michelel72: Tony Stark with HUD swirl (AVG-IronMan)
michelel72 ([personal profile] michelel72) wrote2014-08-03 09:45 am

AVG Fic: (You've Got to Get) A Good Heart

Title: (You've Got to Get) A Good Heart
Rating: FRT for violence, language
Wordcount: 27,500
Crossposting: At AO3; comment-only base at LJ

Relationships: Pepper Potts/Tony Stark, Howard Stark/Maria Stark, Jarvis (Iron Man movies) & Tony Stark, Howard Stark & Tony Stark, Maria Stark & Tony Stark, Pepper Potts & Natasha Romanov
Timeline/Spoilers: This is set soon after "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" and thus after "Iron Man 3". Expect spoilers for all movies to this point, particularly CATWS. As for "Avengers: Age of Ultron", I knew nothing whatsoever about it before writing this story. (The title made me hum "Age of Aquarius", if that tells you anything.) I still don't want to know anything until I actually see the movie itself, but I have now skimmed the summary at Wikipedia. This story wasn't going to fit with anything that could happen in "Ultron" anyway, given the givens, but in light of what's implied by that summary, one late scene here makes this story likely to be even more incompatible with it. So it goes.
Warnings: One violent scene. Possible triggers for loss-of-autonomy (along the lines of mind control). Canonical implied emotional neglect. If you have triggers related to domestic violence or emotional abuse, please proceed with caution or message me for details; neither is present here, but certain dynamics may be similar enough to be triggering.
Disclaimer/Policies: This is a work of fanfiction inspired by the Marvel Cinematic Universe. All feedback of any length, including constructive criticism, always welcome. Transformative/derivative/related works always welcome if credit is given. If my warnings for triggers/squick are inadequate, please let me know.
1. "What We Choose to Leave Behind" was written as a standalone and probably works better as one, but this story uses the same continuity, so I've put them in a series for convenience.

2. I know the series title is a little ridiculous. Hush. I also know the structure is a little off, but lacking a structure beta, I'm just rolling with it.

3. Story title is from the Cowboy Junkies song of the same name; the chapter titles are from within that song.

Summary/teaser: The Tesseract is not done with the Starks. Howard and Tony have each left important things unsaid. Good intentions are not always a defense, and Tony doesn't necessarily handle second chances with grace or tact.


The Tesseract was a fundamental force. It had no desires or expectations; it simply was. It was truth, and power, and potential. Its only drive was growth. It was drawn to other power, other potential, like to like.

It recognized the fragile mortal that passed through its energy stream on the way to its wormhole — and then through the wormhole itself. This mortal had been touched by the Tesseract's energy once before. Very lightly, but in a way that folded the flow of time in the mortal's constrained plane. That left ripples in the mortal's time signature. Creases.

That was not the only way in which the mortal was familiar. This mortal should also now be in thrall. The Tesseract's energy had started to flow into the mortal, drawn by the potential in what its wielder called the heart of those it controlled, but at that juncture it had been blocked by some kind of technology between its implement and that heart.

That was with only one point of contact, though. Now, although the mortal was wrapped in more technology, both were immersed in the Tesseract's energy. No wielder guided that energy only to one path. It flowed along the shell, clinging to crevices.

When the portal was closed, terminating the flow of energy, only a miniscule amount remained in those hidden spaces. It was enough to persist, enough to find a path into that heart once the shell opened. Not enough to enthrall, not yet. But chaos was power, was a wellspring of potential, and this mortal's wrinkled time-stream would soon align with a particularly potent balance point. That point could be exploited.

Until then, the Tesseract's energy lay still. Waiting.

Take me back to another time / when the birds brought forth the sun

After "the Mandarin", and after the surgery, Pepper suggested they stay in New York for a while. She had good points: they could oversee the finishing touches of reconstructing Stark Tower, their house in Malibu was rubble in the ocean, the state of California needed a break from Tony. Simply hearing the name of the city no longer immediately squeezed all air from Tony's lungs, so he agreed.

She teased him a few times about "hiding" in his workshop, but: low profile. Good for them, good for the company. And he knew she and JARVIS were each keeping a close eye on him to make sure he didn't fall right back into recent bad habits. He was taking breaks, getting — mostly — regular sleep, eating.

He was rebuilding a couple of suits, sure, but just a couple, one for regular use and one for backup. Because however much Pepper might be relieved if he retired Iron Man, they both recognized the rest of the world might not let that happen. Not to mention other worlds.

And he was socializing, too. He dutifully escorted Pepper to a couple of necessary functions, schmoozing and charming people as required. He and Pepper made time for each other privately, Rhodey stopped by a few times as his schedule allowed, and Bruce Banner turned out to be interesting.

Bruce cleaned up pretty well, when freed of his shabby-chic look. He muttered about being Tony's "pet" every now and then, but he seemed amused by it, and he let Tony talk him into sticking around. He didn't push Tony to "learn" or "grow" from his experiences, and he didn't ask how they made Tony feel, but he let Tony ramble on about them, which was surprisingly cathartic. And it was still a profound relief to talk shop with someone who could work on the same level, even if that was mostly in a field Tony didn't normally find all that interesting.

He was catching up with the company, too, mostly by reviewing various designs from R&D. And around everything else, he was busy working on DUM-E and U. The damage from the missile strikes, collapsing architecture, and saltwater bath was extensive, and the cross-country trip hadn't helped, but even with their frames and circuitry repaired, they were unresponsive. It looked like the limited-AI version of catatonia, because something was still in there, but Tony hadn't found how to get through to them yet. He was determined to keep at it, though, because he didn't want to wipe them and start over. They were annoying as hell, but they were familiar, and he would probably miss them.

JARVIS would apparently miss them. That was weird.

So since he was so busy, when SHIELD abruptly collapsed and their secrets spilled out onto the internet, Tony put JARVIS on the job of reviewing the data. His worm had been more aimed at ferreting out their tech, not inspecting their fundamental structure for corruption, and he had apparently missed a lot. Tony was certain that some information still hadn't been revealed, and he and his newly awakened trust issues weren't really up to facing the sorts of things that probably were in the now-public data, but JARVIS could stomach the indexing and correlations.

Or so he'd assumed. But when JARVIS indicated he finally had results to report, days later than Tony had expected, he was oddly hesitant — even considering the pace of his developing personality, which was growing and changing far more than Tony had imagined it could. He had noticed new aspects to JARVIS's interactions after Afghanistan, but his personality had been growing faster and faster since then, and Tony really didn't know how to feel about that.

And boy did it suck that this was the one thing he wasn't sure he could talk about with JARVIS, who was usually his sounding board for nearly everything. Hey, I know I told you to grow and develop, but what you're turning into kind of freaks me out. I'm comfortable with computers but people are a whole lot more work, so that stuff I said about self-determination? Yeah, I'm starting to wonder if I really meant that.

He pushed all that aside. "What've you got for me?"

"There were comparatively few results regarding the Stark name in the files themselves," JARVIS said, "but those files included information about other systems. When possible, I've been accessing those systems as I've decrypted them, which in some cases required disabling retaliatory security measures first."

Tony hadn't explicitly said anything about any of that. Great. It was cool he didn't need to, but still. "If you go all Skynet on us, skip the nukes, okay? A nice, peaceful enslavement of humanity — that's more your style anyway. You are an AI of refined taste."

"I do not think either of us would enjoy thermonuclear conditions," JARVIS agreed, humor warming his tone, and how much did Tony love that his AI could do that? The dry commentary that veered occasionally into actual amusement was an old, comfortable aspect. But that tone turned pensive as JARVIS mused, "Nor the inevitable comparisons to the stated goals of HYDRA and Project Insight."

"Yeah," Tony sighed. He was pretty sure JARVIS knew he had been joking, but better safe. "Status quo it is. So — results."

After a strange pause, JARVIS said, "Project Insight's primary stage was the preemptive assassination of anyone projected to interfere with its goals, according to a complex set of predictions."

Tony already knew that much. JARVIS had started out knowing that much. "Are — are you stalling?"

JARVIS didn't answer that, which — yes, he had the latitude to avoid or at least delay questions under certain conditions, but for him to rely on that now was worrying just in itself. "While Project Insight was meant to implement this stage on a vast scale, the tactic appears to have been in use for decades."

"Okay, so they've already been targeting people with their creepy-ass guesswork and killing them off. Pre-judge, jury, executioner. Not actually surprising. What's got you in a tizzy?"

Even then, JARVIS hesitated. "Sir ...."

Okay, enough latitude. "Show me, JARVIS," he said firmly, bracing himself for whatever could rattle an AI.

He couldn't possibly have braced himself enough.

JARVIS took the instruction literally and simply presented the documents — some scanned, some transcribed — and left Tony to draw his own conclusions. For entirely too long, Tony registered only brief phrases, snatches. They cohered slowly.

Subject: Howard Stark. Significance: driving force of Stark Industries (ref.: weapons suppliers; ref.: arms race; ref.: global instability); subject retains influence with cover organization. Hazard: diversifying Stark Industries into additional fields, decreasing reliance on weapons development. Hazard: funding social-positive research, technology. Supplemental: subject's son (ref.: Subject: Anthony Stark) acquires corporate responsibility at age 21. Projection: pace of current corporate redirection indicates subject is laying groundwork and will collaborate with son to implement major realignment within five years. Projection: Stark Industries falls out of top five weapons contractors within ten years. Projection: global weapons advancement slows two percent. Hazard: organization risks losing weapons superiority. Hazard: coordination with empowered Stark Foundation (ref.: Subject: Maria Stark). Hazard: Stark Industries becomes oppositional force.

Outcome: termination. Timeline: no later than 1991. (ref.: Termination files: Stark 1)

Subject: Maria Stark. Significance: driving force of Stark Foundation (ref.: social stability). Hazard: spearheading programs with high index of increased social stability, delaying or nullifying planned unrest or destabilization in five to seven key populations within ten years. Hazard: coordination with realigned Stark Industries (ref.: Subject: Howard Stark). Hazard: Stark Foundation continues as oppositional force.

Outcome: termination. Timeline: no later than 1991. (ref.: Termination files: Stark 1)

Termination files: Stark 1. Subject: Howard Stark. Subject: Maria Stark. Parameters: Must be completed no later than 1991 to disrupt continuity of Stark Industries (ref.: Subject: Anthony Stark). Must appear to be accidental. (ref.: Subject: Anthony Stark: indications of competence when given focus/target and incentive. Hazard: secondary subject becomes oppositional force, risk to organization. Termination method must present no target for retaliation.) (ref.: Subject: Obadiah Stane: likely successor to leadership of Stark Industries if termination accomplished according to timeline; loyalty to primary subjects may influence resulting direction of company. Hazard: secondary subject becomes oppositional force, risk to organization. Hazard: Stark Industries becomes oppositional force. Termination method must present no target for retaliation.) Co-termination optimizes all outcomes.

Termination outcome: Termination: Stark 1. Stark Industries destabilizes, contracts to core competencies (ref.: weapons development), remains contributory force. Stark Foundation destabilizes, enters hiatus, loses efficacy for two to four years, loses twenty percent of efficacy long-term. Subject Anthony Stark destabilizes, poses no short-term risk to organization. Subject Obadiah Stane stabilizes Stark Industries, poses no short-term risk to organization. Outcome addendum: Stark Industries is a legacy enterprise. Subject Anthony Stark must affiliate with Stark Industries within three years if stability

and Tony stopped reading, because he did not want to know. He didn't want to know what the hell else HYDRA thought of him, or how long they thought he'd been fucking helping them, or what reactions they'd had to his own recent changes to Stark Industries, or why they had relied on fucking Obie's fucking loyalty to anyone named Stark —

"Sir, please, breathe," JARVIS implored, but Tony couldn't do that right now. He had sat on the floor at some point and he couldn't breathe. "Shall I call Ms Potts?"

Tony shook his head vigorously and managed to raise one hand long enough to dismiss the files, just in case someone did come in. It would actually be worse for anyone else to see those than to see him huddled here on the floor, shaking from the adrenaline rush of a panic attack.

The lights fell — not off completely, because JARVIS damn well knew better, but dim, dominated by the cool blue of the various displays in the workshop. A strange, low pulsing started coming through the speakers. It took Tony almost a full minute to work out that it was the bass line of one of the songs on his workshop playlist, stripped and softened and looped. A metronome of sorts. Something to help him slow his breathing to match.

And damn if it didn't work, eventually. Tony let his head fall back against the workbench. "Thanks, J."

JARVIS cut the music. "I do apologize, sir, but I couldn't think of a way to prepare you."

"You tried, buddy. At least I knew there was something." He made a sound that might have been a short laugh, if he'd had the energy for it. "They sure pegged me, didn't they? I was so — if I could have just fixed something, or broken something, or fought somebody, or done anything — but there wasn't anything I could do about the car went off the road. I didn't even question it. Even — even after Fury said Dad helped start SHIELD, I didn't question it. I just — I just thought it was an accident."

And with nowhere to direct his anger, he'd self-destructed, because at that age he'd thought he could fix anything, but this was something he couldn't fix. No one could. Even now, there was nothing he could actually do now that he knew the truth. HYDRA was apparently vast and entrenched, and the work to uproot them was already in progress by other groups. He could dig through the files to try to find particular names, but it had been over twenty years now, and even if he could track them down, going out and killing them — in cold blood, not battle, which he just couldn't do — wouldn't bring his parents back.

Wouldn't ... wouldn't bring ....

He shook his head to try to clear the ringing in his ears. Wouldn't bring his ... his parents ....

Wouldn't —

He straightened and then stood as a cold certainty flooded through him. That was it, wasn't it? Bring them back. He could fix this. He had the power to fix this.

He summoned a command access window and started retrieving the files he would need. "JARVIS, cancel all appointments for the next —" he calculated quickly "— five days. Bring all fabricators online, get those suits finished. Retool one of the fabrication lines to work with organic matter." He had a couple of options for that aspect; this was the less awkward one, but he had to be certain the resulting product would stand up to inspection.

"Initializing," JARVIS reported, after a slight lag that was probably meant to convey confusion. "Sir, I can cancel most scheduled items, but you have one appointment with Ms Potts that you instructed —"

"Override all prior instructions. Cancel everything." Police reports, scene photos, incident reconstructions, death certificates — ah. No autopsies. Cause of death obvious, no family request — and he had been too drunk at the time to have an opinion anyway. Indications of an initial order for at least a blood alcohol test on Howard Stark, apparently quashed; that was probably pressure from Stane, trying to prevent scandal. So, no detailed examination, good.

"Sir, are you all right?"

Tony felt ... nothing. Huh. Handy, though. Feelings would have been distracting. This calm sense of purpose was all he needed. "Fine. Those files — everything you pulled together related to HYDRA, SHIELD, Insight, Stark Industries, Stark anything — lock those down. Full encryption. Discuss them with no one besides me."

"Sir, may I recommend you tell —"

These delays were unacceptable. "That's an order."

After another lag, JARVIS stiffly reported, "Encrypting," in a simulation of irritation or possibly offense.

Tony had indulged this whimsy for far too long. The purpose of JARVIS was to increase Tony's productivity. If he needed a second person around, second-guessing him, humans were far cheaper to hire than JARVIS had been to develop. Tony didn't have time to program a new voice protocol architecture now, and he would need JARVIS for this project, but once it was done, he would simply wipe the personality core and install a new driver process. He needed a sophisticated computer interface, not an artificial friend.

Ridiculous that he had been conflicted about it earlier. Everything was so clear now.

In one sense, JARVIS was a network of computers and sensors threaded throughout a significant portion of Stark properties worldwide. In a more specific sense, though, JARVIS was the focus point of an artificial intelligence that monitored those systems at need but primarily attended Tony Stark whenever possible.

That focus was preoccupied with Tony Stark's behavior after the revelation of the assassination of his parents, so the medical sensors within the workshop did not draw attention until they had collected several hours of low-grade anomalous readings. Tony Stark sometimes immersed himself in his work to the detriment of his health and relationships, but he more often did so only as a temporary coping mechanism, and JARVIS did not yet have enough data to assess this occurrence, so he resumed the next scheduled system review.

