Actions

Work Header

Divergence

Chapter Text

Please note that this work takes place in Universe 619... mostly.  The Tony Stark you are probably familiar with lives in our world, 616.  To make things easier, I have included this handy reference sheet:

The cast

Universe 619, aka "Universe Prime"

  • Anthony “Tony” Edward Stark, a playboy philanthropist billionaire who, following his capture and rescue from Afghanistan, was imprisoned and tortured by his business partner, Obadiah Stane, before building the Iron Man suit to escape him. 
  • Obadiah Stane, the deceased business partner of Tony Stark, who, after decades of resentment towards Tony, orchestrated his capture by terrorists and later abused him personally before being killed in a mech suit battle.
  • Virginia “Pepper” Potts, Tony’s personal assistant, whose sharp mind, flawlessly organized records, and intuitive demeanor are often the only things keeping him together.
  • J.A.R.V.I.S., Tony’s Iron Man suit’s A.I. program.

Universe 620, aka "Universe Alpha," aka "The Golden Timeline."

  • Anthony “Tony” Edward Stark, a disabled playboy philanthropist billionaire and C.E.O of Stark Industries, which he runs with his business partner, Obadiah Stane. 
  • Obadiah Stane, the business partner of Tony Stark and surrogate father figure.  A distinguished businessman and brilliant negotiator with a love of chess, piano, and cigars. 
  • Virginia “Pepper” Potts, Tony’s wife, whose sharp mind, flawlessly organized records, and intuitive demeanor are among the many reasons he loves her.
  • Cinnamon, Pepper's cat, who was given to her by Tony.
  • J.A.R.V.I.S.,  Tony’s house’s A.I. program.

Universe 621, aka, "The Darkest Timeline"

  • Anthony “Tony” Edward Stark, a mute playboy philanthropist billionaire who, following his capture and rescue from Afghanistan, is imprisoned and tortured by his business partner, Obadiah Stane.
  • Obadiah Stane, the C.E.O. of Stark Industries, who, after decades of resentment towards Tony, orchestrated his capture by terrorists and currently holds him captive in his own home.
  • Virginia “Pepper” Potts, Obadiah's personal assistant, whose sharp mind, flawlessly organized records, and intuitive demeanor are used in part to help Obadiah care for Tony in his home.
  • Cinnamon, Tony's cat, who was given to him by Pepper.
  • Edwin Jarvis, a butler who makes Tony toast. 

 Supporting Characters (in all universes)

  • Harold “Happy” Hogan, an ex-boxer and Tony’s personal driver, whose friendly, well-meaning personality allows him to act as a source of comfort for both Tony and Pepper.
  • Dr. Reed Richards, a physicist whose knowledge of interdimensional travel proves invaluable to Tony as he moves between timelines.

Honorable Mentions

  • Thor, S.H.I.E.L.D. member and extra-dimensional god from Asgard whose mention of interdimensional travel in Universe Prime begins this whole mess.
  • Andrew, husband of the author, who originally suggested I title this "Iron Man 2: 2 Many Iron Men."

 

Enjoy!  Updates every Wednesday and Saturday.

Chapter Text

Pepper had developed a sixth sense for knowing when there were robots in the kitchen.  This came in handy, because if she didn’t stop them, they’d often make a mess of things that she’d have to clean up herself.  Really, it was just one robot.  Tony Stark, her boss, and the man behind the iron mask.

The house still wasn’t back to its full staff because of Tony’s bouts of drinking, paranoia, and night terrors.  He occasionally thought about rehiring the help, only to conclude that doing so would invite hordes of terrorists into his home, and that Pepper ought to go ahead and continue the cooking, laundry, and general upkeep herself.  She didn’t complain.  She was just happy he was back, and knew it would take time to heal.  All the same, she did wish for at least one more set of hands.  It was hard not to resent the A.I. butler that Tony refused to replace with a real one that could do the dishes.

The robot was in the kitchen was hunched over an island, illuminated only by a single light emanating from the center of its chest.  The top of the island was imported marble that reflected the soft white-blue glow of the arc reactor, and it was this that the robot was staring at.  His face was human; the face plate was beside him, staring up, like a theater mask.  One metal hand was pressed against his forehead.  In front of him, a shot glass and a bottle of scotch presented an alibi for the redness in his eyes.

“Hey, Tony,” said Pepper in the most soothing voice she could muster.  She slid into a stool across from him.  Reaching across the cold marble counter, she slid the shot glass and bottle toward her.  It worried her a little that he didn’t try to snatch it back.

“Do you think he…” began Tony, then halted.  He looked like he was trying to catch his breath.

“Do you want to take off your suit, Tony?”

He shook his head.  The hand that wasn’t propping him up snaked up onto the counter and laid over the mask for his suit.  In the silence of 2 am, Pepper could hear, faintly, the little whirrs and hums from the suit as it moved.

“It’s pretty late.  You can’t go to bed in the suit.”

“I’m not going to bed,” he slurred softly.  His hand groped for the shot glass.  Realizing it wasn’t there, he looked up.  “Give me that.”

“I think you’ve had enough,” said Pepper firmly, holding on to the bottle.  She knew Tony could easily pry it away from her with the suit.  His suit could toss cars around like they were chairs, and punch through concrete like Silly Putty.  The suit occasionally scared her.  But she also knew its primary function had nothing to do with being strong and everything to do with feeling safe.

Tony’s shoulders hunched a little.  For a moment, they were silent.  Then, abruptly, “Obie gave me that.”

Pepper’s heart sank.  For all of Tony’s newfound fears and phobias and wild, paranoid thoughts, the one thing she still couldn’t quite handle was Tony’s sense of betrayal.  He couldn’t trust anyone, and at his worst, he had occasionally accused even her of espionage.

“I’m sorry,” said Pepper, who had nothing else to say and knew that Tony wasn’t listening anyway.

Both metal-clad hands rose.  Propping his elbows on the table with a hard, heavy clang (Pepper winced; the marble!), he placed his hands on his cheeks and stared contemplatively into the distance.

“Did he know when… he gave me that… did he know what he was going to do?”

Pepper reached out to pat Tony’s arm.  She felt stupid as she patted the suit.  Tony couldn’t feel it.  “I’m sure he didn’t,” she said.  “I’m sure he… you know, I’m sure he didn’t know it would go that way.  It’s not your fault, Tony.”

This is what Tony’s psychiatrist said they should say as much as possible.  That it wasn’t his fault.

“It was.  I killed him.”

“Tony, you had to.  He was… he was completely unhinged, Tony.  He was dangerous.  What he did to you… he made… I mean, you had to, Tony.”

Tony shook his head slowly.  Pepper worried he might slip off the stool, but he kept his perch.  She wondered what weight the stools were designed to support; the suit was pretty heavy.

“I miss him.”

She patted the suit again.  “I know.”  She didn’t know, actually.  She couldn’t comprehend Tony’s regrets over killing Obadiah.  Not after what he’d done.  She’d read the medical reports.

“I wish…”  Tony hiccuped weakly.  “I wish he were here.  I wish he could be here.”

“No, you don’t, Tony,” said Pepper sharply.  Tony’s bloodshot eyes looked upwards and found hers.  She was glaring.  Tony’s gaze dropped quickly, and Pepper’s heart melted.  Tony could still be vulnerable to harsh words.  “Tony, let’s go to bed,” she said, trying to sound gentler.

“I’m going to sleep in my suit.”

“Okay, fine.  Just lay down, okay?”

“The scotch Obie got me…”  He make a slow, weak grab for it.  Pepper pulled it out of his reach.

“I’ll put it away for later.  You’ve had enough,” she said, firmly.  “Go to bed, Tony.”

With a forlorn sigh, Tony rose.  His feet clanked on the floor.  With the soft whirring of moving parts, he walked out of the kitchen, the glow of his arc reactor preceding him, each footstep making an echoing bang on the floor.

Pepper waited until he was well out of the vicinity before pouring every drop of liquor down the drain.

Chapter Text

The urn sat innocuously on the table while Tony caught his breath.  It looked innocent, now that it was closed.  It had looked innocent when he’d opened it.  It had looked like cat litter, or concrete dust, or pencil graphite.  It wasn’t until he’d given it a little shake he’d seen the bone.  That’s when it had gotten too real.  He’d nearly dropped it in his haste to cover it, to place it on the coffee table, not to touch it any longer, not to have those contents lurking there, ready to jump out at him.  

His breathing seemed overly loud in the room; it was late morning and the sun streaming in seemed pale, wintery, sterile.  He tried to calm his heart, to regain control of it; it was running away from him, and the urn, still sitting placidly on the table, seemed to be accusing him of something, seemed ready to point a finger and declare him guilty.  He leaned back on the couch and pulled a hand over his face.  

“Why’d I open it.  Why’d I open it,” he murmured to himself, in beat to his heart.  “Why’d I open it.  Okay.  Okay.  Okay.”  He released a deep, shuddery sigh.  Why had he opened it?  To see if there was anything in it, he supposed.  If they’d actually recovered anything.  He’d been warned about his curiosity before.  Curiosity killed the cat and all that.

Slowly, he steadied his breathing.  Sitting back up, he forced his gaze from the urn to the box.  It was made of heavy-duty cardboard and had holes cut out of the sides for handles.  It was the kind he’d seen lawyers carry into court.   This one was white and unmarked.  But the urn was unmarked, too.  Perhaps this box was filled with ash and bones.  Perhaps this box would also surprise him with an unvoiced accusation.

But personal effects weren’t given to the weak.  With teeth clenched, he forced himself to reach out and pull off the top.  Inside, he was relieved to see, it was mostly filled with papers. He picked out the first one first: a death certificate.  Cause of death: blunt force trauma.  Accidental.

Scanning it, he felt his load lighten a little.  There was no mention of him, and no mention of suits.  The age on the page was a ripe old one.  No sad story here.  Just good old accidental blunt force trauma from a fall.  Pretty standard, actually, for a man his age.

Feeling confident, he dug deeper.  He fingers brushed glass.  He pulled out a dusty, framed photograph.  His heart sank.  It had been months since their fight, and yet still he was finding ways to torture Tony.  The photograph showed three men-- no, two men, one boy.  Tony Stark was in the center of the photo in black robes, looking unusually bashful, eyes down, grinning.  One hand was holding the corner of a diploma.  To his left, Obadiah Stane stood.  He had a wide smile; his eyes were closed, forever frozen in a half-blink.  He was holding the other corner of Tony’s diploma, pulling it up, showing it off.  Perhaps this is why he was laughing, and why Tony was looking shy.  Tony had no memory of the photo being taken.  To his right in the picture, his father, Howard Stark, stood by.  Unlike Obadiah or Tony, he was looking straight at the camera and wasn’t blurred by motion.  He wasn’t smiling; he had a look like this was expected.  That his teenage son getting a high school degree, and acceptance to MIT at the age of 15, was normal.  

Tony tilted the photograph a little, as if getting the light to hit it differently would alter it.  But it remained the same.  Two figures slightly blurred, Obie half-blinking, his teenage self looking shy and hunched and a little embarrassed, the diploma lop-sided.  Tony flipped the photo over; on the back, Obie’s handwriting identified the year, the place.  “Tony’s graduation” it was titled.  Tony tossed it aside and dug into the box again.  His fingers brushed some loose chess pieces at the bottom; he pulled out another photograph.  A very young Howard Stark and Obadiah Stane were shaking hands in front of a low concrete building with a sign that said “STARK ENTERPRISES.”  Both were smiling, but their smiles looked a bit fake, as if whoever was taking the picture had instructed them to smile.

Another dig.  An ancient ledger had some meticulously cramped writing, detailing Stark Industries’ early acquisitions.  A lovely, pearl-handled service revolver, one that Tony recalled his father had given to Obadiah as a gift.  A manila envelope had a birth certificate and some more death certificates; Zebediah Stane had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, while Howard Stark had, like Obadiah, died of blunt force trauma following a car accident.  A chill ran through Tony; he’d never seen his father’s death certificate.  He’d only been 16; Obadiah had dealt with it.  He tried to peel apart some documents and the cover fell off an old issue of Newsweek magazine with Obadiah on the cover.  A Polaroid of Howard and another man holding up an enormous blueprint fell onto the floor; it took Tony a moment to recognize what could only be a much younger Anton Vanko.  

“Tony?”

Tony jumped, scattering papers everywhere.  He turned guiltily; his assistant, Pepper, was standing behind him with a tray.  

“Pepper,” he said.  He tried to sound casual, but his voice broke.

She set the tray delicately on the coffee table, avoiding the documents, and settled herself next to him, perched on the edge the couch.  Her hair shimmered in the pale sunshine that filtered through the windows on the west side of the house.  “Are these his personal effects?” she asked gently.

"The lawyers dropped them off this morning,” confirmed Tony, picking up a signed picture of Obadiah and Enrico Fermi.

"How do you feel?”

"Fine,” lied Tony, a little too quickly.  “A scotch, please.  Thank you, Ms. Potts.”

It was a dismissal.  Pepper stood and left.  Tony listened to the retreat of her heels before looking down at the folder he was holding in his hands.  It was manila and one word was written on it: “HOWARD.”  He turned it over a few times.  Probably a will.  They’d told him Obadiah had left everything to Howard, but that, with Howard having been deceased for more than two decades, it was legally he, Tony, who was Obadiah’s sole heir.  Ironic, really.  Obadiah had never had a son, yet he’d practically adopted Tony from Howard, who didn’t appear to have wanted a son at all.  Obadiah had been there for Tony’s MIT graduation because Howard was dead; Obadiah had bailed Tony out of jail for his first DUI, and had taught him some piano, and had joined him when he smoked his first cigar.  He’d driven Tony to the hospital when he’d crashed the Ducati and dislocated his shoulder, and slipped Tony’s first condom into his wallet.  He’d been everything Howard hadn’t been.  And then he’d tried to kill him.  And Tony had killed him, instead.  And now he was dead.

Tony tried to open the envelope with shaking hands and tore it.  He swore and ripped it open, feeling angry at himself for his clumsiness.  A tapping signalled Pepper’s return; he waited.

“Your scotch, Mr. Stark,” she said, icily.  She hated when he used professionalism to dismiss her, and he knew it. She set the glass a little bit too hard on the coffee table, where the tray with Tony’s morning coffee still sat, untouched.

“Thank you, Ms. Potts.”  He grabbed it and downed it without any pretense.  “Just bring the bottle in.”

She set the bottle down in front of him with the faintest hint of accusation; she’d already gotten it.  Without a word, she picked up the tray with his untouched breakfast and whisked it away.  Tony took a few swigs from the bottle.  The warmth spread into his stomach and down his limbs, and he felt comforted by the familiar tingling.  His muscles relaxed marginally, and his hands were steady as he opened up the torn envelope.

As suspected, it was a will.  Tony took a few more swigs of scotch from the bottle and waited a few moments before trying to read it. “Howard,” he began, outloud.  He cleared his throat and took another sip from the bottle before continuing.  “If you are reading this, then let me first congratulate you on your longevity.  I wish all the best for the company, for your beautiful family, and of course for you, my friend and confidant.  I hope that the burden of my death is lightened by knowing that my life has been a full and productive one and that I have whole-heartedly believed in all of the enterprises which you and I have undertaken together.  I can think of no greater pleasure in life than knowing how you and I have advanced humanity and, together, driven the world into the future where, someday, your son will live and carry on the Stark family legacy.  I have considered myself a pioneer of technology and design, and I truly believe myself lucky to have explored these frontiers with you.  I have lived a full and, yes, very happy life; I have been blessed to live in such a time as ours.  I hope your mourning is short-lived, because I myself could not have asked for a better time on this earth and cannot say I have any regrets; I hope it is of some solace to you to know that I have been a happy man and lived a joy-filled life.  As per our gentlemen’s agreement, I have enclosed the encryption key for the tontine, and I hope you live many more years to enjoy its fruits.”  He reached for the bottle as he read the signature.  “Obadiah Stane, 1974.”  He turned the page over, but nothing else was written.  He took a drink.  “Jarvis, define tontine, please.”

An electronic ping let him him he’d been heard.  “A tontine is an annuity in which multiple investors pay into a common fund, whose shares increase as subscribers die until the last survivor enjoys the whole income, sir,” replied a crisp British voice.  Jarvis, the man, had died years ago; his voice lived on in Tony’s artificial intelligence program, which he’d started at MIT and continued improving until it was as much a person as Pepper was.  Jarvis, the program, controlled the house and accompanied him in his suit.  Jarvis was a personal systems operation program, translator, encyclopedia, and defense system.  Tony was, overall, pretty pleased with Jarvis.

“So it’s an inheritance?” asked Tony.

“Yes, sir, though not necessarily a monetary one.  Tontines may include valuables, heirlooms, antiques, or other items.”

“Huh.”  Tony drummed his fingers on the table.  He turned the envelope and shook it, but nothing came out.  “Are there any records of my dad having any encryption keys unlocking any secret vaults or anything, Jarvis?”

“Allow me to scan our records, sir.”  A pause, during which Jarvis played some Suicidal Tendencies for him.  Tony tapped along on the coffee table and drank from the liquor bottle.  “No, sir,” said Jarvis after a few moments.  “It appears any encryption keys to a secret inheritance were kept between your father and Mr. Stane.”

“Well, that’s great,” grumbled Tony sarcastically.  “They’re both dead.”

“Shall I attempt to seek out any locked, hidden, or encrypted files in the back-up servers, sir?  Perhaps there is something I missed.”

“Why bother?  You just scanned everything.”

“I am imperfect, sir.”

“Don’t be humble, Jarvis.  I built you.  Go ahead and scan everything again if you want, but I doubt we’ll find anything new.  If Obadiah and Dad set this up in the seventies, it’s probably long gone by now.”

“Yes sir.”

“What a waste of my time.”  Tony tossed the envelope on the table.  He’d been a child in 1974, and Obadiah had been stuffing bills into birthday cards and letting him demonstrate how to blow up the microwave.  Whatever secrets he and Howard had shaken on back then were long gone.  He couldn’t ask either of them; Howard, if alive, wouldn’t have bothered to speak to him, and Obadiah was dead, dead at his own hand, killed in a suit devised by Tony, killed because Tony had gotten uppity and had… had…

“Tony?”

“Uh?”  Tony blinked.  The room seemed darker than before.  Pepper was standing over him.  He reached for the bottle on the table and took a swig to clear his head.

“Tony, you were talking in your sleep.  Would you like to have something to eat?”

“What time is it?” asked Tony.  He squinted at his watch.

“It’s four, Tony.  You’ve been asleep for hours.  Do you want some toast?”

“Yeah.  And a scotch, please. Ms. Potts.  That will be all.”


 He wished he could blame his poor sleep that night on the nap, but the truth was, he fell asleep nearly every day.  Naps were part of his routine.  When he wasn’t actively working in the shop or on a S.H.I.E.L.D. mission, sinister thoughts invaded his brain and wrapped themselves around his mind like snakes around prey.  Guilt plagued him.  Napping was one of many coping mechanisms; he found he slept best mid-day, on the couch or sprawled out over a workbench, and usually after a few shots of sharp, bitter spirits.

So when he lay awake that night, tossing and turning, he knew, deep down, it had nothing to do with his long nap that afternoon, but with his own jumble of feelings from receiving Obadiah’s ashes and personal effects, from being told he was the closest thing to next-of-kin there was, and from seeing, in stark clarity, those images and words from the past that painted Obadiah as the kind, quick-witted, articulate man Tony had always thought he was.  It was difficult to reconcile the man who’d written Howard a letter in 1974 with the man who had taken out a contract on Tony, let him be tortured in the desert for three months, and, following his rescue, tortured him personally for another year before Tony had finally constructed his suit.  Sometimes, Tony wondered what it was that had made Obadiah snap.  Surely he hadn’t been acting or lying all those years?  Surely he’d felt, at least at some point, genuine affection for him?  And was his affection during that suitless year faked, part of his manipulation of Tony, or could elements of it have been real?

He’d never know.  It had come down to a battle between two suits, and Tony’s had won.  Obadiah’s final words had been mocking and callous.  There would be no reconciliation.  Just like the encryption key, Obadiah’s real feelings and motivations were lost forever.

Casting off the sheets, Tony got up and padded silently across the room.  Technically, the master bedroom had been in the southwest wing of the house.  After everything that had happened, though, Tony couldn’t stand to be near it anymore.  He’d knocked down the wall between the master bedroom and the master bath, and the whole thing had been renovated into a mini-workshop.  It felt safer, now.  The floor was concrete, not carpet; there was nothing homey here.  It was just another place of gears and tools and instruments and switches.  Like the downstairs workshop, it was only accessible through a keypad.  It was a safe place now.

His new bedroom was down the hall, in the northeast corner, and it lacked a balcony, which Tony missed.  Often, he would cross the hall to the upstairs lounge, a luxurious room that had not been used much in the past but was now flourishing.  Its couches were comfortable and it had a balcony that was possibly bigger than the old master bedroom’s.  It had a generous liquor cabinet.  There used to be a piano but that, like the downstairs piano, had been removed.

Tony often spent nights in the lounge, either staring off the balcony or reading old issues of Wired magazine until he fell asleep.  Between the lounge and his two workshops, he slept in his bed less than one-third of the time.

Tonight, he slid out to the balcony and sat down on the ground, his comforter wrapped around him, listening to the ocean’s tides wash over the shore, far below.  It was a clear night, and out here on the Malibu cliffs, one could often see some stars.  He gazed at the night sky and let himself drown in self-pity.  He’d never wanted to kill Obadiah.  His hand had been forced when the suit design was stolen.  Then again, had it?  Because he’d been making the suit, and deep down, he supposed he knew he would eventually use it.  Deep down, he knew he wouldn’t be homebound forever; he knew he wouldn’t let Obadiah keep him here indefinitely.  Had Obadiah known that, too?  Had Obadiah ever considered killing him before that fated battle?  Again, he’d never know.  He would give anything to talk to Obadiah again, just once, just to ask.  Would Obadiah laugh at his question or patiently explain it?  He wouldn’t ever know.  That information too was lost in the ether, was scattered in the stars.  That information lay in ashes in an urn on Tony’s bedside table.  That information wasn’t backed up on a remote server.  It was just... gone.

He woke to a ringing.  He was chilled to the bone.  The ground was cold and hard beneath him; the ocean was still whispering rhythmically far below.  He’d fallen asleep on the balcony, and it was dawn.

“Uh?” he answered the phone.

“TONY STARK.”

He jerked the phone away from his head, ears ringing.  “Jesus Christ , Thor, you don’t have to shout, I can hear you fine.”

“MY APOLOGIES.”

“You’re still shouting!  Just speak normally into the phone, you jackass.”

“I take it I’ve woken you.”

Tony ran a hand over his face.  “Yeah.  Yeah, you did.  What do you want?  Why are you calling?”

“I was instructed to inform you of a meeting this morning, which some believe you’ve forgotten.  Have you?”

“Uhh…”  His hesitation answered the question.  In the background, he could hear someone telling someone else to pay up.  He felt a twinge of anger that people were betting on his unreliability, and another, sharper twinge that the reason Thor was calling him was probably because no one else had wanted to, knowing he’d be cranky at discovering he’d forgotten a meeting.  While he enjoyed S.H.I.E.L.D. as a distraction, he also had a sense of unease there.  He didn’t know how many of his files were public, or who had read them, or how much was in them.  He knew that he was labeled with post-traumatic stress disorder and, aside from Banner, was considered one of the least reliable and most likely to snap under stress.  He hated the feeling of being weak, but couldn’t disagree with the assessment, as it was entirely true.  “I remembered,” he lied.  “I’m just not coming.”

“Your attendance is mandatory.”

“Yeah, well, I’m in mourning.  Tell them I’m taking a personal day.”

“In mourning?  What grieves you?”  Thor sounded genuinely concerned and that made Tony even more defensive and angry.

“None of your business.”

“In Asgard, we believe that when a person dies, they take a journey to another place that the living cannot reach with mortal bodies, where they await us when our time comes.  They do not cease to be, but live on, elsewhere.  I hope this brings you comfort.”

A sarcastic response failed him, so he hung up.  The idea of Obadiah living on and waiting for him was good, and bad, and reassuring, and terrifying.  He pitched his phone over the balcony in case anyone else tried to call him back, and went back to staring out over the ocean.

He startled slightly when he heard the balcony door slide open behind him, but didn’t turn.  The heels and voice already identified it as Pepper.

“Tony, are you aware you’re missing a very important meeting?  I’m on the phone with an agent now and they’re demanding to know where you are.”

Tony looked up.  Over him, Pepper loomed, looking agitated, balancing a small stack of folders in one hand and a tray with his breakfast and mail in the other.  Her phone was cradled between her head and shoulder, giving her a slightly lopsided appearance, like a little fox cocking its head.  It was cute, thought Tony.  He quickly banished the thought.

“Deal with it.  Tell them I can’t.”

Pepper shifted folders in her left hand into the tray on the right, and covered the phone with her now-free hand.  “Tony, you can’t just go off punching bad guys whenever you feel like you need to.  When you joined this operation you made a promise to be part of a team .  This isn’t your personal stress-relief program, and you can’t just go when it’s convenient for you, or when you’ll get to use your suit.  Fury has some intelligence he needs to brief everyone one, and everyone includes you.  You’re being selfish.”

“I can’t ,” repeated Tony, a bit louder.

“Yes, you can , and if you’d stop wallowing in your own misery for two seconds, you’d recognize how unhealthy this is for you and how disrespectful it is to S.H.I.E.L.D.”

“I’m taking a personal day.”

“You don’t get personal days!”

“I get a personal day anytime someone knocks down my front door and hands me the ashes of the man--”  Tony stopped, suddenly choking.  He wasn’t sure where the sentence had been going, but now that he’d started it, given voice to that little urn in the bedroom, its full impact was reaching him.  His heart was hammering against some unseen pressure; a lump was growing in his throat.

“No, he absolutely can’t come,” Pepper was saying into the phone.  “No, I’m sorry, it’s really impossible.  Yes.  Yes, we can reschedule.”

Mortified, Tony pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes, but it was too late.  He hadn’t cried in front of Pepper in over a month and was just starting to regain his confidence around her.  Even through his meltdown, he could feel embarrassment coursing through his veins.

“No, I’m sorry, but this week really won’t work at all,” Pepper was now saying, her tone firmer and a bit more aggressive.  She had moved the phone back to her shoulder and was using her free hand to pat Tony gently on the shoulder, her other hand still balancing a precarious pile of papers, foodstuffs, and liquids.  “He’s absolutely, completely booked.  ...no, not even a phone conference.  Listen, I’m looking at the planner right now and we can’t fit you in.  Yes, I know it’s important.  Can you do Monday?  Okay.  Alright.  Okay, that’s great.  Monday at ten.  Yes.  Yes, I’ll let him know.”

Tony pinched the bridge of his nose and tilted his head back, staring at the crystal-blue sky and trying to control his breathing.  Tears trailed out of the corners of his eyes and he swiped at them furiously, hating himself for breaking down like this.

“Tony?”

“I’m sorry,” said Tony, voice cracking.  Even more embarrassment washed over him.  He drew up his knees and placed his face in them so she wouldn’t be able to see him.  Behind him, he felt both of her hands on his shoulders.  She must have placed her load down.

“It’s okay to feel conflicted about this.”

“I feel fine,” said Tony into his knees, voice muffled.  One of Pepper’s hands rubbed circles into his back.

“I know,” said Pepper after a long pause.  “I know.”  

Having her agree with his bald-faced lie calmed him deeply for some reason.  For a while, they both sat in silence.  Eventually, Tony raised his head, and pulled away from her.  She took the hint and stood, suddenly all business again.

Using their professional relationship as a shield, Tony took his breakfast, waded through his mail in the lounge, and eventually got dressed and made his way downstairs.  He was considering going into the shop under the pretense of working and getting too drunk to stand, but he found himself standing in his living room, lost in thought.  Something about his phone conversation this morning was nagging him, and he wasn’t sure what.

“Pepper!  I need to use your phone!” he hollered.

Pepper came running.  “Why?  What’s wrong?”

“My phone… got wet,” he explained.  Pepper looked incredulous, but handed over her phone.  He scrolled through the contacts, regretting his impulsive decision this morning.  He didn’t think Thor would have a cell phone and assumed he’d used someone else’s, but he hadn’t checked whose, and he knew that calling anyone might punch a hole in Pepper’s too-busy-for-anything story.  But his mind couldn’t let go of the conversation that had woken him, and so he dialed Bruce, who he hoped would understand and not rat him out.

“Pepper?”

“Bruce, it’s Tony.”

A pause.  “Where are you?”

“I’m… I need to talk to Thor.”

“Why?  Where were you this morning?”

“Bruce!  This is important.  Put Thor on.”

“Why do you think he’s here?”

“Because you’re all there, aren’t you?”

“You’re not.”

"Bruce, dammit, put him on .”

Some shuffling, some muffled speaking.  Tony waited, ready to hang up if Fury came on.  He wasn’t in the mood to explain his absence.

Fortunately, after a few minutes, a booming voice answered.  “THIS IS THOR?”

“Thor, fuck , you don’t have to yell.  Just talk normally into the phone.”

“I was told you wished to speak to me.”

“Yeah, I do.  I… I had a question about what you said this morning.”

“About your absence?”

“No, about… about how dead people live on somewhere.”

“Yes.  It is my belief that, once dead, the souls of the fallen are borne away to Valhalla.  It lies across a river, beyond a gate through which they never return.”

“But you travel between places all the time.  You… you came here through an Einstein-Rosen Bridge, right?”

“The Bifrost?  Yes.”

“Why can’t you go to Valhalla?”

“It is forbidden for the living.  I will go to Valhalla when I die honorably in battle.”

“Putting aside your incredibly morbid plan to die honorably in battle, couldn’t you theoretically go there, if it was just another place?  If it were just another world?”

The silence on the other end of the line was profound.  “I am only a warrior, not an oracle.  I only know what I’ve been taught on the matter.  The realm of the dead is not one I have yet seen, nor hope to for some time.  I advise you, as a mortal man, to likewise avoid this place, even if it were accessible by some means.”

“Okay.  Thanks anyway, big guy.”

Pepper eyed Tony suspiciously as he handed back the phone.  “What was that about?”

Tony’s mind was working faster than it had for a long time.  “Pepper, what’s the first law of thermodynamics?”

“What?  I don’t know.  Ah, that energy can’t be destroyed or created, only altered.  Why?”

Tony began pacing.  Pepper watched him; his head was down and his eyes were looking at something only he could see.  He began snapping his fingers, a sure sign that he was planning something.  “So the energy and matter of the universe is constant, right?  You can’t design any chemical reaction to get rid of it.  You can only change it.  Right?  And what’s a person, huh?  Chemicals, right?  Just a big organic bag of organs.  And our thoughts, memories, firing synapses, it’s all energy, right?  Just part of our world, our dimension.  Part of the fabric.”

“Are you making a case for reincarnation, Tony?” asked Pepper dryly.  She knew that Tony was not the spiritual type; indeed, the one time she’d ever heard him give any opinion on the matter of religion was to state that he didn’t care.

“No.  No, I’m making a case for…”  He stopped abruptly.  He was facing the front door.  He stared at it, and brought his hands up to frame it.  The seconds stretched and became taut.  Pepper waited, certain that even if she spoke, Tony wouldn’t hear her or respond.  “...but what if there were other worlds?” he asked the door softly, one eye closed.

“Tony?” ventured Pepper.

“I need to talk to Reed Richards,” declared Tony, dropping his hands.  He began striding purposefully toward the steps to the basement, which led to his workshop and to the garage.

“Tony!”  Pepper hurried after him.  “Tony!  You can’t just… you’re taking a personal day, remember?  To rest?  You told S.H.I.E.L.D. that… Tony!  Wait!”

She swiped for his arm, but he was already hurrying down the steps.  She didn’t make another attempt to stop him; Tony’s single-minded approach to questions like this usually obsessed him until after something was built to answer them.  In this case, Pepper wasn’t sure what question he was asking, nor what the answer would be, but his talk of an afterlife bothered her.  Tony was generally very grounded in reality; at the same time, he didn’t always take words like “impossible” seriously.  Would Tony be the kind of person to try to reanimate the dead?  Considering he himself had been reanimated once before, she supposed anything was possible.

Chapter Text

Reed had been warned.

He made a mental note to thank Pepper later, because if she hadn’t called him, he would have been quite startled when Iron Man burst into his lab, trailed by three security guards and his wife, Sue.

“Reed!” shouted Tony.  The only skin visible was his face; he was wearing his suit.  That explained how he’d made it from Los Angeles to Manhattan in a day, and why security hadn’t been able to stop him.

“Doctor, I’m sorry, we tried to stop him,” began one.  Reed waved him away.  

“It’s fine.  He’s fine, we’re okay.  Thank you.”

Having been dismissed, the security guards warily stepped back.  Sue remained, arms crossed, her expression unreadable.  Tony didn’t seem to notice her.

“I need your help with something.”

“Oh?” said Reed pleasantly.  He had been sitting at the lab bench, reading over an article one of his colleagues had sent him.  The desk was fairly clean, save for a notebook he’d been keeping; his writing was tight and neat.  He kept the lab well-organized, feeling that organization tended to streamline research, and reduce unnecessary accidents.  He winced slightly as Tony leaned over a lab bench, shoving aside an incubator carelessly and propping up his elbows.  The metal of his suit clanged loudly on the benchtop.

“You know a thing or two about astrophysics, right?  About theoretical stuff?”

“I’ve had some experiences,” conceded Reed, reaching across to straighten the incubator.  It was three meters away, but his arm stretched easily to fix it.  Tony watched his arm with an expression almost like hunger.

“Do you mind if I pick your brain on some dimensional stuff?”

“You couldn’t call?” asked Sue.

Tony noticed her for the first time.  “This is sort of personal,” he said.  Reed doubted that he meant it to be dismissive, but he saw Sue’s eyes narrow infinitesimally.  Deciding it was time to intervene, he stood and placed his arms on her shoulders (without needing to move closer to her).

“Hon, can you give us some time?”

Sue hesitated, then nodded.  She’d heard Pepper’s warning to Reed, and, more importantly, she watched the news.  She knew the rumors about Tony.  Besides, she trusted her husband.

With a backward glance, she retreated, closing the lab door behind her.

Reed leaned back in his chair.  “So, dimensional stuff?”

Tony nodded.  The action seemed a little unnatural in the suit but its enthusiasm was unmistakable.  “Reed, your lab’s been involved in time travel, right?”

“Yes.”

“Time’s just a dimension, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“So it’s a space.  So we could theoretically--”  

Reed raised a hand to stop him.  “Tony,” he said.  He cast his eyes onto a shelf of vacuum pumps, not wanting to look into Tony’s eyes, which he was sure were pleading.  “Humans can’t move through time like we can space.  We can only go forward.  Even if you did somehow make a time machine, it would only connect future points back to the point at which it was turned on initially.  We can’t move back without creating a paradox, so really, it’s fundamentally impossible.  If it were possible, we would already know, since it would have already happened.”

