When you are six, your parents get divorced. What do you care? Your life doesn't change too much in the first months. Your dad makes a point of being home in time for dinner, warming things up from the fridge, telling you to help take things (carefully) from the microwave to the table. He puts your brother to bath and bed, then comes down, and the next hour and a half, until it's time for your shower (by yourself) and bed (by yourself, again), it's you and Dad, sitting together in the house. He works. You read, play around on the computer, tell your Dad about your day. He talks about his job with you a little and how working for the government is really frustrating, and on weekends, you and your brother stay up a little later, and watch TV with your dad with a fire in the fireplace with the big windows and the big ocean outside. That is the way it worked before the divorce; it's the way it works after the divorce.
Pepper picks you up at school. Obadiah wishes you happy birthday. The computer that you play on is Jarvis, a quasi-artificial quantum computing unit two full generations more advanced than anything any other person, company, or government has on Earth, and you grew up with him showing you Nature and the latest issue of the Journal of the Electrochemical Society in the bathroom mirror so that you'd brush your teeth for the full three minutes. No brushing? No journal article.
After a few months, your dad announces that he is taking you and your brother to Arlington, all the way in Virginia. He has a new job, closer to his sister, closer to Grandma, so you and Michael are moving out: early the morning you are supposed to be flying out forever, you go down to the lab, all white space and neat parts.
"Hey kid," your mother says.
"Hi Tony," you say, and slide onto the bench next to her. Why would you call her anything else? "What are you working on?"
She scoots over on the bench and shows you, and as you're puzzling over the circuitry and some of the choices she has made, she kisses you on the head, possibly closes her eyes and breathes in the way you smell. Why would you doubt that your mother loves you? She gives you the soldering gun, lets you work on her project, names a tactical satellite for you.
"It was Pepper's birthday yesterday," you say. "Did you get her something?"
"I let her come to work," she says.
"That isn't a present," you reply, wrinkling your nose. She laughs and hands you safety goggles.
When you are six, your parents get divorced. When you are twelve, you become an orphan. When you are thirty-two, you decide to explore the slipstream of time. Alternate dimensions, maybe?
You drive through the canyon. The house is at the end of the drive.
What does it mean to be an orphan at twelve? Your life doesn't change in the first few weeks. In the beginning, your dad is just going overseas to work out some kinks in the field equipment, as he does sometimes. You are still doing your lessons with Jarvis in the mornings and going to classes in the afternoon at Georgetown, taking the Metro each way with your headphones in and the knowledge that Jarvis is watching over you. If something were wrong, you would know. Jarvis would know. Aunt Elizabeth moves in to take care of you guys, takes a leave of absence from her hospital as she does when Dad is away, so she picks Michael up at school, fixes dinner in the kitchen, sits downstairs while the two of you see yourselves to bed.
One morning, you come downstairs, and Pepper is sitting in your kitchen, sitting with coffee in front of her and not drinking it. Michael looks frightened; Aunt Elizabeth looks angry.
Twenty years later, you are back in Georgetown. The French doors are open; the two of you are sitting on a patio. There is orange juice, coffee, croissants from his favorite bakery out in LA on the table. Your brother reads a newspaper, drinks a little coffee. The things you can afford when your mother was Tony Stark: a Georgetown brownstone with a garden and garage and a little patio. A golden retriever. The dog sniffs your hand, hoping for more bacon; the young man whose shirt had been on the couch slips out the front door without saying goodbye, either to Michael or to the housekeeper.
"One of your TA's?"
"None of your business," Michael says, smiling a little. There is a little bit of silence while you see if the dog is interested in danish. Answer: no.
"Do you ever think about Jim?"
"You mean Dad?"
"You mean Mom."
"Do you ever think about what it would have been like if they hadn't died?"
He looks up at from the newspaper.
You drive through the canyon. The house is at the end of the drive, by the ocean.
You drive through the canyon. The house is at the end of the drive, by the ocean. The reflecting pool in the front has been drained; there are leaves on the driveway and the steps. The house has been empty for almost twenty years; you don't have a key, so you go to the patio out back. The pool in the back is dry, too, but no leaves: the breeze from the ocean is clean and strong.
Seals are yelling at each other from the point.
What does it mean to be an orphan at twelve? Pepper is waiting for you in the kitchen one morning when you come downstairs. Dad was only supposed to be gone for a night, then three nights, now a week. Things happen. You are a little worried, mostly because he hasn't called, but the worry doesn't snap into place until you see the look on her face, the way Aunt Elizabeth is standing back, arms over her chest. Obadiah is in the living room, looking out on the deck.
