Chapter 1: Everything Old is New Again
Chapter One: Everything Old is New Again
Not-Pepper was found in Oklahoma the same day real Pepper disappeared from the Malibu manse. SHIELD personnel was at the scene before Iron Man was, investigating some sort of massive energy reading. It wasn't until they found a woman who looked nearly exactly like Agent Stark's girlfriend that they called him to request the presence of Iron Man. SHIELD didn't play games when it came to unexplained phenomena and the mysterious red-headed woman was subjected to a battery of tests to determine that she was indeed a human being, that her appearance was natural and not the result of technology, magic or surgery and a general assessment of her knowledge base. Meanwhile, the search for the real Virginia Potts got underway.
The woman who appeared in Oklahoma was initially classified as a highly dangerous person. She was a human being, she was naturally nearly the spitting image of Potts and she knew a lot about SHIELD. Most agents of the organization were privy to less information than what she knew. Potts' story was that she had been on the special projects team of a former director and co-founder of SHIELD and had enjoyed unlimited authorization to access what she wished. Despite slight body modifications, she was not the agent type. She was in shape, but far from athletic. More than that, she was expressive. The bland, unreadable trademark of many a high ranking agent was as far from this woman as it was possible to be. She was very easy to read-and the psychic division could back her up on the truth of each statement-and what she was was freaked out.
After three days of poking, prodding and debating whether or not to cut her open, she was turned over to Stark's custody. It was a move designed mostly to placate him, as extremely powerful, extremely agitated men with warsuits were not something that SHIELD could allow. Natalie Rushman spontaneously reappeared in her old job at the Stark Industries legal department, 'Bill Coleman' was in security and so on. In reality, there was soon a SHIELD plant in every corner of Stark's life. The decision to be forthcoming about a handful was a calculated effort to prevent him from looking for more.
When he picked her up in the Bentley, Hogan was behind the wheel and Stark stood outside in a tailored suit and sunglasses, waiting by the car doors as an entire troupe of men in black escorted the woman.
When the woman finally spoke they had been sitting together in the back of the car together for about half an hour. It was the first time anyone in the car had heard Pepper's voice since the incident and the way she sounded so perfect nearly made Tony drop the Scotch he'd been nursing. "Where are we?"
"Sacramento," Tony told her, "It'll be a few more hours before we're home, so get comfortable."
She turned to look out the window and said softly, "I hate California." It was when her head swiveled away that Tony realized the pattern of her freckles was all wrong.
He swirled his glass. "While SHIELD knows how to roll out the welcome wagon, the great state of California does not deserve your wrath."
Tony had chosen to drive home rather than take the jet because close quarters for a long period of time was the only way he was going to be guaranteed to spend any real time with this woman. If she was responsible for-or at least related to-Pepper's disappearance, then the most useful intel would come from her. By shutting her up in the car with him, he was removing any escape route. There had to be something that SHIELD missed when they interrogated her, because the only information that had gotten back to him was a fat lot of nothing. They didn't know anything about how she got here, how to send her back or how to bring back the real Pepper. Natalie, Fury and even Coulson always acted like SHIELD had extensive experience in all of this supernatural mumbo-jumbo, but in truth, they didn't know much more than he did.
"It's got nothing to do with SHIELD," Pepper replied. "I just don't want to be there."
"Too bad." Almost as an afterthought, Tony asked with bland curiosity, "Where're you from?"
"Right now, I live in Oklahoma, but most of my life I've lived in New York. I've spent a little bit of time everywhere, though."
The Pepper that Tony knew had worked for him for just over ten years, so she had to have lived in California for over a decade. He had no idea where she had been before that. Now that the subject of Peppers in other states had been brought up, he found himself a little curious about his girlfriend's life before him. Naturally, the day he wanted to ask her something about herself, something that doesn't reflect on him in anyway, was the day her absence had become so cemented that SHIELD had seen it fit to hand over the doppelganger and call it a day. He drained his Scotch and poured himself another. His liver had been getting quite the workout lately.
The only other organ that had been working so hard was his brain, trying to figure out some way around this. He refused to accept that it was hopeless, but his only starting point was the energy anomaly in Oklahoma and he hadn't even gotten any readings of his own on that. SHIELD was many things and none of those were 'trustworthy,' but Tony was reasonably assured that they had a vested interest in him personally. They had turned over two instruments that recorded data on the anomaly to him, but so far, he hadn't been able to make heads or tails of anything. They had no motivation to withhold other data from him, unless they didn't want him to switch the Peppers back. Which meant one of three possibilities:
The energy was dangerous. It was not out of the realm of consideration that SHIELD knew exactly what the energy was, but that it presented some sort of danger that they prioritized over getting Pepper back. It seemed like the least likely option, because the flux that had already taken place had had absolutely no effects on the environment or the people in the areas where Pepper disappeared or where Not-Pepper was found. She personally had a clean bill of health, so being in the dead center of it all was not harmful, unless the risk was only in continued exposure.
Another possibility was that this Pepper was more useful to SHIELD than his Pepper, who near as he could tell was of no particular value to them. Natalie had passed along that this woman was very informed about the SHIELD of her universe and a lot of what she knew was either directly pertinent here or represented future possibilities. Some things they had been hoping to accomplish had already came to pass in her world, as well as things they had hoped would never happen. If the goal was to get Not-Pepper signed on as an agent, obviously she would have to stay here. To Tony, this didn't mean that his world couldn't have two Peppers while some other world had none.
The final possibility was that they were telling the truth: they didn't know shit and they didn't know where to begin. From where he sat, this one looked the most likely. Nothing that Natalie confided in him pointed otherwise. She knew things, but Tony knew from experience that what they had done to her was not the recruitment process. SHIELD preferred to psychologically map out their candidates, not poke and traumatize them. That was a sure fire way to get this woman to want to be as far from SHIELD as possible.
"You're very calm about all of this," he observed.
"I'm usually on the other end," Pepper told him. "I'm usually the person waiting at home, wringing my hands and going crazy with worry." She sighed and slumped into the seat a little bit. "Being on this side isn't so bad. Nothing's trying to kill me. SHIELD let me go. I want to go home, but it could be worse. I'm the one who insisted it was worth it."
Tony snapped to attention, "What's worth it? What did you do?"
Alarmed at his suddenly intensity, "I didn't mean I...I didn't cause this! I just...sometimes, taking a risk is worth it, right? I decided that's what I wanted. I wasn't going to be the person waiting at home anymore. And this is where it got me. I knew it was going to be risk. I knew it."
Angrily, Tony pressed back into his seat and shuffled his shoulders, for want of anything else to do with himself. "So that's it? We're done? Out with the old, in with the new?"
"Because I don't know if you've noticed this, but SHIELD doesn't know what the hell to do with you."
"And I suppose you do?" Pepper snapped back.
He had been working so, so hard on being good to his Pepper, being honest and forthcoming with her. It didn't come naturally to him. Tony was used to his lone wolf routine and even though Pepper had been in his shadow for so long, had always stood by him and supported him, talking to her about things that mattered was hard. Making a stupid joke or misdirecting her was easier. Letting her in was something he was only recently becoming comfortable with. And maybe that was why even though the pattern of this woman's freckles was all wrong and his knee jerk reaction was to turn on the bravado anyway, he found himself being honest with her. "I don't have a clue."
Her eyes ran over him in an appraisal. The look on her face was familiar to him. It usually meant that he had just done something right. Admitting his own helplessness was never something right in Tony's book, but he had found that he and Pepper kept score in different ways. Maybe she just didn't understand that if he was helpless, that meant she was helpless. He was the scientific genius that everyone counted on to save the world, reign in rampaging Hulks and God knows what else Fury has planned for him.
"Tony Stark," she drawled slowly, dragging out every syllable. "How very unlike you." She grinned.
"I have no idea what you are so happy about."
"I like seeing you off your game. Everyone does. It's a rare treat."
"We've actually never met before," he pointed out, "So."
"So, I know a Tony Stark in my world." Her smile turned crooked. "Maybe that's why I'm not worried."
"You know a Tony Stark in Oklahoma?" He asked skeptically. "Seriously?"
"Seriously. I know, I can't believe it either."
"What the hell's in Oklahoma?"
Pepper shifted, angling herself towards him completely. "You would not believe me if I told you."
"Well, I've got an almost perfect ringer of my, my-of the CEO of my company, so how about you try me." Tony had nearly called her a nearly perfect duplicate of his girlfriend, but the word died before it hit his tongue. He wasn't afraid of or even uncomfortable with the word. He wasn't sure why he chickened out of saying it. Maybe it was just too private to throw out on this new person, regardless of her name or what she looked like.
"Asgard," he repeated.
"Asgard, home of Norse mythology, Asgard," she said, nodding along. She smiles as she blandly says, "You're really good friends with Thor."
"Thor," he repeated.
"Big bearded red-headed guy with a hammer."
"He's blond in real life," Pepper corrected, "You gave him power of attorney, so that's where we went."
"I gave power of attorney to a Norse god living in Oklahoma, whose traditional mythological hair color is not true to life."
"Do you take all of this so well?" Tony asked.
That made Pepper sputter. "Look, I-I'm used to it. How are you taking it? Your SHIELD didn't even know there was a multiverse."
"Thought as much," Tony hissed, the otherwise innocent phrase sounding like a swear on his tongue. "They don't know anything."
"Tony does," Pepper said, laying her hand on his shoulder. Delicately, she removed the glass from his hand and set it in a cup holder on her other side. "My Tony, I mean. He's going to take care of it."
"Your Tony," he intoned. "He the hero type?"
"Yeah," Pepper said softly with a wistful smile, "He is."
The cliffside Malibu mansion of Tony Stark was owned by some movie star. Pepper had never heard of him and he didn't seem all that talented nor put together so she was unsurprised that he had only actually been in a handful of big budget films before his career hit the skids. He bought the mansion from an estate sale some years back when Stark was believed to be dead. When he returned, the actor was prepared to fight for his home, which he really only loved because he was something of a Stark fanboy, but Tony had never shown any interest in regaining the things that he had lost while presumed dead. His personal fortune had been awarded back to him by courts, but of his businesses and possessions, he was unconcerned. Tony Stark was many things, but sentimental was not one of them. He would rather build something brand new and all his own than fight other owners to take back what was once his.
Pepper Potts wished something about this house had been worth keeping to Tony, because calling him and waiting for pick-up was rather nerve wracking. She had no idea what she had gotten into or how. One moment, she was at home with Tony and the next she was in a stranger's living room. The was a softness to Tony's place, a sort of organic roundness. This mansion was industrial, all metal and corners. She didn't know if that was the aesthetic of the actor or of this version of Tony. She didn't even know if this Tony who was coming to get her even knew her. She supposed he must, because getting through to him had been so easy. Her phone didn't work here, it told her she had no coverage. When she told her host that she really needed to get in touch with Tony Stark, he had produced the Avengers Hotline number and his own phone within seconds. She felt silly dialing it and even more silly when it turned out to be a damned answering machine, but once she said her name was Pepper Potts, her identity was verified and she was transfered to the personal phone of the Iron Man.
"Tony," she began, "I'm in Malibu-"
"Already on my way," he'd said, cutting her off. "I'm set to rendezvous with the Fantastic Four in twenty."
Twenty minutes of small talk with a washed up actor later, Pepper came out of the house to see five superheroes on the lawn. Her brain still rebelled against the phrase "superhero," but she didn't have any other terms to describe this strange looking suit of armor and four people in matching blue tights. The woman was the first to reach her, she hugged her and told her that everything was going to be all right. One of the four in tights had some sort of instrument out that he was using to take readings. Iron Man was doing the same, thought his tools were contained within his armor. The two remaining heroes were left to entertain their host, who was completely star-struck himself.
Pepper felt somewhat numb and disoriented as she walked to Tony's side. The woman was talking to the man with the machines now, asking him if the energy he had detected is what they thought it was. He gave the affirmative.
"What is it?" Pepper asked. "What's going on?"
"You traded places," Iron Man said, "with the Pepper Potts of this reality. We think it's some kind of temporal backlash from Kang of Immortus messing with the time-stream."
"What, what does that mean?"
"It's quite fascinating," the other man interrupted. "The theory is that there are an infinite amount of universes in our multi-verse. Each Earth possesses only minor, mostly cosmetic, differences when compared to its counterparts. From world to world, things like how intelligent you are, the people you surround yourself with and what you do are likely to remain the same, though in one world you may be a different gender or have a different hair color."
She swayed. "Oh, God." Iron Man reached out to steady her. "And that's just it, I'm stuck here?"
"Not at all," he answered, "I've got an inter-dimensional transportation device back in New York."
"But it works, right? You can send me home or trade me back or something?"
"It's just," Iron Man added, "there's an infinite number of realities. Finding yours might take a while."
Pepper's first thought was that she could die here. They could work for years and never find her home. They could work for months, get bored and give up. They could work for days, run off to face some new threat and get killed, leaving her stranded here. She had had a month with Tony, not standing behind him unnoticed or supporting him behind the scenes, but really with him. She would likely never see him again. Her entire life had been wrapped up in the world of Tony Stark for over a decade. He'd almost died. Now that he was healthy and the word "future" was starting to mean something big, something scary... Now she was lost. It wasn't fair. It wasn't right.
She didn't collapse. She was not a fainting woman from a bad 60's science fiction film. She wanted to tell this Iron Man that she didn't need him and his strange armor's cold metal arms holding her up. Pepper didn't even cry. She numbly shut down, hearing the people around her talk and discuss her situation, but not really understanding any of it. What could these strangers possibly know of her situation? They acted like it was right, like it made sense. Like it was exactly what they thought it was going to be.
Because there was no sense staying in Malibu, (Iron Man asserted randomly that he was "so over" California), Pepper was ushered into the Fantastic Four's strange plane for the trip to New York City. Iron Man and one of the Four's members, Johnny, they called him, flew along side them. Lots of small talk was made during the flight. It was an out of body experience, almost. But it was enough for her mind to start reasserting itself over her shock and her loss and begin to learn about what she was dealing with.
