quigonejinn: (im - g!t - i'd have this girlfriend)
quigonejinn ([personal profile] quigonejinn) wrote2012-06-04 09:45 pm

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Technically, a continuation of Your Fixed Point, but not a sequel in the sense that you need to have read that fic for this to make sense. Your Fixed Point followed the plot of IM1 very, very closely. This one follows-ish IM2 and Avengers. It also takes as canon the novelization bit about Tony re-discovering vibranium in IM2.

I. Jim Rhodes.

Begin at a point more than halfway to the end: a handsome, old-fashioned bungalow in an old suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. It has a large yard, a deep porch, white trim around the gables, and a mature oak in the back. In the spring and summer, the lawns are mowed and edged; in the fall, the same lawn service company cleans the leaves and clears the gutters. A well-dressed man in a very nice car comes by the house twice a month, rain or shine, to collect any flyers that have made their way to the house and to walk around the property to see if there is anything that needs additional upkeep.

Once, a neighbor asks whether he is the owner, and he laughs and says, no, he is a lawyer from a firm downtown. No, he cannot say who the owner is; no, he cannot say what the house is being held for. Excuse him for a moment. He pulls out his Blackberry and sends himself a quick e-mail as a reminder to have the front porch swing looked at by the handyman, because it does not quite swing freely.

From the windows, the house looks empty. There is no furniture. The lights flicker on inside once in a while; someone clearly comes to visit, once in a while, because things move around inside the house. One time, a lawn chair is left in the back yard, underneath the oak tree; the very pleasant lawyer comes by the next day to take care of it. There is never a car in the driveway, but the air conditioner turns on in the summer, and an heating oil truck comes by in the winter. Someone is paying to keep the house heated and cooled, to keep yard tidy and the electricity and water flowing, to have a $600 an hour lawyer come by to see if the front porch swing is perfect, to solemnly put a cheap lawn chair from the 1980s into the trunk of his Lexus.

What interest does Tony Stark, male or female, have with a house in Cleveland, Ohio?

Begin at a point slightly farther from the end: Tony Stark is a woman in this universe. She went to MIT at the age of thirteen and graduated with honors at seventeen. She went to Afghanistan at thirty-six and came back three months later with a glowing light in her chest.

Obadiah betrays her. Jim Rhodes keeps his distance. Pepper is mostly straight, but more importantly, she knows how Tony is with girls.

Ivan shows up and tells her that Howard Stark was a thief. Tony reacts badly to that; Tony reacts badly when Nick Fury demands that she come down out of the donut, and when Natasha, her former assistant, shows up in a tac-suit and shoves a hypodermic release into the side of Tony’s neck. Did Nick Fury think that Tony was going to react well to that kind of thing? When it happened to her, it involved Stane leaving her on the floor to die; the time before that, it also involved Stane, and maybe technically nobody came up and put something in her neck, but it definitely involved waking up in a cave with a car battery wired to her chest.

Torture. Three months in a cave, cold and hungry and angry and terrified.

Also, Yinsen.

So when Tony is reacting badly to the palladium, does she study her father’s old newsreels, examine the old scale model for the Stark Expo and find the outlines of an element that will have all the properties she needs, then harness the unique computational power of Jarvis and the unique energetic capacities of the arc reactor to synthesize it, as Nick Fury clearly intends her to?

Tony tells the suit to run dark and drops down, between the leaves of the oak tree, and lands in the backyard of a house in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. She does a quick thermal image of the house to check for life forms, does another scan for traces of chemical or other types of explosives; there is a keychip built into the fingers of the suit; and she waves her hand at the glass door.

It unlocks; she steps inside and closes the door behind her.

Obadiah betrays her. Jim Rhodes keeps his distance. Pepper is mostly straight and knows how Tony is with girls.

Tony is reacting badly to eve --

Tony walks across the empty family room and goes into the kitchen on the first floor. It isn’t a big one by modern standards, and the floor is a sort of beige plastic pattern and the countertops are beige and the cabinets are stained to look like maple. It’s very much a kitchen from thirty years before, but the water runs, and the lights work. There is even a working refrigerator, but it is empty, though Sanderson, the lawyer, did drop off a bag of non-perishable supplies and put them into the cabinets. Crackers, bottled water, dry cereal, a few energy bars. A first aid kit.

A row of bottles of 25-year old Scotch, lined up against the wall.

The helmet comes off with a whoosh. Tony puts it on the counter, grabs the bottle of Scotch, and walks into the powder room, shedding pieces of the suit as she goes. She turns on the light in the bathroom and puts the gauntlets on the top of the tank.

Tony does not rediscover vibranium in her workshop. Why should she fix her father’s possibly stolen, definitely fucked design? Why should she play ball with Nick Fury? She explains, in a voicemail left on Jim’s cell phone, that Nick Fury is just another bald asshole. The man has an eyepatch. Didn’t Jim tell her in college never to trust men with eye patches?

In the bathroom, in the mirror, the yellow lights on overhead, Tony looks at herself in the mirror. Her face is dirty; there is blood old and new streaked on the left side of her face, and the right side of her face is actually -- smashed in? The cheekbone bends at a strange angle; the nose is ten degrees off vertical, and there is blood on her lips. She has been breathing through her mouth since breaking the Canadian border, and she runs her tongue over her lower lip. It hurts. She bit through part of it.

As she watches, though, as her features fix themselves in the mirror. The cheekbone un-smashes itself; the nose rotates back to vertical. The fresh blood, the old blood, still on her face, but in the kitchen, on the counter, a massive dent on the right side of the helmet straightens itself out with a pop, audible in the bathroom.

Tony grins, but almost simultaneously, feels her stomach clench, tighten, and convulse as though it’s being flipped inside out. Healing from internal bleeding, maybe? She drops to her knees in front of the toilet, flips the lid up, and pukes dark brown liquid. Old blood? Clotted blood? She is breathing a little hard afterwards, so she sits on the floor of the bathroom and undoes the foil on the neck of the bottle of Scotch and pulls the cork out with her teeth.

The arc reactor glows in her chest.

Obadiah betrays her. Jim Rhodes keeps his distance and knows what is good for him. Pepper is mostly straight and knows how Tony is with girls.

