He was in the middle of a sticky engineering problem when the call came through on a secure line. Not the Avengers line, but the SHIELD one. Which meant he was more than half-tempted to just ignore it and deal with them later. But, things were still tense there so he figured he’d better at least be polite.
“Tony Stark,” he answered absently, his mind still more than half-focused on the designs spread out on the monitors before him. He had blocked the video feed automatically, not wanting to lose his place on the stubborn circuit diagram that was giving the brake system the power-feedback problem he was trying to smooth out.
“Lose something and forget to call us again, Stark?” Maria Hill demanded, her tone distinctly annoyed. He blinked once and frowned into the air over his monitors, concentration broken.
“What are you talking about, Hill?”
“One of your precious suits. Someone steal one and you forget to let us know?”
He straightened up sharply, saving his work and banishing it from the screen to pull up the attached video feed. Her familiar annoyed frown greeted him.
“Not to my knowledge,” he said, frowning too as he ran a quick security check on every version of the suit he still had stored in his workshops and armories. Threw in War Machine and Rescue too, just to be sure. They all responded green: untouched and secure. “Nope, all accounted for. Why?”
Maria’s expression went from annoyed to grim in an instant. “Because I have reports of one hovering over the middle of the reservoir in Central Park right now, and it’s not responding to requests for contact.”
The Iron Man suit was already shifting into place around him as he rose to his feet. “I’m on my way. Don’t let anyone get close to it.”
“Affirmative. Coordinates sent. See you shortly,” Maria replied, but he’d already tuned her out as he dashed for the exit, barely acknowledging the startled looks his people shot after him. But he was suited up, so they didn’t shoot any awkward questions after him. They were getting more used to his sprinting out on Avenger’s business, even if the Avengers weren’t actually up and running again. It helped that Pepper was out for the afternoon, scaring up more investors. Her pointed questions would have been much harder to dodge.
His mind ran through the possibilities for what this random suit could be. Not one of his. Not that he knew – he was pretty sure he’d accounted for his entire armory after that whole on-the-lam mess, but maybe he could have missed one. Somewhere--- no. No. It had to be a deception. Some villain at work pretending to be Iron Man. He mentally ran through the most likely candidates, dismissing most of them outright. Someone new? Whatever or whoever it was, he certainly didn’t need anyone trashing what little was left of his good name in a knock-off suit. Stark Resilient was still too fragile for that. His status with Steve… with the Avengers still far too tentative. Tony fought down a surge of panic as he took to the sky, heading for New York.
Whatever it was, it wasn’t good.
Even though the silently hovering suit was 100 meters above the middle of the reservoir, SHIELD had evacuated the Park around the reservoir all the way to the bounding streets and the transverse roads, effectively cutting the park in half and pissing off a lot of tourists, as well as annoying the exercise nuts forced off the surrounding jogging trails. It was going to be a PR nightmare for SHIELD if it went on too much longer, Tony knew. Not that he had to deal with those issues any longer – thankfully. Black helicopters and agents in equally black suits milled around the secured perimeter, keeping both the disgruntled and the gawkers away.
It wasn’t far enough for safety – if this really was a trap –, but it would have to do, Tony noted unhappily. Clearing Manhattan itself might not be far enough, actually.
He hovered in mid-air in his own suit and stared at the strange red-and-gold suit floating opposite him. It looked like one of his suits, all right, but not one he remembered building. Not that exact one anyway. It was definitely a pre-Extremis type, with the thicker, far less form-fitting armor plating that rendered the suit more robot-like than man-like. There were sometimes odd spots of blankness in his memory – the restore of his brain and memories had been complex, hurried and not apparently 100% accurate. Aside from that whole deliberately missing year, older memories, he’d been dismayed to find, had been affected sometimes too. It was possible he could have built this suit and just forgotten it. He looked closer, hoping to jog his memory, while his own suit’s sensors scanned the anomaly carefully.
It looked very much like one of his… but… okay, maybe it wasn’t. It was close, but not exactly like his designs of that time. For one, the whole torso and chest-plate were slightly less detailed than he had been prone to making his at that time, and certain features were slightly off about the joints. The articulation looked… slightly more effective. Hm. He’d have to try out that variation himself on Rescue and War Machine.
It was also, his sensors summarized for him, three inches shorter overall than his own average suit design of that era. Odd, but not that unusual. He’d had shorter suits from time to time when playing with different thruster configurations, though, after a moments closer scrutiny, he realized the shortness wasn’t in the boots, but in the overall dimensions. This one was more compact than his own… as if it had been designed for a slightly shorter person. But the only other person to use the Iron Man had been Rhodey. Who was actually half an inch taller than he was. War Machine was usually a lot bigger than the Iron Man simply due to sheer armoring anyway. While Rescue was – due to Pepper’s slighter form – much shorter and more lightly armored. Rescue was almost five inches shorter… hm.
No, with those colors it was definitely intended to copy an Iron Man suit. Warily he attempted to contact the strange suit through his own usual back channels. Wasn’t terribly surprised to be soundly rebuffed by its security. Though it was odd that it didn’t even answer with a self-identity of any kind – no model or version even to accompany the virtual finger it gave him. A blank Iron Man?
Definitely not one of his then. Best to assume it was a trick or a trap of some kind.
But then… why was it just hovering there? Apparently it had been there for at least a little while before SHIELD detected it and – once Hill had called him – it had taken him a little more than an hour to get here pushing Mach 3 all the way from Seattle, the strange suit hadn’t moved in that whole time. Not to attack or taunt or set off a weapon or anything.
Wait, Tony thought suddenly, breath sucking in, could it be empty? He scanned the odd suit for life signs, found himself blocked again. Jamming of some kind. Or deeper shielding than he was used to using. Well then. Interesting. Those weren’t standard features of his suits.
“So. Is it one of yours?” Maria Hill asked over his com just as her video feed popped up in the upper right corner of his HUD.
“I’m… well, yeah, probably. It might have been modified,” he answered, frowning at it. If it had… The idea that someone had put their hands that deep into one of his suits made him decidedly unhappy. “It hasn’t transmitted anything? At all?”
In the corner of his HUD Maria shook her head. “No. Though it could have made noise when it first showed up and we just missed it, it certainly hasn’t made a peep since. There wasn’t an inbound track -- not by ATC or satellite. It’s as if it just appeared there… or stealthed its way in.”
“That’s… possible,” he said warily, narrowing his eyes at the other suit. “There’s extensive shielding in place on it. I can’t even tell if there’s anyone inside it.”
Maria looked to the side, then back toward the camera, obviously checking with the techs around her. “We can’t either.” SHIELD had lost all their low-level telepaths to the House of M. “But if there is someone inside it, why aren’t they talking?”
“Unconscious?” he offered.
“Sometimes it’s just that simple?” Maria offered wryly, her brows rising.
Tony laughed. “Yeah, I don’t buy it either.”
“How untrusting of you, Stark.” Her answering smile was shark-like.
“Pragmatic,” he said carelessly, drifting closer to the other suit. “I’m going to try direct contact now. See if that stirs anything up.”
Maria frowned but didn’t offer any useless cautions. SHIELD couldn’t afford to let the thing stay there in the middle of Central Park any more than he could.
He circled around the suit as he approached, looking for possible damage on every side with every sensor and test he had in his own suit. Something subtle to maybe help explain why the other suit was so silent. But he found nothing unusual. Some slight scraping of paint, as if it had been in combat, but no real damage.