What she knew from the flight was this: She was not without her advantages. The terms 'alternate reality' and 'multiverse' not had been in her vocabulary yesterday, but they were in the lexicon of this world's Tony Stark. He actually seemed almost uninterested in the prospect of traveling across dimensions. He was kind to her, yes, sympathetic and he offered to get her anything she wanted. He promised to get her home, to switch her back with this world's Pepper Potts, but the multiverse itself was not a surprising or inherently interesting thing. He'd traveled it before and he was confidant he could do it again. Her advantage was his experience. The Tony she knew had been Iron Man for about 7 months. This man had been the Iron Man-he always said 'the' when talking about it in the third person-for seventeen years.
What she knew from going home with Iron Man, for it was taken as fact by all that she should follow him, was this: Pepper didn't like him very much. He was too...something. Inhuman, maybe. His suit poured out of his body as a liquid. Emotionally, mentally, he always seemed very far away from whatever was going on. He had a shallow, surface-level friendliness which she almost mistook for sincerity early on, but his glib jokes hurt. Sometimes, she started to think that her situation didn't really matter to him at all. At other times, his more manic behaviors reminded Pepper of her Tony when he was secretly struggling with palladium poisoning. There is so much about him that is familiar, but the little things that are off seem so much worse because they stand out. He has all of her Tony's genius, all of his ego, all of his arrogance, all of his selfishness and absent-mindedness. But he seemed tired and a little strung out, like his pieces no longer fit together correctly.
And it made sense. Her body couldn't handle the stress of just being around Iron Man for a few months, she didn't find it surprising that his body and more importantly his mental and emotional health couldn't handle it for so many years. If he was the same age as her Tony-and he might not be, but for the moment, she assumed that he was-he couldn't have been older than twenty-two when he was kidnapped. Such a harrowing experience, and his extreme reaction to it, was probably even more damaging when he was young enough to not be entirely confidant or comfortable with his identity. He needed a therapist. Secretly, Pepper thought her boyfriend could use a therapist, too, but this man really, really needed one.
Since she understood that telling someone you just met in a reality you just accidentally traveled to that he needed a shrink was definitely outside of the realm of polite conduct, she wanted to tell him something else. Prior to this experience, she never thought she would want to encourage this sort of behavior, but Pepper wanted to tell Tony to just have a drink, take a load off and relax for a minute. He was always up and going. He was always working. Her Tony was always active, but it was not quite the same. He saved the world three times within her first two months on the world. He traveled back and forth between Oklahoma, where they lived for some reason, and New York City almost daily. He, Reed and two other guys who were both named Hank had built some sort of scanning device that would allow them to be constantly searching the multiverse for her reality.
Tony told Pepper that the other her was the CEO and COO of his new start-up business, Stark Resilient, but since he didn't know her, he couldn't trust her with something so important and assumed those offices himself without any prodding. In addition to everything else, he was in and out of meetings all day. That he was as talented in the boardroom as he was in the workshop was the biggest shock to her system.
The biggest shock was his eyes. He had clear, beautiful blue eyes. He looked exactly like her Tony in every other respect, but those blue eyes did not belong on his face. She got queasy every time they made eye contact.
Pepper also hated the way he knew things about her. Her Tony seriously considered bringing her something she was allergic to as progress because there was some sort of tenuous connection between herself and strawberries in his mind. This man that she just met knew what she was allergic to. He knew what her favorite bands were. He bought her some books to help her pass the time and they were all suited perfectly to her taste. He knew her shoe size. Pepper knew this not because he had something to say about her 'fuck me' heels, but because he bought her some comfortable sneakers. He knew she minored in Greek Philosophy at school and that her favorite philosopher was Socrates-not the real Socrates, but Plato's Socrates. He knew he unnerved her, but either he didn't care to try to stop or he just wasn't capable of it. Pepper suspected the latter because everything came up naturally in conversation, he never went out of his way to impart his Pepper-knowledge. He was just obviously a good friend who paid attention to her in this world.
He had a lot of friends.
The Tony that Pepper had always known at home had three people he trusted: herself, James Rhodes and Obadiah Stane. Stane's betrayal left only two. He was a very social creature, but there was no closeness except for herself and Rhodey. He wanted the limelight and attention and none of that complicated intimacy. He had all these little quirks that he could afford to have because he was wealthy and when you are rich enough, they just call being an asshole "eccentric." He didn't like people to hand things to him. Outside of romance situations, he didn't like to make skin-to-skin contact with other people and when it happened, she needed to be ready with the hand sanitizer. He was charming and charismatic, but not really friendly and he generally didn't give anyone a chance to break through his emotional armor. She was in the inner circle because she worked closely with him for years and had proven herself time and time again to be reliable. Rhodey was there because they had a long history together from their college days. All of Tony's stories were embarrassing for Jim and he tried to keep Tony from telling them, so Pepper didn't know much about their school days. She suspected, however, that Rhodey must have been an extraordinary young man. He had sincerely befriended a wealthy boy who was years younger than himself, was not embarrassed to be outclassed by this strange genius-child and gave no thought to what he personally could gain from being at the right hand of the rich and brilliant.
Even in this world, Rhodey was by Tony's side, a fact which Pepper greatly appreciated. The fact that the two people she knew Tony could really count on seemed to be in his immediate circle in every world was...well, 'touching' wasn't the word. It was more significant than that. Tony also hung out with a severe looking woman with black hair a lot, Maria Hill. She wasn't sure what to make of that relationship. They argued a lot, but they always stuck by each other in the end. Sometimes, he gave her orders and she took them and other times she gave him orders and he took him. She seemed to be employed at Stark Resilient, but she never did any work that Pepper could see. She was just there. Pepper suspected Tony and Maria were either secretly in love with each other or secretly plotting each others' murder. It could really go either way. Maria's best friend was the other Pepper. She didn't know what could have possibly drawn the two of them together. Maybe it was just as simple as being in Tony's immediate sphere and needing another woman around when the time came to roll one's eyes. She felt terrible about it, though, because she didn't know Maria in her own world and she didn't really like this one all that much. She was a military-type and through her Tony, Pepper had met a lot of military brass. They were generally old school generals who had very little respect for women. Maria had very little respect for civilians.
Pepper found herself strangely unsurprised by the presence of Natalie in this world. She came and went as she pleased, clearly having better places to be than the Sooner State. At least, Pepper thought she was Natalie. Everyone called her Natasha and she didn't have that unsettling way of being a blank page like the Natalie she knew. She asked Tony once if he ever thought anything was off about Natasha, and his reply had been: "What? Is she not spying on me? Because if she's not spying on me, then I'm worried."
And then there were the Avengers.
The Earth's Mightiest Heroes. They dressed in even more garish costumes than the Fantastic Four and were every bit as crazy as Tony. But he never went out there to confront God only knew what alone, he always had Rhodey or Maria or an entire squadron of people who were just as preoccupied with the idea that they could save the world as Tony. He wasn't out there in that suit alone. He wasn't a crazed man on a mission that only he could do. He was part of a community of like-minded individuals. It was a community that was, on the whole, accepting of her. As weeks past, Pepper was able to talk on more and more responsibilities and learn more and more about this world. Between his Avengers' duties, the continual monitoring and upgrading of the machine that was searching for her world and running Stark Resilient, something was bound to give. Pepper assisted in whatever arena she could, which was generally the latter two. Supplying Tony and Reed with more information on her world drastically narrowed down their search. Any universe where Tony Stark was female? Irrelevant. A universe where Tony became Iron Man prior to 2008? Irrelevant. A universe where the Hulk appeared prior to 2008? Irrelevant. A universe where Germany won World War II? Irrelevant. Absolutely nothing could be taken for granted.
Pepper also took on as much work for Stark Resilient as she could manage to wrestle away from Tony. This was easy, because he tended to not notice. He had more on his plate than anyone could reasonably expect him to handle and she had nothing on hers. Pepper needed something to do and this was what she was good at. With time, he began to trust her and the tasks she preformed where things he left on her desk, not things she stole from his.
Pepper knew her life in this world had become something recognizable when before heading into a meeting, Tony leaned back and muttered into her ear, "What am I supposed to know about this guy?"
"That's Howard Watch," she muttered back, lips barely moving and a smile plastered on her face. "He is a member of the Senatorial Energy Committee. Very proud of his golf swing."
"Thanks. You're a life saver." Tony walked into the meeting with a boisterous, friendly attitude, asked the man about his golf game and did an extremely admirable job of pretending that he knew what was going on.
After the meeting, Tony's upbeat attitude vanished as quickly as it came. Things had gone well for Stark Resilient inside, but he was tired and annoyed that the entire event had transpired at all. "What the hell was even the point of that?" he groused as they drove back to their home base/office/one hallway of a rundown hotel.
"They think you're trying to replace American dependency on fossil fuel with dependency on you," Pepper primly explained
"That's ridiculous," Tony drawled. Personally, Pepper did not agree at all. It seemed quite accurate from where she sat. "I'm trying to replace global dependency on fossil fuel with dependency on me."
Pepper surprised herself by suddenly thinking it would have been nice to have Maria in the car. As it was, Pepper rolled her eyes alone.
Chapter 2: Something Familiar
I am getting fairly heavy on the comic info dump in this story, I know. I think if the characters are going to learn about each other, then they have to share their histories and points of view. Citing all of my references would take a while. Some history-related things I am purposely leaving up in the air for now to resolve later on. If you have a specific question, I'll answer it if it is not a plot point.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Chapter Two: Something Familiar
Pepper didn't make it home. That is, her counterpart in this reality had a condo in Los Angeles, but she was not permitted to live there. Though SHIELD had let her go, her virtual arrest continued. Her place of holding had simply changed to wherever Tony dictated. He put her up in the mansion, most likely for monitoring purposes. The official line came from Natalie: allowing her to live at the condo would be an invasion of the "real" Pepper's privacy. Whether this came down from SHIELD or Tony, Pepper didn't know, but she didn't argue the point. She wouldn't have wanted to let a stranger pick through her life, either. She was curious about this Pepper, but she would have to make due with learning about her through other means. More selfishly, Pepper wasn't sure she was ready to take on LA again. The mansion had very strict security, watched over by an intelligent system called JARVIS and it suitably shielded her from the city. The security system also meant that she didn't have access to the vast majority of the house. It was the explicit lack of trust that kept her from pretending that this wasn't just another place that she had been dragged to by the Tony she knew.
None of her needs were seen to by this world's Tony. Spare sets of clothes were provided by SHIELD and in the brief moments before opening the duffle bag she'd been given, Pepper had been afraid that it would be just a few sets of that awful blue jumpsuit. In all of her time with SHIELD back home, she had gotten away without ever wearing one. When he was director, sometimes Tony had worn a more dignified slacks and jacket combo that served as a version of the usual uniform. Something like that would have been passible. Of course, Tony had also worn the skintight jumpsuit on occasion, but he was an exhibitionist. As near as Pepper could tell, that trait seemed to be a requirement for a career at SHIELD.
Pepper spent the majority of her time watching television and surfing the internet. She learned a lot of little things about this world that most people took for granted in this way. The world she had left was mid-way through 2010. In this universe, 2009 had just begun, which meant there was a time difference of about a year and a half. The past year and a half had been, without question, the worst period of her life. To wake up and discover that it had all been some sort of crazy dream would have been a blessing of unimaginable proportions. But even though life worked in mysterious and often unfathomable ways, that was not what had happened to her. Pepper was in a different reality in a space that should be occupied by a different person. Maybe that woman had a rough year and a half ahead of her, maybe not. This world was an undeniably different place and Pepper didn't think it too hard to hope that maybe the things that had happened in her world would not come to pass in this one. This hope didn't lessen the pain for her or make it more bearable or anything crazy like that. It was just a selfish dream that maybe somewhere, there was a reality that was a little bit happier.
She caught glimpses of Happy now and then. He was working for Tony as a chauffeur, but he never spoke to her. He skirted around eye contact, so Tony had probably told him something was up. Pepper had questions she wanted to ask him. Things she would love to learn about. Part of her wanted to latch on to him and never let go while the rest of her knew that he wasn't her husband miraculously returned to her. He was a stranger. Tony and Natalie were strangers, too, but at least Natalie was becoming a familiar stranger. She was recognizable and helpful and grew more accepting of the situation as the days past. Happy popped in when Tony needed to leave for some appointment right now and vanished just as quickly. He had been the person who drove them from Sacramento to Malibu, but it was days before she knew that. She'd never seen the driver's face. She wondered what sort of relationship he had with this world's Pepper.
She told herself that they probably weren't close.
Pepper spent one afternoon pondering this, and then she started Googling people.
At first, Pepper thought if she could find a few of the super-scientists counterparts, they might be able to make some headway in getting her home. Sure, SHIELD didn't know anything, that but didn't rule out the likes of Reed Richards or Henry Pym. The accomplishments of this world's Tony Stark were somewhat unimpressive compared to the man she knew and the pattern held true. Richards was trying to scare up funding for a space mission. Pym worked out of his garage in New Jersey.
She looked for them first because that was the useful thing to do. But...if Happy was alive, and it was a year and a half ago...who else might be alive? Her first searches were practical. They yielded no results, but now she was free to indulge her curiosity about other people.
Henry Hellrung. Washed up actor whose career couldn't survive his alcoholism. He got sober and was now a spokesperson in Hollywood for Alcoholics Anonymous. He'd never starred in anything important and with everything else actors got up to these days, drinking wasn't anyone's hot button but his. Henry was virtually invisible. His claim to fame in her world was playing Tony Stark on the Avengers television show. In a world without Avengers, Henry's resume was no where near as impressive.
Up until this point, Michael Fields' life progressed more or less the way Pepper was familiar with it. Becky Ryan, as well. But without the 50 State Initiative turning them into superheroes, they would probably never meet each other. Paralyzed soldier and former teen beauty queen was an odd fit in any universe. Magdalena Marie was just the same as well-actress, model, philanthropist. No kids. James Wa was a successful and famous engineer, giving hope to millions of people across the world with his medical prosthetics. Mulholland Black was the most famous ward of the state of California, alive, kicking and causing all sorts of trouble.