Tony believes in engineering solutions. She comes out of the bathroom, makes herself a bowl of cereal, no milk, and eats standing up and leaning against the counter. She waits for her body to readjust to the lack of nausea and pain, to get used to breathing through her nose again. Jarvis, talking through the helmet, chirps and tells her that Nick Fury has called twice, Pepper has called four times, and Phil Coulson is casually threatening Butterfingers.

Tony laughs, tells the helmet to put her through to Jim Rhodes.

“As usual, the phone appears to be turned off,” Jarvis says.

“Well, you know what to do then.”

So Jarvis puts her through to voicemail and plays the message out loud for her: It’s weird hearing Jim’s voice come out of her helmet, actually, talking about how he will return all messages left as soon as possible, and Tony is laughing to herself when Jarvis starts playing the record from Voyager 2, stereo, looped, on the left, voices saying Earth greetings in every language beginning with Akkadian, and on the right, whales calling and babies screaming and waves and every other conceivable representative sound of Earth -- until the voicemail cuts out. It sounds really awful.

Even though it’s the fifteenth time or so she has had Jarvis do it, Tony still finds it hilarious. She finishes the cereal laughing, and is grinning as she rinses the bowl and spoon out in the sink, sets them to dry, and starts collecting the pieces of the suit.

“Ms. Stark.”

“Ms. Stark. Could we pick up where we left off?”

“Yes, dear?”

Jim Rhodes walks in to give special testimony in front of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, arguably about why Tony shouldn’t have the Iron Man suit.


What does Jim Rhodes mean to Tony Stark? He was her first friend at college. They met in the library because his thesis advisor told him to keep an eye out for the kid of his old friend. No mention of Tony being a girl; a definite mention of Tony being a little young, and Tony saw on his face when he realized that she was a thirteen year old girl, not a thirteen year old boy. She knew the expression by then, but he still wanted to play the game. Have you read this paper? Yeah, I know that paper; this other paper does a much better job of modeling how it actually works. No, the math in that is fucked, and so are you if you ever rely on it.

You’re taking graduate classes at MIT and you’re nineteen. I’m taking them with you, and I’m thirteen.

You look eleven, kid.

He turned out not to be dumb; he turned out not to be a total dick, even if he wouldn’t do the decent thing and sleep with her.

Twenty-three years later, he found her in the desert.

“Well, you can forget it,” Tony says and leans back in the chair and spreads her hands at Stern. “I am Iron Man. The suit and I are one. To turn over the Iron Man suit would be to turn over myself, which is tantamount to indentured servitude or prostitution, depending on what state you’re in. Can’t have it.”

“I’m no expert -- “

“In prostitution? Of course not. Come on. You’re a senator.”

There is a long moment of silence before someone in the back laughs, nervously. Tony turns around to smile, with lots of teeth, at Pepper.

Jim comes in, wearing his dress blues, and sits down. He does not want to look at Tony.


What does Jim Rhodes mean to Tony Stark? When she came back from the desert, he was the first friendly face she saw when she came back from the desert; her memories of things after getting on the helicopter are blurred by dehydration and relief. She knows they put an IV in her the second they got back to base; she knows that they spent four hours, testing her for everything under the sun, and she remembers being pissed when they asked her whether she had been ra --

Tony remembers sitting back in her room afterwards and being starving. Jim came by; they talked about the TV.

She went to sleep; he stayed all night next to her.

Jim walks into the Senate hearing as Hammer and Stern’s trump card.


Jim has been her friend for twenty-three years; when she came back from the desert, he came by her room the night after the debriefing. They talked about TV.

She fell asleep.

Now, Tony leans forward and says, very clearly into the mike, so that there will be no mistake on the transcript, “Let the record reflect that I observed Mr. Hammer entering the chamber, and I am wondering if and when any actual expert will also be in attendance.”

Hammer sits down. Has a bit of water. Gets comfortable.

“Absolutely,” Hammer says, looking at Stern and smiling, slowly, almost as broadly as Tony had. been smiling at Pepper. “I’m no expert. And you, Antonia?”

Tony half-turns, stops, blinks at him, and Hammer's smile, if possible, gets wider.

“Now, I may not be an expert,” he adds, and gets up from his seat. “And you’re the wonder girl, but you know who was an expert? Your dad.”

Hammer is wearing a light gray suit, and Tony looks at him for another moment, then reaches into her pocket and pulls her phone out.

“Really, a father to us all -- “


The happiest day in Howard Stark's life was the day he sent her to boarding school, and the summer she was fifteen and looked thirteen, Tony showed up on the curb in front of Jim Rhodes’s house. He was coming back from his research internship, and she told him that he had to invite her to stay, right? Here she was, stuck in nowheresville. Look at her. Just a kid. Her dad was off in Frankfurt, the one in Germany. How the fuck was she supposed to know where her mom was?

So he had to go talk to his parents about taking her in, because he was staying with them for the summer, and Tony has a string of memories from that follow. Sleeping in his sister’s bed, since she was away at a summer session in San Francisco. Eating at the family table and bowing her head for grace, holding hands with his mother on the right and his father on the right. Helping clear the table after dinner with the frogs and the crickets and the cicadas calling through the screen windows. Jim Rhodes grew up in a house without central air conditioning; the year after he went to college, his parents finally installed it, but out of habit, they leave it off most of the time and keep the windows open.

Jim Rhodes found Tony in the desert. Jim Rhodes found Tony on the floor of the workshop after she put the arc reactor back in her chest. He picked her up because her legs were too weak and, when she asked. He carried her over to the exoskeleton. Jim Rhodes --

Obadiah betrays her. Jim Rhodes keeps his distance because he knows what is good for him. Pepper is mostly straight and knows how Tony is with girls.


“We all know why we’re here. In the last six months, Antonia Stark has created the sword with untold possibilities, and yet, she insists, it’s a shield. She asks us to trust her, as we cower behind her.“

Fucking gray suit. Fucking yellow tie. Fucking goddamn shiteating smile. Fucking goddamn emphasis on -- Tony leans back in her seat, taps her fingers idly on the arc reactor, looks at Hammer.

“We live in a world of grave threats, threats Ms. Stark will not always be able to foresee. Threats she may not be able to save us from. She can’t be everywhere. She can’t do anything.”

Tony doesn’t give Hammer any credit for intelligence, but she glances over and at Stern, who she gives a black Amex for sheer, low, animal cunning. She knows; she can almost see him mouthing the words along, the slight pause between sentences.