That night, on the plane back to LA, Michael cries himself to sleep in your arms. The five hour flight is the closest that you ever are to your brother; your shirt is wet from him crying, your arm aches from being wedged under him, and you feel hollowed out. Pepper and Obadiah are talking to each other in the office int he back; the door is closed, but you can hear them. For reasons you don't fully understand, Aunt Elizabeth had been furious.
Obadiah comes out from the office in the back. He wears a gray suit with a dark yellow tie, and he sits down in the seat across from you.
"We'll stay in a hotel for a few days, until we can find a house that works for us," he says.
"All right," you say. He reaches over and touches the back of Michael's head, gently. Michael wakes a little, shifting, and then Obadiah's personal assistant steps in and picks Michael, lifts him out of your arms.
You look back over your shoulder; Pepper is standing at the back of the plane, looking unexpectedly --
You look back at Obadiah; the assistant is ten feet away from you now, carrying Michael to the back of the plane where the beds are. Pepepr steps aside a little to make room for them, but her eyes are fixed on the front. On -- you? Obadiah?
Is there a version of the story where Obadiah didn't kill your parents in the desert?
The seals are still screaming at each other, and the pool in the back is dry, but there are no leaves: the breeze from the ocean is clean and strong. The patio doors are locked; you pick up a rock from the landscaping and throw it, as hard as you can, against the glass. It doesn't break. Your mother may not have been security conscious, but her architects had been. You've tested every window you can reach, every door you can find, and have exhausted the alternatives, so you reach into your pocket and pull out a computing unit, no bigger than the palm of your hand and by the standards of these times, very primitive. You hold it in your hand.
"Jarvis," you whisper, softly, and after a moment, the lights in the center flicker, come to life, and glow deep cerulean blue. "Wake up."
The lights in the middle blink twice.
"It's me. I need to get into the house."
The lights in the middle cycle a few times, and then, you touch the computing unit to the glass. The door unlocks, and you step inside. How does anyone think that your mother was able to pull up surf reports on window glass, except by putting a little of Jarvis into every pane of glass in the house. When your parents got divorced, she gave you two sheets to put over the mirrors in your bathroom and Michael's, so that the two of you --
You flick on the torch and find your way to the stairs to the laboratory.
The housekeeper comes out, brings a little bowl of ice for the milk and also a pitcher of grapefruit juice. She asks if you would like more eggs, or more bacon, and you tell her that you're fine. She goes. You run your fingers through the soft fur on the back of Michael's dog's head, and you know that he is still looking at you, calm, calculating behind the glasses.
He didn't learn it from either of your parents.
The door to the laboratory, gratifyingly, remembers you: if you think about it too much, your throat will hurt. You put your palm to it; you punch in the first four numbers of e.
"You've never forgiven Obadiah for taking Jarvis commercial," Michael says.
"Jarvis wasn't his to sell."
"Or for shutting the root system down after they'd moved the important parts in-house."
"Jarvis wasn't his to shut down."
Michael laughs. "I'll pretend I don't know about the pieces you saved in violation of about fourteen separate national security laws and one, maybe two, international treaties."
That night, Michael sleeps wedged up against you, having cried himself to sleep. He is still hiccuping a little; you can hear Obadiah and Pepper talking in the office at the back. Pepper's voice is low and worried; Obadiah is calm and soothing. The bed underneath vibrates gently, steadily: it's a Learjet, going back to California.
An assistant takes Michael out of your arms. Pepper stays in the back of the plane. Obadiah sits down across from you, and you know that Pepper is watching, but strangely helpless.
"So tell me what you've been doing in the lab these days, Minnie."
"He bought you off."
"He didn't give me anything. You know better than anyone that all of the money came from the trust account that got set up."
You make an noise and gesture: everything. Not just the money and a beautiful house, but a brownstone in Georgetown, the job at seventeen writing speeches, the friendship with important politicians. The golden retriever. The status. The ability to pretend.
"Are you saying I'm where I am only because Obadiah pulled strings?"
This isn't true: what you does with engineering, Michael does with ideas and words and political tactics, so you don't say anything. Neither of you says anything, but a bird begins to call. In all honesty, Obadiah gave you both long leashes. He was a kind adoptive grandfather. He may have killed both of your parents to take control of the company, but he let Michael get into politics, history, leave the family business. You made weapons, but that was never the core of what you really did. You were better at the soft stuff, the programming, the software.