Dennis Michael Murray was dead. Plenty of his history was the same. Did three volunteer tours with the Navy, went to college on Uncle Sam's dime, turned around and became a career military man. He went as far as a warrant officer before he stopped taking promotions. When he got an offer to be a civilian VIP escort, he took it. In the world where Pepper came from, the escort job ended with two dead and two profound injuries. Dennis Murray spent nearly two decades in an iron lung at a veterans' hospital before an alternative was found. In this world, the escort was larger and so was the body count. Dennis died and one person walked away three months later with injuries and experiences that would change his life.
She cried for Dennis, for Holly, for Happy, for herself and everything else that she'd lost in this nightmarish year and a half. She cried because she wanted to have faith that she's going to go home, that Tony will be coming to get her any day now, but as usual, all of the power lied out of her hands. It was supposed to be different. She had gotten her Replusor Tech rig back. She was going to be a hero again. She was going to take the power back. Her life was supposed to belong to her now, not fate or stupid choices or the past. This was supposed to be her time.
Pepper wasn't stupid. She knew the moment she typed in Dennis' name that it would likely coincided with Tony's ordeal in Afghanistan. And she knew that he was monitoring everything she did. She was an Unknown Quantity to him, and Tony's answer to the unknown had always been to figure it out. He was going to know what she found out about his trip, and that was going to be a problem. She couldn't work up much concern for his problems, in light of all of her own.
He appeared at the top of the steps, the staircase that led from the living room down to the basement workshop, incensed and just a bit tipsy. But he was fairly well defused by the sight before him. Crying in a SHIELD issue sweatsuit while curled up on his couch presented a much smaller, more vulnerable picture of Pepper Potts than he was used to seeing. It was the little details that did him in. The way her feet were bare. The way errant strands of her red hair stuck to the wetness on her cheeks. All of the accusations on his tongue died and he gathered her into his arms.
She wept into his shoulder for about twenty minutes before JARVIS breaks the moment - SHIELD is requesting the involvement of Iron Man in an operation that is heading south in the mid-west.
Pepper pulled back and wiped her tears. With steel in her eyes, she said, "Go. I'll hold the fort down here."
Tony never had a workshop in Oklahoma. There was a warehouse where did some simple things, but where he was really outfitted was New York City. He had a high-rise in Manhattan that was mostly rented out to other businesses as office space, but the top floors were all his. That was where the good workshop was found. The official name of the building was Stark Tower, but seeing as it was also the headquarters of his team of Avengers, it was generally referred to as Avengers Tower. Despite the fact that he didn't live there, or even in the same time zone, it was regarded by most to be his home. It was a good home for him. Large, spacious and beautiful. The workshop was there and that alone made it his favorite place to hole up and ignore the world for a while. Pepper had noticed that if he can get away with it, Tony won't emerge from the workshop for days at a time. Her boyfriend had a couch and entertainment center in his basement laboratory, but as far as she knew, he didn't regularly sleep there. This one had a cot, and he did. Thanks to the status of headquarters, it was also hub for a lot of people important to him. But Stark Resilient's meager employees didn't live there. They just traveled back and forth a lot.
Pepper loved the penthouse. It was so elegant and refined. And, all right, it was a little self-absorbed. Whoever Tony hired to decorate really took the Avengers theme to heart. But the it was the sort of environment that was suited to a multi-billionaire and it helped her pretend that her life is what it was supposed to be. In addition to everything else that was wrong with the picture, this Tony was broke. He could afford to keep a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs, but he couldn't do much more than that. The existence of the penthouse and laboratory were an extremely notable blip in his story, but Tony never gave her an acceptable explanation for them. When he was back on his feet, he promised, there would be back pay. As long as she was in this world, Pepper had no choice but to stick by him, pay or no. Legally, she didn't exist, which made it impossible to go anywhere else. It would be a bad idea to run out on him, anyway. He was the person who was searching for her true reality. Leaving him would be thankless behavior on her part. She absolutely wanted to know immediately when he found her world, so she had to be near by. And of course, he was Tony. A different Tony, yes, but a Tony that was growing more familiar as time went by.
The part where she didn't legally exist did keep her from getting another job, though. It would be nice if someone in the household was pulling in a little income.
Still, Pepper found walking into Tony's workshop with files he needed to sign and steaming cups of coffee kept her grounded. She couldn't do that in Oklahoma, so it was just another reason to love the trips to New York. It was a shame they had to waste so much time in transit, but she considered it a worthwhile price to pay. Trips to California would be better, but even the Tony she was used to had to head to New York on occasion for board meetings.
Entering the workshop was often dicey. She was used to walking in on her Tony about to blow something up in his mad scientist lair, and this Tony certainly did that as well, but there was also always the possibility that she'd find him asleep on his cot. If she was lucky, he'd still be wearing his briefs. It wasn't the nudity or near-nudity that bothered Pepper, it was the vulnerability. A man who needed armor so badly he put it inside of his body probably didn't welcome people walking in on him while he slept. She may have been given access to the workshop, but she didn't always belong there.
He wasn't asleep when she entered the workshop to discuss the formation of a Legal Department for Stark Resilient. Pepper had managed to take a few meetings with a lawyer in the superhuman community who refused to come on retainer pro bono but had written up a vague outline of what the fledgling company was going to need to protect its patents and combat the monopoly accusations that were already being thrown at them from other companies with a vested interest in green energy.
He wasn't asleep. He'd just woken up. Tony blinked at her twice, watching her in the doorway from where he sat, naked on the cot. He reached behind himself, grabbed his pillow, covered his crotch with it and said, "Hey." He smiled tightly, like it was a strain to do so. "What?"
Pepper looked away, her eyes focusing on one of the many Iron Man suits that stood idly by, took a few deep breathes to center herself - she felt like an invader of some sort, an alien being, maybe - and let her annoyance bleed away. "It's three in the afternoon and you need to think about protecting your company's interests if you intend to accomplish anything."
He had the audacity to lean over to look at the alarm clock on the floor, as though he needed to verify what she said. The clock said 3:07. "In the afternoon? Are you sure?"
Pepper stood by silently and waited while he rubbed his face with his hands. "In the afternoon?"
He scratched the back of his head, scowling, as though his own head had offended him somehow. "What about my interests?"
"There are a lot of legal issues with what you want to do with your replusor batteries and we don't have a legal department to take care of it for you."
"Call Jennifer Walters."
"She already called me," Pepper told him.
"And she's not willing to come on for free, but she did have some ideas about what Stark Resilient is going to need."
By this point, Tony had taken to brushing his hair back with his fingers. "Did you tell her I can pay her later?"
"She said its not about money."
"Then what's the problem?"
"She doesn't like you that much."
Tony cupped the back of his head, right below the hairline. "Yeah, we had a falling out about...something? I keep forgetting about that. See if you can get Matt Murdock's number from somewhere. I need to take a shower. You can turn around if you want." Pepper turned and listened. The legs of the cot scrapped against the floor as he stood up. His bare feet slapped against the tile - fire resistant flooring, of course - as he padded to the bathroom. It was not until Pepper heard the door of the adjoined bathroom click shut that she walked over to Tony's desk to deposit what Ms. Walters had written up for them. She heard the water running.
The desk was a cluttered mess of drawings and schematics. Most of them, she couldn't make heads or tails of, but a few pages were quite clearly drawings of Iron Man. The tools, at least, were organized. He'd been building armors. Other things, too, for the company, but it was clear to Pepper that Tony had been building armors. Every time she came in here, there were more Iron Men standing at attention, or more pieces of them.
When he came out of the bathroom - he spent more time in there than she did in her own bathroom this morning - he's in a t-shirt and jeans and he's shaved his goatee off. The mustache was still there, but the beard was gone. The absence made Pepper puzzle for a long moment before she was able to shake the oddity off as not really mattering. The light that shone through his shirt was yellow rather than blue, solid rather than a pattern of shapes, and somehow that struck her as more natural than his smooth chin. The shirt, like all of his clothing, is a product of his body, just like his armor. Looking at him, Pepper realized that it actually made no sense at all for Tony to be building all of these armors, given that the one inside of his body could out perform anything he had to put on, based on the convenience alone.
"Why did you make all of these?" she asked, gesturing at the collection of robotic fixtures.
Tony shrugged. "It helps me relax. I think better while I make one of these."
Pepper quirked her eyebrows. "Don't you need to be concentrating on the actual building?"
"Not really." He reached out and rapped on the chest of the closest one. "These are all old models, completely obsolete. I just remake them for sentimental value. Nothing in there is innovative anymore."
The admission of sentimentality made her smile a small, private smile. It made a lump risk in her throat as well, because she'd had always known that, regardless of what he had said.
She cleared her throat and asked "So, how did this all start? The superhero thing, I mean, not anything that would be hard to talk about." Afghanistan - or whatever experience he had was a long time ago, but that didn't mean it was something he was okay talking about.
"My fiancee talked me into it," Tony told her. He walked circles around one of the armors, gazing at it with distinct pride. "She thought I needed something after all the," Tony stopped and gestured to his chest. Pepper nodded, understanding what he meant. He shrugged. "Good call, Joanna."
"Your fiancee?" Pepper asked, unable to keep the surprise out of her voice. She had never known a Tony Stark who was willing to try to make a relationship last longer than a weekend before she was willing to give him a shot. Giving him that shot was scary. She knew he loved her, but she still thought she was just asking to have her heart broken. "You're married?" In all the time she had been here, there had been no indication whatsoever of a woman in his life other than herself or Maria and the other female Avengers.
"No...it ended right after that. She talked me into being a superhero, but she did not want to marry a superhero. Said I couldn't give her what she wanted and can't fault her for that. She was right about that, too."
"You're...surprisingly okay with this," Pepper told him. Tony certainly didn't sound bitter or resentful about these events. His tone was dull, as thought he was more bored with the thought of this woman than anything else. That, at least, fit in with the Tony she knew, but none of his old lovers had known him at all, never mind well enough to figure out his life path for him.
"Pepper, it was a long time ago. I don't even remember her last name. She married someone else, popped out a couple of kids and I'm over it. In retrospect, it's a good thing it didn't happen because I didn't know what I was talking about until..." Tony trailed off, turning to her and staring at her with a slight frown. "Hey, that's the origin story, right? You're all set with the spectacular beginnings of the Invincible Iron Man?"
"I'm just surprised. Really very surprised. I mean, not that you - the Tony I know! He's more of a -"
"Yes. That is what he was. Is. Yeah." Pepper shook her head, trying to dispel the mental images of Tony Stark at the alter. It seemed laughable, for starters. The idea of him dating at all was a little bizarre. The absolute last thing she needed was to get visions of weddings. If what was happening between them was going to work out - and she wanted it to work out, but she could hardly believe it to be guaranteed - diamond rings were still a long, long, long longlonglong way away. "It's hard to picture him engaged."
"That's smart. My second fiancee tried to kill me. Which is sadly not as rare as one would like to hope."
"Fiancees?" Pepper squeaked hopefully. Visions of weddings were sounding better and better, comparatively speaking.
"Women trying to kill me."
Suddenly, the workshop doors trilled as they opened with an automated flourish. Rhodey walked in. He waved and Pepper looked at him helplessly. Having no idea what he had just walked into, Rhodey just shrugged at her.
"Yeah," Tony continued, removing an Iron Man's helmet and upending it, "the relationship is pretty much over when they're out for your blood."
Between Tony's words and Pepper's expression - it was something between horrified and mystified, Rhodey could only interpret the conversation he had walked in on one way: "Are you telling this poor girl about Whitney Frost?" he asked.
"What?" Tony asked, now his turn to be mystified. "No." And horrified.
"Because I distinctly remember you not letting go of that after she tried to kill you several times," Rhodey said.
With the upside down helmet in his hands, Tony glared at Rhodey. "That was a bout of desperation induced insanity. Won't happen again." Tony turned to Pepper, "Long story short, I was crippled. Thought the girl whose face melted off might have a bit of compassion for the disabled. Not so much. She disconnected her phone and faked her own death. But at least I got the fun of identifying the body. Three times." He peered inside the helmet, muttering something that was mostly unintelligible but there was something about 'always liking the visual displays in this one' in there. He turned back to Pepper after a moment, "In case you're wondering, I was crippled because I shot in the spine by a woman trying to kill me."
Dazed, Pepper asked, "Do they ever...NOT want to kill you?"
Rhodey raised his hand, "I kind of want to kill him."
"We both know you'd be lost without me," Tony chirped.
"I'm just saying, you've been an ass lately and I know for a fact I don't get any the really cool stuff until you're dead," Rhodey replied with a grin.
"You already got the cool stuff and you broke it. All of it. My new will bequeaths some Fisher-Price toys to you because I know I can trust you with them."
Between the mess when she got here regarding his mansion in California and this conversation about Rhodey already receiving the items left for him in Tony's will, Pepper had to ask, "Why do people keep thinking you've died?"
"Next time, I'll let your cousin and Ultimo destroy the world," Rhodey told Tony. "Does that sit better with you?"
"Morgan was involved?" Tony spat.
"He didn't want me to tell you," Rhodey admitted with some shame, thought it was hard to tell if he was ashamed for breaking this third man's confidence or for taking so long to mention it to Tony.
"What, did he think that was going to lower my opinion of him?" Tony asked, sounding skeptical. "It can't get lower. It's already bottomed out."
"Wait," Pepper cried, holding her hands up. Information overload was making her head spin. "Who's Morgan?"
"Tony's cousin," Rhodey supplied.
"He thinks I have to put up with his shit because I don't have any other family," Tony added.
Pepper had never heard of Tony mentioning any family. His parents were dead, that was common knowledge. The family was famous enough that she was surprised to have not heard of another Stark. This Tony clearly couldn't stand his cousin. Maybe the Tony in her world didn't like him any better and just didn't bother with him. Or maybe Morgan was dead there as well. Or, he could have never existed at all. So far, everyone she had met had distinct similarities with the people she was familiar with, but somewhere along the time, the differences had to be large enough to produce things like different marriages or different children. It was actually miraculous that things were as familiar as they were. "What's he like?"
"He'd be dangerous if he wasn't incompetent," Tony drawled.
