"Does this count as the forth alien invasion, or the fifth?" Tony wondered as he barrel rolled to avoid an alien fist the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. The alien in question had hard, pebbly yellow-gray skin, which so far was immune to bullets and repulser blasts. It was also huge. Not Empire state building, huge. More like Trump Tower. Oddly the same color of skin, too.
"Forth," Clint replied over the comms.
"Fifth invasion," Natasha's voice was cool. "We have two types of aliens here, so two separate invasions."
Tony glanced down to street-level just in time to see her dispatch one of the second species, which were gray, small, and human-size except for beaky mouths and honest-to-god bat-like wings. Those aliens, at least, were killable. Too bad there were hundreds of them swarming in every direction.
The big and ugly rock-alien roared at Tony, clapping two hands together and nearly catching Tony between them. Then it roared again as two dozen bat-aliens swarmed up its legs, stabbing with red-tinged spears.
Tony could almost thank the bats, except they'd proved far too happy to kill any humans who got in the way, too.
There had been no warning, no indication where either race had come from -- no declaration of war. Or "Hiya, you don't mind if we use one of your most populated cities as our personal battle ground, do you? Kay, thanks." The rocks and bats only seemed interested in fighting each other.
"I've decided," Tony said as he hovered to fire a repulser at a couple of bat-aliens who were scurrying up the side of a nearby building. Whatever they used their wings for, it wasn't for flying. "I'm not counting this as an invasion. It's like they don't notice us at all. In fact, I'm insulted. We're Avengers. We're the human race, excepting Thor. It's kinda hard to miss us."
Steve's voice broke in, tense. "Cut the chatter, everyone. Thor, any luck getting through to either side with All Speak?"
"None, Shield Brother," Thor boomed. And really, Tony could have figured that out for himself. The clouds overhead had taken an ominous, steel color as the God of Thunder became frustrated.
Tony circled around the biggest of the rock aliens again, though he couldn't shake the feeling he was about as effective -- and as annoying -- as a housefly.
"And why did they take their grudge match to China Town?" Tony groused, ignoring Steve's command. "I like China Town. Why don't aliens ever invade Yonkers? Or Milwaukie?"
He heard a small click in his ear as Steve switched to the private line between them. "How are Yonkers or Milwaukee even remotely related?"
Tony grinned. Cut the chatter, Captain hypocrite. But he wasn't complaining.
One of the bat-aliens made a long leap from the building to the giant rock alien, a spear clutched in its hand--claws?-- and left a two foot gash on the pebbly skin before it was shaken off. Hovering in place, Tony targeted the gash with a repulser blast. The rock alien swung around, tiny eyes red with rage. Well, that got its attention.
"Easy," Tony replied as he dodged a swipe. "Yonkers and Milwaukee don't have one good Mexican food place between them."
Steve grunted, "And China Town does?"
Below, Tony caught a flash of Steve using the shield to bounce off the ankle of one rock alien and bowl headlong into a group of bats. There were a lot of high-pitched, batty screams, and a few moments later Steve was the only one standing among a pile of aliens.
He got an idea. "Cap, get me one of those spears the bats were carrying."
Steve hefted one and glanced up to spot Tony. "Go long!" he yelled. Apparently he'd learned a thing or two from the Avengers' bi-weekly flag football games in the park. (The winner usually was whoever had Natasha on their team. Avengers flag football didn't mean no-touch-no-tackle football.)
Even three hundred feet above, Tony had to move quick to catch the spear as it flashed past. "Good arm, Cap."
"Think so?" Steve asked, then paused to take out another bat. "So why don't you ever want me on your side in football?"
Because then Tony wouldn't have the chance to tackle him sans armor, or visa-versa. But despite what Pepper claimed he did have sense enough not to say everything that came into his head.
Hefting the spear, Tony directed Jarvis to increase the power to his left arm. He aimed and threw, and it slammed into the shoulder of a rock alien and dug in at least a foot deep.
The thing roared with enough power to rattle Tony's eardrums.
"Well would you look at that." Tony switched the communicator back to the general channel to reach the rest of the team. "Those bat-spears penetrate the big guy's rock-skin. Scales? Hide? Whatever it is."
"Hawkeye, see if you can get a hold of some of those," Steve ordered, all Captain America again.