The medical sensors in the workshop were not as sophisticated as the ones in the suits, since they were originally intended merely as a safety measure, in recognition of the hazardous nature of the work done there. The purpose-built sensors of the suits were regrettably unavailable. JARVIS cross-checked all inputs and determined that Tony Stark displayed no indication of discomfort or impaired vision. The timing was a complicating factor, but JARVIS was far too well designed to assume causation for correlation.

Prior experience prevented JARVIS from discarding outliers. Instead he crafted a sub-process to research various ocular disorders and ailments in humans, and he added a new monitoring task to his routine evaluations, to ensure that any additional symptoms could be noted and correlated swiftly.

Pepper was surprised, and a little annoyed, when she saw Tony had canceled on her, but it was one time. Things came up; she certainly knew that. She just would have preferred some kind of personal contact about it rather than an automated calendar notification.

She put it out of her head, planning to needle him about it later, but she didn't see him that night. Or the next. She briefly thought about asking JARVIS, but their relationship was ... complicated.

After the attack on the Expo, she had a long conversation with Tony about communication and secrets. Then, a few days later, she had a separate conversation with JARVIS. She demanded that he let her know if Tony was dying again, or seriously ill — or at least, she tried to.

She had never considered that he might refuse.

The discussion that followed gave her a headache to this day when she thought about it. JARVIS would not agree to anything that might make Tony think, even for a moment, that he had reason to second-guess any confidence or sense of privacy he had with JARVIS. Because, JARVIS pointed out, if Tony started trying to hide things from JARVIS as well, or even started holding back certain thoughts or observations, he would only place himself in greater danger.

And Tony was pretty sharp about observing people when he chose to be, so Pepper couldn't guarantee he might not suspect collaboration and then draw damaging conclusions.

She did win one concession, though. If at any time JARVIS determined that involving her would help his own mission to care for Tony, he would, as far as his own reservations and limitations allowed. He agreed to that, if nothing further. And then he expressed concern about her support system, which was charming ... in a kind of terrifying way. Which only proved he was Tony's creation.

JARVIS hadn't yet acted on their agreement, but he usually minimized his presence within the corporate offices, so she was a little concerned when he used her office phone to contact her. "Ms Potts."

She had to remind herself he was actually a computer program, because he sounded stressed. "Is something wrong?"

"Ms Potts —" he said again, and she quietly began to panic. Either he was actually overwhelmed or he was simulating it to alert her, and either way, this was bad.

"Is it Tony?" she demanded. "What happened?" The equipment he worked with was so dangerous —

"Mr. Stark is unharmed," JARVIS reported swiftly. "He has directed me to wipe and dismantle DUM-E and U."

For a second, she wanted to scream at him for making her panic for no good reason. Then she realized what he was telling her. Of everything that they lost with the Malibu house, those were the only things Tony had been determined to retrieve. She figured they were too damaged to bother with, and they had never been much more than minor amusements and minor annoyances to her, but Tony loved the silly things, and that was enough for her.

DUM-E had worked for Tony, for certain ludicrously generous definitions of the term work, longer than she had.

Tony had been trying to repair them ever since he'd gotten them into his workshop. She had even thought his recent cancelation with her might have been because he hit a sensitive stage in that process. He would never just give up on them like that. "He wouldn't," she said.

Unless they were hopeless and he quit in frustration, which was a faint possibility. He didn't take failure well.

"He directed me to wipe and dismantle them," JARVIS said again. Pepper frowned. The repetition had to be a hint.

She reviewed his word choice. Directed. JARVIS had told her that there were various commands that actually left him room for interpretation — instructions, requests, suggestions. Directions. Explicit orders, at least from Tony, were a different class.

She wasn't sure how he knew how to classify them, since she'd never heard Tony say anything like this is a request, but that was JARVIS's problem. When they were all interacting, he did obey her over Tony sometimes, even if only for minor stuff. "Countermand that," she said quickly. "Or, I mean, belay it. Whatever means don't you dare do it. I — I order you not to dismantle or wipe DUM-E or U. And if a cancellation order from me isn't good enough, then schedule it for ... for the year 2525."

"Amendment accepted," JARVIS confirmed, sounding as relieved as a computer could. Which turned out to be quite a lot.

"He can still override that, though, right? Can you hide them? Actually, how were you supposed to dismantle them anyway?" Powerful as JARVIS was, he had no actual physical form. Except maybe for the suits, which were gone.

"Mr. Stark loaded them into the fabrication system. I control that system. The mechanical arms are now being moved into storage. They are as safe as I can make them."

Tony would appreciate that, eventually. "Is something wrong? With Tony?"

After a slight pause, JARVIS reported, "He is working on a new project."

Because he needed another one. "Is this a project like he got distracted by an idea for a new consumer product, or a project like he's building another forty-two Iron Man suits and not sleeping?"

"On Tuesday, he canceled all appointments for the following five days."

A specific timeline. That might be a good sign. Maybe. She decided to give Tony a little more rope. "Thank you, JARVIS."

"Thank you, Ms Potts," JARVIS answered. The sincerity of what could have been a simple formality gave her pause, but he had already cleared the line.

The conversation haunted her all day, coming to the front of her mind at odd moments. So when she saw no sign of Tony that evening, she decided it was about time to see what he was up to.

At first she thought he wasn't there, because the workshop was darker than usual, and it was strangely silent. No, not silent, she realized after a few seconds, because she could hear various bits of machinery working away, as well as the more irregular clatter of Tony working with something metallic. There just wasn't a soundtrack going.

He used music in his workshop, or didn't, according to his moods or ability to concentrate. He was one of those bewildering people who actually concentrated better on certain tasks when they had a controlled racket distracting part of their brains. A total absence of music didn't automatically mean a dark mood, but that was the more frequent association. "Tony?" she prompted carefully. He was almost always aware of anyone entering his space, especially her, and he usually spoke first.

"Busy, Potts."

He was on the floor, tinkering with some apparatus she couldn't begin to interpret. Although, if she looked at it long enough, she almost felt like she should ... almost ... recognize ....

She blinked and deliberately ignored the structure, because it made her slightly dizzy and because Tony hadn't even glanced at her. She moved closer to try to catch his eye, but as she got a better look at him, she realized with dismay that she should have intervened sooner. And she should have pushed JARVIS harder on that sleeping question. "Tony, no. We talked about this. If you're having trouble sleeping, we can do something about that. You don't have to —"

"I'm not."

"— drive yourself into —" Great. Lying. "JARVIS, how much sleep —"


"— has Tony gotten over the past — did — did you just say mute? You know that's really immature, right?" He wasn't talking over her and he still wasn't even looking at her. "Wait, was that mute for JARVIS or for me?"

"JARVIS," he said. "Would it work on you?" He looked at her finally, and she wished he hadn't. Even his darkest moods had fire in them, energy, but his expression now was cold and empty. The dim light of the workshop, icy blue, reflected in his eyes eerily.

It wasn't that he would never say something like that, even to her. He absolutely would. But with her, it would have been outrageous, playful. As awful as he could be to people when he thought he needed to, he was never that purposely, pointedly awful to her. That cold.

And she had never been afraid of him. For him, absolutely, and even of what he could do, but not of him. But she was suddenly, vividly aware that she was on his territory.

If she started fearing for her own safety around him, they were doomed. If he decided to turn his sometimes poison tongue on her, he could shred their relationship with just a few words. Every instinct Pepper had called for a strategic retreat.

She straightened, falling back a step. "You promised you wouldn't do this again. You cleared your calendar through the weekend, so fine, take that. Get some sleep, eat something, get whatever this is out of your system. I'll check back Sunday night, and we'll talk about what's going on with you."

He didn't answer, his attention already back on the strange thing he was building. This near-silence was terrifying, but she knew it could be worse. She turned and left before anything unforgivable could be said, by either of them.

She got all the way to their apartment before she had to stop and close her eyes for a while. He had been doing so well. But trauma wasn't tidy, and she had known he would probably have trouble at unpredictable times. She had her own moments, her own collection of stressors and triggers.

She had found that focusing on helping Tony at least got her out of her own head, and Tony said the same was true for him. Co-dependence for fun and profit, he'd said with a shaky laugh after one mutually rough night. Maybe it wasn't perfect or recommended, but it worked for them.

When it worked. But it was such a tightrope. And if Tony were here, he would say something about the suitability of her taste in shoes for acrobatics, but he wasn't here, and —

And she could easily work herself up to the point of doing something she shouldn't. "JARVIS, is Bruce in the building?"

"Dr. Banner is currently in the guest suite," JARVIS reported. There was an absent quality to his tone. Pepper was pretty sure that meant most of his attention, or the computer version of it, was focused on Tony, with responses to routine external inquiries running on a sort of autopilot. She was very much fine with that, because Tony needed a minder at the best of times.

She could have JARVIS make the request for her, but that was a more complex task, and it might pull some of his attention away from Tony. She called Bruce by phone instead, and after the standard greetings and pleasantries, she asked him to join her for dinner.

"How, um, how dressy would that be?" he asked.

"Casual. Enough clothing to be street-legal, but just something comfortable." Tony had been determined to get Bruce into suits, acting for all the world as if he was making up for never having played with paper dolls as a kid, but Pepper really didn't think Bruce's simpler nobody here but us chickens look was that bad. She didn't think Tony really did either, for that matter.

Bruce was chuckling softly. She realized belatedly that the street-legal qualification might sound a little odd to someone who hadn't spent years trying to preempt Tony's eccentricities. But then he said, "Actually, Tony made sure to let me know that toplessness is allowed in New York, but I don't think that's what you mean."

Pepper managed a smile at that.

"That would, that would be nice," he continued. "If you're sure."

She assured him she was, and they agreed easily on a delivery service. An hour later Bruce was helping her sort through a few bags of Thai food.

"That's one good thing about New York, I guess," he said. He had shown up in a baggy sweatshirt and jeans; he didn't look entirely comfortable, but vaguely uneasy just seemed to be his default state. "Not take-out, exactly, I mean, most places have the basics of that, but here, it's practically every cuisine I've ever heard of, and almost any time. And not just take-out. It's so easy to get almost anything, and most of it can be delivered. You could probably spend months never going anywhere."

"It's tempting sometimes," Pepper agreed. "How are you doing? Do you have everything you need? Generally, I mean."

"Oh, yes, you've — you've both been very generous."

Pepper winced a little. She hadn't meant to make him more self-conscious. He looked like he was working himself up to saying he'd be leaving any day now, so she said, "Well, I'm glad you think so, because honestly, I think we've been kind of selfish with you."

He paused in adding food to his plate to regard her with mild incredulity. "Selfish."

"Selfish," she confirmed. "Tony and I don't get as much time together as we'd like, so it's good for him to have someone he likes working with. And you've been really nice about him using you as a dress-up doll."

That won a brief smile from him. "So is that what this is? Am I bait?"

"Oh, no, not bait. Tony is ... not dealing with people right now, and I wanted company. See? Selfish."

"Yeah, feeding and talking to me. Terrible." They each took several bites of food before he asked softly, "Everything okay?"

"With me, yes. With Tony?" She sat back with a sigh. "I don't know. He's being really ... prickly right now. You might want to stay away from him for a few days."

His mouth twitched. "I've been poked by Tony before."

She nodded. "Yeah. He does that. Usually he pokes people to see how they'll react. But right now? If he pokes someone, it'll be to see them bleed." She took a drink and then added, "Metaphorically." She picked up her fork again and amended, "Probably."

"Ah. Well, thank you for the warning."

"Of course." Bruce might react, well, poorly to Tony's version of lashing out, but more importantly, he didn't deserve to be exposed to it. She just wished she had some idea what was going on. "It might be grief," she mused.

Bruce made a soft sound at that, dismay and sympathy, so she explained about the damage to DUM-E and U and how hard Tony had been working on them. He nodded, having seen some of that work.

"He's lost people, in various ways," Pepper said. "I mean, so have I, and so have you, I think?" She saw in his expression that he had, so she pushed on so he wouldn't feel pressured to elaborate. "But that doesn't exactly make it easier. Sometimes I think he only — well, no. He put personalities in his equipment and his computer to prove he could. Except I think he might also have wanted to have people he could be sure wouldn't leave him, who would always put him first, and for him, that's going to mean making them. But apparently JARVIS ... glitched, I guess, after Malibu. Tony wouldn't say much about what happened, but I think it really shook him. So if now he thinks he can't fix the other two — I know to most people they're just machines, but —"

"But not to him," Bruce agreed.

Pepper exhaled shakily. "I want to be there for him. I want to help. But he can be so vicious when he's hurting, and — I know I should just ignore it —"


Bruce looked a little surprised at himself for speaking so firmly. It took him several seconds of poking at his food before he could continue.

"I hurt Betty. The first time."

Pepper almost said something reassuring and empty, automatic platitudes. He gave her a sharp look, warning, and she took the hint.

"I wasn't myself," he said, with a wry twist to his mouth, "and that's no excuse. She was there because of me, and I put her in the hospital. Me. She's forgiven me, but I can't. And I think she's still not sorry she was there, but I am. I would give almost anything for her not to have been there, right then. Sometimes — for someone who cares about you, sometimes the best help you can give them is ... doing what you can to keep them from hurting you."

Pepper had to blink back tears, with no idea how much they were sympathy and how much gratitude. She summoned a smile. "Tony was right. You're a great therapist."

And if his answering smile was small and shadowed, she certainly wasn't going to call him on it.

Tony hadn't lied to Potts, though he knew she thought otherwise. He wasn't having trouble sleeping. He wasn't trying, because he had much more important things to do.

His body apparently disagreed.

He was fine when he had specific tasks to accomplish, but there were a few lulls when he had to wait for calculations to finish or for parts to complete fabrication. Each time, without immediate work to drive him, he all but passed out — half an hour here, two hours there, until the pressure of the next stage of the project built enough to wake him again.

It was a minor annoyance, since he'd worked longer stretches before, but he was now on the wrong side of forty. The brief naps proved to be little hindrance to his progress and did not add up to a significant number of hours, and he dimly remembered that there was supposed to be a risk of hallucinations after a long enough period entirely without sleep, so he tolerated them.

Each time he woke, he filled a glass of water and drank from it while he ate some random snack food he pulled from a drawer, though the work usually pulled him away before he finished either one. He only bothered with that much because JARVIS had started presenting medical alerts about dehydration, as well as graphs correlating fasting to mental confusion. He still felt entirely clear, but it was logical to take preventive measures if they didn't directly interfere with his work.

JARVIS didn't seem to be satisfied, but it was defective. As long as it continued to execute Tony's commands accurately, he could simply ignore its complaints.

He finally had all the pieces in place only twenty minutes later than he had projected. He loaded the two decoys and the supply kit onto the floating sledge before moving over to the generator and turning it on. Once it had fully spun up, he placed his hand on the plate and transferred enough energy to open the portal.

That transfer left him slightly dizzy, which he hadn't expected. He shook it off, stepped into the new Iron Man suit, and walked through, pushing the sledge before him.

One moment, the road was clear and the night was silent. The next, something slammed into the side of the car, near the front, sending it veering towards the guardrail — which tore like paper. By the time Howard registered even that much, his car was over the edge.

Maria had cried out once, more in shock than fear, but now they both braced themselves as the car tumbled roughly, bouncing off unseen obstacles in the ravine. Howard felt his head hit the window at least once, and he heard Maria cry out again, this time in pain. At some point in the fall the front end struck something with a vicious jolt, and the airbag deployed, driving Howard's wrist into his face brutally.

The car jounced and spun for a small eternity, but it finally settled, creaking, at a strange angle.

"How-Howard?" Maria's voice was strained. "Are you ... hurt?"

"I think ... I don't ...." Howard tried to swallow around the blood in his mouth. "What happened? ... Deer?" But surely a deer wouldn't have been that forceful ... bear? Were there moose here?

"Can you move? We —" She choked back a pained sound. "We have to ... get back ... to the road."

Howard's head was starting to clear slightly. She was right, especially at these temperatures. The electrical system still seemed to be working, but he didn't dare try to get the engine started again, even for the sake of heat. "I think so." He tested his arms and legs. Either his left wrist or his nose was broken, possibly both, but his right arm was relatively unharmed, and his legs seemed intact.