"He's just kind of-" Rhodey was cut off by Tony deliberately coughing, "-very slimy. Irresponsible, only looking out for himself."
"But he usually fails at that, so I have to save him," Tony finished up. "Who else was there?"
"A given. I mean, with you. Or were you doing the lone gunman thing? Because that's kind of my trademark."
"She never tried to kill me," Tony interrupted, telling Pepper. She got the distinct impression that Tony found this somewhat admirable.
"She's still around?"
"She was on the Iowa Initiative team!"
"Hey, amnesia! Help me out here."
"You have amnesia?" Pepper yelped. The boys continued talking about whatever it was they were going on about as though they had not even heard her. Lots of unfamiliar names and insane scenarios were playing out in their conversation. Robots. Aliens. Possibly aliens that were robots. Robots that could spawn other robots. Whatever it was, it was well outside the realm of things that Pepper could wrap her brain around. Memory loss was little more than a cheap dramatic device where she was from, but it was at least conceptually familiar to her. It was something she could understand. It also more immediately pertinent to what they, as Stark Resilient, were trying to build. "You have amnesia?" Pepper repeated, louder.
"Kind of," Tony answered at the same time as Rhodey said, "Yes."
"It's not a problem," the so-called invincible one added.
"It's a huge problem," Rhodey corrected.
"I read up on everything I missed."
"Everyone can tell that you're only pretending to know what you're talking about," Rhodey told him.
Tony glared at his friend. "That's bull. I know exactly what I'm doing."
"They hate you, man. I know you're good with Cap and Thor, but you have got to make good with the rest of them."
"That's why I live half a continent away. Glad we settled that."
"What's going on? What are you talking about? Do you have amnesia or not?" Pepper's head was spinning trying to follow the back and forth between the two men. Even if one of them had amnesia, they were both infinitely more informed than she was.
"Technically, no. I just deleted the contents of my brain and downloaded an old backup version of me. Everything works fine, don't worry about it."
Pepper took a long time processing the various responses that flew through her brain. How was his mind going to affect her getting home? Who hated him? There were so many people around him all the time. Aside from Ms. Walters, they all seemed to like him well enough. They were a team, though, so maybe they were just putting up with him for the greater good. Finally, that sentence made a lot of sentence if it were in the context of repairing a virus-ridden PC, but on a human being? "You aren't a computer."
"I'm," he paused, "fairly computer-like. Wanna see my download ports?"
He turned around anyway, and ran his fingers through his hair again, this time brushing the hair that laid against his neck upwards. At the base of his skull, three holes dilated, opening up. Pepper had the same sort of sick fascination creep up her gut the way she had the first time she saw the arc reactor in her Tony's hands. This Tony seemed to anticipate that. "Don't touch them," he said. "They're sensitive. Kind of have to be, since I can't see what I'm doing back there."
"Legal." Pepper forced out, "you have things to look over for the legal department - we don't have a legal department, I mean. You are going to look at them and I am going to go now." She didn't care what she needed to do to find something that would distract her enough that she would never think about those holes again. She was going to find it, do it and hopefully not vomit in front of anyone. As she walked away, Pepper heard Rhodey lecturing Tony on how to not sicken someone.
"I can laugh about it or I can cry," she heard Tony say to Rhodey as the doors shut behind her. "I don't know what you want from me here."
Down in the basement, Tony had a womb room. That had been James Wa's nickname for her workstation at the Los Angeles headquarters of the Order. Pepper hadn't cared for the name nor seen how it made a lot of sense. It was a station surrounded by computers and machinery. It perpetually gave off a faint buzzing, a faint light and surrounded the user completely. It was sort of womb-like in that regard, but she thought of a womb primarily as a place for new life to grow and thrive. Her womb room was a place to work, nothing more. The title made her think of babies and pregnancies and things like that were off-limits to her. She had always felt a little bit of camaraderie with the similarly childless, and not by choice, Maggie, but Magdalena never knew that Pepper had that kind of access to her files, so it remained an unspoken, one-sided bond.
Down in the basement, Tony had a womb room. In a darkly lit corner of his workshop, there was a car surrounded by screens. It was a place completely surrounded by the buzzing of machinery, the light of the computer monitors and the comfort of the interior of a car. When she finally entered the workshop, she zeroed in on this corner and got to work.
Priority One was Tony, out in the field about to face God only knew what and with an unquantifiable amount of information. This world's technology was less impressive than what she was used to dealing with, but it should probably be enough to relay any information she uncovered to Iron Man. She was pleased to note that he had already hacked himself into SHIELD's network. Pepper could have done it herself, but this was going to save her a lot of time. Finding out what SHIELD knew and how much they told Tony would be a simple matter thanks to his understandable skepticism. From there, she would know where to begin in her own research and then relay any new information.
Priority Two was the company. Iron Man was popular among the public and Stark Industries stock had risen as a result, but the corporation itself was in disarray and the military was only a hair away from seriously coming down on them. Untangling the knots was the easiest thing on her plate at the moment and whenever another lead on what Iron Man was up to frustrated her, she'd dial another vice president of this that or head of whosit and get the ball rolling on where they were versus where they needed to be.
Doing all of this sitting in a car was very cozy. Womb room was definitely a good name for it, even if it was not actually a room in and of itself.
Pepper was still down there when Iron Man returned, a good 16 hours after he'd left. The work day for Stark Industries had ended and a new one begun in that time. She would never have been able to work through the night like that without the RT unit, but come opening bell, she was still energized when calling people. It didn't hurt that she'd had the entire night to dissect problems, either. She was infinitely more knowledgeable later in her stint down here than in the first few hours.
The suit was smoking a little when the robotic arms descended from the ceiling to remove it from Tony. Pepper winced, wishing she had been able to find something to help him out. Still, she made a lot of headway on the company side of things, so she didn't feel too shabby about what she'd done.
"How did you get down here?" he asked. He was tired and sore and only newly freed from a battered hunk of machinery that was once bleeding edge technology.
"I called Rhodey, told him I needed an access code."
"-doesn't understand that I'm someone different." Admitting that JARVIS was unable to process the fact that this Pepper and the Pepper who had worked in this mansion for a decade were not the same entity was going to bite her in the future, she was sure. But while JARVIS was capable of theorizing on the existence of the multiverse, he could not tell the difference between versions of a single person. He seemed very human in a lot of ways, but he was still not human. Her fingerprints held up.
"Why are you down here?" Tony rubbed his face, exhausted and clearly not wanting to deal with her or her invasion of his space.
"To help," he repeated.
"I would have called you in the suit if I found any useful intell about what you were up against."
"You hate talking to me while I'm in the suit."
"No, I call you in the suit all the time." Pepper let herself out of the car. This man had no idea what to make of her and he didn't seem at all interested in finding out. As far as he was concerned, she was The Enemy and there wasn't anything she could do to convince him otherwise. For a scientist, he wasn't very curious. Well, actually, he did watch her in a very curious manner as she walked across the workshop, past him and towards the glass doors. She tried not to let his gaze bother her, but it was a little heavy. Still, she was an expert at holding her head up high in trying situations. On the scale of Tony Stark's Unacceptable Behavior, this guy ranked pretty low, but she'd seen worse.
Pepper was past him a few steps and thinking that she would not have to deal with any more consequences of coming down to the workshop uninvited until at least tomorrow when Tony grabbed her by her wrist and halted her. She turned. He was out of the armored suit now, but still in his cloth bodysuit. It is pretty tight, but a lot more modest than the gold bodysuit that her Tony wore underneath his armor. She looked at him defiantly, questioning.
"What is that?" he asked.
"What's what?" Pepper puzzled.
"That," he said, gesturing at her. Tony wasn't being specific enough for Pepper to really gauge what he was talking about and she didn't answer. With the hand that had been gesturing, he unzipped her SHIELD-issue sweatshirt down past her breasts with one quick tug. "That."
The glow of the Replusor Tech rig in her chest was not permanent. It only lit up when she was thinking about it or using it in some manner. This particular magnet is brand new, but the glow itself was something she's used to and so was the weight of having this item in her body. The RT is the reason she hasn't crashed yet. Tony hadn't seen it before. Pepper took a breath, the calming sort of deep breath that gave her a chance to think about what she was going to say before just going by instinct and slapping the bastard across the face. She zipped her sweatshirt back up to a more modest height, aware that it was glowing through.
"That's my Replusor Tech rig."
He called the contraption inside of his own chest the Arc Reactor and knowing Tony, the two devices probably served the same purpose. The technology behind them was likely different, though Pepper's only familiarity with the Arc Reactor back home ended with the press kits she had handed out to reporters when her Tony unveiled the thing a few years back. "Repulsors are proprietary Stark technology," he said.
"Um. This one was actually made in a joint effort with Rand Industries. I don't know if you've heard of them?"
"Why's it there?"
Lord help her, Pepper laughed. Mildly hysteria tinged, but a real guffaw. She and her Tony had had enough heated discussions about her elective surgery that it was almost funny that all the Anthony Starks of the multiverse had not had it burned into their brains. When she calmed herself, she said, "That's...that's hard to answer." The answer was actually pretty simple. It was there because she wanted it there. Trying to explain the history of the device - that would be difficult. "I like it. That's the bottom line."
Tony's fingers around her wrist loosened and eventually his hand fell away. "You aren't hurt."
She didn't know what to make of the statement. She didn't want to read any concern for her that was not there, but he was definitely interested in her implant and she was sure his mind had already zeroed in on the real reason she would get something like that installed in the first place. "Not anymore, no."
She wasn't hurt. She had been, but that was months ago and there had been many upgrades and surgeries since then. But then again, it was never about her. It's always been about the other her.
"Tony," Pepper said, realizing she should have said this on day one, "she's gonna be fine. Tony - my - the Tony from my world, I mean, he's going to find her and bring her home. I promise."
Chapter 3: In With the New
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Chapter Three: In With The New
Pepper had absolutely no idea how her Replusor Tech rig actually worked. As far as its internal mechanisms went, 'There are magnets involved' was all she really knew. The goal of the magnetism had originally been to keep the shards of debris away from her heart and spine. When her original RT implant was removed, the surgery included the necessary repairs to her organs. The new unit was implanted at her request to power future Rescue armors, but there was more to it than just a battery. Her body healed at a rate exponentially faster than what she would have thought possible. It made her smarter. She had no idea how it did these things. She didn't know what it was made out of or how long it took Stark and Rand to create it. Her world's Tony had had it on hand when she needed the original, so obviously he had made it in advance for some specific purpose. Pepper couldn't really guess what that might have been. Prior to his memory-wiped state, the Tony she knew would have never let his repulsors go on sale to just anyone. Pepper guessed he did not create it with the intention of marketing it. Due to a change of heart, or possibly philosophy, his goal was now to get the things powering as many homes across the world as possible. He thought green energy would save the world. Before he was into green energy, he wanted to make vaccinations as easy to get a hold of as soft drinks. Tony's mind jumped wildly from project to project.
Pepper told this world's Tony what she knew down in the workshop. She refused let him take her RT out to play with it, but she did allow JARVIS to take some x-rays and analyze the findings. Tony was curious. He was clearly itching to take it apart. Having to settle for information by way of conversation dampened his spirits somewhat, but did not entirely stamp out his enthusiasm. Unfortunately, all that Pepper could reveal was the fact that she didn't actually know much about it. What she could share was related to how she felt about the machine. At first, she had hated the thing. She had thought Tony turned her into a weapon by putting this object inside of her. She had given consent, but she had been under heavy sedation at the time. It didn't count. Her Tony had gone ahead and done it without true permission. When Pepper was fully in control of her facilities, she asked for him to take it out. Tony told her he would do so when she no longer needed the unit to survive. When that day came,Tony still refused to take it out. Only, this time, he had gotten around to explaining to her that it was not a weapon. It never had been.
And Pepper found herself okay with that. At first. Once she was willing to keep it, Tony wanted to upgrade it. The upgrades changed her. Pepper had started losing of track of what she even was. A human being? A cyborg? Where was the line between man and machine?
While she explained all of this to the other Tony, he had JARVIS create a 3-D hologram of the RT unit based on the x-rays. As she spoke, bits were added to the hologram one by one until there was a little, glowing green version of what was inside of her floating in mid-air. On command, JARVIS expanded it, so that what could normally be held in the palm of a person's hand was about a foot in diameter. Tony turned it around, stood it up on its end and took it apart, all with gestures. JARVIS analyzed the metal, noted the components and estimated the degree of power it put out.
When Tony frowned at JARVIS's estimation that Pepper's little RT unit could power his suit for 72 hours, a feat beyond the capabilities of his own miniature Arc Reactor, she smirked to herself. "Don't be so hard on yourself. There's always the solar reserves," she pointed out.
JARVIS began a route explanation of the lack of solar receivers in her implant, but Tony held up a hand, "Hold up, buddy. You," he pointed at Pepper, "Go."
She rolled her eyes. "What about your suit's solar reserves?"
He looked at her, a veiled accusatory look with which she had grown familiar. He knew she was keeping something from him. Something unrelated to getting his Pepper back, just a smug little bit of knowledge that she - or the other Tony - had and he did not. He had too much pride to ask about these things. Every small clue she gave him about what he could be capable of was just something he would do later. Solar paneling on the suit would be tricky. He would run a very high risk of damaging the receptors on a mission, for starters, but the benefits of a duel energy systems would be incalculable. Remote operations, greater renewability on his laser-based weapons systems, no more racing the clock if someone ripped the arc reactor out of his chest again...
Satisfied that she'd won this round, Pepper leaned back on her arms. She was sitting on the examination table of the medical station that Tony seemed to have pulled out from thin air. Judging by the breaks in the floor tile, there was a lot going on underneath them, just waiting to be called upon when needed. Very good womb room, indeed. "Are you mentally making a note of everything I tell you my Tony has so that you can make it later?"
"I like to think I'm a little more creative than that."
"My Tony has a time machine."
"I'm assuming there's a story attached to this," he observed.
"Nooooooot thinking of all the things you could undo if you had a time machine?"
"I wouldn't be the man I am today without them," he said with great, and completely fake, dignity. "And wouldn't that be a shame?"
