For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven. - Ecclesiastes 3:1 (World English Bible)
The battle raged.
As always, Tony Stark - Iron Man - was in the middle of it all.
Missiles exploded within inches as he danced almost delicately through the air. He swooped, he swerved, he dodged, and tried to lead Dr. Doom's army of Hammerdrones into the Avengers' carefully planned trap.
He talked rapidly to his teammates, giving them his location and his ETA. Teammates? Hell, his friends - for all intents and purposes, new members of his family that had once only seemed to have room for him and Pepper, Rhodey and Happy. Now there was Bruce and Steve, Thor and Natasha and Clint - he even had a soft spot for Fury and Coulson.
A very small soft spot.
Now Tony was leading what was left of the Hammerdrones towards them, where they were attacking Dr. Doom's last stronghold, where Tony planned on using Dr. Doom's own weapons against him by driving them into the bunker where the supervillain was hiding, buried in the depths of the Maine countryside.
At least Doom was only using drones and not people, Tony thought, twisting and dodging another three missiles and destroying another drone in the process.
"Sir, there's an anomaly manifesting up ahead," Jarvis said.
"A what? Where?"
And the world went black for Tony Stark.
"Big man - in a suit of armor. Take that away, what are you?"
"Uh, genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist."
Steve Rogers/Tony Stark - The Avengers (movieverse)
"Look, all I'm saying is, you didn't have to be quite so rough back on the Cape Rouge. Just because you can't feel any pain doesn't mean I can't."
Nathan rolled his eyes and shot an exasperated glare over his shoulder at Duke as they trudged their way through the thick Maine forest.
"Will you give it a rest, already?" he muttered, swiping viciously at a tree branch and letting it snap back into Duke's face.
"Would you be quiet? We can't be sure no one is following us. If they are, do you want everyone to know our plans?"
"Like they don't already?"
Nathan stopped abruptly and turned to confront Duke.
"Shut up!" Nathan hissed. "If they know our plans, then they're going to hurt Audrey. You know that."
"I don't think they're going to hurt her," Duke replied slowly.
Nathan tucked his hands beneath his arms in his all-too familiar defensive posture, and lifted an eyebrow. He tried to keep his face stoic, but his clear blue eyes showed the depths of his fear, uncertainty and pain. Not for the first time Duke marvelled at this man who felt no physical pain but who all too often felt far too deeply.
"No," Nathan said now, his voice clipped and cold. "They want you to hurt her."
Duke threw up his hands in exasperation at Nathan's obstinate naivete. "They want me to kill her! Come on, Nathan! You know that as well as I do! Stop - stop pussyfooting around!"
The air crackled with familiar tension as they glared at each other before Duke's eyes fell to Nathan's left forearm, which now showed no sign of the maze tattoo that had frozen Duke in his tracks during their faux struggle on his ship. The maze tattoo that would mark the man who would kill Duke. The maze tattoo that Nathan hadn't seemed to notice at the time, and which Duke had yet to mention.
Duke took a deep breath and opened his mouth to speak when Nathan abruptly looked to his right and made a hushing motion. Duke's eyes widened as he glanced around, and quickly and quietly grabbed the gun nestled in the small of his back.
The two men stood silent and still, listening intently to the sounds which seemed muted by the forest all around them.
Then Duke heard it too.
A low, guttural moan, definitely off to Nathan's right.
Nathan already had his own gun in his hand and with a quick glance at Duke, they stealthily edged their way towards the sound.
Silly, really, Duke thought, amused but grimly focused. They hadn't exactly been keeping their voices down as they argued earlier.
Of course, they actually had been almost sure they'd made it off the Cape Rouge without being seen, and without being followed. Now, suddenly, there was the possibility they'd been wrong.
They crept through the woods, two tall, lanky men, one dark, one fair, who in a different world might have been friends. Close friends, even. But in this world they were uneasy allies, the cop and the...not-cop, united in a desperate search for the woman who could save the two of them, save the Troubled, save their town.
They stopped, partially hidden in the shadows of the trees, and peered into a small clearing.
In the centre of it was a man, face down on the ground, battered and bruised, apparently unconscious, and definitely naked.
"Well," Duke said slowly. "There's something you don't see every day."
Nathan and Duke shared a glance, then moved as one towards the stranger. Duke knelt on one side while Nathan dropped to his knees on the other side of the man.
Duke quickly checked the man for broken bones.
"He's freezing cold," he said, shaking his head as he carefully rolled the man onto his back. Both Nathan and Duke froze when they saw the glowing disc embedded in the man's chest.
"What the hell?" Nathan breathed. He peered closer at the disc, then gently tried to lift the disc's edge from where it rested against the man's skin. The tips of his fingers brushed against the man's chest, and Nathan drew in a sharp breath as he snatched his hand away.
"What?" Duke demanded.
"I - I felt that," Nathan whispered. The blood drained from his face and his skin turned grey. He swayed slightly.
Duke shook his head, watching Nathan with a puzzled frown. "I understand the shock," he said, "but your reaction seems rather extreme -"
"Don't you get it?" Nathan forced out. "If I can feel him - if my Trouble is gone - if the Troubles are gone -"
Duke sucked in his breath and reeled back, stunned.
"Then...that means Audrey's gone, too," Duke whispered through numb lips.
Nathan squeezed his eyes shut and nodded.
"One way or the other," Nathan muttered, his voice thick with emotion.
Duke put a comforting hand on Nathan's forearm.
Nathan didn't react.
Duke frowned, and squeezed a little tighter.
"Look at your arm," Duke demanded.
Nathan forced his eyes open and blinked, frowning, then at Duke's urging, he looked down at Duke's hand gripping his forearm.
Nathan was perfectly still for a long, silent moment before his colour began to slowly return, and his face relaxed with relief.
"I never thought I'd be so grateful to feel nothing," Nathan muttered.
Duke grinned and clapped him on the shoulder.
"Now what are we going to do with this guy?" Duke asked, turning his attention back to the stranger between them.
"We can't leave him here," Nathan sighed. "And," he delicately pressed one finger against the man's shoulder, "I can feel him. Maybe he's somehow related to Audrey. Maybe he's connected to the Troubles."
"Well, he can't go back to Haven with me," Duke sighed. "I mean, what? I struggled with you, left you for dead and - by the way - I found a guy in the woods with a glowing thing stuck in his chest. Yeah. That'll make whoever took Audrey think I'm ready to join their side."
"We need reinforcements," Nathan said, and pulled out his cell phone. He shook his head at the no signal symbol as he rose to his feet.
"I'm going to go back towards the road, see if I can get a signal. Why don't you..." Nathan gestured vaguely, "cover him up with something."
Duke glanced around at the trees and underbrush.
"Sure," he said sardonically to Nathan's retreating back. "No problem."
Duke huffed a sigh, then looked warily at the surrounding woods that suddenly seemed closer and more ominous than a few moments earlier. He was almost sure he was safe. In spite of what he'd said to Nathan earlier, he was positive they hadn't been followed from the Cape Rouge, so he didn't really have to worry that whoever had framed him for Audrey's kidnapping was going to leap out at him at any moment. And Dwight had stashed the three girls - the Wendigo - in a slaughterhouse somewhere. And as far as Duke knew, there weren't any more stuffed animals coming back to life and attacking their killers - and besides, Duke hadn't gone hunting in years. Well. Not for animals, anyway.
Duke shook off his unease and frowned as he considered the stranger.
Dark, unruly hair. Boyish face not quite hidden or hardened by the goatee he sported. Duke stroked his own goatee and ran a hand through his own shock of unruly dark hair, then shook his head and continued with his obversations.
Late-thirties - early-forties. About five-nine or -ten; both he and Nathan would tower over him. Slender but muscular; the guy worked out.
And he had that glowing disc...thing in the middle of his chest. Inside his chest.
It made Duke's stomach squirm thinking about it.
"Whoever you are," Duke muttered, glancing again at the woods, "and wherever you came from - I'm not sure you're going to be glad to wake up in Haven, Maine right now with that thing in your chest. There are a whole lotta people willing to kill for a whole lot less reason than that."
He shook his head and got to work.
The first thing Tony noticed was the pain.
Every bone in his body hurt and every inch of his skin felt like it had gone through a cheese grater.
Then he noticed he was cold. Which simply seemed to be another type of pain.
Then he heard the voices.
"I know rudimentary first aid, but that thing in his chest is way outside anything I've ever seen before."
"Do we have any doctors among the Troubled?"
"Yeah. A couple," said a third voice.
"Then we just call them to take a look at him," said the first voice. "That - that - whatever it is doesn't seem to be hurting him. We need to have him checked out by somebody we can trust not to spread the news all over Haven."
"Sure," said the second voice, "but how are we going to keep this quiet?"
There was a snort, and the third voice said, "It's Haven. If there's one thing we're good at, it's keeping secrets."
There was a moment of silence, and Tony almost felt curious enough to open his eyes, but the thought alone pained him.
The first voice observed drily, "Good job with getting him warm, Duke. Those branches and leaves look really comfortable, especially when he's naked."
"Hey," the second voice protested, "we're in the middle of the damn forest! It's not like there are extra pants or blankets growing from the trees around here!"
"It's Haven," repeated the third voice, with a trace of wry humor. "Give it a minute."
Naked, Tony thought dimly. Huh. That at least explained why he was so cold. He must have really tied one on last night if he was naked...out here...in the woods...
It was too much effort to think.
He slipped gratefully back into the darkness.
Tony opened his eyes and frowned at the unfamiliar ceiling and the ache in his bones. It felt like he'd been asleep for a long time while it also felt like no time at all had passed.
It wasn't the first time he'd woken up somewhere with no memory of how he'd gotten there. It was, however, only the second time he wasn't hungover.
He cautiously let his gaze travel around the room. Rustic wood walls; no decorations; a small window with a plain white curtain under which stood a plain pine dresser. The floor was the same rustic wood as the walls except smoothed and beautifully stained, although just as bare. The bed he was in was narrow with an iron frame, and he was covered with a thick comforter, which was a cheery bright orange, the only splash of strong colour in the room.
While the room was spartan, it also spoke of solitude and peace, but Tony saw nothing that twigged his memory about how he'd gotten here from -
He frowned furiously as memory began to flood back.
He'd been leading the Hammerdrones to Dr. Doom's stronghold and the other Avengers. Jarvis had said something -
The door opened and a sharp-featured man with light brown hair poked his head around the door. The man was handsome in a boy-next-door kind of way, tall and thin, all arms and legs and sharp angles that could slice paper, with bright blue eyes that were unnervingly direct, calm, and clear.
He stilled when he met Tony's eyes, then he nodded in greeting, and said to someone behind him, "He's awake."
The first man came further into the room followed closely by a dark-haired man. This second man was also handsome, but with a slightly dangerous edge. He had a long face, dark brown eyes and a goatee, and for a moment Tony wondered if they were somehow related, or if he was some sort of Tony Stark wannabe.
The two men stood side-by-side at the foot of the bed, and Tony saw they were the same height. They both crossed their arms and stared expectantly at him.
Tony said the first thing that came to mind.
"Where's Pepper?" he croaked, and only then realized how thirsty he was.
The two men glanced at each other, then the dark-haired man said, "In the...kitchen?"
Tony relaxed. "She's safe, then?"
"Pepper's a person?" the brown-haired man asked sharply. "You were the only one we found."
The brown-haired man shook his head. He glanced at the dark-haired man and tilted his head towards the door. The dark-haired man nodded, and left the bedroom while the brown-haired man turned his attention back to Tony.
"I'm sorry," the brown-haired man said. "Things around here have been a little...bizarre -"
He spoke slowly and deliberately, as if speaking went against his nature. He stood with his hands tucked beneath his arms, and Tony didn't think he'd ever seen anyone who held himself as deliberately still, as alone, as the stranger in front of him.
"Yeah, even more bizarre than usual," the dark-haired man said as he returned to the bedroom with a glass and a pitcher of water. He poured Tony some water and handed it to him before putting the pitcher on the table beside the bed.
Tony gratefully drank as slowly as possible. He still vividly remembered his first glass of water after Rhodey found him in Afghanistan. He remembered how good it felt going down, but he especially remembered how horrible it felt coming up.
The brown-haired man shot Duke a fondly irritated look, then said to Tony, "Regardless. We should have introduced ourselves. I'm Nathan Wuornos. I'm the Acting Chief of Police of Haven, Maine. This is Duke Crocker. He's..." Nathan hesitated.
Duke gave Tony a grin as wide as a crocodile's and about as trustworthy. "I'm a local businessman. A pillar of the community. Indispensable to the future of Haven, you might say." Duke spoke quickly, and Tony immediately recognized a kindred spirit in the fast-talking charmer in front of him.
"To at least a certain segment of the community," Nathan agreed, a thread of warning in his voice. He turned back to Tony. "Anyway. We found you in the woods around Haven. You were alone. Are you saying you were with someone? There's somebody else out there?"