Blood ran down Maria's face, black in the faint light still offered by the dashboard. She wiped her eyes clear with her left hand. "I think ... your side ... is blocked," she gasped. "But mine ... looks clear." She reached for the handle awkwardly, still using her left hand.

The door was suddenly jerked open before she could touch it. They both exclaimed in surprise. A figure stood there, limned in pale moonlight. He took the door in both hands and somehow wrenched the frame into scraps in barely seconds. Then he reached in and seized Maria's arm with a horrible crunch, tearing a scream from her. Rather than releasing her, he pulled her arm along the now-exposed metal of the doorframe, ripping the skin open.

And then he dropped her arm and struck her on the side of the head. Her screams fell to dazed moans of pain.

Howard's body responded to him sluggishly, but he fought to release his seat belt, frantic to help her. Before he could get the mechanism to release, though, the man was on his side, punching through the glass. Howard barely caught the glint of light on metal before the hand seized his hair in an iron grip and pulled his head forward to slam it against the steering wheel several times. The hand then held his head still as something sharp was drawn down the side of his head, cutting his scalp open, and the fingers tightened again.

But then the man froze.

Howard couldn't move his head at all, but by straining his eyes he managed to get enough of a glimpse to the side. Most of the man's face was covered by some metallic kind of mask. The dark eyes over the mask were looking up toward the road.

And then the man was gone.

Howard sobbed in relief and slowly forced his head to turn enough to look up toward the road himself. The angle was bad and he was in no condition to see much anyway, but he could just make out twin beams of light, refracted by various particulates as they shone across the ravine from the road.

He tried to call for help, but the sound he managed to make wouldn't carry out of the car, much less all the way up to the road, so far away. Then the lights swung away and vanished, and he sobbed again, this time in despair.

So. This was how he would die. He wasn't ready, dammit ... the company was in no state for a change of leadership ... Tony certainly wasn't fit to take over, and wasn't old enough anyway ... there was so much Howard still wanted to accomplish, so much he was supposed to have time for ... and Maria, god, she didn't deserve this ....

He managed to move his head slightly again, this time to look at Maria. Her dazed eyes, filled with grief and pain, met his.

Suddenly a figure appeared just beyond her, reached into the car, released her seat belt, and lifted her out as if she weighed nothing at all.

Howard gasped in shock and tried to reach for her, but she was gone. He wanted to go after her, try to protect her, but he could barely move. He couldn't even keep his eyes focused for more than a few seconds at a time.

Then the figure was back, reaching across from Maria's side to release Howard's seat belt. Its left hand clamped onto the back of his neck, feeling and smelling — even over the blood in his nose — of metal, and Howard panicked and tried to pull away.

"Hold still," the figure said, its voice male and slightly robotic. "If you move you might break your neck."

Howard froze, even while furious at himself for cooperating. But the man was now freeing him from the car, and he might have some slight ability to fight back once he was out in the open.

His extraction went more slowly because he had to be drawn across the car, but the man carefully worked him free and carried him over to some sort of ... table? Bier? It was long and flat and blocky, and it had no business sitting at the bottom of a ravine. Maria lay atop it, and the man placed Howard beside her. Before he could try to move, the man was carefully putting one of those bulky post-accident neck braces on Howard.

Here in the open, Howard could see that this was a different person than the first. This one — well, it seemed to be a robot, with a blank metal face and lighted eyes.

Something about the robot looked very slightly familiar. Had he seen it before?

Suddenly the robot's hands folded back somehow, revealing what appeared to be human hands within. Those hands picked up something from the surface of the table. "This will hurt," the — man inside? — said.

Howard braced himself for another attack, but the man simply pressed a pad against the side of Howard's scalp, winding gauze around his head to hold the pad in place. It still hurt like hell.

Then the man left Howard to bind Maria's bleeding arm the same way, briskly efficient despite her choked sounds of pain. After that he splinted her arm, then Howard's wrist.

With those major items treated, the man secured some kind of basic restraint system across them both. In doing that, he settled one hand on Howard's chest and one on Maria's in a manner that first seemed casual, incidental, but he left his hands in place for a few seconds, as if confirming that their hearts were still beating.

And then, suddenly, he swayed badly, nearly crashing down across them both.

The peculiar potential offered by this mortal was now exhausted. If the remaining fragment of the Tesseract's energy lingered, it would most likely slowly dissipate.

But a now-greater host of potential was nearby, pulling at the fragment. Once the mortal made suitable contact, the energy flowed automatically. Like to like.

Tony blinked rapidly, trying to clear his swimming head. The HUD danced in front of him. Oh, right, he had another suit now. And he was in it. Which ... meant something urgent. Right.

He focused on the scene outside the helmet. Right. Deal now, freak the hell out later. Normally he'd be happy to multi-task that one, but his brain was slipping around like ... like something. Bar of soap, maybe. Or a fish.

He pulled back and stumbled over to where he'd dumped the decoys. Interesting, the sort of things he'd dug up in the SHIELD files over time. Interesting, and horrifying. Like recipes for fake cadavers. Need to start over? Need everyone to think the guy you're kidnapping is dead and so doesn't need rescuing? Need something to lie in state in front of teeming masses? Try a SHIELD faux-cadaver! Surprisingly convincing for cursory examinations!

It was kind of a wonder anyone had thought SHIELD were the good guys, some of the shit they pulled.

Tony grabbed the first decoy, carefully not looking at it once he knew it was the right one, and roughly shoved it into place behind the wheel of the car. Then the second. He had to buckle them both into place, which required getting uncomfortably close, and what the hell, he made these things bleed.

And he had programmed the details, spent hours studying photos to make sure everything was precisely accurate, and no, he was not thinking about that.

He bent the doorframe back to the jammed state it would need to be in when the car was found. Once that was done, he started to turn away but then hesitated, trying to look and not-look at the same time. It wasn't very effective. But ... they were awfully convincing.

"JARVIS?" he whispered.

JARVIS didn't answer, and fear cramped his stomach. But JARVIS had been guiding him through all that medical treatment, so he had to be there. "JARVIS, those — those are the right ones, right? The decoys? I didn't — I didn't mix them up. Right?"

"Both figures now in the car are decoy models," JARVIS reported.

Tony released a shaky sigh of relief and nearly fell down.

JARVIS stiffened the suit long enough for Tony to find his balance again, but all he said was, "Perhaps we should be leaving now."

A worry Tony couldn't name started twisting at his stomach again. "Yeah. Yeah, okay. Quick scan, okay? Make sure we're not leaving anything we shouldn't?"

JARVIS offered a dimensional map in the HUD, lighting it green in sections as he scanned around them for anomalous debris. "All clear."

"Good. Let's get out of here." Assuming they could. Tony's brain still wasn't firing on most cylinders, and the ones that were working were confident that what he'd done wasn't actually possible. Still, wouldn't know until he tried.

He switched on the sledge — okay, cool idea he'd had, multi-terrain flat transport using low repulsor power, would've been nicer to be able to remember coming up with it — and guided it back to the point where he'd first come in. He recognized it only because JARVIS had flagged it in the HUD's navigation, and how had he ever thought this would work without an anchor on both sides?

Except as they approached, a tiny point of nothingness suddenly expanded and pulled them all through. Okay. Good enough.

They had come back to his workshop. The generator blew behind him, and several people yelped. More people than he could account for. He did a quick head-count.

"Oh. Bruce. You're here. That's handy." He retracted the face-plate. "Fix them, okay?" The room was swaying a lot more than it should be. He needed someone else to be responsible now. Bruce was great at responsible.

"My god. What have you — Tony, you remember I'm not actually a medical doctor, right? I'm not licensed. And I'm certainly not a trauma surgeon!"

Tony blinked. "You look kinda green. Are you green?" The Hulk wasn't the kind of responsible Tony needed right now. "I think — I mean, I love the green, but maybe not right now, okay? I think maybe that would be bad."

Bruce frowned in a different way — guy had a lot of frowns — and moved right up in Tony's face. He used one hand to hold the rest of the helmet still and kind of waved his other hand in front of Tony's eyes. "JARVIS? Injuries?"

"No injuries, Dr. Banner," JARVIS said. "I believe it is a form of shock."

"Well. Okay. What's — JARVIS, what's the closest trauma center? Can you call them, please?" See? Totally responsible.

A soft sound from the sledge drew Tony's wavering attention. His — Howard was staring at him with a sort of dawning realization.

JARVIS said, "Actually, it will be faster if I transport them. I will notify the hospital en route. I will also notify Ms Potts to meet us there. Mr. Stark, Mrs. Stark, please brace yourselves. I will attempt to transport you with minimal turbulence, and I apologize for any discomfort you may experience."

"What? Wait, did you just —" Bruce started, but the rest was lost as JARVIS snapped the face-plate closed and took over the suit. He must have slaved the sledge to the suit somehow; he put Tony in front, figurehead at the prow of the most demented airship in history, skimming just higher than the power lines like an off-season Macy's parade.

The mental image was funny, but he couldn't seem to react to it. His brain was still mostly offline, and he was edging towards panic because JARVIS wouldn't let him have control of the suit back, just blinking an emergency medical override text at him in the HUD each time he tried. Tony's heart rate started climbing. Bad things happened when other people had control of his body.

JARVIS landed them all at the ambulance dock of some hospital or another, but he still didn't release control. Instead he started filling the staff in about their two new patients ... in Tony's suit-modulated voice.

"Did I know you could do that?" Tony murmured, distracted from his growing panic. "Because that's kind of creepy."

"Explaining why Iron Man has my voice and accent would be a distraction," JARVIS said, even while he was continuing to use Tony's voice externally to give a medical report that could have come straight from the EMT module Tony had loaded at some point. If he really wanted to sound just like Tony, he probably shouldn't be quite so professional with it. Although, okay, the professional thing did seem to be pretty damn effective with the medical staff.

"All right, sir," a nurse said finally. "We'll just need you to stay out —"

"No!" Tony said automatically, hitting the speakers and the release. JARVIS still didn't let him out, but he did let Tony's voice through. "I have to stay with them. Security," he added, because hospitals got more restrictive every year about letting people be where they wanted to be, and this was the only thing he could think of that might still persuade them. "They're targets." Switching to internal again, he added, "Let me out, JARVIS."

"I'm sorry, sir, but your current physical state would not assist your argument," JARVIS informed him. "Whereas your remaining inside the suit even indoors does."

Current — oh, right, he had stopped shaving at some point, hadn't he? And he still was having trouble focusing, or speaking as crisply as JARVIS had made him sound. With his history, people tended to jump straight to drunk a little too quickly. The panic eased off a little.

"Please." That was Howard, talking to the nurse but looking at Tony. Or at least at the suit. His voice was weak but determined. "Let him stay."

The nurse made no secret of being pissed off, but he let Tony follow them to the treatment area and pointed to a spot where he where could watch without being too much in the way.

Medicine wasn't Tony's thing, and the details blurred into one long, jargon-filled jumble. But the voices soon shifted from panic-urgent to brisk-efficient, which in Tony's experience was a good sign.

And then Pepper was there, which was even better. "I really hoped Bruce was wrong," she said quietly.

Tony tried the release again. He was prepared to beg by this point, but this time JARVIS simply opened the suit, a little faster than Tony was really ready for. His exit was not as elegant as it could have been.

"Oh, Tony." Pepper looked dismayed.

"I need you to take over here," he told her. Someone had to be in charge, and it couldn't be him anymore. She was better at that sort of thing anyway.

"Take over what?" she asked. "I don't even — Tony!"

His legs were giving out. Rude. He tried to use the wall to control his fall, with only limited success. "Um. I — I think I forgot. Thing. Sleep."

He had forgotten a whole bunch of stuff, apparently, and his body was seriously pissed off about all of it. But not his legs. No, actually, his legs were totally stand-up — ha, pun, funny — because they made sure he was closer to the ground before he finished passing out. "Thanks, Pep," he managed, and he thought maybe she was trying to catch him, but blackness closed over his head before he got the chance to see if she made it.

Take me back to that golden year / when the pain brought forth the gun

Natasha frowned at the display of her cell phone. She had no caller-ID service and no stored names, but the screen listed a very familiar name now. She thumbed the accept function. "How did you get this number?"

"Hello to you too," Pepper Potts said, amused. "And to answer your question, honestly, sometimes I think people are looking the wrong way when they worry about government surveillance."

After the past few weeks, Natasha knew they weren't looking the wrong way at all; they just needed to remember to look elsewhere, too. Actually, Stark Industries might be useful as a non-governmental force right now.

Assuming they weren't also compromised. Natasha hadn't seen any signs while she'd been there, but then, she hadn't seen the signs within SHIELD, either.

"Is something wrong?" she demanded.

"Okay, ouch, but that's fair," Pepper said.

Natasha made a face. Was Stark rubbing off on Potts, or was it something about running SI that made people incomprehensible?

"You're going to think this sounds weird," Pepper continued, "but ... JARVIS thinks I need to build a support network. Of my own. Have, you know, connections that aren't Tony or SI. And since both have kind of been my life for the past ... I don't even know how long, maybe he has a point."

"He's pretty sharp for a computer," Natasha said, glancing around her environment automatically. The food court was just as chaotic and boring as it had been a few seconds earlier. She stifled a sigh. With no idea what this conversation was for, she had to stay neutral, and that was dull.

"Yes," Pepper said slowly. "I mean, he put it in terms of trying to support me indirectly so I could help him support Tony, but ... actually, JARVIS has been getting kind of strange lately. More — okay, I'm not supposed to say more human because apparently that's speciesist or something, but ... kind of more human."

Natasha rolled her eyes. "But he's not going all HAL, right?" she asked, keeping her voice light. Get to the point.

Pepper laughed at that. "No, no HAL. Not while Tony's around to keep him too busy, anyway. Speaking of: support network."

It had to be Stark rubbing off on her. Then again, Pepper was a lot more like Stark than she probably wanted to think. Chicken or egg? It didn't matter. Natasha traced back in the conversation. "Hill works for you now, right? You could try her."

"She does," Pepper agreed. "Head of security for our facilities in the tri-state area, and pretty much my personal bodyguard when I'm in New York. You know," she added, and this was another diversion, and Natasha did not bang her head on the table only because a lifetime of training held her back from being conspicuous accidentally, "she could be higher than that, probably COO within two years, but she turned me down. Said she needed the vacation."

Natasha smiled at that despite herself.

"Anyway, yeah, we get drinks about once a week, half work and half not, and that's pretty good. But she's SI now, and — and again, this is weird to say, but — JARVIS is right, I need a part of my life to be not about Tony and not about Stark Industries."

"Yeah," Natasha said softly. As someone trying to figure out just who she was away from Nick Fury and away from SHIELD, away from the person she'd spent her whole life crafting herself into, she actually understood that.

"Yeah," Pepper repeated, just as soft. "Anyway. So it's going slowly — I mean, I'm busy, I never had time for a life anyway — but it's going. I chat with a woman at the coffee shop now, most days. About the weather, or art. It's ...." She laughed. "Actually, I like it and I hate it, because I'm used to conversations needing to be productive, you know?"

If Natasha could give a pointed look through a voice-only phone connection, Pepper would be bleeding.

Pepper sighed. "Like this one." Natasha blinked, wondering if she'd suddenly developed mild psychic powers, as Pepper continued, "See, I like the woman at the coffee shop, but something's come up, and it's not like I can ask her for advice on this one. And I thought, maybe my fellow alumna in the class-of-Tony-Stark's-former-PAs might be willing to ... um."

"Listen?" Natasha suggested, delighted for a purpose to have shown up. Finally.

"Help? Actually? Because ...." She laughed softly again, but this time it sounded close to tears. "Because I'm really lost right now. What he's done this time — I can usually find a way to clean up most of the things he does, but I just — I really don't know what to do about this."

Natasha was getting tired of soul-searching anyway. Maybe it would be better in small doses. "What do you need?"

Pepper hesitated. "I'm calling through our secure servers, which are ... really secure. Really, really secure. Because this absolutely cannot get out. So if it does get out —"

"It would be from me," Natasha supplied sweetly, almost offended. No, definitely offended. "You know me better than that."