"The worst," Pepper agreed, grinning.
"I'd create a paradox," he pointed out.
"I build the time machine. I go back in time, I tell my younger self to get his head out of his ass, pay attention to the world, his company. Be responsible. Show off the ol' - " here, Tony tapped a rhythm on his Arc - "and scare him straight. He uses his genius for the good of the world, blah blah blah, but if he never makes the mistakes I made then he can't go back and warn himself as a kid not to do them, so who did?"
Pepper squinted. "Have you never read science fiction in your life?" Tony protested that he did not read much in the way of fiction, period, but she continued over him, "Letting yourself see yourself is breaking rule number one!"
"So you would recommend going back and manipulating circumstances to prevent my being a shitbag like some sort of intratime puppet master."
"Have you met me? You really think that's all it would take?" Her pause told him all he needed to know. "I call it the Stark Sleaze Sequitur," he declared.
"Absolutely nothing to be proud of," Pepper chided.
"This thing, on the other hand," Tony murmured, spinning the holographic representation of her replusor unit.
He's isolated. There are people around him nearly all of the time, he's social and charming, but Tony is isolated. Pepper can't believe how long it took her to understand that. Her Tony back home came home to robots. He didn't like being touched or being in close proximity with other people unless it was leading to sex. He was rich, brilliant, eccentric and had, as far as she knew, no family. It was easy to see his isolation. There was no one else like him in the world.
This Tony had people with him so much - he was such an important part of a community - that Pepper hadn't seen it for weeks, but he was every bit as isolated as the man she knew. He and Maria didn't argue because they were part of some sort of stupid rom-com, they argued because they had very different perspectives on everything. She was a soldier, he was the man that made the bombs. Their ideas about the battlefield, about life, were just incompatible. Most of his teammates tolerated him, but they didn't care for him personally. Even his with his close friends, a true understanding was basically impossible. Tony was a futurist, a scientist. His interest in history was limited to keeping what worked and discarding what did not. He was mostly indifferent towards matters of faith, thought at his worst, he treated them with contempt. One of his dearest friends was an ancient god. Thor and Tony loved each other, but they did not understand one another. He argued for ends to justify the means and the price to pay for progress. Tony's other dear friend was born before the roaring '20's. He fought in World War II. He believed first and foremost in ideals and principles, and refused to compromise himself. He inspired others to do the same. Steve and Tony adored one another, but they did not understand each other.
Pepper wondered if it was possible that her counterpart understood him. He was a little stressed out, a little unhinged. His memories of the world did not mesh with the world as it was. He was in need of something. Tony appeared to believe that what he was missing was love - two fiancees did not cover his significant relationships, or even his engagements. Pepper had always prided herself on understanding the needs of the Tony she knew. She could anticipate what he would do in a given situation. She was all he had. She was the only person he could rely on outside of himself. She was certainly the only person who took an active interest in his best interests.
This man, living in this new world, was broken. He functioned without a touchstone. He could not relate to the people around him. There was no one to translate his language to theirs. She hoped her counterpart did this for him. She hoped her counterpart knew what his language was. So far, Pepper had not had a lot of luck in meaningful conversation.
He was quick to dismiss her concerns. Tony had a myriad of complaints for every individual needed by Stark Resilient to do business. He was eager to turn every serious situation into a joke. Despite her best efforts, she could not wrangle him into keeping any sort of schedule. It was not entirely his fault. The needs of the Avengers outweighed anything else he had going on and humanity tended to fall into mortal peril on short notice. Colorful super villains, Pepper was learning, rarely called to make an appointment in advance. But some of it was him. Without fail, Tony went out at night. Pepper didn't know where he went. She suspected it was personal, so she didn't ask. He slept during the day when he could, but was more often awake for days at a time. She tried to convince him that if not for his own health, he should at least sleep regularly for the sake of Iron Man and the Avengers, but he claimed to be too busy.
Every one of his projects was a high priority. Far from being able to tell him that he needed to drop a project for his own health, Pepper understood that they were all of immediate importance. In this world, the Avengers were not an initiative backed by SHIELD. They had some government funding, but for the most of their history, Tony had personally financed the team. He was broke. He needed to get Stark Resilient on its feet so that someone could resume shouldering the weight of the Avengers expenses. He needed to do his work as Iron Man. The last project - the scanning device that was searching for her home reality - was personal. Objectively, it was of the least importance compared to everything else Tony was doing, but selfishly, Pepper could not ask him to stop. She had talked herself into a lot of justifications for this inability on her part. It was the least time consuming of his projects. The responsibility was spread across several eager scientists. They had built it together and took turns monitoring or upgrading the device. She anxiously anticipated any news about the dimensional scanner, but when Reed, Hank Pym or Hank McCoy called, it was always with a new question about her world. A new variable that only occurred to them at that very moment. Tony never called to ask more questions about her world. She wasn't sure how his approach was different from that of the other men or why he didn't share it with them. Tony alone knew what he was looking for.
He alone knew what he was looking for, yet, every morning he returned to the Sooner Hotel tired and frustrated. She couldn't keep him from his work, Pepper knew, but she should make a greater effort to keep him at home at night. He wandered into their suite one morning, exhausted and bearing a day's worth of stubble. She was on the couch in the front room of the suite, contracts from a distributer spread across the coffee table. She had been on the verge of calling Natasha - Natalie was from Legal, Natalie would understand this, Pepper was an accountant - when Tony collapsed beside her. As he eyed her mug of coffee, Pepper clucked disapprovingly. "Do you actually enjoy the playboy lifestyle at all?"
Tony mustered the energy to frown at her, as though by asking a personal question, she had somehow disrespected him. "Would you believe me if I lied?"
"I might if you're secretly good at it." With the Tony she was used to, Pepper could always catch him in a lie, though she couldn't discern the truth. From what she had noticed so far about the mannerisms of this one, it would most likely hold true with him.
"Nope," he drawled.
"Then why do you do it?" Pepper asked. It was an honest question, even if she had the intent to talk him out of it.
"Because I remember when it used to be fun and I figure these things are cyclical," Tony muttered, reaching for her mug. He downed it fast and grimaced. What remained in the cup was cold and had too much sugar for his taste.
"You're too mature," Pepper told him, slowly taking her mug back. She wasn't exactly thrilled with his theft of her coffee, but she had not intended to finish it, either. No sense in being offended by it. "You aren't going to revert to a twenty-something again. You've grown up. It's okay to let go of the reputation."
"I don't care about what people think of me," he declared, laying his arms across the back of the couch casually. He stretched his legs out as well. "Most people on the planet hate me. The reputation is nothing."
"Then what are you doing?" she asked.
"Is there any more coffee? I could use about barrel of it."
"Half a pot, maybe more. How tired can you possibly be if you're this evasive?"
"It's my life," he groaned, running a palm over his face. "I don't ask you a million questions about why you do every single little thing you do, so how about leaving me alone."
"Do you want to know what I think?"
"I have this feeling like you're going to tell me either way," Tony said, hauling himself off the couch.
"I think no one's ever actually asked this before so you don't have an answer." Pepper set her mug down with a triumphant click on the table.
"Yeah," Tony answered. "You caught me, I do not philosophize. We're done here, right?" He gazed hopefully in the direction of the kitchenette.
"No. I seriously want to know why."
"What difference does it make?" Tony called over his shoulder as he made his way to the promised land of half a pot of regular, caffeinated bliss.
"Because you're Tony. You and the man I know are shades of each other. Understanding you is a way to understand him." This was true, Pepper reflected, if dishonest. Understanding his reasoning would be the first step in talking him out of these nocturnal activities. He had a lot of demands on his time that there was no getting around. Getting Tony to slow himself down and sleep at night was the one thing she could change. Maybe he needed it to fill a void left by a lack of meaningful socialization, but even considering that, she felt the benefits would outweigh the consequences.
Tony returned to his seat on to the couch moments later with a steaming mug. "If you fetch a pint of ice cream and the nail polish, I'm outta here." Pepper smiled at him, angled towards him and raptly interested. After a moment of thinking it over, he said, "I don't know how to talk about this. It's just a thing."
"Try," she said.
"I like sex."
"No," Pepper said, crossing her arms, "That answer is not good enough." It was a disappointing answer, too simple and single-minded for a man as brilliant and complex as Tony. There was no intimacy, no honesty and no room to argue with a statement like that.
"I didn't realize you had a strict policy of quality control," he mumbled over the lip of his cup.
"Telling people how you feel isn't that hard," Pepper told him as he drank.
"Okay, you educate me about your sex life," he requested with a toothy, dangerous smile. "Show me how easy it is."
If he was expecting that Pepper would call him a pervert and let him off the hook, Tony was wrong. "Fair enough. I have a boyfriend at home. We've only been seeing each other for a month, so things are still exciting and scary, but we know each other. We care about each other and that makes the sex better than groping random strangers," she concluded rather pointedly. "Sex is a lot of things, but when you get down to it, its just another way to communicate. My boyfriend can be really lousy at finding the right words. He hasn't made the right gesture in ...ever, but he can say it with his body." When she was finished, Pepper smirked and looked at him expectantly.
"I like that sex as communication. I'm saying that one, too."
"No, you don't get to take mine." Pepper massaged her forehead.
"I'm lonely," he said finally. His expression was angry, his tone condescending. He slapped his empty mug onto the coffee table with a distinctly inappropriate amount of force. "That's it. There you go. Believe it or not, I'm a human being and I don't want to be alone. You tell me: is that so hard to grasp?"
Shockingly, it actually was a little hard to grasp. "Because you are surrounded by people all the time," she said after a long, quiet moment of thinking it over. "But...you're still so different. Isolated. If you could just...I don't know..appreciate what you have? Rhodey and Thor and Steve love you so much. And, okay," she added hastily, "that is really a different kind of companionship that what we were talking about, but lots of times it can be helpful to forget about romance and focus on your friendships."
"Thank you, Pepper," he said, reaching for one of her hands. "I've missed out on so many important experiences because I skipped middle school. But now you've shown me what it's really like to be a twelve-year-old girl."
Her mouth turned and her eyes narrowed. "Are you finished?"
"No, I think I'm going to be milking this Dr. Phil advice of yours for a long time."
She snatched her hand back and glowered. So much for that.
"And if you must know, not that it is your business in any possible, imaginable way, I haven't had sex in...God, I don't even know. Five months, at least."
He yawned, smiled and said, "I'm not out all night partying, Pep." With that, he stood, took his coffee and meandered to his bedroom. Pepper watched him retreat.
"'Pep?'" she asked the empty air.
It took Tony nearly four days and mission to Colombia, but he cornered Pepper in the main kitchen while she was making soup for dinner and said, "Okay. Time machine story." She told him to let her finish cooking first, but he didn't have long to wait. Her recipe had only two steps: Open Can. Heat in Microwave.
She served them each a bowl of Chicken Noodle at the counter bar, though Tony had not asked for dinner as well. "A few years ago," she began, "I was pregnant."
He leaned back in his chair. "Is this story going to end with a paternity suit?"
Pepper glared at him and continued: "I lost the baby. My husband and I had tried for years to get pregnant. We thought it was never going to happen. We couldn't adopt. We tried, but our finances were a mess." She stopped, took a sip of soup and collected herself. The story was a personal one, but Tony hadn't asked for her motherly woes to be dumped on him. "And then I had this miracle." Pepper frowned at her soup, unsure of where to take the story. Unwilling to relive the violent portions, she cut to chase. "Well, I lost the baby. Do you want to know what Tony's reaction was?"
Tony rubbed his face with his palm. These stories were like some sort of out-of-body experience that he couldn't remember. "Sure," he said, talking over Pepper because she didn't actually wait for his answer.
"Tony made a time machine. A real, working, honest to God time machine. He was going to go back as many times as it took to save my baby. That's just the way he is. He's never let me down when it mattered. I have faith that he's going to find me. He'll bring the Pepper that lives in this world home."
"How old is your kid?" Tony asked. He never would have placed this woman as a mother. He couldn't picture his Pepper has a mom - harried and covered in spit-up didn't work for her - but her doppleganger wasn't as eloquent in his eyes. She'd never mentioned a kid or a husband before. He'd have thought those would be people to be concerned about when trapped in another reality.
"Oh..." she breathed out softly and bit her lip. "Well, it's more complicated than that."
"He didn't save the baby," Tony realized, feeling oddly horrified. He shouldn't care about this woman, her dead child or misplaced faith.
Pepper pursed her lips. "I...I asked him not to. Going back was dangerous for him and I thought...what's done is done, right? I'd rather move on than cling to false hope forever."
Tony shoved his untouched bowl of soup away. "That's what you're doing right now!"
She shook her head, "No, it's not. I didn't...I was afraid of losing him. I couldn't risk losing someone I cared about for something that might never happen. And even if I became pregnant again, who's to say I would carry to term? I was afraid of having to go through it all again. It wasn't worth the risk. He doesn't know when to hold on and when to let go."
Tony regarded her thoughtfully and chewed the inside of his cheek. "Never," he said. "It's never time to let go. Not when you can build, improve, make something better. Don't tell me that giving up is your sage bullshit advice. I don't want to hear it." He drummed his fingers on the arc implant. There was a solution. He knew it. It was just a matter of finding it.
"If I could talk to him," Pepper said, stirring her soup, "I would tell him to let go. He can't worry about me forever. Someday, he has to move on."
Slouching, Tony groused, "Then its a good thing you can't."
"Maybe," Pepper said to her bowl. "This whole thing feels like a cosmic joke." Tony raised his eyebrows. "My world is about a year and a half ahead of yours, time-wise. It's almost like I'm being given this second chance to do everything right, only no one knows me and good people are still dead for no reason. Here's a world where my husband is alive, but he's a stranger. Here's a world where the Order never existed, so Zeke Stane never killed Holly and Dennis, but Dennis is still dead. No superhero war, but only a handful of superheroes. Is Natasha a superhero? I can't even tell with her."
"She's with SHIELD, whatever that means," Tony answered. "Those people don't know who they are or what they want from anyone."
"Eat," Pepper said, pushing Tony's bowl back to him.
"I want to talk about this Zeke Stane guy," Tony replied.