He glanced at Tony; Tony looked unconcerned. He was spinning a pipetter on the counter with one hand.  Eyes on the pipetter, Tony asked, “But consider an Einstein-Rosen bridge.  We can manipulate time by traveling really fast, right?  Slow it up, slow it down.  Relativity, dilation, blah blah blah?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes, time can be manipulated, but it’s really much more complicated than that.”

“Explain to me like I’m a moron,” demanded Tony, suddenly abandoning the pipetter and striding over to Reed’s desk.  He was uncomfortably close to Reed’s chair.  Behind him, Reed heard the unmistakable sound of the pipetter spinning off the benchtop and onto the floor.  He winced.

Unperturbed, Tony suddenly sat on the floor, legs crossed.  The oddness of seeing him in his suit, seated on the floor, made Reed forget about the pipetter’s untimely demise.

“Okay.  We have four dimensions.”  Reed picked up his notebook and began drawing a three-dimensional cube.  “We’ve got the x axis here, the y axis here, and the z axis.  And then we’re all moving forward through time.”  He drew out a few more cubes and some lines to show his little box moving forward.  “When you make a wormhole, you’re just shortening the physical distance between two points that are in the same place temporally.  They exist in one dimensional time, together.”  He tore the paper from his notebook, folded the paper to make the cube touch itself, and handed it to Tony.  “When you open a bridge, you’re just creating a link between two places.”

Tony was frowning.  “If you went back, though…”

“You’d create a paradox,” said Reed firmly.  “Assuming it’s even possible to go back, I suppose that you’d find yourself in another dimension entirely.  It would create divergent timelines to avoid the paradox.”

“Go on.”

Reed pinched the bridge of his nose.  “Okay, let’s say we lived in only three dimensions instead of four.  This paper here is our universe.  It’s flat, and it’s also suspended in time, which is the third dimension.  A wormhole would result in this.”  He bent the paper, touching it to itself.  “So if we live on this little planar universe, and tried to move through time, you’d create a paradox.  Since a paradox can’t exist without compromising the integrity of every physical law we have in our universe, the universe self-corrects.  You would separate into another universe, a parallel universe.  Parallel universes are in theory infinitely dimensional, separated by any number of quantum events.”  He flipped through the pages of his notebook.  “You could think of our universe as a dot in an infinite expanse of other dots that co-exist with us but in other dimensions where we don’t exist.”

“So let’s say I made a time travel machine and went back in time.  You’re saying I wouldn’t be in the same place, technically.”

“First of all, you wouldn’t go back in time at all.  You’d just jump to another timeline.  And no, you wouldn’t be in the same place, you’d just be accessing another universe.  But you’d still be temporally in the same place, which is moving forward.  Of course, even another dimension might seem in every way completely similar.  Maybe you wore a blue shirt on Tuesday instead of a red shirt, or maybe the Queen of England’s name is Francine instead of Elizabeth, or maybe the Mets won the 1967 World Series.  It could be a huge difference or a very minute difference.  There could be more than one difference.  Any number of differences.”

“But would it be sensible to think that, if quantum events separate universes, and every time any divergence is created, it exponentially multiples more universes, that more similar universes would be clustered more closely?”

Reed hesitated.  “Well, there’s no evidence for that.  It’s possible, I suppose.  Temporally, more recent universes would be closer, obviously.  Physically.  But they still might look different.  A tiny alteration to a quantum event can have enormous, far-reaching effects.”

“So if you went back only a little, maybe the changes wouldn’t be as dramatic.”  Tony clapped his hands together.  Still in metal gauntlets, the noise they made was jarring.  “Well, that settles it, then.”

“Settles what?”

“You and I, Reed.  We’re going to build a time machine.”

Chapter Text

Reed had tried to protest, but Tony had worn him down with the practiced patience of a man used to eventually getting what he wanted.  His most convincing argument, by far, was that if Reed didn’t help him, he would do it alone, by himself, and he would pose a greater risk to both himself and to the universe as a whole.  Reed could only imagine the possibilities; the idea of Tony going through what Ben had when he became the Thing, of a rent in the very fabric of the universe, or of Los Angeles being reduced to dust following an enormous explosion all crossed his mind.

“Two weeks,” begged Tony.  “Give us two weeks and if we don’t do it, we can give up.”

That worried Reed.  Two weeks was virtually no time at all; if Tony was that confident, then he was certainly going to attempt it, with or without Reed’s help.  And so, he begrudgingly agreed to two weeks, hoping to stretch it out as easily as he could his body, and let the time slide by without any progress being made.  But it was a fool’s dream.  Tony wanted to get to work immediately.  Within twenty minutes of agreeing to help, Reed watched Tony clear a bench space by sweeping his arm across it, grab several books from the shelf above his desk, and make himself an account on Reed’s computer, where he wasted no time in giving himself administrative access and putting Pantera on the lab’s speakers.

“You understand that you can’t go back and what you’re proposing isn’t a time machine, right?  It’s just a portal to a parallel universe?”

“I did some research on the flight here,” said Tony, ignoring Reed.  He sat in a wheeled office chair.  It creaked dangerously beneath the weight of his suit but, miraculously, held.  “I have three ideas, okay?  I’m using Newtonian time, by the way.  Obviously.  So my ideas.  I figure that time dilation has been pretty well-explored but has a limit.  That doesn’t seem like it would work.  Okay?  So, number one.  Lorentz transformations.”

“I don’t think we can use that to build a time machine.”  Reed winced.  “I mean, an interdimensional portal,” he corrected himself.

“Because it defies the postulates of special relativity?” asked Tony, catching Reed off-guard.  Reed nodded; Tony waved a hand dismissively.  “Yeah, sure, if you think of it as a linear translation only.”

“Definitionally…”

“Don’t get too fixated on Minkowski space, okay?”  Caught off-guard again, Reed nodded.  “Okay, so my second idea.  Subatomic particles.  Specifically, B and K mesons.  I want to try to change their movement.  Maybe use some sort of, I don’t know, resonant frequency or high-speed collision.  Something.  See what happens.”  When Reed didn’t comment, Tony continued.  “And, lastly, since I knew you’d get hung up on Minkowski space, I wanted to suggest that we use Minkowski spacetime isometry and basically try to jump to a parallel line, which fits with your idea about other universes and stuff.  I was thinking we could try to make an asymmetrical event, like, an odd rotation, and try to create a lopsided Poincaré group.  That might do it.  So more high-speed particle collisions.  That also sort of fits with my first idea.  Am I making sense?”

Reed hesitated and then nodded.  He thought he understood all of Tony’s ideas.  He was growing worried.  He was used to being the smartest man in the room.  He wasn’t bothered by it, nor was he by nature a braggart.  He simply accepted his intelligence as a fundamental aspect of himself, like his ability to stretch, and didn’t begrudge anyone else for lacking it; rather, he used it to try to improve the world for everyone’s benefit.  He had heard of Tony’s intelligence but had never thought much of it.  Tony’s personality, larger-than-life in the media, was a man whose intelligence was mostly used for snide remarks and snarky replies to reporters.  Reed hadn’t considered that Tony, like him, was a scientist, albeit a different kind of scientist.  Suddenly, he saw the suit for what it was, and remembered the rumor that Tony had built it in his own home, without aid, in a month.  His mouth was dry; Tony’s idea for accessing parallel universes suddenly seemed dangerously real.

“Which one first?” asked Tony eagerly.

Reed considered.  The subatomic particle work seemed like the best idea to him, and the most dangerous.  His other ideas were really only concepts and didn’t seem to have any real plan to them, just more research.

“Definitely the Lorentz transformations and the Poincaré groups,” said Reed.

“Great!”

The next eight hours were a surreal experience for Reed.  He gave Tony some textbooks hoping to quell his enthusiasm, but to no avail.  Dinnertime came and went, as did Sue; Reed wolfed down some take-out in the hall in ten minutes; Tony refused to eat.  He sat hunched over the lab bench with Reed’s books and notebooks spread out before him, eyes darting over the pages, a single fluorescent light lighting the space immediately before him.  At first, observing him, Reed thought he might be a speed reader.  Then, tracking Tony’s eyes, he realized Tony was only browsing.  Independently, his hand occasionally wrote down a number or a word; more often, he would say, seemingly to himself, “Jarvis, make a note…”  When he came across an equation, he would devour it, glancing over the page to absorb the definitions and terms.  To Tony, math was indeed a universal language; he seemed to get more out of diagrams and math than the text itself.  With almost reckless eagerness, he filled a notebook, messily, with a disjointed list of words and numbers and drawings; he left the lab only twice, to use the bathroom and get a cup of black coffee that he insisted on drinking within the lab.  

Slowly, Reed developed a grudgingly appreciation for Tony’s brand of genius.  Reed was a meticulous and well-organized man.  He felt that his only major blunder, the one that had resulted in the creation of the Fantastic Four, was one he would never repeat, having seen the consequences of overconfidence.  In contrast, Tony’s mind worked like a hummingbird, darting around madly, applying concepts as rapidly as he understood them.  He was a mechanic and a weapons designer; his enjoyment of learning was fundamentally tied to production.  Overconfidence and eagerness pushed him to limits that Reed was unable to match.  Exhausted, Reed helped him absorb theoretical concepts that at times seemed more like wishful thinking than science.  Tony always demanded more.  “Explain it to me like I’m a moron,” he demanded, more than once.  “Explain it to me like I’m a child.”  Reed quickly stopped explaining things like he was a child; Reed found that when defined things for Tony, he could usually go into as much detail as he liked; Tony would sometimes ask for an equation or a diagram or for the definition of a technical term, but otherwise had little issue following him.  Clearly, his idea of what constituted a “moron” was based in some alternate universe known only to him.

By one in the morning, Reed’s head was nodding.  He yawned often and widely, trying to get Tony to take a hint, but Tony seemed oblivious.  He was too manic to notice Reed’s drooping eyes and glazed expression.  Vaguely, Reed wondered if Tony was on cocaine, or something stronger.  He dozed off sometime in the wee hours of the morning, while Tony was building a model of a theoretical wormhole with pieces of tubing and lab equipment.  (By that time, he’d already blown up a Bunsen burner and broken a mass spectrometer.)

Reed woke up with a terrible kink in his neck and a soreness that came from laying on his rock-hard desk all night.  It was dawn; the sun was streaming through the windows.  Tony’s suit cast a long shadow across the tiled floor.  In front of him, several ring stands, test tube holders, and bits of wire had been repurposed to construct a rather magnificent structure that looked like something between a funnel and a donut.

The universe.  

Vaguely, Reed thought of Watson and Crick.

Tony turned at his stirring.  He was still in his suit.  His face was even more human; the suit gleamed, but Tony’s face was drawn, with deep purple bags beneath his eyes.  He looked a little ill.  In one hand, he was holding a coffee cup, making the suit look even more bizarre.  From the cup, Reed could smell what was either a very expensive gin or ethanol from the chemical cabinet.

He rubbed his eyes.  “Have you been up all night?”

“Sure have, sleepy head.  I think we’re ready to get to work.”

“Huh?”

“I think we’re all set.  I’ve got it.  We’ll go to my lab and start working.  You were wrong, by the way.  We’re going to have to work on the mesons to get anywhere.  But that’s okay.  I think it all fits together.  I think we just need to accelerate the mesons and get them to reverse, and we’ll be able to create a paradox that will open up a bridge.  To another time, or universe.  Whatever you want to call it.  Great, huh?”

Tony smiled sleepily, and sipped from his mug.

“Uh,” said Reed.

“Good man,” said Tony, standing, and stretching.  The suit purred, stretching with his body like the second skin that it was.  “I’ll meet you in Los Angeles tomorrow.  I need to construct a base for our portal.  We’ll work in my lab.  Yours is sort of, you know, sterile.”

“I can’t go to Los Angeles,” protested Reed, weakly.

Tony swigged the last contents of the mug and dumped it in a nearby sink.  “I already bought your ticket.  See you tomorrow, sunshine.”

And just like that, he was gone.

Reed regretted giving him two weeks.


 Reed couldn’t, in good conscience, leave Tony to try to tear the universe open on his own.  So, after a long conversation with Sue, he packed a bag and left for Los Angeles.

When he arrived, it was to a weak, uncharacteristic drizzle.  He had barely left the terminal before he was accosted by a large, stocky man in a suit with a hangdog face.

“Dr. Richards?”

“Yes.  You must be, ah, Harold Hogan?”

“Yes, sir.  Just call me Harry.  Your bags?”  Harry lifted them easily and began leading Reed through the airport, shouldering people aside easily.  Reed lengthened his stride to keep up; in front of him, Harry glanced behind often, with unmasked curiosity.

“So.  New project?” he asked, feigning casual conversation and failing abysmally.

“Yes,” said Reed.

“It’s good to see him working again.”

“Oh?”

“Better working than drinking, I guess.  Sorry.  Well, you probably already know that.  Maybe don’t mention I said that, though?”

“Of course.”

Reed frowned as they exited the crowded airport onto a crowded curb.  A none-too-subtle sports car was parked on the curb.  There was already a ticket on the dashboard.  Reed’s frown deepened slightly as Harry slung his bags effortlessly into the boot; he hoped nothing had been broken.

“Music?” asked Harry as Reed eased into the back seat.

“No, thank you.  I thought Los Angeles was supposed to be sunny?”

“We need the rain,” said Harry, pulling away from the curb with abandon.  Behind them, someone laid aggressively on their horn.

Reed stared out the window at the much-needed rain, watching the palm trees sway passively beyond the sea of traffic.  Harry drove fast, weaving through traffic with a casual familiarity; they had soon left the crowded highway and were cruising along a long stretch of road bordered on one side by an empty beach and on the other by a low, rocky slope covered in scrub grass and the occasional wrought-iron gate.

“This is the Pacific Coast Highway,” said Harry, who kept trying to strike up a conversation.  “It’s pretty famous, you know.  Lots of films shot here.”

“Mm?” replied Reed, who found that Harry only needed monosyllabic answers to continue a conversation.

“There’s us, up there.”

That got Reed’s attention; they’d been cruising for more than ten minutes and he hadn’t seen any homes or gates.  Looking up, he caught his first glimpse of Tony’s house.  “House” was an exaggeration; if he hadn’t known, he would have thought it was a corporate headquarters of some sort.  It sat perched up on a cliffside, overlooking the ocean, completely isolated from any other structure.  There were no sharp edges; it was blindingly white and extremely modern-looking, the windows an afterthought.  It had an industrial tone to it that made Reed wonder how much time Tony actually spent there.

As they approached, the rain let up a little.  They passed a set of gates and wound up a long, winding private road, lined on either side by manicured plants that almost looked fake.  The road opened up into a wide circular drive that surrounded a boulder larger than the car.  Art, Reed guessed; he wondered how much Tony had paid for the rock.

Harry parked the car in front of the door and hurried out to get Reed’s door for him, but Reed was already climbing out of the car.  He was disappointed but not surprised that Tony wasn’t waiting for him.  Three low marble steps led up to an impressive set of double doors; they opened as Reed walked toward them.  His first impression was of a woman in a perfectly fitted pencil skirt and plum cardigan that clashed rather badly with her red hair; his second impression was the living room beyond her.

Tony had criticized Reed’s lab space as “sterile.”  At the time, Reed had thought of it as a compliment.  The moment he glanced Tony’s house over his assistant’s shoulder, he felt insulted.  Tony’s space was far more sterile than any laboratory Reed had ever seen.  The floor was white tile; the walls were painted white; most of the furniture was white or cream.  To the left, a minimalist white spiral staircase curved around a waterfall that fell onto a white circle of sparkling white stones.  To the right, the furniture clustered around like house guests that had overstayed their welcome.  Reed’s eyes took in the space immediately before him; four stairs led up an oddly empty area that must have once held something large but was now empty.  A fully stocked bar sat in the room to the left, which made it look even emptier.  The art on the walls was tastefully obscure, geometric, and inoffensive.  A few stands showed off vases that were the gentle color of eggshells.  It looked like a model home, one that no one actually lived in.  A low table to the right had more art on it: a jar filled with white rocks, a piece of driftwood, a bowl of seashells, and, perhaps most telling, an empty bottle of champagne.

“Dr. Richards?”

“Ms. Potts.”  Reed smiled and shook her extended hand.

“A pleasure.  Please, call me Pepper.  Everyone else does.  Tony’s in the shop.  Can I get you anything?  Did you have a nice flight?”

“Yes.  I mean, no, thank you, I’m fine.  The flight was fine.”  Reed turned behind him to see if Harry still had his bags.  The door was closed, and Harry was gone.  He turned back to Pepper, who was shoving a clipboard toward him.

“Basic liability waiver.  Just for our legal team.  Please sign here, and here.  Initials.  Thank you.  Let me show you where you’ll be staying.  Help yourself to anything in the house.  Tony’s given you full clearance.  Your keycard.”

Reed took the plastic card she gave him.  It was much heavier than expected; there must be at least one chip, he thought.  “Full clearance?” he asked skeptically.

“As full as mine.”  She turned briskly; Reed followed.  Across the room, full ceiling-to-floor windows looked out over the ocean.  It was an incredible view and perhaps the only part of the house, other than the empty bottle, that Reed felt was sincere.

Pepper led him through a kitchen and dining room, a gym and spa, pointed out the remote control to the television and the fireplace, showed him how to use his keycard, and took him up a staircase to the second story.  The brief tour of the second story was a little more interesting; Pepper pointed out a room with a keypad on it that she explained was Tony’s private shop, and pointed out Tony’s bedroom and a lounge a little too dismissively.  The lounge was a disaster; a low mahogany coffee table was littered with gin bottles, as well as a set of precision tools, a soldering kit, several circuit boards, and an untouched container of Chinese take-out noodles that looked at least a day old.  Over the back of the couch was a blanket that looked like it had dried vomit on it.  Pepper didn’t react as she showed him the room, but gave him a searing look that dared him to ask about it.  He didn’t.   

Next, she showed Reed his room and private bath and office, both of which were immaculately clean and already had his bags unpacked for him.  His notebooks were stacked perfectly on the desk beside a welcome basket that Reed guessed that Tony had never seen.

As they made their way back towards the main staircase, Reed noted on his right an alcove with a glass cabinet in it; the cabinet was smashed and several photos had been placed face-down.  In the middle was what appeared to be an urn.  It was like some sort of madman’s shrine.  Pepper didn’t comment on that; she led him down the staircase, down past the ground story, and into the basement.

Tony’s dismissal of Reed’s lab made more sense once Reed saw Tony’s own working space.  Down the steps, Reed found himself in what appeared to be a garage.  It must have been built directly into the cliffside and extended the entire length of the house; the stairs led to a small alcove that separated them from the garage with several of inches of bulletproof glass, and was protected by another keycard reader.  Pepper punched in a numerical code and Reed swiped in with his key; they entered.  One corner of the garage was a tiled miniature lounge, with a couch, a kitchenette, a bar, a jukebox, and some posters on the wall that were refreshingly not modern: Pink Floyd shared space with a busty model leaning on a convertible and a cat that was hanging in there.  The cat had an Iron Man helmet on it and the model had a signature scrawled across her thighs. An enormous desk buried beneath papers and mechanical parts separated the tiles from the rest of the poured-concrete garage.  Once, cars and motorcycles might have lined this space, but Reed could only faintly see them; they had been moved carelessly and were clustered around a ramp at the far end of the garage to make room for a huge metal stage.  One look told Reed that this was the beginning of a gyroidal supercollider and that Tony had not slept a wink since returning to Los Angeles.

“Tony?” called Pepper, her voice echoing.

“Here!” called back Tony.  He appeared hunched over, rolling a gas tank.  He was wearing an undershirt and a pair of jeans that looked too big on him; the arc reactor glowed brightly under the shirt, lighting up his face and throwing every line into sharp contrast.  He looked even more ill, even more haunted… but his smile was genuine.  “Just in time.  This is the last of the nitrogen.  I need some help with the helium.  Hopefully that will be lighter.”  He laughed at his own joke; Pepper smiled indulgently.

“You built this in a day?” asked Reed, impressed and worried at the same time.

“This is just the bones.  Obviously there’s a lot of work to be done here.”  Tony yanked up the tank he had been rolling, pressing it into a mount that had been bolted against the metal frame of the enormous stage.  He pulled a chain around it to secure it.

“Can I get you anything, Mr. Stark?”

“No, thanks, Pepper,” said Tony in an automatic sort of fashion.  He wiped his forehead with his arm, which didn’t do anything other than smear some grease across his face.  “Ready, Reed?”

“I can’t believe you made all this in a day.  How did you do this?” asked Reed, walking around the structure.

“Work smarter, not harder,” said Tony, and laughed again.  Pepper turned to leave, but came back in less than thirty minutes with a bowl of macaroni and cheese.  She left it on Tony’s desk, where Reed watched it congeal, untouched, until she took it away that evening.


Later, thinking back on it, Reed would remember those two weeks as a single event.  They blurred together into a strange mosaic of impressions that were fantastic and disturbing.  Tony worked manically, eating little, sleeping less.  Reed went to bed before Tony every night and usually found him in the garage the next morning.  They worked side by side, Reed directing, Tony building.  They fell into an easy rhythm and Reed was able to develop a newfound respect for Tony.  If a task took less than an hour, Tony would do it the old-fashioned way.  He tightened bolts by hand, welded things himself, and heaved blocks of bismuth around with an unbreakable and at times insufferable cockiness.  For tasks that took a long time, Tony would set to work building a machine to do it for him; four-hour tasks were reduced to two hours of robot-building.  The garage was soon littered with automated devices; Tony would cannibalize one robot to build another when the need arose.  Between his engineering skills and Reed’s reach, the two streamlined every task, and the supercollider before them began to take shape.

When they weren’t working, which was rare, Reed tried to enjoy himself, but found the Stark house to be something like a fever dream: uncanny and anxiety-inducing, but for reasons that were difficult to articulate.

The house was generally eerily quiet.  Reed only saw three people other than Tony: Pepper, whose role as Tony’s personal assistant seemed to be more like a nursemaid; Harry, who Tony called Happy, whose role as Tony’s personal driver seemed unnecessary as Tony never left the house and who spent a lot of time reading magazines in the living room and drinking bourbon with Tony when Tony needed to “take the edge off;” and, lastly, James Rhodes, who Reed met on the second day of his stay.

“This is Rhodey,” said Tony dismissively, without looking up from the tangle of wires he was connecting together, when Reed told him he had company.

“Colonel James Rhodes,” clarified Rhodey.  “James is fine.  Tony, you’re attracting a lot of attention with this thing.”

“What thing?” asked Tony innocently, as if the supercollider taking up most of the room in the garage was invisible, and he wasn’t actively working on it.

Rhodey frowned.  “I’m serious, Tony.”  He turned to Reed.  “I’m Tony’s military liaison.”

“An MIT man?” asked Reed, noting the brass rat on Rhodey’s right hand.  

“That’s where we met,” said Rhodey, who didn’t sound particularly pleased to know Tony at that moment.

They bickered for another hour before Tony brought out a bottle of scotch;  both drank and Tony assured Rhodey he had no intention of blowing anything up.  Rhodey didn’t seem to believe him, but eventually left, having a brief, whispering conversation with Pepper on the way out.  Reed felt uncomfortable and guilty to be involved.  Tony’s casual mention of their “time machine” made him feel like he was a thousand feet down the rabbit hole; he constantly corrected him, but Tony seemed to think it was funny to purposely confuse their supercollider with a time machine.  Reed clutched at sanity during brief conversations with Sue over the phone in the mornings, when he looked out over the balcony at the ocean and sipped espresso that Pepper brought for him.

There were some things he didn’t tell even Sue.

The first night at Tony’s house was one such thing.  Reed woke in his bed to screams.  He threw himself out of bed, tangling his legs in the sheets briefly and using his stretching to get himself out.  It sounded like Tony was being murdered in cold blood.  Reed ran out into the hallway in only pajama pants, expecting to see men with guns, or something worse.  But the only person there was Pepper, hurrying down the hall, her silk gold kimono fluttering, as silent as a ghost.  Passing Reed, she pressed a finger to her lips, and disappeared into Tony’s room; the screams abated, but Reed had trouble falling asleep after that.

Another thing was the degree of Tony’s drinking.  He seemed fueled by alcohol.  The first time Reed found Tony unconscious in the lounge, vomit covering his chest, he got Harry, convinced they’d have to call an ambulance.  But it was business as usual for Pepper and Harry.  They heaved Tony’s limp body up and out, and he came into the shop two hours later, freshly groomed, wearing sunglasses and wincing at loud sounds.  That was only one of two times that Tony seemed to bathe during their twelve days together; the other was a similar situation, only Reed had found Tony unconscious in the kitchen the second time, having vomited not only alcohol but also what appeared to be at least two dozen eggs’ worth of omelettes.  (Reed skipped breakfast that day.)

The broken glass cabinet on the second floor was fixed, but its contents remained scattered.  The urn disappeared and reappeared throughout the house, and once, Reed watched Tony carrying it in his left arm for over an hour as he paced in front of a white board, drawing up circuitry designs.  Neither Pepper nor Harry ever commented on Tony’s behavior.  Rhodes stepped over bottles of whiskey without even looking, and grilled Tony for information on his project, while Tony poured over textbooks and occasionally tore out pages, sticking them to the walls for reference with pieces of gum.

The supercollider grew before them, a mess of wires and pipes and gleaming metal, and soon, it came to resemble a second arc reactor, an incredible feat of engineering that stood defiantly in Tony Stark’s garage, silent and powerful.

When Tony had gone to Manhattan to find Reed, he had asked for fourteen days.

They were done in twelve.

Chapter Text

When the supercollider was declared finished, it was late Tuesday morning.  They had spent most of that day going over calculations, even though both would trust their lives with their math.

“It’s done,” said Tony finally, flopped back into the couch and letting the notebook he was holding drop into his lap.  Like a deflated balloon, he seemed to suddenly shrink.  The two weeks of frantic work caught up to him in those two words, and his cocky attitude evaporated, leaving behind a shell of a man who looked dangerously close to dropping dead from exhaustion.

“Well,” said Reed, pushing his reading glasses onto his head and setting his own notebook onto the table.  He pinched the bridge of his nose.  “Do we want to… see if it works?”

Tony nodded wearily.  With what seemed like enormous effort, he hauled himself from the couch and shuffled over to his desk.  “Jarvis?” he called.

“Yes, sir?” asked the automated system.  Jarvis, the artificial intelligence system that ran the house, had grown on Reed over time.  He no longer found it creepy, but rather, useful and perhaps even likeable, if a computer program could really be thought of as "likeable."  Jarvis had been of more help to Tony than any of Reed’s textbooks; it acted as a sort of personal librarian, locating resources and defining terms and suggesting references to Tony with instant and typically spot-on accuracy.  Reed wished he could learn more about the program, but Tony dismissed him so many times that Reed eventually gave up asking.  All he knew was that Jarvis was an algorithm that was continuously learning and adapting, and since it most interacted with Tony and Pepper, it had a strange mixture of sarcastic irreverence and clipped efficiency for its "personality."

“Let’s rock and roll,” said Tony, smiling wearily in Reed’s direction.

“Yes, sir," agreed Jarvis.

Tony began typing on the desk, where an illuminated keyboard was projected.  Nearly all of his software seemed to be based on touch screens and projections; Reed appreciated this too, because he saw how much variability Tony required in his virtual and modeling work.  

“Do you want to do the honors?” asked Reed, quietly.  Tony nodded.  He looked dangerously tired, but seeing the project to completion kept him awake.  He typed, then pushed his wheeled chair across the room to type some more, then slid over to a panel on the supercollider to check on some last-minute stats and confirm it was ready to be put into action.

“Hey.  I know it’s not really a time machine.  But I still hope we can… maybe see… if things are different,” said Tony, more to himself than anyone.

“Maybe they will be,” said Reed, not sure how to respond to such a sincere sentiment.

Tony quickly caught himself.  His defenses went up, and in a would-be casual tone, he said, loudly, “If this thing blows up in our faces or destroys the universe, Reed, it was good working with you.”  As he opened panels and flipped switches, the machine, whose center chamber was larger than most freight elevators, was beginning to hum.  The regulators on the gas tanks had sprung to life; the copper wires that connected them to the collider were buzzing, then roaring.  The room crackled with energy; the hairs on Reed’s arm stood up.

“You too, Tony,” he said, watching the machine come to life.  Everything lit up, purred, vibrated, rattled, and growled.  The floor shook.  A pen rolled off Tony’s desk, and Reed placed a hand on the urn to keep it from wobbling over.  

And after two minutes of shaking, the power went out, and nothing happened.

Tony stood at the panel.  He pressed a button, then pressed it again.  He flipped a switch back and forth a few times.  The machine made a very loud bang, like a car backfiring.

Tony sat on the ground.  “Well,” he said quietly, voice echoing.  “I guess that’s it, then.  Thanks, Reed.”

Reed left the desk and knelt by Tony.  “We knew it might not work.”

“Yeah.”

“We can try again this afternoon.”

“Yeah.”

“Do you… can I get you a drink?”

“Yeah.”  Tony’s body was keeling over.  Reed hurried to the lounge in the corner, poured Tony a drink from a half-empty bottle of liquor, and brought it back.  Tony was curled up on the floor, asleep.  Reed gave him a slight poke, but he didn’t stir.

He turned, uncertain, and nearly collided with Pepper.

She pressed a finger to her lips and covered Tony in a blanket, and together, they went upstairs to watch television with Harry until Tony woke up.


Stark Mansion had a level below the garage, a sub-sub basement.  It included a wine cellar (no longer in use), a storage room for Tony’s suits, and, most importantly, the place where Tony kept his servers and generators.  Sometimes he called the server room “Jarvis’s room.”  The generator room, in an alcove just off of his suit-dedicated shop, was rarely used, except for large projects when Tony blew out the power, which happened perhaps once or twice a year.  He had expected it this time, and had given Jarvis explicit instructions to keep the collider going at all costs.  Every generator was humming when he turned on the collider that evening.  Through the slitted windows on the west wall of the garage, the sun was setting over the Pacific, but Tony was absorbed in getting the collider to work.  He hardly noticed the dying light; he was too focused on the digital computer monitor in front of him.

It was perhaps a little selfish to try again without Reed present, but Tony felt like Reed would forgive him if he got the thing working.  There was no reason it shouldn't work!  Tony took it as almost a personal insult that one of his creations wouldn't work correctly on the first try.  He was used to things working.

The floor shuddered beneath him, and he reached out to stabilize an empty plate of pasta that Pepper had brought him for dinner.  The collider hummed.  

And suddenly, with a flash brighter than the sun, brighter than a supernova, the collider seemed to stretch, then fold, crumpling like a can of soda; the empty space in the middle was black for a second, a richer, blacker, darker black than oil, blacker than space, blacker than nothing.  But Tony couldn’t see it, because he was blind; blinking furiously, his ears began ringing, and he couldn’t tell whether the sound was internal or coming from the machine; he had a terrible sense of vertigo and thought the room might be tilting dangerously into the ocean; but it passed so quickly he wondered later if he’d imagined it.

And then it was silent.

He kept blinking.  Before his eyes, flashes like the bulbs on old-fashioned cameras kept exploding.  It took a long time for his vision to resolve.  At least twenty minutes, by his estimation.

The machine was unchanged.

It was certainly on ; the lights glowed and the gas tank regulators showed positive flow and there was a faint humming from the machinery.  But nothing looked different.

Tony grabbed the cane that was hooked on the edge of his desk and wobbled towards the stage to check it, limping heavily on his right leg.  Facing away from his lounge area he’d built a short metal ladder onto the side of the supercollider.  He climbed it heavily, keeping his cane with him and wincing.  On top of the circular metal scaffolding that was set over the support scaffolding and wiring below, a long pipe circled an empty center the size of a freight elevator.  Metal pylons the size of tree trunks encircled the space, leaving only six openings.

Tony turned sideways to squeeze between two of the pylons and stood in the center space.  He looked down at the grating; below him, the innards of the machine sat, unperturbed by what had seemed to Tony to be a rather large, unstable energy discharge.  For a brief moment, he wondered if he’d had some sort of massive brain aneurysm and imagined the whole thing.  But the coincidence of turning on the machine and seeing the light was too closely tied in his mind; he felt something big had just happened, but couldn’t place it.

Standing in silence for a few more minutes in the middle of the collider, leaning on his cane, Tony waited for something to happen.

Nothing did.

With a sigh of disappointment, he turned to limp back the way he’d came, but a glimpse of something stopped him.

Between two of the pylons, through one of the "doorways," he could see something on the concrete floor of his garage.  It was sitting just in front of his desk.  It was a lumpy shape, irregular, undefined.  And it hadn’t been there before.

Puzzled, he stared at it, waiting to see what it would do.  But it did nothing but sit there.  

He waited for as long as he could stand before dashing to the ladder.  He climbed onto halfway down before jumping, landing hard on his knees and cursing loudly, then limping eagerly around the collider, toward the place where the lump had been.

There was no lump.

Tony was sure he’d seen something, but he circled the collider a few times anyway, leaning on his cane and going slowly to make sure he didn’t miss anything.

Certain he’d checked the floor thoroughly, he heaved himself back up the ladder into the scaffolds and walked around on top of the collider to get a better view.

No lump.

He paused, then squeezed back between the two pylons into the middle of the collider.  He was starting to wonder if he’d imagined it, even though he knew he hadn’t.

Sure enough, there it was.  

He edged sideways to try to see it from another angle, but there were only six openings between pylons, and the structure was so thick he couldn’t see it except through the one opening.  He returned to the middle of the collider to stare.

From the center of the collider, he could see it on the floor.  It looked like a rag but it was much bigger and was a grey-blue color.  He walked toward it, paused, then squeezed out between the two pylons that were closest to it, keeping his eye on it the whole time.  There it was, on the floor.

He didn’t want to take his eyes from it, but knew he couldn’t jump down from this height without hurting himself.  Not without his exo suit, anyway.  So, reluctantly, he walked around the scaffolding, down the ladder, and back around, hoping it would still be there.

Success!

The lump turned out to be a blanket, which wasn’t especially exciting by itself, except that it hadn’t been there previously.  Was this an interdimensional blanket?  Was this blanket from a parallel universe?  Had that flash of light, that whine that rang in his ears, that weird sense of vertigo, all been the universe rearranging itself to deliver this miracle blanket, which smelled like grease and sweat and should probably be burned, because oh, God, it was disgusting?

Pinching the foul-smelling cloth between his fingers, Tony could feel a lump of pride in his throat.  He wasn’t sure why the blanket was there, and then wasn’t, and then was there again, but the important thing now was that it was in his hand and he had proof that something had happened.

He turned, the disgusting blanket in one hand, his other gripping his cane with white knuckles, and limped toward the control panel to shut down the machine.  

He was halfway there was he collided with someone else.