Tony shook his head with a frown, lowering the glass. "No, I'm pretty sure I was alone." His frown deepened. "How'd you get me out of the suit?"
Now it was Nathan and Duke's turn to frown.
"The suit?" Nathan asked.
Tony nodded. "Yeah. The Iron Man suit. There are enough failsafes in that thing that you shouldn't have been able to get me out of it without - well, causing yourself and pretty much everything around you a lot of damage."
"The what suit?" Duke asked.
Tony stared at him. "The Iron Man suit. You know - Iron Man?"
Duke slanted a puzzled and concerned look at Nathan. "Do you know what the hell he's talking about?"
Nathan shook his head.
Duke turned back to Tony. "Man, the only suit you had on when we found you was your birthday suit."
Tony rocked back slightly, his face drawn.
"No suit?" he repeated.
Nathan shook his head.
"And you have no idea what I'm talking about when I say it's the Iron Man suit?"
Both Nathan and Duke shook their heads.
"I'm a freakin' superhero!" he said.
"A superhero," Duke repeated flatly. "What? You dress up in a fancy outfit and fight supervillains out to take over the world?"
"Yes! I mean - no. I mean - I'm Iron Man! You must have heard of Iron Man! I privatized world peace!"
Duke shrugged. "Never heard of him." He leaned closer to Nathan and murmured, "Friend of yours?"
Nathan shot him a puzzled glance.
"You know - man of iron. Maybe he can't feel anything either."
"But I can feel him," Nathan replied with an irritated roll of his eyes and turned his attention back to Tony. "Let's start at the beginning. What's your name?"
Tony closed his mouth with a snap.
"I'm Tony Stark!" Even Tony almost winced at how affronted he sounded.
Nathan's and Duke's expressions of polite bewilderment didn't change.
"Is that supposed to mean something to us?" Nathan finally asked when it became apparent that for once in his life, Tony didn't know what else to say.
Tony took a deep, calming breath, and spoke very slowly, as if they were particularly obtuse children. "I am Tony Stark. Of Stark Industries. Also known as Iron Man, one of several superheroes who together are known as the Avengers."
Nathan and Duke stared at him expressionlessly, with no indication of dawning recognition.
"I'm one of the richest men in the world because of Stark Industries! You know - Stark Industries?" Tony prompted. "Previously the largest defense contractor in the country?"
Nathan and Duke both frowned.
"That would be Bishop Industries," Nathan said slowly. "I've never heard of Stark Industries." He glanced a question at Duke, who shook his head.
Tony's eyes widened and he felt a frisson of fear snake down his spine.
Where, exactly, was he?
He rubbed his face and muttered more to himself than to the other men, "We were fighting Dr. Doom's Hammerdrones -" He stopped abruptly at Duke's loud bark of laughter.
"Dr. Doom?" Duke asked, grinning broadly. "Seriously? What - are you living in a comic book?"
Nathan couldn't fight his own grin.
Tony gaped, his mouth opening and closing without a sound.
"Listen," Nathan soothed, "why don't you get some rest, and we'll figure things out in the morning." He nodded towards the dresser that stood opposite the bed. "There are some clothes in there; they won't fit very well, but at least they're clothes. The bathroom's down the hall, last door on your right. I'll bring in a plate of sandwiches and some more water, although you're welcome to whatever's in the kitchen. Duke has to head back into Haven, but -"
"I'll be back tomorrow morning, after I'm seen opening the Grey Gull," Duke said, more to Nathan than to Tony.
Nathan nodded and said again, "We'll figure everything out tomorrow."
Tony stared blindly at nothing, and barely noticed as the two men left the room.
As soon as they were back in the living room, Duke lowered his voice and murmured, "Stark Industries? Iron Man? I've never heard of any of those things he was talking about. Superheroes? Really?"
"Me, neither," Nathan agreed. "Then again, this is Haven. We could just be having a Haven Moment."
"Good point," Duke conceded. "Damn, I wish Audrey was here."
"Me, too," Nathan said fervently.
Duke clapped a hand on Nathan's shoulder. "We're going to find her. Safe and sound. And when we do, we're going to turn the tables on this whole damn town."
Nathan looked up as the bedroom door opened the next morning, and his guest limped out, swathed in clothes that were several sizes too large for him.
Nathan gave him a slight smile. "There's coffee in the kitchen," he said, "and I put extra towels in the bathroom if you want to take a bath. No shower," he added at Tony's raised eyebrows.
Tony nodded, then limped down the short hall to the bathroom.
Nathan frowned at his own coffee, then stood and paced to the window and stood, staring out at the trees that grew right up to the doors.
Dwight had told him about this cabin, that it had been the Chief's. A cabin Nathan had known nothing about. Not for the first time since his father had...died, Nathan wondered about the man he'd never really known, and not just because of all the secrets the Chief had taken with him to the grave.
Like this cabin. It had obviously been built by hand, with love, and with the intention of sharing it with others. It was small and sturdy, but it had two bedrooms, and the bedroom Nathan was using had a king-size, hand-made bed in it.
Who had he built this cabin for, Nathan wondered. Nathan's mother? Someone else? Why had he built the extra bedroom? Nathan shook his head. So many mysteries, he thought bitterly. So many secrets. And now the Chief was gone, and Nathan was left trying to muddle through the Troubles and the mystery of Audrey, and keep Haven safe. His father had told him it was his, Nathan's, responsibility to hold Haven together now.
He couldn't do it without Audrey.
And, okay. As much as it pained him to admit it...he maybe needed Duke, too.
He listened to the water flowing in the bathroom.
And now this stranger, talking about being a superhero, with that...thing in his chest. And Nathan could feel him...
As the sound of running water stopped, Nathan wondered if this stranger was connected to Audrey or her kidnapping.
He wondered if this stranger was just another secret his father had never bothered to tell him.
Duke walked into the cabin and glanced at Nathan, who was standing silent and still at the window, his hands shoved into the pockets of his jeans. Duke glanced around the living room.
"Where's our guest?"
"Taking a nap," Nathan replied without looking at him. "What happened in town?"
"Everybody's freaking out, searching for you and Audrey. I've been interviewed by the cops three times so far this morning, and the Teagues have phoned four. But nothing helpful. So far."
Nathan nodded, still staring out the window.
Duke moved to stand beside him.
"This will work, Nathan," he said softly, "but it's gonna take time."
"Time Audrey may not have," Nathan bit out. "I should be in Haven, beating heads in."
Duke put his hand on Nathan's shoulder. "And where, exactly, are you going to start? Besides, we both know it would be more dangerous for Audrey if you push too hard to find her."
Nathan nodded. "I know. What I don't know, though, is why they framed you for it."
Duke smirked. "That's a question I'm going to be asking, as soon as I find somebody to ask." He gently pushed at Nathan's shoulder. "Now, come on. We have another mystery to solve."
Tony sat on the couch, still stiff and sore from his abrupt arrival in Haven, and still unable to believe the two men in front of him had never heard of him, Iron Man, Stark Industries, or the Avengers.
Nathan asked now, "Do you know anybody in Haven, Maine?"
"No," Tony replied.
"No long lost relatives? Somebody you might have pissed off? A spurned lover?"
Tony slowly shook his head, although for the first time since he regained consciousness, he felt his face crease into his habitual arrogant smirk. "I'd never heard of Haven, Maine until yesterday, and I have no long lost relatives that I know of. There may be a spurned lover or two...or, you know, ten or so...and God knows I have enough enemies to - literally - sink a battleship, but honestly? I can't remember any of them unless they're right in my face." Tony paused, considering. "Or trying to kill me."
Duke's eyes widened. "Seriously?"
Tony shrugged with false modesty. "I do have a reputation with the ladies. Or had, actually," he added hastily. "Not since Pepper." He paused, something dark flickering in his eyes. "Not since I came back from Afghanistan, actually."
"Afghanistan?" the other two asked simultaneously.
Tony nodded, still staring at something only he could see. "It's where I got this," he tapped his chest. "Saved my life."
He blinked and glanced at the others. "Long story," he said briskly. He refocused on the problem at hand.
"So, what now?" he asked.
Nathan and Duke glanced at each other.
"This may be what we call a Haven Moment," Nathan drawled in his slow, careful voice.
Tony raised an eyebrow.
"So, when you're saying this might be a Haven Moment," even Tony could hear the capital letters as he used the phrase, "are you suggesting I might be known outside of Haven?"
Nathan shoved his hands into the front pockets of his jeans and shrugged. "Maybe."
Tony frowned. "You...have no contact with the outside world?"
"It's...complicated," Nathan replied.
"Let's just say that things that happen in Haven may not be exactly what you think," Duke added.
Tony nodded slowly, and not for the first time wondered if he'd been taken captive by two personable but definitely unhinged escapees from an insane asylum.
"Can you let me use a phone?" Tony asked. "I'll just phone Pepper and be out of your hair in about an hour."
Nathan shrugged. "Sure. We're in range of a cell tower here."
He handed Tony his cell phone.
Tony thanked him, then frowned.
"What's the matter?" Duke asked.
"I'm trying to remember the number," Tony muttered sheepishly. "I usually just tell Jarvis to make the call." He shook his head. "Pepper's right. I can't even make it five minutes without her."
Nathan and Duke exchanged amused albeit somewhat puzzled glances.
"Well, there's always Information," Nathan suggested.
Tony shook his head. "Won't work. All the numbers are unlisted."
"You can't remember the number at all?" Duke asked.
"Well, it might come back to me," Tony sighed, "but the last time I used it was the first time I programmed Jarvis, and that was...a long time ago."
"Well, there has to be a public phone number for Stark Industries," Nathan argued.
Tony was suddenly energized. "Yes! And they're even accepting my calls right now!"
Duke and Nathan exchanged another wary glance.
"Didn't you say you owned the company?" Duke asked cautiously.
"Oh, yeah. But I've been, uh...ignored every now and then. How much and how long I'm ignored depends on the amount of damage and the number of women...and what, exactly, can be proven by the pictures."
"O-kay," Duke drawled.
"But since Pepper, that hasn't been much of an issue. Well. At least the women. What's the number for Information?"
Nathan told him, in the tones of one humoring a person who might snap at any moment.
Tony pointedly ignored him as he punched in the numbers. He busily worked his way through the prompts that would reconnect him to Pepper and get a retrieval team on its way, muttering the whole time about ways to make the system simpler and, above all, faster.
"No such listing."
Tony pulled the cell phone away from his ear and frowned at it.
He hung up, redialed, and repeated the steps more carefully.
"No such listing."
Tony stared at the phone. "No such listing," he muttered. "According to Information, Stark Industries doesn't exist."
Nathan shoved his hands in his pocket and hunched his shoulders.
"I don't know what to say," Nathan said quietly, exchanging a concerned look with Duke. "If this is someone's Trouble -"
"Yeah, it's someone's trouble! It's mine!" Tony snapped.
Nathan half-smiled. "That, too," he murmured.
Nathan and Duke thoughtfully considered Tony.
"You know, maybe he's just delusional," Duke suggested.
Tony's eyes widened. "Hey! I'm sitting right here!"
Nathan cocked his head to one side as he thought about it. "Wouldn't that be a relief?" he said.
Duke chuckled and clapped a hand on Nathan's shoulder. "Sure would. It means he's not likely to kill us with his mind or, I don't know, turn the town into a snow globe."
Nathan's lips twitched into a reluctant smile.
Tony stared, his eyes huge but his face expressionless.
"Snow globe?" he asked reluctantly, and now he was the one sounding like the other two were about to snap at any moment.
"Long story," Duke and Nathan told him simultaneously. Tony nodded carefully and decided not to pursue the subject.
Nathan sighed. "I have an idea, but it'll take a few hours to pull together. Which means it will be to late to do anything else today. Tony, please try not to worry. Get some more rest. We'll have a plan in the morning."
Tony opened his mouth to protest, but closed it again when he realized that, at the moment, he didn't have a lot of options. More than that, he still didn't have a lot of physical stamina. Even if he made a break for it, he saw nothing but trees outside this cabin - and Duke and Nathan weren't acting like kidnappers. They likely wouldn't come looking for him if he ended up lost in the middle of the forest.
He took comfort in the fact the suit would be safe enough, with enough built-in security and fail-safes to stop even Dr. Doom.
He was more worried about Pepper and the rest of his extended family. He needed to let them know he was safe. He needed to know they were safe.
He nodded slowly.
"We'll figure this out, Tony," Nathan said quietly, "and we'll get you home."
Nathan walked Duke to his truck and Duke leaned close.
"You're just going to let him go?" he demanded.
Nathan shot him a puzzled look and nodded.
"You can feel him!" Duke blurted. "Maybe he's part of the solution to the Troubles! Like Audrey!"
"Maybe - but that doesn't give us the right to keep him here against his will!"
Duke opened his mouth to retort, then he closed it with a sigh. His shoulders slumped in defeat.
"You're right," he conceded. "I'm just -" he shook his head.
"You're thinking about the worst case scenario, aren't you? If we don't find Audrey?"