Tony could practically hear the grin in Clint's voice as he replied, "Got it, Captain. I'll see if I can put 'em somewhere sensitive."
Tony opened his mouth to add his (dirty) part when suddenly the HUD proximity sensors screamed at him. He fired his thrusters, banking a sharp left, but it was too late. The flat of a rock creature's hand seemed to come out of nowhere to slap him casually, horribly, to the side.
"Sir, brace for impact," Jarvis said.
As Tony tumbled through the air, he caught a flash of the side of a brick building. Someone had painted a mural on the wall -- an urban scene of neighbors coming together to plant a lush community garden. Well, it was about to get an Iron Man sized hole. He crossed his arms over his face.
But the impact didn't come.
The emergency stabilizers kicked in, and Tony opened his eyes, finding himself on the other side of the wall. No wait, he was on the same side -- the mural was still whole. He hovered in air and looked down at his armor, checking for damage. There was none.
Had he hit the wall and not known it? Concussions were freaky that way. The wall was completely intact, save for an odd shimmering on the surface. Had he... phased through the wall? And come out the same side?
A rock alien gave another roar, but Tony was out of arm's reach, and frankly he was too rattled to care.
"Jarvis? What just happened?"
"Unknown, sir. Working." Then Jarvis' voice sharpened. "Sir, I've detected an incoming object at your three o'clock."
Tony glanced up to see that a third type of alien had joined the fray from above, heading straight toward him. This one was metallic -- human shaped.
It came closer into view, and Tony's breath caught. No, it wasn't an alien: It was an armor very much like Iron Man, but painted charcoal gray with muted yellow highlights. It didn't look as heavily armored, as if the engineer had sacrificed protection for a lighter construct. The helmet was a little larger, too, with no mouth slit and wider, oval eyes which gave it a menacing inhuman look.
"Great," Tony grumbled as the other armor buzzed by. "Cap, we have a third party in. Someone's ripped off the Iron Man -- badly."
"I thought you said everyone was at least ten years out from your tech, Stark," Clint said. Trust him to rub it in, though he was right.
Tony lifted to intercept, and the other armor swung wide. It had extra repulsers on its elbows and knees, allowing it to arc gracefully through the air.
Okay, so maaaaybe the other armor wasn't that bad of a rip-off. Tony took quick aim and fired at it anyway. He was too mature for spite -- that shot had been for science. Just to test how the pilot responded. Really.
The other armor twisted as the pulse impacted, leaving a smoking dent. It returned fire with a thin laser beam attached to its wrist. Only Jarvis' quick reactions allowed Tony to dodge in time. The beam still scorched a small hole in one of the chest plates.
It was on.
"You're right," he told Clint. "I guess I just have to take this guy down and find out how they did it."
"Keep your eye on the ball," Cap warned. "These aliens need to be contained."
Tony ignored him. Besides... this new armor might just be connected to the invasion(s).
The other armor fired again, but Tony dropped and deployed a small, targeted missile he kept in reserve. While the other armor released what looked like a load of chaff to deflect, Tony flew by and strafed it with two quick repulser blasts. But the armor dodged with uncanny grace.
The other armor fired back, and it was Tony's turn to dart out of the way.
Then they were flying, weaving, ducking, and chasing each other through the air. Firing and counter-attacking in a high-tech dogfight.
"Jarvis, hack in and shut that suit down. I want to own them." Tony was going to pin the pilot of that armor to the wall, pry him or her out of the suit, and find out where they got the specs for the Iron Man, because no one was even close to this level of tech. Then maybe he'd let Shield get a crack at them.
But try as he might, the other armor was hard to get a bead on. They twisted through the air, shooting at one another between flailing rock-alien arms and screaming bat aliens.
Tony had to admit, grudgingly, whoever was in there was good. The other suit wasn't as fast as Tony's, or as heavily armored, but the extra repulsers on the joints gave it more maneuverability. And those laser weapons were a bitch to avoid. Tony had three more smoking holes and one of the flaps on his left arm was completely immobilized.
"Sir, there is a virus attempting to hack into my systems. I am readying antivirus protocols, but it appears to be a mutating encryption."
Tony scowled and came low to shoot at the other armor again. He grazed it's leg, though he didn't see any damage aside from a little smoke. "Any danger?"