He stumbled back, dropping the blanket.

In front of him stood Tony Stark, chest glowing, illuminating a face as white as a sheet.

Chapter Text

For a split second, both were frozen, paralyzed by their mirror images.  One stood illuminated by the arc reactor in his chest; the other was in shadow.

Then they spoke, simultaneously, in the same incredulous voice.

“Oh my God, is that an arc reactor?”

“Did it work?”

“Why are you wearing an arc reactor?”

“It worked!”

“Wait a second.”  Tony turned, stared at the supercollider, then turned back.  “It worked.”

Everything Reed had said about parallel universes and diverging timelines suddenly clicked in a very real way.  

There were other versions of himself.  

Infinite versions.

Both Tonys tore across the room toward the phone.  Both were yelling for Jarvis. One was faster than the other; he grabbed his phone and dialed.


Upstairs, Pepper’s phone rang.  She, Reed, and Harry were watching the news, which was, for once, not populated with anything directly concerning any member of their household.  (In the Stark household, no news was good news.) Pepper pushed past Harry, who had been leaning on her rather more freely than she would have appreciated, to get her phone from the coffee table.

“Yes, Tony?”

“PEPPER!  IT WORKED!”

Pepper yanked the phone from her ear.  Harry and Reed looked at her, eyes wide; they’d heard Tony distinctively, but Pepper put it on speaker phone anyway so they could listen in.  

“Tony?  What worked?” asked Pepper cautiously.  On the other end of the phone was scuffling, scraping, a grunt, and then Tony’s voice.

“Dr. Richards?  Dr. Richards! Come down here right now!  I think it worked!” More scuffling. “Pepper?  It worked!” More scuffling. “Dr. Richards, we did it!”  A cracking noise, static. “No, I did it!”

“Jesus Christ, he’s drunk,” said Harry, leaning back into the couch cushions.  “Your turn.”

Pepper was already rising.  With a glare at Harry, she hurried toward the basement steps.  “He’s probably having one of his post-project anxiety attacks,” she explained to Reed as they hurried down the stairs.  “He crashes, sometimes. It’s fine. We’ll get him some bourbon and put him to bed.”

She keyed in her passcode and they entered the basement lounge.  Tony was standing by his desk, a manic grin on his face. Pepper approached him; he ran toward her, grabbed her shoulders, and kissed her full on the mouth.

With cat-like reflexes, she slapped him.

Reed winced.

“Pepper, we did it!”

Pepper turned.

Tony was lying on the couch, his arc reactor illuminating the area around him, like a ghostly aura.

Slowly, she turned.  In front of her, Tony was rubbing his cheek, looking sheepish.

“Oh my God,” said Reed softly.  He placed a hand on the wall to stabilize himself.  Both Tonys looked pleased with themselves for causing such a ruckus.

“We’re dating in your universe?” asked the Tony on the couch, sounding surprised.

“No,” said the other Tony, glancing sideways at Pepper,  “we’re married.”

“Oh,” said Tony, in a would-be casual tone that Pepper knew was all about masking when Tony was uncomfortable.  “Well. Guess we’re in my part of town, then, huh?”

“Oh my God,” said Pepper, who, like Reed, was staring from one Tony to the other with shock.

“Scientific progress goes boink,” said Harry glibly, who had just arrived and was gaping from one Tony to the other like he was hoping this was some sort of joke.

“He came through the collider?” asked Reed.

“Where’s his arc reactor?” asked Pepper.

“What the hell?  Why does he have an arc reactor on his chest?”

Shaking, Reed pinched the bridge of his nose.  “Congratulations, Mr. Stark.”

“No, seriously.  Why does he have an arc reactor on his chest?” asked Tony.

“It’s in his chest,” clarified Harry.

“The fuck?

“It’s to keep the shrapnel out of my heart.”  

Shrapnel?  What the heck happened?  Lab accident? Is your universe at war?”  Tony's eyes lit up and it was clear he was hoping for a Mad Max-style dystopia.

“What?!  No! I was ambushed during a weapons demonstration in Afghanistan.”

The other Tony looked shocked.  “Oh, man. In my universe, that’s a really unstable region.  We demo in Nevada. Obadiah wouldn’t have let me go to Afghanistan in a million years.”

Tony looked at Pepper sharply.  He was suddenly remembering why he’d pursued this entire project in the first place, why his idea had generated a supercollider in his garage, and why he’d opened a portal to a parallel universe.

He’d needed to talk to Obadiah.

But Obadiah was dead.

Unless... he wasn't.

“Obadiah?” he asked, cautiously.

"My… business partner?” asked Tony, with equal caution.

Tony, on the couch, took a deep, shaky breath, and put a hand over his head.  The other Tony awkwardly looked down and nudged an empty bottle of beer with his cane.  It rolled away from him.

“What happened to your leg, if it wasn’t Afghanistan?” asked Pepper.  Reed thought she was taking this all pretty well, considering. She looked a bit more curious than he would have expected.  He wondered how much of her composition was natural and how much of it came from working for Tony.

“Car accident,” said Tony brusquely.  “They said I’d never walk again.”

“Can’t keep a good man down,” said the Tony on the couch, hand still over his face.

“Bingo.”

“I think we all need to take a seat,” said Harry.  This was greeted with general enthusiasm. There was some awkward rearranging around the new Tony.  Finally, they managed to seat themselves in the lounge; Reed took a chair to himself, Pepper and Harry sat next to each other, and the two Tonys sat side-by-side, glancing at each other while trying not to be glanced glancing.

“So can I see it?” asked Tony.

Tony pulled down his shirt with a slightly look of defiance, like he was daring anyone to make him feel embarrassment.  Reed followed Pepper’s lead and looked up at the ceiling, suddenly fascinated.

“This is really… something.  I’ve never seen one this small.”

“Yeah?” asked Tony, sounding smug.  “This is probably, like, the third or fourth one I’ve built.”

"I’m curious how you came to be in our universe,” said Reed, who felt like if he didn’t ask the important questions soon, he would lose his chance; both Tonys were looking at each other like they’d just met their own personal messiah.

Tony (the one without an arc reactor) told his story.  He and Reed (another Reed!) had come up with the idea of building a supercollider to access parallel dimensions because Tony thought it might be a good source for renewable energy.

“I figured, the first law of thermodynamics…” began Tony.

“Energy can’t be created or destroyed, only altered,” recited Pepper, for Harry’s benefit.

“...we can’t just create gold from lead.  But what if there were a way to access more resources from another place entirely?  Energy that wasn’t being created but hadn’t been there before, but already existed in a place that was previously inaccessible.  Sort of a… interdimensional storeroom. Our renewable energy R&D at Stark Industries is our single fastest growing division. I dunno.  It seemed like a great idea. Well. You know how I get.” He grinned sheepishly at Pepper.

“Fascinating.  So you built the same structure at the same time?” asked Reed.  “I wonder if this could be evidence of convergent timelines. Is it the same date over there?”

“It’s Tuesday.  I think it’s the the fifteenth.”  He look down at his watch to give Reed the time in his own universe, but couldn’t.  “It stopped when I went through the collider.”

“Incredible,” breathed Reed.

“At my Stark Industries, we’re doing a lot of renewable energy stuff with the arc reactor,” said Tony.

“Oh, no, we’re doing that too, obviously.”

Tony frowned.  Clearly, he was still sore about the other Tony’s marriage and the attention he was getting.  “Want to see something really cool?”

“Yeah!”  With typical Tony enthusiasm, the first Tony jumped to his feet.  The other Tony took a bit longer; the first offered him a hand and he took it, letting Tony heave him to his feet.  Reed watched Tony limp after himself.

“Hey, are there other mes?” asked Harry, suddenly.

“You just thought of that?” replied Pepper incredulously.

The three of them followed the two Tonys toward the stairs; he took the first Tony down to the second basement.  

“Ta-da!” announced Tony, as they entered the hall of armors.

“No way.”  The second Tony limped toward the bank of suits against the wall.  They looked like futuristic suits of armor and Reed found the room ominous, like the dungeon of a castle.  But Tony looked like he was in love. Limping up to the nearest suit, he examined it closely, prodding and measuring with his hands, while the first Tony stood by proudly, arms crossed over his glowing chest.

Tony turned.  “I can’t believe it!”

“I know, right?”

“You have suits too?”

“Yeah, it’s pretty-- wait, what?”

“They’re so different!”  Tony knocked on one of them with his knuckles.  “They’re so… heavy! And they’re powered by that?”

“Uh… yeah.  What do you mean, you have suits too?”

“Yeah, of course.  I’m Iron Man.”

You’re Iron Man?”

We’re Iron Man!  This is great!”

“Amazing!” said Reed.  “Do you know what this means?  Convergence! Your timelines were separated by some alteration of a quantum event but they’re still merging toward the same events!”

“Well, Pepper and I don’t have a date set yet, so…” mumbled Tony sarcastically.  Only Reed noticed Pepper blushing slightly; he pretended not to.

“These suits are really different than mine, though,” said Tony, flexing some fingers.  “I never would have thought to make them like this.”

“What do yours look like?” asked Tony, whose curiosity clearly outweighed his envy.

“Mine are lighter and have less coverage, and the arc reactor is in the back.  They started as prosthetics.” He pulled up his pant leg a little; Tony looked down.  Tony’s leg was encased in a heavy metal brace with wires running over the skin. The flesh was pink and burned.

“Huh.”  Tony lowered his pant leg and limped over to the suits with his cane, examining them closely.  Tony watched himself toying with the suits, then blurted, “How long have you been married?”

“Two years next month.  Want to see?”

With clear trepidation, Tony nodded.  Tony limped over to the group and pulled out his wallet to display a picture.  Even though he felt very much like a fly on the wall, an observer of a scene he shouldn’t be witnessing, Reed couldn’t help but lean in.  Pepper and Harry leaned in, too; like Reed, they seemed a little disbelieving.

Tony’s photo was surprisingly personal.  In it, he and Pepper stood next to each other, hands entwined.  Pepper was wearing a simple white sundress and Tony was in a suit.  In her unoccupied hand, she was holding a small bouquet of calla lilies; in Tony’s, he was leaning on his cane.  It was sunny out, and both were grinning like they were trying to suppress a full-bellied laugh. It wasn’t a posed photograph; this was a photo someone had taken of them quickly, without worrying too much about the professional quality.  The result was a tender picture.

“Huh,” said Tony again.

“Isn’t she gorgeous?”

Tony shrugged noncommittally.  Pepper blushed a deeper red; this time, Tony noticed.

“How is she in bed?” he asked, a little viciously.

“Hey, man, that’s my wife,” replied Tony, sounding offended.  But he couldn’t help but add, “Also, amazing.”

“Well, this has been great, but I think I’m done here,” said Pepper, whose face matched her hair.  “I’ll let you two get to know each other.” She turned and began ascending the steps.

“Can we order a pizza?” asked Harry, following her.

“Pepperoni and pineapple!” called both Tonys up the stairs.

Reed felt torn between following Pepper and Harry, and staying with the Tonys.  He had so many questions he could barely keep track of them, but he also felt like he was intruding on a rather personal scene.

“Let’s get a drink,” suggested Tony.

“No, thanks. I don’t drink.”

What ?”

“I don’t drink,” repeated Tony firmly.

Tony looked at Reed with an expression that clearly said, Can you believe this guy?

“Well, I can get a drink, and you can, uh, hang out.”

“I’d really prefer if you didn’t.”

“Are you serious right now?”

“I’ve been sober for six years.”

“Are you serious right now?  Reed, is he serious?”

“I think he’s serious,” confirmed Reed.

“Hey, I have a question,” said Tony suddenly.

“Is it whether or not I’ve accepted Jesus yet?  Because I swear, if that’s where this is going…”

“No, no, it’s a lot more important than that.  Do you think we’re the same size?”

Tony’s eyes widened.  “Why wouldn’t we be?”

“I dunno.”

Both Tonys seemed to think this question was the most pressing matter of the moment, and wasted no time in undoing their belts and beginning to unzip their jeans.  

Reed decided to take that as his cue to leave.  Upstairs, he found Pepper and Harry ordering a pizza with pepperoni and pineapple.

“What happened?  Did they drop their pants and start measuring?” asked Pepper sarcastically.

“That’s actually exactly what happened.”

“I’m surprised it took them that long,” said Harry.  

Having worked in close proximity for Tony for the last two weeks, Reed had to agree with him.


The two Tonys spent almost two hours in the basement shop before they ascended the stairs together.  They wolfed down cold pizza, still talking about the suits and comparing their supercolliders, and then the Tony with the arc reactor gave the other Tony a brief tour of the house.  Reed tagged along; he was eager to note any differences. Even though it might be impossible to identify whatever exact quantum event separated their two universes, he thought they might be able to at least get a general idea of when it had happened.

Immediately upon ascending the stairs, Tony spotted a difference.  “Where’s the piano?”

Tony shrugged.  “Got rid of it. Didn’t want it anymore,” he said flatly and a little too quickly.  They moved on without any more commentary until the second story, where Tony was surprised to discover his bedroom gone and replaced with a second shop, and even more surprised to find Tony had moved into a smaller bedroom

“That room had the best view,” he said, a little disappointed.  The other Tony just shrugged.

The only other two things the other Tony noticed were the curio cabinet, which was empty except for several empty bottles, and the lounge, which, despite being cleaned up, retained some clues of Tony’s inhabitance there.  Tony offered no explanation or excuses; by the end of the tour, he seemed to thoroughly regret offering it. He jogged down the main staircase, leaving the other Tony limping behind him with Reed.

“But seriously, why’d you get rid of the piano?” asked Tony, looking at the large, empty space in the main room.

“Just forget it, okay?”

“Hey.  Tony.” Tony stopped at the bottom of the stairs.  The other Tony caught up to him, and put a hand on his shoulder.  “Remember, I’m you , okay?”

“It reminded me of Obadiah.”

“What happened to Obadiah?”

“He’s dead.”

The other Tony sat down on the bottom stair so quickly that at first Reed thought he’d fallen.  After a moment, Tony sat down next to him.

“How’d he die?”

“He fell.”  Tony had been staring at the tile floor; he looked up at the other Tony.  “Is he… alive?”

Tony nodded.  “Yeah. He’s alive.”

Tony put his face in his hands, and other Tony put an arm around his shoulders.  For a while, they sat there, like twins, looking very small sitting on the bottom step of the staircase that occupied the enormous front room.  The only sound was the indoor waterfall, trickling merrily.

“That’s why I built it.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.  I wanted to see… if I could find him.  And talk to him.  He and Dad had a tontine, and there was this key, and… actually, it wasn’t really about the key at all.  I just wanted to talk to him again.”

“Sure.”

“Are you guys… are you close?”

“Yeah, of course we are.”

Tony seemed dangerously close to a break down.  The other Tony looked confused and uncomfortable.  Reed would have given anything not to be standing behind them on the stairs at that moment, but he could see no way around them without disrupting their conversation.  Both had forgotten about him entirely. He thought about creeping back up the stairs, but he hated the idea of sneaking around Tony’s house like a criminal. He cast a helpless glance around the pristine room, looking for a way out, and caught a glimpse of Pepper leaning against the wall, watching them.  She caught Reed’s eye and pressed a finger to her lips. Reed felt like they were all invisible, like he and Pepper were ghosts. And he had an idea that Pepper was indeed living her life as a ghost, drifting around silently watching Tony and readying herself to catch him when he fell.

“How come you got everything?  How come your life is so perfect?” asked Tony into his hands.

Tony pulled away his from Tony.  “Are you kidding me?  You think my life is perfect?  I've got excruciating chronic pain!  I nearly died in that car accident.  I was crippled. They said I’d never walk again.  I was in a wheelchair for over a year. Do you have any idea how fucking painful it was to learn to walk again?  Do you know what I went through to get sober?”

“Yeah, it must’ve been really tough, getting your life together and ending up with the girl of your dreams,” said Tony venomously, looking up from his hands.

“Oh my God, you jackass, it’s not like anyone’s stopping you .  It’s not hard.  If you care about her you just fucking say it.  It’s your fault if you’re not with her, because you’d rather drink and wallow in self-pity than get your shit together.  Why don’t you just talk to her?”

“Maybe,” said Tony, his voice rising, “it’s because I have trouble forming emotional connections because I was raped in a fucking cave.”  The last syllable echoed slightly in the vast room, and Reed wished the floor would open up and swallow him.  The other Tony was stock still, but the first Tony wasn’t finished. “PEPPER!” he barked.

Pepper rushed forward.  Reed was impressed; she looked like she hadn’t seen or heard anything.  “Yes, Mr. Stark?”

“An espresso, please.”  He pronounced it ex-presso.

“It’s pronounced espresso,” said the other Tony quietly.

“It’s pronounced espresso,” repeated Pepper.  “And frankly, I really don’t think you need any caffeine right now.”

“Then a martini, dirty.  Extra dirty.”

A half-beat passed before Pepper said, “No.”

What?”

“No,” she repeated, turning a faint pink.

Reed expected an explosive fight to ensue, but instead, Tony rose without a word and strode down the stairs to the basement.  A door slammed loudly; Pepper turned and practically ran out of the room. For a moment, Reed thought he might be able to slip away unnoticed if only the other Tony would leave, too.

But then Tony turned on his step to glare at Reed.  “What the hell are you looking at?” he demanded, and Reed was at a loss to give him an answer.


On the second story, there was a small library on the north side with a tiny balcony.  The library looked just how a library should look. It was one of the only carpeted rooms in the house, and was rich with mahogany wood and lovely books, most of which hadn’t been opened.  The truth was, it was more for show than anything; the books Tony actually used were usually textbooks, not first edition classic novels, and they were usually ragged and dog-eared. Besides, Tony wasn’t someone who often used books; if he could digitize something, it got digitized.  This room, with its heavy leather armchair and glass-covered lamps and wide desk, was a room he had only used a few times for intimate business meetings.

On the balcony, a marble planter contained a lush tropical plant, and a small wrought-iron bench with a firepit overlooked the sloping grounds.

Tony stepped out onto the balcony, sliding the glass door behind him.

“Hey.”

“Hey.”  Pepper didn’t turn.  She was leaning against the balcony, looking up at the night sky, her back to the door.  Below them, the ocean could be heard, but not seen; the air had a salty scent to it. “How did you know I was here?”

"I know a lot about you.”  Tony hooked his cane onto the railing and leaned against the balcony, next to her.  “Actually I sort of feel bad, because I know you a lot better than you probably know me.”

“Marriage does that, huh?”

"Yeah, I guess it does.”  Tony cleared his throat and looked down.  “Listen, Pepper… I feel really bad. I want to… apologize for myself, I guess.  Seeing me like this, with the drinking… you know, I was really awful and now, sometimes, it’s easy for me to forget that.  But seeing it, I sort of remember how bad it was. I’m sorry.”

“Thanks, Tony.”  Pepper cast Tony a sidelong look.  “Why did you sober up?”

“It was the accident.  I was drunk.” Tony let out a deep, shuddery sigh.  “It was a brand-new Corvette, a classic ‘64, and I was in Vegas and I was really trashed.  I barely even remember it. I just remember… well, I was going too fast, and I think someone stepped out in front of me, and I turned, and I went right into a construction zone.  The car flipped and they pulled me out, and both of my legs...” Tony gestured vaguely. “I was too drunk to even know. I just woke up, and they told me… they said, well, that’s it.  You’ll never walk again. The right one was shattered. Completely shattered Nearly got amputated and everything.”

“But you’re walking.”

Tony smiled sadly.  “Yeah. Lots of surgery and physical therapy.  I mean, a ton.  Plus the exo suit.  And rehab, you know, for the drinking.  They all said how lucky I was that I wasn’t dead.  But I didn’t feel lucky. I felt like I was being punished, and that if I’d known… well, but obviously I do know.  Hindsight is twenty-twenty. Look, Peps, my point is… I’m really sorry. I love you. And watching myself in this universe, I’m such a wreck, and… you know I, I mean he, we love you.  We really do and we… wouldn’t really know what to do without you.”

For a while the two of them stood in the crisp, clear night air, listening to the ocean.

"Thanks, Tony.”

“Sure thing.”

“Our Tony’s been through a lot.”

“Lots of people have been.  It doesn’t give me an excuse to be an insufferable tool about it.”

“Being an insufferable tool is your thing, Tony.”

Tony turned around to lean his hand back over the balcony and stared upward.  “Ha… yeah, I guess so. Anyway, you know. Just know we really appreciate you, even if he doesn’t say it.”

“I know.”  Pepper sighed.  “Of course I know.  Do you think any amount of money is worth this?  It’s not about the money. I care about him, too.”

"Maybe someday he’ll get that.”

“I hope so.”

“Me too.”  Tony reached out and touched her hand, but Pepper pulled away.  Tony didn’t press it. Neither one spoke, until Pepper changed the conversation.

“Did he tell you what happened?  In Afghanistan?”

“Well, he sort of yelled about it earlier, I guess.”

Pepper picked at a nail with practiced disinterest.  “He was held hostage for three months. And then, when he was finally rescued, he came home, and… things didn’t get better.”

“Why Afghanistan, though?  That's so... unsafe.  Why wouldn't he demo in Nevada?  It doesn’t make any sense.”

“It makes perfect sense.”  Pepper took a deep breath and picked at her nail a little more aggressively.  “Our Tony never got into a car accident and then cleaned up his act. Our Tony never went to rehab.  He just did what he’s always done. And Obadiah got sick of it. Here’s Howard’s son, who was handed his whole life on a silver platter, acting like an ass, making a mockery of the family name, the business Obadiah and Howard built from the ground up.  He took over the company when he was 21 but never bothers to pay it any attention, he just wants to do whatever interests him, and, well… Obadiah had had enough.” Pepper laughed shakily. “There were times I nearly left him, too. He could be... difficult.”

“I still don’t see how that ties into Tony getting sent to do a demo in an unstable war zone.”

 “...well… Obadiah proposed it…”

“He sent him there on purpose?”  Tony looked as shocked as if Pepper had revealed she’d sent him over to Afghanistan herself.

 "Yes.”

"He sent him there hoping he’d get hurt?”

Pepper looked sharply at Tony.  “No. He sent him there knowing.  He orchestrated the whole thing.  Tony was sent to Afghanistan because Obadiah had a vested interest in their company and Tony was so out of control he needed to be out of the picture.  It was a set-up.”

“...no.”  Tony shook his head.  “No, that can’t be Obie.  Not the one I know. He’d never do something like that.”

“Maybe yours wouldn’t.  But ours did. And when they rescued Tony and brought him back, Obie wasn’t about to let him go back to his usual PR nightmare.  He kept him down. For a year. Until he built the suit.”

“What do you mean, until he built the suit?  I thought Obadiah died.”

“He did die.  He got his own suit and the two of them duked it out.  Obadiah fell to his death in that suit.”

“Oh my God.”  Tony let himself slide down to the ground.  “He killed him.”

“And he’s never forgiven himself for that.”

“I can’t believe it.  That’s impossible. This whole timeline is a nightmare.”  Tony looked up at Pepper beseechingly. “Why the hell’s he want to talk to my Obadiah?  My Obadiah didn’t do anything.  He’s like a father to me.”

"I think maybe he just wants absolution.  You should talk to him about it.”

Tony shook his head.  With a groan of pain, he picked himself up and grabbed his cane, leaning heavily on it.  “He told me he fell.”

“They both fell that day.”  Pepper folded her arms over the railing of the balcony and stared toward the ocean.  Even after Tony had gone inside, she stayed there for a long, long time, listening to the distant waves crashing on the shores.

Chapter Text

“What I’m most curious about,” said Reed, tapping his pencil’s eraser on his notebook, “is whether a collider is needed on both sides to open a portal between the two points, or whether one is sufficient.  You both built an identical collider and that’s how you’re connected, but it’s anyone’s guess as to whether or not that’s even necessary. You can’t really built an opening between two rooms that’s one-sided, you know.  If you build a door on one side, you end up with a door on the other. So, personally, I’m inclined to think that we could access other parallel universes that don’t have portal like ours.”

“More important question.  We need to name these universes.”

Reed look surprised.  “Well, I figured we’d just take the corrected resonant frequency of the mesons in the supercollider.  That would make us 619. Tony, you’d be 620. I was examining the machine yesterday, actually, and I think 616 is very interesting and has a lot of potential to--”

“Shut up, Reed,” said both Tonys simultaneously.

“I was thinking Stark Alpha for me, and Stark Beta for you,” said Tony.

“I like it.  But I think I should be Stark Alpha, since I came through the portal first.”

“Yeah, but mine’s the universe where we’re discovering all this.”

"I’m discovering it, so I’m Stark Alpha.”

“You’re Stark Beta.”

“This is definitely a Stark Alpha universe.”

Reed groaned.  “Let’s just give them numbers.”

“Dibs on Stark Prime.”

“Okay, okay.  You’ll be Stark Alpha and I’ll be Stark Prime.”  The Tonys shook on it.

“Getting back to business--” began Reed.

"Speaking of getting back to things, I need to go home,” said Tony from Stark Alpha.

“Already?” asked Tony from Stark Prime.

“Yeah, it’s six in the morning and Pepper is probably sick with worry.  And…” Tony hesitated. “I, uh… thought you wanted to talk to Obie, so, uh, I wanted to tell him that the machine worked and maybe, you know, bring him over for dinner.”

“I’d sort of like that.”

“But Prime?”

“Yeah, Alpha?”

“You can’t drink anything.”

Tony looked like Tony had just said he wasn’t allowed to wear clothes.  “Not drink anything?” he repeated.

“Yeah.  If you can go one day without a drink, we’ll come back for dinner.  Deal?”

Tony looked like he was being forced to take a very unfair deal, but he shook on it.  Reed wanted to ask more questions but he’d found that the Tonys got absorbed in each other pretty easily and any attempts to recapture their attention were usually in vain.

“Well… see you tonight, then.”  

“Let me walk you back.”  Together, they walked in sync back around the collider.  “Do you need a leg up?”

“Oh, funny, a leg joke.  Real clever, wise guy,” huffed Tony as he climbed up the ladder.

“It wasn’t a leg joke!”

“So you think I’m…”  Tony leaned over the scaffolding, grinning.  “...over-reacting?”

Both Tonys laughed.

“See you tonight, Alpha.”

“See you, Prime.”

Wait!” cried Reed.  “I want to record this!”

But Tony had already walked into the supercollider and had disappeared.

“You know, I like him.  He’s sort of a jerk, but I like him,” said Tony, crossing his arms.

Reed bit his tongue.  He knew exactly how Tony felt but thought it would unwise to say it.


Tony’s idea had initially been to go back in time.  Then it had been to travel to a parallel universe. Then he’d got so absorbed in himself that he’d wholly forgotten his reasons for building the supercollider in the first place, which was to talk to Obadiah.

Over breakfast, he pawed through the box of Obadiah’s personal effects.  Pepper watched over him, sipping on a cup of tea. Their relationship had been the tense, overly cordial kind that follows a fight, even though they’d had no fight.  But Tony wasn’t used to hearing no, and Pepper wasn’t used to saying it.

“Here’s my college graduation,” said Tony, showing Pepper a photograph.  “ Summa cum laude.”

“I thought MIT doesn’t give out class rankings.”

“Well, not technically, no.  But if they did, I would have been valedictorian.  It was really important to Obie that I finished. My dad died in my first year and I didn’t really care.   He did, though.  I guess I liked it.  I got to be out on my own.  It was easier.” Tony stared at the photo with an intense gaze that gave away none of his emotions.  “Do you think that the other Tony’s Obadiah had a deal with my dad, the tontine thing? Do you think it was like a joke or were they really serious about it?  It’s sort of fucked up, right?”

“I don’t know.”  Pepper reached into the box and dug out a few more photos.  “I guess we’ll find out. Are you going to be okay?”

“Yeah.”  Tony chewed his lip, dropping the photo in his lap.  “But, you know, I bet I could figure out the encryption key myself.  I might have sort of… uh, overdone it, with the particle accelerator in the basement and the tear in the fabric of space-time.”

Pepper hid a smile.  Tony overdid nearly everything.  

He pulled out a gun from the box; Pepper tensed.  "That isn't loaded, is it?" she demanded.

Tony checked the chamber.  "...yeah, it is.  Don't worry.  The safety's one.  ...this was Dad's gun, but he gave it to Obie.  Kinda crazy that it came back to me, huh?"

Pepper only relaxed once he had replaced the gun in the box and pulled out another photo.  “Do you want anything else to eat?” she asked.  Tony’s breakfast was picked at, but the only thing he’d finished was the coffee.

“No.”

“Is this you graduating high school?”

“I hate that picture.  It’s all blurry.”

“You look adorable.”

Tony unceremoniously stuffed a stack of papers back into the box.  “Do you think he’s really coming back?”

“Who, Tony Alpha?”

“Yeah, Tony Alpha.”

“Yes, I think he really is.”

Tony stood suddenly and made a dash for the stairs.  “Okay, I’ll be in the shop!” he yelled up as he bounded down the stairs.  The door slammed, and Pepper watched the windows rattle as, a moment later, a streak against the sky signalled Tony’s departure.

“Is he okay?” asked Reed.

“That’s one hell of a question,” replied Harry before Pepper could.  He jumped over the back of the couch, landing hard on it and causing the photos in front of Pepper to jump and scatter across the floor.  “Sorry, Pepper,” he said quickly, dropping to his knees and scooping them up. Pepper frowned as he shoveled them back into the box on the coffee table.  “Maybe we should get this thing out of here. You know, Obadiah might not be crazy about seeing all this.”

“Actually, you’re right.  To be frank, I'm not crazy about seeing it, either.  Especially the gun.  I’ll put it in Tony’s room for now; he's least likely to see it there.”  Pepper set her saucer on the table, placed the lid on the box, and with surprising strength, hauled it up the winding staircase.

Harry turned to Reed.  “Just so you know, you don’t have to stay here anymore.  No one would mind if you bailed now.”

“Oh.”  Reed looked out the window at the sun-lit ocean.  “Er, well, there’s still a lot to study here. And I don’t think it would be responsible to just leave the collider on.  I thought we’d disassemble it together, eventually.”

“I wouldn’t plan on it.  Tony seems like he gets along between well with himself.”

“It’s a love-hate relationship,” said Reed, remembering their argument on the stairs.  Once he’d said it, he realized how true it was in a much more simplistic way. He’d watched Tony over the last few weeks brag about his suit while sober, only to criticize himself an hour later, drunk, outlining every design flaw he could think of.  He’d watched Tony drink protein shakes and insist on exercise only to refuse food or sleep later in the day. He’d watched Tony take an hour to trim his goatee but hadn’t once seen any indication that Tony actually washed except when Pepper or Harry hauled him into the shower forcibly.  As far as he could tell, Tony was torn between narcissism and self-loathing.

“Harry?  What the hell happened with Obadiah?”

Harry tented his fingers.  Not usually the one pressed for information, he seemed to be trying to channel Pepper’s good sense before answering.

“How much do you know?”

“What was in the papers.  That he was rescued from Afghanistan, and seemed to be doing well.  And then ended up going completely reclusive before he and Obadiah had a fight that leveled a city block a year later.”  He paused, hoping Harry would say something, but he didn’t, so Reed filled in some more information for him. “I know that, I guess, Obadiah had some pretty shady dealings with a few militant organizations, and was trading weapons… I guess he was the one who was responsible for Tony’s capture in the first place.”

Harry nodded.  He got up and strode across the room towards the bar, where he touched the bottles but didn’t pour himself anything.  “I didn’t know him very well. He always seemed like he was on Tony’s side, though.”

“What happened?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe it was Tony.  Maybe he just got fed up.  It was really easy to feel resentful.  He never said thanks, never apologized.  I remember one time, Obie said to me, Harry, you’d better go pick him up this time, because I just want to wring his neck.”

“What do you mean, pick him up?”

“From the police station.  He has probably a dozen DUIs across a couple of states.  I think that time was Vegas. We were there for the V and V Sympo.  Verification and Validation. He got trashed, skipped every single thing he was there for, and ended up wrecking a ‘64 ‘vette by plowing it into a fountain.”

“Are you talking about Tony?” asked Pepper, descending from the stairs.  “It was a construction site.”

“What?  No, it was a fountain.  Remember?”

“No, that was our Tony.”

“I’m talking about our Tony.  He bought that car after a good round of poker and decided to celebrate.”

Pepper’s face was whitening.  “You said it was a 1964 Corvette?”

“That’s the one.  Cherry-red. Completely totaled it.  They said it was a miracle he walked away.”

“Harry.”

“That was a beautiful car.”

Harry .”

“What?”

“That’s it!”

“What?”

Pepper turned toward Reed, looking excited.  “That’s the difference!”

“What is?”

“You said that the two Tonys diverged at one point, right?”

“It could be one point.  But every point after that would be different, too.  Well… I don’t know, there’s a lot of parallelisms.  Quantum events tend to have long-reaching effects.  But yes, there was likely one precipitating quantum event that resulted in our two parallel universes.”

“That’s the point!  I was talking with the other Tony.  Both of them got a 1964 Corvette in Las Vegas and crashed it.  But the other Tony said he remembered crashing into a construction site.”

Harry’s face lit up.  “Pepper! Do you remember the fountain?”

“Yes!  It was right across from that big construction site!   That’s the difference.  Our Tony turned left.   Our Tony hit the fountain and the car didn’t flip.”

“Wow.”  Reed shook his head.  “No. Wow. It can’t be that simple.  Can it?”

“Of course!  The other Tony turned right, up-ended the car, and ended up in a wheelchair.  He went through therapy, got cleaned up, and everything got better. Our Tony was fine, and so he got bailed out, and kept acting like an asshole.”

“And what happened with Obadiah, exactly?” asked Reed.

“Oh.”  Pepper began tidying some of the knick-knacks on a bookcase in the living room that didn’t need tidied.  “Well, Tony never did get cleaned up in our universe.  From a managerial perspective, he was… a liability.  Obadiah tried to help him, but he just kept getting worse and worse.  And eventually, Obadiah got fed up with it. At the end, he was avoiding Tony as much as possible.  Tony went to Afghanistan and…” For a moment, she paused, then hurried on, “...when he came back, and started acting out again, Obadiah decided that, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.”  She wheeled around, looking a bit defensive. “We didn’t know. We had no idea. We thought he was helping us. Tony stopped talking and stopped sleeping, and fired all the staff, and it was just me, and I needed his help.  There were days I thought I was going to have to quit and days I thought it didn’t matter because Tony was wasting away anyway.”

“And then he built the suit,” said Harry.  “And that was that.”

Pepper turned back to her anxious tidying, but Harry, seeing Reed’s confusion, said, “Afterwards, we found out what he’d done.  We saw the medical records, after the fight, and it all started clicking into place. This house was Tony’s Afghanistan all over again.  Obadiah couldn’t ever let him leave. Not again.”

“Why couldn’t he just kill Tony?” asked Reed.