"Obadiah's son," Pepper said after swallowing a mouthful, "if you've ever met him. He really did a number on my you, but you won and Zeke came back for revenge."
"We've met," Tony said tersely. "Never knew him to have a kid, though."
"Worth looking into," Pepper advised. "At least, if your meeting with Obadiah ended as poorly as Tony's did."
Lowly, he said, "We said it was an airplane crash."
"Ezekiel Stane is the full name," Pepper said, nodding, "I should probably write that down."
"I'll remember," he said in a tone that left no room for argument. Clearly, Stane had done a number on him, too.
"I feel like I tell you everything," Pepper said, cradling her chin against the heel of her hand. "It's your turn to tell me something."
Honestly, he told her, "I am not nearly drunk enough for that."
She sputtered. "How drunk are you?" The Tony she was used to had been a high functioning alcoholic before dutifully climbing on the wagon. It had been nearly impossible to tell when he was under the influence, which, as she eventually learned, had been always.
"A little," he answered. "I've got a good buzz going."
"Do you only talk to me when you're drunk?" Pepper asked.
"Yes. But, in my defense," Tony said with half a shrug, "I haven't been sober since you got here."
"That's...not really a good defense," Pepper said, sounding bewildered and feeling idiotic for not noticing. "It's actually incriminating."
"I do incriminating very well. It's a good look for me."
"It's not a good look for a superhero." She shook her head.
He laughed. It wasn't genuine. "I am not a superhero. That's ridiculous. Fanciful. Not me. If I was a superhero, like maybe your good friend Natashalie, SHIELD would want me for their Avengers team, which they do not. So. Here were are. Iron Man, lone non-superhero."
Pepper furrowed her brow. "Natasha and Phil talk about you like you're an agent."
"If you want to be all official about it, sure. They like to give me medals, send me off to say pretty things to angry people. Every now and then, they throw me something science-y, pretend like they respect me when what Fury is really saying, loudly and clearly, is I'm dancing monkey to him."
Reaching across the table, Pepper took Tony's hand. "You are more than that," she said with a conviction that was impossible to argue. "You're Iron Man. You're a founder. The Avenger's mansion belonged to your parents. You're Tony Stark." She squeezed his hand. "You move and the world follows."
Genuinely, Tony said, "I like you."
It was not until much later in the day that Pepper had time to let the morning's conversation with Tony swirl around her brain. The more she got to know him, the more he managed to chip away at what she thought she knew. He was alone, surrounded by people and unwilling to accept their affection. He worked himself to the brink of exhaustion for the good of everyone except himself and spent his nights awake. She had assumed he had been seeking bimbos willing to drop their panties for a down-on-his-luck former billionaire, but that was not the case. She had wished for her other self to be the person that pulled him together, that understood him, that gave him affection he would accept. And she had wanted that selfishly, because she wanted an assurance that what she was trying to build with the Tony she knew could weather the life he was entering. Now she wanted that woman to be his touchstone because he needed one. But even that seemed wrong, somehow, because she was gone. No one, certainly not Pepper, had any idea when she would return. The variables involved were limitless. She needed to be found, she needed to travel back to this world. The scientists manning the scanner were looking for the world from which their visitor emerged, but there was no guarantee that this world's Pepper would be there. More than two women could have been tangled in this swap. As far as this world was concerned, the woman who occupied the space of Virginia Potts was gone. As far as her own world was concerned, Virginia Potts was gone.
Pepper had been thinking mostly in terms of the life she had left behind. The people she encountered here were shades of the people she had always known at home. More powerful, more experienced, maybe even smarter, but also more broken, more worn down. She thought of them as ppossiblities: who Natalie could be underneath her masks; who Rhodey could be if he was more loyal to ideals than his uniform; who Tony would become, given time. She tried to fashion for herself a life that was familiar, because her work was who she was. Without her ambition, Pepper had no way to define herself. She once told her lover that he was all she had. Without him, all she has was herself. If she lost sight of herself, then this harsh world would wear her down and break her, just as it had everyone else.
The more she got to know Tony, the more she had to question about her own way of thinking. He was an individual. He was different. He was not the end product of her boyfriend's erratic journey, he was a wounded man on a journey all his own. Both of the women known as Pepper Potts were on their own journeys, journeys that may never take them home. Pepper was not a person with much patience for defeatist thinking, but she also had no interest in delusions. Everything she had left behind was - at least for now - behind her. She had to move forward. It was not enough to cling to her sense of who she was, Pepper had to take the reigns of her life back.
Tony was a wreck and she was composed. Truly, it was a familiar place to be.
At around seven in the evening, Tony emerged from his room, showered, shaved and put together. He recovered enough semblance of business savvy to be willing to look at the contracts and go over the notes from the day's three phone conferences. As he flipped through the papers she had prepared for him, Pepper said, "Your schedule is officially completely backwards."
"I'm on Tokyo time," he replied, cheeky.
"Uh-huh, and what time is it," Pepper prompted, with a perfect poker face which betrayed no amusement, "in Tokyo?"
Tony choose to reply to this question in Japanese. His answer, though Pepper could not understand it, was far longer than any simple recitation of the time. In fact, she suspected that he only stopped talking because she kissed him. His eyes were still closed when she pulled away, only fractionally. Against her lips, he whispered in English, "You have a boyfriend."
Truthfully, she told him, "I don't know if I'll ever see him again." She pressed her forehead to Tony's and wound her arms around his shoulders. "He'd be crazy to wait for me."
"He'd be crazy not to," Tony countered.
"Maybe," she drawled playfully. "But," Pepper posed, "What do you do when you're separated from the person you love and you have no idea if you will ever be with them again?"
"If it was me in your shoes," he replied, tossing what folders still in his hand aside, "I'd throw myself at the first willing woman I met."
"Exactly," Pepper said, stroking the input jacks on the back of his neck with one finger. He groaned helplessly and dropped his head onto her shoulder. His hands found themselves at her hips, gripping tightly. The tiny holes on his neck dilated and contracted in response to her fingers. "They're sensitive," she whispered. "I remember. Is it okay if I touch them?"
He groaned again, nuzzled her neck. As he pressed kisses against the length of her throat, Tony requested, "Don't stop."
It was everything she thought it would be. It had fueled nearly two decades' worth of guilty fantasies. She had experienced it in Russia, but it wasn't quite the same. Tony was brain-damaged, honest and uncertain when she had been with him during those dark hours. Pepper had liked that very much. Having him without his layers of emotional armor was the way she had needed it to happen. She wanted a Tony that she could really and truly trust. In the end, their relationship did not turn out the way she had wanted it to, but the sex itself had been slow and satisfying and aching with real emotion.
This was not the same. This was what she imagined it would have been like if she and Tony had gone at it like dogs in heat years ago, before her husband, before their friendship grew so complicated. It was fast, athletic and unapologetic. He didn't seem drunk, but once she got close, Pepper could smell the alcohol on him. She could taste the Scotch on his breath as they kissed. The blue light that shone from his chest, combined with the yellow light that shone from hers cast their bodies in a green pallor. That alone diverged from what she had imagined. In every other respect, it was everything she thought it would be.
She had expected to wake up alone in his bed the next morning, so Pepper was not perturbed when she did. She stretched, hummed, and relaxed. She felt amazing. To be abandoned wasn't what she had wanted in her youth, when she was consumed by romantic ideas of herself and Tony, but her older, more realistic self did not find it half bad. She had thought her feelings for him were finally gone when she stood over his comatose body with Maria Hill, knowing that what she thought they had was nothing more than a stupid romantic delusion. As the days dragged on, she was forced to admit that it was really only her romantic fantasies that had been killed. The feelings persisted.
Now that she had what she wanted all along, Pepper could say she was finished. Free of it. Free of him. When she finally got out of bed, she took a shower in his bathroom. Pepper used his soap, laughing at the idea of smelling like him - which she did not, because he reeked of booze - as she lathered up. She borrowed his bath robe to wear as she shuffled down the hallway to her own room for some fresh clothes. On her way down to the basement lab, she grabbed two cups of yogurt from the fridge and stuffed the robe down the laundry shoot.
Tony was underneath one of his cars with heavy metal music blaring when she opened the glass doors to the workshop. He rolled fully into view when she turned the music off. covered in grease and looking apprehensive. Pepper set both of the yogurts on a reasonably clean looking stool and set off to the kitchenette to retrieve bottles of water. "Hydration," she said, holding up one of the bottles, "Protein," she declared, pointing at the yogurt. She'd guessed that he had partaken of a breakfast of more Scotch, though now she noticed the used blender in the kitchenette sink. Some kind of unappetizing green sludge was dripping down the sides of the glass. It looked disgusting enough to be healthy, but Pepper would be shocked if she learned that it actually was. Water in hand, she also retrieved a pair of spoons and returned to Tony.
"Thank you," Pepper said, holding a spoon out to him.
Tony pursed his lips. He'd never stuck around for the aftershocks of a one-night stand, didn't know what to expect. Somehow, he'd always imagined the women he spurred to be upset about it. "Uh.." he said, thrown off balance, "You're welcome?"
"I needed that. After so many years, I can finally close that door."
Tony sighed with huge amounts of relief. "Great, so we're agreed we're done? Because I have a girlfriend and I really need this," he gestured between them, "to not be a problem for her."
"Oh." Pepper squeaked, the smile dropping off her face. "I'm so sorry-I didn't-why didn't you say something?"
"Hey...uh...look, Pepper usually does this part?" He began, reaching out slightly before retracting his hand. "So I am not so good at the comforting you? We all had fun, now it's over and hopefully no one is gonna be pissed."
"I promise, I'll, I'll talk to her. It was all completely my fault and and do you think she would be less mad if we say you were drunk? I'm so sorry, I had no idea. I never saw you with anyone and I just assumed..."
"She," Tony faltered. He had never wanted to talk about his relationship with his Pepper to this woman. He didn't want to share the intimate details of his life with the person who took his lover away. "...hasn't been around lately." He didn't want to accept her. She wasn't his Pepper. She was sweet and smart, vulnerable and defiant in turns, supported him quietly while he sourly tried to ignore her. She had a tiny, impish smile and teased him at every opportunity she got. She thought he was important - thought highly of him in spite of everything. She made his heart lurch.
It didn't matter because she was not Pepper.
"She's trapped in an alternate dimension." He was shocked to find how freeing it was to be honest with her and continued. "SHIELD doesn't know anything. I'm in this completely blind. The physics is unlike anything I've ever seen before. I have theories, but they don't pan out. I've tried everything I can think of and nothing has worked yet. And apparently, that shouldn't even bother me, because what? The Tony you know is smarter than me and he has her? You're assuming he has her - we don't even know for sure." Viciously, he kicked the stool over.
"Tony...I - I, I had no idea, I," Pepper threaded her fingers through her hair and shook her head. "God, I should have known."
"Why?" he asked dully. "What difference does it make?"
"Because," Pepper said, looping her arms around Tony's waist. He jerked at first, uncomfortable. "You're Tony." Her arms tightened around him and she laid her head against his chest. There was something comforting about a simple hug. In her arms, he began to relax. "Tony loves me. He's going to come for me. And when he does, he'll bring her back."
She was awoken by the feeling of fingers delicately brushing her hair and a voice that responded to her stirring with a whisper of, "Hi."
"How do you feel?"
Sleepily, Pepper lifted her head from the crook of Tony's shoulder. "Good." Her smile curled. "Really good. You?"
Running his fingers up and down her spine, he said, "Your boyfriend is going to kill me, but I am happy to report that I completely deserve it."
"He isn't going to kill you," Pepper said, using her arms to push herself up, her torso hovering above him while their legs remained tangled together. "You're a good man."
"We have very different definitions of 'good,'" Tony replied. "I would like a copy of your dictionary."
Pepper rolled off of him, sandwiching herself cosily between his body and the plush backing of the couch. "I didn't like you when we first met," she confessed. "I thought you were scary and intense and inhuman." His fingers cupped her shoulder as she spoke, but his eyes turned upwards to the ceiling. "But then I learned. I got to know you. You've got a good heart and you try so hard to take care of everyone. I wanted good things for you. I would wish for good things for you." She leaned over to kiss the nearest part of him - his shoulder. "And then I thought, I can be something good. I don't think your pieces fit together they way they should anymore, but I can help them work together a little smoother."
Face toward the ceiling, the haunted man said, "I think I'm in love with you."
Next: In the End, When You Come Around
Chapter 4: Something Familiar Redux
Chapter Four: Something Familiar Redux
After endless weeks of tracksuits and house arrest, Pepper had been deemed worthy to take on Stark Industries in a pristine business suit and heels. To Tony, she had had made the transformation into an ally - and allies were the people on whom he dumped responsibilities he didn't want. SHIELD still had no idea what to make of her, but everything they had done up until now had yielded no results. A lone woman of mysterious origin could not tie up their resources or priorities any longer than she already had.
As far as the general public knew, the CEO of Stark Industries had taken a leave of absence due to stress, but was finally taking back the reigns of the company.
Stark Industries, Pepper was prepared for. Los Angeles, she was not. The driver - not Happy, but someone else, as Pepper had specifically requested - was due to pick them up and take them to the downtown complex in half an hour. She and Tony loitered in the living room overlooking the ocean, waiting for JARVIS to buzz them when the limo arrived. Pepper was ready for her day at the office with time to spare, immaculately put together. Yet the heat, the sun, the energy of the city, the memories - she wasn't eager for any of it.
"I'm not sure we should do this," Pepper said suddenly, sitting on the couch. Her hands had been folded primly in her lap until she spoke. As she voiced her concerns, Pepper picked at her nails nervously.
"Okay, yeah, but we already let the story to go print, so," Tony replied, himself dressed stylishly for a day in the public eye. "Kind of committed."
"People are going to notice that I'm not her," Pepper protested quietly.
Tony stretched and leaned his head back, both arms sprawled along the back of the couch. "People are going to notice that you're putting the company back on track after Bored Superhero at the Helm, the sequel."
Pepper attached herself to his words. He had given her an out, of sorts. Something else to focus on. "Thought you weren't a superhero," she said with a slight smirk.