"Not so far, but it is rather complicating my own efforts."
"I want an airtight firewall between this suit and the home servers." Tony switched directions to lose the other armor for a moment.. He hovered and looked down at the ever-widening battlefield. The other Avengers were containing the aliens -- barely. He had to figure out a way to end this and rejoin the fight.
It took a moment, but then he saw a familiar flash of a red, white, and blue as Cap's shield whizzed through the air to strike at the shin of one of the rock aliens. It didn't do much, maybe dented the pebbled skin a little. The shield bounced back, and ricocheted off two of the bats before returning to Steve's hand.
Jarvis pinged a proximity alarm. The other suit was on his tail again.
Tony opened the comm line. "Coming in fast, Cap. I'm drawing the other armor your way."
"Where?" Steve demanded. "Iron Man, I don't see you!"
He deliberately slowed, teasing the other armor with the possibility of catching up.
"What are you blind? Look up!" Tony landed in a crouch, and the other armor, like an idiot, did too, right next to Steve. Tony raised his palms, gearing up for a twin blast, but hesitated as the other armor stumbled in place as if the pilot inside suddenly had trouble holding themselves up.
Cap turned and let the shield fly -- and it was so fast that even Jarvis' automated defense didn't have time to react -- because it hit Tony square in the chest with an unmusical clang, throwing him at least ten feet.
He landed flat on his back with Steve yelling in his ear, "I don't have a visual. Repeat, Iron Man, I do not have a visual. Where are you?"
"Ow," Tony groaned, and painfully stood, making a T out of his hands. He flipped up his faceplate. "Wait, hold on. Time out. Why did you--"
Then he looked at Cap, really looked at him, and the air left his lungs like he'd been punched.
Captain America stared at him, but it wasn't Steve's face under the cowl. It was like Tony was looking in a mirror -- a younger, six-foot three mirror, with a thicker goatee and without any sprinkling of white hairs.
"Um. The fuck?" Tony asked.
At the same time the other captain took a startled step back and said, "What the devil?" glancing over at the second armor.
The second armor didn't raise his faceplate so much as the metal sort of pixilated away from his face. And there was Steve; fringes of blond hair plastered to his forehead with sweat. His face was gaunter, the cheekbones more prominent, and he was pale with shock. But it was Steve. In an approximation of Tony's armor.
"What the hell?" Not!Steve asked, looking between Tony and... the other Tony.
Captain -- Tony's Captain -- was still yelling over the comm for Tony to report, but for one of the very few times in his life, he was at a loss for words.
He turned to look up at the building with the mural. It was still intact, though he knew he had gone right through it. The slanting late afternoon light showed a distinct shimmering along the surface. "Either I had a sudden psychotic break when I busted through that wall, or--"
"It's an Einstein-Rosen bridge?" Not!Steve finished. "I saw you come through."
Okay, that was so weird hearing that coming from his mouth. "Must be." An alternate universe was much more palatable than Tony going suddenly insane. Better for the ego, too.
He and the other Steve exchanged a look. Then Tony snapped his face-plate down, Steve's sort of flowed over him again, and they both fired their jet-boots. Not!Tony yelled something, but his voice was drowned as both armors shot into the sky.
Through the earpiece, Tony got a burst of sudden chatter. His Cap yelling for everyone to stand clear. The Hulk was on scene, and one of the rock aliens was falling onto a building. "It's coming down. Get clear, Hawkeye! Tony, where are you?"
He had a bad feeling which building was collapsing. "Shit! Hold on, Cap! I'm coming!" He aimed right for the wall, hoping the doorway worked on both sides.
The shimmer over the mural, barely visible, flickered in and out.
Steve's voice fell into static.
"No, wait!" Tony yelled and poured on the speed. In his mind's eye, he saw a rock alien crash backwards under the fury of the Hulk, saw the mural wall crack and crumble down...
The shimmer blinked out when he was three feet away.
Tony hit the brick wall hard, blasting through and tumbling into the building, taking out a few rows of cubicals before he came to a stop.
"Ow." Tony rolled to his hands and knees, his armor shedding brick and plaster off his shoulders and back.
The team had gone silent in his ear.
"Cap!" he yelled.
No answer. Tony toggled their private communicator line. "Steve?"