"Shouldn't you be with the president?" you say.
"What is there to do? They're already hitting the spaceship with everything they can find. A lot of your ordinance, in fact."
You look off into the corner of the carden, where some vines are growing over an arbor. There is a little fountain in the corner -- a girl holding a vase that is halfway tipped over.
"How long have you known?" you say.
"About the Skrull ship in orbit? Probably only a couple days before the public, and we only figured out it was hostile twelve hours before it using our satellites for target practice. Probably about the same time as you picked it up, because I know -- "
"No, about the desert," you say. "Obadiah."
Michael looks at you for a long, long moment. He doesn't look away; he doesn't change the tone of his voice. "Since I was sixteen."
You close your eyes.
This is not the story already known, but this part of the scenery is familiar: Tony Stark's laboratory, originally dark, but coming back to life on entrance of an authroized life form. The diesel generator is gone, but the solar panel wiring was standard and never dismantled. Work benches. Cars. You run your hands over the dusty surfaces, then pop open a cabinet and look at the hardware -- not the desktop interface, but the full, underlying magic. You squint a little, blow some dust off, then find the slot and push the tiny, palmsize computer home.
The sound is gratifying: antiquated hardware, true, but hardware made for Jarvis.
Obadiah showed you the drawings that they found in the cave, asked you to take over your mother's work: he meant the arc reactor, but you saw the other sheets, too.
Your mother was not particularly maternal, but she loved you, and she knew how to make hardware.
She would have changed the course of history.
What more is there to say? The Skrull are coming, and there is no force on Earth that can stop them. You saw your mother's hardware designs, and even though you are not as good at hardware as she is -- better at programming, though -- you knew the potential. You also knew you had the chance to right a wrong, so you drive to the home that you left twenty-six years before, break into the house, slip down into the laboratory, and use your twenty-six years later arc reactor to power a time travel wormhole. You step through with a high-powered rifle of your own design and take up station.
What do you have to lose, anyways? What could you possibly have to lose? Obadiah has been dead for a half-decade or so, and when you, yourself, came to the realization of what he had done, you couldn't quite bring yourself to kill your brother in the garden of his Georgetown brownstone, even though you had gone there thinking that you might.
So you've done this, instead.
"Tony?" you say, afterwards. This is not entirely appropriate, but you have just crossed the time and space continuum to save your mother. Who knows if you'll even continue to exist in this universe? It creates something of a paradox, doesn't it?
The gravel crunches under your feet. The tumbled-up figure tries to straighten itself.
"Tony?" you repeat.
"Yes, oh God, I -- "
The figure rolls over, and you -- you -- you close your eyes and let the rifle fall from your hand. You go to your knees; the figure straightens itself up, looks at its dented body armor, brushes sand out of its hair.
"Who are you?" the figure says. "Do I know you from somewhere?"
It's a man, not a woman.
Dimensions, not time. Or dimensions and time. Your math was wrong; you never were more than just regular genius-level good at hardware. If it had been time only -- you sink to your knees and your eyes, feel Tony Stark's shoulder on your hand, trying to get you to open your eyes. He wants to see if you're OK, thank you. He thinks you're a sniper from the base, an Air Force sniper, if they have one of those. Dimensions, instead of universes? Or maybe that theorist was right in postulating parallel universes. Your chest feels oddly tight; you can feel the arc reactor throbbing in your hand, and you bring your hand up to brush your hair back, eyes still closed.
You open your eyes in time to see a Jim Rhodes who has never been married comes jogging over the horizon, to see a male Tony Stark stare at the blue light, an arc reactor contained in his MIT class ring, glowing in the way of dream he has not yet had and now, never will.
You tried to go back in time. You tried to save your mother and father; you tried to save the universe. Instead, you jumped to another universe. A parallel one.
You open your eyes and find yourself in a SHIELD detainment room. You have refused to say anything to anyone until Obadiah Stane is sitting across from you. You'll tell him everything, you say, and he sits down across the table from you, a little uncomfortable, not quite certain he understands what is going on, but a request from Nick Fury is not an offer that can be refused. It is a favor that will be remembered.
You close your eyes, then open them once more and look at Obadiah Stane. They took your arc reactor, your rifle, scanned you seventeen times, but you have your brains, your hands, your strength. Your knowledge of Obadiah Stane.
You open your eyes. Obadiah Stane is sitting there, hands folded, pretending not to be nervous. You know better.
You lean forward, and you say, "Tell me about time travel."