Duke stared steadily at him. "No," he said firmly. "No, Nathan. We're going to find Audrey. I was thinking we could use all the help we can get - and he's supposed to be a superhero."
Nathan slowly smiled. "That would stack the deck in our favor, wouldn't it?"
Duke grinned his toothy, crocodile grin. "It definitely couldn't hurt."
"Well," Nathan said, "maybe I'll ask him to come back. And bring his superhero friends with him."
"Now you're talking!" Duke said and got into his truck.
"But you've got to remember, Duke," Nathan said, leaning in the driver's window, "superheroes fight crime and turn in criminals. No matter who they are."
Duke's grin widened as he started the truck. "You mean like you do?"
He laughed as he drove away, and Nathan shook his head as he watched him go.
Early the next morning, Tony limped out of the bedroom. He was still stiff and sore, but he was moving - and felt - better than he had the day before. As early as it was, Nathan was already sitting at the kitchen counter, sipping a cup of coffee and reading a newspaper.
Tony gestured towards the newspaper as he poured his own cup of coffee. "We've had company?" he asked and took a sip of his coffee.
Nathan nodded and held up some keys.
"There's a truck outside. It's got a full tank of gas and there are maps in the glove department."
Tony's eyes lit up. He set his coffee down and took the keys with a grateful nod.
"When I get back home and get a status update from the others, I'm going to come back," he told Nathan. "I'm curious about this place now. Tell Duke I said good-bye."
Nathan smiled a little and nodded. Tony turned and headed towards the door.
"Tony," Nathan called.
Tony stopped and turned to look at Nathan with one eyebrow raised in question.
"There are some shoes in the truck; hopefully they'll fit," Nathan said diffidently. "And you're gonna need money." He held out a roll of bills.
Tony's gaze flicked from Nathan's eyes to the money and back.
"There's a thousand dollars here," Nathan added. "It should keep you going for a while."
"On a normal day, that wouldn't even buy my supper," Tony sniffed with a smirk, even as he blinked surprising moisture from his eyes.
Nathan's expression didn't change. "Well, it'll at least buy gas until you can get to your supper. And if you really are a billionaire, I'll expect it all back. With interest."
Tony stared at Nathan's honest, handsome, boy-next-door face, then at the cash Nathan was holding out. How much could a small-town cop make, Tony wondered. How hard had it been for him to come up with a thousand dollars?
But Nathan was right. Tony would need cash.
"With interest," Tony promised softly as he slowly reached out and took the money.
Nathan inclined his head almost regally, and Tony realized that to Nathan, a man's word truly was his bond. Promises meant something to the younger man.
Nathan stuck out his hand.
"Good luck," he said.
Tony shook the proffered hand, and wondered at the the look on Nathan's face as their hands touched.
"You, too," Tony said, "and once I've let Pepper know I'm okay, and after I've retrieved the suit, I'll be back." He grinned at Nathan's frown. "I'm curious now - and as Pepper will tell you, that's always a dangerous thing."
Nathan shoved his hands in the pockets of his jeans, and said, "I hope you will come back. And bring your superhero friends with you. We can use all the help we can get." He paused, then said, "Just follow the trail; you'll come to a dirt road after about ten miles. Turn right, and keep going until you hit the highway. That'll take you right into Derry."
Tony nodded. "Thank you," he said again, then turned and walked out of the cabin.
Tony pulled into the outskirts of the bustling city, and felt his soul expanding as a weight lifted off his shoulders. Derry, Maine, he read on the welcome sign and sighed with relief. Now he'd be able to call Pepper, connect with Jarvis, and find the suit, wherever it was hidden in the forests of Maine. Then he'd find out what happened with Dr. Doom, and the rest of the Avengers. Then he'd figure out what was going on with those two charming but definitely crazy young men who'd helped him out.
The most important thing, though, was to get back to Pepper.
Tony pulled into the first gas station he saw and stepped out of the truck. He glanced around, his hands planted firmly on his hips as he stretched. It had been a long drive from the cabin.
He strode into the gas station with his trademark swaggering grace and arrogance, only slightly marred by his continued limp. He surveyed the store, then smiled his most charming smile at the bored teenage girl reading a magazine behind the till.
She barely glanced at him as she told him where to find the pay phone. He raised an eyebrow as he walked to the back of the store.
Perhaps the people of Maine simply didn't like him, he thought, although he couldn't quite see how that was possible.
He paused at the newspaper rack, and noticed Fury and Pepper had so far managed to keep his disappearance off the front page of the papers. He'd have to give Pepper an extra special present for that achievement alone. He grinned wickedly at the thought.
Of course, he hadn't been gone that long - two, maybe three days at most - and he supposed he'd been thrown a few hundred miles or so from Dr. Doom's lair. But he was still in Maine and once he got in touch with Pepper, he could find out what happened. Find out if the trap had worked.
Find out if she knew what had happened to the suit.
Tony dialed Information and once again impatiently navigated his way through the prompts to identify the state, city and the name of Stark Industries, and waited for the number.
"No such listing."
Tony slammed the phone back into the receiver.
"Hey! You break it, you buy it!"
Tony spun around and blinked at the bored teenage girl behind the till, who was now glaring petulantly at him.
His head spun.
"Do you know who I am?" he demanded.
She flicked disinterested eyes over him.
"I don't care who you are. Don't break the phone."
"Look," he stopped, took a deep breath and carefully gentled his voice. "I'm...I just need a favor."
The girl rolled her eyes. "Yeah, I'll bet you do."
"I'm serious," he said as he walked a little closer to her. "I just want you to take a good, long look at me, and tell me if you've ever seen me before."
He stared earnestly at her, his eyes wide and dark, scared and vulnerable. Her own eyes widened and she put down her magazine and finally gave him her full attention.
To her credit, she carefully considered him, her eyes searching every feature of his face, and Tony struggled to stand still and let her take her time.
She slowly shook her head.
"Am I supposed to know you?" she asked curiously.
Tony swallowed past the lump in his throat and shook his head.
"No. No. I guess not," he murmured.
The girl frowned. "Is this, like, for a reality show or something?"
Tony blinked at her. "Sorry, no. Thank you."
"Are you in trouble?" she asked more gently. "Do you need the cops or something? Maybe a doctor?"
Tony shook his head and forced his lips to move into something that might pass for a smile. "No. I'm okay."
He walked numbly towards the door. He paused, and turned to find the girl watching him with a confused frown.
"Could you tell me how to find the library?"
Tony staggered out of the library five hours later.
Not one news article about Stark Industries. Not one editorial about Iron Man. Not a single scandalous picture of Tony Stark. Not a single word about the Avengers.
He made his way back to the truck Nathan had found for him and leaned against the driver's door, roughly scrubbing his hands over his face.
If it weren't for the arc reactor nestled in his chest, he'd think he was as delusional as Duke had suggested.
But it was there, and that meant...what he remembered, what he knew, was real.
"Not open," Duke called without looking up from the glass he was polishing as the door to the Grey Gull opened.
"I'm...just looking for a place to sit down."
Duke's head snapped up and he stared at a deflated Tony Stark. Duke raised an eyebrow.
"I thought you'd gone home," he drawled.
"I apparently have no home to go back to," Tony muttered, his voice tight, not quite meeting Duke's eyes.
Duke paused, taking in the look on Tony's face, then said lightly, "Well, pull up a chair. The Gull's been home to many a lost soul. I'm sure I can find someplace for you to stay until you catch your breath and figure out what to do next. We'll head out when Tracy gets in."
Tony nodded, his eyes blank. "I'd appreciate that."
He moved stiffly to the bar and took a seat.
"What can I get you?" Duke asked, his eyes watchful even as he kept his voice light.
"Scotch. Make it a double."
"You got it," Duke nodded, thumping a glass on the bar in front of Tony then filling it with a generous splash of liquor.
He leaned closer and murmured, "Don't mention Nathan."
Tony frowned and focused on Duke's face for the first time.
Duke straightened, picked up his cloth and another glass, and said, "So, the wife kicked you out, did she?"
Tony winced, then nodded as he raised the glass to his lips. He saw Duke understood he was nodding to more than just Duke's question.
"Left me with nothing," Tony muttered. "Literally."
Duke whistled and shook his head. "That's rough. Sorry to hear it."
Tony took a sip of scotch and closed his eyes in relief at the taste and the burn as it slid down his throat.
Duke's cell phone rang, a shrill sound that seemed to slice through the peaceful air of the closed bar. Duke froze in mid-swipe, his eyes riveted to the phone,
Tony was suddenly alert as he watched Duke's face become grim and drawn as he listened to whatever was being said on the other end of the cell phone. Tony suddenly saw the danger that lurked beneath the friendly facade.
The conversation was far from enlightening, however, consisting of terse yeahs and no's, until Duke finally said, "I'll be there," and ended the call.
"I'm not going to be able to wait for Tracy," Duke told Tony as Duke began to type out a text. "Are you ready to go now?"
Tony drained his glass and stood without a word.
Duke led the way out of Haven, driving like a speed demon on the unpaved back roads that criss-crossed the area.
Tony forced his borrowed truck to speeds it had likely never experienced before, but he kept up with Duke.
Duke screeched to a halt, stepped out of his truck, and stood with his hands on his hips as Tony joined him. He surveyed Tony with a skeptical frown.
"Okay, superhero - you can either come with me, or stay here and guard the trucks."
Tony blinked. "I...need to know what's going on, first."
Duke gave him a glimmer of a rueful smile. "Sorry. A friend of ours, Audrey Parker, was kidnapped - the day we found you, actually. It's why we were in the woods that day. That call I got back at the Gull? Was to tell me where she was."
"We really don't have a lot of time for explanations. Nathan's on his way to the old barn now, and he's about ready to firebomb the entire town. Things may get violent and bloody." Duke stared challengingly at him. "So, what's it gonna be, superhero?"
"I'll come with you."
"Do you know how to use a gun?" Duke demanded.
"Do you really know how to handle yourself in a fight?"
"I've been in a battle or two, yes," Tony replied drily. He kept the fact that he'd always been in impenetrable body armor to himself.
"Good to know," Duke said, and opened the back of his truck. "Hopefully that means you're not going to panic, or end up shooting the wrong person."
With a deft flick of a hidden spring, he revealed a hidden compartment neatly filled with handguns, rifles and ammunition.
Tony raised an eyebrow in appreciation.
"I hope we won't have to use these, but -" Duke shrugged as he handed Tony a handgun and ammunition.
He watched Tony carefully as Tony handled the firearm, then nodded in satisfaction. He closed the compartment then turned and plunged into the Maine forest. Tony quickly followed. They silently made their way through the trees, and Tony wondered what, exactly, they were going to find, and if 'doing what needed to be done' was as ominous as it sounded.
After a half hour of rapid hiking, Duke held up a hand as he slowed and they quietly crept closer to peer through the trees at a weather-beaten, dilapitated barn.
Tony turned sharply as Nathan glided up beside him.
"See anything?" Nathan asked, his eyes cold and intent on the weathered building in front of them.
Duke shook his head, and the three men carefully considered the apparently deserted building.
"The caller told me she'd be here, so I could 'do what needed to be done'," Duke told Nathan quietly.
Nathan's face tightened, the muscles straining in his jaw.
"Not today," he said grimly.
"No," Duke agreed, equally grim. "Not today."
With a glance at Tony, the three men ran towards the barn in a half-crouch. Even with Tony added to the mix, they worked like a well-oiled machine, rapidly searching the bottom floor of the building and coming up empty.
They met in the middle, shaking their heads. Then, as one, they lifted their eyes to the hayloft.
Nathan cautiously poked his head above the floor of the loft, wondering if he was about to get a bullet in his brain. Well, at least he wouldn't feel it, he thought.
The loft was empty except for a layer of dust, old hay - and Audrey, lying motionless on her back, her face turned away from the trapdoor.
Nathan's heart stuttered to a halt, then began beating so fast he could see his hands shake. He forced himself to glance around the hayloft again, wondering what the trick was. Then he reminded himself this was Haven.
While what someone dreamt might come true, or all the males in a family might need to live under the sea, there was no one Nathan knew who was high tech or sophisticated enough to hide a booby-trap in an empty room.
Well. Not a mechanical one, anyway.
"She's here," Nathan called down to the others, and finished clambering up the ladder. He fell to his knees beside Audrey, and pressed his fingers to her neck. He felt the jolt of sensation as he touched her, and went weak with relief.
Nathan settled in a chair beside Audrey's bed and stretched out his long legs.
Duke poked his head around the door, then leaned against the jamb with a slight grin.
"You know," Duke said, "you should follow the advice you just gave Tony, and get some rest."
Nathan nodded absently, his eyes never leaving the sleeping blonde on the bed.
"In awhile," he murmured.
Duke sighed, and left. He returned with another chair which he placed on the other side of the bed. He settled into it with an exaggerated struggle to get comfortable.
"She's my friend, too, Nathan."
"But you're supposed to kill her."