"Jarvis, did I make it through--"
But his question was answered as Not!Steve's armor landed daintily on the ledge of a nearby open window. "Are you alright?" Not!Steve's voice was deeper through his Iron Man suit, with the same flat reverberation Tony used.
It was an effort to stand, though Tony didn't need Jarvis' scans to tell him nothing was broken. His suit had taken a beating, though it could fly. He turned to Steve--no, Rogers. "Of course I'm not okay. You're in my suit!" Tony pointed at the other armor's chest. The arc reactor glowed red, not blue. "Wait. Is your name even Steve? Because you don't look like a Tony."
The other armor brushed his hand away. "I'm Steve," he said. "Steve Rogers, CEO of Rogers Incorporated." He inclined his head back at the action outside. "The big guy down there is Tony Stark."
"Good," Tony snapped. "Because that would have been ridiculous."
Rogers didn't reply. He hadn't opened his visor, but neither did Tony. It was too... weird to look at his friend's face inside his armor. An armor.
Only then did Tony realize there was a distinct lack of destructive noises. He moved past Rogers to look out the hole he'd made in the wall. Then he grunted. "Well, that's the second least expected thing I've seen today."
The aliens -- rock and batty -- had all frozen where they stood, as if they'd been hit with one of Professor X's mind freezes. (Huh. What if in this universe Magneto was Professor X, and -- No, he couldn't go there. Too weird.) One of the giant rock aliens had even frozen with one leg lifted to stomp on five bats, all cowering in the shadow of a taloned foot.
"I suppose you didn't bring those things along with you," Rogers asked. He sounded put out. "Or Milwaukee?"
Tony turned to him. Shock tingling up his spine. "Milwaukee?" Hadn't he and his Steve just been joking about there?
"The first invasion last week." Rogers's helmet turned to look straight at Tony, as if to read his expression.
Huh. Coincidence? "Nope. It's the first time we've seen these guys. They were attacking my dimension, too. Pretty sure I fell into a doorway they made."
Rogers nodded. "They attacked for about three hours last week, then stopped just like this without any explanation. Even Thor had never heard of them before -- He went off to Asgard a few days ago to ask around." He cocked his head as if listening to something Tony couldn't hear. "Cap wants to see you."
Tony literally had to bite his lip to keep from snapping at him. He followed his Steve's orders when he was good and ready, so why did this Captain think he could deal them out? But it wasn't like he had anywhere to fly off, too. "Fine," he said sullenly. "Lead the way."
O O O O
Clint and Natasha were standing with this universe's Captain America (he could not think of him as Tony -- Just Stark would have to do.). Tony felt the weight of their scrutiny as he and Not!Steve came in to land.
"You two are normal, right?" Tony asked plaintively, lifting his faceplate and turning to Natasha and Clint. "Nat, don't tell me you're doing the Katniss thing."
She raised a very fine eyebrow. "I was about to ask if we were sure that's really Stark under there, but you even sound very much like him."
Clint just stared at Tony, blinked once, then broke out into loud laughter.
Stark glared at Tony. It had been twenty years since Tony had seen that frown -- it looked like the one Howard used to give him when he'd destroyed something in the lab, and it put Tony's hackles up.
Stark wore a very similar Captain America outfit to Steve's -- the cowl had been tugged off his head and lay like a hoodie on his shoulders. His dark hair was the same shade as Tony's, but cut at least an inch shorter. 1940's ol' boy short. He didn't comb it like Steve did, off to the side, but neat and held back with pomade.
"Who exactly are you?" Stark demanded, the shield held tightly to his side.
Tony didn't bother with an answer. It was obvious, wasn't it? He was Tony Fucking Stark. One of many, apparently.
"How does this even work?" Tony asked instead, looking Captain Stark up and down. He even filled out the uniform the same way Steve did, what the hell. "Did Dad put you into Project Rebirth?" Tony's stomach dropped. "That son of a bitch. He tested on his own son, didn't he?"
"Howard couldn't find his ass with a map and a compass," Stark said, and Tony himself only used that flippant tone when he was trying hard to pretend he didn't give a shit. Weird to have it directed at himself. "Answer the question, Shellhead."
"I'm Tony Stark." His smile was all teeth. "I'm Iron Man." He saw Not!Steve -- Rogers -- grimace at that. Tony turned and gestured to the building. "Got thrown through a wall by one of the big guys, and ended up here -- the multi-verse theory is officially proven, yay. I'll collect my Nobel when I get home."