And then, they bring Jim Rhodes in to read sections of his report.

Obadiah betrays her. Jim Rhodes keeps his distance and knows what is good for him. Pepper is mostly straight and knows how Tony is with girls.


“Listen, Tony, I cannot believe that you would -- “


“Tony, don't talk to me about how you're only going to use the suit for -- “


Jim is a smart man. He hasn't risen as far as he has by being an idiot. He sees the writing on the wall when his boss calls him in to talk about the report that he should be writing; he hears them sharpening long knives in the tall grass.

Is it because Tony is a woman? No, it's the 21st century, and Tony has been their primary contractor for almost twenty years and was working for her father before that. Add in the fact that she was reviewing plans for missile arrays when she was eleven, and Tony has been in the game longer than half of them have been in the military.

Is it because she decided, unilaterally, to stop making weapons? In part. Is it because she decided, unilaterally, to stop making weapons and then took extraordinary efforts to make the breakup ugly and public and on the grounds that the military was too goddamn incompetent to keep its own soldiers from being killed by American weapons? Very much. Did she then make herself a game-changing, world-altering, ten, no, twenty, no, fifty years, maybe even a hundred years ahead of anything else. Two full working lifetimes ahead of other people, and then she decides to test it out by fighting her old friend and partner in a very public firefight, and then announce at least the firefight to the whole, wide world? Also at a press conference? To the whole world?

Jim understands that Tony couldn't possibly have sat down with the brass behind doors and told them, quietly, gently. It would have framed as woman gets taken hostage, woman is traumatized, woman doesn't want to play with the big boys anymore. To some degree, the brass understands it, too. Nevertheless, why did she choose to do it the way she did? She burned bridges by announcing it at a press conference, and then she dropped a Fat Boy on the smoldering ashes by coming out as Iron Man. Again, at a press conference. She saves lives; she flies in for disaster relief; she makes the front page of the New York Times. For the articles asking, Wall Street Journal does little line drawings of the helmet.

Jim understands why his bosses worry. Jim understands why they're angry. Jim keeps his distance not only because he knows what's good for him, but because he agre --

In another universe, Tony lets Jim actually sit down and fight with Stern about reading sentences from his report out of context, so that it looks like he is trashing his best frie --


Washing dishes by hand, and helping Jim’s mom sweep off the front porch after a late summer thunderstorm. Pushing the station wagon out into the driveway with Jim’s dad, handing him the tools out of the box before he asked for them. The Saturday he dragged his childhood comic books out from under the bed. Falling asleep on his knee, with a photocopied-at-the-local-university-library paper on astrodynamics on her chest, summer light pouring all around them.

Opening her eyes and realizing the afternoon had gone by, and it's twilight.


“ -- you know who was? Your dad.”


Is anyone on the committee or testifying in front of them openly sexist? Justin Hammer comes closest, but he still never comes out and says anything that can be used against him in print.


Jim Rhodes's memory of coming in and talking to Tony at the hospital is more like this: Tony halfway lost her mind when the debriefer asked, very gently, about nonconsensual sexual contact. In fact, Tony picked up a chair and threw it against the wall. Then, she started yelling. She had a point about all the questions they weren’t asking her, about weapons technology capabilities and supply lines and where they were getting them from and how they were paying for it and what the fuck they were intending to do with them, but when those questions weren’t coming after one thrown chair, Tony picked the chair up from back where it it had fallen, and threw it again. Jim was not directly there, but he heard the stories.

When he came by her room later, she had stopped shaking. Had cleaned off every scrap and crumb of her dinner tray. The TV was on; they talked about it. He sat down on the bed next to her, and she curled up around him, head by his hip, knees drawn up on the other side. The arc reactor pressed against his back, and there were a few long, shaky breaths. Tony’s hand closed into a fist, but she said nothing, barely moved a muscle, so Jim put his hand on her shoulder and stayed where he was and she slept.

And slept and slept and slept.

Jim Rhodes found her at school. Jim Rhodes found her in the desert; Jim Rhodes found her on the floor of her workshop after Obadiah took her heart out. Jim Rhodes has a mother who asks after Tony as though she is his girlfriend of long standing, the one he refuses, against all sense, to propose to and marry.

Jim Rhodes is her best friend; they’ve only slept together once.

In this universe, Tony sees Jim walk into the room, and already pushed pretty much to the furthest limit of her not-very-great patience, she breaks into the Senate's computer system, brings up the NSA and CIA and SHIELD footage of other attempts to replicate the suit, and walks out of the room, chin high, sunglasses on, after calling Senators ass-clowns on live, national and international, streamed-on-the-Internet TV.

The room is silent for a long, long moment, then explodes.

Is anyone on the committee or testifying in front of them openly sexist? Justin Hammer comes closest, but he still never comes out and says it. The female Senator R-Wyoming actually frowns at him one point, and he eases off the subtle emphasis on female pronouns for a few minutes, but Tony, by then, is in the grip of so much anger, so much blinding, deafening, full-body, utterly consuming anger --

If Tony Stark is a woman, the difference isn't just that the world is harder and colder and more difficult.

She becomes harder and colder and more difficult, too. And angrier. So much angrier. In this universe, Tony Stark doesn't give Stern a chance to lose his temper and curse at her on TV. She doesn't play that percentage; she doesn't let it get to that point, because she knows where this is going. She has been there before, and so, accordingly, Tony walks out of the room, chin high, sunglasses on, after calling Senators ass-clowns on live, national and international, streamed-on-the-Internet TV. And unlike them, she is man enough to privatize world peace.

The room is silent for a long, long moment, then explodes.


Jim calls Pepper two days after the hearing, and after she picks up, there is a long, long moment of silence. You can rescue a lot of kids from burning buildings, but does it really matter if you breach national security on live television, then walk out, giving the finger to elected officials who are just trying to do their jobs?

“Stern is talking about having her charged with contempt for walking out like that,” he says.

“I know,” Pepper says, gently. “The lawyers are on it.”

Jim lets his breath out.

“Should you even be calling me? I know your bosses are furious.”

“They were furious. Now they’re -- “

“I know,” Pepper repeats. She sounds tired, and all of a sudden, Jim is tired, too.