"Yeah, and a man with a maze tattoo on his arm is supposed to kill me. You had that tattoo, Nathan. Back on the Cape Rouge. And I'm still here."
Nathan frowned and glanced at his unmarked arm. He shook his head, his face stark with exhaustion.
"Go to sleep, Duke."
"When you do, Nathan."
Audrey opened her eyes.
One moment she'd been asleep, dreaming odd dreams filled with floating and cold and discomfort and of being held safe in arms that were somehow familiar and strange at the same time.
She blinked at the ceiling, then turned her head to her right. She frowned a little when she saw Duke, his lanky frame folded awkwardly on a chair, his neck at an uncomfortable angle. He'd be stiff and sore - and complaining loudly - when he woke up.
She turned her head to the left, and her heart did a funny flip when she saw Nathan, his long legs stretched out in front of him, his head resting on the back of his chair, his neck looking exposed and vulnerable. He'd be stiff and sore tomorrow too, only he wouldn't know it.
Audrey shifted carefully, her own muscles aching, her body stinging in a hundred places from small scratches and stings. She realized she was wearing a flannel shirt over her delicate camisole, and she was still in her pants. She flushed, remembering the first time she'd met Duke, waking up naked in his bed after he'd rescued her from drowning. She wondered if this time Nathan had dressed her.
She somehow found that thought to be amazingly sexy. And almost unbearably sweet.
She grinned, then frowned.
What had happened to her?
She'd been making pancakes, nervously getting ready for Nathan's arrival for what was supposed to be their first date. She'd been giddy, anticipating the evening, wondering if the pancakes would be for dinner, or if they really would be for breakfast.
She frowned as she tried to remember. Someone had come to the door, and she'd thought it was Nathan. She'd hurried to let him in, a thousand butterflies taking flight in her stomach.
And then...a glimpse of a male figure, a sudden shock, pain - and blackness.
She slowly and carefully looked around the room. The bed was huge, almost taking up the entire room. The rest of the sparse furnishings were simple but the overall effect was cozy and warm. Comforting. Welcoming.
Audrey's eyes fell on Nathan again and her expression softened.
She winced at her protesting muscles as she quietly crept from the bed, and crouched in front of him. She held her breath as with the tip of one finger she delicately traced the long, strong line of his neck.
Nathan startled awake with a loud, sharp gasp, leaping to his feet, which caused Duke to jerk upright and cry out as his stiff neck made itself known. He, too, scrambled to his feet, frantically searching the room, his eyes wild.
Audrey looked from one to the other, a fond grin on her face.
Nathan stared at her, worried, his eyes vulnerable.
"Audrey?" he said cautiously. "Are you all right?"
She nodded, then threw her arms around him and hugged him tightly, blinking back tears.
Nathan rocked back, shocked as always at the sensation of touch. Then he closed his eyes, slowly wrapped his arms around her, and carefully returned the hug, a hug that grew tighter the longer it went on.
Duke rolled his eyes.
"I'm here too, you know," he groused.
Audrey chuckled as she reluctantly released Nathan and walked around the bed to Duke.
"I know," she assured him and hugged him.
Duke hugged her tightly, lifting her off her feet.
"Now," Audrey said briskly when her feet were once more firmly on the ground, "I need a bathroom, then some food, and then you can tell me what the hell happened."
They nodded and followed her out of the bedroom.
They reconvened in the kitchen, where Nathan had put on the coffee and was scrambling eggs.
Audrey smiled at him as she sat at the counter, her chin on her hand.
Duke playfully bumped her shoulder with his and leaned in close.
"Your heart's in your eyes," he murmured into her ear.
She glanced at him. "I know," she replied softly, then turned her eyes back to Nathan. "But I can't help it."
Nathan and Duke were disappointed to learn Audrey had only gotten a glimpse of her abductor - about six feet tall, ski mask, white, known because the hands holding the stun gun had been bare.
"The next thing I remember, I woke up in that bedroom," Audrey said, inclining her head towards the room in question.
She finished the last of the eggs, and sighed with appreciation.
"How long have I been gone?" she asked.
"Three full days," Nathan said quietly, not quite meeting her eyes as he took the empty plates and put them in the sink.
"And they - whoever 'they' are - tried to frame me for it," Duke added. "Don't forget that part," he said to Nathan.
"You still might have done it," Nathan snapped.
"And then framed myself?"
"Hey, that's what I would do."
They all turned to stare at the owner of the new voice.
Audrey saw a darkly handsome man leaning against the door jamb to a bedroom, his thick black hair standing on end, his brown eyes wary, and a little vulnerable. He stood with an air of arrogant confidence that contradicted what his eyes were saying. He was dressed only in jeans that were both too big and too long, held up by a belt snugged tight at his waist.
Hips, actually, and Audrey took a purely hedonistic moment to appreciate his flat stomach and the lines of his hipbones.
But what really caught and held Audrey's attention was the stranger's smoothly muscled chest. More specifically, the disc that glowed brightly over his heart.
"Then again, I'm devious like that," the stranger continued and nodded at Audrey. "You must be the infamous Audrey."
Audrey nodded slowly, dark blue eyes wide.
"Who are you?" she asked. "And what the hell is that?"
Forty-five minutes and another batch of eggs and toast later, Audrey and Tony were eyeing each other with careful interest as Nathan poured more coffee.
"Hey, you're pretty good at this serving stuff," Duke grinned as Nathan Audrey's cup. "Maybe I should hire you at the Grey Gull."
"Once a cop, Duke, always a cop," Nathan warned absently as he refilled the cup in front of Tony, who nodded his thanks.
"Good point," Duke conceded and Audrey chuckled as Nathan gave Duke his coffee.
Tony said to Audrey, "So, you've never heard of me either."
Audrey took a sip of her coffee then caught Nathan's eye and gave a slight shake of her head. He lowered his cup, his grateful eyes never leaving hers. Her face and entire demeanor softened as they stared at each other.
Tony watched the interplay with interest, and caught the rueful smirk on Duke's face. They both quickly hid their grins behind their cups.
Nathan and Audrey suddenly seemed to recall they had an audience and refocused on the subject at hand.
"No," Audrey said, flushing slightly as she turned to face Tony. "And you say you're a superhero?"
Tony shrugged and nodded.
Audrey considered him carefully. "I'm not sure what to think. You could be a Trouble - or you may not be connected to the Troubles at all."
Nathan glanced at Duke then turned his clear, calm blue eyes to Audrey and said, "But I can feel him."
Audrey whipped her head around and gaped at him.
Tony's eyes widened.
"Uh...you can feel me in what context, exactly?" he asked cautiously.
Nathan said, "I have no sense of touch. That's my Trouble."
"You seem fairly well adjusted to me," Tony joked weakly.
"No," Nathan replied, "I mean -"
"You can feel him?" Audrey blurted.
Nathan nodded and Audrey returned her attention to Tony with a new speculative gleam in her eyes.
Tony frowned. "I think you guys really need to explain to me what's going on in this town," he said.
Duke snorted a laugh. "If only we knew what that was," he said drily.
Tony frowned. "So what's next?" he asked, as Nathan once more looked to Audrey as he lifted his coffee. She checked her own and nodded.
Nathan sipped from his cup, and turned his attention to Tony.
"We go back to town," he said simply.
"And let everyone know you played them for fools?" Tony asked.
Duke nodded, his dark eyes blank.
"If they're angry, they'll make a mistake," he said, distant and cold.
"They might," Tony agreed. "Then again, they might not."
"Well, if they're angry enough, it might even trigger a Trouble," Audrey mused.
Duke turned his curiously blank gaze towards her.
"What difference does that make?" he asked.
Audrey's eyes widened. "None, I guess."
"Are you ever going to actually explain the Troubles to me?" Tony asked.
Audrey glanced at him, then at Duke and Nathan before she looked at the clock.
"Tomorrow," she decided. "It's almost two a.m., and I don't know about you, but I'm...well, not exhausted, but I'm tired, and I want to sleep while I feel safe."
Nathan put down his cup, his eyes worried.
"The bedroom's yours," Nathan said. "Tony, you have the other bedroom. Duke and I will bed down in the living room."
Audrey turned and looked skeptically at the small living room behind her. There was a couch, an armchair and a rocking chair. She turned back to face Nathan, and raised an eyebrow.
"You and Duke gonna share the couch?"
Nathan and Duke stared at each other, slowly leaning away like two cats.
"I'll sleep on the floor," Nathan said, tucking his hands beneath his arms. He shrugged. He glanced from Audrey to Duke and back again. "Don't look at me like that," he said quietly. "I won't feel it anyway."
Audrey shook her head and heaved an exaggerated sigh. She looked at Duke.
"You can take the couch," she said firmly. She turned to Tony. "You can have the other bedroom. You -" she pointed at Nathan, "come with me."
Nathan's eyes widened, but he dutifully followed her into the bedroom.
Audrey winked at Duke as she quietly closed the door.
Duke sighed and turned to Tony with a rueful grimace.
"Got any extra blankets?"
Tony clapped a hand on Duke's shoulder.
"Let's see what we can find," he said with a grin.
Nathan turned as the door snicked closed. He shifted uncomfortably at Audrey's amused annoyance. He shrugged again, and tucked his hands more tightly under his arms in his familiar defensive posture.
"What?" he asked slowly, a slightly nervous smile curving his lips.
"You're not sleeping on the floor in the living room," Audrey said firmly. "Just because you can't feel it, doesn't mean you're not hurt! I don't know how many times I have to say that to you."
Nathan shrugged diffidently. "We have to make due," he muttered. "And it's only for one night."
Audrey walked over to him.
"I don't care if it's only for five minutes! I don't want to see you in pain, even if you don't know it."
Nathan ducked his head and looked at her almost bashfully.
"I'm glad you're okay," he said softly. "But you need to get some rest. Some real rest. We'll watch over you."
Audrey smiled slowly. "I know," she said. "And Duke can sleep with one eye open out there," she tilted her head towards the living room. "And you can sleep with one eye open in here."
Nathan blinked, his lips curving in a slight smile.
"That...may not be a good idea," he murmured.
Audrey moved closer and deliberately placed a hand on his bare forearm. He sharply sucked in a breath, and his eyes widened, then darkened as he looked at her.
"I think it's the best idea I've had in a while," she murmured. She slowly, deliberately stroked her thumb against his skin and was rewarded with his shiver. "Nathan, I'm still here - and I still remember you - and I'm not willing to gamble that we have enough time left to play hard to get. When we get back to Haven, and whoever kidnapped me realizes Duke's on our side, all hell's gonna break loose - and God only knows where it's going to end."
"We know where it's going to end," Nathan said, his voice tight with emotion. "It's going to end with your disappearance, and the end of the Troubles, and waiting. For the Troubles to return; for you to come back. As someone else. And you won't -" he swallowed, his throat clicking. "You won't remember me then."
She whispered his name, her voice breaking.
Nathan stared solemnly at her. "It's the way it's always been," he muttered and shrugged.
Audrey dropped her hand from his arm.
"Do you want to sleep in the living room?" she asked softly.
Nathan slowly shook his head, his eyes never leaving hers.
"No. But I've had a lot time to think these last few days. I know you, Audrey. I know you. And I...want to be with you, if you'll have me. But I also know you'll leave unless we find a way to break the cycle, and rid ourselves of the Troubles once and for all."
The next morning, Nathan and Audrey ran the gauntlet of knowing smirks and teasing comments from Tony and Duke. Nathan glared and flushed and shifted uncomfortably, while Audrey simply shook her head and smiled her smile that gave nothing away. After they cleaned up from the breakfast Duke had made, they headed back to Haven, with Duke leading the way - even though they headed straight to the police station.
They walked in with Tony, bantering like nothing had happened. The entire room froze for a moment then burst into chaos. Laverne burst into tears when she saw Audrey, then into even harder tears when she saw Nathan. After furiously hugging both of them, she turned to Duke.
"I knew you couldn't have hurt them!" she said, wiping her eyes and shaking her finger at him. "I knew there was something going on we just didn't know about!"
Duke smiled his crocodile smile that turned genuine as Laverne sternly stared him down.
"I'm glad you had faith in me," he said softly. He glanced at Nathan from the corner of his eye. "Unlike other people who shall remain nameless."
Nathan rolled his eyes.
As the hubbub subsided, Nathan looked over at Duke, Audrey and Tony and said, "Come on. We have mysteries to solve."
As Duke, Nathan and Audrey brainstormed ways to track down her kidnappers, Tony prowled around the office Nathan and Audrey still shared more often than not. He carefully looked at everything posted on the wall, and idly glanced through the files on the desks.
"Those are active files," Audrey warned.
Tony glanced at her, then shrugged with a smirk, and continued his restless prowling. He paused at a large map of Maine and idly tried to pinpoint where, exactly, he was, and how far he'd been thrown from Dr. Doom's stronghold.
He suddenly frowned and leaned closer, staring intently.