It was operating, of course. Holding a stationary position with ease. Holding itself in the air much like he was right now, only in mirror. Which meant it wasn’t completely motionless, the hands and feet shifting just enough to hold its relative position over the water. Autopilot programming. After a careful visual scan he spotted concealed diagnostic access ports under the right arm. That wasn’t his usual place for them, but he’d been known to put them there sometimes. Normally he preferred the thigh or the forearm for easy self-access, but it depended on what he’d designed a particular suit to do.
Or to withstand. This one looked tough. Very tough.
He drifted slowly into arm’s reach. Waited a few seconds more for a reaction. Got nothing. So, taking a slow breath, he reached out and laid his own armored hand on the forearm of the suit.
A burst of high-gain static seared into his systems unchecked, snowing his HUD and sending him reeling back from the other suit with a violent jerk. Pain spiked into his brain. Contact defenses! He had the time to think through the agony as control of his own suit started to slip away from him. He tumbled out of the sky even as he frantically tried to re-boot his own suit through the pain throbbing in his temples.
Water rushed up at him. He was briefly glad he was over the reservoir instead of the ground. But not entirely. It was January after all. The water was icy cold and his suit offline.
But his suit responded after a few seconds, re-forming around him and stabilizing him in the air a bare half meter above the water’s surface.
“—rk! Stark! What happened?!” Maria Hill demanded through his still-hissing comm.
“Defensive system!” he called out, his voice unsteady as he gasped for breath after the sudden pain, hoping he was actually transmitting. “Nobody touches it!” Now that his HUD was clearing and his suit responding again, he started an analysis of the attack that had managed to briefly short out his suit as he lay in the air below the other suit, staring up at it. It still hadn’t reacted at all. It just hovered there. No, it… wasn’t really an attack, he realized after a dazed moment. That burst had actually been highly compressed data. Focused and broadcast at high power levels. The whole suit was shouting out every byte of data it contained as a jumbled shower of noise, which, for some reason, wasn’t getting any further than the metal skin itself.
“We can just blow it up,” Maria Hill offered. So bloodthirsty. In small doses she was sort of cute, Tony thought. Not right now though.
“Not… a great idea, Hill,” he said, still a little breathless. The kind of power sources he put in suits like this one tended to make big messes when they went up.
The data storm had to be caused by hidden internal damage in the suit of some kind. If he had tried to jack into the suit directly first… it might just have fried his own suit completely – and maybe even his brain. He needed something to both buffer and capture the data and maybe convince the other suit its data had been received so maybe it would stop transmitting. If that was why it was transmitting in the first place…
He set his suit’s onboard systems to sorting out some of the data he’d managed to capture before overload. Then tried to figure out how to get through to the other suit. As he contemplated, pieces of the other suit’s information started blinking into place on his HUD. Stats. Readings. Biometrics.
“It’s manned, Hill,” he said, going suddenly grim. “Looks like it… oh shit.”
His gaze stayed fixed on a distinctive data signature appended to one of the files. “Get Reed Richards online. I think it’s another other-dimensional me.”
The easy solutions were sometimes the best. They simply didn’t touch it. Susan Richards threw up a force field around the strange suit and towed it back to the Baxter Building behind the FantastiCar as Tony paced them in his own suit. He would have preferred to take it to his own lab in Avengers Tower, but had to concede that, in this situation, Reed’s lab had more of what they needed right on hand.
Mainly, his dimensional scanner.
Tony turned his suit back into street clothes as he entered Reed’s lab. He’d have to use remote systems to protect himself from the broadcast the other suit was doing anyway, he thought, but no sense tempting fate. Sue held the visitor’s suit immobile while Reed stretched and flowed rapidly around his lab, already re-programming sensors and running scans.
“Definitely an extra-dimensional intruder,” Reed said, frowning at a console readout. “But unfortunately it appears to be resonating within a dimensional arc I haven’t explored before.”
Which wasn’t really a surprise. There were billions upon billions of possible alternate universes out there anyway. Only Reed would take it as an affront that he couldn’t instantly identify their visitor’s source universe. But it also meant they had no idea what this version of Tony might be like. Iron Maniac was a memory he still retained. Unfortunately.
“Why do you think he isn’t talking to us, Tony?” Sue asked, frowning up at the immobile suit.
“Probably unconscious,” he said, fist pressed to his mouth as he pondered it. Though the suit looked intact. It had some minor cosmetic damage around the hands and forearms, knees and thighs, as he’d already noted, but nothing extreme. It was consistent if the other Tony had gone hand-to-hand with someone – or something – but not one of unreasonable strength. “But if he has any kind of a direct-brain link to his suit’s systems like I do… his brain might have been fried by the data being screamed out by his own suit.”
Sue shot him a horrified look. “Then we’ve got to get him out of there,” she said. Reed stretched his neck around and shot Tony a brief look that clearly said, you or me?
Tony sighed and rubbed a hand over his neck. This was his worst nightmare come true. He felt for his other-self but… “Sue, the broadcast has been going for more than two hours on our side of the dimension alone— we have no way to know how long it was going before that. Any damage is long done. His brain won’t get any more scrambled than it might already be and I’d rather not risk one of us to find out.”
“Well, thanks for that vote of confidence in my tech, brother,” came a raspy, hollow-sounding voice from the suit. It was followed by a harsh cough. They all turned in surprise as one of the hands of the other-dimensional Iron Man suit lifted and tapped at the ports under the other arm. “Don’t worry, I just shut it down. Guess it worked. Sort of. You can let me down now, Jo- um… oh, hey.”
Sue glanced between Reed and Tony for confirmation, her brows raised. Reed shrugged even as Tony nodded. She lowered the suit until it stood on the floor and dropped her force field. The other Iron Man staggered a little on his feet, then steadied himself.
“Ugh. Remind me to avoid falling into inter-dimensional vortexes in the future would you?” The faceplate of the suit snapped up and Tony gaped at the occupant.
“Oh my,” Sue said, already grinning wickedly and glancing between them. Reed looked thoughtful for a moment then nodded and turned away as if it were no big deal.
Tony gaped more. Then found his voice. Somewhere. “Oh hell. I’m a girl.”
His other-dimensional self grinned at him wolfishly. Exactly the way he had smiled at his old Board of Directors when they were pissing him off.
“Woman, jerk,” she shot back at him as she lifted the helmet off her head, shaking out her short, dark hair in the same way he did. Once and business-like. Her eyes were the same color as his own. Her features familiar, yet distinctly feminine. Definitely no goatee though. And it looked like she might even be a few years younger than he was. Which made sense given the tech level of the suit. Interesting.
“Good to meet you, other-dimensional people. I’m Tony Stark, Iron Man,” she said, glancing around at them all. Her gaze seemed to freeze for a moment on Sue, disturbed by something, but then she shifted her gaze smoothly back to Tony.
“Yeah. Me too,” Tony said. She tucked the helmet under one arm, propped her free hand on her hip, and ran her gaze over him blatantly from head to toe.
“Figured. Hm. Not bad. I guess I make a decent enough guy,” she said lightly. Tony frowned at her and folded his arms over his chest.
“I’ll reserve judgment,” he shot back, annoyed. She just smiled, slow and warm and fake, and it was another shock to recognize his own PR grin again. “I bet you will, sport,” she said in purring tones. Then she winked at him. He mentally winced. And that was his own press charm turned back on him. What a disturbing feeling.
“This is going to get confusing,” Sue said with a laugh, “if you’re both Tony.”