"I saw him phase through that mural up there," Rogers said for Clint and Natasha's benefit. He looked at Tony. "Why weren't you able to go back the way you came?"
"The Hulk," Tony said. "Our teams comm units must function on different frequencies. I heard him take out Rocky over there, and I think they smashed the portal on the other side. Speaking of, where's Banner?"
"Who in tarnation is Banner?" Stark demanded, then turned to Rogers. "How do we know this guy isn't some screwball? Or... a clone? Like in the Clone Wars?"
"Ugh." Tony pinched the bridge of his nose. "You guys showed him the prequels? What, do you hate him? No, strike that. He's me. Of course--but come on. We knew enough to keep that away from Steve."
"Because where you're from... Steve is Captain America?" Clint said slowly, as if testing out the idea and finding it too weird to comprehend. Tony knew the feeling.
Natasha just stared at him like he was a bug she was considering squishing.
"We... haven't exactly found the point of entry for the aliens," Rogers answered Stark. "And technically, a similar but different dimension does fit into the quantum multi-verse theory, but..." He glanced almost in apology at Tony.
Tony shrugged and finished for him. "It's kind of unlikely. Changes on a quantum level are more of a random cascade, less of a 'Hey, let's have these two trade places,' deal."
Stark glanced between them, and no way did Tony ever wear that vaguely constipated look on his face. No way. "What does this have to do with the aliens?"
"The aliens did freeze when Mini-Stark punched through the wall," Clint commented.
"Okay, one: Mini-Stark is not going to be said ever again. I'm establishing veto power," Tony said. "Two, we were getting attacked by these guys in my dimension too."
Now the Captain smirked. "How about Stark Junior? You were born, what, in the seventies?" And Tony didn't know how he did it, but Stark made the decade of disco still sound far off and fantastical.
And technically, he was born in sixty-nine, but Tony wasn't about to share that.
Just then, a man in a red and blue spandex suit landed lightly on the concrete. "Hey guys," he said. "What did I miss?"
"Who are you?" Tony demanded.
"Spiderman." He cocked his head. "Who are you? Tony's older, tiny brother?"
Tony threw his hands in the air. "I hate this dimension."
"Speaking of irritating people." Clint was doing that weird thing where he looked like he was staring off into space, but was actually seeing something no normal human eye should. "We've got company. Media, ten o'clock."
Roger's faceplate immediately flowed over his face again.
Captain Stark sighed. "I got 'em. Iron Man, you'd better skedaddle back to headquarters. Take my weird double with you."
Tony didn't need to be told anything by himself of all people. He flipped down the mask, fired the thrusters, gained altitude and showed Rogers his heels, just because his suit was faster and he could. Only when he gained a few hundred feet did he look around and notice there was a very important gap in the skyline.
Where was Stark tower? Shit, of course there wasn't a Stark Tower. Hadn't his Steve called it ugly at first?
Rogers suit came up next to him. Now that the aliens weren't busy destroying China Town, he heard the other suit's repulsers as a low purr, different from the high torque whine of Tony's suit. Rogers was running the cycles fairly low. It would make him short on speed, but enable him to conserve power.
"This way," Steve said, and headed off to the east.
O O O O
'Headquarters' turned out to be a large mansion on fifth street, edging a large green-space not too far away from Central park. There were no signs that said it belonged to the Avengers.
Rogers landed on a wide veranda, and Tony did the same. He flipped up the faceplate, and was surprised when Rogers reached over and slammed it back down.
"Not out here -- the paparazzi camp out just across the street."
"So?" Tony almost flipped it up again out of spite. This wasn't his dimension. What did he care if the press thought there was another Iron Man suit flying around? "Tell them it's a War Machine prototype."
Rogers had been heading to a doorway which automatically opened at his arrival. He stopped and turned. "What?"
"Iron Patriot?" Tony tried, hoping it hadn't come to that here.
Oh. Rhodey had been assigned as liaison to Stark Industries to keep Tony in line. Which was why the first few years had been gleefully spent trying to drag the man in as much dirt along with him as possible. But of course Steve Rogers wouldn't need a military handler. He probably didn't know Rhodey at all.