"What map is this?" Tony demanded loudly, causing Nathan to stop in mid-word.
Nathan glanced at the map.
"It's a map of Maine," he said.
"No. No, it's not."
Nathan, Duke and Audrey frowned and crowded around Tony, peering closely at the map.
"Yeah," Duke said slowly, "yeah, it is."
Tony shook his head.
"This...makes no sense," he muttered.
"What?" Audrey asked.
"This is not the map of Maine!"
Nathan frowned and said with forced patience, "Yes. It is. Printed this year."
"Haven is here?" Tony demanded, pounding a finger against the map.
Nathan and Audrey watched him warily, dropping their hands to their sides, their fingers hanging close to their guns.
"And that's Derry?"
"Yes," Nathan replied.
Tony closed his eyes and swayed. "Jesus." He stood still for a long moment, then slowly leaned forward, pressing his forehead against the wall.
"Jesus," he whispered again. "Shit. Fuck!"
Nathan put a careful hand on his shoulder.
"What is it?" he asked softly.
"This isn't my Maine," Tony groaned. "There's nothing in this part of my Maine."
"I - I'm not sure what that means," Nathan said.
"It means I'm in a different universe."
"All right," Audrey said briskly, sitting across the table from Tony, a pad of paper in front of her and a pen in her hand. "Start at the beginning."
Tony smirked, but there wasn't any real humor behind it.
"In the beginning, I was a gleam in my daddy's eye."
Audrey shook her head as she suppressed a smile.
"Okay - what's the last thing you remember before waking up in the cabin?"
Tony sighed. "I was fighting against a squadron of Hammerdrones - humanoid flying robots, built by Justin Hammer. Well - actually built by Ivan Vanko, but under Hammer's...well, Hammer provided the money."
Audrey stared at him with wide, blank eyes.
"It's a long story," Tony said. "Look, I was fighting the Hammerdrones, and leading them towards the other Avengers, who were waiting outside Dr. Doom's stronghold."
Audrey couldn't stop her snicker. "Dr. Doom. Really."
"Really." He frowned, his dark eyes seeing the last few moments of the battle. "They were following me, as planned, when Jarvis told me there was an anomaly manifesting in my vicinity. By the time I understood what he was telling me, it was too late. The next thing I knew, Nathan and Duke were telling me they'd never heard of me."
Audrey frowned. "If it wasn't for that - thing in your chest -"
"The arc reactor."
"The arc reactor," Audrey amended, "I would think you were simply delusional. But that arc reactor is compelling evidence you're telling the truth. And the fact that Nathan can feel you."
She thoughtfully drummed her fingers on the table.
"You said you checked the newspapers in Derry?" she asked.
Tony nodded. "The ones published that day, as well the online version, and then those papers on microfiche at the Derry Public Library. I went back a hundred years in all the major papers I could find - and...nothing. Nothing about my father - nothing about me."
"What do you want us to do?" Audrey asked.
Tony sighed. "There's not a whole lot you can do - unless there's someone with a Trouble that can send people between universes."
Audrey gave him a glimmer of a smile.
"There may be," she acknowledged. "Or...perhaps you're a figment of a Troubled person's imagination."
"So - what? You mean a Troubled person has - I don't know - created me from the ether, with memories and arc reactor and all?"
"Stranger things have happened," Audrey said drily.
Tony shot her a cynically skeptical look.
"Look," she said, leaning forward and staring earnestly at him, "I've seen things in this town that boggle the mind, and which have no real explanation. A woman who can control the weather. A man whose sweat is toxic. A young girl who turned Haven into a snow globe! The idea that a Troubled person could create an entire person with a full set of memories isn't really that much of a stretch."
"Maybe," he acknowledged reluctantly, "except I know something you don't."
Audrey sat back with a slight smile. "And what would that be?"
Tony leaned forward and now it was his turn to stare intently at her, his eyes almost boring through her skull.
"I know Pepper, and what she means to me. If I know nothing else, I know her. I can't believe - I refuse to believe - that that truth is somehow imaginary. That it came from some Troubled person's mind or something."
Audrey considered his words then sighed. "I'm not sure if I hope you're right - or if I hope you're wrong."
Tony leaned back, his face grim with grief and frustration.
"I'm not sure either," he muttered.
They sat in silence for a long moment, then Audrey shook her head and leaned back in her chair.
"What do you want us to do? What can we do to help you?"
Tony slowly shook his head. "I'm not sure. Except try to see if I - that is, another Tony Stark - exists here in this world."
Audrey frowned. "And what would that prove?"
He shrugged. "Maybe that I'm delusional. Maybe that I really am in a different universe. Maybe both."
Audrey shrugged and leaned forward again, picking up her pen.
"Well, I can't see how it could hurt anything," she said. "Give me the particulars - full name, parents, date and location of birth."
Tony told her, then leaned back and watched her busily making notes.
Audrey said, "You know, even if we don't find your - your - double -"
"Doppelganger," Tony provided.
"Right. That doesn't necessarily prove you're not from another universe."
Tony nodded. "I know. It may only mean I was never born in this one. But if you can at least find my parents, or Pepper, then that would at least tell me something."
"How far I am from home."
When Nathan and Duke returned from interrogating one of the known ringleaders of the late Reverend Driscoll's fanatical, anti-Troubled followers - the only people in Haven with motives both to harm Audrey and to force Duke to embrace his legacy - they found Audrey playing along with Tony's half-hearted teasing.
"These Troubles don't sound so bad," Tony was saying as they walked into the room.
"No?" Audrey snorted. "You try dealing with things coming to life because somebody read them from a book!"
Tony sniffed. "I work with a man who turns into an uncontrollable green giant when he gets angry."
"We had a kid who set things on fire with his mind when he got angry," Audrey replied. She raised an eyebrow in question at Nathan and Duke; they shook their heads slightly.
"I work with a Norse god," Tony said smugly, watching the interplay with interest.
"We had a woman whose moods controlled the weather," Nathan shrugged, his hands tucked up under his arms. "Seems close enough to me."
Tony frowned. "I work with two highly trained assassins."
"Well," Nathan hesitated, his eyes shifting to Duke.
Duke raised an eyebrow and said, "Well, I'm supposed to be an assassin - but I've never been trained for it."
Tony stared unblinkingly at him, his face carefully blank.
Duke glanced at the open office door and lowered his voice. "I apparently kill not just the person, but also their Trouble in every generation thereafter."
Tony slowly shook his head and heaved a long-suffering sigh, "I thought for sure I had you beat with the Norse god."
They turned and looked at the giant, shaggy blonde man standing in the doorway to the office.
Tony's eyes widened. "Then again," he said slowly, "you apparently have that covered, too."
Nathan and Audrey smirked, while Duke laughed and said, "Nah, that's just Dwight. He helped carry you out of the woods."
Dwight turned his gimlet stare on Duke.
Duke gulped. "By 'helped' I of course meant he carried you the whole way."
Tony stared at Dwight.
Dwight stared impassively back.
"You carried my naked ass all the way to that cabin?" Tony finally asked.
"Well. Thank you. You didn't take any pictures of that, did you?" he asked Nathan and Duke. "I'm just sayin' - Pepper would probably love to get her hands on a picture like that, if only to keep me in line - and the tabloids would have a field day. If I could get the pictures to either of them." He shook his head.
"Are you somebody famous?" Dwight asked.
"It's a long story," Nathan assured him.
"Definitely by the situation," Tony quipped.
Dwight didn't even bother to look at him, just continued to steadily watch Nathan.
Nathan shoved his hands in the pockets of his jeans and shrugged slightly.
"We're...not really sure."
Dwight shook his head. "Why am I not surprised?" he sighed.
Audrey laughed. "What can we do for you, Dwight?"
Dwight glanced at Nathan again. "I have some people you need to talk to."
The tiny newspaper office was crowded with Vince and Dave Teagues facing the others with vaguely guilty looks on their faces. They were semi-surrounded by Nathan, Duke and Audrey, while Dwight had somehow managed to fade into the background. It was an impressive feat for such a large man. Tony stayed in the background, too, although it wasn't something he was used to doing. He found his own willingness to hang back almost as interesting as the Teagues themselves.
Everything about Dave gave the impression of thinness, from his nose and mouth to the grey fringe of hair surrounding his bald head. He was shorter than Tony, and with his glasses and sweater vests and pens in his shirt pocket, he almost seemed mouse-like. His brother, Vince, in contrast, was larger than life, almost as tall as Dwight and bulkier. His wild curly hair was still mostly black, and his eyes were brown, with an almost permanent look of bewildered innocence.
They were, Tony thought, quite determined to appear harmless and innocuous, and he was fascinated as much by their similarities as by their differences. He settled in to watch.
"Dwight said you had something to tell us," Audrey said briskly.
Dave's look of shame deepened. "I'm sorry, Audrey. Nathan. Duke. I'm the one who took Audrey."
The other three froze and stared in wide-eyed disbelief.
"It wasn't you, Dave," Audrey protested.
"Not personally," Dave acknowledged, "but I arranged it."
"For God's sake - why?" Nathan asked, his sense of betrayal ringing through his quiet words.
"Because I had to know! I had to test the two of you - you and Duke. I didn't wanted you two to kill each other - but I needed to know if, given the opportunity and - and proof, you would turn on each other because of Audrey - like the Wuornoses and Crockers have done throughout Haven's history.
"I hired one of the Troubled to kidnap Audrey and plant Duke's necklace at the scene. He kept her asleep and safe until I could see what the two of you would do. When we heard you'd both gone out to the forest, and only Duke came back - well. I was never so relieved as when Dwight finally told us you were safe and hiding out in the hopes that Duke would be contacted by the kidnapper - who you assumed to be a member of the Rev's congregation."
"This was a dangerously stupid stunt," Nathan snapped. "My God - I could have killed Duke! I would have killed him if I'd truly thought he was so stupid as to leave evidence behind!"
Duke grinned. "That's the nicest thing you've ever said about me," he said.
Nathan shot him a glare and returned his attention back to the Teagues.
Vince nodded. "That's what I told him - but by then it was too late. Audrey was gone, you were missing, and Duke wasn't talking. And that was when Dave finally had mercy on me and told me what he'd done. I begged Dwight to find out what he could about what had happened in the forest."
Audrey, Duke and Nathan stared in disbelief at the Teagues brothers.
"Next time, just talk to us," Duke growled.
"We had to be sure," Dave said. He glanced at Vince, who was watching him with an unreadable expression. "I had to be sure. We want things to be different this time. We want the Troubles to be banished, and never come back. His elderly face hardened. "We'll do whatever it takes."
Audrey sat at the desk, her head in her hands. Nathan stood next to her, his hands tucked under his arms, his shoulders hunched. Duke paced, a fierce scowl on his face.
"I can't believe they would risk my life like that!" Duke blurted.
"You, I can believe," Nathan retorted. "I can't believe they'd risk Audrey's life like that!"
"Oh, that's nice," Duke said, "and after all your kind words at the Teagues'! I'm hurt, Nathan. Hurt!"
Tony chuckled. "I can't believe you guys fell for their act."
Tony found himself the focus of three puzzled stares.
"Act?" Nathan asked.
"There's more to all of this than what they've told you," Tony said casually. "That's obvious. The question is: what are they still hiding from you?"
Duke snorted. "Oh, you are new to Haven, aren't you?"
Tony raised an eyebrow.
"Everybody's hiding something in this town," Nathan sighed. "Everybody has a secret."
Audrey slapped her hands on the desk and stood. "Well, as fun as this is, boys, we're not getting anything done sitting here. Let's go."
"Where?" Nathan asked.
"The Gull, where else? I don't know about anybody else, but I could use a drink."
Tony sipped his scotch, his dark eyes staring blankly at the ocean. Behind him the Grey Gull was still quiet, and he could hear Duke inside, the clink of glass as he stocked the bar, the sound of his voice as he talked to his waitresses and Nathan, Audrey and Dwight.
The scenery in front of Tony was beautiful, and peaceful, balm for any troubled - he winced - disturbed soul.
And not just because this scenery wasn't actually part of his world. He heard Audrey's voice as she quietly talked to her three boys, telling them about looking for Tony's doppelganger, and those of his parents and Pepper. Duke sounded skeptical, which amused Tony. How much harder was it to believe in multiple universes than in paranormal Troubles that came back to plague a town every thirty or so years?
He sipped his scotch as he told himself again that he was in a different universe. One where he was unknown.
Tony considered the possibilities. He could start over with a clean slate. This world had never known him as The Merchant of Death. Here he could simply be Tony Stark, a genius known for his ability to build rather than his talent for designing weapons of imaginative destruction.
He would no longer be tied to his father's legacy; he would no longer stand in his father's shadow while also overshadowing his father's genius with his own.
He no longer had to be Iron Man.
There was a certain appeal to anonymity, to starting over, to a clean slate.
The appeal lasted for all of 3.5 seconds.
None of it was worth anything without Pepper. He had to find a way to get back to her.
He stared out over the ocean view and took another sip of his scotch.