“You think that’s confusing, what are you doing with Johnny’s powers?” the other-him said sharply, turning to fix a suspicious stare on Sue.
“What?” Tony found himself saying while Sue looked distinctly taken aback by the touch of hostility in the other woman’s tone.
“Susan is the Invisible Woman here, and my wife,” Reed interjected firmly, his expression grave despite the fact that his elongated fingers were tapping away rapidly on a keyboard in front of him. “You’re in an alternate version of your reality, Stark. Try to keep in mind that people – and situations – won’t always be entirely as they are in your home dimension.”
“Okay, granted,” she said, her gaze still wary as she gave Sue a suspicious frown. “Still a bit thrown discovering I’m a man here, after all. I guess I should brace myself for even more changes.” Her expression shadowed for a moment, a frown drawing her brows down as she glanced around the lab. “So you three are it for the welcoming committee? I bust through dimensions and this is it? Frankly, I expected a few more of the Avengers to be on their toes here.”
“We’ll play catch-up later,” Tony said, drawing his female doppelganger’s attention back to him again sharply. “What are you doing here? And is there an inter-dimensional enemy on your tail who might follow you through?”
A wry look crossed her face as she gave him a side-long glance. “Okay, you really are me,” she said, shifting to set her helmet down on a console nearby. “That might make this a little easier.” She flicked the catches on the gauntlets and tugged them off too. Her hands were long-fingered, strong, and scarred just like his own had been from years of metalworking before Extremis. There was no polish on her short, practical nails, no rings on her fingers. Her ears were bare of ornament as well. Practical. Very practical. “Well, it shouldn’t be able to follow me, because if things went the way we calculated, after I stunned it for a second using the contact-data overload, it’s now trapped back in a micro-dimensional bubble ‘verse, but I really wasn’t planning to end up tossed into a separate reality by the back-lash either, so, I don’t actually know that it worked.”
Tony listened to her lie to them through the frustration in her tone and contemplated her through narrowed eyes for a moment as Reed started babbling questions about what she’d been fighting, dimensional resonance readings, and if she thought the bubble universe holding their baddie was stable. But before she could reply to any one of Reed’s questions Tony interrupted.
“Bullshit,” he said, shaking his head at her. “Getting tossed out of your reality was a known part of your plan.” Her dark blue gaze shifted to him wryly.
“I can see this is going to get really annoying very quickly,” she said, returning his narrow stare exactly. “And no, not part of it, guy-me, I just knew it was a very high probability. I couldn’t let the thing keep tearing up the world like that. Innocent people were dying. Ste-- Avengers were already hurt. As team lead it was my call to make.”
He flinched slightly in reaction, catching the change she made mid-word clearly. And he saw her catch his flinch in return, her gaze hard, her expression going cool. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Sue shift a little uneasily as well and realized she’d picked up on the broken off name too. Apparently Captain America had been wounded and this female version of him had blown herself into another reality to keep him safe. He couldn’t suppress a fierce sense of relief that ran through him over that because Tony knew Steve Rogers – no matter the reality – and he wouldn’t give up on a fight even injured or grossly overmatched. And this woman clearly understood that too. Which meant Steve Rogers mattered to her just the way he mattered to him.
Because she’d done something reckless to protect him. Just like he would have.
But would her Steve blame her for it? Or thank her? Because she was a woman?
For a moment, he could visualize the ways Steve might thank her. And Tony hated her in that moment with every fiber of his being. Then the hatred settled back into the deep, curdling sense of envy that had spawned it where he did his best to stomp it firmly flat. It didn’t matter. Her Steve was not his Steve. She was watching him impassively. But he knew she had figured out something of what he was thinking and feeling. Her carefully blank expression told him that much.
Reed broke into the uncomfortable atmosphere with his usual lack of care. “Do you know who it was you were fighting?”
“Yeah,” the woman who was him in another dimension said, dragging her gaze away from Tony’s slowly. “It was an incredibly powerful energy being that got curious about sentient organic life after being freed from a pocket dimension by some reckless idiot armed with a particle splitter and one of your bleeding-edge multi-verse theory papers. It didn’t have a name at first, but eventually it started calling itself the Beyonder.”
Reed, Sue and Tony all sucked in alarmed breaths. Their visitor glanced between them all significantly.
“Okay. I see you people know that name. This is not boding well,” she said, planting her bare hands on the hips of her suit. “Maybe you should tell me everything you know about this thing from your side of reality so I can get a better idea if my team is still seriously screwed or not.”
“This is the first time you’ve encountered the Beyonder?” Tony asked grimly. She nodded, her gaze still sharp. “Did he take a bunch of your heroes and villains off Earth? Put you on a constructed planet and tell you to duke it out for good and evil and his general amusement?”
“No,” she said, looking faintly puzzled at first, then focused as she absorbed the implications. “It was dropping significant and hostile alien forces into major population centers world-wide and taunting humanity collectively as we scrambled to contain them.”
Tony glanced between Reed and Sue. Sue looked angry and a little frightened by the news, he saw her glance up briefly toward the living floors where Franklin and Valeria probably were right now. Reed just shrugged and looked contemplative. “It is another dimension entirely, Tony, if still associated with our multi-verse. They obviously have a version of that same pocket-universe that spawned our Beyonder attached to their own with an intact variant. And for some reason he decided to play with that reality in a slightly different way.”
“So you think you managed to put him back in his bottle?” Tony demanded of his alternate-self. She looked as grim as Reed now.
“That was the plan,” she said carefully. “Richards… uh, my universe’s Richards, Pym, McCoy, T’challa, Lensherr, Banner, Doom and I figured that would be the only way to stop it from using us as its playground and reverse a chunk of the damage.”
Tony blinked at her as he realized what else they had to have done. “So you used a limited time loop device linked to his own powers on him too.”
“Quit that,” she said seriously, leveling a finger at him in warning. “You are starting to piss me off, Mr. Other-Dimension Me. How the hell did you figure that out?”
“Because we discussed trying that ourselves. We couldn’t make it work with the restricted resources we had on Battleworld. But… he took us off Earth for his games, while yours left you here. Maybe with our own equipment…”
“If I’d had access to my lab then definitely, Tony, yes,” Reed interrupted, looking thoughtful and intrigued.
“Then there would have been no need for anyone to assume the powers to reverse the effects either,” Sue added, looking less ill and stressed. She hadn’t been taken to Battleworld with the rest of the FF, but she’d certainly been briefed on what Doom had done after they returned. And the idea of someone unknown and potentially unstable charged up with the Beyonder’s abilities wandering the multiverse had given Tony a brief sick turn too.
“You’re kidding me,” his female self said, her horrified gaze bouncing between them, “someone over here took on those powers? And you’re still around.”
“Yeah, well, it was complicated,” Tony said, rubbing a hand over his close-cut hair. She was wearing hers barely longer than his was. “And very… recursive. But yeah, we got out of it partly that way.”
Reed made a noncommittal noise. “The most important thing to focus on here now is determining if your Beyonder made it into that pocket-universe or if the error that sent you here made him fell through dimensions as well. Of course, I’ll have to determine your home resonance arc first to start my search. I’ve notated this segment of the multi-verse as ‘616’ – depending on how far away your dimension is from this one could make it more difficult to return you without a significant influx of cosmic energy.”