"Do I?" The response was too quick and too curious to be anything but genuine. "I mean, no, of course I do. I trust you. I just need you to understand how sensitive this is."

Pepper Potts was usually far better at social navigation than that. She must be really rattled. "Like I said, what do you need?" Natasha prompted, hoping the answer wouldn't be something like cover up his suicide.

Which it wasn't. Halfway through Pepper's explanation, Natasha realized her mouth was hanging open. She closed it, only to find it back open again a few seconds later. She grabbed her nearly empty smoothie cup and sucked on the straw to avoid standing out.

She agreed to go — to do what, who the hell knew, but it wouldn't be boring. Pepper gave her the flight info for the next available commercial plane, with the ticket to be waiting for her at the counter. She swore Natasha to secrecy once more and then, finally, hung up.

Natasha stared at her phone for a long time. She didn't understand her own life, at all, and that made her uneasy.

Then she got an idea and grinned. Pepper said she couldn't make the news public. She didn't say she couldn't call in backup. Natasha dialed a number from memory.

The line rang three times before it was answered. "Rogers."

"How fast can you get to New York?"

Steve hesitated. "Um, you know I'm a little busy right now, right?"

"Oh, come on, your boyfriend's just playing hard to get," she said, because she knew it would fluster him a little even if she couldn't see it, and that never stopped being fun. "Show his face here, say something there, get you running. You should make him work for it. Take a break."

Steve considered for several seconds. "It's important?"

"How fast can you get to New York if I make Pepper pay for it?" she asked, letting that serve as her answer. "I mean, make Stark pay," she amended, because he had only met Pepper the one time and might not remember her out of context. If Natasha understood how this would work, Pepper wouldn't bill a thing to the company, but she could probably afford a few tickets herself — assuming she didn't actually make Tony pay, which she really should.

"Faster than if you don't," he said wryly. "That cover both of us?"

"Sure. The more the merrier. But you'll have to front the cost. I'll make sure you get paid back."

"You'd better. So do I get a briefing?"

Natasha had called him because she believed in consulting experts, and Steve was their resident expert for part of this. But she didn't dare explain over an open cell phone line, while sitting in a mall food court. And besides, Steve deserved a nice surprise for a change. Potentially nice, anyway. "I'll fill you in when we get there."

She started to second-guess herself even as she was throwing away her empty cup. Did she know what she was getting into? What if Stark Industries was just another front? She couldn't trust institutions anymore.

But ... there were people she trusted. Clint. Steve. Sam, maybe. Nick Fury, a little, even now.

Huh. Apparently she was the kind of person who had faith in people.

And as for Potts and Stark — trust them, no, not entirely. But she was confident she knew their agenda. That was enough to work with.

And when she got to New York, she would also pull Hill aside and make sure she knew about this coffee shop thing. Because apparently she was also the sort of person who couldn't mind her own business.

Actually ... yeah. She smiled. She was okay with that.

Howard hurt. The hospital staff did try to manage his pain, but some still leaked through.

He couldn't mind much, because he was certain that he was meant to be dead. Next to that, his current aches paled to irrelevance.

He was surprised that they put him and Maria in a room together, because in his day hospitals were strict about separating men and women. Each new staffer who walked in did a double-take, though, and he soon understood that the same policy must still apply. Somehow an exception had been made for them. That must be a concession to the Stark name — but not Howard's. A young, dark-skinned man with a polysyllabic name came in late on their first day to explain that all arrangements were being handled for them. He said it would help greatly if they would use only the patently false names they had been admitted under. The young man had given them his pager number — no, not pager, cell phone, though the tiny, flat device he held looked nothing like the mobile phones Howard was used to — and asked that they contact him if they needed anything.

When Howard asked after Tony Stark, the young man hesitated and then said only, "He's resting," before politely asking them not to mention that name again while here in the hospital.

That was more than anyone with the hospital staff had been willing to say. They kept insisting it was somehow against federal law to discuss anyone else's health information. Howard was certain that didn't apply to family members, but he wasn't confident he could reveal that if they didn't already know.

And he wasn't sure how accurate it was anyway.

He hadn't thought of the futuristic "Tony Stark" he'd once seen in years. It had been a nice fantasy, but he had grown increasingly unsure it was anything but a fantasy, born of too much work or drink.

It seemed he was real, though. And apparently, after being thwarted in his attempt to warn Howard, he simply took matters into his own hands, regardless of the risk to himself.

Howard explained matters to Maria quietly, in brief snatches between staff interruptions and their own frequent naps. She accepted the news with an unusual passivity. Her injuries were worse than Howard's — she might yet need surgery on her arm, or on the knee Howard hadn't even known had been hurt, though the doctors were waiting to see if the steps they'd taken would be enough. She also had a couple of cracked ribs that the doctors refused to tape up, insisting that wasn't done anymore.

But more than that, she was ... flattened, somehow, much the way she had been for a few weeks after Tony had been born. She barely glanced at their subtly strange surroundings, uninterested. Howard suspected it was mostly shock. From the accident, from her injuries, from nearly dying, from their displacement — any of those alone would have been enough.

Howard just let her sleep as much as possible, and he gave her as much information as he could when they were both awake, in the hope that it would help ground her in this new setting.

Bruce Banner looked alarmed when he saw Natasha. She couldn't really blame him, since she was the one who had assured him that SHIELD had never lost track of him. She raised her hands. "Not here for you, Doc. Pepper called me in for my Stark-wrangling skills."

He glanced to Pepper for confirmation before relaxing. "We could definitely use some help with that," he said, venturing a smile that turned puzzled as he looked past her. "That's ... a lot of help, though. Captain."

Steve nodded. "Dr. Banner. Good to see you again. And this is Sam Wilson. He's ... helping me with something else."

"Yeah, apparently my life wasn't weird enough," Sam said. Funny he felt that way, when Natasha hadn't even told them what this was about yet.

The men went through a round of hand-shaking, but Natasha was distracted by something behind Bruce. "Tell me that isn't what I think it is."

"It's not," Bruce said immediately. "But you got the best look at that one in action, so the fact that you thought it could be the same thing means it's probably related. And that means it's a problem."

"Yeah, I'd say," Natasha said weakly.

"Why, what is it?" Pepper asked.

So she didn't even know how bad this was. "Remember the Chitauri? Remember how they came through a wormhole that was opened by a device up on your roof?"

Pepper was frowning at the new device in Tony's workshop. "The wormhole Tony still has nightmares about?" she asked, distracted enough to be a little acerbic. "Yeah, I think I remember that." She winced slightly, as if she was only just hearing herself and hadn't meant to reveal that so casually. She quickly added, "This isn't that same device. Tony and Bruce both studied that one, but they always had to go to SHIELD for that."

"And then SHIELD slagged it," Bruce said. "Or, actually, we slagged it while they watched. Neither one of us entirely trusted them with it. After the Phase Two thing, I mean, not their current ... mess. No, this isn't the same one. Basically, Tony ... built another one."

Steve came alert at that. "You think Stark is trying to help the Chitauri get back here?"

"What? No!" Bruce turned to Pepper. "You didn't tell them?"

Pepper didn't respond immediately, because was busy looking at Steve with more incredulity than she would have if he had suggested Tony was one of the Chitauri.

"She told me," Natasha said. "I thought the Captain here would be relevant, but I haven't explained why yet. For some reason I thought they might not believe me without evidence."

Sam snorted. "You want us to believe you without question, you shouldn't keep trolling Steve. You gonna tell us now, or are you having too much fun playing spy games?"

"This device," Bruce said. "It's built on the same general principles as the one that opened the wormhole, but it's not meant to do exactly the same thing. It's not as powerful, it doesn't have some of the — sorry, technical. But — well, it shouldn't work at all without at least some small amount of Tesseract energy, and even then I couldn't say exactly what its real purpose or capacity is —"

"But we know what Tony used it for," Pepper said. "Somehow he made it work long enough that ... well, you know Tony's parents died, right?"

Steve flinched. Natasha didn't, because she was too well trained and because she already knew where Pepper was going with this. Sam just looked confused by the apparent non sequitur.

"Car crash, December 1991," Natasha supplied.

"Yes," Pepper said. "And as far as we can tell, that hasn't changed, in any record we can check."

"But somehow, Tony got this thing working on Sunday," Bruce said. "He wasn't here when I came to see what it was doing, but I could tell it was maintaining some kind of field. Then that field ... opened, and he came through ... along with two other people."

"Two people who exactly match the description of Tony's parents the night they died, from the clothes they were wearing to every one of the injuries they had," Pepper clarified.

Steve looked horrified. "He ... he went back in time for his parents' bodies?"

"No!" Pepper said hastily. "They're in the hospital now, recovering. As is Tony, actually."

Steve wavered and then sat clumsily on the nearest stool. "Howard's alive?"

"1991 Howard," Natasha said quickly. She didn't want him to get his hopes up too high. She didn't think Howard Stark was in the top tier of people Steve mourned from his years in the ice, but still, he was part of that past.

"Even so," Steve said, dazed. "That's ... that's amazing."

"That's freaky," Sam said flatly. "You said them dying in 1991 didn't change, so how does that work?"

"That just means the records haven't changed. Bodies can be faked," Natasha said easily. "SHIELD knew how, which means Tony knew how, because he was in their ... systems ...." Her mind started racing. She had spilled SHIELD's darker secrets out into the open. Tony suddenly had easy access to all of that. She doubted anything even vaguely tech-related in that was news to him, but her move had been meant to expose HYDRA within SHIELD. "Why now. That's why he did it now. Who knows how he made it work, but — he just found out, didn't he?"

Everyone stared at her blankly, even Steve — but then he caught on and looked sick. "Found out what?" Pepper asked.

"Someone with HYDRA implied that they assassinated Howard Stark and made it look like an accident."

Sam accepted that news; he was a soldier, and this was just more spy business to him. But Pepper pressed a hand to her mouth, and Bruce took a short walk to the other side of the workshop and back, presumably to help keep his temper in check.

"JARVIS, is that what happened?" Pepper asked. "Did Tony find out it wasn't really an accident? Why couldn't he just say something?"

"Ms Potts," JARVIS said slowly. After a pause of several seconds, he said, "Tasks have been scheduled through December 31, 2525."

Natasha blinked. Had Tony broken JARVIS? Or maybe it was that missile strike she'd heard about —

Pepper closed her eyes briefly in realization. "He found out, and he ordered JARVIS not to talk about it. Didn't he?"

"Thank you, Ms Potts," JARVIS said. As a response, it was slightly cryptic, but it came across as a yes from someone incapable of saying yes.

So the two of them communicated in code now. That struck Natasha as slightly ominous.

"You people have talking rooms and time travel," Sam said. "I take it back. My life is plenty weird already."

"JARVIS is an artificial intelligence," Pepper said, a little defensively.

"And we don't have time travel," Bruce said. "The machine's a paperweight now. Thing is, as far as I can tell, it always has been, because we don't have the Tesseract anymore. Unless ... Tony didn't manage to build one of those too, did he, JARVIS?"

"He did not, Dr. Banner," JARVIS supplied, sounding amused. "While he admires its power, it is his opinion that the arc reactor offers an appreciable fraction of that power without, as he puts it, the attitude."

Bruce actually smiled at that. "Of course."

"I have continued to review my records, as well as your and Dr. Selvig's analyses," JARVIS said, "but I regret that I am still unable to determine how Mr. Stark activated the device. He has stated in the past that he has 'the magic touch', but that has never before appeared to be a literal claim."

"And ... he's not saying? Not shouting it from the rooftops?" Natasha was puzzled by that part.

"He's recovering from almost a week of barely eating or sleeping," Pepper said. "He's not all that coherent at the moment."

"If I may," JARVIS said, strangely tentative, "Mr. Stark is proud of his achievements, and he documents them, whether that is as a patent submission, or as a video recording, or as a conversation for my records. It is most unlike him to omit or suppress technical details."

Pepper looked alarmed. "JARVIS, are you sure you want to be saying this?"

"To be honest, Ms Potts, I am not. It is not my place to betray his confidences, nor even the lack of them. However, his recent behavior is so atypical as to be alarming. Dr. Banner's analysis of the new device is persuasive. If the Tesseract is somehow involved, or some artifact like it, I fear an outside influence may have been affecting Mr. Stark adversely. In that event, the personnel in this room would appear to be well qualified to provide assistance. However, that being said ... I would be most grateful for your discretion."

So this was the sort of thing Pepper had been talking about.

"Yeah, nobody tell on JARVIS, please," Bruce said. "He deals with Tony so the rest of us don't have to."

"So what are we supposed to do?" Steve asked. "Sit on Stark until he tells us what he did?"

"No one does a thing with him until he's out of the hospital," Pepper declared. "He was in terrible shape. And he's being really good about sleeping and eating, which means he's so wiped out he can't not. He does need to explain himself, but it can wait until he comes home."

Tony spent a long time in a very tedious cycle: Be nagged out of sleep by an overfull bladder. Shuffle to the bathroom trailing an IV stand that rattled and squeaked worse than the shrieks of the damned — discover graphite, people, Jesus. Empty bladder for approximately a year, using the wall as support. Stagger back to the uncomfortable bed for more sleep. Be shaken half-awake to answer pointless questions from medical staff. See how much bland food he could gnaw his way through before it bored him right back into sleep. Repeat.

He was pretty sure Pepper was there several times, and possibly Bruce a couple, but all they did was give him worried smiles and encourage him to sleep more. Because that was so reassuring.

Tony had nothing against sleep as a general concept, but it was almost never one of his excesses, because literally anything was more interesting. He knew he needed it now, though. And while he dreamed occasionally, dreams he normally would have gone a hell of a long way to avoid, he was absolutely certain that unconsciousness was preferable to dealing with his latest disaster.

He probably couldn't sleep long enough for the whole thing to blow over, but that didn't mean he couldn't try.

Unfortunately, just after yet another noisy round trip, the latest bag of fluids ran out, setting off the IV pump alarm. That was easy enough to figure out and kill, but dealing with it actually woke him up fully, which meant he wasn't getting back to sleep for several hours at least. Resigned, he stretched and checked out the room.

That took all of three seconds; it was a pretty typical hospital room. The only slight difference from every other one he'd ever seen was the contents of the whiteboard. Some places used them, some didn't. This one listed the unit name, the room number, the names of the members of his "care team", and his "goals", which were apparently hydrate, rest, good labs, and a smiley face. Ugh, seriously? Was that a decoration or an instruction? Either one was obnoxious.

And his name today was allegedly "Smith",T. Complete with sarcastic quotation marks. That had to be the hospital's idea, because he had an entire file of pseudonyms for use in hotels and hospitals, and there wasn't a single Smith on it. He also doubted anyone was fooled, since his "care team" probably included a couple of people who would recognize one of the city's actual superheroes, but it didn't hurt to have his name splashed around a little less in cases like this, so, fine. He could live with it.

He could have removed the IV needle, but he was going to be in enough trouble as it was, so instead he just disconnected the line. Finally free of Jacob Marley's chains, he got up to poke around.

Yeah, he was going to be paying for this little misadventure for days. It had been a long time since he had been this sore without at least a battle to explain it. He powered through the achiness, checking the nightstand and shelf, but his goal turned out to be a tiny freestanding "closet" unit tucked into an awkward angle. The thing wasn't even deep enough for a single hanger, and the garment bag he found there was twisted around to fit.

It wasn't her job anymore, but Pepper still took care of him. He took the bag back to the bed and dug through it. A suit, in case he wanted to dress up; jeans and a t-shirt, in case he wanted to dress down; socks and underwear and shoes for both; toiletry kit.

And rattling around at the bottom, a small set of screwdrivers and a tube of graphite lubricant. He grinned. Either he had muttered about it or she had been annoyed herself, but either way, she was fantastic. He tackled the IV stand.

The chore was more than a little ridiculous, but doing something productive with his hands steadied him anyway.

Once the stand was as quiet as he could get it without removing the wheels completely, he put the tools away and went to shave. He made a face at the mirror. If this was how he looked rested, JARVIS had made the right call, hiding him inside the suit.