He glanced to his right as Audrey joined him, leaning on the railing beside him.
The silence was somber, yet companionable.
"I know what it's like," Audrey said quietly. "Being alone."
Tony's expression didn't change.
"Do you," he said.
"There's a lot we haven't had a chance to tell you. About the Troubles. About me." She hesitated, staring silently across the water before she slowly continued. "I don't know who - or what - I am. But I'm intimately connected to the Troubles. I appear when they appear, with different memories and a different personality every time. But I'm always immune, and I always help the Troubled, and I apparently always cause trouble between the Wuornoses and the Crockers. If you find someone else like me, please. Let me know."
Tony's lips twitched into a half-smile. The silence once more stretched between them.
Audrey finally straightened and said, "If you do have a doppelganger here, we'll find him. Or Nathan will."
Tony finally gave her an unexpectedly sweet and genuine smile. "Do you realize your voice goes all breathy when you say Nathan's name?"
"I do," Audrey acknowledged. "I'm thinking about trying to control that."
"Why? It's rather charming."
"Because...things here in Haven are speeding up, and I don't want to hurt him."
"Him? Or you?"
Audrey's smile vanished as she stared sightlessly over the ocean.
"I won't remember him when the Troubles return again - which they will, if we can't figure out a way to stop them for good. My heart might break, but I won't know it by the time I return. He will. He'll remember forever."
"And yet, you spent the night with him last night."
Audrey nodded, her large, dark blue eyes suddenly bright with tears.
"And you'll spend the night with him again tonight. And every night hereafter, if you can."
She nodded again, even though Tony wasn't really asking a question.
"If you really don't want to hurt him -"
"I'm...scared," she whispered, "and confused. And the only things I know for sure are..." she blinked tears away and glanced behind her towards the bar where they could hear Duke's light, teasing voice, Dwight's rumbling replies and Nathan's occasional, slow-voiced contributions to the conversation.
"The only things you know for sure are...?" Tony prompted gently.
"I...really do love him," Audrey whispered, her eyes wide and riveted on the door. "And I...don't have the strength - or the desire - to tell him to stay away, even though it's for his own good."
Tony half-smiled at her. "Now that, I also understand." He raised his glass in a toast. "We're very much alike, you and I."
Audrey half-smiled in response. "And Nathan can feel both of us."
Tony nodded, his eyes suddenly thoughtful. "So he can," he murmured, and drained his glass.
To Tony's relief, he discovered he didn't have much time to brood. In fact, he didn't have any.
The day after his stunning realization that he wasn't in his version of Maine, and the revelation that Dave Teagues had orchestrated Audrey's kidnapping, a new Trouble erupted - literally - and left everyone scrambling to find the source of the Trouble and from there, a solution. Adding to the tension were the Rev's followers who were just as determined to find the Troubled person, and take care of him or her, in their own way.
The eruptions consisted of vast electro-magnetic pulses that destroyed electronics, although no one really understood what was happening for several days. The Trouble progressed to also shorting out the power lines, and the resulting house fires left everyone scrambling. When his arc reactor began to be affected, Tony realized he needed to do something, if only for his own survival. With Audrey and Nathan occupied elsewhere, Tony went to Duke and offered his help.
"Well, superhero, you don't have that suit of armor you keep talking about. How are you gonna help us with this?" Duke's sarcasm was withering, fueled by frustration and fear.
Tony looked at Duke, impassively wide-eyed.
"Well," he said finally, "I am still a genius. And I need a workshop."
Duke and Tony stood outside the garage. From behind the tightly closed doors, they could faintly hear the sounds of metal clanging on metal and on occasion, the muffled tones of a man's voice.
"This is probably a pretty bad idea," Duke murmured.
Tony said, "Let me get this straight. This guy fixes broken appliances, cars, heavy equipment, and whatever he fixes comes alive."
"Well, the things have minds of their own," Duke clarified. "Not sure if they're alive, exactly. And they're dangerous - they killed a couple of people."
Tony stared impassively then blinked and rubbed his hands together. "Perfect," he said.
"Perfect?" Duke asked carefully.
"They can't be any worse than Dummy," Tony said and strode towards the garage.
Duke hesitated, then called, "Wait - Dummy?" as he hurried after Tony.
No one ever asked Tony to tell them what - exactly - happened in that garage. They only knew that, in the midst of the bizarre electrical surges and electro-magnetic pulses, all the machines Lewis had fixed once more came to life and converged on the garage.
All Nathan, Duke and Audrey knew for sure was that Tony barged into the garage ahead of Duke and barricaded himself in with Lewis, leaving Duke pounding uselessly on the door. When Tony emerged three hours later, he'd built a Faraday suit for himself, and two for Nathan and Audrey which he gave to Duke before he darted back into the dim depths of the garage.
To their surprise, the cages actually worked to keep their cell phones working, and when they finally identified and confronted the Troubled person responsible for the electro-magnetic pulses, the cages protected them from the worst of his Trouble until he got it under control.
By the time Nathan and Audrey returned to Lewis' garage, the machines were once more silent and still, and stories of thin screams that sounded like the humming of wires were being whispered about throughout Haven.
When Tony finally emerged, he brought Lewis with him. Lewis shook Tony's hand, and walked away from the garage and Haven without looking back.
Nathan, Duke and Audrey didn't have much time to ask Tony questions, and he didn't have much time to answer them. Another Trouble was making itself felt, and the Rev's followers were already on the person's trail.
The next two weeks passed in a thankful blur for Tony. He was in the garage - his workshop - day after day, and at the Grey Gull every night. Audrey had basically given him her place above the Gull, since she was, for all intents and purposes, living with Nathan.
To everyone's surprise, Tony found he had a purpose in Haven. He discovered he was immune to the Troubles, like Audrey, and he could sometimes help her when no one else could. He also devised mechanical devices that those who struggled against the Troubles could use to protect themselves, even if only for a short time.
In some ways, Tony told them over scotch and beer in the comforting noise of the Grey Gull, it was like being back in Afghanistan and staring out over a vast array of the weapons he'd designed, and realizing he needed to come up with the most brilliant idea of his life. While the stakes and living conditions were vastly different, each Trouble presented a similar challenge.
Tony found he was, for the most part, enjoying himself. He could, he thought, make a good life for himself here, in this town, in this universe.
But none of it meant anything without Pepper.
Three weeks after finding Tony Stark naked in the woods, Nathan answered his cell phone, and listened silently.
"Can you e-mail me what you've found?" he finally said, and Audrey raised her eyes from the file she was studying to watch him closely.
Nathan met her eyes as he added, "Thanks, Joe. Another one I owe you."
He disconnected the call and said, "Joe's found a Tony Stark who meets all the details our Tony Stark gave us. Place, date, time of birth. Parents, grandparents. All of it."
Audrey blew out her breath in a long drawn out sigh.
"So...it's possible he really is from a different universe."
Nathan shoved his hands into his pockets and shrugged.
"Maybe," he agreed. "We'll know more once Joe sends us the files he pulled together. Including pictures."
"This world's Tony Stark has been arrested a few times. Joe's sending me copies of the mug shots and rap sheets."
That evening, Nathan carefully placed a manila envelope on the bar in front of Tony.
Both Duke and Tony raised dark eyebrows in question.
"This universe's Tony Stark," Nathan said quietly.
Tony's eyes flicked to the envelope then back to Nathan. He raised his scotch and took a sip.
"What did you find?" he asked, with a thread of tension twisting through the light tone.
"Howard Stark was a failed inventor. Nothing he tried ever seemed to work, although everyone agreed he was brilliant. Most people blamed it on his alcoholism although there were one or two rumors that his best inventions were stolen by his Russian partner
"To - Stark, by all accounts, was a child prodigy. He finished high school at fourteen and went on to MIT, but washed out before he graduated. He was already drinking heavily, like his father before him. Then his parents were killed in a car accident when he was seventeen and left him destitute. He turned to petty theft to support himself and was an alcoholic and drug addict by the time he was twenty-one. He worked odd jobs, including one as a maintenance worker for the largest defense contractor in the country, Hammer Industries -"
Nathan paused at Tony's strangled snort, then continued.
"He worked there for about two years before he was fired for calling Justin Hammer - and I quote - 'an incompetent asshole putting our people in unacceptable danger by building defective equipment dreamed up by mental fleas who have the temerity to call themselves engineers'."
"That's sounds like me," Tony smirked.
Duke grinned and clinked glasses with him.
"Losing that job - such as it was - sent Stark into an even steeper downward slide. He ended up on the streets, and eventually spent three stretches in prison for drug possession."
Tony swallowed, his dark eyes focused on the glass in his hands.
"Is he dead?" he finally asked.
"No," Nathan said. "During his last stint in jail, he got caught in the middle of a three-day prison riot. One guard, taken hostage by the rioters, ended up dead at the end of it all, but Stark apparently tried to save the guard's life. Stark also managed to take down the three ringleaders and negotiate a peaceful surrender for the rest of the prisoners. Even though he didn't ask for it, he was given an early release because of his actions."
Tony stared wide-eyed at Nathan. "What was the name of the guard?" he asked softly.
"I'm not surprised," Tony interrupted. He closed his eyes and smiled a pained smile. "Where's Stark now?"
"He managed to get clean - and stay clean. He lives and volunteers at a half-way house in New York. The organization that owns the place provides support for the homeless, current and recovering addicts, and troubled youth."
Tony swallowed with difficulty.
"Saving the world," he managed, his voice tight.
Audrey gently pressed her shoulder against Tony's and said, "Yes. Just like you."
Tony smiled, but there was no humor in it. "Did you find a Virginia Potts in his life?"
"Only on the periphery," Nathan replied. "She's Justin Hammer's personal assistant, but she arrived long after Stark was gone. As far as we can tell, they've never met."
Tony sneered again at Hammer's name, then his expression softened.
"Is she happy?" he asked softly.
"Apparently she's miserable. She's also working in New York, at Hammer's head office."
Tony thoughtfully sipped his drink.
"What are you going to do now?" Duke asked.
"Go to New York," Tony shrugged, and drained his glass.
Tony watched hungrily as Pep - no, this Virginia Potts didn't have a nickname - stood waiting for the lights to change and scrolling through her iPhone. Whatever she was reading made her scowl ferociously at the screen.
Tony casually sidled closer as she viciously poked at the face of the phone - or as viciously as anyone could poke a glass surface. She turned her scowl on him then pointedly turned one professionally clad shoulder to him as she waited for someone to pick up her call.
Tony savored the novelty of not being the one in trouble as he tried to sidle a little closer without spooking her.
"Yeah, I saw it," she bit out quietly, glancing at him again.
Tony made a point of frowning at the slip of paper in his hand, and blessed Audrey for the idea. The paper had an address scribbled on it, and Audrey had suggested to keep it in his hand, as a reason for following Pep - Virginia. It could, if he chose, even be used as an excuse to speak to her.
He kept his eyes hidden behind his sunglasses and hoped she couldn't feel him how hungrily he was watching her as she quietly decimated the person on the other end of the phone.
"I don't care, Justin! I am not sleeping with you, I am never going to sleep with you, and you're only hurting your own credibility and the credibility of your entire company with this bullshit! Or don't you ever want to get another federal contract in your life?"
Virginia glanced at Tony, who resisted the urge to grab the phone from her hand, then find Justin Hammer and rip his balls off, if only because she looked both pissed off and humiliated to be overheard having the conversation.
The light changed and Virginia strode quickly across the street, still berating her errant boss, and leaving Tony behind. He quickened his own pace, but not so rapidly that she'd know he was following her.
"I accept your apology," he heard her say as he drifted closer. "I'll be there in half an hour." She stopped walking, shaking her head as she disconnected from the call. "Asshole," she muttered, then quickly glanced around as if she suddenly realized she was still on a public street.
She saw Tony, and stared directly at him for a suspended moment. His steps slowed as she hesitated, like she was thinking of saying something to him, then she abruptly turned on her heel and strode rapidly back the way she'd come.
Tony kept walking, memorizing every detail of her, every freckle on her face, every hair on her head, the shape of her breasts beneath her tailored suit jacket, and those long, shapely legs in killer high heels and hidden by a demure skirt.
But that long moment of staring into her eyes brought the painful truth home to him.
She wasn't his Pepper.
He crumpled the piece of paper in his fist as he blinked sudden, hot moisture from his eyes.
He kept walking and didn't look back.
Tony shivered slightly as he watched - well, himself - arrive back at the half-way house with several bags of groceries.
Stark bounded up the front steps, keys in hand. Tony waited until Stark had the door open before he went through the fence.
"Mr. Stark?" he called.
His doppelganger turned.
"Mr. Stark was my father," he replied with a smile. "Call me Tony."
Tony didn't smile in reply; he was too busy staring.
The road not taken, he thought distantly.
The man in front of him was him. The same dark, expressive eyes, the same face, the same build.
Tony watched Stark's expression change as Stark took a good look at him. His dark eyes widened, and he paled as he suddenly leaned away, his mouth gaping open.