Tony Stark, female, looked offended. “Our calculations weren’t that shoddy, Reed, for pity’s sake. You did them yourself. I wasn’t the target focus, just the delivery device and I delivered. It’s either locked in that dimensional Pandora’s Box again, or it’s still dropping Viderian shock-troops into Central Park, and if it is, that would really piss me off since I just had the landscaping at the Mansion re-done again to Jarvis’ specifications after Kang paid us a visit last month.”
Kang. Mansion. Jarvis. Her armor style. Their first Beyonder visit. Yeah, Tony thought to himself bitterly, her dimension was lagging behind theirs by at least a few years. And was it self-indulgent that his first thought wasn’t how to stop the Beyonder, but how to warn her to watch for the SHRA legislation and the Skrull threat that could already be building in her future? How to warn her in a way that she’d actually listen to, and not brush off in the heat of her current crisis?
Reed was stretching his arms in two directions across his lab toward separate pieces of equipment. “I need to re-calibrate several dimensional scanners first based on my initial readings, then I’ll eventually need to do a full quantum and molecular scan of both you and your armor, Tony, as samples, to narrow the range to higher-probability search segments.” He twisted his head around like an owl and frowned at them all. “This could take a few hours at least. Maybe a day.”
“Need any help, Reed?” Tony asked, folding his arms. His female counterpart raised a brow at him.
“No, Tony, the re-calibration is delicate and I know my own equations and equipment best. It would be more helpful if you kept a watch out for the possibility that the Beyonder followed our guest here.”
Female-him threw her hands up in disgust. “Look, it was a combat situation, people were getting hurt… and I was the one who made the call on the timing, but the device worked, Reed – activation is what threw me through the dimensional vortex in the first place, not failure.”
“Well, given the low-impact way you got spit out here, it would be more likely for it to fall into a dimension nearer to yours instead of making it all the way to this one if your trap was only a partial successful,” Tony said before Reed could, frowning at the floor. “Hopefully into one with heroes available to fight it.” And wasn’t that a cheerful thought – a version of himself loosing a cosmic-level menace on an unsuspecting reality that might or might not have heroes capable of handling it. He looked sidelong at his female counterpart but she’d already gone tense over the idea. Her gaze met his. Held. Then her face went impassive with only a touch of sneer. Yeah, he knew that look. The “you can’t prove I fucked up so I’m bulling through anyway” look.
“Potentially, but a hypothesis best verified,” Reed said, but it was clear he was already distracted by his equipment, his calculations and the puzzle at hand, his body stretching everywhere to make adjustments, to switch machines on. “I’ll be scanning for that possibility too, of course.”
Tony sighed. Pinched the bridge of his nose, mentally cursing those long months as Director of SHIELD that had made him hyper-aware of just how fragile Earth’s defenses actually were. “Yeah yeah, but the more people at least on alert here the better.” Tony sighed again over the thought of visiting Luke Cage to tell him he needed his people to watch out for a cosmic being. Luke hated that stuff – almost as much as he still hated Tony. And he’d have to fill in SHIELD too. Which meant Commander Rogers would be called in.
“I’ll take care of it, Reed. Thanks for the assist, Sue.” She waved him off almost as absently as Reed had, staring up with a small frown at her husband winding himself throughout his lab. “Okay…” He couldn’t call her Tony. “Me-with-breasts, let’s go ruin some Avengers’ afternoons.”
“Nice,” she said, eyeing him scornfully from toes to hair as she picked up her gauntlets again and slipped them on. “So is this what it’s like to have a brother? I’m reminded again why I’m glad I was an only. I’ll just be calling you dick-boy then.” He grinned wolfishly back at her as he waited for her to pick up her helmet then led her toward the elevators. “So, where’s your armor, dick-boy? Because I know you have to be Iron Man too.”
“I am. And, this is definitely rubbing it in, but,” he called his suit and it formed around him out of his street clothes. “I think I’m just a few years ahead of you here.” She watched the suit move into place with a greedy gaze, the covetous look in her eyes making him feel slightly better. At least his tech blew hers away.
“God damn. I want that,” she said, practically drooling as she examined the shoulder articulation and the neck joins.
He watched her through his open faceplate. Pondered risks. Figured it was inevitable anyway. Made a choice. “You know Maya Hansen in your dimension?”
She frowned at him, shifting her helmet under her arm as they both thumped into the roomy elevator. It had been designed to hold Ben Grimm; two armored suits were nothing. “I do. Been years though – since just post-college I think.”
Tony grimaced as he punched the button for the top floor of the Baxter Building. Well, that was eerily close to his own life too. “She into HMI? Wetware? Nanotech?”
“I may have read a paper or two she wrote on something like that, yes,” she allowed warily, still trying to reverse-engineer his suit with her eyes. Analyzing and memorizing, breaking it down and trying to figure out how to work what she saw as possible for her own use, he knew. It was exactly what he’d have been doing in her position.
Tony leaned back against the wall of the elevator as it sped upwards. “When you get back, check up on her more thoroughly. See if she’s working on something called the ‘Extremis enhancile’. She might be a few more years away from it than she was here, but, if you know what’s good for you,” and here he laughed painfully, “you’ll buy it up and shut that whole damn project down.”
“Even though it got you to that suit,” she pointed out, still looking at it covetously. And the familiar obsessed gleam – the one he saw reflected in every sigh Pepper gave him, every roll of Rhodey’s eyes, every tightening of Steve’s lips – was in her eyes now. It was like looking at himself in a Fun House mirror; she was undeniably him, but warped. At least physically. Mentally… he was starting to wonder. What had he really been like before the SHRA and his own mistakes and the Skrulls ripped the trust and faith and camaraderie of the superhero community to shreds? Before that indefinable something he hadn’t realized he’d come to depend on so heavily had been destroyed? And what toll would it have taken on him for him to do the myriad of things he’d done over his busy life – both good and bad – as a woman instead? Genius inventor or not? In the average world, the glass ceiling still definitely existed. Pepper made sure he stayed on top of that fact.
“It got a lot of people dead, or permanently pissed off at me, too,” he said grimly, struggling with his memories, his thoughts. “But yeah, some of it led to this.”
The elevator opened onto the roof of the Baxter Building. She put her helmet on as he let his flow into place. “I’m going to ask you about that night-light in your chest eventually too, dick-boy, don’t worry,” she said over the com. “You have SHIELD here I assume?”
He launched, his female version hot on his heels. Turned himself toward the Mansion.
“Yes, we have SHIELD,” he said ruefully as his HUD lit up with an incoming call from Hill. “Hold on a sec.” He switched over to private mode. “It’s definitely another me, Hill, but non-hostile and cooperative. Came here accidentally as a side effect of dealing with something big and ugly on their side.”
On his HUD Maria’s brows rose and her lip curled. “And you believe yourself, of course.”
He gave her a tight grin. “Well, Richards is convinced too.”
That bit of information didn’t seem to reassure her all that much. Her lips thinned. “Damn, that means two Tony Starks loose in Manhattan. I think I might swoon.”
“Maria Hill? Really? Did Dugan finally retire or did you shoot him, Hill?” His HUD snowed slightly as his other-self hacked into the channel, her tone dry as dust. “Well, looks like SHIELDs overall high unpleasantness factor is universal.” He should have known he – uh, she wouldn’t let herself be excluded. He wouldn’t have, as irritating as it was to have his systems hacked. And damn, she’d done that quickly. But he was damn good at what he did no matter how backwards the dimension he came from, he thought with some visceral satisfaction.
