dusted red roses into his gauntlet.
Unfortunately for Tony, a photographer had also come out for some fresh air and struck gold. He snapped an image of a bare-chested Tony Stark, dressed only in a leather skirt, holding a bouquet of bright red roses up to the night sky “as if he was a classical warrior courting a sky god” (the picture first appeared on the Gay City News website ).
The high-altitude wind whipped the accompanying note away before anyone could read it. It disappeared in the darkness, along with the drone. A worldwide discussion broke out over breakfast when the picture went viral early the next morning (which it already was in Europe and Africa, by that point. Asians and Australians discussed it over lunch).
What secret admirer gave Tony Stark a bouquet of roses on Valentine's Day?
1. “No,” said Pepper, “I'm allergic to roses.” She said it indulgently to Tony on the phone, who mumbled somethnig about remembering that. She chuckled. “You never do. But at least you remember to bring me shoes too.”
“No,” she repeated, often and sternly, to curious members of the press who ambushed her at every stage of her visit to the Stark office in Beijing.
2. “No,” said Steve wistfully to a curious Sam. They were sat in a sheltered courtyard, the only place they could safely go outside while they hid in Wakanda. “I wouldn't even be able to send him a card right now without risking arrest. I'm still waiting for him to pick up the phone.”
Sam patted him on the back and left him to his nighttime brooding. Sometimes he wondered if those two had been more than friends. Then again, Steve tended to treat his friends with the same level of reverence as others displayed towards their spouses. That had taken some getting used to, and some awkward conversations.
It explained a lot about his zeal in pursuing Bucky.
3. “No,” said FRIDAY serenely when Tony asked. “I would have had them delivered at the Compound, boss.” She hesitated. “Should I have sent you flowers? It seems to be optional when a relationship is not romantic.”
He stopped to think about it. JARVIS had never asked. He stared at the flowers, now resting in the middle of a lab table. Some of the roses hadn't survived the scanning and sampling security had put the bouquet through. They hard turned out to be simple red roses, dusted with glitter that shed something awful. They had only been modified to grow without thorns, not to seep an airborne poison, or some such thing.
Butterfingers offered him his half-gallon smoothie glass, filled with lukewarm water. Tony smiled when he felt the temperature. “Well done. You downloaded instructions on plant care, buddy?”
The bot bleeped an affirmative, rather satisfied. It stayed glued to his side until he stood up and put the roses in the glass, cutting the stems diagonally with a Stanley knife. A dim memory bubbled up of Jarvis – the human one – teaching him while he stood up on a stool to reach the counter. He sighed. He was getting nostalgic in his old age.
4. “No,” said Strange to the TMZ reporter who had stalked him, desperate to find a fresh angle. The news item that had been recycling itself for a few days. Speculations had turned wild enough that the paparazzi had taken to following all visitors to the Compound home to, ahem, ask them the Big Question. Many shows had taken suggestions from listeners on who Tony's illicit lover or secret admirer was.
“Not me,” he repeated more emphatically when they argued that he even imitated Tony's facial hair. “Correlation does not equal causation, you utter simpletons,” he ground out, before sweeping into the Sanctum Sanctorum on Bleecker Street with a swirl of his swish cloak. It was a clip famous and dear to the hearts of many a science professor and video essayist looking for memes.
Tony sent him a bottle of an eighties cabernet he favoured, with a label that only contained a sketch of their beards. Strange sighed and toasted his fellow hero before telling off Wong for knocking back the glass as if it was supermarket swill. Wong stared at him blank-faced until Strange turned his back. The Sorcerer Supreme caught a glimpse of his friend's smirk in the glass that protected the rare books in his office.
5. “No,” said the Tower security chief when questioned if they knew. “But we think we know who might have, sir. That new intern up in R&D had been asking around about how to send something that would actually reach you, Mr Stark. We told him about the drone delivery service. We wanted to test how much of a security risk it could pose, since your subscription is publicly known.”
Tony asked to see the results of the test and the name of the intern. He jogged over to the elevators.
+1. “Yes?” asked a startled Peter Parker when Tony called his name, the heads of half a dozen other interns shooting up like chipmunks. Whispers of “Mr Stark” and “Our Overlord has descended!” buzzed around.
Peter followed him to an empty conference room, rubbing the back of his head. “Since when do you work here?” Tony asked. “Does not compute. You're supposed to be in school.”
“Oh, well, it's only after school and I asked Mr Hogan for a recommendation. If I do this I'm practically guaranteed a spot in MIT, and it helps with applying for scholarships,” said Peter. “I mean, I want to improve the world with my day job as well, you know? Not just when I'm swinging from a string.”
The silence stretched like taffy between them until the teenager asked. “Uhm, anything else, Mr Stark?”
“You sent me roses,” Tony said.
The kid turned beet red.
“As a prank. I mean, it worked, and it was funny.”
“NO.” Peter Parker stared at him wide-eyed.
“Please don't tell me it's a crush.”
He grimaced. “No, you're like a million years old.” Then he winced. “You know, in a good way.” Then he hid his face in his hands. “Oh kill me now.”
Tony sat down in a chair, now grinning. “Why? You're way too funny.”
“Thank you, Mr Stark,” he mumbled behind his hands. After a moment he dropped them. Still blushing, he admitted, “I give gifts to everyone I like. I mean, I give Aunt May roses too, you know, except cream ones, because she likes cream. I sent you Iron-Man-coloured roses.”
“Oh,” said Tony, marshmallows in his belly. “Well, thanks, kid. I like 'em, and the bots do too. Butterfingers learned how to water roses especially.”
“You're welcome, Mr Stark.”