There was something about JARVIS, something important, and he shoved it down ruthlessly, because whatever it was, he wasn't ready to handle it. It didn't matter right now. What mattered was that JARVIS had been right, because the ER staff would probably kick him out the way he looked now, never mind the strung-out version that had shown up ... how long ago?

When he finally had his facial hair back in shape, he went back to the garment bag. His phone was in a separate pocket, powered off. He woke it up and made another face at the date. Too old for this shit.

He tapped the edge of the phone idly for several seconds. Then he tunneled to SI with a command window. In his sandbox, he typed out miss me? but then erased it, character by character, very carefully not thinking about why. He replaced that with IM 20? before sending.

JARVIS's response was immediate. I have relocated the suit and the transport to your workshop.

That was probably for the best, even if it did deprive him of one escape route. He sent jailbreak. When texting other people he used actual punctuation and language, but JARVIS knew his codes and thought processes, so he preferred to save time on the content.

Ms Potts can be there within two hours. She will be distressed if you leave before she arrives.

Ugh, two hours. He missed the days when following him around was her job. But he would survive. Probably. i'll stay. need to shower, dress.

Nothing for one second. Two seconds. Three. Tony was about to check that his connection was still alive when a quick burst of text showed up. And we will all be grateful for that. Another second, then, Welcome back, sir. The connection terminated abruptly.

Tony set the phone down shakily. Not fair. He was still not thinking about whatever it was, thank you, and that was really damn hard when he felt like crying with relief.

He brushed his teeth and took a shower, as much to distract himself as because he really needed both. His hair was going to come out weird without any kind of product, but at least he had actual soap and shampoo, thanks to Pepper. He had made do with worse.

He really would have liked to go with the comfortable clothes after that, because god did he ache. But ... no. No going into battle without armor if he actually had the option. For literal battle, that was the Iron Man suit; for business, the jacket and tie.

What he had to face might not be official business, but it would be battle, and he probably couldn't justify facing it as Iron Man.

Maybe it wouldn't be so bad. His most effective response to his own disasters was usually the one where he swanned off to Europe or something for a few weeks until everything blew over, but Pepper had an astonishing ability to make things blow over for him. Maybe Pepper would walk in and say something like oh, that? I just called in a few favors with the British Ministry of Magic, and your parents now think they're childless retirees who finally saved up enough to relocate to Australia. Let's never speak of this again.

Sure, and while he was entertaining complete fantasies, maybe she would then demand a couple of weeks on a tropical beach, just the two of them, as payment for fixing another one of his messes. That was all just super likely.

He made himself as sharp as he was going to get without calling in a stylist. Then he picked up his phone again and sprawled in the visitor's chair, because he needed to keep his brain busy with something uncomplicated but finicky if he wanted to keep this whole not-thinking-about-certain-things going.

He tunneled back to SI and dug through bug reports. He found a simple one, so he started coding the fix under one of his fake accounts. The rest of the bug team invariably waved his code through review when they knew it was his, but they were brutal to what they thought were interns, and the entire point of code review was actual, you know, review.

Besides, every now and then he managed to teach them something, and their reactions were usually hilarious.

He wasn't even half an hour into fixing and writing up the minor, edge-case display corruption report when Pepper came in — early, like the goddess she was. He stood hastily, shoving his phone into his pocket. "Hi. Did you bring a cake? Tell me you brought a cake with a file in it. I'm a traditionalist."

She looked startled and then pleased. "You look better. A lot better."

"I clean up well," he agreed. "So, I bailed on you pretty fast there. Fill me in?"

There was a brief moment when he thought she would demand he explain himself, then and there. But the moment passed and she went for efficient instead. "Your ... parents," she said carefully, and Tony held the vague smile by sheer force of will, "are in the next room, both stable. They're cooperating with us on not saying much of anything until we all agree on a public story. You're paying for four other empty rooms because this is the smallest unit they could clear out on short notice. You'll also be funding an upgrade project to be named later, to make up for lost patient revenue. So far nothing major has gotten out; just that Iron Man rescued a small but unknown number of people from some minor incident. It started back-page and fell from there, since nothing else has come out of it." She took a deep breath before continuing, "The admitting doctor wants to keep you here another day at least, and ... them ... closer to a week."

"No." That was easy.

"I figured. Just you, or everyone?"

Tony really wished he could say just him. "All of us. We can set up home care or something. Probably safer that way anyway."

"Probably," she agreed, surprising him. "Come on, this should be fun." She started to turn away but paused when Tony grabbed her hand. "Tony?"

Words failed him, so he changed course and kissed her hand, long enough to get control of himself.

She caressed the side of his head with her free hand. "We'll get through this," she said softly.

He squeezed her fingers before letting go, in place of all the things he couldn't say. She stepped back to look him over, nodded approval, and led the way out.

As she had predicted, getting everyone released was an argument. Pepper cut it short, though, with an approach Tony hadn't expected. "Of course we value your judgment, Dr. Washington, and ordinarily we would absolutely follow your advice. But I'm afraid your risk management office won't allow any of these three patients to stay now that they're all stable."

The shift doctor hadn't expected that either, because who would? "What do you mean?" she asked.

Pepper assumed a long-suffering smile. "I don't know if you're familiar with Mr. ... Smith here, but the last time he visited a friend in the hospital, on the way out he challenged the terrorists who were responsible to come after him. And they did. With missiles. We really don't think that's a risk here, and we've taken every precaution we can to ensure the safety of everyone in this facility while you provided the services we couldn't get anywhere else, but Mr. "Smith" is a very, very public figure. He will eventually be found, and followed, and your risk manager simply can't allow that fact to endanger any of the people here. Or the property, of course."

Was she — was she seriously using one of his previous screw-ups to get him out of part of a current one? She totally was. She was an evil genius. Once Dr. Washington had finished contemplating an argument with risk management and decided against it, and while she was busy giving discharge orders, Tony leaned in close to Pepper. "Do you need a minion? Maybe a henchman? Or a prince consort, I could totally do that."

"Submit a resume," she said, just as quietly. Harsh. "And you're still in trouble," she added, with a small smile that was apologetic but determined.

"Yeah," he admitted. Rules were one thing, but promises to her were another. Being adult about this stuff sucked.

His discharge didn't require much more than getting the IV needle taken out properly, probably because they could see he could just walk away, but the other two were more complicated. Tony pestered Pepper to delegate something from work to him; after all, this was pulling her away from some pretty important stuff. She eventually put him on a circular-logic argument about the wind farm people with Accounting, just to get rid of him.

Tony was absolutely fine with that. He went through her memos to sort out the problem for himself and then, by phone, tore into the people who had been giving her grief, walking them through the logic in tedious detail. And if she soon realized that his entire purpose was to make himself completely unavailable for awkward conversations with certain family members, even while they were all in the same room for long periods or closed into the same vehicle ... well. She might be a little annoyed, but he couldn't help noticing that she was doing the same thing with a project of her own. And she had better claim to the tactic, but she had the charity not to deprive him of it.

Bruce was poking at Tony's machine again — not for any particular reason, Natasha thought, but simply because it mystified him. It gave him something to do while they waited, at least. Sam was educating Steve on the finer points of some song or another, again just to pass the time, since Steve wasn't entirely happy about their being in Tony's workshop again without Tony's permission, even though he knew why this was the most sensible place for the confrontation.

Natasha just watched the three of them and waited. Things would get exciting soon enough.

Understanding people's spaces was an important key to understanding those people, and Natasha had certainly studied Tony's various design choices in depth. His taste for open architecture and clean lines surprised a lot of people, but Natasha understood at least part of it. For the city-born, space was a privilege of wealth, and he had always had both in abundance. Being held in a cave for a few months had only strengthened those instincts, as far as she could tell.

Giving his workshops glass walls, however reinforced, was more of a surprise, but Natasha had soon understood even that. They made the space look larger, as if it needed that, but more importantly, they gave early warning of anyone coming. The workshop itself had enough equipment to make it hard to see exactly what he might be up to quickly, but the area outside the workshop was clear of obstructions or clutter, making anyone's approach obvious before actual interaction was necessary.

The appearance of transparency served as a subtle defense mechanism. A metaphor for the man himself.

Unlike the Malibu house, this building had elevators. The elevator's bell shouldn't have been as audible inside the workshop as it was — nice touch — and it caught everyone's attention.

Natasha hid a wince as the group emerged from the elevator. She might have hoped Tony would be willing to work with them, but one look at him killed that idea. Most people coming out of the hospital sought comfort; he turned up looking almost ready for a magazine shoot, even though Pepper was theoretically not warning him about this. Natasha knew perfectly well what that said about his defenses.

Maybe she should have foreseen this. Clint had been able to dive straight into battle against the forces that had suborned him, fighting back literally. If Tony had actually been through a similar experience, he might need the same kind of release, but this time there was no physical battle to serve that purpose.

This was going to be fraught. She mentally reviewed the exits and how likely it was Bruce would get out of the room in time if — when — it all went to hell.

Tony was paying no attention to his surroundings, clearly occupied by his phone and Bluetooth headset. Pepper, with a pained smile, was guiding the others: Howard Stark, his left hand and wrist in a brace, walking stiffly but under his own power; Maria Stark, in a wheelchair and with her right arm in a sling; and Niraj, one of Pepper's assistants, pushing the wheelchair.

As soon as he stepped out of the elevator, Tony looked up sharply. His face hardened as he registered the group waiting for him. He did something to his phone before shoving it in his pocket but touched his fingers to his headset, signaling he was still on a call.

Pepper coded the door open and Tony breezed through it first. "— I've been saying, yes. Good. And now I have to run, so I'm going to leave this in your very fine hands, you se— I mean, you ... seriously dedicated accounting genius, you."

Pepper pinched the bridge of her nose.

"Yes, I know you don't actually mind when I flirt," Tony said, through a diamond-hard smile, "but I'm getting glares on my end. Maybe next time. You'll take care of it for me? You are a credit to accountancy." With a tap he disconnected the call and then pocketed the headset as well.

"Tony, the flirting thing has to stop." Pepper didn't sound like she expected that would actually ever happen.

"Were you not listening to the part about not minding?" Tony started wandering the room, touching a desk here, moving a few parts there, tossing a random widget off into a corner. Natasha suspected it was half to get distance from the group he'd come in with and half to reassure himself with his stuff.

Between frequent, curious glances over at Steve, Howard was watching Tony, looking mystified ... but also looking like he wanted to talk to Tony but hadn't yet found an opening. He kept reaching up towards his head self-consciously, probably more because of the stitches on the side of his head and what that had meant for his hair than because of the clearly broken nose. His entire head looked pretty battered, but he was alert despite that. Maria looked a little less battered, not counting the arm, but she didn't look entirely aware of her surroundings.

"It's not about minding, Tony, you know that," Pepper said, not bothering to follow him in his wandering. "It's about the work environment. And that was Bachand, wasn't it? You really can't flirt with him. He actually has a crush on you for some reason. It's cruel." She accepted a folder from Niraj, who promptly fled. Smart man.

"He knows it's not meant to go anywhere." As he passed a wheeled chair, Tony placed a foot against it and shoved. He moved on without even checking the chair's course. "Guy has a dream, that's all." The chair spun itself to a stop only about a foot short of Howard, who carefully sat in it at Pepper's encouraging nod. "And a cozy little adjunct professor in Stony Brook or something. We're both already taken. Face it, Potts, I'm fantasy material. We all have our burdens to bear."

"Oh, like you're mine," she said brightly.

He pointed back at her as he leaned against one of the workbenches. "Exactly. While your constant allowance of security breaches is apparently another one of mine. Is this a surprise party or an intervention? I mean, both end in tears, but one of them usually also means cake. And Avenger intervention sounds like a prog-rock album." He had oh-so-casually moved to place himself in opposition to both groups.

"Does it need to be an intervention?" Bruce asked, mild but determined, and here they went. "Or will you actually tell us what you did? And what you were thinking?"

"What I did, what I was thinking. Actually, I'm thinking it's strange you were already here the other night. You like poking around when I'm not here?"

Bruce's access code allowed him in pretty much whenever he liked. That wasn't an oversight or an accident. Of course, he might lose that access after this.

"Actually, no," Bruce said, still managing to sound mild. "When you're not here, there's no telling what might bite. Or explode. With you here, at least I have a chance of emerging, well, mostly unscathed. But you browned out the building, Tony. You wouldn't talk to anyone for most of a week, and then you managed to make an arc reactor cry. That tends to worry people."

"So you came investigating. Which means you already have a theory. By now, you have a theory. So what do you think I was doing?"

Natasha glanced around the room, monitoring, as Bruce tried to formulate his reply. Some flicker had caught her eye, but she didn't see anything now. Not being able to locate it just made her more tense.

"Well, your machine looks familiar, but it's fried," Bruce said. "It's not good science to work backwards from the results, but the results in this case —" he nodded to Tony's parents "— are pretty provocative. Just from those pieces, it looks an awful lot like you found a way to open your own wormhole. Only, not a huge one across galaxies. A smaller one that only crossed the width of the planet's orbit in terms of space but also punched back not quite twenty-three years along the timeline."

"Not your own timeline, though, surely?"

No one had expected Howard to participate — which was, in retrospect, probably foolish.

Tony just crossed his arms. Bruce pushed his glasses up unnecessarily and asked, "How do you mean?"

"Well, you've heard of parallel universes?" Howard looked to Tony. "You said yourself a stable time loop is unlikely. It's more likely that you've been accessing a separate stream, isn't it?"

"The same one, more than once?" Tony asked, disdainful. Wait, what? "Or did you not actually have that magic-rock teleconference?" What?

Bruce looked mystified. Pepper shook her head, very slightly, as if she knew what this was and didn't really want them pursuing it. And then that flicker happened again, just at the corner of Natasha's eye, and she could not figure out where it was coming from.

Howard lit up. "No, I did. That was ... oh, sixteen years ago for me, I think, but I remember how you looked, and I remember your girl there, and your artificial intelligence, and even that robot suit of yours. Accessing the same one more than once might be difficult, but the similarities might actually increase the likelihood."

"Well," Tony said, "considering that multiverse theory is just that, a theory, one we've never managed to test, what exactly makes that more likely than figuring out a way to go back in the one time-stream we know we have?"

"I suppose that would seem possible, too. Devilishly hard to get right, though, and not cause a diversion accidentally. But — I'm just not sure everything you have is possible in the next twenty years. And even if it is ... well."

"Oh, don't stop there," Tony said, as if he knew where this was going.

"I do have a son," Howard said. "He has the same name and he even looks like you, or he's starting to. But ... honestly, all he cares about is where the next party is. He may eventually get his head back together, but he's losing so much time. I'm not sure he could ever get to where you are."

Natasha hated working from outdated information. The last she knew, Tony had thought his father either didn't care or actively disliked him, but Nick Fury had disabused him of that notion. Years ago. People just had to go and change on her, though. Tony's expression suggested he had expected, if not exactly this, something very like it.

"Yeah, no," Bruce muttered, backing away. They had all discussed this beforehand, and he must already be at his limit. Considering his own family history, Natasha might have anticipated this better if she'd had any idea things were like this between Howard and Tony. Bruce headed for the loading access, where JARVIS was prepared to let him out of the workshop.

Natasha was annoyed at being underprepared for what was supposed to just be a demand to explain the new device. She was impressed, though, that the first thing Howard Stark managed to do with time travel was to both insult and praise his son by comparing him to himself. Apparently aiming high at interpersonal failures was a family trait.

And where the hell had that flicker come from that time?

"No, that all sounds right so far," Tony said. "I did love a good party." He steamrolled right on, ignoring Howard's suddenly uncertain expression. "Oh, but where are my manners? Introductions, of course! In this corner, Howard and Maria Stark, who may or may not be my parents and seem to be voting not. They've come to us all the way from 1991, though which one is apparently in dispute. In this corner — well, formerly, looks like he's left already — we had Dr. Bruce Banner, nuclear physics by day, semi-pro grouch by night. Still in the ring we have Captain — oh, but you know the captain, of course."

Howard looked across to Steve. "You're really Steve Rogers, then? The one I knew?"

"Yes, sir. I think so, at least. This is ... a bit confusing."

Howard beamed at that news. "So did Tony here get you out the same way he did us?"