At least he had the pleasure of seeing Maria Hill speechless for once. She blinked at the video feed for a full five seconds in shock before it turned into a glare and she spat, “A woman? You want me to believe you’re a woman over there?” Then she burst into loud, edgy laughter. “Not on your playboy ego, Stark!”
The other Stark frowned. “Jesus, she’s exactly like my dimension’s Hill. How comforting to know her special brand of paranoid skepticism carries over.”
Hill was still chuckling and shaking her head. If he’d been a lesser man he might have been offended by her continued laughter but he’d hashed out his sexual identity long ago in the harsh crucibles of Ty and Sunset and it would take someone far more important to him than Maria Hill to shake it now. Like… he shut that thought down grimly and gave his other-self a small smile. “We do what we can around here with what we have. Hill, quit laughing already and listen; we may have a dimensional breech involving another universe’s Beyonder. ”
Hill sobered at once, all business. “Shit.”
“The likelihood is fairly low,” his female self snorted her disgust again, “but it doesn’t hurt to have SHIELD on alert for the possible appearance of a cosmic-level entity.”
“Why does all the really weird crap follow you around, Stark?”
“A charmed life,” he replied drily as he maneuvered through the familiar New York skyline toward Central Park. “I’m inbound to the Avengers to get them up to speed. The FF are already full up on the situation. You on civil terms with any of the X-teams at all?”
“You know we aren’t,” Hill said grimly. “I’ll inform Commander Rogers. He can deal with them.”
Tony grimaced. “Yeah, that’s probably best.” Not that Steve and Summers got along all that well either, but Summers would probably give him a fair listen instead of just hanging up on him outright. Logan would definitely hear him out.
“Hill out.” Maria’s image flicked off and he was left facing his female self’s dark frown on the HUD alone.
“Commander Rogers? Not Captain America?”
He met her flat, suspicious gaze steadily. “Things happened. He’s not carrying the shield anymore.”
“I have a hard time believing that,” she said.
He closed his eyes briefly. “Yeah, you and me both.”
He led them to the front yard of the Mansion rather than to any of the roof-top landing pads. She followed him without question, oddly silent. Gathering data, he knew, and began mentally preparing himself for when she finally thought she had enough and started… being him, for lack of a better way to think of it. Steeling himself for what was coming at the Mansion first, he retracted his helmet once he was on the ground and waited patiently.
It didn’t take long for the front door to slam open and a furious Luke Cage to appear. Thankfully, Jessica was on his heels, little Dani in her arms, Danny Rand in his full Iron Fist costume at her side. Tony knew final team selections were due in a week, Commander Rogers orders, but Cage’s immediate circle had already moved back into the Mansion. Tony had already passed the dollar Cage paid him for the title transfer of the Mansion on to Steve. As a good luck charm for both teams. Not that he believed in luck.
“Get your ass the hell off my lawn, Stark,” Cage said with a curl of his lip. “And take that junior knock-off there with you.”
Oh he bet that burned her. He kept his own expression bland with effort. “Avengers business, Cage.”
Luke just glared at him, massive arms folded over his chest. “You’re Rogers’ problem not mine. Fuck off.”
“Well, this is certainly mind-bending,” female-him said drily through her helmet. “You remodeled and then sold the Mansion to Luke Cage. God I really don’t want to know why do I? But let me add to the fun.” She lifted her helmet off and smiled toothily at Luke who blinked back at her blankly.
“Who the hell are you?” he demanded. Jessica gasped while Danny Rand glanced between Tony and female-him only once before he started to shake his head.
“Tony Stark,” she said and turned on his best corporate smile. “Iron Man. Leader and financier of the Avengers. Chairman of the Board and CTO of Stark International.”
“From another reality,” Tony added, not bothering to smile.
Cage threw up his hands in disgust. “Fuck me! Two Starks now.”
“But one’s a woman,” Danny Rand said, laughing silently Tony could tell. “An attractive one too.”
“Oh I don’t know, I’m kinda into this whole goatee thing boy-me’s got going here. I think it’s hot. Don’t you?” other-him said with a wink and a flirty grin for Danny. Who looked briefly taken aback before he flushed. Cage’s glare just deepened, if that was possible.
Jessica Jones, on the other hand, grinned broadly as if someone had just told her Christmas was coming early this year, while jiggling a silent, wide-eyed, fist-eating Dani on her hip. “Oh this is too, too good. Does Cap know yet?” Tony shot her a quelling look, while his female self narrowed her gaze on her too.
“He’s being informed,” Tony said, then turned back to Luke. “This isn’t a social call, Cage. When this Iron Man came through it was after fighting the Beyonder of her dimension. It’s possible, if unlikely, that their Beyonder followed. We’re alerting everyone just in case.”
“I told you the Beyonder is trapped. It’s just me who got spit across dimensions,” female-him said again, glaring at him. “I knew the risks, and our device worked, this was just one potential side-effect.” He shrugged and turned back to the three heroes watching them dubiously.
Luke sighed loudly and rubbed both big hands over his face, glaring at them through his spread fingers. “That’s some cosmic-level bullshit right there. Oh hell, she must really be Stark. Listen to that crap coming out of her mouth. Just like him.”
“Beyonder?” Danny Rand asked warily. Jessica frowned in concern, a hand spreading protectively over little Dani’s back.
“Details of his powers and abilities are in the Mansion database,” Tony continued heavily, their distrust weighing on him. “Look him up and keep an eye out. Steve will need you to be ready if the Beyonder does show up.”
“For Rogers, yeah,” Cage said gruffly. “Until then keep you and your girl-self out of my way, Stark.”
Tony nodded, ordered his helmet back into place and launched himself into the air leaving the other heroes behind in the yard of the building that had once been his happiest home. It took a few minutes before his female-self followed. He had paused in the air over the Park to wait for her, ignoring the tourists who pointed up at him and snapped pictures, letting his mind run over circuit designs and power capacity ratios for his cars instead to soothe himself the while.
“You going to explain to me why they hate you – and me by association?” she said as her suit drifted into his line of sight. The dated design of it made him remember other days. Better days. And he wasn’t the kind of man who spent much time looking backwards. His view was forward. Always forward. Wasn’t it?
“No, I’m not.”
He knew she was probably already busy hacking local news archives. Gathering information. She’d find out everything that was public knowledge soon enough, and then go looking for the rest besides. Including the coverage of Steve’s assassination, funeral and eventual return. He didn’t feel like softening the news for her at all – he’d learned it the same way too.
They hovered over Central Park for a moment longer in silence before she demanded harshly, “Tell me at least Steve doesn’t hate you too.”
Of course she asked that. He closed his eyes for a moment inside his suit and took a deep breath. “Hard to believe, but no, he doesn’t hate me.”
Her voice was hard. Cold. Bitter. “But he doesn’t really trust you anymore.”
Ah. Right to the core of it. She really was him. “No. No he doesn’t.”
While he didn’t have full legal possession of Avengers Tower again yet, he did have access. It was still probably the best place to take his other-dimensional self, Tony decided reluctantly. Commander Rogers was in the process of returning the Tower to him legally, but a few Senators were still balking over the fact that while Tony had been Director, he’d used SHIELD resources and manpower to get the Tower repaired faster. He’d paid SHIELD back later, in full, but that little breech of operating protocol had given Osborn the legal loophole he needed to seize it for HAMMER in the first place. Crews were lined up to start renovations in full as soon as that hurdle was cleared; all legal rules were being followed closely this time. Commander Rogers had insisted. To make certain there would be no question of the Tower’s ownership ever again in the future. It was a consideration Tony wasn’t quite sure he deserved, but he’d take it to have his property back again.