"That's not a good look on us," Tony said drily, and Stark closed his mouth with a loud snap.
"Who are you?" he demanded, his eyes narrowing.
"That's...a long story, and one you probably won't believe."
"What do you want?"
"To make you rich."
Stark placed a cup of coffee in front of Tony and took a seat across the table from him.
Tony glanced around. "Will you get into trouble if the half-way house isn't open?"
Stark shook his head. "Everyone knows I'm running the place alone. Sometimes I'm sick, or I have a job, and I'm not around for a few days. This place is really just a place to meet, get warm, have some coffee, a meal and a shower."
Tony nodded, his eyes riveted on Stark's face.
"Why are you working here?" Tony asked.
Stark shrugged. "I know what it's like to be on the streets. To have nowhere to go and no one who cares."
Tony slowly nodded.
The man in front of him looked like him, but Tony could easily see the obvious differences. Stark sported a five o'clock shadow but no well-groomed goatee, and Tony was positive Stark's thick, unruly hair had never been touched by a hair product, expensive or otherwise. Stark had an extra wrinkle or two, and a few more strands of gray. He was a few pounds lighter, and Tony suspected Stark's muscles were maintained by hard work rather than by a personal trainer.
But the biggest differences weren't physical.
This Tony Stark had become used to stillness and silence and confined spaces. His movements were spare, careful and economical. His eyes showed he'd been through caves in his mind and soul that were darker, deeper and longer than any physical cave in Afghanistan could ever be. He held himself still and sleek, even in the ill-fitting work clothes he wore. It was almost like he was doing his best to go unnoticed, and unremarked, only his eyes were sharply intelligent, watchful and wary, and Tony knew he was holding himself ready to move in any direction at a moment's notice.
Stark looked him over just as intently.
"Are you my twin brother?" Stark finally asked.
Tony blinked, then smiled. "No - but I wish I would have thought of that. It might have made this easier."
Stark frowned. "So, who are you then?"
Tony took a deep breath, and told him.
Stark shook his head in disbelief as Tony rebuttoned his shirt, once more hiding the arc reactor from view.
Stark's hand trembled slightly as he picked up his coffee cup and lifted it to his lips. He took a soothing sip then muttered, "Unbelievable."
"I know," Tony agreed.
"So. A different universe. How did you end up here?"
Tony shrugged. "I'm not sure. We were fighting a supervillain named Dr. Doom -"
Stark barked a loud laugh. "Dr. Doom? Really?"
Tony sighed and rubbed his temple. "Victor von Doom. And yes. Really."
"I guess he was destined to become a supervillain, wasn't he? With a name like that, what else could he be?"
Tony's lips twitched. "I would have changed it, myself."
Stark airly waved his comment away. "I'm sure there's some bullshit family heritage to be protected or honored or something stupid like that."
Tony nodded. "Isn't there always?"
Stark smirked and they lapsed into silence.
"So - why are you here?" Stark finally asked.
"Partly curiosity. I wanted to see..."
"The road not taken?"
"One of them anyway. But the main reason is because I intend to get back to my universe. I - I left a girl behind."
Stark smiled, and Tony blinked at being the target of a genuine Tony Stark smile.
"What can I do to help?" Stark asked.
"I need your identity. And a favor."
Stark's eyebrows rose.
"More than just giving you my identify?" he asked drily.
"Lending it to me, actually," Tony corrected and leaned forward. "Tell me something. Are you really a genius?"
Stark dropped his gaze to his hands. "So they told me." He glanced around the dingy room. "And yet...I ended up in jail three times and face down in a gutter more often than that. And I struggle every day to stay out of both those places. Not sure there's much genius in any of that."
"But you won a scholarship to MIT?"
Stark shrugged and nodded.
"Then the fact that you're about to create the most advanced artificial intelligence system this world has ever seen isn't impossible."
Stark's eyes widened.
"There are, however, two conditions," Tony continued. "You'll have to share the credit - and the fortune - with two men, Nathan Wuornos and Duke Crocker, from Haven, Maine. Neither of whom know anything about this, by the way. And you'll have to convince a woman named Virginia Potts to come work for you, as your personal assistant."
Stark frowned. "What? Who - Potts?"
"Justin Hammer's personal assistant."
Stark snorted his disdain and Tony grinned.
Tony said, "If she's like her double in my universe, she's worth her weight in gold. She'll keep you focused, support you in your efforts to stay sober, and she'll make sure you stay rich."
"Just...how much money are we talking about?" Stark asked suspiciously.
"Millions. Possibly billions. Eventually."
Stark's mouth dropped open.
"The first contract is almost ready for us - you - to sign, with an advance payment of two million dollars. Half will be paid to you and me, half will be paid to Nathan and Duke, or their heirs."
"In Haven, Maine?" Stark said.
Tony nodded. "Do yourself a favor - always meet Nathan and Duke here in New York. Don't ever go to Haven, if you value your life."
Stark's eyes widened. "That dangerous?"
Stark snorted. "Maybe for a superhero," he said drily.
He stared into space, his dark eyes stunned.
"Why are you doing this?" he whispered.
Tony shrugged. "Until I can find a way home, I'm stuck here. I need money - and a lot of it - to build the computing power I need to get home. The problem is, I don't exist here. You do."
Stark chuckled. "And I'm a loser, with no money at all."
Tony raised an eyebrow. "Loser? You got clean, didn't you?"
"And you did it on your own? I mean, you sought treatment on your own."
Stark hesitated. "I made a promise," he muttered, not meeting Tony's eyes.
"You're stronger than I am," Tony said softly. "I don't think I could have done what you've done. Not alone. Not without - help. So tell me - which one of us is the loser?"
Stark gaped at him. "You're a freakin' superhero!"
"In a suit of armor," Tony agreed drily, "and with billions behind me. I'm no superhero here."
Stark and Tony stared at each other in silence.
"Does this feel as weird to you as it does to me?" Stark finally asked.
"Probably," Tony replied.
They each slowly grinned then began to laugh so hard tears ran down their cheeks.
"How many more of us are out there?" Stark finally asked once they'd managed to get themselves back under control.
"Billions. Trillions. I have no clue how I'm going to find the universe that's mine."
"You'll will, though. You're a genius."
Tony leaned forward and stared intently into Stark's eyes. "So are you."
Nathan, Duke and Audrey sat at the Grey Gull's bar with Tony and listened raptly as he filled them in on the results of his trip to New York.
"An infinite number of Tony Starks," Nathan mused with a slightly teasing smile. "That's a scary thought."
"Not infinite," Tony objected absently.
"Not -? Isn't there an infinite number of universes?" Nathan asked with a frown. "And any subset of infinity is also infinite?"
Duke rolled his eyes. "Really, Nathan?" he said with mock pity.
"I paid attention in math class, Duke," Nathan replied primly.
Tony and Audrey laughed before Tony said, "That's seems to be an accepted theory, but I disagree."
Audrey raised an eyebrow. "Really?" she asked with a smile. "Why?"
"Because the universe hasn't existed forever. It's only been in existence for fourteen billion years, and while the number of possible universes created over fourteen billion years is so huge as to be incomprehensible, it's still a finite number. And if it's finite, then that means there has to be a way to find a specific universe."
Tony paused and took in the three uncomprehending stares directed at him.
He shifted on his barstool and said, "Look, it's all about possibilities. For example, if all possibilities exist, then there must be universes that have never split, or have stopped splitting. Which means there must be people who are completely unique - that is, there are no other versions of them out there in the multiverse. That's where Audrey comes from, I think, from one of those unique universes."
"Say what?" Audrey sputtered.
"I think I'm immune to the Troubles because I come from a universe where Haven doesn't exist. But Audrey always disappears before the Troubles are resolved, and then returns looking exactly the same but...reprogrammed, for lack of a better word. I think it's because she's the only one they can find, and they need to make sure she's protected. Whoever 'they' are."
Duke, Nathan and Audrey stared blankly at him.
"I think I need a drink," Duke said. "Anybody with me?"
"Oh, yeah," Nathan and Audrey said simultaneously and turned back towards the bar.
Tony laughed. "I'll take that drink, too, Duke."
Duke grinned at him as he handed him a glass. "I knew you would," he said, then pulled out two beer for Audrey and Nathan.
Nathan took a long drink of his beer, then asked, "So, how does this - this theory help us?"
Tony shrugged as he sipped his scotch. "Not sure," he admitted. "But I believe there's a technological solution to controlling Haven's problems. Maybe figuring out where Audrey's from will be it."
"And, what? Import a bunch of other Audreys? You know - unique humans?" Duke asked.
"Maybe that's what started the Troubles in the first place," Nathan mused slowly.
The others turned to him with puzzled frowns.
He held up his hands. "I'm just throwing theories out there, just like Tony."
"But - what do you mean?" Audrey asked.
"I mean maybe Haven was settled by people from this unique universe, and that's why we've ended up with the Troubles. The original settlers weren't part of this universe and so we're...reacting to it. Like...having an allergic reaction to cats."
"And Audrey's...what? An antihistamine?" Duke asked incredulously.
"And you're the permanent cure," Nathan snapped. "It's just a theory."
Tony was standing still, his eyes wide, scotch halfway to his mouth.
"It's not a bad theory," he said softly, slowly lowering the glass. "It's like being exposed to diseases you don't have any immunity to, or a harmless animal in one environment that turns out to be completely destructive when introduced into a new one."
He glanced at Nathan. "Not a bad theory at all," he nodded.
Nathan shifted uncomfortably and looked down at his glass.
"But how does that theory help us?" Audrey demanded.
"Well, maybe there needs to be some sort of inoculation," Tony suggested.
"There is," Duke said bitterly. "Me."
"A less extreme form of inoculation," Tony amended. "And there's still somebody else running the show." He nodded at Audrey. "Otherwise, you wouldn't keep returning, time after time."
"Or," Duke said sharply, "these theories are all bullshit and it's just something paranormal that happens around here."
Nathan shrugged. "Well, if everything in the multiverse is possible, then that's equally possible, right, Tony?"
Tony looked pained as he nodded. "Sadly, that's true."
"Are you saying you agree with me, Nathan?" Duke asked, his eyes wide in mock disbelief as he moved out from behind the bar to stand next to him.
"We-ell, I'm saying your theory is as valid as any other we've come up with," Nathan clarified.
"You are agreeing with me!" Duke whooped, slapping his palm on the bar. "Ha! What are the odds of that happening?"
Tony's eyes went wide and he froze in mid-laugh.
"If there's a way to pinpoint the exact universe, then it must be based on some type of mathematical calculation," he whispered almost dreamily.
Nathan, Duke and Audrey knew Tony wasn't speaking to them anymore; he seemed unaware they were even still in the room.
"Maybe - maybe there's some way of identifying the universe by calculating the odds." He suddenly whirled into motion, grabbing Duke by both shoulders and shaking him. "Duke Crocker - you are a genius!"
"Hey - hey - hey! You're not about to kiss me are you?"
Tony laughed. "No, but it's tempting! I need a computer!"
Duke shook his head and with a flourish, waved his hand towards his office at the back of the Grey Gull. Tony rushed into the small room and threw himself onto the chair, muttering to himself as he impatiently waited for the computer to turn on.
For the next five days, Tony barely ate or slept as he worked feverishly in Duke's office. At the end of the last day, he stumbled out, unshaven, unshowered and almost incoherently exhausted. Nathan held his nose and guided Tony back to Nathan's place where he threw the exhausted man into the spare bed where he slept around the clock and into the next morning.
Nathan and Audrey were in the kitchen making breakfast in companionable silence when Tony finally emerged, showered, shaved and looking every inch the self-assured billionaire he was in a different universe. Tony watched as Audrey tested the temperature of Nathan's coffee before handing it to him with a smile. Nathan smiled sweetly back, his eyes soft as he looked at the pretty blonde.
Tony realized with pang he was going to miss these two. Duke, too, he admitted ruefully.
Nathan and Audrey greeted him, and Audrey put a coffee in front of him as he pulled a chair up to the kitchen counter.
He glanced up at the brief knock on the back door, then greeted Duke as he walked into the kitchen.
Duke helped himself to a cup of coffee and settled in beside Tony.
"So, are you gonna tell us what you've been working on the last few days?" Duke asked, his crocodile grin in full force.
"I was deciphering my home address," Tony replied simply.
They stared unblinkingly at him.
"Okay," Nathan acknowledged slowly. "Did you...find it?"
"I think so. Yes."
A huge grin spread across Audrey's face.
"That's wonderful!" she said, then her smile faded. "But do you have a way to get there?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I think do."
"Just like that?" Nathan asked, his brow furrowed.
"Well, it'll take me a few days to build it -"
"Wait a minute," Duke protested, sitting up straight in his chair. "Scientists have been struggling with the concept of parallel universes for decades, and you're telling us that you've spent - what? - a week on the problem, and you not only know how to find a particular universe, you can also build a machine to take you there?"