The Department of Defense sues Stark Industries for breach of contract. There are so many counts in the complaint that one of the lawyers says, when he thinks Pepper can’t hear him, that he didn’t know Roman numerals went up that high.


Tony hands over the company to Pepper, but she never makes the suit for Jim. Tony never climbs into the pit of an F-1 racing car at Monaco -- who keeps on hand an F-1 racing suit for woman eight inches shorter, fifty pounds lighter than the slated driver? Will her feet even reach the pedals? Ivan shows up on the track, and Tony tells Natalie to get Happy and bring her the suitcase. She did hire Natalie. Natalie does wrap her knees around Happy’s throat and bring him tumbling down onto the sparring mat, and after the race, Tony meets Ivan in a cell room. He tells her that her father was a thief.

Tony never has a birthday party at the Malibu mansion with supermodels and music and ending with a brawl with Jim. She never makes the suit for Jim, remember? In fact, she spends it sitting on the lawn at the house in Cleveland, in an old lawn chair she found left behind in the basement. She takes it out to the lawn, underneath the oak tree, brings along some beers, and calls.

“Happy birthday,” Jim says.

He does not say: with the lawsuit on, I really, really can't talk to you. He knows Tony knows it, and he knows this is why the number that shows up on his phone identifies as coming from somewhere in Nigeria. Nigeria. It isn't that Jim is somehow clueless about who is leaving him the messages of whales singing and babies crying. Who else would leave him the gold record from Voyager 2? The numbers always trace back to countries that she would tell his trainees that she'd gone on spring break trips with Rhodey.

He takes a deep breath, and in return, he hears Tony let out a breath.

It'll have to pass for her saying thank you for picking up.

“Where are you?” Jim asks.

“You’ll never guess,” Tony says, and uses the ridge on her reactor as a bottle opener.

“Are supermodels involved?”


“Lingerie models?”


“Models of any kind?”

“Jarvis has legs for days.”

“If you’re calling me while I you’re on a date with Pepper, you don’t deserve her. Not that you do.”

“I’m alone, asshole. Except for Jarvis and his legs.” This gets a laugh out of Jim, and Tony laughs and stretches her legs out in the lawn chair. Jim hears a creaking noise, crickets.

“Are you outside? Somewhere with trees

“I’m outside. There are trees. Fireflies. But like I said, you’ll never guess where I am.”

“I don’t want to,” Jim says. He takes a deep breath. “Listen, Tony, have a happy birthday. You’re a good kid. Sometimes.”

Tony laughs, and they say a few more things to each other, and then, they say goodbye. Tony closes the cell phone, watches fireflies until she runs out of beer, then wanders back into the house.

The lawyer comes three days later and pick up the ruined phone, the old-fashioned lawn chair, the six-pack of beer.


“What would you do if it was your last birthday?” Tony says to Natasha, back in the days when she knows her as Natalie.

“I’d do what I wanted, with whoever I wanted.”


“But like I said, you’ll never guess where I am. I just bought it today.”

“You bought yourself an island, didn’t you?”

“Wrong like you were wrong about Ivan.”

She means: Ivan from spring break in Cancun or Palm Beach or Lagos, like in Nigeria? I mean, I don't know why Jim wanted to go there either, but I figured this guy knew what a good time was, and he picked Ivan.

So Jim just lets that one go by.


Jim is the oldest friend that Tony has left, and Tony never makes the suit for Jim. After the Senate hearing and Stern telling her, over and over, that the suit is a weapon and not part of her, Tony sets her jaw. Dickbag Stern thinks that the suit doesn’t belong to her? Asshole is going to try to take it away from her? She’ll fucking sho --

Why would Tony build an entire other suit for Jim? It gives Stern leverage to argue that the suit is separate from Tony, that she should give it to the government.

Technically, they have sex twice. They sleep together after sex once: it all happens the same night, on the flight out to Afghanistan. The stewardesses are done for the night, and Tony pours the last of the sake into a champagne glass. The music is soft; she dances by herself with the music, then comes over with her shirt open and kisses Jim. He tastes like sake and the pretzels from the bar; she climbs into his lap and lies to herself about why, after twenty years, he finally says yes.

Afterwards, Tony lies awake for a long time, listening to the engines, watching the sun come up over Siberia.

Before Extremis, Tony sits in a Senate Armed Forces committee meeting and listens to Stern talk about how the suit isn’t her, it doesn’t belong to her, it can be separated from her.

Before Extremis, Tony sits in a diner with Nick Fury and listens to him telling her what she already knows to a painful degree: the arc reactor is killing her. Natasha, who she knew as Natalie, slides into the booth next to her and shoots her in the neck with something that burns,and takes away, for a long, long heartbeat, Tony’s ability to move her body.

After Extremis --


In Tony's mind, it's goodbye.


On her birthday, Tony sits on the lawn of a house that Jim grew up in, underneath the tree where Jim had been reading comics that afternoon. That summer, she had helped his mom. Hung out with his dad. Rode an old bike from the basement, and the Saturday she fell asleep on Jim's knee, Tony opens her eyes and realizes the afternoon has gone by. It's twilight.

Tony had fallen asleep, and then Jim fell asleep, too. They wake when the sun went down; Tony remembers opening her eyes and finding fireflies at eye level. When Jim wakes, they pick up their things and go inside to wash for dinner; Tony spends the next week scratching at roughly fourteen thousand mosquito bites up and down her legs and arms, but still, she remembers: fireflies drifting through the blue-purple light. Summer grass. Out of the corner of her eye, Tony can see the paper she had been reading. Out of another corner, she sees that Jim has a comic open in his lap; it’s too dark for Tony to see more than the outlines of the comic, and she doesn’t want to move her head too much because it might wake Jim. Someone two or three houses is trying to finish mowing before it gets too dark to see. Crickets are starting to call. A cicada rattles, and far overhead, leaves move in a breeze.

A firefly lands on a blade of grass in front of Tony, almost eye-level; she closes her eyes and hears the whirr when it flies away.

Twenty-five years later, after Extremis, after the Department of Defense essentially vows to sue Stark Industries into a smoking hole in the ground, after Tony embarrasses herself on live, national, international, and internet TV by turning her back on the Senate Armed Forces Committee, Tony says goodbye to her oldest friend.