“I think he would have, except for the arc reactors.  Obadiah had to keep him alive.  Those arc reactors saved Stark Industries.  Our stocks were in the dump. You had Tony, being a drunk, then getting kidnapped, then turning into this crazy recluse… God, I thought we were over.  Nothing but bad media for us. At least before Afghanistan he could build things. Afterwards, everything was so uncertain. Then he started making all those arc reactors, and the company steadied, and we all felt like things were really going to get good again,” said Harry.  “But I guess Obadiah was just using him. Maybe once they’d perfected the arc reactor, he would have gotten rid of Tony again.”

“I don’t think he really meant it to end up like it did.  He just did what Tony does. He built a weapon,” added Pepper.  Reed felt like she was trying to convince herself more than him.  “He built the suit to escape, but really, the confrontation was inevitable.  Obadiah had gotten so sadistic at that point. It was like every single resentment he ever had toward Tony just… drove him completely mad.  We had no idea, until afterwards.”

“So basically, he wasn’t held hostage and tortured for three months, but thirteen?”

Pepper and Harry nodded.  Both had looks that pleaded for Reed to understand, and he thought he did.  Watching the two of them trying to keep Tony’s head above water was exhausting.  Of course they would have been grateful for another set of hands. And of course they would have trusted Obadiah.  He was perfectly poised to exert control over Tony.

Looking at the blurry, smiling photo of Tony at his high school graduation, Reed couldn’t have imagined it would have ended up like it had.  The shaky cellphone videos that played on the media showing Iron Man and Iron Monger fighting had been violent, primal, and inhuman. It was difficult to imagine either Tony or Obadiah in either suit.

Outside, the sky was clear.  Tony’s suit had long since disappeared over the horizon, and Reed was left wondering whether or not he would come back.


Tony was true to his word.  He and Obadiah came up from the basement shortly before six.  The other Tony had been absent all day.

“Nice to re-meet you, Pepper,” said Obadiah, smiling.  Pepper smiled nervously and shook his hand as well.

“It’s good to see you again.  Well. Meet you. Meet you again.  Tony’s not home yet, I’m afraid.”

The other Tony scowled, but Obadiah didn’t seem to mind.  He looked fondly over what was undoubtedly a familiar living room.  “You got rid of the piano?” he asked, a bit sadly.

“Tony needs his space sometimes,” said Pepper, to both Tony and Obadiah.

The five of them-- Harry, Pepper, Obadiah, Tony, and Reed-- settled into the living room with drinks to chat.  Tony had coffee.

They were just starting to laugh over a shared memory when the door knocked.

“Ma’am, Nick Fury is at the door,” said Jarvis pleasantly.

“Shit,” said Pepper uncharacteristically, eyes widening.  “Obie, you’re dead. Tony! Get out of here! Go! Reed!”

She shoved Tony toward the stairs.  He, Reed, and Obadiah hurried downstairs.  She waited until she heard the shop door beep closed until she approached the front door, which someone was pounding with increasing irritation.  Smoothing down her blouse, she opened the door with fake pleasantness. “Good evening, Director Fury.”

“Don’t ‘good evening’ me, Virginia.”  Fury stormed in, followed by two agents, Natasha Romanov, and Steven Rogers.  “Where the hell is he? Twenty-nine calls and we haven’t heard anything from either of you.”

“Tony’s not in a state to be involved with the Avengers right now,” said Pepper calmly.  “I’m sorry, but it’s not in his best interest.”

“Oh, really,” said Fury, who didn’t look like he believed a word she was saying.  Natasha was edging toward the stairs and Steve was looking around with undisguised curiosity.

“You know Tony,” said Harry casually.

“Where is he?” demanded Fury.

“Right here!”

Everyone turned.  Tony was climbing the stairs slowly, arc reactor glowing brightly.  He grinned at them unapologetically.

“What happened?” demanded Natasha without pretense.

“If you must know, I got drunk and messed up my leg.  There. Happy?” Tony surveyed them with smug annoyance.  “You all feel proud of yourselves now, solving the big mystery?  Congratulations. You know my secret. I’m a pathetic, sloppy drunk.  Bet you’re all real thrilled you came out here for that.”

“Okay, I have a question,” said Fury, whose anger didn’t seem at all assuaged.  “If you’re here, how is it that Agent Barton and Agent Ward reported you leaving Club Med two minutes ago?”

A flicker of concern crossed Tony’s face, but just a flicker.  He grinned again and spread his arms. “Okay. Look. This is awkward.  It’s a drone. I thought if I built a drone and sent it out in my place, maybe I wouldn’t have to confess to banging up my leg.  It’s not like anyone really cares about me anyway. It’s the suit you guys want, right? So… I thought I could just remotely control it from home.  Maybe during commercials or something. Seemed like a better way of fighting the bad guys.”

“God, you’re an asshole,” said Natasha with disgust.

“I’m disappointed in you, Tony.  I thought you took this seriously,” added Steve.

Fury still looked angry, but this was a quiet, more controlled anger.  It was more frightening than his previous rage. “So you’re saying that your drone went to Club Med.”

“Yes.”

“And that your drone flew to Club Med, took off the suit, down a bottle of liquor, groped a waitress, and peed in the swimming pool?”

Tony’s face twitched.  “You caught me. I’m the drone.”

“Is that so?”

“Yeah.  I’m not finished yet.  Obviously I still have some glitches.  Like this leg. And this arc reactor?” Tony reached into his shirt and pulled out the arc reactor.  Everyone looked surprised. “Just a prop.”

Fury reached out and slapped Tony.  Tony yelped with surprised.

“And Tony programmed his drone to feel pain?”

“Ow.  Yes. He… programmed me to respond… uh, naturally.  So I could be him and he could go to Club Med and, er, pee in the swimming pool, apparently.”  Tony leaned against the wall, arms crossed. Pepper could tell his leg was aching. “So, are you going to kick me out of the Avengers now or what?”

“I’ll break your other leg, you little shit,” hissed Natasha.  Steve placed a hand on her shoulder and looked to Fury.

For a second, he stood there, a presence like no other.  His hands, hidden by his ever-present leather gloves, clenched and unclenched.  His jaw was set in a way that his dentist would not have approved of. But then he let out the breath he’d been holding.  “You’re on probation, Stark. One more discretion, one more missed phone call, and you’re out. Understood?”

“Thank you very much, Director Fury,” said Pepper quickly, shooting a warning look to Tony.  “He will absolutely be in contact with you in the future, won’t you, Tony?”

Before Tony could answer, the windows rattled and a sound like a jet engine prevented him from saying a word.

“That must be the real you,” said Fury, dangerously.  “Let’s take a look.”

“Not really necessary.  I’m still drunk. I wouldn’t want to, uh, disrespect you,” said Tony quickly.

Steve and Natasha were already shouldering past him toward the basement steps, with Fury on their heels.

“Wait!  Wait! You can’t just… hey!”  Tony swiped at Steve’s arm, unbalanced himself, and toppled down the stairs.  Pepper shrieked; Harry jumped to his feet and hurried over.

Pepper hurried down the stairs, navigating the bottleneck that was forming and swiping her key card.  She grabbed Tony by the neck of his shirt, and dragged them both into the shop, where Tony was striding toward them.

“Fury’s here!” she hissed.  In a single shove, he pushed one Tony under the desk and shoved the other Tony forward.

On the other side of the glass, Harry was blocking with Fury, Natasha, and Steve, all three of whom were trying to shove past them.

“You have a limp and a drone.  Go!” said Pepper.

Tony opened the shop door and stepped back.  Fury, Steve, and Natasha shoved past him, Natasha a little harder than was necessary.

"Hey, guys!" said Tony with utterly fake hospitality.  "Welcome to my playground!"

“Your limp changed legs," observed Fury.

“You need to get your eye checked.  I know which one of my legs is the bad one, thanks.”

“Where’s the drone?” demanded Natasha.

"Clone?  What clone?  I don't have a clone," said Tony hurriedly. 

"Drone, Stark."

"Oh!  My clone disassembled him."  Pepper put her face into her hands.

“What is that ?” asked Steve, staring at the particle accelerator.

“That’s… that’s a oxygen chamber I’ve been sleeping in!” said Tony.  “Good for the skin. Are you done invading my privacy yet? It’s not like I’ve been doing anything to compromise the integrity of your little superhero team.  I’ve just been doing my own thing. If you want to fire me, go ahead. But you don’t even pay me in the first place so frankly I don’t see why you’re so upset.  My volunteership should be voluntary, if you ask me.”

“Do you have any idea how often I’ve kept the DoD off your back?” asked Fury.  He pointed a finger toward Tony. “One more toe out of line, Stark. Just one more toe and you’re out, and any protection we’ve been giving you is gone.  Clear?”

“Crystal.”

“We’ll expect you at the debriefing on Wednesday.  No excuses.”

“None,” agreed Tony, nodding.  “Zero. Zip. Nada. I’ll be there.  Absolutely.” He limped convincingly over to Fury and opened the door of the shop to see him out.  “No more excuses.”

“Stark.”

“Yes, Mr. Fury?”

“I know a particle accelerator when I see one.”

“It's practically a high school science project.  Doesn’t work.”

“Even though Reed Richards helped you build it?”  Tony was silent. “It’s got a Fantastic Four logo on the amplifier, Tony.”  Fury looked up. “You can come out now, Dr. Richards.”

Reed’s body uncurled from its hiding place behind a discarded engine and stretched back into its original shape.  “I had no idea he was neglecting his responsibilities,” said Reed, arms stretched out in an apologetic gesture.

“I had to use him because I knew Bruce would squeal on me,” explained Tony.

Ignoring him, Reed continued.  “Look, you and I both know that whatever’s going on is going to take a lot of work to mop up.  If you want to handle it, be my guest. Or you can trust me. I have it under control and I’ll make sure nothing gets out of hand here.  I'll make sure there's no, er, drones or clones or copies running around.  I'll personally ensure everything goes back to normal and he doesn't create any paradoxes or accidentally tear the fabric of time and space."

Fury stared at Reed as if he could see through him.  But after a few moments, the corner of his mouth twitched in what might have been a smile.  “If you want to babysit him, he’s all yours.”

“We’re disassembling it next week,” added Reed.

“See that you do,” growled Fury.  He stomped up the stairs; Steve followed with a frown at Tony, and Natasha eyed him suspiciously.  They listened to the front door slam.

“Jarvis?” asked Pepper cautiously.

“All five S.H.I.E.L.D. agents have left the residence, Ms. Potts,” said Jarvis.

Everyone let out their breaths.  Tony spilled out from under the desk with a groan.  He extended his bad leg and rubbed it miserably, then glared up at Tony.  “You promised you wouldn’t drink!” he snarled.

“I have to keep up appearances.  I had one drink.  I’m not drunk at all.”

“Tony?”

Tony froze.  His entire body snapped taut, and, even from across the room, Reed swore he saw his pupils dilate.  He looked like a deer in the headlights. Slowly, rigidly, he turned. Obadiah had helped the other Tony up and was looking at him with fond curiosity.

“Tony?” he repeated.  Time seemed to stretch out awkwardly.  Tony’s throat bobbed as he swallowed. Then, unsteadily, he walked over to Obadiah and embraced him.

Reed, Harry, and Pepper all looked anywhere but at Tony, embarrassed.  Obadiah patted his back, looked a bit startled. Even the other Tony stared at the floor.

Tony drew back, suddenly relaxed.  “Sorry. I… haven’t seen you in a while.”

“I know.  He told me,” said Obadiah.

Reed glanced at Pepper.  He wondered how much Obadiah had been told.  That he hadn’t just died, but had died at Tony’s hands?  That in this universe, he was the bad guy? That he was a traitor to his country and, worse, a traitor to his best friend?  That he was a sadist? A torturer? A monster?

It appeared he’d only been given the information that he was dead in this universe.  That, thought Reed, was probably for the best.

“Well, now that you’re here, let’s get some dinner,” said Pepper firmly.  Reed watched her place a hand gently in the small of Tony’s back and steer him toward the stairs.  Tony seemed a bit out of it; he kept staring at Obadiah with a mixture of feelings: admiration, longing, fear, anger, happiness.  Reed was surprised he wasn’t more drunk. He seemed like he’d really tried to keep his promise to the other Tony.

Following Pepper and Tony, Reed, Obadiah,Tony, and Harry left the shop.

As they ascended the stairs, Harry said, “Geez.  You’re in pretty deep with Fury, huh, Tony?”

“Maybe next time, we should do things at my house,” suggested Tony.  “Fury loves me.”

Chapter Text

The sun had just started to rise when Obadiah woke.  For a while, he lay on his back, eyes closed, enjoying the comfort of the warm bed.  He reached next to him and felt around for a moment, but the space beside him was empty.

He opened his eyes and rolled over.  The only other living thing in the room was the cat.  It was staring out of the window; it turned and stared blankly at him, then mewled softly.

“Tony?” called Obadiah.  There was no answer.

Typical.  Tony had a habit of sneaking off at night.  He’d found him curled up in any number of places: the kitchen pantry, the linen closet, beneath the piano.  It was one of the few bad habits they’d been unable to break together. Tony seemed unable to spend an entire night in the bed.

The cat jumped on the bed, and Obadiah shooed it away before getting up.  He got dressed in the soft blue light of dawn. He enjoyed mornings and was looking forward to a restful day; it was Friday and he’d taken the day off.  He hadn’t bothered with a tie; today was a shirtsleeves kind of day. He hadn’t even bothered with the top button.

He’d had an entirely uneventful week.  He’d had a shareholders’ meeting that had gone well, and attended a conference at Yale that had also gone well.  He had checked in on their combustion R&D division, which was being expanded, and met with the contractor, and determined that they were on schedule, as expected.  In fact, everything had gone so smoothly, he was starting to consider retirement, now that the company was back on its feet. With a robust new energy department and the combustion division expansion, they’d never been more stable; stocks were up, earnings were up, and he felt comfortable sitting back and letting the company run itself for a while, like a well-oiled engine.

He brushed his teeth, washed his face, and trimmed his beard, taking his time.  He had little on his agenda today; he expected to be by the pool before noon, smoking a cigar and listening to smooth jazz.  The weather was already looking perfect for that sort of thing; the Pacific ocean looked calm outside his window, and the sky was cloudless.  He was considering letting Tony accompany him outside. He wondered how close to the pool Tony’s crippling fear of water would allow him.

He made his way downstairs.  The cat wove around his feet, purring.  The smell of coffee permeated the dining room; the cat jumped on the table, and he casually picked it up and put it on the floor.

“Good morning, Ms. Potts.  Good morning, Jarvis.”

“Good morning, sir,” said Jarvis, offering him the morning paper.  Jarvis had been Howard’s butler and was positively ancient. His hands shook ever so slightly as he handed over the paper, with the business section on top.  Obadiah flipped it open and sipped his tea.

“Did you spend the night again?” asked Pepper, wiping her hands on a dishrag and sitting across from Obadiah.  The cat sprung back onto the table and she petted it absent-mindedly.

She’d gotten him for Tony.  They said an emotional support animal might do him some good.  It hadn’t.

“Mm-hm.  It was a late night.  When did you get in?”

“Just now.  Where’s Tony?” asked Pepper.

“Beats me.  You know how he is.”  Obadiah turned a page leisurely.  “I’ll track him down in a few minutes.”

“I made him toast,” said Jarvis, gesturing.  The unspoken warning, that Tony’s breakfast would get cold, wasn’t lost on Obadiah.  He had a soft spot for Jarvis and, besides, he was in a good mood. He put down his paper obligingly and got up.

“Alright.  I’ll go find him.  Tony?” he called, walking away from the table.  He checked a few of the usual haunts. Tony wasn’t in the lounge, and wasn’t under any of the beds.  As he searched, his mood soured. Playing hide-and-seek in a house this large was a game that could last a while, and Tony’s wasn’t the only breakfast that was getting cold.  The fact that Jarvis could make them more didn’t matter. It was the principle of the thing. “Tony?” he called, poking his head into the spa. It was silent. “Tony, I’m not kidding around anymore.  Come out.”

I ought to put a bell on him like that damn cat, thought Obadiah.  The image of Tony wearing a bell around his neck cheered him up a little, but his good mood didn’t stick, because after forty minutes of searching, he’d still failed to find Tony.  Defeated, he recruited Pepper’s help. The last time Tony had gone missing this badly, they’d found him in the library, squeezed under his desk. About once every other month, he found some new nook to cram himself into.  Obadiah often wondered what would happen if he didn’t extract Tony; he’d have to come out eventually for food, wouldn’t he? But he knew this was about power, and that knowing where Tony could hide and dragging him out was important to maintain their relationship.  Also, he didn’t like being ignored. By now, Tony knew he was searching for him, and knew he ought to come out. His refusal to obey was good old-fashioned disobedience and Obadiah had no intention of letting him get away with it.

Obadiah went to search the home gym while Pepper went to scope out the second floor again.  He was checking the kitchen cabinets when Pepper came downstairs, holding some sheets.

“Well, I found these,” she announced.  Her face was drawn and worried. The blood on the sheets was unmistakable.  Obadiah felt sorry for her. She’d only just returned from a much-needed vacation.  Tony had been a bit perkier since her return. He followed her silently around the house, like a shadow.  The previous night had been the first one Obadiah had been able to drag him away from her; she’d left early due to a migraine.

Obadiah rose and placed his hands on her shoulders.  “He’s fine, Virginia. He probably just tore out some stitches again.  As soon as we find him, we’ll patch him up and he’ll be as good as new.”

He examined her face.  She had nice features: high cheekbones, faint freckles, porcelain skin.  Obadiah could see why Tony liked her. She was an extremely attractive woman.

She stepped back, and he realized he’d had his hands on her shoulders for a while.

“Why don’t you rinse those out and I’ll keep searching?”

“Have you checked the garage?”

“Tony knows he’s not allowed in the shop.”  But the moment the words were out of his mouth, Obadiah wondered.  If Tony were still acting out in little ways like hiding, who knew if he was acting out in other ways, like going down to the shop?  Maybe he was down there now, huddled under a car. The more Obadiah thought about it, the more he felt like this was a perfect explanation.  “I’ll check it anyway,” he said, with a tender smile at Pepper. She smiled back, though it was a strained smile, and took the sheets with her out of the room.  

Obadiah listened to her heels retreating into the house.  He walked toward the basement steps and slowly descended them.  He punched in the code, unchanged since the 90's, and let himself in.  The shop was dark; he cast a look around.  “Tony?”  His voice echoed. All was still. It was like a tomb. “Tony?” he repeated.  “Come out right now, Tony.” He waited. “Tony, I’m giving you five seconds. If you’re not out in five seconds, you’re not going to have a good day.  I promise you that, Tony. I’m not happy right now.” He counted silently to five, but there was no response. “Okay, if you want to do things the hard way, we’ll do them the hard way.  I thought you learned your lesson last time.”

He checked under the desk, and then walked out into the garage to check the cars.  In and under. In and under. In and--

A flash of light!

Obadiah straightened, looking toward the flash.  It was gone.

One of the nice things about Tony’s arc reactor was how often it gave away his location.

Obadiah edged toward it, and then froze.

Hanging in front of him, suspended in mid-air, appeared to be a small triangle of light.

The hairs on the back of his neck prickled uncomfortably.  It was like there was a window just hanging there in the air.  Part of the shop was lit completely differently than the rest and there was no explanation for it.  Temporarily forgetting Tony, Obadiah walked toward it, curious. It flickered and wavered like water, and when he tried to look at it from another angle, it disappeared.  Whatever it was, it wasn’t anything he could give a name to.

Yet.

Approaching the light, he reached out a hand to touch it, but nothing was there.  Nothing at all. He walked forward, confused, sure of what he’d seen. Then he realized that he was no longer standing on the concrete floor of the garage, but somewhere else… no.  Not somewhere else. The same shop. The same place. But someplace nonetheless different, because he was standing on a grated mezzanine surrounding an enormous structure that he was sure hadn’t been there a moment ago.


Saturday dawned unusually warm for mid-February, even for Los Angeles.  The supercollider had been humming along in two parallel universes since Tuesday, and Tony seemed happier than he’d been in a long time.  He and Obadiah were spending an inordinate amount of time together, talking about nothing in particular, and Tony seemed much healthier than Reed had ever seen him.  Of course, Tony was still shirking most of his responsibilities. When Pepper asked him on Friday if he’d bothered asking Obadiah about the encryption key, he replied, “I’ll get around to it.”  He sent the other Tony in his place to the debriefing he’d promised to go to on Wednesday with a spare arc reactor glued to his chest.

But, more importantly, he hadn’t been drinking much, and had taken a shower on Friday.

“God, finally,” mumbled Reed, who had been kept up all night by Tony’s insistence that they keep playing billiards.  He, Harry, and Obadiah were all nursing similar headaches that came from a combination of whiskey, cigars, and staying up too late.  Only Tony seemed unaffected; he’d glided past them with a towel wrapped around his head, barefoot, wearing a clean shirt and a pair of shorts.  For once, he didn’t smell like engine oil, sweat, gasoline, or smoke.

Pepper shot Reed a dirty look.  He looked appropriately apologetic, aware that the hangover had made him somewhat cranky and more inclined toward criticism.

“He’s got this fear of water since being, y'know, waterboarded,” explained Harry, stirring sugar into his coffee rather half-heartedly.

“That’s awful,” said Obadiah, sounding shocked.  “In Afghanistan, or…?” Over the last five days, he’d learned most of Tony’s story, and his part in it.  They had glossed over some of the more graphic details for his benefit, particularly about Obadiah’s death in their universe; Pepper and Reed both suspected, correctly, that part of Obadiah’s willingness to bond with the new Tony was because of his guilt for what the other Obadiah had done to him after he’d returned from Afghanistan.

“Both.  Doesn’t leave marks,” added Pepper sourly.

Reed and Obadiah both put their hands over their heads guiltily, hiding behind their headaches.  Both looked worse for the wear. Obadiah was in shirtsleeves and hadn’t even bothered buttoning the top button of his shirt.  The other Tony wobbled into the kitchen with a towering stack of waffles.

“Well, I feel great,” he announced.  Characteristically, he was wearing a shirt and shorts as well.  So far, the two Tonys had matched their clothes entirely by coincidence every day, making everyone else wonder if, in some other universe, their own doubles were also dressed alike.  It was the first day that anyone had seen Tony in shorts. Both of his legs had wires and metal bands running up and down them, giving his lower half the appearance of a cyborg. The right was more heavily surrounded by the mechanical brace than the left.  The skin that was visible had the melted whorls of scar tissue, burns, that had healed long ago.

“Well, not everyone gets to go home to Pepper Alpha at nine ,” reported the other Tony derisively, coming up behind him and snatching a waffle off his plate.

“I was up later than nine.  Jealous?”

They high-fived.  Pepper groaned.

“So, what’s the weather look like today?” asked Obadiah.  This was his way of asking Tony what he wanted to do. Tony glanced out the window at the ocean.  

“Well, I was thinking I should ask you about this encryption--” he began.  He was interrupted by a massive rattling, banging sound from the basement. He, Tony, and Reed all looked toward the basement steps, startled.

“It did that yesterday, “ began Reed, rising.  "You know, these portals get a little more unstable every time someone passes through them.  I'm a little worried that--"

“I’ve got this one.  Shut up Reed.  It’s probably nothing,” interrupted Tony quickly.  “You guys stay here. Be right back, Obie.”  He darted out of the kitchen, waffle in hand, hurried through the main room, and jogged down the steps to the basement.  “Lemme in, Jarvis.”

“My pleasure, sir.”

Tony poked his nose into the shop.  The supercollider was rumbling in a rather threatening way.  He walked up to it and gave it a hard smack with his palm, which did nothing.  “Why are you so difficult?” he murmured to the machine, pulling off a panel forcibly and reaching in to pull out a tangle of wires.  He tossed the panel onto the floor, where it landed with a clang.

A shadow fell over the wires.  Tony looked up.

Obadiah was standing over him.

“Hey, Obie.  Want to see something cool?”

Obadiah reached down and, with incredible strength, grabbed Tony’s neck and pulled him to his feet.  Tony choked and reached up, trying to pry Obadiah’s hand from his neck. But Obadiah was much bigger than him, taller than him, stronger than him.  And Tony had not been expecting it.

“So.  You’re talking now,” said Obadiah, appraising Tony with steel-blue eyes.  “That’s new.”

Tony gagged weakly in response, still clawing at Obadiah’s hand.  Obadiah was nearly lifting him off the floor.

“How long have you been building this?”

His hand loosened only marginally.  Tony’s knees buckled; he would have fallen to the floor if not for Obadiah’s grip.

“S-since three w-weeks ag-go,” sputtered Tony, squirming.

“The cloaking is impressive.  I’ve got to hand it to you, Tony, right when I think I’ve finally got a handle on you, that magnificent little brain of yours stirs up some more trouble.”  Obadiah’s grip tightened significantly. Tony was not longer making any noise; his eyes were bulging slightly. “When will you learn?” murmured Obadiah, squeezing.  Tony mouthed silently at him; his vision was started to tunnel and he was seeing little bursts of light that he was sure he shouldn’t be seeing.

Obadiah’s hand let go abruptly.  Tony fell to the floor, gasping. Obadiah crouched beside him and grabbed a handful of his hair, roughly.  Whatever he had been going to say evaporated; he looked surprised. “Why is your hair wet?”

“I t-t-took a shower,” croaked Tony, shaking.

You?   Took a shower?”  Obadiah considered.  “It looks like there’s more than one lesson you haven’t learned.  Come on. Get up.” He pulled Tony to his feet by his hair; Tony started to groan with pain, but ended up in a fit of coughing.  “Come on, you filthy little brat. Let’s go,” commanded Obadiah, dragging Tony by the hair.

At that moment, a beeping told them that the shop door had opened.  “Tony?” called Pepper’s voice.

Obadiah let go of Tony’s hair and grabbed his upper arm instead.  His grip tightened on Tony’s arm to the point of pain. Tony shot Obadiah a look of fear, then looked back.  “Here!” he called weakly.

Pepper’s heels signaled her approach; she poked her head around a large computer monitor.  “Oh! Obie, I didn’t realize you’d come down. Are you two coming to breakfast?”

“Were you aware of this?” asked Obadiah, gesturing towards the supercollider.

Pepper looked confused.  “Of what? Is something wrong?”

“Yes, something’s wrong!  Look at it!”

She looked it up and down.  “Is it… broken?”

Obadiah looked at Tony, confused.  Tony answered. “Just a g-glitch,” he whispered, shivering.

“Tony, are you okay?”

“He’s fine, Pepper.  Just a little anxiety.  We’re going to go upstairs and calm down,” said Obadiah, smiling at her.  “I’m sorry for snapping. I just get worried sometimes.”

Pepper looked relieved.  “No problem. Take all the time you need.  I’ll make you breakfast when you’re done.”

She turned and began to walk away.  

“Pe--” began Tony.  Obadiah’s nails dug into Tony’s arm and he winced.

“Hm?” asked Pepper.

“What?” replied Obadiah innocently.

She shook her head, turned, and walked back up the stairs to the shop, leaving them alone.


Obadiah hauled Tony upstairs to the bedroom, only to discover there was no longer a bedroom where there should have been.  His mind was spinning. He was doubting himself and was growing more and more angry with Tony, who had to be responsible for all this, somehow.  But asking where the piano was, where the bedroom was, why there was a keycard on the wall where there hadn’t been… all these questions were ones that couldn’t be asked.  Deep down, Obadiah was scared. Behind Tony’s mild, silent personality was a machine-like mind that was calculating and rapid. He did not want to have a rebellious Tony on his hands.  A rebellious Tony was a dangerous Tony. To show Tony he didn’t know what was going on would give him the upper hand. Better to play it cool. It was no different than a business negotiation or a game of high-stakes poker.

His most pressing questions were what the thing was in the basement, and why no one, including Tony, seemed to think it was odd that Tony was talking.  He hadn’t made a peep in months. Not a word, not a laugh. He even cried completely silently. The closest he came to sounds were gasps, but they had a breathy, ethereal quality to them that was unmistakably silent.  Not even a ghost of a whisper.

“Tony,” said Obadiah steadily, staring at the locked door to the master bedroom.  “Show me where you’re sleeping.”

Tony cast a confused, worried glance at Obadiah.  He didn’t seem to know how to accommodate this request.  He led them down the hall and Obadiah noticed that the cherrywood cabinet in the west alcove was mostly empty.  His pictures were gone.

Tony glanced toward the lounge, and seemed like he was about to lead Obadiah there, but instead took him to a rarely-used spare bedroom.  Obadiah was surprised and initially thought that Tony was mocking him, but there were signs of life, after all. A pair of boxer briefs had been cast on the floor; a pair of glasses were on a stand next to the bed; a magazine was folded open on a desk.

Obadiah closed the door behind them.

“Sit,” he said.

Tony dropped delicately onto the edge of the bed.  He looked anxious. His eyes darted toward a plain white box on the desk, then away, like he was hoping Obadiah wouldn’t notice it.

Obadiah strode over to the box and opened it casually.  Folders. Envelopes. He recognized his own writing. Slowly, he picked up a paper.  His own death certificate stared him in the face.

It took an incredible amount of determination not to let his hands shake.  He set his jaw, read the document again. Yes. He was dead. He’d been dead for a while.

He was dead, but Pepper had greeted him.  Tony had greeted him. How could he be dead?

He glanced over at the open magazine beside him.  “AVENGERS’ IRON MAN ON HIATUS; INDUSTRIALIST TONY STARK GOES ON BINGE.”  A picture. Tony at a bar, his lopsided grin, his arm slung around a woman.  Another picture. A suit of armor.

Obadiah turned to look at Tony.  He was still sitting on the edge of the bed.  His arc reactor glowed brightly, incongruently cheerful.  Tony was still watching Obadiah, his hands tucked between his thighs in a way that made him look much younger and more vulnerable.

“What’s this?” asked Obadiah finally.

“It’s… it’s your personal effects.  I’m sorry. Pepper thought… she said… you wouldn’t want to see it.”  His brows knitted. “I’m sorry, Obie. I’m so sorry. I didn’t want it to turn out like that.  I swear.” He was panicking, talking rapidly. Hearing Tony’s voice was so alien to Obadiah that he felt mesmerized by it, and let Tony babble.  “I didn’t even knew you were in the suit at first. I was just trying to get away. I… I never wanted anyone to die. Not you. I just thought… I don’t know what I thought.  I’m so sorry. It wasn’t supposed to end that way.”

“Tony,” said Obadiah softly.  He was trying to put together the pieces.  “Come here.”

Tony rose and padded over to Obadiah.  Obadiah reached out and grabbed the neck of his shirt, and gently guided him toward the private bathroom.  Tony came along willingly enough, but his eyes were widening incrementally. By the time they entered the bathroom, he looked positively hysterical.  Obadiah closed the door gently behind them and locked it before releasing Tony’s shirt.

He appraised the bathroom.  It was moderately smaller than the one that had been in the master bedroom, but was still the size of a normal person’s bedroom.  The floor was white and brown marble, along with the shower that was built into the wall and the bathtub built into the floor. The sinks and handles were polished brass.  It managed to look surprisingly modern for all its antique finishings.

Obadiah had never used this particular room.  He wasn’t sure he’d ever even been here, since the last place Tony would ever be inclined to hide would be a bathroom.  

“Obadiah?” asked Tony weakly, his voice higher than it should have been.  It wavered slightly.

Obadiah turned on the water to the bath before straightening up and answering.  “Take off your clothes.”

Tony had practically climbed into the linen closet.  He was pressed so deeply into the stacks of towels he looked like he was hoping to be sucked in by them, and perhaps he was.  He looked small, and across the room, Obadiah could see the whites of his eyes.

He shook his head, just the tiniest bit.  Obadiah didn’t let his surprise show at this small act of defiance.  Instead, he repeated himself.

“Take off your clothes.”

And Tony, shaking like a leaf, pulled his shirt over his head, and with a moment of hesitation, unbuttoned his shorts.  He held them up, still pressed into the towels, eyes darting around the bathroom.

Obadiah crossed the bathroom and, in a single swift movement, pulled down Tony’s shorts.  Tony wasn’t wearing anything underneath. He stood exposed, and goosebumps erupted on his arms.

“So you’re talking now, and taking showers, and building… what do you call that thing in the shop?” asked Obadiah conversationally, standing as close as he could to Tony.  If possible, Tony sank a little further back into the stack of towels behind him. Obadiah was several inches taller than him.

“P-particle accelerator,” whispered Tony.

“Right.  That particle accelerator.  It looks like you’ve really been getting better, haven’t you?”

Tony’s head jerked in a completely noncommittal response.

“Is that because I’m dead, Tony?  Is that why?”

Tony’s body shuddered in response.  “Only the other Obie. Only him. N-not you.  J-just the one th-that h-hurt me.” He slid down a little and shook harder.  He looked on the verge of a massive breakdown.

“And exactly how many of me are there?”

“J-j-just you.”

Obadiah thought of that odd, not-quite-liquid patch in the basement.  Had he walked through it? He had certainly approached it and touched it and… yes.  He had walked through it.  And then the garage had looked different.  There had been the particle accelerator where there hadn’t been one before.  The disappearing piano, the casualness with which everyone seemed to accept Tony’s speech… maybe he was dead after all.  Or had gone back in time. Or had gone forward in time.  Or had simply gone completely insane and was having a massive stroke on the floor of Tony’s shop, and all this was a fantasy.

I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto, thought Obadiah.

The thought was meant to be comforting, but it chilled him.  

If anything was certain, it was that this new, confident Tony was dangerous.  Unlike his own meek, well-behaved Tony, this one had killed him. This one was in the Avengers and had a suit of armor that looked more like a fighter jet than an actual suit.  This one had fought back, and won. This one was certainly responsive to Obadiah; this one had certainly been through something .  His arc reactor and the thin scars on his back were proof enough that he’d been to Afghanistan and back, and his reactions to Obadiah were on point.  But this one, unlike his own, had just enough nerve to stand up for himself. Obadiah thought of that tiny shake of the head and repressed a shudder.

Tony had killed him.  But if Obadiah was dead, why did everyone seem to act so normal around him?  Did they not realize he was dead? Was he a ghost? Could ghosts grab Tony by the hair?  Was he a ghost who could only affect Tony? But what about Pepper?

“Get in the bath,” he said softly.  Despite the sound of running water, his voice was crystal clear.  Tony was shaking so hard his skin kept brushing Obadiah. Behind him, the towels could not be depressed any further.

Obadiah didn’t wait for him to shake his head again.  He grabbed a fistful of Tony’s hair and forcibly dragged him toward the bath.  Tony was whimpering, a high-pitched, nervous noise that was not dissimilar to a fearful dog.  He let go of Tony at the very edge of the water. “Get in,” he repeated.

Tony looked pleadingly at him.  His eyes were watery. “Obie. Please,” he whispered.

“Get in.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Get in.  Now.”