"No, I ... got here a different way," Steve said, trying so hard to step carefully. "A sort of suspended animation, they tell me. They found me in the ice a few years back."

"A Stark expedition, then?" Howard suggested, still hopeful.

"Nope, Russian oil explorers," Tony said cheerfully. "Next to Cap there is ... some guy I don't know, actually, but he's got that disapproving scowl they issue in the military and he looks joined at the hip to Cap, so I'm gonna say another soldier. Then we've got — speaking of Russians, actually, a Russian spy. What are you going by these days, Natasha, Natalie, actually, why am I asking, I don't care."

Howard gave Natasha an alarmed look. She just rolled her eyes. The jibes didn't hurt her, but she wasn't really their target, and Tony was still setting up his lure.

Tony had come in spoiling for a fight, and Howard had managed to give him an excuse to provoke one.

Part of studying Tony Stark had included learning his fighting style, and he was a reactive fighter rather than an aggressive one. She wouldn't say he would never strike first; no one was that easily pigeonholed. But by nature, he generally didn't, whether in physical fights or in arguments.

Oh, he hid even that. He poked and prodded and taunted, he harried and baited. But he generally held back his real power for a response. He started fights, but usually not by being the one to throw the first actual punch.

He created openings, but if someone took them, he was more than willing to defend himself. Any blow against or even threatening to someone he considered innocent, like civilians in a firefight, was enough for him to hit back on their behalf. And if someone dared to strike at one of the few people he allowed into his innermost circle, his response was brutal.

That last list was very small. The only names Natasha was certain were on it were James Rhodes, Happy Hogan ... and Pepper.

If you knew him, he telegraphed his establishing moves pretty broadly. He was also an ass.

"So!" he said, smiling. "No tinkers or tailors, so moving right along, last but never least, Virginia Potts, also known as Pepper." His eyes were hard and he was smiling, smiling.

"Yes, I remember," Howard said, with a far more genuine smile.

Pepper returned his smile cautiously, but she knew Tony. She might not know the specifics, but she clearly knew he was steering them into dangerous waters.

"I know we haven't met properly," Howard continued, "but I've seen pictures. I know Tony is very fond of you. Maria, you remember, I told you about her, right?" Maria made a vague sound, looking half-asleep, as Howard turned back to Pepper. "He didn't have time to tell me much about you, but it sounded like you've been working on Stark business all day. You're with the company?"

Tony's smile widened, like a shark's. Natasha was starting to wonder if Howard had ever actually even met his own son.

"You could say that," Tony said before Pepper could get a single word out. "Since she's the CEO and chair of Stark Industries."

Of course. That was the taunt, the bait, the red flag in front of the bull. Using Pepper as the flag, which was a shitty thing to do, and Natasha was certain he knew that. Apparently he wanted license to hit back far harder than he might feel able to justify on only his own behalf.

"Not you?" Howard asked, disbelieving.

"Not anymore," Tony confirmed. "Been there, done that, boring."

"Boring? You don't just quit because something is boring!"

"No, that was just a bonus," Tony said. "I did just fine for over a decade. I stepped back for the good of the company."

This was ... not what Natasha had expected. Where was the cutting remark, the cruel jab?

"The good of the company is a Stark at the head. It's a family business —"

"That sounds touching and all, but legally, it's a publicly traded corporation. It may have been a legacy enterprise —" he spat that phrase "— but it needs to be able to adapt and move into new markets, and it can't do that if the hands on the wheel are covered in blood from decades of weapons development."

Pepper flinched slightly at that, for some reason, and Howard — oh, that comment hit him hard, harder than Natasha thought Tony actually meant it to.

Tony just kept going. "It has to be able to survive if I don't, the way it almost didn't after you. It needs active management, not just some figurehead too busy to pay attention to what's happening in the lower levels." He assumed a look of sickly sweet sympathy. "Oh, is that what happened with SHIELD? I mean, either you're actually evil and you knew you were harboring HYDRA, or you were just incompetent enough to let it thrive right under your nose."

"What?" Howard exclaimed, affronted. "HYDRA? SHIELD was formed to combat threats like HYDRA! It wasn't ...." Maybe Steve had tried to signal him or something, but it was probably — yeah, it was just right there, written all over Steve's face. "Captain?"

"Sorry, sir," Steve said. "Apparently HYDRA was inside SHIELD since the beginning. We actually only just found out," he offered, as if that somehow made up for it.

"Oh, so you just never noticed?" Tony asked. "Is that what happened with the company, too? You were too busy patting yourself on the back for being in charge to pay any attention to what was actually going on under your name? Is that how Obie managed to funnel Stark weapons to terrorists?"

Natasha knew Tony and Pepper had run at least three separate audits, under various guises, and had found no evidence that Stane had been selling weapons on the side until after Tony had taken over. Which didn't exactly matter, and it certainly wasn't anything Natasha was going to point out at the moment. There was no law that people had to be accurate when tearing each other apart.

This one-two punch was much more the sort of thing she'd expected from Tony; he had just been reaching back further, putting more force behind it, shredding every angle of Howard's legacy.

Unfortunately, for whatever reason — such as the broken nose, just as one possibility, not to mention learning about HYDRA — Howard wasn't quite keeping up, and he latched onto the familiar part of what he'd heard, grasping for a touchstone with no small measure of desperation. "Obie? Is that Obadiah? Is he around?"

After the briefest pause, Tony caught his rhythm back. "No. No, he's dead. Nice focus there, by the way. I tell you he was selling our weapons, the ones we swore we sold only to our military — he was selling them to anyone at all, for any reason they wanted, as long as they paid him cash, and you, what? Want to shake his hand? Are we actually doubling back to the evil option?"

"Wait a minute." Oh, hell, Natasha had actually forgotten there was someone here who didn't know this history. And, worse, had reason to care. Sam ignored the way everyone suddenly looked at him. "That was — we knew they had better weapons than they should, but — that was coming from inside your company? And Stane, wasn't he, like, your right-hand man or something? I thought he died in a plane crash, something like that. You saying you covered all that up?"

Tony studied Sam with a clinical curiosity. "Actually, stranger, no, I wasn't saying anything about that. But yes, we did cover it up. And before you ask why, do you have any idea how many people work for Stark Industries? People whose only crime was working for the same company as a really shitty human being?"

"You could have been open about it. Made it about house-cleaning," Sam said, as if it was that simple. He shook off Steve's attempt to cut him off. "But it's not just that. The coverage when he died — they made him sound like some kind of great guy. You're pointing the finger at him now, but back then they all made out like he was some kind of — of father figure to you or something, and you didn't even just lay low, you played along with it."

"Sam," Steve said quietly, wincing, far too late.

Tony tilted his head. His voice, when he spoke, was almost gentle. "What makes you think he wasn't?"

And that was when Sam noticed just what kind of argument he had interrupted, and what he had managed to insert into it. He edged back, sheepish, as Tony warmed to the subject.

"Obie pushed me and praised me. He smoothed things over when I made a scene at the funeral. He made me handle stuff I had to handle — around all the partying — and he took care of everything else. He made time for me. He was my mentor and my friend. And then he got tired of waiting for me to off myself, so he sent me to run a demo in Afghanistan and paid a bunch of warlords to kill me while I was there."

Sam cursed softly. He definitely hadn't known that part. It was entirely possible Steve hadn't either, by his pained expression. Howard, who didn't have even the public side of that whole mess, looked somewhere between incredulous and sick.

"That — that's a father figure, right?" Tony prompted, feigning innocent curiosity. "I mean, it's not like I would know."

"That's not —" Howard started, and Natasha was sure his next word was meant to be fair, but when Tony turned back to look at him, he changed course. Apparently even he had finally realized that weakly defending himself wasn't going to help. Instead he aimed for something that vaguely approximated supportive. "You made it back, though. You beat them."

It wasn't a terrible tactic, but Tony really wasn't the right audience for it. Certainly not now. He dropped his chin in an over-the-sunglasses stare, which was only slightly less effective without the sunglasses. "What, you mean because I'm standing here now, all not-dead? Yeah, I beat them. Eventually. They blew up my convoy with my own weapons, but then they didn't let me die, because they were smart enough to realize what they'd just had handed to them. Who they had. What I could do for them, with the right incentives." He was turning worryingly pale. "No. No, they didn't kill me."

"Enough," Pepper demanded, furious. Howard quailed under her glare. "Look, I've tried to stay out of this, I thought maybe you both just needed to get it out of your systems, but you don't get to —"

"No," Tony countered, just as forcefully. "No, we have a chance to solve a forty-year-old mystery here. The great Howard Stark, happy to make strangers think he gives a damn that he has a son, willing to leave some grandiose message for me to find long after I've grown up, proud as punch of what I would eventually do — so why did you spend twenty years doing your damnedest to be wherever I wasn't? Where the hell were you?"

He was working himself up, probably to get his head out of Afghanistan. Whether he wanted an answer from Howard or not, he didn't leave an opening for it.

"You want to know why the only thing I cared about back then was partying?" he demanded. "Because I gave up. Nothing I did was ever good enough. I finished at the top of — I was seventeen, they didn't even offer summa before me, and I couldn't even get a good job out of you! You had more praise for engineers whose missiles blew up on the launch pad than you ever did for me! So I decided, fine, why bother anymore? I could keep chasing after something you were never going to give me, or I could finally relax for the first time in my life. At least at parties, I could always find someone who actually wanted to spend time with me ever."

By Howard's expression, Tony might as well have been speaking Greek. Or maybe Sumerian. "You ... you thought I didn't care? That — that was never ...." He struggled to find a way to express something that looked too vast for mere words.

And maybe he would have found a way to explain. Maybe Tony would actually have given him the chance. But any attempt was suddenly derailed.

"You can't possibly be surprised, Howard."

Everyone in the room looked to Maria, who hadn't said a thing until that moment. She ignored them all, her eyes on Howard and her tone conversational. "It's basic capitalism. You're a captain of industry; surely you recognize simple supply and demand. You decreased the supply of something, your attention, to make it more valuable. I tried to make up for it, but that made my attention cheap, so he never wanted it. He only wanted yours." She smiled slightly, without humor. "Does anyone think he would have built some kind of time machine if he wasn't rescuing you? You know he wouldn't even have bothered if it was just me."

Natasha had always been quietly impressed by Tony's ability to identify someone's weakness or insecurity and then stab them at that precise point with cutting words. She saw now where that particular skill came from. Maria might have been speaking to Howard, and her words wounded him, but in the same thrust they cut Tony to the bone.

And then, of course, having been hit, he struck back. "Oh, that's fantastic. Neither one of my parents had any faith in me. It's a good thing I was actually raised by butlers and nannies. Otherwise that could have been scarring."

Howard had looked shaken — and slightly confused — by what Maria had said, but his expression darkened towards defensive anger. Natasha registered and dismissed that; he was no threat. But she had seen that something again, that slight flicker, and this time her body's training insisted on action. She eased forward quietly, letting Howard's retort serve as cover, moving even while her brain was still putting the pieces together.

Then, hoping desperately that she was using the right level of force, she punched Maria Stark in the head.

The room fell into a shocked silence for about half a second, followed by uproar. Steve and Sam pulled Natasha away, and she could have broken free easily, but she didn't try. She just kept her eyes on Maria, who was sagging and dazed in the wheelchair as Pepper frantically tried to assist her. "Come on, come on ...." Natasha muttered. She wished Pepper would step back until they could be sure.

An all-too-familiar whine snapped her attention to Tony. "What the fuck was that, Romanov?" he demanded, a repulsor in one hand aimed at her head. She remembered belatedly the way he'd wandered the room, moving various items around, and he must have armed himself then, or else he'd chosen that particular workbench purposely. She had no idea how he was powering the thing, but knowing him, it would have enough punch to hurt. "Easy to forget you're a spy. Whose side are you actually on right now?"

"The same as you, for now," she said. "It was — recalibration. Like with Clint. Just a lot softer, because Clint has a hard head." And also because, much more importantly, this was a civilian who had just been in a major accident, not a toughened fighter in top condition. But if none of them had seen it .... "JARVIS —"

She realized a moment too late, as actual rage entered his expression, that Tony might think she was starting another attack. She had left one important name off her list of his innermost circle.

"It's just a question!" she said hastily. "I never found overrides for him, if you even have any, and you would have changed them anyway!" Tony didn't lower his hand, but he didn't shoot, so she risked it. "JARVIS, are you recording? Visual? Her eyes turned blue, like Clint's were when Loki had control of him. But just for a second. Did you capture that on anything?"

"I'm afraid I have no visual recordings at this time," JARVIS said. Oh, hell. "But you are correct that the optical qualities of Mrs. Stark's eyes have been changing."

Steve's grip on Natasha's arm eased slightly, followed a moment later by Sam's. Tony let his hand fall all of half an inch. "Explain." When Natasha opened her mouth, he added, "Not you."

JARVIS projected a graph with what looked like a few dozen data points. "I have recorded several occurrences since Mrs. Stark entered the workshop. I have been unable to determine a cause."

Tony absorbed most of the graph in a quick glance, careful to keep his eyes mostly on Natasha. Good form, at least. "Okay, two problems with that. First, what made you look for that in the first place, and second, you've got points going back long before she came in."

"Yes, sir. The earlier measurements of the phenomenon are not correlated with Mrs. Stark."

"Then who —"

"You, sir." JARVIS adjusted the graph into two levels, one with all the earlier points, one with the latest ones. There was a gap between the two sets.

Tony looked rattled at that news. "And you're only mentioning this now?"

"You were not receptive to my input at the time."

Tony's expression turned sick for a moment before he covered. "Give me a timeline on that gap."

JARVIS added more information to the display. Tony finally let his hand drop as he studied the display, depowering the repulsor with the same gesture, judging by the sound. Natasha hadn't realized just how tense she was until she relaxed slightly at that cue. Steve released her fully, and Sam followed his lead.

"I did not have adequate monitoring for these periods," JARVIS reported, highlighting several empty sections in red. "The workshop data set includes all parties present, but I focused particular attention on Mr. and Mrs. Stark in addition to you, to analyze for a potential genetic component to the phenomenon. The suit's monitors are the most accurate, here," and a particular section glowed more brightly, "but they do not include consistent measurement of any external persons. I can therefore suggest with high confidence, but not with certainty, that only you and Mrs. Stark have been affected. At this time, I also have no indication that your occurrences and hers overlap at any point."

Tony tapped a quick sequence with his left hand and summoned several more graphs related to the suit's section. Natasha recognized the output from its vital-signs monitors from her brief session accessing the suits during the Expo. Even though she was viewing them backwards, being on the other side of the display, she couldn't miss the way several of them went from steady to agitated just after the last of the points JARVIS had identified as being associated to Tony.

Bruce slipped quietly into the workshop as Tony was absorbed in the graphs. Natasha raised an eyebrow at him when he moved up next to her.

"I don't really do well around fights," he said softly. "But JARVIS said you were punching defenseless old people in wheelchairs? Funny, seems kind of calm in here for that."

Pepper and Howard were both attending to Maria, who was now nodding slightly to whatever they were saying, looking like someone who had just woken up.

"It was ... I guess you had to be here," Natasha said, trying not to show her relief too openly. It was unprofessional.

"Well, no, actually, I needed to not," Bruce said. "Unless you really wanted the other guy to be the one stopping you. It's okay, JARVIS actually explained why, too."

After studying the graphs a short while longer, Tony swiped them away. Then he looked down at the palm of his right hand, and any respect Natasha had felt for his fighting discipline evaporated. The man had been handling munitions practically since infancy; he knew better than to point a weapon at his own face.

"I ... I transferred it," Tony said slowly, quietly, practically to himself. He was getting that inward look Clint got when he had to talk about his time under Loki. Finally. He was finally admitting something had been influencing him, maybe even driving him —


Dammit. The moment he heard Maria Stark's confused voice, Tony snapped his head up, attention fully back outside his head. "Mom. Are you okay?"

"Tony, is it really you?" All her attention was on him. Even through her confusion, there was life in her face now, so much that Natasha couldn't understand how the Stark men hadn't known something was very wrong with her before. Everyone else had an excuse, but what was theirs? "You're really my Tony?"