She opens a few more beers on the arc reactor. She watches fireflies. Afterwards, she goes back into the house, checks her arms and legs, finds no mosquito bites, and puts the suit on her body. In the darkness of the house, her arc reactor glows blue-white over her hands and face.

She leaves the chair and the beers and the phone in the yard.

Three weeks after that, Tony lands on the roof of a building nearby with Pepper on her arms. They argue. Tony kisses Pepper, hard.


II. Pepper Potts.

“I quit. I’m resigning. That’s it.”

“What did you just say?”

“You’re done? That’s surprising. I mean, it’s not surprising. You don’t have to make any excuses.”

“I’m not making excuses.”

“You actually just --”

Jim isn't on the roof in his suit to make jokes about grapes and seals, so they kiss and kiss and kiss. Tony brings her hand up at one point to put it against Pepper's cheek, then remembers that she still has the gauntlets and handpieces and repulsors on, and Pepper brings her hand up and touches the back of Tony's head. She angles their mouths so that she can touch her tongue to Tony's, and Tony, still in the suit, moans.

What does Stark Industries mean to Tony Stark?

Her father, for one thing. Obadiah Stane, for another.


What actual memories does Tony Stark have of her father? She tells Nick Fury that the happiest day of her father's life was the day he sent her to boarding school. It's a slight exaggeration, but not too much of one.

Coulson brings her the newsreels. Tony does not ask how they would have come on internal, never-released Stark Industries footage, but she pours herself a drink and sits in the dark she watches her father make multiple runs through his opening ceremony speech and fail. He has a drink. He tries again. He has some more of another drink, and he tries again. A young Tony runs onto the screen, largely dressed like a boy, and Howard calls for Maria. She is not there, so a technician comes forward and scoops Tony away.

Tony has some of her drink. Her father turns to look into the camera and says that he has always been proud of her.

Tony lets the newsreel spin itself into nothingness.


Were her father and Obadiah openly sexist? To some degree, yes, in the sense of one of them being a man who had designed weapons for the military in World War II and the other being a man who had fought in Vietnam, neither of whom had a lot time for -- but in another sense, no. Tony is frank with herself that her father never actively, personally encouraged her. Half of the time, he only remembered that she existed because the publicity department put her in front of him.

Still, Stark Industries recognized talent. It was a competitive advantage. They were one of the first major technology companies to openly recruit women, and Howard Stark was proud of heavily recruiting women engineers who came out of MIT in the seventies. There weren't a lot of them, but he promised them work, good pay, and the chance to work with other women, and he was even prouder of how many of them were with the company for the rest of their careers. A woman who could make it through MIT's engineering programs in those days, he would say, had everything she needed to succeed at Stark Industries. Obadiah was proud of the numbers, too, and expanded the Stark Scholarship Foundation's support for women and underrepresented minorities in science and engineering.

Still, the defense industry is a hard place for a woman, and if Tony Stark is a woman, the difference isn't just that the world is harder and colder and more difficult. She becomes harder and colder and more difficult and far, far angrier. She can't wait for the moment when Stern has openly proved himself to be an asshole even to the neutral watcher; she sees Jim Rhodes walk into the room, realizes very clearly the degree to which she is being manipulated and managed and the whole show is being staged, so she breaks entire titles of the United States Code regarding not only national security, but a number of major laws regarding software integrity.

Plus, since her company provided the advanced tactical hardware, the satellites, the data flow management for half of those feeds, she destroys one of the few, viable, non-military revenue streams for Stark Technology. Ever since Tony came back from Afghanistan, they've been selling more and more technology to the FBI, to the Department of Homeland Security, to governments abroad, to the giants of Silicon Valley and the Fortune 50 who need the w hardware and software that Stark Technology has. Who will buy any of it after Tony proves that she can get inside the systems that her company sells? Even if she didn't retain a backdoor into certain of the systems that her company sells, if she could humiliate the NSA that way, why wouldn't she do it to Sun Microsystems? Or Bank of America? Or --

The Department of Defense sues. Stark Industries loses half of its information technology contracts overnight. Pepper leans against Tony on the roof after the Expo and kisses her the way they've both been dreaming about for years.

Afterwards, they're in the bed in Tony's apartment at the Stark Tower. The lights are off, but there is the light from skyscrapers, ambient light pollution, not to mention Tony's arc reactor, and it's been quiet for a while. Neither of them has said anything, and then Pepper rolls onto her elbows and looks at Tony.

"I un-quit," she says.

Tony lifts her eyebrows at Pepper. "You were saying that you couldn't take it anymore."

"I can't, but somebody has to -- "

They're both naked in bed. The sex was a little awkward; Tony is pretty sure that Pepper has never been with another woman before, but she doesn't mind. It was fine. It was good. It was better than fine or good or -- Tony studies the diffuse light from her arc reactor on Pepper's face.

"Somebody has to take responsibility for the company, Tony. Things are really bad. Really, really bad."

"I know we're getting sued by the Department of Defense -- "

"That's only the start of it." Pepper shakes her head, convincing herself. "The banks -- the IT contracts -- I can't quit, Tony. Even if I'm just a figurehead CEO, I can't walk away after what happened at the Expo. It could be the end of the company. It would put tens of thousands of people out of work. Do you know how many employees Stark Industries has, Tony?"

Tony lets her breath out, slowly, but Pepper didn't expect Tony to know. She doesn't want to fight, so she reaches over and takes Tony's right hand between both of her own, and she kisses Tony first on the forehead, then on the mouth.


Tony walks into a room where a man with yellow and brown streaks in his hair has his hands and feet cuffed together. Tony is very clearly aware of the security men watching on closed-circuit television.

"A little fine-tuning, you could have made a solid paycheck. You coulda sold it to North Korea, China, Iran. Or gone right to the black market. You look like have friends in low places." She is sitting an arm's length away from him. Less, if he lunges with his body, but he doesn't seem inclined to move.

The room and everything in it smells like it's been sprayed with industrial strength cleaner, and the man smiles.

"You come from a family of thieves and butchers," he says. "And now, like all guilty persons, you try to rewrite your own history, and you forget all the lives the Stark family has destroyed."

Tony looks back at him; she is wearing a black long-sleeved shirt underneath her leather jacket. The arc reactor gleams through and is almost, almost the same color as the light coming down from the overhead fluorescents.