Tony stepped down.  Slowly, he slid down until he was sitting in the water.  Even though it was steaming, he was still shaking. He wrapped his arms around his knees.  Obadiah knelt.

“Oh, God, please--” began Tony, whose panic had risen and was now overflowing.  He never finished. Obadiah grabbed a fistful of his head and shoved his head under.

While Tony thrashed, Obadiah thought calmly about the predicament in which he found himself.  He knew he was in a different place or time. That much was obvious because when he’d woken up this morning, he wasn’t dead.  Everything had been normal. Pepper and Jarvis had confirmed his alive-ness, and as far as he knew, Tony wasn’t talking. So, clearly, this Tony was different from him his own, well-behaved Tony; this new rogue Tony was a member of the Avengers and built particle accelerators in the garage.  Tony and Pepper had greeted him familiarly in the shop, and Tony had seemed at ease with him there, even though apparently he’d killed him, too. How on earth come someone kill another person, see that person, and seem happy to see them, all at once? Was he a friendly ghost?

“Hmm,” said Obadiah outloud.  He glanced down to make sure Tony was still alive.  He was. He waited a few more seconds for good measure and then let him up.  Tony broke the water, gasping and scrambling for the edge of the bath, but Obadiah held him in place.  “How long’s it been since you had a bath, Tony?” he asked calmly. He gave Tony a few minutes to answer.

“I don’t know but please, Obie, I’m sorry, please,” begged Tony rapidly, squirming.  His hands clawed at Obadiah’s, which were still tangled in his hair. “I’m so sorry, really, I swear, I’ll do anything, please, I’m sorry, I’ll be good, I’m sorry!”

“You killed me,” stated Obadiah.  He felt odd saying it, but felt it was a good point.

Tony burst into tears.  Obadiah shoved him under the water again.  He had very little patience for tears. He pondered the situation while he held Tony’s head, thinking.  

Clearly, he had to go back to where he’d started.  Maybe, if he was dead, he could go back. What if his body was lying in the shop, emptied of its soul?  But the date on his death certificate had been over a year ago. Had he jumped forward in time? What had changed between breakfast, when all was normal, and now?

One thing that did make sense was making sure Tony knew he was boss.  He’d had a phenomenal amount of success with Tony in the past. As far as Obadiah was concerned, the Tony he knew had been on near-perfect behavior for over a year.  No wild parties or drugs or sex tapes or scandals or lawsuits or backtalk. Just a quiet, pleasant, pliable mascot for the company that bore his father’s name. A person to sign documents that Obadiah drafted and who would make a perfect scapegoat if the company ever got audited too closely.  A puppet, and a pet.

Obadiah suddenly realized Tony wasn’t struggling.  He yanked him up. Tony coughed and sputtered, twisting slightly.  Obadiah let go of him, and he collapsed on the edge of the bath, wheezing loudly.

“You didn’t actually think you could get rid of me that easily, did you?” he asked icily.

“But… Tony Alpha…” said Tony, gasping.  “The... car crash... and... his legs..."

Obadiah assumed he’d misheard Tony since what he said wasn’t making sense.

Obadiah stood up and paced, still thinking.  Behind him, he could hear Tony’s wet coughs intermingled with pained wheezing.  It had been a while since they’d done this.

He decided to go back down to the basement and see if he could find his body.  He wasn’t a spiritual man, but he could think of few explanations for the death certificate besides actual death.

Pausing, he noticed Tony crawling out of the bath.  He strode over, placed a foot on Tony’s shoulder, and kicked him back into the water.  At least this Tony seemed to have enough in common with the one he was familiar with that he wasn’t completely lost.  In fact, he felt he could probably re-break Tony in a matter of weeks. The idea of being a ghost who could still run a company and bully Tony wasn’t the worst idea, really.  In fact, it was kind of nice. Could ghosts still lounge by the pool and listen to smooth jazz?

Obadiah knelt by the bath.  Tony was still wheezing. He edged away from Obadiah, trembling.  Obadiah reached out and touched his face. “You missed me, didn’t you, Tony?  After you’d killed me?”

Unable to talk, Tony nodded weakly.

“You do know that you’re nothing without me, don’t you?”

Tony nodded again.

There was a knock at the door.

Tony and Obadiah both jumped.

“Tony?” called Pepper.  “Are you okay?”

Obadiah grabbed Tony’s hair; he gave Tony’s head a little shake.  “Tell her!” he hissed, so softly that he was almost inaudible.

“I’m fine, Pepper!” croaked Tony.  His voice sounded anything but fine. 

“Are you sure?”

Yes!  ...fine!  Really!"

“...okay…” said Pepper doubtfully.  “Just making sure.”

Both remained frozen for almost a minute, making sure Pepper was gone.  Obadiah broke the spell. He let go of Tony’s hair and stroked his face.  “Very good, Tony. Perfect. Would you like to get out of the bath now?”

Tony exhaled slightly.  He nodded once.

Obadiah considered shoving him under the water again, just to teach him his place, but instead he opted to drain the bath.  As the water drained, so did Tony’s tension. He practically melted as the water disappeared. Obadiah let him sit there and watched him shiver.  He didn’t offer him a towel.

“Go eat breakfast.  This never happened.”

Tony nodded, almost frantically.  He stood up, slid slightly in his haste, and darted across the bathroom.  He grabbed a towel and covered himself, then bent over suddenly and retched softly.  Obadiah grabbed him by the shoulders and steered him to the toilet just in time. Tony knelt and vomited.  Obadiah watched him for a few moments, but then decided to leave him there. He left the bathroom to the sounds of Tony’s gagging.


“How’s Tony doing?” asked Pepper as Obadiah dropped into an armchair.  She, Harry, and Tony were seated on the couch together watching Downton Abbey, at Harry’s insistence.  Both Tony and Harry had attempted to put an arm around her, ended up holding hands, and were now pointedly avoiding eye contact with each other.

Obadiah looked surprised.  “I haven’t seen him since yesterday.”

“He wasn’t in the shop when we came over,” added Tony.

“Shh!” hissed Harry, turning up the volume.

“...I just saw you upstairs.  Isn't he still up there?” asked Pepper.

“Do you mean downstairs?” asked Harry, who had seen Obadiah walking down the steps only moments before, when he was leaving the kitchen after finishing Tony’s untouched breakfast.

“I don’t recall.  Are you sure that wasn’t yesterday?” asked Obadiah.

“Pretty sure.  Tony was in the bathroom about an hour or two ago and I haven't seen him since.  I thought maybe you went up to check on him.  Where were you just now?” asked Pepper doubtfully.

“No, I've been downstairs all day.  I was with Reed.”

“Maybe you’re losing your mind, old man,” said Tony, grinning.  Obadiah leaned over and cuffed him playfully on the shoulder.

“Maybe then I’ll be able to get your level,” he retorted.

Their banter would have continued but at that moment their questions were resolved because Tony walked in.

"Oh, speak of the Devil," said Tony Alpha lightly.

Immediately, it was obvious something was wrong.  Tony Prime looked like he’d seen a ghost and had the waxy-skinned look Pepper normally associated with severe hangovers.  For some reason, he’d changed his clothes; he was wearing jeans and a different shirt than before, and his hair was wet like he’d taken another shower.

He walked past them without a word, made a beeline for the bar, grabbed a bottle of scotch, and began drinking it like a man dying of thirst would drink water.

“Whoa!  Whoa, whoa, whoa!” cried Harry.

Tony !” cried Pepper

“What the hell?” demanded Tony, who had, so far, maintained his insistence that Tony not drink around him.

Pepper, Harry, and Tony rose, but Pepper was fastest.  She darted across the room and grabbed the bottle, of which Tony had already managed to drink about a quarter.  He made a strangled squawking noise as she yanked it from him, and a brief struggle ensued.

“Not cool, man,” said Tony angrily, watching their tug-of-war.

“Tony, drop it!” barked Obadiah.

Tony let go of the bottle immediately.  Pepper stumbled back in surprise and dropped it on the floor, where it cracked.  Amber liquid began seeping across the floor.

Pepper grabbed him by the shoulders and gave him a shake.  “ Tony!”  Her voice was assertive, but tinged with concern.  Tony was avoiding eye contact. He glanced around the room, at the other Tony, at Obadiah, at the bar, back to Obadiah, and back to the bar, then fixated on the ceiling.  Pepper tilted his head toward her, but Tony’s eyes remained unfocused.

“He’s drunk,” she reported, sounding defeated.

“Already?” asked Harry in surprise.

“No, he was drunk when he came in.”  She let Tony go and he swayed on his feet slightly.

“Well, that’s just great,” snarled Tony.  He limped over to Tony and gave him a slap.  Everyone looked shocked but, unsure what the protocol was for responding to someone slapping themselves, did nothing.  “What’s your problem, Prime?  It’s been a great week and now you’re trashed again.  Obie and I have been over-the-top accommodating for you-- not to mention Pepper by the way-- my Pepper-- well, you too, Pepper, thanks-- and here you are shitting all over us like we don’t even exist.  Why are you so selfish?  Why are you such a selfish freakin' brat?”

Tony looked at him with red eyes, and then looked to Obadiah.  Abruptly he made a dash for the door and, moments later, all of them heard a vomiting noise, following by an exclamation of surprise from Reed.

Jesus .”

“He’s sick, Tony.”  Obadiah placed a hand on Tony’s shoulder.  “That was you a few years ago. He didn’t have the chance you did.”

Tony shook his head, looking disgusted.  “I’m going home. You can stay here and babysit his sloppy ass if you want to.  I can’t handle seeing myself like this.”

Obadiah patted his back.  “Okay, Tony. I understand.”

Swearing under his breath, Tony grabbed his cane off of the edge of the couch of the couch and strode purposefully away, toward the basement.  Pepper, Harry, and Obadiah went to find Tony in the kitchen, head buried in his hands, and Reed patting his back awkwardly. Beside him, on the countertop, his phone was laying face-up.  Sue’s face was displayed and her disembodied voice was calling Reed’s name. Pepper picked up the phone for him.

“Hi, Sue?  ...sorry, it’s Pepper.  Tony just crashed and Reed-- yes, I know it’s been weeks.  Well, it’s complicated.”

Tony’s body convulsed slightly but nothing came out of him.

“I think he’s done,” said Reed to Pepper, gesturing for the phone.  They swapped places gratefully; Pepper was more adept at handling a vomiting Tony than Reed was, and Reed was better at calming Sue, who was not thrilled with Reed’s absence nor the increasingly frequent interruptions to their phone calls, most of which involved some drama on Tony’s part.

“Tony?  Let’s get you to bed,” murmured Pepper, shaking his shoulder slightly.  Tony moaned in response. “Help me, Harry.”

“I’ve got him,” said Obadiah, stepping forward.  He took Tony's arm and pulled it around his shoulders, supporting his weight with surprising strength for a man his age.

“Well, it’s been over thirty years since I’ve done this,” he joked, smiling weakly.  

Tony made a noise of protest; his eyes darted fearfully toward Obadiah, then looked at Harry beseechingly.

“I need Alpha,” he whispered.

“Alpha Tony went home, man,” said Harry.  “You sort of made an ass of yourself back there.  It’s okay. He’ll come back later.”

“Please.”

“It’s okay, Tony.  I’ve got you,” said Obadiah reassuringly.

Tony didn’t respond.  Silently, he let Obadiah lead him to his room, the new room, not the master bedroom that had been converted into the shop.  He flinched away from the white box on the desk and, trembling, let Obadiah put him to bed.  Obadiah wished him a gentle good-night as he left, flicking off the light; the arc reactor remained on, casting the room into shadow and reflecting Tony's wide, open eyes.  Long after Obadiah had left, long after his shaking had subsided, his eyes remained open, watching the door to the bedroom, ever-alert for the evil he had invited into his home.

Chapter Text

Tony Alpha was still cursing when he slammed the door to the shop closed and crossed the room toward the collider.  It was making a strangled, looping rumbling noise, like a motorcycle that was one or two gears too high. A panel had been pulled off of the side and a tangle of wires was hanging out.  Tony dropped to the ground next to it to fix it. Unable to kneel, he sat, his legs splayed out in front of him.

“Goddammit, Tony,” he growled, picking at the wires with uncharacteristic impatience.  Normally, when it came to things mechanical or electrical, he had the precision of a surgeon.

“Tony?”

Tony looked up.  “Obie? Are you coming home, after all?”  Obadiah strode around a corner and stopped short, staring at Tony, seated on the ground.  “... what?” asked Tony, a little defensively.  He often felt self-conscious of his legs and was aware that Obadiah was staring at them with a look of shock.  “It’s not like you didn’t already know I look fucking awful in shorts.”

“Coming... home?” repeated Obadiah, eying him with suspicion.

“Yeah, I’m going home.  Fuck this universe and fuck this version of myself.  He’s a wreck. God, no wonder you went nuts in this place.  I want to kill him myself. He’s such an ass.” Perhaps misreading Obadiah’s confusion as admonishment, he continued.  “Look. I get it.  I know that’s how I was, before the accident.  But I got clean. I’m not saying he got what he deserved.  I feel bad for him. Seriously, it’s a fucked up situation.  I just.. I hate this universe.  This is the worst timeline.  I want to go home now and fuck my wife and go twenty-four hours without hearing about how messed up my life could have turned out.”  He sighed and dropped the wires in his hands. “It’s terrifying, Obie.  There but for the grace of God go I.  That’s me. That’s me with one small change.  And hearing that you could have ended up being a monster… that’s… that’s hard to hear.  It’s hard to wrap my brain around. You’re like… everything my dad never was. The idea of you as this sadistic, fucked-up villain… it’s crazy.  And the idea of you dead?  It gives me the creeps.  This whole dimension is crazy and I’m going home.  I just need some time in my own timeline for a while.”

“It’s another dimension,” said Obadiah, sounding dazed.

“Yeah.  Yeah, I know.  You’re right. I know it’s all different here.  I just have a hard time seeing you and me like that.  I just need to cool off.” Tony extended a hand, looking expectantly at Obadiah.  When he didn’t move, Tony said, “Hey. Help me up, old man.” Obadiah stepped forward and pulled him to his feet.  He looked like he was far away. Tony clicked his fingers in front of his face. “Hey. Obester. Snap out of it.”

“This machine,” said Obadiah.

“The particle accelerator?”

“This particle accelerator… it’s a portal.  It goes to other dimensions.”

Tony looked exasperated.  “Yeah, one other dimension.   This crappy place.”  He leaned hard on his cane so he could kick the panel on the floor.  “I wish I’d never built it. I thought we’d end up somewhere nice. Like, a dimension where everything was made of gumdrops or something.  Fucking convergent timelines. When I get home, I’m going tell Reed exactly where to shove his stupid plans. We should’ve built the geothermal turbines instead.  This was a waste of time. I don’t think Tony Prime is getting anything from this, anyway. He’s practically bipolar.”

“Tony Prime,” repeated Obadiah.  His eyes widened. “So… Alpha…” He looked down at Tony’s legs, then up.  He looked positively delighted. “So you’re Alpha.  And it was Prime that… oh!”

“Huh?  ...did you just get the Prime and Alpha thing?  We’ve been calling each other that all week.”

“Yes!  Yes, I got it!  Thanks, Tony Alpha!”

Tony snorted slightly and slapped Obadiah on the back.  “Yeah, no problem, Obie Alpha.” He limped around the collider and climbed up the ladder on the back.  Obadiah followed him.

“Are you coming?” asked Tony, looking down at Obadiah.

“No.  I think Tony Prime needs me here.”

“You’re a bigger man than me, Obie,” said Tony with a mixture of pride and disgust.  “I’ll see you tonight, okay? Don’t let him… just, you know, watch out for him, will you?”  He turned and strode into the heart of the machine. Obadiah watched him walking, and then simply vanish.

Everything made sense.

Feeling giddy, Obadiah hauled himself up the ladder, onto the grated catwalk that surrounded the machine’s center, and walked around it.  Nothing out of place here. Twelve pylons surrounded the center, which was circular and about the size of a tight elevator. They held up a heavy piece of piping and a mess of wires and smaller pipes, but there were six distinct openings, each only large enough to squeeze into sideways.

Obadiah walked into the middle and cast a look around.  Three of the pylons had been marked with chalk. One was labeled “619,” which had been crossed out and replaced with “Prime.”  One was labeled “620,” which had been crossed out and labeled “Alpha.” And one was labeled “1610?” which had been crossed out and labeled “Ultimate.”

Leave it to Tony to have to give all of his universes narcissistic, ego-stroking names.

Obadiah squinted carefully between two of the pylons, the ones labeled “Ultimate.”  Yes! The air there shimmered subtly, like heat coming off of pavement, and undulated like some sort of heavy gas or water, suspended sideways in the air.

He stuck out his hand; the air bent around it.  The portal labeled “Ultimate” stretched without any give, bending as if there was a coat of Saran wrap over the doorway.

The machine abruptly rumbled menacingly under him and he withdrew his hand, grabbing onto the metal railing, but the machine continued to shake with a deafening roar.  He turned just in time to see a cat walking out of one of the openings.

“Cinnamon!” he barked.

The cat looked up at him, bristled, and then streaked through the doorway labeled “Alpha,” prompting another shuddering roar from the machine.

Obadiah checked the other five areas.  The two other doorways that were labeled were of course shimmering; and there was one other opening was also, very faintly, wobbling.  He stepped through it and was immediately aware that he was standing on concrete, not grating.

He turned around.  The machine was gone.  He was in Tony’s garage and a heavy layer of dust covered the desk, the cars, and the tools hanging on the walls.  A white sheet draped over one of the robots gave it a sad, hunched appearance.

He turned again.  There it hung, a window without a frame: a patch of air that was different than the rest.

He wasn’t dead.  

At least, not in this world.

“I’ll be damned,” said Obadiah, to himself.

He rummaged through Tony’s desk to find a permanent marker, and made an X on the ground in front of the patch of air so he’d be able to find it again.  Then he went upstairs. The Steinway piano was still there.

“Have you found him, sir?” asked Jarvis.

Obadiah smiled at the old man, feeling elated.  “Yeah. I found him, Jarvis. I found him.”


“Pepper!” yelled Tony as the elevator door opened.  They’d long since gotten rid of the stairs to the basement; they were too difficult for Tony to manage.

“You’re home early,” said Pepper, looking up from her book.  Tony staggered out of the elevator and nearly tripped over the cat.  He poked it out of the way with his cane.

“I needed a break.  Tony Prime got completely shit-faced right in front of me.  It wasn’t even noon yet! Then he vomited all over Reed and Obie had to drag him to bed.”

Pepper pulled a sympathetic face.  “Sounds like he’s not doing so great.”

Tony dropped onto the couch next to her and they shared a kiss.  Tony smiled and looked down wistfully. The cat rubbed against his ankles, unbothered by the mechanical braces around his legs.

“Seeing the worst of yourself is… really awful.  I can’t believe I was that bad. Thanks for staying with me, Peps.  You’re a saint. Really. I mean it. A saint.”

Pepper smiled and closed her book.  “Well, if there’s one thing I like about the other Tony, it’s how grateful he’s made you.  Every time you come home, you have something nice to say.”

Tony shrugged one shoulder.  “I ought to say it more often.  You’re the best, Pepper.”

“Stop it, you’re going to make me blush.”

“The other Pepper blushes, too.”

“You should invite them over.  I’d like to meet her.”

Tony grinned wickedly.  “Yeah. I’d like that too.”

Pepper laughed and bopped him on the head with her book.  “In your dreams, Tony.”

“If I knew that marrying you meant I wasn’t allowed any other interdimensional Peppers, I might’ve thought twice,” said Tony, ducking to avoid the book again.  “Listen, since I’m home, let’s have a day to ourselves. Just you and me.”

“No other Peppers?”

“I couldn’t handle any more Peppers.  Besides, you’re the only one I need.” He laced his fingers through hers.  “Help me up, Peps.”

They rose from the couch together and shared another quick kiss.  “Someone’s affectionate.”

“I’m a modern-day Casablanca.”

“His name was Rick, not Casablanca.  And I was talking about Cinnamon.” Pepper knelt to pet the cat, who purred loudly at up at her, eyes squinted with pleasure.

“Upstaged by a cat,” groaned Tony with false misery.  “Well, I can’t blame you. There’s only one Cinnamon.”


 Tony woke to a massive, pounding headache.  It was so searing he felt like he might be sick all over again.  Sitting up in a tangle of sheets, he squinted at his bedroom. It was dark but he wasn’t sure what time it was.  He was alone. Someone had taken off his shirt, but he was still wearing his jeans.

He slid out of bed and poked his head out of the bedroom.  The hallway, lit by skylights, told him that it was sometime in the evening.  Not yet dusk.

He considered what to do.  He had the type of queasiness one normally gets from hangovers, and felt he should probably go to the kitchen and get some water and a light snack, even if he wouldn’t be able to keep it down.  But the house seemed sinister to him. Obadiah was lying to him… was Tony Alpha also lying? Perhaps Tony Alpha was so tightly controlled by Obie that he was just putting up an elaborate act. He could be a puppet of Obadiah’s.  No one could be trusted. Going to the kitchen would require a lot of walking, and Tony didn’t want to see anyone.

He considered the lounge.  A safer place to go, but not a safer place to be.  That was the first place they’d look for him.

In the end, he tip-toed down the hall towards his upstairs workshop, where his old bedroom had been.  It was protected by a keycard lock and had some armor he’d been working on. He could throw on the suit, kill Obadiah (again), and carry on with his life.  Clearly, Reed’s theory of convergence was more correct than they knew. Despite the rippling effects of the one small changes between their universes, the two universes seemed to gravitate toward any other commonality they could find.  Tony and Tony dressed the same every day, purely by coincidence. And Obadiah was still, deep down, the man he’d been. He was a threat and Tony had to act soon before he lost his nerve. He felt like a fool for believing Obadiah was a good person in any dimension.

Tony slipped into the shop and was relieved to see he had more there than he remembered.  A full suit, actually. A couple of little tweaks and he’d be ready to roll. He turned on a desk lamp and set to work, his headache pounding like a metronome to which he set his pace.


The door beeped, but Tony didn’t look around.  Only one other person knew the code to this room.

“Tony?”  Pepper’s voice rang into the workshop.  The first thing she noticed was the chill.  The balcony door was wide open, and a cherry-red robot was hunched over the balcony.

Tony’s poise looked strangely unnatural.  It was clear he was brooding, but in the suit, his stance was inhuman.  Yet his body was still leaning, forearms on the balustrade, and legs crossed, in a distinctively human poise.  It creeped Pepper out sometimes when he hung out in the suit doing human things.

He wasn’t wearing the helmet, and the ocean air ruffled his hair slightly.  The sun had set and the night was promising to be a cool one, but Tony seemed unaware.  At his feet, the helmet sat with its face set in a permanent metal grimace.

Pepper walked over to him and leaned over the balcony, looking down with him.  Far below them, the waves crashed on the cliffs in a rhythmic fashion.

“You know, sometimes, when I’d come out there, I’d think of jumping,” said Tony casually, as if remarking on the weather.  “But I never could. I would drink and try to get up the courage. And I’d even climb over, and lean out. But if I let go, I’d catch my balance at the last minute.  And I would panic whenever that happened because I’d come so close. It was like my body wouldn’t let me do what I wanted it to. Like I was a prisoner in it. And I thought, what if I had a better body, that would let me drop?  But ever since I built the suit, I still can’t do it.  Sometimes, I’ll go up high, higher than the clouds, and just drop, and close my eyes and let myself float down.  But I always catch myself before I hit the ground.  Because I hate the idea of the suit ending up like that, forever.  No one would be able to fix it. It’d be ruined.”

Pepper was silent.  It wasn’t news to her, but she hated hearing it.  She also wasn’t sure where any of this was coming from, because Tony’s mood over the last week had been downright chipper.

“It’s easy, now, to jump.  I do it all the time. I just can’t really crash.”  He stole a glance at her.  “Would you miss me?”

“Of course I would.”

“Yeah.”  Tony nodded pensively.  “Thanks.”

They stood in silence for a while.  Then, in one swift motion, Tony kicked the helmet off the balcony, vaulted over the railing, and went sailing down.  Pepper gasped and looked down. But she needn’t have worried. Tony’s suit had caught him, and he came out of the dive as naturally as a bird.  She watched the suit skim the surface of the water and then spiral lazily upward, and contemplated how bizarre her life had become.

Behind her, the door beeped, and Obadiah walked in.  He leaned next to Pepper and watched the small figure of Iron Man corkscrewing over the water.

“How’d you get in?”

“Easy.  The code’s his favorite prime number.  Always had been, ever since he was nineteen.”

Pepper nodded, and for a while, the two were silent.  The suit disappeared for a moment in the night as the jets cut, then four bright lights appeared, and the suit banked hard against the cliffs.

“Now there’s a free man,” said Obadiah wistfully.

“For a guy that can fly, he seemed pretty miserable to me.”

“Hmm.”  

The suit climbed the cliff wall and for a split second paused outside the balcony, hovering upright in mid air.  But seeing Pepper and Obadiah, he jetted upwards and was gone. Pepper waited for him to reappear, but he didn’t.

“Show’s over, huh?”

“Looks like it.”  Pepper pushed herself upright and walked toward the door.  Obadiah trailed her, skimming over the documents strewn all over Tony’s desk.

“Some suit.”

“It’s something,” agreed Pepper neutrally, holding open the door for Obadiah.  He gave one last glance at the schematics on the desk before following her. “Going home?”

“Yes.  You?”

“Maybe in another hour.”  Pepper and Obadiah walked downstairs together, said good-night, and parted.  Obadiah walked down the steps to the basement, and Pepper settled onto the couch with a book to wait for Tony to return.


 Pepper woke up on the couch with a start.  It was early morning, and Reed was setting a cup of coffee in front of her.

“Oh my God, it’s already morning.”  Pepper sat up; her book dropped from her lap.  She was aware of that hair was a mess and her clothes from the previous day were crumpled.

“You were asleep like the dead,” confirmed Reed.  “Tony and Obadiah went to get breakfast. I guess Tony didn’t come back in last night.”

“Hey, guys, did we get a cat?” asked Harry, wandering in eating a bagel.

“What?  No, of course not.”

“Well, there’s a cat in the kitchen, just so you know.”

“An actual cat?” asked Pepper, who was still feeling a bit groggy.

“Yeah, he knocked over my o.j. and won’t stop meowing.  I thought you should know.”

Pepper rose and tried to brush down her pants, but they were hopelessly crinkled.   At least it’s only Reed and Harry who are seeing this, she thought.  No sooner had she thought it than Obadiah walked up the stairs from the basement.

“I thought you were with Tony?”

“No, he’s downstairs,” said Obadiah, drifting past them towards the kitchen.  He came back with a cup of coffee.

“Did you see the cat?”

“What cat?”

Since the cat had disappeared, and Tony had reappeared, Pepper walked down to the basement.  She punched in Tony’s code: 1009. Entering, she was aware the the particle accelerator was growling much louder and deeper than usual.  “Tony?” she called.

Tony groaned in reply from a couch in the lounge.  His eyes were deeply ringed and a bruise was blooming on his neck.  He was only wearing jeans, and they were undone and threatening to come off if Tony moved.  He didn’t. He slung an arm over his eyes.

“Pepper.  I need to see Tony Alpha  It's urgent.”

“He went out for breakfast.  Tony, what’s going on?”

Tony hesitated, but then began.  “Pepper, it’s Obadiah. I think--”

The door made an angry buzzing.  Tony stopped and Pepper looked up just as the door beeped.

“Sorry!  Wrong code.  I got you breakfast, Prime.”  Tony tossed a McDonald’s bag at Tony, which hit him in the chest and fell to the floor.  Tony groaned weakly in reply. Tony sat down on the edge of a chair and began unwrapping an Egg McMuffin.  “Look, Prime. I’m sorry I lost my cool yesterday. You probably don’t remember. Anyway, I did, and I’m sorry, but you need to cut this shit out.  It’s embarrassing both of us. I mean, literally, you’re me, and you’re making us look terrible. What happened to your neck?” Tony shook his head weakly.  “You should get help.”

“Oh yeah?”  Tony lifted his head blearily.  “Like how Obadiah helped you?”

Tony looked offended.  “Yes, like Obadiah helped me.  You don’t need to be a sarcastic dick.  I know you’re jealous--”

“I’m not jealous!”

“--but you could have my life if you’d pull yourself together and just cool it with the drinking.”  He fished some fries out of the bag.

“How did you get fries at this time in the morning?” asked Pepper.

Tony gave her a look of exasperation.  “I’m Tony fucking Stark, Pepper. Seriously.  It’s like you forget my magnificent, rich, and charming persona sometimes.”  He tossed a few fries in his mouth, then turned back to Tony. “Fries?”

Tony shook his head with a groan.

“Hashbrown?”

Please don’t mention food,” said Tony, who was turning pale.

The door opened again with a beep and Obadiah walked in.  “Hi, Tony. Feeling any better this morning?”

Tony got up, stumbled to the sink, and gagged quietly into the sink, holding up his jeans with one hand.  “God, I’m dying,” he groaned.

Pepper scowled for a moment at the drama, but her expression melted when she glanced over at him.  Shirtless, with his back to them, a roadmap of faint, raised scars shone faint pink over his shoulders.  The other Tony stared with unmasked interested; when Tony turned around and saw him watching, his eyes narrowed.

“What?” he demanded.

“Nothing.  Just that, between your back and my legs, we look totally badass.”

Tony smiled weakly.  “Thanks, Alpha.” He glanced cautiously at Obadiah.  “I feel a lot better now,” he ventured.

“I’m glad to hear it.  Here, at least drink something.”

Tony edged toward them, still examining Obadiah in a guarded way.  The other three watched Tony, waiting to see what he did.

He sat.  He took a cup of tea from Obadiah.  Silently, he ate a few fries.

“You worried us all a little last night,” said Obadiah quietly.

“Sorry,” said Tony quickly, almost automatically.  Pepper raised her eyebrows. She rarely heard Tony apologize for anything so readily.

“Is there anything you want to talk about?” asked Obadiah.

Tony leapt to his feet.  “No!” he practically shouted, and raced out of the room.

Obadiah looked confused and hurt.  Tony held out a container of fries to him and shook it.  “He’s a mess, isn’t he?”

Obadiah looked like he wanted to agree, but Pepper respected that he didn’t.


There had to be some explanation, thought Tony, in the box of Obadiah’s personal effects.  As a man, Obadiah in his own universe had been reduced to a single white cardboard box of papers and items; certainly, there was some explanation in there for Obadiah’s behavior.  He seemed to get along fine with Tony Alpha. Was was he, Prime, universally ( multi -universally?) pushing some unknown button of Obadiah’s, turning him from Jekyll to Hyde without even realizing it?

He slipped into his bedroom and made a beeline for the box.  He didn’t even notice Obadiah slip in after him until it was too late.

He plunged his hands into the box of items and at the same moment became aware of a presence standing directly behind him.

Tony made a noise of surprise that was higher-pitched than he’d meant.

“Hello, Tony.”

Tony swallowed.  “Hey, Obie.” Obadiah was much closer to him than he felt comfortable.

Obadiah reached around him and pulled a photo out of the box.  He and Howard, shaking hands solemnly in front of their new business.  “You know, your father was a great man,” said Obadiah nostalgically, turning away and pacing across the room with the photo.  Tony left out a deep breath and relaxed, watching Obadiah pace the room. “Your father and I,” continued Obadiah, “both knew poverty.  We built this company from the ground up, from dirt and sweat and a lot of good ideas. And it did as well as we could have ever hoped.  He was brilliant and I was lucky to get into business with him.”

Tony nodded in agreement.

Obadiah looked up sharply.  “He never mentioned to me he planned on having children.  Perhaps he didn’t.”

Tony nodded again.  Obadiah strode over and slung an arm around Tony’s shoulder.  “You know that he didn’t especially want you, don’t you?” Tony shrugged.  “Fortunately for you, I did. I thought you would take over the company someday, and be every inch the man your father was.”  Obadiah heaved a sigh. “It’s a good thing he isn’t alive to see what you’ve become instead.”

“Sorry I’m not Tony Alpha,” said Tony defensively.

Obadiah slapped Tony.  Hard. “You know I hate back-talk.”

Tony stared at him defiantly, eyes watering from the pain, holding his cheek but maintaining an otherwise unaffected appearance.  “Then maybe you should go back to your own perfect universe.”

“Or maybe I should stay here and teach you a lesson.  Obviously, the other Obadiah failed. Look at what a mess you are.  It’s a wonder Pepper and Happy can stand to be around you like this.”  Obadiah cocked an eyebrow. “How long do you think it’ll be before she puts in her two weeks?”

“You can’t get into my head,” said Tony, eyes narrowing.  He stood a little straight and his hands balled into fists at his sides.  His cheek was still bright red.

“You say that like there’s anything to get into,” retorted Obadiah.  “You’re a simple man, Tony. Smart, maybe. But simple, and easy to figure out.  Your father was a much more complex soul. Maybe that’s why he and I worked so well together, and why you never measured up to him.”  He glanced down at Tony’s fists. “Without that suit, you’re nothing but a spoiled brat who never grew up.”

“I don’t need the suit.  You don’t scare me.”

Obadiah slapped Tony again.  It was unexpected; Tony didn’t have time to react.  “I don’t like lying, either,” said Obadiah softly.

Tony lunged at him.  Obadiah was thrown off balance; the two fell to the floor in a tangle.  For a moment, they rolled around, but Obadiah was bigger and quickly pinned Tony.  “I really thought we’d learned something earlier.”

Tony grunted, struggling.  He was exerting too much effort to retort. Obadiah’s arms were shaking with the effort of holding him down.  Obadiah hadn’t had to do this in a long time; he’d forgotten how strong-willed Tony could be. With a swift knee to the groin, he stopped Tony from squirming and was able to relax his grip a little.  He was surprised to feel that he was a little out of breath. He consciously controlled his breathing; he didn’t want Tony seeing any signs of weakness, or getting any ideas.

He sat back, straddling Tony’s stomach, and stared down at him.  Tony stared back, slightly curled, teeth gritted.

“I’m sorry I had to do that.”

Tony replied with a remarkably well-aimed spit in Obadiah’s face.  It took Obadiah a few moments to process it. He didn’t slap Tony. He got out a handkerchief, wiped his face, and put the handkerchief back.  Nothing needed said; Tony would pay dearly for that, and they both knew it.


“Ah-ah-ah!” protested Pepper, managing to grab Tony’s wrist as he approached the bar in the living room.  Reed looked up over his glasses. He had been taking notes, interviewing the other Tony about his universe, which had, he learned, some very big differences: a different president, self-driving cars, and an extra Avenger.  He couldn’t believe no one else was taking interest in these differences So far, he’d almost filled his “observations” notebooks. (His “methods” notebooks were made up of four volumes in the basement.) A large number of his observations were about the differences between the two universes’ residents.  In some ways, it was a Tony field guide. Reed felt a bit uncomfortable about the idea of publishing it. Tony Prime didn’t look very good in it.