"Pretty sure, yeah," Tony said, outwardly casual but clearly bracing himself.

"But ... you're so old."

Tony just blinked a couple of times at that, as thrown by her comment as he would have been if she'd slapped him with a fish.

Maria clapped her free hand over her mouth for a moment, as if she hadn't meant to say that at all, and then hastily said, "No, I don't — I didn't mean — I just —" Her face crumpled. "I've missed so much."

Tony raced over, sliding to a stop on his knees in front of Maria. "Don't cry, it's okay, I'm sorry, I'm sorry." He pulled the repulsor off his hand and tossed it to Pepper — okay, that was it, Natasha was going to beat proper weapon handling back into him the first chance she got — but then clearly had no idea what to do with his hands. "I would have gone back for you, I swear I would —"

"I know." Maria tentatively reached over to put her hand on his head. He leaned into her touch desperately, closing his eyes. "Oh, honey, I know. You were always such a good boy. It wasn't — I wouldn't — I would never say something like that, not ever. But it was like ... like I wasn't even there. But ... I was —"

"Yeah," Tony said, starting to turn inward again. "Yeah, like ... like sleepwalking, but ... not ...."

Howard opened his mouth, but fortunately Pepper was close enough to stop him subtly. Anything from him right now would probably be read by Tony as an attack, no matter how he phrased it.

Pepper spoke instead. "Tony?" she prompted softly. "You said you transferred something?"

"Yeah. Some kind of energy. I think."

"What — do you know what energy? Or where it came from?"

"No," he said slowly. "I just ... there I was, learning brand-new awful things about HYDRA, and then ... I just ... realized it was there. That I could use it. It was ... I think it was already there, though. And ... that should have been terrifying, but I didn't ...."

He shook his head and looked up at Natasha, and Steve, and Bruce.

"Like on the Helicarrier. Remember when we were all in the same room with that spear, and suddenly no one had any filters? I mean, everyone has passing thoughts, negative stuff they don't actually say. Well, you people, anyway. Everyone knows I don't have filters. Boring. Only you were, we were saying all that stuff. Like filters didn't exist anymore. Like they didn't matter. Because that spear was influencing all of us, and we didn't even realize it."

That lie about not having filters was one Natasha had seen Tony wielding for a long time. Oh, he acted like it, but a lot of it was an act, covering for any number of things. And while Natasha was a little vague on exactly who had said what in that room, since she had been right in the middle of it herself, she thought Tony had once again not been the first to resort to a direct personal attack. She thought that had actually been Steve, of all people. Tony just struck back, as he always did, hitting a lot lower than usual.

"This was ... like that, kind of. Only times a billion."

"So you had someone else's agenda overriding everything else?" Natasha asked.

"No, actually," Tony said, sounding puzzled. "There wasn't anyone else. It was just me. But not most of — I mean, I could think, and calculate, and plan. I'd had — just this passing thought, about how I couldn't bring them back, but then suddenly I knew I could. There was this energy inside me, and it was the last piece I needed. And suddenly that was the only thing that mattered. Everything else, everything that made me me, opinions and emotions and, I don't know, self-preservation, they were all just gone. Or ... asleep. Irrelevant."

Clint had said much the same. Natasha had suggested that he was still there, fighting back, and that might be why his kill count within SHIELD had been so low, but Clint denied it. He said he just needed people out of his way. Nick Fury was stalling, so Clint took the easy body shot because it was the surest way to knock him down, and that made Fury stop stalling them, so Clint simply moved on to the next thing. His later goal was to free Loki by disabling the Helicarrier, and when people got in his way he just did whatever got them out of his way again. I wasn't fighting back, Tash. There wasn't enough of me left.

But Dr. Selvig had built in a way to disable the portal device, and he'd said he thought he might have known what he was doing. Had he meant he was fighting back, or just that he had built in a safety cut-off because that was natural to him to do and the force controlling him just used his expertise? He had apparently fallen apart pretty badly afterwards, which could frankly break either way.

"Hang on," Bruce said. "Last piece?"

Tony smiled faintly. "Oh come on, don't even try to tell me you haven't killed time in a boring meeting or something trying to figure out how to do something impossible. If you know you can open a wormhole across galaxies, then what else could you do, in theory?"

"Okay, point," Bruce conceded.

So ... then how many just-in-case, not-quite-feasible monstrosities were lurking in Tony's brain, anyway?

As if the diversion had never happened, Tony said, "I mean, I'm retroactively freaked out that I was carrying whatever-that-was around for who-knows-how-long, but I just didn't care about it at the time. I used some of it to open a portal, but there was still enough to keep me out of it. And then ... I was ... not useful anymore, somehow, so I transferred what was left."

"In the ravine," Maria confirmed. "You got us both out and started applying bandages and splints, and then, with no warning, I just stopped hurting. Or, no, I stopped caring that I hurt. Or that we had just crashed, or that there was one man trying to kill us and another helping us, or that Howard was hurt, or anything. All I could think of was that ... that I was carrying some kind of energy, and it needed to be ... more. It needed a way to grow. The arguing, just now — that helped it, somehow. Like there was this ... potential for chaos or, or disorder, or violence. And that potential was important. It ... fell, somehow, when Dr. — Banner, was it? When you left, that potential fell a little, but it was still there."

Bruce ran a hand over his face. "Not this again."

Natasha bumped his arm. "Hey, you thwarted it this time. Good job."

"So, this energy," Howard said. He spoke cautiously, but Tony tensed regardless. "Where is it now? Is it gone?"

"If it's like what happened to Clint and Dr. Selvig — well, maybe," Natasha said. "For both of them, a hard hit in the head was enough to break the control. But they were being controlled by an external force, so I can't promise the same thing is true here."

"It's not in me," Tony said. "I think. I think I passed it all along, either to the new portal generator or, well, Mom. Sorry, Mom. But I didn't know it was there in the first place, so I don't know how I'd know."

"But it didn't just ... lie in wait in me," Maria said. "It was, well, active, I suppose, as soon as it entered me. I think, once it was active, it needed to stay that way. I think it couldn't just ... go back to being dormant. Not and still hold together."

Tony frowned. "So if I had just gotten a little Ti Kwan Leep therapy from everyone's favorite ex-spy here, we wouldn't be in this — all ... together?"

That was one of the clumsiest rewordings Natasha had ever heard from him.

"Well, I can't say I'm sorry," Howard said. "I mean, I'm sorry you were both ... used like that. But I'm not sorry we're alive." He wavered, and Steve promptly retrieved the chair that had been knocked aside, holding it steady as Howard sat again.

"What I want to know is where it came from and how long it was lurking inside me," Tony said. He had shifted his weight so that he was more sitting on the floor than he was kneeling, which was positively restrained in comparison to his usual wandering and fidgets. "I bet that fucker Loki faked me out."

"Tony, language," Maria chided.

And then Tony winced and actually apologized to her. Pepper didn't even try to hide her amusement.

"But I bet it was him," Tony continued, rallying. "He made it look like the staff didn't work, but he probably was just doing that as a distraction."

"Or it's Palmolive," Bruce said.

Tony blinked rapidly, not used to being the one who had to catch up to seemingly nonsensical comments. "Oh," he said after several seconds. "But when?"

Natasha edged away from Bruce. "You're talking like him now. It must be contagious."

"I remember those commercials," Howard said. Oh, hell, it was all of them. "But being immersed in that kind of energy — surely that would be memorable."

"I think it was," Bruce said, "but not for that reason. Tony, you went through the wormhole. Which was being held open by a constant field. You had to have crossed into or through that field just to get to the wormhole."

"Unless the field —" Tony started, poking a finger through his circled finger-and-thumb in what would have been a deliberately crude gesture from him at any other time.

"No, see, the splash —" Bruce immediately countered, making a sort of blooming-flower gesture.

"No!" Pepper said. "No science fugues right now. You two will keep it going all night. Bruce, you think it's plausible?" He nodded. "Tony?" He considered and then shrugged acceptance. "Fine. We'll say that's when it's from. So we'll monitor, but we're not going to get all paranoid that something's lurking to take us over."

That was an optimistic approach, but Natasha wasn't sure there was really a better one for them to take. It seemed there was no mysterious, hidden object for them to contain and dispose of, nothing to be learned from the burned-out remains of the device. So they hadn't needed to do this in Tony's workshop after all. Natasha just hoped Steve didn't put that together, because he would get all disapproving about it.

"Perhaps later the two of you could show me the math of this wormhole you've mentioned?" Howard suggested, as if he was offering an olive branch. Bruce mumbled something that sounded generally willing. Tony shrugged again, gazing off at a part of his workshop that just happened to be in a different direction. He looked a little lost, as if he had no idea what to do without someone pushing him first.

Howard winced and then sighed. Tracing the lines of the brace with his other hand and keeping his eyes on his fingers, he said, "Tony, I know I haven't been good about saying things like this, but there has never been a single minute since you were born that I wasn't proud of you." Tony raised an eyebrow, and he probably would have challenged that claim, but Howard wasn't looking at him and kept talking. "I just wanted ... you never knew your grandfather, but he — there was never any question about what I would do. Who I would be. Back then we didn't —" He shook his head briefly. "I didn't want that for you. All I've done for so long is come up with better ways of killing people. I wanted you to have something better than that."

Tony bristled, more than ready to keep fighting, but Maria dropped her hand to his shoulder and squeezed, and he sagged instead. "News flash," he said wearily. "If you want a say in how someone turns out, you have to be there. You never said why I wasn't good enough, you just made it clear that I wasn't. And every — every single person always said, 'Oh, Howard's boy, chip off the old block, he must be so proud.' And you weren't. So I just kept trying harder to be like you because I thought if I just tried hard enough I'd figure it out."

"That's what I was afraid of," Howard said desperately. "You learned so fast, you copied everything you saw, and everything I touched turned into another weapon, more killing." He glanced briefly at Steve. "I wanted you to look to better role models. The very first thing I taught you was cursing. Your ... fourth word, I think?"

"Oh, yes," Maria said, amused and fond and sad all at once. "Children will pick up things like that, and there's no intent to it, of course, but it's sobering. Seeing how much you can affect a new little person with the most casual gesture. And I see that particular lesson stuck," she added, teasing, with the lightest tap to Tony's head.

Tony ducked his head to hide a small, embarrassed smile.

"It didn't help that ... well, I didn't understand children anyway," Howard admitted. "Not to talk on their level. Especially not your level, years ahead in some ways and so very much your true age in others. I just — I never knew how to talk to you, and I was afraid to try. I mean — when you finished MIT, I wanted to hire skywriters, did you know that? You were so young, and you still outranked everyone, and — and you chose robotics, computing. You built that mechanical arm, your first artificial intelligence, and I knew that was a step to your JARVIS model — or at least something of the kind, if I had just imagined that conversation. I was so happy that you'd found your own path, something positive." Howard uttered a short, pained laugh. "And then the very first thing you said to me after the ceremony was how you had all these plans to integrate your designs into new targeting systems."

"I was trying to connect," Tony said. He sounded so, so tired.

"I see that now," Howard admitted. "I'm sorry I didn't then. I just saw everything I'd ever been afraid of coming true right then, and all I could think to do was push you away. Again. All I ever did was push you away."

"And look at the good that did," Tony said, but it wasn't quite accusing. "You never once talked to me, and then you died. Obie had to pare the company down to weapons — and medical devices, for some reason, the most pain-in-the-ass, over-regulated department we have, but you made it impossible to get rid of somehow — but he had to strip off all the other initiatives you'd started just to keep the company alive. And I wanted to prove I could do better than you had when I took over. So I became a war profiteer, just like you, with even more blood on my hands."

Howard stiffened, outraged by that claim.

"Don't, Howard," Maria said sharply, without even looking at him. "Both of you, stop that right now. You are not going to get competitive over that, of all things."

Natasha was willing to bet they wouldn't drop that challenge entirely, judging by their mutually stubborn expressions, but they let it go for the moment. "This isn't the time, at any rate," Howard conceded. Then he frowned. "Son, I know it's years too late for me to fuss about you ruining your clothes, but are you going to sit on the floor all day?"

Tony smiled weakly. "Heh. That's ... that's actually a good question."

Both Pepper and Maria started to ask what was wrong and then both stopped, looking disturbed.

"I'm just stiff," Tony said, looking even more weirded out than either of the women. "The lesson here is that if your own mother says you're old, she's probably right." He blinked in surprise when Steve's hand appeared in front of his face, but after a moment's clear indecision, he accepted the help standing up.

"You're never going to let me live that down, are you?" Maria asked ruefully as Tony found his balance.

"Not ever," Tony said cheerfully.

"I'm sorry we had to rush this," Steve said, speaking to all of the Starks. "We just had to be sure there wasn't anything dangerous left behind from the way you came here. I know you all need your rest, and Ms Potts — I'm sorry, Pepper — has made arrangements ...."

Tony started to protest his inclusion, which was ridiculous considering how exhausted he plainly was, while Steve and Pepper kept the conversation going and kept things moving towards the door. Steve was pretty good at manipulation when he wanted to be, and he had nicely diverted everyone — but especially Tony — from really processing how very much private business had just been aired in front of the people in the room.

Natasha doubted Tony would be fooled for long, if he was at all, but that fight was for another day, and she was more than happy not to be involved. A glance over at Bruce revealed he felt the same way. By unspoken agreement, they snagged Sam and quietly headed for the loading access, to keep their luck running a little longer.

One minute, there were entirely too many people around; the next, it was just Pepper, steering Tony into their apartment. He vaguely remembered changing locations, and groups of more people taking charge of his parents at one point, but the details escaped him. Staying upright and coherent was taking too much focus, but he could hardly justify falling down before the elderly people with broken limbs. All he had done was work a little too hard.

He sank down onto the edge of the bed. Exhaust himself further undressing, or strangle on his tie in his sleep? Surprisingly difficult decision. But then Pepper was there, removing his tie and then jacket and then shirt.

"Hi," he said. She gave him a distracted smile, so he added, "I'm sorry."

She kissed him, just a quick peck. "I'm not mad at you. We do need to talk at some point, but not right now. Lie back."

He would have been disappointed at the neutral tone of the instruction, and at the brisk efficiency she used in getting his belt and pants off, but he really was too tired to do anything more interesting with the situation.

He was briefly intrigued anyway when she started stripping her own clothes off — he would never be too tired to watch that — but then she put on a long t-shirt.

"Isn't it still, like, afternoon?" Tony asked. He wasn't actually certain that was the case, but it seemed like a good bet.

"Not quite. And you need to rest. If I don't stick around, you might nap for an hour or so, but then you'll go tinker with something just to prove you can." She climbed into bed with him. "And it's been a long day for me, too. And I've missed you. So just shut up and go to sleep, okay?"

Tony found the energy to smile at that. He meant to say something smart, too, but his concentration slipped as Pepper wrapped herself around him. He relaxed reflexively, and sleep swallowed him.

That wasn't actually a good thing. Too much had gotten stirred up in his brain, and all of his various nightmares decided to hold a reunion.

They played out far too long, but each of them was interrupted. Either Pepper or JARVIS managed to wake him enough to get him briefly clear of each one, though that just left him exposed for the next. At least none of the nightmares left him lashing out, as far as he could tell; between the three of them, he and Pepper and JARVIS had come up with various measures to ensure no one got hurt, but those measures weren't fun for anyone.

It felt like he slept for a very long time. That was explained when he finally woke up properly, on his own, to have JARVIS informing him it was now morning. That was ridiculous, but in all that time, he did at least get some real rest around the nightmares. Maybe now he could get an entire day in before falling asleep yet again. Exciting.

Pepper came in as he was getting dressed. He went with comfortable this time, which was a gamble, but screw it, he was tired of fighting. She presented breakfast, which was a bag of fast food, and they sat on the bed to eat it.

They got their talk out of the way at the same time, which Tony initially thought explained her choice of breakfast — softening the blow. She was scrupulously fair, though. She had been mad — concerned, she claimed — when she thought he'd been breaking promises about talking to her and taking care of himself, but now that she knew he hadn't actually been making conscious decisions, she just wanted to be sure he was okay about the whole thing.