She refuses to be rattled.

"Speaking of thieves, where did you get this design?"

"My father. Anton Vanko."

"Never heard of him."

"My father is the reason you're alive."

"The reason I'm alive is because you took a shot. You missed."

There is a long, long moment before he looks over and smiles, showing teeth, metal, tattoos.

"Did I?"

Tony looks back at him, and without consciously doing it, her chin tilts up. She pulls herself very straight, and Vanko's smile gets broader, and Tony just holds herself more tightly: in another universe, he talks to her about making God bleed and sharks coming for the blood, but in this universe, he doesn't need to, because he sees the reaction in her face. He knows that the jabs about her family being thieves and butchers didn't hit anything, but this -- it does. It's visible in every line of her body, and he starts to chuckle.

Vanko is surprised, though, when still holding herself tightly, Tony smiles and says very slowly, very precisely:

"Too bad nobody believes in me anyways," she says and then deliberately leans in --


Coulson essentially locks Tony into her underground workshop with a bunch of things to review and instructions not to come out until she's done the work that SHIELD wants her to do. She thinks about asking when he plans to put her head in a barrel of water and hold it there until she agrees. Where is her Yinsen? Does he want her to build a robot with a flamethrower in the right arm again? Would he like her to aim a rocket at the left side of his face? Because she can do that.


Vanko is surprised, though, when Tony smiles and says very slowly, very precisely:

"Too bad nobody believes in me anyways," she says and deliberately leans within easy arm's reach. Nobody is surprised, least of all Tony, when Vanko lunges for her and is on her, bearing her to the ground, choking her with his knees and bringing both of his fists up to the same side and then bringing them down against the side of her head with the weight of his torso behind it. Tony fights back, but she doesn't have the suit and he is much, much bigger than she is. He puts one knee on top of the arc reactor, pressing down with his body weight; it feels like someone is driving a giant red-hot knife into half of her. It feels like her chest has been blown open all over again, but without the insulation of going into shock, and Tony knows she is screaming and trying to push him off her, but can't hear her voice over the pain, can't manage to grab onto anything worth holding because of the searing, burning pain.

She blacks out before gendarmes can get the door open.

What percentage was the blood poisoning meter?


"What is that?"

"This is your inflight meal."

Pepper looks down; Tony lifts the cover up to show the greasy, rather sad-looking omelette, and Tony tries to grin to show she knows it looks absolutely terrible, but half of her face is a continuous, ferocious bruise, so it doesn't quite work. There are enormous black rings under eyes, courtesy of the concussion. Her throat is worse. Pepper swears she can almost see the place where Vanko came very, very close to crushing Tony's windpipe.

"The Chief of Police who let you in has been fired."

"I don't know why he should lose his job. I asked him to do it."

"Tony, that's not how it works -- "

"They should give me a medal. For saving everybody on the track."
"I don't think the man you got fired wants to get you a medal." Pepper studies Tony for a long, long moment, but it isn't unkind. Pepper changed out of the pretty blue-and-white polka dot dress she had been wearing and switched to something black. CEO-like.

"Tony, what are you not telling me?"

Tony asks Pepper to go to Venice. Cipriani is --


The morning after the Expo, Pepper's executive assistants, including Natalie or Natasha or whatever her name is, are coming by at five in the morning. An early a.m. emergency conference call to plan damage control for the aftermath of the Stark Expo. The publicity people have been working all night on arranging interviews; Pepper made more than a few calls during the night to key board members, key executives, one or two particularly vital major customers, and between that and the -- the --

"Come on. It's a board meeting. I'll come with you," Tony says. She offered to bring Pepper breakfast in bed, but when she went to the kitchen to find breakfast food, Pepper got up and took a shower and is in a bathrobe now, standing in the kitchen with Tony.

"You can't. Remember? The injunction Obadiah got is still in place," Pepper says. "We negotiated the part about you getting to participate in the Stark Expo, but that was conditioned on good behavior and they pretty much revoked that after Monaco -- "

Tony looks back at her; a muscle jumps in her jaw, and Pepper puts down the bowl of Cheerios -- Cheerios only, no milk, they can't find any milk -- and comes over to stand in front of Tony. They're both in their bare feet on the kitchen floor, and Tony can't find the milk for the Cheerios. Instead, she slides her hands under Pepper's robe, feeling the skin that is still damp from the shower, and lets Pepper kiss her up against the refrigerator.

Going by touch only, because her eyes are closed, Tony undoes the knot on Pepper's bathrobe.


Tony closes her eyes.

In a way, it surprises Pepper how easy it is to be in a -- whatever this is with Tony.


The Ten Rings lock Tony in a cave and suggest that she build the Jericho missile for them. SHIELD locks Tony in her basement workshop and suggests that she --

How is Tony going to take the suggestion that she invent something that will save her life? In this universe, SHIELD shows up earlier than the morning after her birthday. The beating she gets in Monaco at the hands of Ivan Vanko makes the news; for most people, it gets drowned out by spectacular footage of her fighting the guy on the racetrack while F1 cars explode left and right around them, and ostensibly, that breach of security is why the Chief of Police was asked to resign, but people who know, people with connections hear the story about --

Tony arrives back at her Malibu house to find Phil Coulson sitting in her foyer with a locker full of stuff probably stolen from the Stark Industries archives. She has a drink in her hand and looks at the dusty, crumbling crap they've dumped on the floor of her workshop: she remembers Coulson's excitement about the mock-up shield that was in the locker box that she pretends not to recognize, and she watches some newsreels where her father is a sloppy, emotional drunk. She tells Coulson she is taking a break from the basement on the grounds that she'll get rickets if she stays down in the basement anymore; does he know what happens when people get rickets? Dental deformities. Serious dental deformities. Besides, he has a tracker on her car anyways, doesn't he?

Coulson nods.

"And I'm going to visit Pepper."

Coulson looks back at her, blandly, and this is too easy, right? This is too easy.

Tony shoots him the finger with each hand, walks out to the SHIELD SUV parked out front, and hotwires it.