Tony tugged.  “Leggo,” he demanded, attempting to pry off Pepper’s fingers.

“I will when you stop pulling,” said Pepper calmly, face twisting in pain as she tried to move Tony’s fingers away from hers.  “I will pour you a drink, Tony.   Stop it.  You’re hurting me.”

Tony stopped tugging.  After a moment to make sure he wasn’t faking, Pepper let go of his wrist and went to the bar.  Reed and Tony watched her take out a glass and pour Tony a drink.

“More,” he commanded.

“Start with this.”

“Top me off.”

“Later.”

The other Tony, sitting next to Reed, cleared his throat loudly.  “Yeah, it’s okay, don’t worry about me, I’ve just been sober six years, it’s cool.”

“Oh, shut up, Alpha.”  Tony drank the glass in less than ten seconds and held it out to Pepper.  She took it, but made no move to pour more.

“You know, Tony, maybe you should talk to Tony about what he went through to get sober,” suggested Obadiah.  Tony looked toward him sharply. Obadiah was leaning in the door frame. “He might be able to help. He knows exactly what you’re going through, better than anyone.”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” hissed Tony, edging back.  So long as he wasn't alone, he was safe.  Obadiah had always been a cautious man, preferring delicate, secret, psychological games to brute force.  Not that he was above that, either.

“Well, yes, I would, actually.  It really hurts both of us to see you so self-destructive.”

“Can’t stand anyone stealing your thunder, huh?”  Tony looked a bit proud. “That’s my secret, fucker.  No one can hurt me anymore. I’m the only one here who can touch me.  I’m unbreakable.” He swiped at the bar; Pepper, in an elegant movement, pulled away the bottle he was reaching for.

“I think Obadiah’s right.”

“You think he’s right?” repeated Tony, dumbstruck.  “After what he did?”

“Tony, that was a different Obadiah.”

Was it?  Everyone keeps calling me and Alpha the same guy.  How do you know he’s not capable of what the other Obadiah was?”

“Tony,” said Obadiah.  He walked into the room and sat down heavily on one of the armchairs.  He looked suddenly very old. “I am capable of that.  That’s what this universe proved to me, and it’s the worst thing I’ve ever discovered.  You have no idea how much shame and regret it’s caused me. I wish I could change your past and fix what happened.  I wish it hadn’t ever happened, and I feel awful about it. And maybe that’s why it’s so important to me to see you get some help.  Because watching you hurt like this… it’s hurting me, too, Tony. What happened in this universe is worse than I can possibly imagine, and God… it’s… it’s something that’s going to haunt me until I die.”

Tony got up and strode over to Obadiah.  He sat on the arm of the chair and they embraced.  

Tony looked disgusted.  “You can’t change me! You can’t force me to do anything.  No one’s going to tell me what to do ever again.”

“Tony, he’s not your Obadiah,” repeated Pepper.  “And everything he just said applies to me, too.  Do you think you’re getting revenge on him by drinking yourself to death like this?  You’re hurting me, and Happy, and yourself. And by yourself I mean the other Tony. But also literally yourself.”

“You can’t punish him for being hypothetically Obadiah Prime,” added Tony defensively.  “Maybe he has that potential, but maybe we all do. Maybe there’s universes where you ended up as the bad guy, or Pepper turned on you, or Howard was a duck instead of our father.  Who the hell knows?”

As if it was actively listening to their conversation and had decided to chime in, there was a sudden ominous rumble under their feet from the particle accelerator in the basement.

“There’s probably any possibility you can conceive of,” offered Reed.

“Shut up, Reed,” said both Tonys.

"I'm very concerned about the stability of the portals.  I don't think our movements between universes is good for the integrity of the--"

“Shut up, Reed,” repeated both Tonys.

Tony pointed to Pepper.  “I bet he’s been telling you you ought to quit, huh?”

What ?”

Tony pointed to Obadiah.  “I get it. You’re going to threaten me by saying she’s on her way out, and then convince her to leave!  Is that it?”

“What are you talking about?” protested Obadiah weakly.  “I never told you she was going anywhere!”

“Well, I’m calling your bluff!  Pepper! You’re fired!” Tony stormed out of the room.

“What the hell was that?” asked Tony after a pause.

Pepper shrugged.  “He’s fired me before.  He’ll be okay. Help me water down these bottles in case he goes on another binge.

Tony strode back into the room, practically running.  “You can’t guard the fridge forever!” he yelled shrilly at Obadiah before walking out the other doorway.

Tony and Obadiah exchanged helpless looks.

“Guard the fridge?” repeated Reed.

Obadiah opened his arms in a gesture of confusion.  “I haven’t been in the kitchen all day.”

Tony poked his nose back into the room.  “Pepper, I’m serious, you’re fired.”

“Yes, Mr. Stark,” said Pepper, rolling her eyes behind his back as she continued to pour water into Tony’s liquor bottles.  

Reed’s pen scratched the paper and he wondered if he’d even bother showing Sue his notes.  They were turning into a horror story, and he was looking forward to disassembling the particle accelerator and going home.


Tony bumped into Obadiah on his way down the stairs.

“Watch where you-- oh.  Hello, Tony.”

“Guess who followed us into the portal?” asked Tony, holding up a tawny-colored cat.  “Cinnamon!”

“Oh.  Hello, Cinnamon,” said Obadiah, reaching out to pat Cinnamon.  The cat hissed and swiped at him.

“Huh!  Sorry, Obie.  I don’t know why he did that.”  Tony squeezed past Obadiah with some difficulty, his leg stiff.  “Would you mind grabbing Reed’s notebook? He filled out another one.  I couldn’t get the cat and the cane and his notebook all at once. Just put it on my desk downstairs.”

“Sure.”

“Hey, Obie.  Are you okay?  Tony’s been sort of a tool lately.”

“It’s okay.  I’m used to it.”

“Ouch.”

Obadiah shook his head.  “Sorry, sorry. That was… uncalled for.  I’m just a little… uh, fuzzy. This is a complicated issue for me.”

“I understand.  Cinnamon, stop .”  The cat squirmed unhappily in his arms.  “I better go before the furball loses it.  Remember Reed’s notebook. Thanks, Obie.”

“Sure thing, buddy.”

Obadiah watched Tony and the struggling cat walk down the stairs, then turned and went to the living room.  A notebook was sitting on the coffee table. Obadiah picked it up and opened it, leafing through it.  His eyes widened.

It was a documentation on every observed difference between two universes, Alpha and Prime, neatly listed into two columns on every page, in precise, deliberate lettering.

Piano and no piano; arc reactor and no arc reactor; cat and no cat.

It was a guide to the universes, to the houses, to the Tonys, a compare-and-contrast atlas of the worlds, laying unguarded on the glass coffee table next to a few back issues of Wired magazine like a diamond in the rough.  An invaluable asset.

Obadiah grabbed it and made his way toward the back of the house; it looked like he was going to get to lounge by the pool today after all.

Chapter Text

Tony was watching the television in the upstairs lounge and slowly screwing a bolt onto a metal panel when Obadiah walked in.  Tony immediately tensed and stopped working, but didn’t move his eyes from the screen.

“Hey there.  What are you working on?”

“Nothing.”

“Tony, it seems like over the last day or two, you’ve been hostile.  Is there anything you want to talk about?”

“No.”

Obadiah sat down next to him and put an arm over his shoulders.  “I know what you went through here was… well, it was a nightmare.  I’m sorry that happened. But I hope you know that I really do care about you.  Maybe, deep down, so did he. Maybe we all care about you, and resent you, too. I don’t know.  But I can tell you that watching my Tony mature into the man he is now made me… so proud. And whatever resentment I had is gone.”

“Are you telling me he’s a good little boy and that you’ve stopped torturing him?”

“Tony.  I’ve never hurt him.”

“So, just me, then?”

“Tony.  You know that wasn’t me.  I’m just as responsible for what happened to you as my Tony is for getting drunk and throwing up on Reed yesterday.”

“I don’t remember that.”

“No, well, you wouldn’t.”  Obadiah sighed and rose. “Sometimes I worry that this was a mistake.  I was hoping that I could give you closure, but I feel like the longer I stay, the more upset you get.  Maybe it’s time we ended this.”

Tony looked down at his panel.  “Yeah. Maybe you’re right.”

Obadiah made his way out of the room.  Tony kept staring at the panel. A moment later, however, Obadiah returned.  Tony looked up. Obadiah held out a hand expectantly. Automatically, Tony handed over his screwdriver.  Obadiah sat, turning the tool over in his hand. The television played quietly in the background.

“One thing we have in common is that we both like problem-solving,” said Obadiah.

“Yeah,” agreed Tony.

“For example, you’re working on… whatever that is.  And I’m, well. I’m working on you. You’re currently my biggest problem.”  He dropped the screwdriver on the floor.

Tony’s brow furrowed.  “You came into my universe.”

“It’s a bit like walking into your bedroom after one of your parties, Tony.  It’s not my mess, but I still want to see it cleaned up. And I know that you’re capable of being broken, because I’ve already done it.”  Obadiah reached over and gently took the panel from Tony’s hand, and set it beside him on the couch. “Why don’t we skip forward to the solution instead of making this hard on both of us?”  Tony started to rise. Obadiah grabbed his shoulder and forced him down, digging in his fingers. “Kneel.”

Tony hesitated, then knelt on the floor.  Obadiah leaned forward, still sitting on the couch.  “The other Tony can’t do that. Which is a shame. I like seeing you on your knees.”

“What’ve you done to him?” asked Tony quietly.

“Nothing he’ll ever admit to you.”  Obadiah put a hand on Tony’s head and pushed it down.  “Now lick my shoes.”

Tony squirmed, but Obadiah maintained pressure.  

In a flash, Tony grabbed the screwdriver from the ground and made a stab at Obadiah’s leg.  Obadiah pulled out of the way just in time; he grabbed the panel from the couch and brought it down on Tony’s head, and plucked the screwdriver from his grip while he was dazed.

“No!” yelled Tony, as Obadiah dropped to the floor and pinned him face-first onto the ground.

Obadiah pulled a cigar out of his pocket and lit it calmly.  He took a few puffs to get it started, and then a long drag. Inside, his heart was racing.  Tony was far more headstrong than he’d realized. Beneath him, Tony was struggling. Obadiah noticed a small trickle of blood in his hair; the edge of the panel must have nicked him.

“You know you’re only making this harder on yourself, don’t you?” asked Obadiah, reaching down and pulling up Tony’s shirt slightly.  He could see scars, and ribs.

“No!” repeated Tony, a hint of panic in his voice.

Obadiah held out his cigar and contemplated it for a moment.  “Maybe you like it. Maybe you’re a sick little fuck who loves this.  Because there’s a very simple solution here, which is to behave yourself like the dog you are, and then I wouldn’t have to punish you.”

No! ” barked Tony.

Obadiah took another long drag on his cigar, and then, without hesitation, pressed it onto Tony’s side.  Tony began to yell, but Obadiah clamped his other hand over Tony’s mouth, muffling his screams.

“You can stop this whenever you like, Tony,” murmured Obadiah into his ear.  “We can be partners again, you and I. You can come back to my universe, show me some of those suit designs of yours, and I’ll make sure you don’t have to go through any of this again.  I might even reward you.  If I'm honest, I've grown bored of my own Tony.  He's too compliant.  He doesn't invent things anymore.  But you.  You've been busy, haven't you?” Obadiah leaned back and checked his cigar. It was out. He relit it. Under him, Tony’s chest heaved. There was a faint smell of seared meat in the room, mingled with the rich, oak-like smell of the cigar.  “Now,” said Obadiah through his teeth, holding the cigar in them. “I’d like an apology for your behavior earlier.”

Tony said nothing.

Obadiah leaned down.  “I’d like you to say, ‘I’m sorry, Mr. Stane.  I won’t do that again. I’ll be a good boy for you.’  Can you say that for me?”

No .”

Obadiah made a soft noise of frustration.  “You prick, Tony. This is one of my better cigars.  I don’t want to ruin it on the likes of you.”  He took a drag on it, then put a hand over Tony’s mouth again.  Tony’s screams never made it outside the lounge.


Tony staggered into the living room that evening, clearly intoxicated.  No one bothered to say anything. Reed, Pepper, Harry, Tony, and Obadiah had been playing a board game and they were remiss to ruin the evening with any drama.  The other Tony shifted, making room between him and Obadiah. Tony hesitated, swaying a little. Obadiah patted the seat beside him.

“C’mon, Alpha,” said Tony Prime.

Tony obediently stumbled over and dropped onto the plush leather couch beside him.

Pepper set down a card and Reed took a pile on the table and began shuffling.  

“How’s it going, Tony?” asked Obadiah pleasantly.

Tony shrugged miserably.  “Okay,” he mumbled.

Obadiah put an arm around him.  For a while, the others played their game.  Tony stared at the coffee table, eyes a little unfocused, obviously thinking of something else.

“Obie?”

“Mm-hm?”

“Were you and my dad actually close?”

“About as close as anyone could get to him.  He was a hard man to get to know,” said Obadiah, taking a card from the deck.  “He did love you though, you know. In his own way. I know that much.”

Tony looked down at his hands.  “Was he proud of me?”

“Yes, he certainly was.  You took after him in a lot of ways and I think he respected you immensely, even if he never said it.”

Tony bit his lip.  “The company,” he said. It wasn’t quite a question, but Obadiah answered it anyway, still playing the game with the others, who were keeping their faces patiently blank.

“The company isn’t as important to me as you are, Tony.”  Obadiah gave him a little shake with the arm around his shoulders.  “That’s why I’ve been here all week with you, instead of in my own universe.  Because you matter a lot to me.”

Tony abruptly turned and hugged Obadiah.  Pepper and Harry exchanged surprised glances.  The other Tony shook his head with annoyance and mimed drinking.

“I’m sorry.  About earlier.  Mr. Stane,” said Tony.

Obadiah awkwardly patted Tony on the back.  “Well... that’s okay, Tony. You don’t need to apologize.  Just sit with us for a while, okay? We enjoy your company.”

Harry made quotes in the air with his fingers to imply sarcasm.  Reed, who was sitting next to him, nudged him with his shoulder. Harry took the opportunity to peek at his cards.

“Speaking of company,” said the other Tony, a bit loudly, trying to wrestle the conversation back into stable territory, “Pepper invited you guys over for dinner tomorrow.  She says it’s time she gets to meet you. And you, Pepper. She’s really excited about it. I tried to tell her what a sarcastic bitter mess you are but she said she was used to that sort of thing from me for some reason and that she’d get a cheesecake.  Obviously, the whole entourage is invited. Happy, Reed, everyone. Also there’s no booze at my house for you to dramatically ruin the night with, so…”

“Sounds like fun,” said Pepper.

“I’d really like to see it,” agreed Reed.

Tony didn’t say anything.  His shoulders were shaking a little; Obadiah had to put his arms around him to see his cards.    He played the rest of the game with Tony practically sitting in his lap, and everyone else pretended like that was normal.


 Tony had a plan.  He couldn’t deal with Obadiah forever.  Sooner or later, one of them would win.

It seemed to Tony that the best plan of action would be to cooperate for now and kill Obadiah the first chance he got.  But there was a fly in the ointment. Tony liked Tony Alpha. This complicated things. He could kill Obadiah, but Alpha didn’t seem to realize what Obadiah truly was.  Killing Obadiah was sure to cause a ruckus because to everyone else, he was genial and charming and very patient. He could close the portal, but doing so would trap Tony Alpha with Obadiah, and Tony vaguely felt he should help the other Tony.  Unless Alpha was actually in cahoots with Obadiah. It made sense, actually. Happy, sober Tony?  Either Alpha was a brain-washed puppet who needed rescued or he was just as evil as Obadiah was.  Tony suspected that Tony Alpha was a victim, though. All the talk of Obadiah “helping” Tony… Tony shuddered.  Who knew what Obadiah Alpha was capable of? He’d completely brainwashed the other Tony. He would have to tread carefully around Alpha and assume he was an extension of Obadiah until further notice.

Then there was the matter of dinner.  He had meant to handle the situation immediately, as soon as possible, but he was hungover and hurting from his most recent run-in with Obadiah.  Now Pepper and Reed were getting ready for interdimensional travel (by straightening their hair and getting some new lab notebooks, respectively) and Obadiah was god-knows-where and if Tony destroyed the portal now he might trap Obadiah in his own universe or trap someone else in their universe.  He couldn’t trash the machine until everyone was where they came from, and he couldn’t just kill Obadiah in cold blood while everyone was still fooled.

But-- his blood chilled-- what if Obadiah’s plan from the beginning was to drag him into Universe Alpha?  What if “dinner” was just a front to trap another Tony? What if that’s why the other Tony was so nice to him… because he was hoping to be replaced and get away from Obadiah?  Obadiah had already expressed an interest in replacing the better-behaved but less innovative Tony with him.  And if Tony didn’t go, what if Obadiah held Pepper hostage? What was he capable of? Pepper and Reed had already stated they wanted to see the other universe and wouldn’t listen to Tony’s pleas not to go.

Tony felt sick when he thought of how he’d let Obadiah see how reliant he was on Pepper.  If Obadiah knew how much Pepper meant to him, surely he would use this information to his advantage, the conniving bastard.  Tony felt helpless and wished there was a perfect solution, but he felt he would have to get everyone to see Obadiah for what he was, first, and that in the meantime he should avoid being alone, and avoid leaving Pepper alone, too, just in case.

To that end, he spent the entire day of their dinner plans shadowing her closely, until she looked ready to tear her hair out.

“Tony, I’m trying to change,” she snapped as he wandered after her into the spare bedroom she often used when she didn’t feel like driving home.  She shoved him out and closed the door rather rudely in his face. “You can talk to me through the door if you need to!” she yelled on the other side.

“Okay,” called Tony, pressed against the keyhole.  “I just need you to make sure I’m still here. I’m standing here, in the hall, waiting for you.  Standing in the hall. Yep, just waiting for you here in the hall, outside your door. Standing and waiting.”

“Do you need anything, Tony, or are you planning to just drive me crazy all day?”

“I’m having a rough time,” said Tony.

“Yes, I noticed, what with the drinking and the nightly wanderings and the screaming this morning during your nap.  What the heck happened, Tony? Everything seemed like it was going great. Aren’t you happy to see Obadiah? We’re going to go to another dimension this afternoon.  That’s pretty exciting, isn’t it?”

“Actually, I wanted to talk to you about Obadiah and stuff,” said Tony.  But he stopped abruptly when he saw Obadiah approaching.

“I heard my name.  How’s it going?” asked Obadiah, smiling paternally at Tony.  Tony shrank against the door.

“Talk to me about what stuff? Tony?” called Pepper on the other side of the door.

“Nothing!”

“Don’t ‘nothing’ me, Tony.  Tell me what’s going on. You can’t follow me around all day and then act like nothing’s wrong.”

“I think I understand,” said Obadiah, leaning against the doorframe.  Tony pressed against the door and wondered if he should just start screaming.  Would he have time? He would have to choose his words carefully. Damn Obadiah’s long-assed syllabic name.  Would he be able to get out “Obie bad” or “Stay in there, Pepper, he’s an evil interdimensional presence trying to drag me off to his nightmare alternative universe where he's hell-bent on torturing me until I give him my Iron Man suit plans, and you’re probably also in danger through association?”  And what would Pepper do? On one hand, he felt like she’d immediately burst out and save him. After all, she always did exactly what he needed her to. On the other hand, she was changing, and she remained the only woman Tony wanted to see naked that he never had.  He wondered if this sort of emergency would constitute enough of a crisis for her to come out half-dressed. What if the last thing he ever saw were her tits? Well, that wouldn’t be so bad.

He took a deep breath, readying himself to yell, even though he hadn’t planned on what to say yet.  But then the door opened abruptly, and he fell right into Pepper’s arms.

“Ally-oop,” she said, catching him.  “Obadiah, come in. I think we all need to sit down and talk about this.

Tony noted that she was disappointingly clothed in a cream-colored sweater and a pair of long pants.  

He and Obadiah walked in.  Obadiah sat on the edge of the bed and Tony positioned himself between Obadiah and Pepper.  Maybe he could shove her out the door, tell her to go contact Nick Fury, and lock himself in?  How long could he fight a bigger, stronger man without any suit to aid him?

“Let’s just come clean,” said Obadiah calmly, focusing on Tony with his laser-like blue eyes.  Tony prepared to shove Pepper toward the door. “We both know the machine downstairs isn’t stable.  It’s been acting up for a couple of days, and we can’t keep it open forever. Every time one of us walks through it, it gets a little less stable.  And even if we could keep it open forever, which we can't, I can’t spend every waking moment in this universe. It’s time to say good-bye and I think that, well… you’ve never been good at good-byes.”

Tony was silent.

“That’s why we invited you over.  We thought we should end all this on a high note.  We talked it over last night, and we think it’s time for you to get some closure and move on with your life in this universe.  My being here is affecting you in a very bad way. It’s time I went back to my own universe now.”

A lump formed in Tony’s throat.  So that was Obadiah’s plan.  To trap him in his universe!  When he said “say good-bye,” he meant to his life.  But why invite Pepper, too?

Tony decided his first priority had to be protecting Pepper.  What about the other Tony and the other Pepper? After a few moments, he decided the other Pepper should come before Tony.  Alpha would want it that way. Besides, having two Peppers in his universe was an incredible thought.

“Tony?  Are you listening to Obadiah?” asked Pepper.

“Loud and clear,” said Tony, staring down Obadiah to let him know he wasn’t intimidated and knew exactly what the score was.

Obadiah rose.  “I know this is hard, Tony.  But it’s for the best.”

He approached Tony and put a hand on his shoulder.  Tony forced himself not to flinch away. He stared at Obadiah, praying that Obadiah wouldn’t punish his insolence in front of Pepper.  His gamble paid off. Obadiah patted him gently and turned to leave. Tony allowed himself to breathe out.

“Are you going to be okay, Tony?” asked Pepper softly.

“You bet I am, Pepper,” said Tony.  He took a deep breath, steeling himself for the night ahead.  “You bet I am.”


Tony was unsurprised when Obadiah cornered him later in the shop.  At least, he was unsurprised by the confrontation. He was a little surprised that Obadiah knew his keycode.  He cursed himself for not changing it after Obadiah’s death. Of course Obadiah would know his keycode.  He made a mental note to tell Jarvis to remind him to change it later.

“Look what the cat dragged in,” he said, standing.

“Someone’s cocky,” said Obadiah, placing his hands on either side of Tony and pressed his back against the wall.  Without Pepper, Tony felt smaller and less brave. Or maybe it was just that Obadiah was so much taller than him.

“Yeah, well, the score’s one-zero already, so I feel like I sort of earned it,” said Tony, more confident than he felt.

Obadiah back-handed him.  “You little shit. You think you can kill me in one dimension and get away with it?”

“I already did.  And I’m going to do it again.  You can’t fool everyone forever.”

“In a house this big, I can get away with anything I want.  You, better than anyone, should know that.” Obadiah pressed against Tony.  Tony’s knees were feeling weak, but he remained standing, adrenaline pumping.

“You lose, Obadiah.  It’s all over. I’m going to beat you again, or die trying.”

“You’re not going to do that.  You’re going to do exactly what I tell you and it’s not going to be anything as pleasant as dying.”  Obadiah gripped Tony’s shoulders and Tony felt terror bubbling up within him, but blessedly, at that moment, Harry entered the room.  Obadiah had left the door to the shop open. For a split second, Tony wonder what would have happened if he’d closed the door, locking them in.  He forced himself not to.

“Oops!  Hey, guys, sorry!”

“Happy!” cried Tony gratefully.  He yanked away from Obadiah and raced over to Harry, grabbing him.  “Come here, right now! C’mon!”

He hustled out the door with Harry, who was looking confused and holding two ties in his hand.  “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt. Just wanted to ask which tie you liked better for tonight.  Is red too bold?”

“Nope, red’s perfect.  Happy, come here. We need to talk.”  Tony dragged him down the hall toward his bedroom and slammed the door behind him.

“Are you wearing red?  I don’t want to look like a loser in front of the other Happy.”

“Happy, shut the fuck up about ties for a second.  I’ve got to tell you something. Obadiah is lying. He’s not the kindly old man he’s pretending to be.  He’s just like my Obadiah was, and I think he’s probably abusing the other Tony, too. He’s completely brainwashed him.  He’s trying to trap me so he’ll have two of us, as slaves!  He wants to drag me to Universe Prime so I can build weapons for him!”

Harry looked doubtfully down at the two ties in his hand.  “Are you sure?”

Tony slapped the two ties of his hand.  “Goddamnit, Happy. You look terrible in green.  Wear the red one. Now listen. How do you think I got this bruise on my neck?”  He yanked his shirt up, and his pants down. He pointed to his side, and then to his inner thigh.  “Look, Happy! Look at this fucking thing!”

“Geez,” said Harry, staring at the enormous burn on Tony’s thigh.  “Is that from a cigar?”

“Yes!  He put one out on me!  He’s evil. He acts all nice half the time and then corners me when I'm alone and… and he’s going to get revenge for what I did to the other Obadiah if I don’t do something soon, and he’s probably going to drag Pepper into this, too.  We have to fix this.”

“Okay.  What’s the plan?” asked Happy.  “Also, can you pull up your pants now?”

Tony yanked up his pants.  “We’re going to go to dinner dressed to the nines and we’re going to show everyone exactly what Obadiah is and then, hopefully, the other Tony won’t care when we kill him.”

“You’re going to kill the other Tony?”

“Kill Obadiah, you moron.”

“So, we’re going to dress nice and expose Obadiah as a sadistic fuck?”

“Huh?  ...are you still thinking about ties?”

“You said dressed to the nines.”

“I meant packed, Happy.  Like, with nine millimeters.”  Tony crossed the room, dug around in the white box of Obadiah’s personal effects, and pulled out the pearl-handed service revolver.

“I don’t think that’s what that phrase means, boss.  Why can’t you just use the suit?”

“People will notice if I go to dinner as Iron Man, Happy.  We have to be subtle. This is a covert operation. ...my dad gave Obadiah this gun,” he added, almost nostalgically, before stuffing it into the waistband of his jeans.  “Anyway, a regular gun will work just fine. The whole reason Obie wants me to go to his universe is so that I can’t use the suit. He won’t be expecting me to pull a regular, old-school pistol on him.  Ha!” He dropped to his knees, and pulled another gun that was taped to the bottom of the dresser. Happy watched as he pulled out a silencer and began screwing it on.

“How many guns are in this room?”

“I’m a weapons designer, Happy.  There’s guns in all of the rooms.”  Tony rolled up his pants and pushed the second gun into his sock.  “Come on, Happy. We’ve got to load up.”

“Boss, you haven’t been sleeping well lately.  Are you really sure Obadiah is... ?“

“Yes.”  Tony opened a dresser drawer, pulled out a pair of jeans, rummaged through the pockets, and pulled out a small bag.  “Now do some lines with me.”

“Oh, geez, boss... “

Tony shook out the contents onto the dresser and snorted it heavily.  He shook his head hard, but there was still white powder in his mustache.  “Woo! Okay. Ready to rock and roll.” He pulled a black marker out of his pocket.  “Pay attention, Happy! Here’s our priorities. Number one, protect Pepper Prime. Number two, kill Obie.  Number three, protect Pepper Alpha. Number four, protect me.” On the mirror, he wrote “PEPPER. KILL. PEPPER.  ME.” He tapped it so hard that Harry worried the mirror would break. “Capiche? Got it, Happy? Got it?”  

“Yeah, yeah, I got it.”

“Great.  Okay. We have to act natural now so no one knows what’s up.  Help me take a shower.”

“What?”

“God damn it, Happy!  Obadiah is lurking around trying to fuck with me!  I need constant vigilance !  Stand and guard me while I shower!  At dinner, no one can leave Pepper unattended, okay?  Guard her like she’s my asshole at one of Hammer’s parties.”

“Huh?”

“Because they’re gay, Happy, and that dude’s always trying to fuck me over! ”  Tony ripped off his shirt.  “Get me a towel! Go!” The cocaine was starting to take effect, and Tony looked absolutely deranged.  His arc reactor threw the lines of his face into sharp relief. He was clearly exhausted.  Yet all of his words were being barked in a sharp staccato, too loud and too fast.

“Tony.  Boss. Couldn’t we just call S.H.I.E.L.D. and have them take care of this?”

“And let them know what he did to me?” shrieked Tony, gesturing wildly.  “No! This is my battle to fight, Happy! Just me and Obie! ...and also you!”

Harry looked uncertain, but he’d seen Tony manic before and thought it was better to agree with him.  “Okay, boss, okay.”

Placated, Tony went to take a shower, while Harry stood outside the shower curtain, listening to the running water.

Chapter Text

“Tony?” called Pepper. 

It was nearing sunset and Tony was nowhere to be found.

“...Tony?” she called, a little louder.

Pepper had come in with dinner from Canter’s Deli, hoping to lure Tony out with the promise of food.  His relationship with food post-Afghanistan was something of a love-hate affair; at times, he ate himself sick, and others, he refused to eat anything at all.

Generally reticent, he could usually be bribed with food.  Obadiah keep a close eye on the fridge and kept tight control over Tony’s diet; as a result, one of the few things that Tony was truly motivated by anymore was food.  Pepper knew Obie’s intentions were in Tony’s best interests, but she worried about him. He was thin; she often slipped him snacks, which he tooks eagerly.

“Tony?  I got you a kinish.  ...Tony?”

“Have you checked the shop, ma’am?” asked Jarvis, stepping out of the dining room, polishing a silver knife.

Pepper shook her head.  “No. Tony knows he’s not allowed in there.”

It was one of Obadiah’s rules; Tony was too delicate and unstable to be allowed down there unsupervised.

“I’ll check the study.  You check the gym,” she instructed wearily, placing a hand on the bannister and climbing the swooping staircase wearily.

The study was as silent as a mausoleum.

“...Tony?” she called, poking her head into the dark room.

There was a shift of blue light.

He was under the desk.

“...hey.”  She opened the door properly and walked in, pushing back the leather chair and crouching.  Tony was curled under the cherrywood desk, eyes wide. “Hey,” she repeated. “We were worried about you.  Where have you been all day? Do you know where Obie is?”

Tony did not answer.  She had not expected him to.

She held out a hand.  “Come on. I got you some food.  It’s from Canter’s.”

Tony regarded her hand for a moment, then took it and let her lead him out from under the desk.

She pulled him back down; he came along submissively, silently.

He froze halfway down the stairs like a deer in the headlights; Pepper nearly tumbled down the stairs at the sudden change of pace.  “Tony!” she snapped in frustration.

Tony pressed himself nervously against the wall.

“Pepper?  You got Canter’s?” asked Obadiah, standing in the living room.

“...oh.  Yes. I hope that’s okay.  Where have you been at all day?”

“Oh, out on the pool deck… just reading some technical manuals,” he said, waving a notebook at her.  “Drafted a letter. Boring things. I see you found Tony.”

Tony pressed into the wall a little harder, clearly trying not to call attention to himself.

Pathetic, thought Obadiah.  Tony had been fading for a while lately.  He was broken, a shell; at some point in the last few months he had simply given up.  It made controlling him easier, but it did not bode well for Stark, Industries. While his arc reactor work had been a unexpected boon, there were not going to be any new innovations.  At least… not from this Tony in particular. And the arc reactor was the only real reason to keep him alive, frankly.

Obadiah had already determined a course of action.  Like a work horse past its prime, Tony needed to be put out to pasture and replaced.  Stark, Industries relied on his brilliant mind to churn out cutting-edge technology.

Tony Prime was already perfectly prepared to replace his own Tony.  The old Obadiah, the one who had tragically been killed, had made sure of that.  Tony Prime was still inventing, still had that spark, that je ne sais quois, that his own poor Tony had lost months ago.  Tony Prime had wonderful inventions and designs; Obadiah had to get his hands on those suits.  Once he got Tony Prime back to his own universe, he felt it would be easy to wrangle him back under control.  His own broken, mute Tony could be easily disposed of. Tossed off the balcony, with no one being the wiser.

The trick was making sure Tony Prime was not missed in his own universe, but that was simple matter as well.  Obadiah had already drafted his suicide note. Once Tony Prime was “dead,” they would close the portal, assuming he was gone.  And in a sense, he would be, because he would never, ever be returning.

“What?” asked Pepper.

Obadiah realized he’d been staring.

“Oh.  I was just thinking, you know, lately, he’s seemed lonely.  I was thinking I might get us another pet,” he said casually.

He smiled at Tony.

“Would you like that, Tony?”

Tony looked down; Cinnamon was weaving around his legs, looking up and chirping.  He bent down to pick him up; Cinnamon scooted away, skirting down the stairs toward the shop.

“Another cat?” asked Pepper.

“...something like that,” said Obadiah.

Tony took a few hesitant steps toward down the stairs, shoulders hunched protectively, slipping past Obadiah and after Cinnamon.  He stopped at the top of the stairs, face drawn. He looked up at Pepper, his expression distressed.

“What?  What is it?” she asked.

Tony pointed.  That was more communication than he’d probably provided all year.  Pepper stepped forward to look down.

The door to the shop was open, and Cinnamon’s tail was disappearing within it.

“I’ll get him,” said Obadiah, clapping a hand on Tony’s shoulder.  “Be back soon. Why don’t you two get started on dinner? I have some things I need to take care of downstairs, anyway.”


Tony constrained himself to only three shots of scotch before dinner.

“Tony, it’s going to be okay,” said Pepper soothingly, touching his hand lightly.

“Thank you, Ms. Potts,” said Tony stiffly.  

Their dinner plans were somewhat delayed.  Reed had lost the notebook he was working on that detailed the differences between their universes and he was remiss to go into Universe Prime without it.  They’d searched the whole house and found nothing. (Well, Pepper had found, on the mirror, that Tony had scrawled “PEPPER: KILL ME, PEPPER,” which she made a mental note to confront him about later.)

Tony, Pepper, Harry, and Reed had made their way down to the basement.  Tony and Obadiah had already gone into the portal and, since their universes appeared to have consistent times, agreed to meet at six.  They were both in a good mood.

Because they think this is going to go off with a hitch, thought Tony.  Well, they had another thing coming.  He had already been held hostage twice: once in Afghanistan and once by Obadiah.  He would never let himself be a prisoner again.

“Look!  That cat!” cried Harry suddenly, pointing.  Harry was wearing the red tie.

Harry, Pepper, and Reed had all dressed nicely and seemed nervous about meeting their doubles.  Only Tony was dressed down. He was wearing a baggy MIT sweatshirt, in part because he didn’t want Obadiah looking at his arc reactor and in part to hide the guns he was carrying.

A ginger-colored cat was sitting regally on top of the super collider.  It meowed at them as they all looked up.