Nathan and Audrey stared at Duke with raised eyebrows. He glanced at them then away then back again.
"What?" he asked defensively. "I watch PBS."
They shook their heads and turned their attention back to Tony.
"Yes," Tony nodded. "That's exactly what I'm telling you." He smirked. "I told you - I'm Tony Stark. And I'm a genius."
"Well, genius, I hope you're right," Duke sighed, shaking his head. "Because I hate to think what you're going to look like if you're wrong."
"Or where you're going to end up if your calculations are wrong," Audrey added.
"My calculations are never wrong," Tony replied smugly. "I'll end up in the right place; I'll get home. More importantly, I'll end up with the right Pepper."
"Or a reasonable facsimile?" Audrey asked, not unkindly.
Tony stopped, the muscles in his jaw clenching and unclenching.
He swallowed and said, "She'll be my Pepper. The fact that there may be a billion others exactly like her is moot. She'll be my Pepper. The one -" he stopped abruptly, blinking rapidly, not quite meeting Audrey's eyes.
"She'll be the right one," he muttered, and turned his eyes away.
"But I still don't get how you're finding the universe that's yours," Nathan said with a frown.
"The odds," Tony replied.
"Yeah, I got that part," Nathan said, "I just don't get how that helped you."
"I had two problems. The first was building a machine to transport me across universes. Not a huge problem where I come from. Power wasn't an issue, because my dad had created the arc reactor and I made it useable. Designing how to move between universes wasn't an issue, because the theories had been around in my universe for decades. But pinpointing the exact universe you're looking for - that was the second, and biggest problem. Or at least being able to pinpoint the right family of universes, so that even if you missed the exact one, you were still close enough that the people were the same."
"O-kay," Nathan said. "I'm with you so far."
"The key was to identify as many known events as possible, and then calculate the odds of all of those events happening in the same universe."
"But if universes are created at every moment of decision, or possibility, for every single person or thing -" Audrey struggled to find words.
"We're into trillions - more! - universes. But not infinite, like I said before. And by focusing on specific people, and events, you can focus in on a - a - cluster of universes, where all of those events happened in those people's lives. Which means they're the same people, regardless of whether a single person outside of that group lived or died."
"But what if that person was Hitler?" Duke protested.
"You also add in the world events you know, putting in as many details as possible. So - the odds of a universe where this part of Maine is unpopulated, where Hitler rose and fell, where Howard Stark succeeded, where Tony Stark woke up in an Afghan cave attached to a car battery, where Pepper Potts fell in love with that same Tony Stark, where he became part of a group called the Avengers - the more details you can calculate, the lower the odds of all of those events happening in one universe, and therefore the more precise the - the - address, so to speak."
"So," Nathan said slowly, "you can find the neighbourhood, but maybe end up in the wrong house?"
Tony considered the analogy, then nodded. "But the houses are identical in terms of what you need. There may be boards or bricks in different places, somewhere in that house, but your reality is the same."
"Or maybe," Duke said slowly, "if you believe everything is connected, your reality couldn't exist the way it does if all the bricks and boards weren't in the right place."
The others stared at him.
He shrugged. "You know - a butterfly flaps its wings on one side of the world, blah, blah, blah."
The others stared at him in awed silence.
"That, my friend, is an absolutely brilliant theory," Tony breathed.
"Who's the genius now?" Duke asked, and lifted his coffee with a cheeky grin.
Six days later, Tony opened up the doors of Lewis' garage with a grand flourish.
Nathan, Duke and Audrey stepped inside and looked at his grand invention in silence.
"That's it?" Duke finally asked skeptically.
"That's it," Tony nodded.
"It's...a lot smaller than I expected," Nathan said doubtfully.
"It looks like a box," Audrey said brightly.
"A cardboard box," Duke nodded. "Barely big enough for one person. I think Nathan and I would need to crouch, and Dwight wouldn't fit at all!"
Tony stared at them like he couldn't believe his eyes.
"Just...open the door," he sighed.
Audrey cautiously approached the transporter and did as Tony asked. They all crowded around to get a better look.
The interior was a dizzying array of circuitry, flashing lights and buttons with a keyboard and computer screen securely in pride of place. Beside the keyboard was a plug with a shape that looked suspiciously like the arc reactor in Tony's chest.
"What - you know what? I wouldn't understand it anyway," Duke sighed.
"Most of it's for show," Tony said with his own crocodile grin.
"Besides," Tony added, looking around the cluttered garage with a sniff, "I had a lot of spare parts."
Audrey looked around the garage, and shuddered, remembering the nails in Nathan's back. She kissed those scars almost every morning in the shower, wishing her touch could take them away from him, too. She put her hand on Nathan's bare arm and squeezed. He glanced at her, startled. He took in her expression, and he covered her hand with his.
"I didn't feel it," he assured her.
Audrey smiled tightly, and turned her attention back to Tony.
"What's next?" she asked.
Tony sat beside Audrey as they watched Stark cautiously approach Virginia Potts in the busy park. The very fact that Virginia had agreed to meet with Stark at all had been a miracle in itself.
Tony stared hungrily at the beautiful redhead.
He missed her, he thought with sudden, sharp pain. He missed her so much. He missed the sound of her voice - he'd even settle for the sound of her nagging at him to get to his next business meeting so long as it meant she was talking to him. He missed her face when she was trying to be stern and struggling not to give in to her laughter. He missed her scent, her skin, those legs that stretched for miles and which felt like heaven when they were wrapped around him.
Tony groaned softly as Stark awkwardly stuck out his hand for Virginia to shake, and somehow managed to accidentally catch her purse and knock it to the ground, spilling its contents.
Audrey chuckled softly. "Do you think he's nervous?"
Tony shook his head and continued to watch. Stark was crouched now, as was Virginia, and he was scrambling to help her pick everything up, his mouth moving a mile a minute. Tony could only imagine what Stark was babbling out right now, terrified he'd blown his chance to meet the second condition Tony had imposed on him.
Tony idly wondered what he, Tony, would have done if he hadn't figured out a way to find his own universe, or hadn't been able to build a machine to take him there. Stark would have been kept far away from Virginia, he decided. It would have been him, Tony, in the park right now, shaking her hand. He would have smiled, he would have charmed her, overwhelmed her, convinced her to work for him. He would have worked to create a similar connection as the one he had with his Pepper, and he probably would have succeeded. They probably would have even been happy.
But she would never be his Pepper. The Pepper who had seen him at his worst and stayed with him anyway. The Pepper who had put her hand into his chest simply because he'd asked her to, and told her truthfully that she was all he had.
He would never hurt any Virginia "Pepper" Potts by making her a substitute for someone else.
He refocused on the two people in the park.
They'd finally managed to gather everything up and put it back in Virginia's purse. They rose to their feet, Stark still talking rapidly, Virginia staring at him in bemused wonder.
Finally he stuttered to a halt, and shuffled his feet uncomfortably, looking away, is head down, his shoulders hunched defensively.
Tony and Audrey held their breaths as they watched the poised redhead hesitate. Then she nodded, and they saw her lips form the word yes. Stark's head shot up, a shocked look on his face. Virginia stuck out her hand and smiled at Stark, and Tony's heart clenched.
It was the same way Pepper smiled at him.
Stark slowly shook Virginia's hand, his eyes never leaving hers, and Tony relaxed with a soft sigh. He put on his sunglasses and glanced at Audrey.
"Who knows if it'll work out in this universe, but..."
"You had to try."
Tony sniffed and straightened his cuffs. "If there's one thing I know for sure, no matter what universe it is, every Tony Stark needs his Pepper Potts. Perhaps he could be happy with someone else, but that's almost impossible to imagine. Or believe."
Audrey smiled slowly, her expression soft. "You romantic you," she teased gently.
Tony shrugged. "Every Tony Stark needs his Pepper Potts." He paused thoughtfully. "Of course, whether every Pepper Potts deserves to be burdened with her Tony Stark is another question entirely."
He strode purposefully towards the park entrance.
"Let's get back to Haven," he said. "It's almost time for me to go home."
He didn't look back.
On the last night before Tony left Haven, he sat on the deck in the back of Nathan's small house with the people who, over the last six weeks, had become his friends.
"What will we do without you?" Audrey asked him.
"I think you'll survive just fine," Tony assured her. "You've managed it this long."
"Except - except we still don't know how to stop the Troubles!" Audrey protested earnestly. "Does that mean we're destined to fail? I'll still end up leaving Na-Haven and returning in thirty years with a different personality and no memories of my previous time here?"
Nathan blinked rapidly and looked away, staring stoically into the distance while Duke scowled and poured himself another drink.
"You know, it may be it's simply not possible to stop the Troubles," Tony said slowly.
Now he had everyone's attention.
He continued, "The more I think about it, the more I think Nathan's on to something. Not necessarily that the original Havenites were from another universe, although that might have been the case. No, I think it's a real possibility there are two universes which are extremely close to each other here. And they're in orbit, an orbit where they brush each other every thirty years or so, give or take a year or five."
"So...we're doomed to suffer through the Troubles forever?" Nathan demanded incredulously. "We should just give up?"
"Not give up. I think you should learn to embrace the Troubles. Learn about them, how to control them - before they return. Make them work for you, rather than struggling against them. Study them, while they're here."
"But some of the Troubles kill people," Duke objected.
"Because they're treated like deep, dark, shameful secrets and the Troubled person often doesn't even know they're Troubled!" Tony shook his head. "I come from a world where we don't hide the powers of others - we exploit them. Granted, all of our powers were created through technology, either scientific accidents, like the Hulk, or through deliberate inventions, like me, or Captain America."
He ignored Duke's snort of amusement at Steve Rogers' superhero name.
"The point is," Tony said pointedly, "this town needs to stop being ashamed of the Troubles and to stop trying to hide them from future generations. Bring them out into the light, and teach each other what needs to be done before they return. The Rev's followers are so strong because they don't know what the Troubles really are, and they're scared. Educate them. About everything - including Audrey.
"This town also needs to stop acting like nobody knows Audrey when she returns," Tony added. "How about trying to tell her everything as soon as you can? From my perspective, you'll never make any headway if you keep everything a deep, dark secret."
"Good God," Duke blurted, "are you really trying to tell us the truth shall set us free?"
Tony sniffed. "Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is a sure sign of insanity. Maybe it's time to try something different."
"Yeah?" Duke demanded. "And are you going to be around to help us, superhero?"
Tony raised an eyebrow and smirked. "You still don't get it, do you? You don't need me - you already have a whole town full of superheroes!"
The small group was somber as they stood in Lewis' garage outside the transporter.
Tony shook Duke's hand, then pulled him in for a man-hug. They clapped each other on the back.
Then it was Audrey's turn, a hug and even a kiss.
"Thank you," she whispered, tears in her eyes. "For everything."
Tony shrugged. "I didn't do anything," he said. "I'm just glad I was able to help out with some of the Troubles while I was here. Maybe Stark will be able to help you even more, once he gets his feet under him."
Audrey nodded. "He won't be you, though."
"No one else is," Tony agreed smugly then turned to Nathan.
Nathan stood with his hands tucked high under his arms, protecting himself from the world and everything in it. The most sensitive of the bunch, Tony thought, himself included.
Tony held out his hand.
Nathan hesitated, then reached out and grasped it. He bit his lip at the sensation, and Tony pulled him into a man-hug as well.
"Take care of that girl," Tony whispered in Nathan's ear.
"With my life," Nathan vowed.
Tony released him, then took a deep breath and stepped into the machine. With a final glance and a nod good-bye, he closed and locked the door.
He stood in the small space, lit only by the glow of the computer screen and the arc reactor embedded in his chest. With another deep breath he keyed in a sequence on the keyboard, then pressed enter.
And the world went black for Tony Stark.
The first thing Tony noticed was the pain.
Every bone in his body hurt, and every inch of skin felt like it had gone through a cheese grater.
And he was cold.
He could hear voices, but he couldn't quite make out the words. It hurt too much to think and he began to gratefully slide back into the blackness, when -
"Tony! You let me by, or so help me I'll use all the might and influence of Stark Industries to make your life a living hell! Tony! I can see him! I know he's over there! Now let me by!"
He forced his eyes open, wincing and squinting against the bright lights that seemed to be everywhere, his eyes tearing.
He muttered, "Pepper?"
He turned his head, searching like a newborn kitten, his eyes squeezed shut against the glare.
"Pepper?" he muttered again and wondered if he'd simply imagined her voice.
He felt more than saw her fall to her knees beside him. He forced his eyes to open a little wider, and saw her, blurred and swimming through the prisms of his tears, and he blinked, desperately wanting to see her.
"Pepper," he breathed as she grasped his hand and lifted it to her cheek, her lips, her tears scalding his knuckles.
She sniffed out a chuckle and said shakily, "Leave it to you to make an entrance. And naked, no less. The tabloids are going to have a field day." She leaned closer and whispered, "I knew you'd come back to me."
Tony smiled, and stroked his thumb across the back of her hand.