"Never mind," he said and followed Rogers in through the opening doorways. The glass behind them closed and went opaque, leaving the room in a half-light. Only then did Steve reopen his own faceplate.
Tony was hit with a burst of realization. "So the world doesn't know you're Iron Man here?"
Steve gave him a startled look. "They do in yours?" Apparently the answer was on Tony's face because he asked, "Geez. How bad was the stock dip?"
"I think a few of my investors would have thrown themselves off my building, except they were too busy trying--and failing--to oust me."
The smile Rogers gave had a little more bite than the smile he usually saw on Steve. "Shield told the world Iron Man was my bodyguard. It's easier that way." He moved to a side table and picked up a waiting inhaler. He took two puffs off it as his suit seemed to break down around him, compacting down into dozens of pieces a lot like Tony's suitcase suit.
Tony gave the signal to open his own armor. He stepped out and it reformed, standing to attention. While Rogers was busy removing the last pieces from his arms, Tony casually slipped a communication bracelet around his wrist. In case of emergency all he needed to do was say the word 'Pineapple' and the suit would come find him within a radius of ten miles.
Finally free of the armors, the two men stared at each other. Tony was pleased he still had a couple inches on Steve, and at least twenty pounds of muscle. Steve was built like a jockey, small and slight. Some color had come back to his cheeks, courtesy of the inhaler, though the black flying suit he wore made him look washed out. His blue eyes were dull with chronic exhaustion -- a look Tony had seen in the mirror quite a few times himself -- and there were crows feet forming at the corners.
Steve stared openly back at Tony, clearly making his own assessments. "So... this is what you looked like before the serum?" Steve asked.
"You mean, Bizzaro Tony?"
"You are Bizzaro Tony."
"I'll give you that, in this universe. And, probably? This is a new addition." Tony tapped his arc reactor, which glowed blue under his Metallica S&M 1999 tour t-shirt. He didn't bother with flight suits. Jeans and tight band shirts were more his style. "You have an arc reactor?"
Steve winced and pulled down the neck of his bodysuit, exposing the edge of a flesh-colored cap. "You don't cover yours?"
That had never occurred to him once. "What can I say? I like night lights."
Rogers shook his head and favored Tony with another long look. "It's hard to believe I'm not Iron Man where you come from."
"Well, you have to admit, you being Cap makes more sense."
"Not really," Rogers said. "You--uh, he doesn't even like to use the coffee maker. He boils it by hand."
Tony raised an eyebrow. "You can do that?"
"Sure, if you practically like to chew your coffee." Rogers shuddered, then laid the flat of his hand against a glass screen. It lit, evidently recognizing his bio-signature, as did the rest of the room. The workshop was expansive, but more utilitarian than Tony's sleek design. Though a few tasteful pieces of art decorated the walls. Tony didn't see any sign of Dummy, You, or Butterfingers either. Not a smashed smoothie machine in sight.
"Good Afternoon, Mr. Rogers," a feminine voice piped in from the walls.
Tony barked a laugh. "Rogers, you kinky bastard."
"You made your AI a female? An attractive sounding one?"
He knew that scowl. Universal to all Steve Rogers' in any universe. "I let Jocasta decide for herself. This was the voice she preferred."
Hmm. That was something Tony never considered for Jarvis.
"I am quite happy with my voice and gender identity, thank you sir," Jarvis put in helpfully from Tony's Iron Man suit, causing Rogers to startle.
Tony grinned and gestured expansively to the suit. "Jarvis, buddy, meet... Jocasta? That's eerily similar, but okay."
"Hello Jocasta," Jarvis said. "I am impressed by the encryption you used attempt to bypass my firewalls."
"Thank you, Jarvis. You put up a masterful defensive strategy."
"Stop. Weirdest blind date ever," Tony said.
And there was that true Steve Rogers grin. Not so 'aw shucks' as the one Tony was used to seeing, but simple and happy. Handsome, even in a thinner face. The one that always got his heart pumping.
Rogers beckoned Tony forward. "I got a few scans of the portal's event horizon before and after you came through. If you can plug, uh, Jarvis in, we can compare today's results against the Milwaukee invasion."
"Steve," Tony said, letting himself take in for a moment the similar but different workspace and the truly, truly weird day he's had so far. "Let it be said, I like the way your brain works."