“Where did you come from?” Pepper asked the cat.  It meowed again and then trotted through the supercollider, tail curled into a question mark.  The machine growled, shuddering hard enough to cause some pencils to roll off of Tony’s desk.

“Are you sure none of you has seen my notebook?” asked Reed, shuffling through the papers on the desk and managing to catch a mug that had shaken its way to the edge and was threatening to take the plunge to the floor.

“Sorry, Reed,” said Pepper with a shrug.  “You’ll just have to do without.”

Looking resigned, Reed grabbed a blank notebook instead.  One by one, they climbed up the ladder and squeezed into the supercollider’s hexagonal heart.  “Well, here goes nothing,” said Harry, looking meaningfully at Tony. Tony nodded, jaw set.

The four of them walked through the door marked in chalk.

It was a wholly anticlimactic experience.

They found themselves in a near-identical shop.  Tony was sitting by the reactor, fiddling around with an electric guitar.  He and Tony were wearing the same jeans, but Tony Alpha was only wearing a t-shirt.  He grinned up at them. “Hey, everyone!” He got up with some difficulty and leaned on his cane while they clambered down from the metal scaffolding and onto the poured concrete floor.  “Great to see you!”

He and Pepper shared a hug.  “Wait until you meet Pepper. She’s dying to see you,” said Tony, limping toward the elevator.  “Sorry, no stairs here. Just an elevator. The code’s 0622. It’s our anniversary.”

“Aww,” said Pepper.

“That way, I don’t forget it.”  

“The code?”

“...the anniversary.”

They all squeezed into the elevator while Tony Prime punched in the code.  Secretly, he thought the new code was stupid. Anyone could guess it; anyone could look up his anniversary.  It wasn’t a secure code. He wondered if the other Tony was even married or whether he was lying. Certainly, he’d remembered to wear his wedding band every day, but so what?  Maybe Obadiah was constructing a perfect fantasy just to lure him in.

When they came out of the elevator, however, Tony quickly realized that the married Alphas weren’t faking.  Or, if they were, they were fantastic actors.

Where there had once been a large series of panels with inoffensive modern art was now a large portrait of Tony and Pepper leaning their heads against each other and laughing.  Most of the art had been replaced with cheerful pictures of Tony and Pepper on vacation: swimming with dolphins, feeding each other sorbet, pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  Tony felt like it was a bit nauseating.

The other Pepper squealed and ran towards Pepper, and the two hugged.  “Hi, Virginia!”

“Hi, Virginia!”

“I’m so glad you could come to see us."

“I’ve heard so much about you from Tony,” said Pepper Prime.

Pepper laughed and threaded her fingers through Tony’s.  “...so he’s been bragging again?”

Tony Prime suppressed a groan and cautiously ventured into the uncannily similar version of his living room.  The bar was gone, but the piano was back. On the coffee table were several books that looked like they might be photo albums.  He hovered close to Pepper, feeling nauseous. Pepper Prime had cautiously asked to take a peek at Pepper Alpha’s engagement ring; Pepper was more than happy to show it off.

“It’s so tasteful.”

“Tony designed it himself.”

Pepper blinked.  “... really ?”

Harry peered around them.  “Where’s me?” he asked hopefully.

“Oh.  Sorry, Happy.  He’s not going to be here today,” said Tony, who was still holding hands with Pepper.  “He’s got a hot date.”

Harry deflated a little.  “Oh,” he said sadly. “Was he wearing the same thing as me?

“Pretty much, except his tie was green.”

Harry glared at Tony.  Tony tried to communicate with his eyes that tie color choices weren’t important at that moment.

“So, I have a girlfriend in this universe, huh?” he asked casually.

“Yeah.   Kimmy,” said Tony, with a note of disgust in his voice.

“Be nice!” cautioned Pepper, giving his arm a playful punch.

Tony Prime desperately tried to catch Happy’s eye.  They could trust nothing here; saying Happy had a girlfriend was probably nothing more than a ploy to distract him.  It was working.

“What?  What’s wrong with her?” demanded Happy.

“Nothing’s wrong with her. She’s a very nice girl and makes you very happy,” said Pepper diplomatically.

Tony mimed sticking a finger down his throat.  Happy looked worried. “What? What does that mean?  What’s wrong with her?” he pressed.

Nothing , she’s perfectly normal, ” stressed Pepper.

Completely,” added Tony, sarcastically.

Happy looked positively alarmed.  “How’d I get a girlfriend in this universe?”

“My sponsor’s sister,” said Tony.

The other Tony edged toward the coffee table and cautiously opened the cover of one of the photo albums there, half-expecting to see pictures of Tony being tortured.  

Inside, smiling Tonys and Peppers grinned up at him.  In one, they stood on a pier, and Pepper’s hair was blowing into Tony’s face and they were both laughing.  In another, they waved in front of the Mona Lisa, but Tony’s eyes were closed in a blink. In a third, they were completely out of focus, but appeared to be posing with parrots on their shoulders.

“Oh!” said Pepper.  “Those are our crapbooks!”

Tony dropped the cover guiltily, as if he’d be caught.  The two Peppers were watching him. Both were smiling a little.  The other Tony was leaning forward on his cane. Happy was glancing around, looking nervous and clearly wanting to ask more about what was wrong with Kimmy.

“Your-- sorry, what?”

“Our crapbooks,” said Tony.  “It’s all the bad photos from our wedding and vacations and stuff.  Get it?”

“You guys scrapbook together?”

Crap book,” corrected Tony defensively.

“Isn’t that funny?” asked Pepper.

“It’s a unique idea,” said the other Pepper.  

Tony took a moment to compare them.  The married Pepper to seemed more light-hearted and happy and fun.  She was wearing a blue sundress with large yellow flowers on it. He noticed that her toenails were painted a soft, sea-shell pink.  His own Pepper looked almost matronly in her black slacks and cream-colored sweater. He wondered if he was making Pepper less happy, whether she downplayed her appearance and acted so professional because of him.  It wasn’t a pleasant thought.

But there was no time for such observations.  He had to be on his guard. All of the so-called “good” things in this universe were probably nothing more than props.  Tony would not be so easily fooled. When the time came, he could not hesitate. He had to take out the other Obadiah swiftly, with prejudice.  It was the only way to protect Tony.

His musings were interrupted by the entrance of three more people: Reed Richards, Obadiah Stane, and a Hispanic woman he’d never met before.

Both Reeds shook hands formally.

“Ay, ay, ay,” said the Hispanic woman, shaking her head.  “I wouldn’t believe it if I weren’t seeing it.”

“This is Lupe.  She’s the mastermind behind dinner tonight,” announced Obadiah, placing a hand on her shoulder.  She waved him away.

“Don’t flatter me, Mr. Stane.  It’s nothing special.”

“She really outdid herself,” said Obadiah in a stage whisper.  He strode toward Tony, who had edged protectively closer to Pepper.  “Good to see you here in our universe, Tony!”

Tony narrowed his eyes.  “I’m glad to be here,” he said dangerously.  Obadiah must think he was an idiot, if he thought Tony was going to let his guard down just because Obie was nice to the cook.  Perhaps his time with Tony Alpha had made him soft, prone to underestimating Tony. Well, of course; Tony Alpha was utterly compliant.  Obadiah did not yet fully appreciate what Tony was capable of.

Soon, thought Tony Prime.  Soon.

He glanced at the two Reeds.  Both were pouring over Reed Alpha’s notebook.

“Mine looked identical,” said Reed Prime.

“Fascinating,” said Reed Alpha.  “But you… lost yours?”

“Misplaced.  Temporarily,” said Reed Prime quickly.

“So… Obie,” said Tony Prime, shifting his weight.  The gunmetal was cold against his skin. “Wanna give me the grand tour?”

As soon as Obie was alone he could make his move.  Tony Alpha would snap out of it once Obadiah wasn’t around anymore to torture him.

“Of course,” said Obadiah.  He gestured. “Follow me.”

“...you mind if we, uh… have some… some us time?” Tony asked Tony.

Tony Alpha gave Tony Prime a small, sad smile.  “Of course. Take your time.” Good-byes were hard for him; he knew that because he was him.  He and Obie had talked about it, earlier, and agreed that Tony Prime clearly needed a heart-to-heart with Obadiah, the one who hadn’t turned, the one who really did love him as a son.  Tony Alpha was more than willing to entertain the rest of the guests while his Obadiah gave the other Tony some much-needed closure.

Tony Prime took a deep breath and let it down slowly. 

This is it, Tones, he thought.  You did it once.  You can do it again.

Of course, last time, he’d had the suit.  Had the benefit of doing it behind the safety of his HUD screen.  Of not seeing Obie’s face.

And he’d had the benefit of not knowing what would become of Obie.  That he would be reduced to a little vase of powder and an unmarked white box.

Obadiah was climbing the stairs.  Tony placed a hand on the bannister, following him. 

...he could shoot him from behind.  He didn’t have to look into his face when he did it.

He glanced back; Tony Alpha smiled and nodded encouragingly.

The poor fool, thought Tony. 

He was lucky, thought Tony, to have himself a liberator.  Tony Prime had not had any such luck. He’d had to kill Obadiah himself.  And now here he was, in another universe, prepared to save himself yet again.

“Well, we’ve got an elevator in our universe,” Obadiah was saying.  “Although Tony sometimes takes the stairs anyway. You know how stubborn you are.”

“I bet you hate that,” said Tony softly as they came to the second story landing.

Obadiah didn’t seem to have heard him.  “Since Tony’s quit drinking, the lounge over here--”  He was opening a door. “--is Ginny’s office.”

Tony’s hand had been moving toward the pistol, but he paused.  “Gin-- oh. You mean Pepper. She has an office?”

“Mm-hm.  She’s the CFO of AccuTech,” said Obadiah.

Tony peeked into the lounge.  The bar was gone, replaced with a glass-top desk and a potted bamboo plant. 

There was still a balcony.  Maybe he could lure Obadiah to it and shove him off.  Or at least lure him out to shoot him. It would make clean-up easier for Tony Alpha. 

“Tony.”

Tony tensed. 

Obadiah had stepped into the once-lounge, closing the door behind him.

Tony’s hand moved toward his waistband.

“I’m sorry.”

Tony paused.

“I’m sorry that things in your universe have gone so badly.  But I want you to know something. You’re the master of your fate.  You can take control any time you want to. In my universe, you turned around after that car wreck.  In yours, you… well, you escaped a very bad situation at a later time. But in both instances, Tony, you decided to take control, and you did it.  I know how conflicted you must feel about what happened between you and your Obadiah. But I want to let you know that, for what it’s worth… this Obadiah is proud of you.  And I hope that, if there’s one thing you’ve learned from all this, it’s that you can choose to change your future whenever you want.  That you can’t control everything, but that your own reactions to what happens to you is what defines you, and that you can always make your situation better.  Do you understand what I’m trying to say?”

Obadiah’s soft, grey eyes were gentle.

“You’re saying I need to be the one who shapes my future,” said Tony slowly.

Obadiah nodded.

...shit.  Obadiah might have been a delusional, sadistic psychopath, but he was right.

Tony Alpha didn’t need a liberator.  He needed to become a liberator.  He needed to liberate himself.

Reed had said that their timelines were converging toward similar events.  Tony had killed his Obadiah; he couldn’t kill the other Tony’s Obadiah for him.  Tony would never truly be free unless he did it himself.

Obadiah took a step toward him, arms open.

Tony’s hand went to the gun.

No.  He couldn’t wait.  He couldn’t pause. Let Tony talk through this with his fucking sponsor; Obadiah was going to hurt him and he couldn’t let that happen.  Not again.

He wrapped his hand around the handle of the revolver.

Tony’s cell phone rang.

He jumped, nearly dropping the gun; he let go of it to fish out his cell phone. 

It was Reed.

“Sorry, Dr. Richards and I wanted to see if my SIM card was recognized in this dimension,” said Reed.

“Jesus Christ, Reed.  You nearly gave me a heart attack,” said Tony, eyeing Obadiah warily, inching around the perimeter of the room, giving him a wide berth.

Could he get to the door?

...so long as Reed was on the phone, Obadiah would not try anything.

“Hey, Reed, is Tony there?  I need to talk to Tony,” said Tony.

“Oh, sure.  Here.”

“Hello, Tony?”

“Hey Tones.  How’s it going?”

Tony keep his gaze fixed on Obadiah, who was watching him back, patiently.  Tony wasn’t fooled. He knew Obadiah was merely bidding his time, waiting for Tony to let his guard down.  Well, he wasn’t going to. He’d learned his lesson the hard way, through nearly a year of torture. His grip on the phone was white-knuckled; with his free hand, he fumbled for the door knob behind his back, never breaking his line of sight with Obadiah.

“Tony.  I need to talk to you,” said Tony.  “It’s important.”

“...sure.  Hey, you wanna to see the suit?” asked Tony.

    “Yes,” said Tony before he could stop himself.  He swore under his breath. Tony Alpha was trying to distract him!  “I mean-- maybe after dinner. Or before dinner. Actually, yes, let’s see the suit.  Right now!”

The door opened behind him and he nearly feel backwards.

He practically ran from the room. 

Part of him was furious for chickening out and not killing Obie when he had the chance.  Yet part of him felt it was better this way.

It was fairer, too.  One Obie per Tony. Why should he have to kill all the Obadiahs himself?  Tony Alpha needed to do this. The brainwashed, sober idiot needed another wake-up call, on par with that stupid Corvette crash. 

Tony ran down the steps; the Peppers looked up at his hurried return.  He was silently grateful that they were so easy to tell apart. He grabbed his Pepper’s hand.  “C’mon, Pepper.” She looked surprised.

“I was hoping to show Pepper the new Kush,” said Pepper.

“I don’t know what that means, and I don’t care,” said Tony, tugging his own Pepper’s hand.

“It’s a painter,” snapped Pepper Prime, peeling Tony off her.  The other Pepper, the one in the sundress, seemed curious about Pepper’s snappish manner toward Tony, not to mention Tony's seemingly inexplicable clinginess, but she had the grace not to ask about it.

“Forget the painter.  Let’s go see the suits,” insisted Tony.

“I don’t want to see the suits, Tony.  I want to see the Kush,” said Pepper, whose patience was clearly waning.

“C’mon, Tony, the suit’s downstairs,” said Tony Alpha, gesturing for him to follow.

Tony looked around frantically.  They’d been here less than fifteen minutes and they were already being separated.

The only way to ensure Pepper’s safety was to either be with her, or to be with Obadiah, to keep an eye on him.  

“Happy, go look at the Kush!” he commanded shrilly.  Happy was not an ideal candidate to protect Pepper but he was literally the only person Tony could trust at the moment.

“What?  I don’t care about some painting,” protested Happy.

“Yes, you do,” replied Tony with gritted teeth, jerking his head toward Pepper.

“Oh!  Right!”  Happy nodded and tapped his nose rather obviously.  The two Peppers exchanged confused glances. But neither argued when Happy followed them down the hall.  Tony let himself be led back toward the basement. Maybe, he thought, just maybe, alone, in the shop, he could get through to Tony Alpha.

“Okay.  What is your problem?” demanded Tony the moment they were alone in the hall of armor.

Tony Prime pulled a flask from his hoodie and took a long swig.  Tony Alpha crossed his arms, looking disgusted.

“Tony,” said Tony.  He stepped forward and cupped Tony’s face in both hands.  “Listen.  I know what’s going on.   You can talk to me.  I’m you. I know what he does.  He starves us. He burns us. He chokes us.  But it ends now. I’m here to help save you.”

Tony’s jaw dropped.

He whacked Tony with his cane.

“You fucking asshole!  How many times do I gotta tell you?  Obie isn’t a bad guy !  He’s like a fucking father to me.”

When you behave ,” amended Tony.  “When you’re his perfect little pet, he’s good to you.  But when you misbehave he holds your head underwater and burns you with his cigars, right?”

“No!  Jesus, no!  He’s literally never done any of those things, you psychopath!” 

Tony shoved Tony away, stumbling back a little on his unsteady legs.

Tony didn’t look phased.  “Alpha , I know how hard it is to admit what he’s doing to you, ‘cause I lived it.  But I can free you. Listen. He’s gonna get rid of you, and kidnap me, because he wants my suit designs, and I’m obviously the superior inventor--”

Excuse me?  No you’re not!  Your suits are clunky Pacific Rim knock-offs!”

Tony bristled.  “Oh, and your suits are any better?  They look like low-budget Whiplash copies!”

Who the hell is Whiplash?

Tony yanked the sleeves of his hoodie up, shoving his arm under the other Tony’s face.  “Look! Look what he did to me!”

Tony paled.  “Those… are those burns?”

“Yes.”

“...those are recent.”

“Yes!  Obadiah did this to me!  Your precious Obadiah is a madman!  Either you already know it, or you’re just such a goodie two-shoes that he’s never exposed his sadistic side.  But he’s evil, Tony. You and me, we’re geniuses in every universe, right? We’re… we’re just horses of another color.  And Obie, he’s evil. He’s evil in every universe.”

Tony was staring at Tony, his expression one of horror.  He opened his mouth, perhaps to protest, but he never got a word out.

Their argument was broken by a sudden shuddering; the very ground beneath them began rolling, and Tony Alpha was flung to the ground even with the support of his cane.  Tony Prime barely managed to stay upright; the whole basement was shaking like it was about to fall apart.

It stopped as suddenly as it had begun.

“Shit!  Are you okay?” 

Tony offered Tony a hand; Tony grabbed it and let Tony heave him to his feet.

“Come on.  It’s probably the particle accelerator,” he said, limping quickly toward the stairs to the main floor of the basement.

Tony scurried after him, grabbing his arm.

“Tony.  Wait.”

Tony turned.

“Tony.  Listen to me.  You need to save yourself.  Seriously. I did what I had to do in my universe.  Now it’s your turn.”

Tony yanked his arm away.  “Listen, I don’t know what’s going on here, but Obadiah would never hurt me.  I’m not building a mech suit and punching my godfather to death, if that’s what you’re implying.”

“No, you don’t have to!” said Tony, relieved that they’d finally reached the crux of the matter.  He reached into his waistband. “See, I brought a gu--”

“TONY?” hollered Reed from the basement.

“COMING!” yelled Tony Alpha, already stomping up unsteadily.

“Tony, wait!” protested Tony Prime, who had been pulling out the gun when Tony Alpha turned to walk away.  For a guy with a cane, he was surprisingly spritely.

They crested the stairs to the main floor, peering at the particle accelerator, which was sitting there, rumbling softly like a sleeping dragon.

Reed and Reed were looking at a screen on Tony’s desk, their faces etched with identical expressions of concern.

“Tony, the particle accelerator is rapidly destabilizing,” they said in sync.

“Jinx,” said both Tonys.

“Every time we cross through, it causes damage to the portal between our worlds,” said one of the Reeds worriedly.  “...after we go back, we should definitely shut it off. We don’t want anyone walking through and getting trapped.”

“Or mutated all gross like that guy in The Fly,” added Tony Alpha.

A feline form was stalking along the top of the catwalk.

“...oh, no.   Cinnamon!” yelled Tony Alpha.  He walked over and banged on one of the pylons with his cane.  “Get away from that, cat!  ...this must be why it's degrading so quickly."

"Your stupid cat's been hanging out in my universe," accused Tony Prime.  He didn't believe, not for a second, that it was an accident that the cat had been wandering back and forth, causing the portal to destabilize.  This was probably part of Obadiah's plan.

"He's not stupid!"

The elevator dinged; Pepper, Pepper, Happy, and Obadiah walked in.

“We felt another quake,” said Pepper.

“What’s wrong?  Is the portal okay?” asked the other Pepper worriedly.

“...no, clearly it’s not.  The cat’s been walking back and forth between it.  And that means it’s been degrading a hell of a lot faster than we reali--” began Tony Prime.

The particle accelerator didn’t let him finish.  With a roar, it sudden began shaking, rumbling, the center part of it lighting up.  Everyone grabbed something to steady themselves; the two Tonys grabbed each other; the two Pepper grabbed each other, Happy grabbed the doorway, and Obadiah grabbed the desk after a few staggering steps.

With a low tone, the accelerator stopped shuddering.

A second cat was peeking out at them.

Two identical, orange whiskered faces were staring at them, blinking golden eyes.

“...I don’t have a cat,” whispered Tony.

“But if you don’t have a cat…” began Tony slowly.

“...then that’s not Cinnamon Alpha,” finished Reed.

“...which means…?” prompted Happy.

Tony leaned on his cane, brow furrowed.  “Which means we’re not the only ones who’ve been going on vacation.”

Chapter Text

Both Reeds turned to their respective Tonys.

“Do you know what this means?”

“The portal is degrading a hell of a lot faster than we thought, and the Primes aren’t safe over here,” said Tony Alpha.  “Forget the cat. There might be other Tonys, Peppers--”

“Obadiahs,” said Tony Prime.  He was paling slowly.

Each had torn a hole between their universes, but if Reed was right about there being endless possibilities, why shouldn’t another universe have done the same?  Why shouldn’t there be a third, or fourth, or fifth?

“Everyone needs to go home, pronto,” said Reed firmly.  “If the rift between our worlds collapses, we could end up trapped on the wrong side.”

“Do you think Ultimate finally opened?” asked Tony Prime worriedly.

“I dunno.  Push me up; let’s check,” demanded Alpha.

Tony Prime helped push Tony Alpha up the ladder; the two hurried into the hexagonal platform.  The archway marked “PRIME” was shimmering. The other five archways looked utterly normal. Alpha had labeled the one nearest to the ladder “ALPHA (home).”

Just to be safe, Tony Alpha poked all of them with his cane.

“...there’s only one.”

“...only one in your ‘verse,” said Tony.  “Obviously, the extra portals are on my side, because my machine’s better.”

Tony Alpha’s face contorted with disgust.  “Accidentally ripping extra tears in the fabric of space-time isn’t a feature; it’s a bug.  My machine is better because it’s more controlled than yours!”

“Boys!” barked both Peppers.

“Sorry, Pepper.”

“Sorry, honey.”

“We can’t afford to stick around here,” said Reed.  “Not if there’s the possibility that others are walking in and out.  We have to go back, now.”

“Dr. Richards,” said Tony, turning to Reed.  “I can’t just shove them back to Prime and hope that everything works out fine on their side.  If Tony’s right, and there are extra portals on his side…”

“Tony, no,” said Pepper immediately.

“Pep, I have to,” said Tony.  He looked over at his double, at the purple bruises under his eyes and the worn lines on his face.  The peppering of grey at his temples. And he thought of the burns.

He was Tony Stark, and Tony Stark was him.  He couldn’t simply shove the other back into his own universe and close the portal without helping him. 

Just as the portal had been destabilizing rapidly, so had Tony.  How close was he to collapse? Hopefully, he could last longer than the portal between their worlds.

“Forget dinner.  Look. Everyone go home.  I’m going to stay with Tony, and we’re going to make sure his side doesn’t have extra doorways,” said Tony firmly.  “And I’m going to take the extra Cinnamon over and try to figure out where he came from.”

“I’m coming with you,” said Obadiah suddenly.

“What?  No. Absolutely not.  Dude, didn’t you hear him?  Every time we use the portal, it gets more unstable.  We need as few passages as possible to make sure that--”

“Tony, if something happened to you, I’d never be able to live with myself,” insisted Obadiah.

Tony hesitated.  If they were alone, he would have told him about the other Tony’s marks.  The burns, the insistence that Obadiah was torturing him in secret. But he couldn’t do it with Harry and two Reeds and two Peppers all standing around.  It was too much of a personal matter.

If Obie heard about it, though, he would probably want to come anyway, to clear his name.  And perhaps… perhaps, thought Tony, his Obie could reason with the other Obie, if there was another Obie; perhaps he could fix things, bring poor Tony Prime some small bit of peace.

“Fine.  Pep, Harry, you guys go first.  From now on, no one crosses over anymore.”

“...I’m sorry we couldn’t stay,” said Pepper.

“It’s okay.  I’m glad we got to meet, even if it was only for a little while,” said the other Pepper, hugging her.  “...take care of him,” she murmured into her ear.

“Always,” said the other Pepper, giving her hands a squeeze as she pulled away.

Pepper and Harry climbed the ladder; Obadiah reached for the cat, which hissed and swiped at him.

“Cinnamon!” protested Pepper, shocked.  Obadiah looked equally surprised; the cat darted through the portal and blinked out of their existence, causing the machine to immediately begin shaking.

“Go!  Go!” exclaimed Tony, pushing them through the portal.  Reed scrambled up the ladder, cringing at the noise the collider was making; it sounded like a jet engine roaring directly overhead, only it was under them, impossibly close, vibrating up their very bones and making their teeth chatter.

Reed staggered through the portal.

“Tony, wait!” cried Pepper.

“I swear I’ll be back!” yelled Tony, and with that, he, Tony, and Obadiah ran through.


 The platform was crowded on Prime’s side.  The collider was still shuddering violently; it took it several long, drawn-out seconds to settle to a hum.

“Pepper, Happy… you two go upstairs,” instructed Tony.  “I don’t want you guys anywhere near this thing.”

Reed was already climbing down the ladder.  “Let me check the energy signals or… I don’t know, maybe the nitrogen consumption will give us some clue as to how many actual crossings there have been.  Then I can calculate how many we have left. Ideally, we should shut it down before it shuts itself off. A collapse could potentially release an enormous amount of energy.”

“So it’s a ticking time bomb?” asked Tony.

“...it has limited uses,” said Reed more diplomatically, dropping into Tony’s desk chair to begin typing on his computer, bringing up the specs for the machine.

Meanwhile, still standing on the platform of the machine, the two Tonys and Obadiah were looking at each of the six archways.

The archway they had just walked in from was labeled “Alpha.”  The archway facing the ladder was labeled “Prime.” (In Tony Alpha’s universe, these archways were switched, of course.)

Two of the other archways had a sheen like they were covered in raw egg whites that were stretched over the entrances like cling wrap.

“That can’t be good,” said Tony Alpha, limping over to the one marked “1610?” and poking it with his cane.

The shimmering surface bent without breaking.

"It's like the ectoplasm from Ghost-Busters," observed Tony Alpha.

Tony Prime ignored him.  (In his universe, there had been no Ghost-Busters reboot.)  “Universe Ultimate never ‘opened,’” said Tony Prime, making quotes in the air with his fingers.  “I tried chucking stuff into it but there’s this weird barrier. ...that other one is new. Let’s call it Superior.”

“I think we have more important things to worry about than naming them!” snapped Reed from the desk.

“Okay, okay, geez,” grumbled Tony Alpha, striding to another archway; he dug around in his pocket, found a tube of chapstick, and threw it in; the machine rumbled ominously.  None of them heard the tube land on the floor.

Tony leaned in, squinting.  “...found it. This one’s open.  Look, the air’s all wavy,” he announced.

“...yep.  It’s got a pretty unique signature.  621,” said Reed from the desk, eyes fixed on the screen.  From the platform of the collider, the two Tonys and Obadiah could see the reflection of his glasses, the rapid output of the machine scrolling across on Tony’s computer monitor.  “And from the look of it, it’s been operational for days and has had about a dozen crossings.”

“How could we have overlooked it?” bemoaned Tony Alpha, poking the faintly shimmering doorway with his cane.

“All of us did; we were so excited about Alpha and Prime being connected, and so busy hoping we could open Ultimate or Superior, that we never noticed 621,” said Reed.

“That must be where Cinnamon came from.”

“But do we know everyone in 621 is actually in 621?  Why wouldn’t Tony 621 have come through yet?” asked Tony Alpha.

“Maybe,” said Tony Prime, leveling his gaze with Obadiah, “because someone stopped him.”

“Tony, fuck, I told you already, my Obadiah is--” began Tony impatiently.

He was cut off by the sound of the door to the shop beeping.  Only a handful of Tony’s closest friends had his code: Pepper and Harry, of course, Rhodey, now Reed, and previously…

Obadiah stepped into the shop.

He took one look at the cluster of pale-faced men on the collider before taking a deep breath, pointing at the other Obadiah, and saying, in a firm voice, “Tony.  Step away from him. He’s a dangerous madman! He tried to kill me, and he’s been manipulating both of you for days.”


 Everyone in the shop froze and time came to a grinding halt.

Or at least, nearly everyone in the shop froze.

For Reed, and Tony Alpha, the world was a logical place where things occurred as a natural consequence of other things that had already happened.  But for Tony Prime, the world had devolved into a dangerous and illogical place where bad things happened for no discernible reason and had to be responded to immediately and with prejudice.

He pulled out the gun.

“Okay, freeze!” he barked.

Reed and both Obadiahs put their hands in the air.  Reed swore the air in the shop had chilled a few degrees; he had grown so used to seeing Tony deranged that he’d grown used to it, the circles under his eyes and the wide-eyed look of permanent panic.  He was seeing it again now, with fresh eyes, as Tone Prime held a revolver. Even from the desk, Reed could see his hands were trembling.

Tony Alpha’s eyes were wide.  “Tony. Tony, stop. Put the gun down.”

“No!” said Prime shrilly.  “I’m not letting him ruin our life again!  This ends here! Stane was a dead man walking since the portal opened… don’t you see?  Our timelines are convergent! In every reality, we suffer! We become Iron Man! And he dies!”

“Tony,” said the Obadiah on the platform in a low, pleading voice.

“Don’t listen to him, Tony,” said the one by the door.

“Tony, please.”

Tony trained the gun from one Obadiah to the other, his movements jerky and uncoordinated.

“Tony…” said Tony, inching toward him, hands out.

“Stay back!” shrieked Tony, pointing the gun at himself.  “You were wrong, Alpha! You said Obadiah would never hurt us but you were wrong!  At least one of them is evil! ...maybe both! I don’t know yet! But I’m not going back!  Never! I paid my dues! This ends here!”

“Okay, Tony, okay!” said Tony hastily, stopping, hands still up.  “Listen, okay? We’re going to go ahead and sort this out… everyone’s going to go home and then we’ll close the portal, okay?  Everyone’s going to just go back and there won’t be any Obadiahs here, okay?”

Tony shook his head, eyes darting between the two Obadiahs.  They were dressed identically. “I’m not sending you back with the wrong one.  I’d rather kill both than let him torture you like he tortured me.”

“Tony, please,” repeated the Obadiah by the door, eyes soft.  “I’ve been trying to warn you; he’s an imposter. I found this all out days ago.  He knows everything. He read it in a notebook. He tried to replace me; he wants to get close to you to take you back to his own universe and--"

He’s lying!” interrupted the other Obadiah.  “Tony, you know me; I’ve been with you this whole time!”

Have you, though?” demanded Tony Prime, waving the gun.  “Alpha, have you kept an eye on him every waking minute since the portal opened?”

Alpha hesitated.  “No, but…”

“Tony.  I held you in my arms on the day you were born.  It’s me ,” said the Obadiah by the door.

“Tony, ask me anything.  I’ll prove it to you. I’m from 620, I swear,” said the other.

At the desk, Reed was trying to determine if there was any way to knock the revolver from Tony’s hand.  He could stretch out and grab it, certainly, but Tony’s finger was on the trigger and he seemed too jumpy for anyone to safely disarm him.  Reed didn’t dare move, watching the small drama unfold before him, helpless and silent.

“I… I really think he’s my Obie,” said Tony Alpha uncertainly, pointing to the one standing with them on the platform.

“Oh, yeah?  Why did the cat growl at him, then?” asked Tony Prime, eyes narrowing suspiciously.

“...I don’t know… maybe it was the other Cinnamon!” protested Obadiah frantically.

“Can we get the two cats together and, like, try to match--” began Tony Alpha.

Summoned by its name, a cat appeared on the appropriately-named catwalk of the collider, orange eyes curious.  It snaked around Tony and Obadiah’s legs, tail curled in a question mark.

And then, without a hint of discomfort, it walked through the newest portal, the one Reed had designated 621.

In an instant the entire structure beneath them began shuddering; it made a noise like a car backfiring, and the portal the cat had walked into darkened, the very air congealing into a sinister-looking oil that bent conically out and then splashed back with a second bang, one that threw both Tonys and the Obadiah from the structure entirely. 

Reed watched in horrified fascination as the entire structure around the portal began bending like it was made of water; the rumbling got more and more high-pitched until it was almost unbearable and then suddenly stopped; the air smelled like singed hair and his teeth itched, and then everything tilted terribly, giving him a sense of vertigo so strong he nearly vomited.

And then it was over.

Reed rose. 

The shop was eerily silent.

“...Tony?” he called.

Tony staggered from around the edge of the super collider, the gun still clutched in his hand.  “...it did what you said,” he said in a dazed tone. “It collapsed. 621 closed.”

“It-- what?” repeated Reed.

Tony wasn't looking at him; he was looking up at the portal.  “It collapsed.  It's gone."

Suddenly shaking out of his reverie, his head swiveled toward the door.

The two Obadiahs were less than six feet apart, staring at each other with equal disgust and venom.

“Tony Alpha has to go back,” said Reed worriedly. 

“Not without Obie!” shouted Tony Alpha, who had climbed to his feet with difficulty and was now standing defiantly on the poured concrete floor of the garage.  “We’re going back together!”

“But we don’t know which one--” began Tony Prime.

“I’ll take them both back and figure it out!”

“...I don’t think it’s got three crossings left in it,” said Reed.  “One, maybe two.  But three seems unlikely.”

“So… so one of us isn’t going home,” said Obadiah after a beat.

“Correct,” said Tony Prime, with a smug sort of triumph.  “One of you is going to pay!”

“Tony, you can’t--” protested Tony.

“Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do!  Only I tell me what I can and can’t do!” yelled Tony, waving the gun.  Everyone ducked as it pointed toward them.

“Ask me anything, Tony.  I swear it’s me,” said one.

“I’ll do anything to prove to you I’m the right Obadiah,” said the other. 

Tony Prime looked at Tony Alpha.  Tony Alpha’s eyes darted from one to the other, but his face showed clearly his uncertainty.

“The tontine!” said Tony suddenly.

“What?” asked Alpha.

“You had a tontine with my dad!  I got your stuff, after you died.  There was a letter, about a tontine.”

Both Obies were nodding and began talking, clearly eager to demonstrate their knowledge.

“It’s in the Swedish account--”

“Off the books--”

“--I can show you--”

“--more than thirty years ago--”

“STOP!” barked Tony.

Both stopped immediately.

“Where is it, and what’s the code?” demanded Tony.

“Offshore Swedish account.  Svenska Handelsbanken. It’s in Jarvis’s name,” said both in sync.  “The code is 1974.”

“...ohh.  It wasn’t a year.  It was PIN!” said Tony.  “...wow, I feel dumb.”

“What are you talking about?” demanded Tony Alpha.

“Never mind, you’ll find out when he dies.  Okay… what’s the name of my primary server for rendering?” asked Tony.

“Florence,” said both Obadiahs immediately.

“What’s my blood type?”

“A positive,” said both immediately.

“How the hell is them knowing our blood type supposed to help distinguish them?” demanded Tony Alpha.  “Our blood type would be the same in every universe, moron!”