She takes the SHIELD SUV down to visit Pepper. Buys some strawberries, has a half-genuine, half mocked-up argument about whether she remembers that Pepper is allergic to them, an utterly genuine fight about how Tony should not be there at all because of the injunction, and to distract herself from that, Tony engages in a game with Natalie or whatever her real name is: does Tony actually make her angry, or is this another game? The ease makes Tony think it's another game, and she has it confirmed when by coincidence, pure, sheer coincidence, Natalie or whatever her name is these days leaves Tony alone in a room with some belongings that Natalie or whatever has helpfully gathered in the corner, including a twenty foot model of the Stark Expo grounds from 1970s that Tony has somehow, bizarrely, failed to notice in her office. Her eyes must have just glided past it before. Tony pulls the dust sheet off of it, and looks at it for a moment, then snorts. When she gets home and plugs a few quick, mental math numbers into Jarvis to run a model and really starts laughing some more, but there is a real anger underneath.

Who do they think she is? Who the fuck does SHIELD think they're dealing with?

The Rutherford-Bohr model of atoms? Really? Children learn that. Babies learn that. It's for assholes who are afraid of real math.

Tony finishes her drink with a gulp, then walks over to her workbench, straps a spare repulsor to her hand, then tosses her glass up into the air, and blows into millions of tiny shards with the repulsor. It leaves a bit of a dent in the ceiling, and she's glad. She hopes that asshole upstairs felt it: they show her a model Captain America's shield, which her father famously made out of vibranium, then give her a bullshit fake model of the Stark Expo aged to look old and arranged to look like a Rutherford-Bohr model because they want her to synthesize some for them in the lab. How coincidental that they think it'll be a solution for her arc reactor poisoning. Do they also think, that it might have some incredibly useful military applications? Do they hope, just also suspect, maybe, that they might be able to name their own price and write their own budget if it becomes known that they have someone who can synthesize, at will, a substance that will dampen any vibration, absorb any radiation and re-emit as clean visible light?

Tony does not react well to being made a prisoner and told to invent things.

When the Ten Rings do it to her, she comes up with the Mark I.

When SHIELD does it to her, she comes up with --


She comes up with nanobots into her bloodstream, and after a few personal proofs of concept, she goes upstairs. Coulson is doing some work at the place where Pepper used to sit and do work before Tony made her CEO.

"I want you to try to tase me," she says.


"-- my greatest creation is you."


"You want me to what?" Coulson says.

"You heard me," Tony says. "Pull out your little taser, and try to stick it into me."

Coulson isn't riled, but he does seem somewhat confused.

"You were threatening to do it before. Tase me and sit on me and watch Superbutler or whatever while I drool into the carpet. Call it a kinky new fetish of mine. It'll help me be more productive."

"A taser is not a toy."

Tony snorts. "You're telling me. Did your father figure ever use a sonic version of it on you, then pull out your heart?"

Coulson frowns, and finally, at this point, he actually looks like he might be worrying, and clearly, clearly, it is not news to him about Obadiah: Pepper probably told him. If he hadn't known beforehand.

Tony shrugs casually, smiles with as many teeth as she can manage.

"If you won't tase me, will you shoot me?"

Coulson doesn't move towards his gun at all, so with a sigh, Tony walks past him, picks up a tumbler, and smashes it on the coffee table. She looks over at Coulson; Coulson hasn't moved from his spot further on down the couch, though he has reached back and has a hand resting on the general area where she suspects his gun and/or taser are, and slowly, slowly, Tony reaches forward and takes a fistful of the glass shards in her hands and grits her teeth and crushes a handful of the glass shards into her palm. Rubs it around. Blood wells up; some of the larger shards are actually embedded in her skin, and blood is dripping down the shards, down her palm, down her thumb.

Then, she holds her hand up, palm side towards Coulson, and lets him watch as the cuts heal themselves in front of his eyes. The big shards fall out; tiny shards that had been pressed into the wounds fall out in a faint, silver shower.

Thirty seconds, forty seconds, a minute later, Tony's palm is smooth. The floor is covered in glass and blood that is no longer only hers.


Tony has been to Venice before. Multiple times. The first time was February 1993, and it was, as far as Tony is capable of appreciating things besides beautiful women and/or her own personal genius, strangely nice. It rained. It was miserably cold. There were no tourists. Half of the shops seemed closed. It was only a waystation on her personal worldwide tour of sleeping with everything and drinking everything and sampling all the drugs and sleeping with everything again because she decided that she liked that best. It's Dusseldorf, of all places, where Obadiah tracks her down and tells her to come home: Venice is barely a stop. Not even really much of a pause.

Still: strangely, oddly nice. Tony fixes the dishwasher at a restaurant, and they let her sleep in the store room. In the morning, when they come in to do the prep work, there is a staff breakfast: Tony joins them inside for strong Italian coffee and rolls from the bakery next door, then goes up onto the roof, into the mist and rain, and looks out. The water and the sky are the same color; the city is not yet awake.

Tony takes a hot shower at a nearby pensione run by the aunt of one of the waiters and wanders, for hours, almost entirely alone, through the Galleria dell' Accademia.


The second time that Tony goes to Venice, it's for the Biennale; she and Obadiah stay at Cipriani. They're trying to line up a sale of arms to a tinpot dictator whose heir has a taste for modern, expensive art.

The third and fourth times that Tony goes back to Venice, it's because Pepper likes modern, expensive art.

Tony and Pepper are in Tony's apartment at the Stark Tower. Not a new one down by Grand Central, a pet project developed by Tony and Pepper because they are in love and, also, Tony needs a flagship project to sell people on the arc reactor, but the old one, the one bought by her father fifty years before. After all, who is going to buy the arc reactor technology after the most famous image of 2010 is Tony, stalking out of the Senate committee room with her middle fingers raised and the arc reactor burning in her chest? Time Magazine runs it as one of their pictures of the year, together with an editorial about why they chose not to blur out her hands. Who is going to trust Tony to replace the power on their buildings after she compromises the security of her biggest and best client for decades, just so that she can make a point on national TV?

In this universe, Pepper doesn't have time to argue with Tony about being on the lease. In this universe, the congressional hearings are a disaster, and Pepper has the initial impulse to quit, but knows she can't. She is still the CEO, and even figurehead CEO's have stupidly, ridiculously busy lives when the company is as big as, in as much trouble as, Stark Industries.