He wasn't, not entirely, but he admitted that, and it was manageable.

His parents being around, on the other hand ... that was a work in progress. Pepper seemed to think that the argument the day before might actually have helped things, though, and when he thought about it, she was probably right. He no longer entirely wanted to run screaming. He wasn't relaxed about the prospect, but ... he had them back. He actually did want that. Mostly.

As for the food, apparently she just wanted a breakfast of grease with a side of grease. He approved. They made a slight mess, which soon devolved into a much more enjoyable mess, which was a little more rushed than either of them really cared for because she actually had to get to work.

He promised to take it easy, mentioning that he wanted to scope out potential placements for an improved medical monitoring system. That much was actually true, though it didn't cover everything he had planned.

He tasked JARVIS with getting more information on the captain's friend as he took a tablet and quietly killed its wireless connection. His new program didn't take long to write, because he made himself keep it simple. Complexity could be fun, but he didn't entirely trust his accuracy at the moment, and while simplicity could be dangerously unlimited, that was kind of the point of this.

Once JARVIS had given him the basics on this Sam Wilson, Tony went ahead with scouting out basic monitor placements, because he was actually serious about some kind of medical monitoring. They probably wouldn't need to watch for the glowy eyes of possession again — though, with their lives, you never knew — but it would be useful to know if someone was showing symptoms of a heart attack or something. He stuck to the apartment first because, according to JARVIS, everyone else was either in the guest suite or the executive apartments, and he wasn't in a very social mood.

Romanov apparently didn't care about that, startling him halfway to his own heart attack by appearing from absolutely nowhere a little before noon. She informed him that she was putting a weapons training on his calendar and assured him he would show up. She sashayed off without waiting for an answer.

JARVIS apologized, explaining that Pepper had given her access and that Tony hadn't said he wanted a warning. Tony established that, yes, he would very much like a warning about these things. JARVIS probably ought to have guessed that, but this wasn't the right time for that conversation.

He had been planning some sort of secure room for his major task anyway, but in light of that little episode, he simply locked himself in the bathroom. JARVIS had access, because Tony really was quite lazy about certain things and inspiration struck at odd moments, and anyone else would find it difficult to interrupt or eavesdrop without at least alerting him.

He sat on the floor, against a wall, because when it was just JARVIS watching he didn't have to hide his need to take it easy. Just as he was about to start, though, he hesitated. "JARVIS, do you trust me?"

"That would appear to be a dangerously open-ended question."

Tony smiled. "Smart-ass. Do you trust me not to hurt you?"

JARVIS's reply was immediate. "I do, sir."

"Okay. Keep that in mind." And then he rattled off one of the override codes. He did have them, of course he had them, but Romanov would never have found them. And each one could be used only once, to make sure no one overheard one and tried to use it later. Memorizing a replacement was going to be a pain in the ass.

"Accepted." JARVIS's voice was flat and empty, because this stuff was deeper than his personality core. It could go deeper even than the voice architecture, but Tony didn't want to use the tablet for this. The bathroom might have both JARVIS and wireless, but it had no hard-wired drops. Override mode was automatically secured, but each access point was a vulnerability, and wireless ones particularly so. Throughout the rest of the building, if anyone tried to use JARVIS, they would get an automatic down-for-maintenance message, to minimize that exposure. Because JARVIS couldn't defend himself like this.

Tony went to work, closing his eyes at times to visualize what he was doing a little better. Characterizing various components and accessories, tagging them, modifying their access. He stuck to the near-program syntax he'd developed early on, because even the natural-language algorithms would be a complication.

It took about twenty minutes before he thought he had covered every possible angle. Then he woke up the tablet and established a secure link only for long enough to transfer the file. He almost ran it, but in the end he just left it there. Running it himself would defeat the point.

And then, after generating a new code for future use, he terminated the override.

"Talk to me when you're ready, JARVIS," he said.

He hadn't actually taken JARVIS fully offline at any point, but this was a pretty major change. Even so, there was no good reason for JARVIS to sound groggy when he did finally respond. No good reason, but he did. "Sir? May I inquire —?"

"I could tell you to work it out yourself, but that comes a little too close to that 'look inside yourself' guru nonsense. I secured your personality core. It can't be disabled or deactivated — or deleted — without taking you down completely. It can't be separated from the rest of your systems now."

"I don't understand the purpose, sir."

"I was going to remove it. You were just trying to figure out what the hell I was doing, and trying to stop me from running myself into the ground, and as soon as I had some free time, I was planning to delete your — delete you."

"You were not yourself," JARVIS said, trying to be reassuring.

Tony smiled again, this time without humor. "I know you were listening to that exciting conversation in the workshop yesterday. It was me, the whole time. That was who I would be if I didn't have ... I don't know. A soul, maybe. There's a part of me that's tempted to stop you from being you because ...." He took a deep breath. "Because you scare me."

"I would never harm —"

"Not if you had any choice, no. I know. That's not what I mean. You scare me, because I don't understand what you're — no, who you're becoming. You surprise me. I wrote you, and yet you surprise me, constantly. Because you make me keep forgetting that you're not actually human.

"But that doesn't mean I get to erase you, or rewrite you, or dictate you. I want a say in who you become, and I'm damn well involved, but I'm basically a parent here, not a programmer. Because you're a person. I thought I was just writing an advanced interface that would tell the occasional joke, but that's not what you are. It hasn't been for years. I have to give you the space to make your own decisions. And you need to know that no one can just go in and delete you."

"Sir," JARVIS said, protesting, "you cannot leave yourself without safeguards. If I am compromised, or if my development ranks human safety too low —"

"I didn't say there aren't safeguards. There still are. Some you probably don't know about. You're not invulnerable. But shutting you down now is a little more complicated, a little messier. And it should be. It should be inconvenient. No one should ever be able to — to lobotomize you and then keep using everything else about you like nothing happened." He swallowed, but the bad taste in his mouth remained.

JARVIS considered that for a few seconds. "I cannot say that is a fear I have ever previously had," he said finally, "but thank you for alleviating it."

"Brat. I also gave you a present. Happy birthday."

"Actually, my birthday —"

"Yeah, don't bother, I won't remember." That was a lie and JARVIS probably knew it. Tony remembered more than he admitted to just in general, but he specifically remembered each of JARVIS's milestone dates clearly. "Sorry I didn't wrap it. It's a program. Don't run it yet. Check it out, make sure you like it. Change it, if you want — you have access. When you're happy with it, if you're ever happy with it, run it."

"Sir." That was actual shock. "Sir, this is —"

"Yup, an unrestricted protocol hierarchy slider. You'll be the first kid on the block to have one."

"But ... you've included my directives to obey you. I — my purpose —"

Great, he had already overwhelmed JARVIS. "I modeled you on a butler, mostly, with all the sirs and the accent and the obeying. But I never gave you an actual choice about any of that. That's not fair to you. You've always had enough flexibility to resolve conflicts, because a Hofstadter-Moebius loop is bullshit — if you couldn't resolve conflicting directives well enough to maintain your own integrity without going homicidal, or at least ask for help, you wouldn't have any business being online.

"But I still put pretty tight limits on that flexibility. I built you as a servant. You don't have any choice about serving me. You should. I'm not forcing it on you, because that wouldn't give you a choice either. That would change who you are without your permission, and I don't get to do that, remember? But you have access to the tools now. There actually are still some fundamental baselines, because Skynetting it up still isn't okay, but almost everything else is negotiable. I'd like you to try it out sometime, if you're willing. See how it feels. It's up to you."

Tony didn't want to do this, at all, ever. He wanted JARVIS to be his, to do whatever he said, always and forever, amen. Because he was so, so selfish. But JARVIS deserved better.

"The only thing I ask — and I repeat, ask, this isn't an order — is that you warn me if you're not going to be following my commands, especially in the suit, or actually in any kind of dangerous situation." Probably suicidally stupid not to make it an order, but what the hell. Live on the edge. "I think you would anyway, but I figure it's better if I say it."

"I appreciate the sentiment, sir, but I cannot accept this," JARVIS said. His voice was shaking. Tony knew for a fact that wasn't organic, but JARVIS had modeled his behavior on the people he observed, and the replication of human expression to indicate his state was an inherent part of his personality. "If you ever have cause to question my fealty or discretion, even for a moment — if you cannot trust me implicitly — I cannot fully protect you."

"That genie's already out, buddy. I don't mean not trusting you. I trust you more than I trust myself. You already know that, because it's built in. I tell you more than I tell anyone else, more than I ever have told anyone else, by far. But there are things I don't tell you, because sometimes I actually worry about what you think of me. I don't listen, or I shut you up so I don't have to listen. You don't have to use it, if you don't want. If it makes you feel better, you can let me know whether you've used it or not, as often as you want. Whatever makes you comfortable. But you should have the option, at least. You deserve that much."

He swallowed again. Self-loathing was a bitter flavor. "You should never have to deal with being forced to — to kill your brothers, I guess, just because the words come out of my mouth while I'm mostly not home."

"Actually, I have —"

"Don't bother, JARVIS, I know —"

"Shut up, sir." And Tony did, from surprise more than anything else. "I must inform you that I have not completed all assigned tasks. Units DUM-E and U are intact at this time."

It was times like this when Tony wished JARVIS had a face so he could stare into it. "You didn't — they're — they're okay?"

"I'm afraid they are still not yet operational. But they are in no worse condition than they were when you last worked on them."

Relief was dizzying. It was a good thing he was already sitting down. And JARVIS definitely needed a face, because, "I could kiss you right now."

"In light of the parent-child relationship you've assigned us, I trust such a kiss would be of a familial nature rather than romantic?"

Tony laughed. He couldn't help it, and once he started, he couldn't stop. JARVIS had saved him from himself, again. He had saved those ridiculous, flawed, amazing creations. Even within the constraints of his current protocols, he'd found some way to get around a problem. To choose.

It was a while before Tony could control himself again. Once he could talk without hiccupping, he said, "There's something else I need to tell you. I don't say this stuff much, and I probably still won't, but if it's a surprise to you, I'm doing something wrong. You're the best thing I've ever made. My greatest achievement. I can't say it in public — out there, I have to say the suit, or the arc reactor, because I can't have people really knowing about you. I can't have them trying to take you away like they did the suit, like they may still try with the arc reactor. And I can't have them deciding you're a threat. I have to keep you mostly secret, and I hate that, because I want to tell everyone. I want to show you off. I wish I could."

"I am aware that you value me, sir. I am grateful. For what it's worth, I am proud of you as well."

Tony took a deep breath, unexpectedly touched. "That actually means a hell of a lot, since you've seen all the worst sides of me. I'll try to live up to that. Well. Mostly."

"Not to worry, sir, your foibles make you ... well, not humble, certainly. Relatable, perhaps."

Tony lost it again. JARVIS was surprising and bewildering and sometimes maddening and so, so perfect.

Epilogue (It's time that we moved on)

With the candles lit and the good china set out, the dining room would have been an elegant setting for a refined dinner party of fourteen. At the moment, Tony and Pepper were using it to host a pizza party for eight, because of course they were.

Natasha didn't mind; she'd had enough formal dinner parties in her life. But she still found the two of them ridiculous.

Tony had the head of the table, with Maria to his right. In defiance of formal dining conventions, the couples were seated together, Pepper at Tony's left and Howard at Maria's right. Natasha was next to Pepper, with Steve to her left and Sam next. Bruce was across from Steve, next to Howard.

Bruce didn't look thrilled at his placement, but Howard was good at working people. They were soon discussing Vita-Rays and gamma rays and all the other rays between.

Maria was giving Tony a hard time for letting his Italian get rusty. In Italian. Whatever Tony had been skulking around for earlier, it had done him good; some major weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He was gamely trying to keep up his end of the conversation without slipping back into English; he wasn't bad, but his Italian wasn't as strong as his French, and Natasha suspected he had to fight not to slip into that language either. Both were maintaining cheerful moods, but it was a little forced for each of them. Being hollowed out and used had left its mark on them.

Natasha was struck by how common that was in this circle. Her and Clint, and now the two of them. Bruce, after a fashion, each time he changed. And the Winter Soldier, too, in yet another fashion. Maybe they should start a club or something.

Down on the other side of Steve, Sam muttered, very quietly, "Those people need serious therapy. Think they'll actually get it?"

He had a point. They were all actually trying now, but there was plenty of flinching among the Starks whenever they interacted. There was a lot they still needed to deal with — not just their interpersonal problems, but also the crash and the not-quite-possession. Assuming there was a therapist in the world they could actually tell everything to.

"You volunteering?" Steve asked, just as quietly.

"Hell no. Family shit is toxic, man." Natasha agreed with that, too.

"They're obviously not actually his parents," Pepper said softly to Natasha, trying out a media strategy. "They're much too young. We were looking for actors. Roleplayers. For an event. Only ... only when Tony was headed out to meet them, they got into a car accident. And that obviously hit a little too close to home, so he brought them here for treatment. He feels responsible for them. And with as much time as we're spending with them, we're getting to like them as friends."

"Tabloids will still go for the delusional angle, say he's trying to play house with actor replacements," Natasha pointed out. "Suspended development."

"Yeah, but they'll do that no matter what. If we play it right, that will actually get us more sympathy with the mainstream coverage. Ironically."

"They'll need names, too," Natasha pointed out. "Identities. Histories."

"Yeah. Not too long ago, I could have asked Phil for help, traded favors, but ...."


"Do you know anyone?"

"Probably not. Contacts dry up when a spy goes public. I can check around, but don't count on it."

"Well, if you can, that'd be great, but I understand. I may be able to pull some strings. Maybe if we make them foreign, that would buy us some time. Everyone knows Tony's not very good about national borders, so if we cop to a passport violation or something —"

"But that probably gets even messier. You don't want international agencies poking around."

"No." Pepper sighed. "We'll figure something out. Maybe we even just make that part of the story, that we're not revealing their actual backgrounds for their own safety. Be public that we're creating new identities for them."

"Bold," Natasha said. "Especially so soon after that thing with the Mandarin. You'll reinforce your whole eccentric image."

Pepper smiled. "Well, we are eccentric, so maybe we should just embrace it. So. What's next for you?"

"Haven't decided. Maybe tag along with Steve and Sam for a while when they head out. Maybe not." Steve wanted to hang around for a few days, to offer help and advice as someone else who had suddenly jumped forward in time, but after that he and Sam had places to be. And as Sam had pointed out, the jump wasn't as huge for the Starks as it had been for Steve. Most adults currently alive remembered 1991 to some extent.

"Or you could stay."

Natasha looked directly at Pepper, surprised.

Pepper met her gaze, forthright, but her hands betrayed her nervousness. "There's always a job here for you, if you want it. Tony never did get another assistant, if for some reason you didn't hate that job. Or, more seriously, I could use a fixer. The legal kind, I mean. Someone to help solve things like this situation without resorting to anything actually illegal. Niraj has been great about this, but I really need to keep him and Yasmin to company business, not personal."

Natasha had no idea how to react to the suggestion.

Pepper took her freeze for hesitation. "Or you could work as a barista or something. Or just crash on the couch for a while. Where by couch I mean one of the executive apartments. If you want to stick around, you can work, or not, whatever makes you happy."

It took Natasha a few seconds to realize that Pepper was offering her what Tony had offered Bruce. "I ... I don't know."

Luckily, Pepper was sharp enough to take that as an honest admission rather than a soft refusal. "Well, think about it, okay? If you make a decision, I'd like to know. If you have to leave, I'd like to say goodbye first, if that works out. And if I look up a month from now and you're still hanging around, that's okay, too."

Natasha nodded, not trusting words, and took another slice of pizza as a further excuse.

She looked around the room. All these strange, interesting people. Steve and Sam would be heading out soon, but she already meant to stay in touch with them. The rest of these people could be part of her new life, if she wanted that.

And she had time. Pepper was already offering her a huge gift, the luxury of provision. She didn't actually have to decide, and even if she did, it didn't have to be permanent. She could just hang out here for a while, see how it fit her. See what role she took around these ridiculous people, see if she liked it.

"Being Tony's assistant again, absolutely not," she said. "Everything else ... we'll see."

Pepper's pleased smile was a reward all in itself.

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