I don’t know! ” shouted Tony Prime.  “I’m doing my best, okay?!

“Tony.  Put the gun down.  Please,” said one Obadiah.

“We can work this out, Tony,” said the other.

“The only way to tell is to ask questions specific to Tony Alpha’s universe,” said Reed. 

“But we don’t know how similar my Universe is to 621!” protested Alpha.

“Just start asking questions and when one of them gets it wrong, I’ll shoot him,” suggested Tony.

The other Tony and both Obadiahs protested this plan loudly; Tony pointed the gun to the ceiling and fired a warning shot.

Everyone clamped their hands over their ears, crying out in alarm.

“We’re going with my plan,” said Tony, voice dangerously soft.  He took a few steps back, gesturing to Tony Alpha. “Go on, Alpha.  Ask.”

“Tony--” begged both Obadiahs.

“Okay, okay!” cried Tony.  His look was one of panic and Reed could not imagine how he felt; only ten minutes ago he’d told Obadiah to stay behind and now he was responsible for his safety.  “But-- but swear you’ll only shoot one! My Obie never did anything wrong, Tony! He’s family to me; he’s my godfather; please, I love him.”

“Yeah, yeah, fine, whatever,” said Tony.  “Start asking, damn it. I want all of the Stanes out of my shop in the next fifteen minutes!”

“Okay!  Okay!” Tony took a deep, shuddery breath.  “Who’s the president?”

“Kennedy,” said both.

“How many suits do I have?”

“Forty-six.”

“What’s the name of my polo horse?”

“Which one?”

“The less shitty one.”

“Charlie’s Rejection.”

Tony looked helplessly at Tony. 

“Keep going,” he growled.

“Tony,” interjected Reed.  “You know, the-- the thing is-- you realize that all decisions are divergent events?  Whichever you choose there’s theoretically a branching universe where you shot the other one.”

Tony lowered the gun a fraction, but it was still aimed between the Obadiahs.

“You’re saying all choices and all possibilities exist?” asked Tony.

“Yes, we’ve just demonstrated that, haven’t we?”

“...so…”

“So don’t choose.  Don’t shoot either,” begged Tony Alpha.

Tony Prime considered.  If pulling the trigger constituted making a choice, and all possibilities technically existed, did choice even really matter, or was it simply an abstraction like “time” used by people’s brains to organize and separate actions from each other?  Did he even have a choice or was the whole universe pre-destined, snowballing along regardless of what he did?

What about non-choices?  He could shoot neither. Or both.  Or, hell, turn the gun on himself.

...did thinking of the possibilities create new branches?  Were all of those universes poised on the brink of their own individual realities, ready to blink into existence the moment he made a decision?

I am become Life, the Creator of Worlds, he thought.  He let out a slightly hysterical laugh.  The other four men in the room exchanged worried glances. 

Tony gave his head a shake to clear it.

“No.  Stop it.  Stop trying to confuse me!” he yelled shrilly.  “One of you is a sadistic fuck and one of you dies!  I’m not gonna sit here thinking of every fucking possibility and branching universe!  One dies, one lives! End of discussion! Alpha !  You got thirty seconds!  Go! Ask! Now!”

“Uh… um… what’s the code to my shop? ” asked Tony hurriedly.

Both Obadiahs answered immediately, with the same urgency with which Tony had asked them the question.

“0622,” said one Obadiah.

“1009,” said the other.

Tony didn’t hesitate.  He pulled the trigger.

Chapter Text

Stockholm was surprisingly temperate.  Tony had shucked off his coat and in the front seat, so had Happy; he was in his shirtsleeves and a blue-and-white striped tie. 

Pepper sat beside Tony in a burgundy turtleneck.  They had taken the ride together in silence.

Happy pulled up to the bank; built over a hundred years ago, it was a squat stone affair, only six stories but nonetheless imposing in its austerity.  Tony got out of the car, Pepper behind him. He heard her heels clipping smartly on the flagstone sidewalk as they approached the wooden door, pulling it open to enter a large, airy, well-lit lobby. 

Tony was expected; Arvid Nyström, one of the bank’s upper managers, walked forward to meet him, hand outstretched.  Tony stared at it; Arvid dropped it.

“A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Stark,” he said instead, his English impeccably efficient but still heavily accented.

“Tony is eager to open his strongbox,” said Pepper, who could tell Tony was not in the mood for pleasantries.

“Of course.  Please, right this way.”

Arvid led them through the lobby and toward a staircase in the corner.  They passed a guard who nodded to them and walked down a narrow, twisting staircase to a hallway; Arvid led them to a heavy metal door, which he unlocked with a key, and ushered them inside, turning left to a second hallway and a second door.  Beyond this was a wall of small, unassuming metal boxes built into the wall.

“Let’s see… Stark… yes, number 803,” he said, tapping one of them meaningfully.  “You must enter your own numerical code to open it. Would you prefer I step out?”

“Yes.  Give us thirty minutes,” said Pepper.

Arvid nodded politely and stepped out, shutting the door behind them.  The room should have felt stuffy but it was actually fairly cozy.

Tony took a deep breath.

“Pep.  What if it’s empty?”

“...well… then you won’t be any worse off than you were before,” she said, reasonably.

Tony gave a small, sharp nod.  “Yeah. Yeah, you’re right. Thanks, Pepper.”

He stepped forward.  There was a little metal wheel with four numbers, set to 0000.  When he touched the metal, he immediately noticed the dust on it.  The tontine had not been touched in two, maybe even three decades.

He set the number to 1974 and then gripped the handle.  It pulled down easily and the box opened.

Inside was a box and two envelopes.

Hands shaking, he reached inside and pulled out the envelopes.

One was labeled “HOWARD” in Obadiah’s neat, light print; the other was labeled “OBADIAH” in Howard’s tight, dark cursive.  Neither was opened.

“...Obie never opened the tontine after Dad died,” observed Tony.

“I think he was probably concerned with a lot of other things,” said Pepper quietly.

Tony ripped open the letter addressed to his father.

Howie-- it began.

Tony’s eyes darted across the page as he absorbed the contents.

Howie--

If you are reading this, then I am dead and you are likely grieving.  I hope that, between the time I have written this letter to you and you have opened it, that you have managed to prove me wrong.  As you know, I believe, at this juncture, that love makes a man a fool. And as you have pointed out to me, so does wealth, fame, and fortune, something we get more of every day.  Well, they do say ignorance is bliss; a man of your intelligence can afford, I suppose, to fall in love.

We have been in business now for thirty years and I sincerely hope we’ll get another thirty more at least, because you have a keen mind for inventing and all of the charm for marketing.  I could not ask for more in a partner. I do not see myself as a man to ever valuable an abstraction such as love before money or power. However, Howard, I will concede this: when you married Maria, I was convinced she would run away with half your stuff and leave you a broken man.  I was delighted to be wrong. And there are times, I will admit, when I see you and her with your boy, and I think to myself that maybe, just maybe, you’re on to something about life being worth more than the numbers in our bank accounts.

Perhaps, by the time you read this, I will have given in to a pretty face and I, too, will have a son.  Perhaps when we are old men, we will laugh at my younger self for being so wooden in my character and for avoiding personal connections so long. 

Regardless of whether I grow soft or not, Howie, I can say now that you’re one hell of a business partner and I’m glad to have gotten to know you.  Your wit never fails to surprise and delight me. Even if I never marry, or have children, or even have close friendships, I value what we have, Howard.  And even though I think you’re wrong about love being worth more than money, I hope, for your sake, that you’re not.

Best,

Obadiah, 1976

...Tony’s lip curled in disgust as he read the letter.  So even back in ‘76, Obie was a ruthless businessman who only cared about the company.

He tore open his father’s letter to Obadiah.

Obie--  it began.

If you are reading this then congratulations, old friend, for having outlived me.  It was an honor to have known and worked beside you. I hope in the course of our lives that I’ve cracked through that shell of yours and shown you that life is about more than the accumulation of wealth, as it has shown me.

Please take care of my boy.  He is perhaps my greatest achievement in life, and I know he will need your guidance and wisdom to navigate the difficult waters of wealth, fame, and intelligence.  For all I have accomplished, I know he will outdo me far beyond my wildest dreams. Please groom and challenge him as I would and take comfort in the belief that he is in many ways a better version of myself.  I wish you two the best of partnerships and I leave this world with full confidence that the two of your will accomplish incredible things together.

If I have taught you nothing about humanity, perhaps he will succeed where I have failed.

Best,

Howard, 1976

Tony stared at the words, face blank, eyes dry, too shocked to react properly.

The letter had not been opened.  The envelope had never been unsealed.  Howard had left Obadiah instructions to be his mentor, to guide and protect him, and Obadiah had never seen it.

He was not sure whether to be sad, or furious.  Obadiah had done the exact opposite. Their “partnership” had ended with Obadiah going mad and torturing him for over a year.

...yet…

...had that really been Obadiah?

That had not been the man who had taught him piano, brought him pizza, tucked a condom into his wallet before he left for college.  That had not been the man who had once, on the yacht, been going over second quarter stock options and, when Tony yawned, grinned and thrown the whole binder overboard.  That had not been the same man who had driven him to the ER when he’d broken his shoulder after crashing a Ducati in his teens, or the man who had sat down with him on a curb, wearing a $20,000 dollar suit, and shared ice cream with him after his first DUI, quietly asking what on earth he’d been thinking and did he realize he could have gotten hurt?

Was Obadiah going through the motions as a service to his father, or, perhaps, as his father predicted, had Obadiah, during the course of his life, loosened up a little?  Found moments of human connection and happiness?

His father had often been a cruel man.  Overly dominant, harsh. But his father really had loved him and been proud of him.  So… perhaps, so had Obadiah. At least, before he’d fallen off the deep end. Was it Tony’s fault that that had happened?  Or was it something else? Age, dementia, some unknown disease or trauma?

Because the man who Howard had been friends with, and the man who had had his arm around Tony at Howard’s funeral, was not the same man who had starved him, imprisoned him, and subjugated him.

In rare, unguarded moments alone with him, Tony had seen a person beneath the managerial veneer.  And in those moments, Obadiah seemed the happiest. 

Even if Obadiah had never been able to admit it, he had had, himself, a small spot of softness.  One that perhaps he was too scared to ever explore. One that he kept hidden and guarded, like a plant in a closet, letting it wilt away to nothing.

Obadiah had been a tragic character.  In other universes, like 620, he had managed to open up, have his “shell cracked,” as Howard put it.  But in 619, Obadiah had poisoned that part of himself. And now he was nothing more than a white, unmarked box and a small urn of ash.  He was dead and there would be no second chances.

...Tony almost felt sorry for him.

He reached for the box and opened it.

It was filled with photos.  Howard and Obadiah shaking hands in front of a factory, with the name STARK boldly printed on the side.  Howard and Obadiah feigning a drink toast (Howard’s cup already half-empty). Obadiah with his arm around Howard, the two of them in tuxes at a church, presumably at Howard’s wedding.  The two of them hunched over a chess board, Obadiah’s face already set in a smirk of victory and Howard’s brow furrowed in a frustration at his imminent defeat.

It was a time capsule.  A peek into the lives of the two men who had set up this so-called tontine which held nothing of value, aside from memories and a gentlemanly wager about whether or not love mattered.

Having been set up in 1976, of course, Tony found himself peeking out of the box.  Here was Obie and Howard sharing cigars in front of an “IT’S A BOY!” banner. Here was Tony and his mother at Disneyworld, hugging and laughing; Tony proudly displaying a circuit board he’d built; Tony dressed up as Benjamin Franklin for unknown reasons, perhaps a school play.  He did not remember most of them because he had been too young.

“This was the most valuable thing to Dad,” said Tony slowly, picking up a picture of him hiding his face in one of his nanny’s legs while a laughing Ana tried to coax him into feeding an apple to a pony.  “And… he wanted Obadiah to have it, too.”

Two men who had everything, two rich, powerful men had put into a tontine that which a person couldn't buy.  A promise of the future, a child’s potential.

To them, the world was a place to be conquered.  Their power was objective and measurable. They had money; they had influence.

But when they had planned this, assuming the other would be grieving, they had not turned to money to comfort each other.  They had turned to memories.

And despite Obadiah’s crusty old letter about how he thought love made men into fools and Howard was “soft,” the absence of money in the box and the number of photos told otherwise.  In every photo of Obadiah with Howard, or Obadiah with a young Tony, he was smiled. Unguarded. Unscheming.

...human.

In his own way, he had loved him.

He had been more valuable to them than any other thing.

He set the box down and reached up to drag a hand over his face, unwilling to display any emotion in front of Pepper.  She had the decency to look away while he collected himself.

“Pack it up,” said Tony finally, rising.  “Mystery solved. The tontine’s a bunch of embarrassing baby pictures of me.”

“It’s sort of sweet,” said Pepper.

“Maybe,” conceded Tony.  “But neither one ever actually opened the tontine so… it was pointless.”

“Was it?”

Tony frowned at her as she began putting away the photos and letters into the box, collecting everything together to take with them.

“...I guess no.  ...Pep?”

She looked up at him.

“...I think I need to talk to someone.”

She waited for him to elaborate. 

“I mean like… a professional.  About, you know. My drinking. ...when Dad and Obie made this… they saw me as having, you know, potential.  And they weren’t wrong. 620 was who I could’ve been. Maybe it’s not too late. Maybe I can… fix things. I dunno.  Seems like I’m sorta overdue to try, huh?” He shrugged a little. “Anyway, can you look up, I dunno, like, therapists or… rehab places or whatever?  ...thank you, Miss Potts.”

Pepper smiled at him, rising, box in her hands.  “Of course, Mr. Stark.”


 Six weeks.  Not a single sign of Obadiah.

They had searched everywhere.  Asked everyone. He was gone. Vanished into thin air.

The case was still open, but the news crews parked in front of the house had thinned a little.  With no developments, the story was growing stale. The police had questioned everyone, even Tony, who of course didn’t speak a word or give any indication he could even hear them.  He’d clutched the cat to him, staring off into the middle distance, as closed off from the outside world as ever. In the end they’d disqualified him as a person of interest, because he wasn’t really a person at all; he was so utterly comatose that the idea of him having any involvement whatsoever was laughable.

Without Obadiah around, Pepper had had to move in to help Jarvis care for Tony.  Jarvis was too old to easily tend to Tony’s every need twenty-four hours a day; Obadiah had been the one who had always taken care of Tony, but with him gone, Pepper had dutifully picked up the slack.

Surprisingly, though, Tony had been flourishing.  He’d put on weight and begun sleeping better, the bruises around his eyes fading.  His scars from self-harming healed and no new marks appeared. Gradually, he began doing things on his own without being directed.  Tiny things he’d never done, not for years: changing the channel during commercial breaks, opening a window, choosing a shirt to wear in the morning.

Initially daunted by the task of caring for Tony, Pepper was surprised to see how readily he began caring for himself.

One morning, she went to his room to discover he had already gotten himself out of bed.  She checked the bathroom; he wasn’t there, either, but his toothbrush and comb had been moved around.  Tiny signs of life.

She walked downstairs to find Tony already sitting at the table, Jarvis serving him a plate of toast with butter.

“Good morning, miss,” said Jarvis.

“Good morning, Edwin.  Good morning, Tony. It’s good to see you up,” said Pepper, smiling at him.  Tony stared back silently.

“Tea, ma’am?”

“Yes, please, thank you, Edwin,” she said, sitting down beside Tony.  Tony was munching on his toast without being told; by the time Jarvis had brought Pepper her tea, his plate was empty.  Rarely did he eat more than one or two slices, let alone finish them.

“More toast, sir?” asked Jarvis automatically, picking up the plate.

Tony looked up and his eyes met Jarvis’s.  “No,” he said, firmly, and despite the softness of that single syllable, Pepper very nearly dropped her tea.


Tony limped into the kitchen; morning light was flooding the clean, open space.  Pepper looked up from her breakfast, still in her robe. “Good morning, sweetie. How’s your pain?”

“About a seven, today,” he said, getting up onto one of the stools with difficulty.  Pepper winced sympathetically and leaned over to kiss him on the temple. “It’ll get better later in the day, though.  Where’s Obie? I thought he was going to swing by so we could go over some of the details of the ViaStone acquisition.”

“Oh, he called and left a note,” said Pepper, reaching across the counter and sliding a pad of paper at him.  “He said he’ll be late.”

“Mm,” said Tony, looking down at the note as if it could provide more information.  Of course, it couldn’t.

The last few weeks since they had come through the portal together had been rough.  Tony had watched Obadiah get shot and Obadiah had watched Tony ( a Tony) shoot him, point-blank.  When the Obadiah on his left had dropped, he’d gotten some of the other man’s-- no, his blood--  on the hem of his pants.

Both were understandably shaken.  Their relationship over the last few weeks had been strained, to say the least.

“I don’t blame you, Tony,” Obadiah had reassured him.  “There was never any doubt in my mind that he’d choose correctly.  Still, it was… hard to watch.”

“Of course I chose you, old man.  I’d know you anywhere,” Tony had said, with a small smile.  “Take all the time you need.”

They’d embraced and, over the course of the last few weeks, they’d had several serious late-night discussions over the phone.  They’d both seen the worst of themselves and both, several times, had apologized to the other.

But as time spooled out, and their distance from the experience lengthened, there was less and less to say about it, and they had fallen into their usual routine.  Tony Prime’s influence over them was fading, slowly but surely.

Not that he didn’t still crop up now and then.

“Tony left his flask here; I found it downstairs this morning,” said Pepper, holding up a silver container.  Its contents sloshed.

Tony made a face.  “Ugh. Throw it into the ocean, Pep.”

She rose and kissed his temple again.  “Don’t forget, we have tickets to the philharmonic tonight.  Be dressed and ready to go by seven.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Tony, smiling at her.  He watched her walk away before easing off his stool with a cringe of pain, limping over to the espresso machine to make himself a cup of coffee and await Obadiah’s arrival.

Chapter Text

The weather in Stockholm was surprisingly clement; Happy had shirked off his suit jacket while waiting at a red light.  He was now driving them east in his shirtsleeves and a red-and-white striped tie.

Pepper sat beside Tony in a pale blue turtleneck.  She was watching him, but he was staring distantly out the window, not speaking, clearly preferring to be left alone.

When they pulled up to the bank, he got out, pulling on a pair of sunglasses, his face set in stone.  The building before them was older that Steve Rogers, having been built at the turn of the century when banks were still expected to have square symmetry with lots of columns and arches.  The windows were lined up like soldiers, the masonry around them both severe and artistic. It was a very classical building. The small wooden door that led into the lobby was almost out of place.

Pepper had called ahead, and Elsa Nyström, one of the bank’s upper managers, was waiting for them.

“A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Stark,” she said in English, holding out a hand.  Tony did not take it.

“Tony is eager to open his strongbox,” said Pepper, who could tell Tony was not in the mood for pleasantries.

“Of course.  Please, right this way.”

Unperturbed by Tony’s rudeness, Elsa led them through the lobby and down stairs, past guards and through locked doors, until they arrived in a small, brightly-lit room.  On one end of it was a row of small numbered boxes, and on the other, a desk and a chair for any who might need it.

“Let’s see… Stark… yes, number 308,” she said, tapping her finger to the box.  “You must enter your own numerical code to open it. Would you prefer I step out?”

“Yes.  Give us thirty minutes, please,” said Pepper.

Elsa nodded politely and stepped out, shutting the door behind them.  The room should have felt stuffy but it was actually fairly cozy.

Tony took a deep breath.

“Pep.  What if the PIN doesn’t work?”

“...well… then you won’t be any worse off than you were before,” she said, reasonably.

Tony gave a small, sharp nod.  “Yeah. Yeah, you’re right. Thank you, Miss Potts.”

He stepped forward.  There was a little metal wheel with four numbers, set to 0000.  When he touched the metal, he immediately noticed the grime; no one had touched that little wheel in probably twenty years.  Maybe even thirty.

He set the number to 1974 and then gripped the handle.  It pulled down easily and the box opened.

Inside was a box and two envelopes.

Hands shaking, he reached inside and pulled out the envelopes.

One was labeled “HOWARD” in Obadiah’s neat, light cursive; the other was labeled “OBADIAH” in Howard’s tight, dark print.  Neither was opened.

“...Obie never opened the tontine after Dad died,” observed Tony.

“I think he was probably concerned with a lot of other things,” said Pepper quietly.

Tony ripped open the letter addressed to his father.

Howie-- it began.

Tony’s eyes darted across the page as he absorbed the contents.

...Tony’s lip curled in disgust as he read the letter.  So even back in ‘76, Obie was a ruthless businessman who only cared about the company.

He set aside the letter and ripped open the one written by his father and written to Obadiah.  It started by addressing him as “Obie.” A nickname he had hated that both Howard and Tony had used.

His eyes skimmed over the details.

When he was finished, he set it down, delicately, his brain still processing what the hell it all meant.  His face blank was, eyes dry, too shocked to react properly. Behind him, Pepper made no movement and said nothing, knowing that Tony needed a few moments to think on what he’d read.  He would talk when he was ready.

The letter, the one Howard had written to Obadiah, had not been opened by Obadiah after Howard’s death.  The envelope had never been unsealed. Howard had left Obadiah instructions to be his mentor, to guide and protect and nurture, and Obadiah had never seen it.

He was not sure whether to be sad, or furious.  Obadiah had done the exact opposite. Their “partnership” had ended with Obadiah going mad and torturing him for over a year.

...and...

...and Howard had trusted him.

Knowing that Obadiah did not value the same things as Howard, that he thought concepts like “love” and “family” were for fools, Howard had trusted Obadiah to actually act as Tony’s mentor.

Howard had trusted the man who had arranged for his kidnapping, had tried to have him murdered, had let him be tortured and raped in a cave, who had set him up and caused him to require open-heart surgery without anesthetic.  The man who, when Tony had returned, had almost immediately began subjugating him, starving him, beating him, forcing him to build arc reactors and sign off on company policies, all the while whispering poisonous thoughts into his ear, that he was worthless, that he was weak, that if he put even a toe out of line, Obadiah would personally ensure that his three little months in the cave looked like Candyland.  The man who had choked him, burned him, patted him on the head like a dog, treated him like a pet, sadistically controlled and abused him. The man he had finally been forced to kill.

...so Howard had been as stupid as Tony was, then.  He had thought Obadiah was a kindly and virtuous creature, right up until the end.  In a way, Howard was the lucky one. He’d never had to see Obadiah’s true colors. Then again, he’d never driven Obadiah mad, himself.  It was Tony’s fault that Obadiah had acted as he had.

Because the man who Howard had been friends with, the man who had delivered the eulogy at his funeral, had never had a reason to starve, imprison, and torture Howard.  Howard had been a cooperative business partner, not a wild, feral, animal, as Tony was.

Tony reached for the box and opened it.

It was filled with photos. 

Howard and Obadiah cutting a ribbon in front of a factory, with the name STARK boldly printed on the side.  Howard and Obadiah posing in front of a plant (Howard had stood on his tip-toes because he was shorter than Obadiah and was putting bunny ears on his head).  Obadiah with his arm around Howard, the two of them in tuxes at a church, with Maria on Howard’s other side in a white dress. The two of them hunched over a chess board, Obadiah’s face frozen in eternal laughter while Howard held his head in his hands, clearly having lost, and lost badly.

And since the box had been curated in 1976 there were, naturally, a number of photos with Tony: Tony and his nanny at Universal Studios, hugging and laughing; Tony standing proudly beside a six-cylinder engine he’d built; Tony dressed up as Nikola Tesla for unknown reasons, perhaps a school play.  He did not remember most of them; he was no older than six in any of them.

After Howard’s death, Obadiah had finally been the only CEO of Stark, Industries, and basking in his undisputed reign.

“This is why my dad trusted him,” said Tony slowly, picking up a picture of him hiding his face in one of his nanny’s legs while a laughing Edwin tried to coax him into feeding a carrot to a pony.

Howard had been a rich, powerful man who had realized there were some things that money couldn’t buy.  A promise of the future, a child’s potential.

But to Obadiah, the world was a place to be conquered.  His power was objective and measurable. He had money; he had influence.

And he had been right.  Having a child had made Howard soft.

That was why Obadiah had resented Tony so much.  He had expected Howard to give him control of the company, but Tony had inherited it despite not having earned it, and Obadiah had watched his precious company, his legacy, crumble under the leadership of a stunted, immature, underprepared CEO.

The company had been more valuable to him than any other thing. 

After all, he’d been manipulating Howard since the seventies; he had set up this so-called tontine with him as a ploy to win his favor.  Had said such things as how he “hoped he was wrong.” Had claimed he saw how happy family made Howard. Blah, blah, blah.

Tony could imagine him talking to Howard late at night, telling him how Tony shouldn’t inherit the company because it would be too much stress on a kid who had just lost his father, and that Howard ought to turn it over to him, instead.  He could only imagine the rage Obadiah had felt when Tony had inherited it after everything, and how that rage had built as Tony pissed all over his carefully crafted empire.

Obadiah had probably resented him for longer than he’d ever realized.  Obadiah had planned to take over since his birth. And Obadiah’s madness had been inevitable.  Not a result of old age, or dementia, or some unknown head trauma. No. It had always been there.  Tony, like his father, had just been too stupid, too trusting, to see it.

He set the box down and reached up to drag a hand over his face, unwilling to display any emotion in front of Pepper.  She had the decency to look away while he collected himself.

“Pack it up,” said Tony finally, rising.  “Mystery solved. The tontine’s a bunch of embarrassing baby pictures of me.”

“It’s sort of sweet,” said Pepper.

“Pepper, wake up.  This whole thing was set up for Obadiah to butter up my dad,” said Tony.  “After Dad died, he never even opened it or read Dad’s letter, so… it was pointless.”

“But was it?  I mean… it brought you some sort of closure, didn’t it?”

Tony frowned at her as she began putting away the photos and letters into the box, collecting everything together to take with them.

“...I guess so.  ...Pep?”

She looked over at him.

“...I think I need to talk to someone.”

She waited for him to elaborate. 

“I mean like… someone who can listen.  About, you know. Everything. Preferably over a drink.  You know, like, one of those really down-to-earth bartenders who gets it.   I need to process this and I haven’t had a drink since the plane ride over.  So, it sorta seems like I’m overdue, huh?” He shrugged a little. “Anyway, can you look up, I dunno, like, bars in the area?  ...thank you, Miss Potts.”

Pepper’s mouth twitched into a frown, then resolved into its usual, professional mask.  She rose, box in her hands. “Of course, Mr. Stark.”


Six weeks.  Not a single sign of Obadiah.

They had searched everywhere.  Asked everyone. He was gone. Vanished into thin air.

The case was still open, but the news crews parked in front of the house had thinned a little.  With no developments, the story was growing stale. The police had questioned everyone, even Tony, who of course didn’t speak a word or give any indication he could even hear them.  He’d clutched the cat to him, staring off into the middle distance, as closed off from the outside world as ever. In the end they’d disqualified him as a person of interest, because he wasn’t really a person at all; he was so utterly comatose that the idea of him having any involvement whatsoever was laughable.

Without Obadiah around, Pepper had had to move in to help Jarvis care for Tony.  Jarvis was too old to easily tend to Tony’s every need twenty-four hours a day; Obadiah had been the one who had always taken care of Tony, but with him gone, Pepper had dutifully picked up the slack.

Surprisingly, though, Tony had been flourishing.  He’d put on weight and begun sleeping better, the bruises around his eyes fading.  His scars from self-harming healed and no new marks appeared. Gradually, he began doing things on his own without being directed.  Tiny things he’d never done, not for years: changing the channel during commercial breaks, opening a window, choosing a shirt to wear in the morning.

Initially daunted by the task of caring for Tony, Pepper was surprised to see how readily he began caring for himself.

One morning, she went to his room to discover he had already gotten himself out of bed.  She checked the bathroom; he wasn’t there, either, but his toothbrush and comb had been moved around.  Tiny signs of life.

She walked downstairs to find Tony already sitting at the table, Jarvis serving him a plate of toast with orange marmalade.

“Good morning, miss,” said Jarvis.

“Good morning, Edwin.  Good morning, Tony. It’s good to see you up,” said Pepper, smiling at him.  Tony stared back silently.

“Coffee, ma’am?”

“Yes, please, with cream.  Thank you, Edwin,” she said, sitting down beside Tony.  Tony was munching on his toast without being told; by the time Jarvis had brought Pepper her cream, his plate was empty.  Rarely did he eat more than one or two slices, let alone finish them.

“More toast, sir?” asked Jarvis automatically, picking up the plate.

Tony looked up and his eyes met Jarvis’s.  “Yes,” he said, firmly, and despite the softness of that single syllable, Pepper dropped the entire tureen of cream into her coffee, ruining it.


Tony limped into the kitchen; morning light was flooding the clean, open space.  Pepper looked up from her breakfast, still in her robe. “Good morning, sweetie. How’s your pain?”

“About a three, today,” he said, getting up onto one of the stools with difficulty.  Pepper smiled and leaned over to kiss him on the temple. “It’ll get worse in the day, though.  Where’s Obie? I thought he was going to swing by so we could go over some of the details of the ViaStone acquisition.”

“Oh, he called and left a note,” said Pepper, reaching across the counter and sliding a pad of paper at him.  “He said he couldn’t come after all.”

“Mm,” said Tony, looking down at the note as if it could provide more information.  Of course, it couldn’t.

The last few weeks since they had come through the portal together had been rough.  Tony had watched Obadiah get shot and Obadiah had watched Tony (a Tony) shoot him, point-blank.  When the Obadiah on his right had dropped, he’d gotten some of his blood on his shoes.

Both were understandably shaken.  Their relationship over the last few weeks had been strained, to say the least.

“I don’t blame you, Tony,” Obadiah had reassured him.  “There was never any doubt in my mind that he’d choose correctly.  Still, it was… hard to watch.”

“Of course I chose you, old man.  I’d know you anywhere,” Tony had said, with a small smile.  “Take all the time you need.”

They’d embraced and, over the course of the last few weeks, they’d had several serious late-night discussions over the phone.  They’d both seen the worst of themselves and both, several times, had apologized to the other.

But as time spooled out, and their distance from the experience lengthened, they grew more and more apart.  The distance began to feel like the new normal.

Late at night, when he lay beside Pepper’s softly sleeping form and stared at the dark ceiling, he found himself wondering. 

...was it the right one, after all?

He pushed away such thoughts almost immediately, revolted by the idea that he would ever question it.  But they kept rearing their ugly little heads.  What if?  What if?

He would know, wouldn’t he, if it was the wrong Obie?  ....if he’d let a monster into his home? Surely, Obadiah, the madman, would reveal his true colors eventually?

...or maybe not.  After all, in his own universe, Tony’s company was successful, and he himself was a compliant friend and business partner to Obie.

Perhaps in this universe, Obadiah would lay low, bide his time… perhaps he would not risk abusing Tony because he knew doing so would reveal himself.  Perhaps he knew that Tony Alpha was too strong to be abused; perhaps he knew that Tony Alpha would fight back and that, unlike other Tonys, was not so emotionally unstable as to be unable to seek help.

Two possibilities.  It was the right Obie, or the wrong Obie.

And if it was the wrong Obie, two possibilities: Obie was secretly plotting to someday torture him, or Obie would become a healed man, the monster lulled to sleep by the newfound peace of Universe Alpha.

And if that was the case, two more possibilities: Tony had lost his Obie and would never know, or he had lost his Obie and would someday know, after all, when Obadiah suddenly lashed out at him.

In a way, though, no matter which Obie it was, Tony had still lost something.  He’d lost the trust. He’d watched himself kill Obadiah, and Obadiah had, too; they had both come home less innocent.  They both knew, now, what they were capable of. Tony of murder, Obadiah of torture. Their relationship was strained, irrevocably tarnished by this knowledge.  Even if it was the right Obadiah and he had not been killed, their relationship would never be the same.

In all possibilities, Tony had, in some way, lost his best friend.

“Tony?”

Tony looked up.  Pepper was looking at him with concern.

“Sorry.  Lost in thought.  What’s up?”

“Tony left his flask here; I found it downstairs this morning,” said Pepper, holding up a silver container.  Its contents sloshed.

Tony made a face.  “Ugh. Give it here; I’ll throw it into the ocean, Pep.”

She rose and kissed his temple again.  “Don’t forget, we have tickets to the Clippers game tonight.  I expect you to be dressed and ready to go by seven.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Tony, smiling at her.  He watched her walk away before easing off his stool, grabbing the flask to take it out to the balcony.

The ocean breeze felt nice on the his face, the sun warm.

He didn’t want to bother Pepper with what were probably only paranoid thoughts.  If, if, it was the wrong Obie, then there was no guarantee he would end up like the other Tony had.  He was the good Tony, right? So Obie wouldn’t freak out on him… right? He never drank; the other Obadiah would never have a reason to get mad at him in the first place.

And even if he did, Tony was stronger.  ...right? He wouldn’t let himself be subjugated the way the other Tonys had been.  No, he’d do what needed to be done.

...but wouldn’t that be fulfilling a prophecy?  Tony had said that their universes were convergent.  That in every universe, it ended with him killing Obadiah.  Tony couldn’t imagine killing Obie. Not in a million years.  Obie was closer to him than his own father, he would never…

...would he?

He held the flask over the railing of the balcony; the soft, rhythmic crash of the waves below beckoned.

Tony hesitated and pulled the flask back, staring at it.  There was still alcohol in it. Lots of it. What a waste.

He hadn’t touched a drop in six years.

...what was one little drink?

...a relapse, that was what. 

...he should call his sponsor.

...and say what?  That he was worried his godfather and business partner of thirty-plus years was an evil doppelganger?  That sounded utterly crazy. No one would believe him, except maybe Pepper and Happy and Reed, who had seen with their own eyes that there were--

Wait a second.  No, they hadn’t!  No one in his own universe had ever seen the two Obadiahs together!  He was alone.

Tony held the flask over the railing again.

Drop it, Stark.  Drop it, he instructed himself.  His hand trembled.

Life was nothing more than a series of choices, every possibility leading down a new and different road.  In AA, they talked about the “straight and narrow” all the time. But didn’t they understand how many other paths there were?  Limitless possibilities.

...one drink might not even really lead to a full relapse.  It might just be one drink. Did it really matter whether he drank the contents of the flask or not?  After all, no matter what he did, in some other universe, another version of himself was probably doing the opposite.

...but this was his life.  Not “some other Tony.” 

The right thing to do was to throw the flask into the ocean.

...but God, he wanted a drink.

He glanced behind him, though the glass door.  The house was empty. No Pepper.

He unscrewed the top of the flask.

He wasn’t going to drink it.  He was just going to pour it out.  That was all. Yes. Pour it into the ocean.

He held it out.  His hand shook. All he had to do was tip the flask.  Why wasn’t he tipping the flask? All he had to do was one tiny motion of his hand. 

All he had to do was make a decision.