"What?" Tony asked, drawing himself up from his relaxed position. "Of course I am. What else do you call it?" When Pepper had no answer but a small, triumphant smile, he grew more serious. "Look, I don't have the time for this job. And you shouldn't be doing whatever it is you do from my basement. You should have a desk and pens and annoying office gadgets."
"I would have a said a phone and a computer that didn't talk back," she countered dryly.
"You'll have those, too, at the office." Tony hauled himself up off the couch. "Let's just take one of my cars. What are we waiting for?"
"California," Pepper stated, staying seated. "We're waiting for California to swallow me up."
"This again?" Tony frowned. "What is your problem?"
Pepper chewed on her lip and sat silently for a long moment. "This might surprise you," she said carefully, "but I used to be the leader of a superhero team."
Surprising himself, Tony answered, "It doesn't, actually."
"Well. I wasn't very good at it."
"That surprises me."
"I wasn't," Pepper insisted. "My team was called the Order and we were based in downtown L.A." Holding her head in her palms, Pepper muttered, "It was one long string of disasters. All right, you expect superhero work to be a string of disasters because your job is responding to disasters. But we had different kinds of disasters. Half the team violated their contracts right out of the gate, we got evicted, we had PR nightmares, we had - We had people die. Good people. They died on my watch, right here in L.A. And I quit because if I stayed...I don't know. I just...people died because I let them. I let them down. Here."
Taking hold of the hand that she propped her head on, Tony hauled Pepper to feet. He smiled oddly and said, "Let's make better mistakes today."
Tony barged into her office in that way of his. He never knocked or even pretended to be appropriately apologetic. He strode in and winced when she glared at him. They went through this routine at least one a week, sometimes three. They had one particularly rough crisis that took the entire week to resolve where it seemed to happen every twenty minutes. This time, he didn't wince when she glared at him, but rather gestured to her ear piece. He said, "We think we found it." Pepper disconnected the call.
"Iron Man and the Hulk appear within six months of each other, in 2008. January '09, the exact same energy readings we found in Malibu occurred in a little town called Broxton, Oklahoma. And it's the damnedest thing, because when you look at the photos we dug up of the CEO of Stark Industries, her eyes changed from blue to green."
"You found it!" Pepper squealed. It was an entirely unladylike squeal and if she hadn't heard it herself, she would have never believed that he came out of her mouth. "When do we leave?"
"Waiting on you."
In her haste, Pepper jumped up from her chair but by the time she was up, her sense of duty was pinging. She had begun so many projects. While she was certainly not going to wait to finish them all before returning to her proper reality, at the very least she needed to leave instructions for whoever succeeded her. "Oh! I have -"
"- Absolutely nothing of any importance. Let's go." Tony was every bit as anxious as she was, possibly more so. Pepper's sense of duty told her to finish what she had begun, not to let Stark Resilient down. Tony's sense of duty told him to save people. He had two distressed damsels he was itching to rescue.
His words made sense, though. She didn't belong here. This wasn't her job or her life or anything she would ever see again. It wasn't important. Getting home was important. There was nothing here that she would miss. Maybe some day, she might start feeling nostalgic for a sober Tony or a personable Natalie, but she wouldn't miss them the way she would miss a person she was genuinely losing.
Their walk down the hall, through the lobby and into the limo outside was awkwardly fast. The more steps they took, the more they both wanted to break out into a run, but they had to keep some sense of propriety in the building. Inside the car, their strained smiles turned to real grins. Tony told the driver where to go while Pepper tried to adequately express her appreciation for all that this Tony had done for her. She doubted it made a lot of sense. In fact, Pepper suspected it sounded more like a lot of rambling than anything else. Tony smiled, told her she was welcome, and gave her a swift, dry kiss before they exited the car at Four Freedoms Plaza.
Most of what was inside of the laboratory of Reed Richards meant nothing to Pepper. All that mattered was the machined that generated the portal that would take her home.
Before they crossed the threshold through the worlds, Pepper took a look at the readouts they had procured herself. It looked like home. It was likely that there were very similar worlds to her own out there, but this one felt right. Tony stepped up first, held out his hand for her to take. Like her, he was wearing his day-to-day business wear, and Pepper found herself surprised. "You aren't wearing your armor?" she asked as she accepted the offered hand.
Slapping himself on the chest, he told her, "I have it if I need it." He also had a leather laptop back slung over his shoulder. Pepper had never seen him with it before. To the best of her knowledge, he used computers purely for show. His living computer brain could process anything machines did. His mind was also harder to hack.
They cross from his New York to her New York in the space of two steps. Four Freedoms Plaza wasn't the home of the Fantastic Four in her world. As far as Pepper knew there was no Fantastic Four. The populace was significantly less accepting of the outrageous than that of the world they just left. It was still New York City - one of the more outrageous places in the country, with or without superheroes. Pepper was thankful that they encountered very little fanfare when they appeared randomly in a posh courtyard owned by someone who was not Reed Richards. Tony, on the other hand, encouraged any attention they could obtain. The slight discrepancy of eye color went unnoticed by the crowd. Pepper imagined not a single person there ever gave a moment's thought to the color of Tony Stark's eyes.
One thing Pepper had learned about this Tony Stark was that he always had a plan brewing. There was not a doubt in her mind that his showboating was meant to accomplish another goal. They were an entire continent away from where they wanted to be. Tony could drip out his liquid armor and fly to California, but Pepper did not have that option. Of the two of them, she was the one who really needed to be there.
The sudden and unexplained appearance of Tony Stark and Pepper Potts in New York City, accompanied by that same flash of energy did not go unnoticed by SHIELD, which was exactly what Tony had wanted. It wasn't long before a faraway look overtook his blue eyes. It wasn't a whimsical look. She had learned to recognize his computer-look. "Helicarrier is coming in from D.C.," he muttered underneath his breath, just loud enough for Pepper to hear. An incoming SHIELD task force from Washington D.C. was disappointing. She had been looking forward to seeing her Tony again. "ETA 35 minutes."
"Does To -" she faltered, eyeing the crowd that was snapping photos of them, "Um, does the west coast contact know?"
"If he does, its not through an official channel," he said absently. Tony's eyes cleared as he disconnected from the network. "Fury's boys don't think too highly of him."
Pepper frowned. She knew Tony was in touch with SHIELD now and again, though it was nothing promising or uplifting. At time, they wanted to pick his brain. He was uncooperative. SHIELD seemed to think it their prerogative to keep him in the dark as much as possible, which Tony did not appreciate. Stane had kept him in the dark. The new and improved Tony demanded honestly, specifics and accountability. These were not things any government agency was inclined to provide. "It's mutual," Pepper assured him.
"He's got taste," Tony replied offhandedly. "What speed can his armor reach?"
"I don't know," Pepper answered, wrinkling her nose. "Pretty fast. Really fast. Four times as fast as a jet, at least."
"86 minutes, 15 seconds," Tony calculated, "Give or take."
"But he'd have to come alone," Pepper added. "He couldn't bring her, if she's even with him."
"How do you know?"
Tony raised an eyebrow. "I checked."
"How?" she wondered out loud. "Wait, how does this scanner you and the others were using work?"
"Reed is part of... Let's call it an inter-universal society. People from different universes in the multiverse gather together to solve various problems. Using that technology, he's built a scanner so that he can look at specifics in other worlds. If you think of life has a series of choices, for everything you do, there's a world where you took a different action. Reed likes to look at other worlds - see how it would have gone down if he had done it differently. We fined tuned that to look for specific worlds within the constraints that you gave. From there, I zeroed in on the Virginia Potts in all those worlds until I found mine."
"That's..that's pretty invasive," Pepper said, feeling perturbed. "I don't even want to think about the things you could have seen those women doing. You're a voyeur."
"I wish," Tony grunted.
"I used to think I was going to miss you," Pepper uttered flatly. "That has been eradicated from my being, I think."
Tony slapped a palm to his heart. "I wanted to make this transition as smooth as possible for you."
"I wish you would have told me about this before we left so that I could tell Dr. Richards to make sure you never go near that scanner again."
"Of course, if you'd done that, we never would have found your world. So, let's actually be thankful that I keep these things to myself until I am directly asked about it, Ms. Takes No Responsibility For Setting Me Up."
Pepper crossed her arms. "Don't blame this on me." After chewing the inside of her cheek for a moment, she added, "Thank you. For looking. There were moments were I was afraid you might stop."
Quizzically, he asked, "Why would I stop?"
She shrugged. "You were so busy and exhausted and I know you had about 75 thousand more important things to do." When he started shaking his head, she dropped her real worry. "And you told me you're in love with me. I thought you might want me around."
"Have we," Tony began, "crossed wires on what the meaning of 'love' is? Loving you made me want to bring you home more. This is the world where you belong. This is where your life is. You'll be safe and happy here. Build a good future for yourself, Pep, and I'll be happy." She moved quickly, throwing her arms around him. The hug was tight and fierce. She would miss him. Winding his arms around her, Tony said, "Well, this is convenient." Confused, she pulled back to look at him questioningly. Armor was pouring from his body. Pepper found herself with her palms suddenly pressed against cold metal where warm cloth and the feeling of hidden muscles had once been. "There's our ride. Hold tight."
The ground fell at a dizzying speed as they shot upwards. The force of the takeoff had knocked one of her shoes off. She staggered upon their rough landing aboard a massive deck, miles above the courtyard where they had emerged.
Tony had called the great airship a Helicarrier. It was a fitting name. The blades keeping the colossal machine in the air thundered so loudly she couldn't hear herself think. She steadied herself on Iron Man's arm. Without the armor, she thought she might blow away. The surface they landed on was immediately reminiscent of an aircraft carrier. That was what the SHIELD Helicarrier was, she realized, an aircraft carrier that was a helicopter instead of a boat.
Armed operatives swarmed around him. "Oh, that's cute," Iron Man declared. "Pointing guns at me. Hey, kid," he said, singling out a fresh-faced soldier. From the looks of his haircut, he was straight out of the Marines. "How old are you? Look about twelve. I'll let you in on something - I've been pounding better trained, better armed, more experienced SHIELD agents than you into the ground since before you were out of diapers. And they didn't point guns at me."
"And what," boomed the commanding voice of Nick Fury as he stepped out onto the platform, "makes you think my men are poorly armed?"
"For starters, I didn't make those guns," Iron Man replied. "If you want to talk quality weaponry, there's only one brand that's worthy of our fine young men and women in skintight uniforms. But I didn't come here to make a sales pitch, just a little trade. Once I do, I'll be out of your metaphorical hair and on my way. Don't turn this into a fight, Fury. You won't win."
"SHIELD has been very interested in this flux. You'll find we've been quite accommodating to those effected by it. I'll let you take your girl back wherever she belongs, but you're going to have to do two things for me first."
Though Iron Man's voice was normally flat and mechanical, there was an undeniable harshness in his words. "Name your terms."
"I've been accommodating to our first visitor and I don't intend to stop now. I want proof turning her over to you is in her best interest. Second, I want to know what the hell is going on here."
As the armor began to recede, the agents stepped back and lowered their guns in awe. Teetering on one shoe, Pepper tightened her grip on his arm. "I'm Anthony Edward Stark, seventh executive director of SHIELD, level 10 clearance. I estimate this rig can reach Malibu in about 3 hours. I'll be talking fast, so I suggest you try to take notes."
"I think you're pocket dialing me," Pepper muttered as she read the blinking screen of her Blackberry. It had been a long day, exhausting physically and emotionally. Their ride back to the mansion had been one of distracted silence since they climbed into the back of the limo.
Tony shifted, setting his clinking glass of Scotch in the armrest cup holder. He pulled his own phone out of his back pocket and glanced at the dark screen. "Nope."
Pepper pursed her lips. The screen clearly stated Tony Stark calling... She hit answer. "Potts here."
"Hey," answered a chipper voice. "It's me. You ready to go?"
Casting frantic glances around the limo and out the window, Pepper asked, "Where are you?" Beside her, Tony raised his eyebrows. To the man beside her, she hissed, "It's him."
"Should be right above you," answered the other Tony, the one she had known for so many years. "Where are you?"
"In the car. We should be there in -" Pepper paused to make an estimate, but the numbers died on her lips. Tony - the new Tony - was gesturing to the driver, giving instructions to stop the car. "What are you doing?" she called out.
On the phone, Tony frantically asked, "Pepper? What's going on? What's happening?"
"That's what I'm trying to -" Again, she stopped mid-sentence. "Hang on," Pepper said. The Tony she was with had let himself out of the car once they pulled over onto the shoulder. She scrambled out after him. "Tony," she called, hoping the man on the phone could not hear her, as she was not about to take the time to stop and explain who she was trying to speak with. "What are you doing?"
Tony didn't answer her. He rounded the car, to the trunk. Inside was a red and silver plated briefcase. She had known only of the suit that rose up from the broken tiles in the floor of his workshop, but when she saw the metallic case, she understood. A few quick gestures was all it took before the compact armor folded around Tony's body. When his eyes were on her, lit up, she said, "They're at the house."
Cold arms slid around her waist. With a sudden jerk and the whine of repulsors, the ground fell away from her feet at a dizzying speed. She had forgotten how uncomfortable it was to fly under someone else's power. It was difficult to even breathe. Luckily, the looming SHIELD helicarrier came into view in only seconds. Within minutes, they landed on the deck.
Her hands still on Iron Man's shoulders, Pepper looked about. "Tony?" she called.
Iron Man's faceplate split open and receded. "Pepper!" he shouted.
"Tony!" answered a woman's voice. Pepper saw herself - taller, barefoot and undoubtedly possessing blue eyes - run out from the shadow cast by ship's command center. She smiled slightly as the woman threw herself into Iron Man's joyful arms. Head down and braced for the wind at this altitude, Pepper walked the opposite path, sure that where that woman had come from would lead her to her Tony.
He did not seem to see her when she reached his side, both of them wind swept and rumpled. Jacket and tie blowing in the wind, he was a sight for sore eyes. She was not what had him standing still, transfixed, so Pepper turned, looking over her shoulder. There out on the deck of the Helicarrier were their doppelgangers, the reunited lovers. Iron Man had wound his fingers through the other Pepper's hair. She delicately stroked his jaw as they kissed.