Still, he’d already put a lab back in there. It was much closer than his lab in Seattle too. And he had enough equipment cleared of Osborn’s viruses and spyware re-installed in there to give Reed some assistance getting his other-self back where she belonged, whether Reed wanted the help or not.
As they flew up the streets toward Avengers Tower she let out an annoyed sound. “What the hell is that on the roof?”
“Heimdal’s Observatory.” He didn’t much care for the latest addition to his building either, but he certainly didn’t miss the Watchtower at all.
“And why isn’t Heimdal in Asgard? Or is that something else you’re expecting me to dig out of the news archives?”
His patience finally snapped. Along with his temper. “Look, this isn’t your reality, and this isn’t your world, and even if your name is Stark and you’re your universe’s version of me over there, this isn’t your life. You’re going back to your own world just as soon as I can boot your shiny metal butt through the correct portal, lady. So you don’t need to know what’s going on here, Tony Stark, or anything about my life, you just need to get gone.”
“It’s bad then,” she said quietly, almost under her breath, but he still heard her clearly through the com. “Worse than waking up under a foot of snow in an alley too drunk to remember my own phone number bad.”
And his gut jumped at her words. Because they meant she’d been there too. Brought low by her own hand, her own guilt, her own crazy-high expectations and unreal standards that she can’t afford to let slip because she’s Tony Stark and so much depends on her genius and her skill and her control. And he doesn’t want to know how she got out of it. If she finally called Steve or if she clawed her way out on her own like he did. Doesn’t want to hear what might have happened between them because she’s not him and she’s a she and what the fuck is his life anymore anyway when the multi-verse shoves the potential of everything he already knows he doesn’t deserve right in his face like this?
“Yeah,” he said reluctantly, swallowing bile. “Worse than that.”
She finally went silent as they finished the approach to the top of the Tower, clearing the lip of the main roof, and fuck him if that wasn’t a SHIELD helicopter sitting idle on his helipad and fuck him more if that wasn’t the blue-and-white of Commander Roger’s uniform waiting for them on the terrace below.
“Steve,” he heard her breathe over the com. It was a sound of pure relief he wished he could share.
He put on a burst of speed just to make sure he landed ahead of her, coming to a strolling stop in front of Steve and withdrawing his helmet only. Steve had his arms folded over the white star and bars on his chest, his legs spread in a neutral stance, no real expression on his face.
“So you heard already.”
“Tony.” Steve acknowledged him with a tiny nod, but his gaze was locked on the suit of armor just coming down behind him, his expression gone a mix of thoughtful and professionally cool.
She landed just like he landed, with obvious skill, taking one skipping step to shed the last bit of momentum before falling inhumanly still as only the armor could allow.
“Welcome to our dimension, Ms. Stark,” Steve said, his gaze fixed on the impassive eye slits of the helmet. Just as he’d always done with him. “So you think you left the Beyonder trapped and just need a way back home now?”
“It is trapped, damn it, and while that’s a very flattering costume you have on there, it’s not really the one I expect to see you in, Cap,” she said through her speakers. And Tony caught the slight betraying hitch in her tone through the modulation, but he wasn’t sure Steve would. Or maybe he just hoped.
“I have a new job now, ma’am,” Steve replied calmly, his expression unchanged.
“One more important than there being a Captain America?” she shot back at him and Steve frowned slightly.
“We have a Captain America. He’s doing an excellent job,” Steve said quietly and Tony knew this was touchy ground because it was Bucky Barnes with the shield now but hell if he was going to warn other-him about that.
“I doubt that,” she said, reaching up for her helmet and shaking it free. “You were always the best at it.” But Tony made sure he was watching Steve as she pulled it off and witnessed the moment of shock, the startled parting of his lips, the quick flicker of his gaze to Tony, then back to the female-him again, and then the slight, inevitable softening of his gaze as it lingered on her face.
“The resemblance is uncanny,” Steve finally said, a note of wonder in his tone, and Tony’s gut churned harder. “Add in that armor and I can’t really argue that she’s anyone other than who she says she is.”
“Right. Just me with the wrong chromosome,” he said wryly, forcing a levity he didn’t feel into his tone.
“Hardly the wrong one,” she said sharply, her avid gaze locked on Steve. She was all but eating him with her eyes, Tony noted with a sick sense of fatality. God, get it under control, woman, he thought. Don’t be stupid in my world. “And that’s why I was Iron Man first instead of this ‘Iron Woman’ bullshit the press likes to try to slap on me now that I’m public.”
“I’m sure Tony meant no offense, ma’am,” Steve said with a slight quirk of his lips and a nod of his head, “but you have to admit we’re used to it being the other way around over here. Him more than anyone else, of course.”
“No, I meant offense,” Tony said deliberately, relieved when the comment drew her attention back to him as an angry glare. “You’re in the wrong reality and need to go back.”
“Tony,” Steve said with mild rebuke.
“Oh, you don’t need to play referee for us, Steve,” she said, smiling at Tony wolfishly before letting her gaze soften as it drifted back to Steve. “Dick-boy there and I already understand each other perfectly.”
Steve blinked a little at her name for him, but didn’t otherwise react. “No, of course not, but I should have realized Tony’d have a hard time dealing with himself, or rather, with someone exactly like him. I’ll just let you two hash it out between yourselves then and stay out of the line of fire.”
Tony shot a sideways look at Steve, was alarmed to see a tiny grin on his face. He winced. “Oh god. I think you’re enjoying this.”
“Whatever gave you that idea,” Steve said mildly but the grin stayed in place as he let his arms fall to his sides. “This incident is an important security issue for our dimension, however. And it’s our responsibility to help our visitor get home again too.”
“Reed’s working on it,” Tony ground out. “But it’s going to take a little time.”
“Then we should probably offer to make our guest comfortable,” Steve said and gestured for her to precede them to the elevator that went down to the residence level. “Ma’am, after you?”
She stared at him in wry dismay for a moment before shaking her head ruefully and clomping toward the elevator in her jet boots, idly swinging her helmet in one gauntleted hand as she went. “Good Christ, I’d forgotten how annoying your best manners are, Steve. It took me almost half a year to drum that crap out of my Cap, but, thank God, he finally started yelling at me instead or I probably would have found a way to stick him back in the ice somehow over the last few years.”
“I’m sure I can’t imagine how you managed that, being Tony Stark and all,” Steve said, brows rising, mouth quirking, and Tony practically swallowed his own tongue in shock because Steve was clearly attempting to tease him and her at the same time.
She turned in the elevator and gave him a sly grin. “Oh, I just offered to…” and her gaze flickered down Steve’s body just enough for there to be no question of her real meaning, to Tony at least, “buy him a new car every time he called me ‘ma’am’. Shall we go? Before I give your Tony another heart attack by hacking his security for a second time?”
Steve laughed and shook his head and gestured for Tony to precede him too, and he’d never been more grateful for Steve’s sometimes slow uptake on social barbs than in that moment.
He shifted into the elevator car, near his other-self, leaned close and whispered to her quickly before Steve joined them. “Mess with him and I’ll end you, lady.”
Her dark blue eyes glittered at him through her lashes with equal malice as she whispered back. “I’m pretty sure I’d rather see you dead first, asshole.”
He glared at her as Steve joined them, punching the button for the main living floor.
They rode the elevator down in silence, Tony’s brain seething with all the things he wanted to yell at her for and wouldn’t with Steve present. Her expression was cool and composed. Probably a reflection of his own. He knew what he was like.
“Are you sure you two don’t need a referee?” Steve said into the thick silence just as the elevator doors slid open onto the Osborn-ravaged living levels.
“What the hell happened in here?” other-him blurted, staring around herself with wide, dismayed eyes.
While some of his personal items had been shipped out before the transition, Pepper had had more important things on her plate to manage at the time than keeping track of every little thing he owned. All the paintings of the Avengers that had once hung here were long destroyed, the vast open walls bare and sterile for their lack. Almost everything portable or breakable had been… stolen or broken. The furniture that remained looked sadly battered. The carpeting had been torn out on the whole level. Down to the concrete. The flat-screen in the main room was inert. The place was an echoing shadow of itself, now, all good associations completely buried beneath Osborn’s taint.
In the kitchen it was worse. Most of Jarvis’ pots, cutlery and dishware had been whittled down by Osborn’s fake Avengers. What was left was in poor shape and nothing would be done to get it back in order until Tony had full ownership again and complete security in place. Only then could Jarvis move back safely. Tony generally avoided the kitchen.
The Tower was a problem. He needed it for the team Steve wanted to form because the Mansion was allocated elsewhere now, but, it didn’t help matters that most of his remaining personal fortune was tied up in Stark Resilient. The Tower’s restoration was at least a little way off still, letting him build up a larger buffer of capital. It appeared as if Danny Rand was going to fund Cage’s part of the Avengers instead; which was good because Tony simply couldn’t afford to do it all these days. The Maria Stark Foundation had survived everything intact, at least, with Pepper as shell owner, but Tony was letting most of that continue to go toward repairing New York City after super-powered incidents.
“It’s a long story,” Tony said harshly, definitely not in the mood to tell it. Especially to her.
“The Tower left Tony’s ownership for a few months. He’s just getting it back,” Steve summed up easily, shooting him a warning look before favoring her with a less severe expression. “Ms Stark? Can you give us a moment?”
“Of course, Steve,” she murmured far too demurely, and clattered loudly across the bare floor in her jet boots toward the floor-to-ceiling main windows which had probably only escaped being broken because they were structural and not even supervillains were that reckless about places where they were actually expected to live.
Steve waited until she was out of regular earshot, even with the noise of her boots to drown them out. Then he turned to Tony with a frown. “That armor is a much older style of yours, isn’t it?” Steve said to him, both of them keeping their eyes on her as she moved warily around the virtually-empty living space. She was carrying her helmet in one hand, and had made no attempt to remove her gauntlets here, unlike in the Baxter Building. It was clear the state of the Tower disconcerted her. Tony wondered if she was living in it yet in her own world. He couldn’t quite remember when he’d moved in himself – if it had been before or after getting hauled off to Battleworld.
“A few years back in designs, yeah,” Tony agreed quietly. “This is their first encounter with the Beyonder, Steve.”
Sharp blue eyes shifted back to him. Narrowed. Considered. “Really? That far back?”
“Not all alternate realities are in time-sync with our own, or move through it at the same rate, but since theirs isn’t all that far off in events, relatively speaking, it means Reed can hopefully locate the dimensional range and get her sent back faster.”
“That’s good news. She doesn’t appear to be anything like the Iron Maniac either,” Steve said. And the less said about that by either one of them, the better, Tony thought. But it had been a concern lurking in the back of Tony’s mind too. So far she seemed stable, if a little sharper of tone than he might have considered being in her situation. Steve kept his gaze on him, brows lowered a little. “This is really bothering you, isn’t it? Her being a woman?”
“Not really,” Tony said with as relaxed a grin as he could manage, slipping his hands into his slacks pockets to hide how they wanted to go to fists. “All incoming jokes aside, I honestly don’t care if I’m a she over there, Steve, I just don’t like that “me” being here instead of where that me belongs. They could need her expertise.”
“Iron Man is an excellent asset for any conflict, of course, but they have full hero teams too, Tony. Sue said she mentioned quite a few familiar names. So they should be able to beat the Beyonder even if her trap didn’t work exactly as she planned.” Steve nodded, grimaced slightly, then put a hand on Tony’s shoulder in a way that was meant to be reassuring. He still tensed slightly before he could stop himself. “And I’m sure they’re trying to find her too, Tony.”
“I doubt it,” he said, with a deliberately casual shrug that didn’t dislodge Steve’s hand, knowing he was right even if it burned his own gut a bit to admit. “It would be like looking for a needle in an entire country of haystacks from their end. It’s going to be challenging enough for us to find her whole dimension, even being able to directly scan her resonance range, much less for them to search all the other possible universes for one suit of armor and a body out of dimensional resonance with its host. I know that, so I’m damn sure she knows that too.”
Steve turned at last, finally pulling his hand away as he crossed his arms over his chest again. Tony took a steadying breath. “Then she’s our guest for the foreseeable future?”
“Reed’s on it, but yes.”
“You guys done talking about what to do about me over there yet?” she called from the far side of the room. “Because I have some suggestions.” She was staring out through the main windows, obviously comparing her memories of the New York skyline with what was visible here.
“No, we aren’t,” Tony called back baldly, and Steve shook his head at him reprovingly just as his communicator beeped.
“Rogers,” he answered it crisply. Listened intently for a moment without making any attempt to shift away for privacy. “Yes, I’ll be on my way there next, Hill. Thanks.”
“Trouble?” Tony asked, brows raised. Steve shook his head. “I don’t think so, but Logan’s out of contact and hasn’t been brought up to speed on the potential situation yet. I’ll have to drop over to Westchester and see if he ‘lost’ his Avengers alert badge again.”
“The Commander’s work is never done,” Tony said wryly as his other self clanked over to them, her jet boots not exactly stealthy on the raw concrete floor. For some unknown reason Osborn had pulled up all the carpeting and left it bare. Maybe because he’d had that unstable brat Daken pretending to be Wolverine in here and likely leaving blood all over the place.
“That it isn’t,” Steve said ruefully, clapping him on the shoulder again briefly. “So you’ve got this part under control?”
The woman spoke first. “’This part’ is thinking checking my armor for damage from the fight and crossover might be a good idea. Where’s your garage, Stark?” Then she added, looking faintly disappointed, “You’re on your way out, Steve?”
“Yes, duty calls,” he said, smiling slightly at her. Then Steve offered her his hand to shake despite the fact that she was still armored up. It never had bothered him to have a repulsor port that could potentially blow his hand off pressed against his palm when Steve did it with him either, Tony knew. “It was good to meet you, Ms Stark. We’ll get you back to your home dimension as quickly as we can.” She shook his hand with a small, wry smile of her own twisting her mouth.
“That would be ideal, but I know how Reed is so I won’t hold my breath,” she said casually enough, despite the hungry way she was looking at Steve again. “I’d like to be battle-ready for when Reed does find it though; I’m sure there will still be clean-up left to do at home.”
Steve let her hand go and paused, and Tony could see the multitude of questions he could still think to ask this female version of Tony starting to surface, and so Tony stepped in before they could. Or before she could open her mouth further either.
“Better check out Westchester, Steve,” he said, slapping his old friend on the shoulder heartily. “I think both the Iron Mans are going to hang around the Tower until Reed gets his calibrations done. I know he’ll want to scan her dimensional signature again at some point. Call if you need us.”
With a brisk nod to both of them, Steve turned on his heel and returned to the open elevator. After the door had shut Steve safely out of view, she turned to him and smirked.