"Did you know about that?" Tony wondered, in a dazed voice that made it clear that he had not.
"He told me," Pepper said, slipping her arm through one of his and giving it a squeeze.
"Would have liked a little warning," he said, hollowly.
"We should say good-bye," Pepper prompted, taking Tony by the hand and pulling him towards their other selves.
"So," the blue-eyed Tony said loudly, fingering the strap of the laptop bag he still carried. The native versions of Tony and Pepper broke their kiss, but not their embrace. "We are gonna get going. It was nice...being freaked out by all this. Let's not do it again sometime."
"Thank you," blue-eyed Pepper said somberly, stepping away from her lover and holding her hand out to the other man.
He accepted the offered hand and gave it a squeeze. "Happy to do it."
Drawing her hand back, she said, "The portal is in New York. Do you want us to ride back with you?"
Tony waved her off. "Nah, the trip back will only take a couple minutes." Turning to the woman who had walked by his side, he slung the laptop bag off his shoulder and said, "I brought you a present."
She accepted the offered bag and staggered under the unexpected weight.
"I lost the receipt," Tony continued, "so you can't return it."
She raised an eyebrow. "Does it come in other colors?"
"I'll make do," the green-eyed woman told Tony. To the bag, she said, "I missed you."
From within the bag, sheets of precisely molded red and silver metal unfolded, not unlike Iron Man's armored briefcase. The suit folded around Pepper, allotted her power and protection, and most importantly, the means to fly herself home as Rescue.
The Tony who had brought the suit smirked with self-satisfaction. For the other Tony, so much of what this woman had shared with him clicked into place. She had taken it upon herself to be his partner, with a light in her chest and more experience in the land of superheroics than he'd seen yet. Her start on this path, he knew, like his own, had come at a high price. She had suffered for her light, carried the weight of other lives on her shoulders. His arms tightened around the woman he held.
Pepper looked at him and said, "I want one."
Tony pursed his lips. "No."
"Yeah," drawled the other Tony. "You say that like you have choice." His own armor overtook him from within his body, red and gold. He leveled his gaze at his other self. "Sobriety," he said, clinking the armor. "You'd be amazed at what you can do with your head clear."
Rescue launched, hovering just a few feet off the surface of the helicarrier deck. Awkwardly, she waved. The man and woman she was leaving behind raised their arms to wave as well. The golden Avenger launched himself into the air beside her.
Though they flew a safe distance away first, the helicarrier rattled as two sonic booms echoed through the skies. And they were gone.
"All I want in the world right now," Pepper told him as they flew through the air, "is to go home, take a shower and sleep in my own bed. I want to go to sleep knowing I'll wake up some place familiar, some place mine."
The response that Rescue's radio systems fed to her was an uncomfortable, vaguely whiney noise. "Nnnnnnngh, that might be a little hard," Tony admitted.
"What? Why? What's going on?"
"While you were gone, we sort of netted a couple billion dollars profit and moved back headquarters back to New York. On the plus side, I was able to start paying you and she bought a really nice place. That you've never seen before." After a moment of silence, Tony continued, "You can call up the real estate agent and start looking for your own own place first thing tomorrow. Trust me, you can afford it. A familiar bed right now just won't be happening. Sorry. Um...I made you a Hulk-Buster?"
Pepper laughed. It was a little mania-tinged - the man had packed up her life and moved her halfway across the country while she wasn't looking, but the sheer absurdity of his last statement, combined with the adrenaline fallout of the last few hours, made her laugh. Her emotions were all over the place and she felt like if she didn't laugh, she'd cry from the pure stress of it all. It made no sense. She was home now. The stressful part was over. Perhaps her body was finally going to let her deal with everything that had been rollicking under the surface for the past few months.
For his part, Tony had taken the laughter to be a positive, and continued to prattle on about it, which only made her laugh harder. "Not that you strike me as the Hulk-Busting type or that I foresee you needing to bust any Hulks. But if you are and if you do, you are now prepared."
When she finally regained control of herself, Pepper sorely needed to wipe the tears off her face. Whether they were tears of mirth or tears of having a good cry was anyone's best guess, but wearing a suit of armor made it impossible to get to one's face. "Why?" she asked.
He shrugged. Tony was practiced enough at flying that he could shrug, compensate for it and never go even the slightest bit off course. "Helped me think."
"You don't even want me having a suit," she reminded him.
"I was thinking about you and how to get you back. They just happened."
"I'll show you tomorrow," he sighed. "And I don't want to you getting any ideas that you can go running off with them whenever you want just because they're there."
"Yessir, Mister Stark, sir," she agreed sweetly, but the childlike glee in her voice was unmistakable. He muttered something petulantly about how no one called him Iron Man when he was in the suit anymore. Pepper giggled. As they flew, they chatted, mostly small talk, but with a lot of laughter. Pepper felt giddy. She wasn't sure if it was flying again or being in the proper universe or Tony, but the feeling persisted. Maybe it was all three. When they they were coming in on the city - and wasn't THAT a sight for sore eyes - Pepper hung back and let Tony take the lead. The headquarters of Stark Resilient, her home, his home -Pepper didn't know where any of these things were. Though, really, as long as they were far from the west coast, it was fine by her.
In the residential neighborhoods, they had to slow their speed down considerably. A sonic boom to get attention was fun during the daylight, but late at night when people are trying to sleep, even superheroes needed to be a bit more thoughtful. They touched down softly on the roof of a high rise. Tony's armor swirled into its liquid state and receded, replaced by a similarly liquid-based approximation of khaki pants and a sweater. Pepper remained in her suit and followed him inside as quietly as her clanging metal feet would allow.
He had taken her to her duplicate's home. It was definitely a strange feeling. Pepper had never seen any of the furniture or decorations before, though she did like them. However, it was still like walking uninvited into someone else's house while they weren't home. That the other Pepper would never be coming back made it only marginally less awkward. It was a nice apartment, well taken care of and in a fine neighborhood. It just didn't belong to her. Pepper could imagine herself choosing this place, buying the furniture and hanging the art, but she didn't do any of those things.
"You might as well stay here for now," Tony was saying. "I'd give you the tour, but I only know the layout from accessing blueprints from the city database."
With one command from Pepper, her suit unfolded from around her and she was free to shuffle quietly through what had been the home of the woman who temporarily took over her life. It was unsettling to think that this person had built a life for herself in the place where Pepper belonged, though she knew the other woman must feel the same way about her. Tony followed her as she explored, as though he was not quite willing to take his eyes off her just yet. Pepper surprised herself by feeling all right with that, but in the end, all she had really wanted tonight was something familiar.
"You know," she said thoughtfully, tossing a glance behind herself, "you're the only thing in this whole apartment that I've ever seen before."
He smiled that slow, satisfied smile of his and said, "Then I'd better stick around."
Pepper rolled her eyes and picked her way through her new possessions. She wasn't sure what to do with them, exactly, but that could wait until later. She did not particularly want to keep them, but throwing it all away would be a waste. Everything was just a few weeks shy of brand new, so it was possible she could return it to the store the other Pepper purchased it all from, or sell it herself second hand, but even that seemed like a strange solution. It would have to wait until morning. There wasn't any rush to decide what to do with any of it. When she was satisfied that she had seen everything there was to see, bar rummaging through the drawers and cabinets - and wouldn't that be strange? - Pepper collapsed on the living room coach. Tony followed her down, sitting next to her, and looked at her with those soulful eyes of his.
"The other Tony's eyes were brown," Pepper said.
"Her eyes were blue."
Pepper nodded. "I saw photos of her. She looked just like me."
"Her freckles were wrong."
That he paid attention to such tiny details like the pattern of her freckles made something in her chest pang. Before she had left, she'd been unfair to him for selfish reasons. He was too difficult, too complicated, there was too much history. There were so many things that she just didn't want to deal with because she was afraid of what would happen if she did. It was easy to tell herself now that she only kissed him and slept with him because she had thought he was going to die, but that was a lie. She hadn't thought he was going to die. She hadn't even thought he was going to really lose his mind until afterwards, when he frankly sat her down and told her how bad it was going to get. She'd thought it was a beginning. It had been a beginning that she wanted, one free of his layers of emotional armor, free of his arrogance and his ego. He had been purely honest then, whittled down to just his best components. But then the reality struck, hard and fast. He really had dealt himself severe damage. He didn't remember anything of what had conspired between them. She had taken all of her conflicted feelings out on Tony, who had no idea what he was being punished for.
She could never fix it, but maybe it was time to start putting honesty back into their lives.
"I slept with him," Pepper said.
Tony turned to her with an expression both questioning and comprehending. It was clear to Pepper that this sentence had meant something to Tony, he just was not sure if he was getting the correct meaning.
"You. The other Tony." She waved her hand in a circular motion. "I slept with him."
"Okay." His voice was measured. Not betrayed or angry, but calm and detached. If she didn't know better, Pepper would suspect he was trying to scientifically analyze the situation. Maybe there was a distinct set of variables he could duplicate in the future that would cause her to open her legs. "Why?"
Pepper shrugged. "I don't know." Tony stared at her, waiting. "There wasn't any baggage." She sighed, and leaned back into the couch. "He reminded me of you, but you a long time ago. The you that you were before you took on the weight of the whole world. The you from when I was young, stupid and infatuated with you. He just...he made me feel like that again. So I slept with him. It was a really, really stupid thing to do. Like, amazingly stupid. Phenomenally stupid. I thought that sleeping with him would be some kind of closure that I never got with you."
"Pepper, you..." Tony watched her face for a long moment.
"Are you mad at me?" she asked carefully.
He shook his head. "I slept with her, too."
The contrition fell off her face. "What."
"The other you. She kind of jumped me."
"In the spirit of full disclosure," Tony began slowly, "it wasn't the first time."
"I mean, she wasn't the first alt-Pepper."
Pepper blanched. "Excuse me? What? When?"
"Remember when everyone thought I'd died but I was really trapped in a pocket dimension and we had to go through all that legal mumbo-jumbo just to get me alive on paperwork again?"
"Yessss..." she drew out.
"Then. There. Her."
"And you... didn't tell me."
"It had nothing to do with you." The look she gave him was equal parts pissed and skeptical. "I didn't know I was in a pocket dimension. I thought that was my life. And she was my... She wasn't you, okay? She was another dimension's version of you, but she existed independently of you, with her own mind and made her own decisions. I didn't tell you about her for the same reason I don't tell you about anyone else. It's none of your business."
"Okay, I don't even know where to start. I told you. I told you right away -"
"- and I have no idea why. Did you think this was something I want to hear about? -"
"- and, by the way, you tell me about your other women all the time. The alternate me's are probably the only ones you left out!"
"Do you want details?" he hissed. "Pocket dimension you bleached her hair blonde."
Pepper ground her teeth. "You don't even have the decency to feel guilty about this."
"I have nothing to feel guilty about," he protested.
"I told you because I felt bad," she said, disgusted with them both. "Like I'd wronged you somehow."
"You did," Tony hissed.
"So, you have nothing to feel guilty about, but I should feel bad?" Pepper asked harshly. "Is that what you're saying?"
"What you did in that other world was about me. You admitted that. What I did was never about you. I didn't have feelings for them because I thought they were you. I loved them. I let them go because I had to, but - "
She held her hand up to halt the tumble of words coming from his lips. Softly, Pepper said, "I think you should go."
He shook his head. "No. Not right now, not in the middle of this."
"It's late," she said stiffly. "I'm tired. I need to get my bearings. You should go."
"Pepper," he said. It sounded like a warning. "I'm not leaving you."
She looked at him out of the corner of her eye. He was tensed, almost ready to pounce at some imaginary bogie man. Tony liked to build things to solve his problems. When that failed, he liked to punch his way out. When the problem was in the delicate arena of human feelings, there was nothing to build and nothing to hit. He was ready to act, but there was nothing for his body to do.
"You're apparently very practiced at it."
His fingers dug into the plush cushion. "I have never left you," he told her solemnly.
"You have amnesia."
"That doesn't - " he stumbled, "That's irrelevant."
"No," she insisted. "It's not."
"I don't know what you want from me here," Tony said. "I didn't used to know, either, so amnesia has nothing to do with it. For once, just give it to me straight, Pepper."
"Tony," she said, taking a deep breath. "When you were deleting your mind, we slept together."
He moved swiftly, cupping the back of her head and pressing his lips to hers. In scarce seconds between when his mouth landed on hers and when Pepper pushed him away, she dimly wondered why their replusor magnets did not react to one another.
"Pepper," he whispered, yearning to be closer, but her hands are braced against his chest, holding him back.
"We aren't them," she protested weakly. That Tony had slept with her but still had a joyous reunion with his true lover. She and this Tony had never been that simple.
"We aren't over, either," Tony argued. "We don't have to be. We can make it work. I've seen - we've seen us. We work. We fit. Pepper, I searched the multiverse for you. You want to know what I saw out there? Us. Where ever there's you, there's me."
"You don't believe in fate," she said, shaking her head.
"Sometimes, I do," Tony answered. "The important things, I do. We're important. To the universe." He grinned and covered Pepper's hands, holding them against himself. "How can you argue with that?"
"It's not that easy," Pepper insisted, flexing her fingers beneath his hands.
"I like a challenge," he said, tugging on her arms and attempting to coax her closer.
She furrowed her brow and finally asked, "Why aren't our implants repelling each other?"
He grinned. "I fixed that. I had some time on my hands, you know how it is."
Tony released her as Pepper started to lean away from him. "I need more time," she said, rubbing her face, "if you want me to deal with this."
Uncertainly, he nods. "Okay. I can do time. But, I can't do space right now."
Pepper leaned against the arm rest behind her and set her hands on her lap.
"I'm not taking my eyes off you," he explained, "I almost lost you."
She sighed. Lips curling into a slight smile, Pepper said, "No, you didn't." Tentatively, carefully, she reached for Tony. "I always knew you were coming for me."
In Malibu, Tony Stark says, "I choose to believe this means we're soul mates.
Pepper Potts, her hand entwined with his, says, "Agreed."