He hid his relief that Steve was safely away from her behind a grimace for the jibe, lifted an arm and a thumb toward the inner part of the residence. “The garage is this way.”
She gave a snort of annoyance. “I know where it is, I designed this place too.”
“Not on this side of reality,” he said wearily, turning away.”The main garage is still compromised so I had to put in a temporary one recently. Follow me.”
It took a moment but he heard the clump of her boots behind him finally as he walked down the inward flight of open stairs to the level two flights below and a room that had once been allocated as a decently sized auxiliary Avengers meeting room. The space was as large as a ballroom, windowless and set against the building’s core close to the services trunk for easy power and utilities access, but better yet, Osborn had only used it to store a few stacks of boxed records of his private transcripts. SHIELD had long ago carted all that away as evidence, and Tony had turned the room into a temporary garage and lab.
The old armor garage in the basement where Osborn had broken in and taken the Iron Patriot armor wasn’t trapped any more, but it was still bugged. He hadn’t had the time or inclination to scrub it clean yet. The new garage was already a familiar kind of mess, filled with haphazardly piled rescued projects, armor parts and systems, and repulsor test models. There were new computers installed here too; a network clean of both Osborn’s and SHIELD’s interference.
“Make yourself at home,” he invited with a careless wave of an arm, moving over to a test bench. He’d been meaning to come back from Seattle to pick up this variant repulsor mod he’d started on anyway. He fingered it where it lay on the surface in front of him without enthusiasm.
“Barely adequate,” she said, looking around the room with her nose slightly lifted in the way he did when he was in the presence of bad designs. Bravado, but then he recognized her need for that too. There were things in here she had to be dying to take apart to find out how he’d upgraded them.
“Good enough for you to work on that retro armor of yours in anyway,” he said dismissively, unable to resist the shot. Shooting him a dark look, she cleared a bench near a hoist on the other side of the room by simply sweeping her armor-clad arm across it and dumping everything – fragile or otherwise – off the far end and onto the floor. He rolled his eyes and leaned back against his own bench, folding his arms over his chest and wincing elaborately through the racket.
She set her helmet down, tugged off her gauntlets, and then he watched as she stripped the rest of the armor off, feeling an odd pang of nostalgia for a suit that needed his hands on it daily to maintain. He missed that. Missed working in the guts of a suit like that. Banging out dents. Tooling parts. Re-wiring. Upgrading. He got a decent dose of hands-on with Pepper’s Rescue armor, but it wasn’t the same as tuning a suit he would wear, tinkering with it for hours just to gain a few hundredths of a percent over maximum efficiency, just because he knew he could.
As she unlatched the chest piece and let it fall away, the difference took a moment to register with him. Then he was staring at her in grim surprise. He’d understood, somewhere in his mind, that she must have gone through a trial similar to his own in order to become Iron Man. Capture. Wounding. Failing heart. Imprisonment. Creation. Loss. Escape. But he could only stare at the familiar dark grey arc of metal, just visible above the line of her tank top collar, set into the ribs and heavily scarred flesh just to the left of her breastbone. She intercepted his stare with a flat, faintly amused, one of her own.
“It’s an artificial heart,” she said. “Part of it is alien tech, but it works.”
“I know what it is. I had one like that once too. But that’s… a lot of damage,” he said, gesturing toward her very conspicuously missing left breast.
She sniffed once, expression bland and looked down at the flat expanse of that side of her chest. Shrugged. “When it’s a choice between filling out a bikini top or living to kick your enemy’s ass, I figured it was a pretty obvious choice to make.”
He thought of Yinsen saving her too, inspiring her to change, helping her to become Iron Man, and his throat ached with old regrets.
“Plastic surgery?” he asked, even though he knew what the answer had to be, gaze locking with hers briefly. Neither of them trusted most doctors. Or permitted themselves to stay in a hospital any longer than absolutely necessary. There was no tolerance for pity in her steady return gaze. She was harder than he had been at that time in his life he realized now. Harder edged and yet still brittle. And he was starting to understand why. To realize just how much more difficult it must have been for her to survive the same kind of life he’d survived. And yet she had.
“No,” she said flatly. “I have a fake boob prosthesis McCoy made for me. It covers most of this mess up and compensates on the décolletage for when I have to slap on a slinky dress and get out and press the flesh for the Board. Plus it keeps the charging port clean. I don’t always wear it in the armor, though, and, lucky me, right now it’s sitting back home in my own garage.”
Remembering back to how many times he’d been stripped of his armor by events he had to admit to a bit of reflexive revulsion for how the same would only exaggerate her vulnerabilities before the eyes of the world. He didn’t enjoy exposing any vulnerabilities at all. Ever. But her choice was a kind of defiance he could intellectually appreciate; thumbing her nose at conventional female standards of beauty, at how the world would look at that cold metal circle, so exaggerated, but he shuddered over how the general press, the tabloids, Jameson’s Bugle, probably savaged her for it. Worse than they’d savaged him during the long years of his heart troubles. It wasn’t a choice he thought he would make. Yet she had.
He looked her over more closely then. She wasn’t beautiful – she still looked too much like him to ever be called beautiful –, but her features were strong. Striking. A mirror of his own strength of will was evident in her level gaze. She was tall, long-legged, only a few inches shorter than he was. Her body was fit and hard, like his own, from muscling around metal and tools and piloting the Iron Man. And scarred, of course, like his had once been. The one breast she had left was small and high, her hips slim, her waist not narrow but firm. From long years of assessing and appreciating the forms of women, in all their myriad shapes and styles, he knew she’d clean up very well. When she made the effort.
“You said you’re public now?”
“Yes,” she said, her expression going guarded for a moment. “It was unavoidable.”
He laughed wryly. “It usually is. I imagine the press loves you as much as they love me then.”
She grinned back at him in wolfish camaraderie and went on stripping the rest of her armor off, tossing the pieces onto the workbench in front of her. She wore red bicycle shorts below, white tabi socks in the boots. “I’m Antonia Eleanor Stark, the richest, most powerful woman in the world – genius inventor, former weapons maker, giant of industry, fashion trendsetter and an original Avenger. They say what I damn well want them to say about me.”
He cocked a brow at her. “Even Jameson?”
She gave a bark of honest laughter at that and, with one hand already opening diagnostic ports on pieces of her armor, started looking around the nearby tables for tools.
“Well, Spider-Man and Daredevil certainly appreciated me going public,” she said, throwing him an eye-roll of a glance. “The increased number of foaming get-back-in-the-kitchen screeds written about me definitely deflect pressure from them. Though it is the complete social and moral decay that spawned someone like me that made them even possible, you understand.”
She started concentrating on her armor in earnest then. He watched her attention disappear into diagnostics and repair, her focus snapping away from him as if a switch had been thrown. He’d used to be able to do that. To focus completely on a task at hand and block out everything else. Since... Extremis, he’d had a harder time doing that. There were too many other things preying on his mind still.
He forced himself to turn away. Back to his own work. Stifled the impulse to ask her how Steve had reacted to learning she was Iron Man. He wanted to ask, yet, didn’t want to ask. There were far too many deeper implications to it he truly didn’t want to explore. Couldn’t face.
It was easier to pretend an interest in his own work. He stared at the modified repulsor on his own work bench, fisted his hands to either side of it. Knew how much it would improve the functions of her suit – by factors of ten at least – and kept stubbornly silent.
Some things he was damn well going to make Tony Stark figure out on her own. Other things… no. Not a chance.