It's convenient, in a way: Pepper can just take the executive elevator up two floors after work, and it's comforting, too. Tony personally controls the family trust that owns the building; the company leases it from that entity. Even if everything falls apart, what are they going to do? No longer lease the Stark Tower from Tony? Move across the street? Tony will always have money. Tony will always be rich. Tony -- makes Pepper feel a little better, even though it maybe shouldn't, for multiple reasons.

This, she knows, is what people talk about when they say the phrase conflict of interest.

Pepper is working; Tony has her head on Pepper's knee. They're sitting on the couch in the living room with the skyline of Manhattan behind them. It's nighttime, and Tony smells like mechanic's soap and hot water.

"What are you doing?"

Pepper looks down from the document she is reading. "Working. Same as I was thirty seconds before."

Tony sighs and goes back to picking at her fingernails; without moving her eyes from the memo in her hand, Pepper reaches down and puts her hand on top of Tony's fingers.


"Tony, you're being an ass -- "


"Tony, you have run through four assistants in two years. Pepper is a good girl. She's the best one so far. You should stop treating her like shit, so go over there -- "

"I'm not going over there. You need me to close thi -- "

"I do not need you to close this. We are not closing on anything here anyways, because he needs to go home and talk to his father. I want you to go over there," Obadiah says and reaches over and takes the drink out of Tony's hand, because then Tony will be drinkless and will have to go back to the bar, which is on the side of the room where Pepper is trying to hide behind a column and not cry. "Go over there," Obadiah says, pointing with one of the drinks. "And apologize to Pepper."

Tony doesn't apologize, but she does go over and get another drink and ask, in a voice that surprises her, why Pepper is standing in front of that stupid-looking painting, and Pepper sucks in her breath and makes herself stop crying and explains that it is by Hans Richter, and it is not stupid.


"Do you know what Vanko said to me?"

Tony gets up from the couch, gone over to the bar by the window, and makes herself a drink. She leans on her elbows on the bar and looks over at Pepper, and after a moment, Pepper looks up from her memorandum.


"The guy in Monaco."

Now, Tony actually has Pepper's attention, and there is a thin line between her eyebrows. "You mean the one who came after you on the track, and almost killed you? Twice?" Tony makes a facial gesture that probably counts as a nod, and Pepper sighs. "What did he say to you?"

"My father was a thief."

It's a rough paraphrase, but of the most important part. "How can you believe anything he said? I mean, that's not true," Pepper says.

Tony fiddles with the top of the tumbler, and Pepper makes an exasperated noise and actually sets her paperwork out of her lap. "Tony, that's just not true. Your father was a brilliant man, and -- "

Tony looks up from the tumbler. "You know how engineering works, Pepper?"


Tony has a memory of her father --


"You know how engineering works, Pepper? In part, it's making sure that when you do the same thing, you get the same results. Every time. Each time. If you understand what you're doing, if something changes, then you tweak what you're working on, so you get the same result. Or a different result, if that's what you want. If you've built one copy of the machine and you're good enough, you've got the same materials, then you can build another copy of that'll do the same thing. If it's your machine. If you're good."

Pepper blinks at her.

"You know who Captain America is?" Tony says, and leaves the tumbler on the bar and comes out from behind the bar and leans against, crossing her arms over the arc reactor. "You know how many times my dad was able to make him?"

She pauses for a moment.

"You know the original arc reactor? You know how many times he built it, or why he never built any miniatures?"


Tony has a memory of a press conference with her father. He was at Los Alamos, of course; that much is in the public record, but the reporter has heard rumors that Howard was involved in other work more directly related to the European front. It's close to forty years since the end of the war; can he comment on that?

"You know I never kiss and tell," Howard says, smiling, leaning into the microphone, and the room starts murmuring.

His hair has gone white by this point; he is handsomely dressed. Tony is sitting next to him on the podium, and Obadiah stands in the back of the room, hands folded over his chest, and Tony remembers --

In subsequent interviews, after nobody at the government contradicted him, he wasn't nearly so fucking coy about it.


Tony remembers standing by her father afterwards and seeing the same reporter come up afterwards and tried for more information, and after more joking, more flattery, a few more drinks, Howard made a joke about never kissing and telling, even if the lady was --


" -- my father fought Nazis. Some people, including your professors at Brown, would call that being a -- "

"Remember when we got back from Monaco?" Tony says to Pepper.

"SHIELD dropped off a bunch of things and made you stay in the basement until you'd -- figured something out. You stopped by my office and brought me strawberries."

Tony ignores the last sentence. "SHIELD dropped off some of my dad's old notes about working on the European front and Captain America in World War II. The important part, the part that was actually novel and hard, was the Super Soldier Serum. It's what they used to make Captain America -- I bet you didn't know it was an early biological engineering experiment. My father just made sure the needles went in and the power stayed on."

Pepper tries to say, in a soothing way, "So he -- "

"The guy who made the serum got shot, and you know how many Captain Americas got made after that? None, at least none that had the actual serum in them, but my dad was pretty fucking happy taking the credit for it." Tony shifts and crosses her arms in front of her chest. "You know how many arc reactors my dad ever built?"

"There was the one at your factory."

"Just the one. He never built another. He never built a miniature one -- you know, the miniature ones are actually more efficient. They use less palladium, emit less radiation, almost cost effective for the kinds of specialized arenas you'd be deploying them in. There would have been demand."

Pepper doesn't say anything.

"Let me put it another way," Tony says. "If you can make a cake from scratch, why the fuck wouldn't you be able to make cupcakes? In thirty years?"

Pepper looks over at Tony. "And Vanko was able to build a miniaturized one?"

"My father never built another arc reactor after Vanko's dad got deported, but he goddamn loved taking credit for the arc reactor."

"You don't know that he was a thief," Pepper says, putting her hand on Tony's knee and leaning in close, visibly distressed. "Your dad had a lot on his plate. Maybe he just didn't -- "

Tony puts one hand on Pepper's cheek and kisses her midword.


Tony remembers standing by her father afterwards and seeing the same reporter come up afterwards and tried for more information, and after more joking, more flattery, a few more drinks, Howard made a joke about never kissing and telling, even if the lady was actually a dude and lost somewhere in the ocean, and Tony was eleven. What context did she have for how the reporter's eyes got very wide?


Pepper is sitting on the edge of the couch, and Tony goes down on her -- Pepper had been wearing a gray dress, part of her corporate CEO with pantyhose, and Tony reaches up under the dress and pulls the hose off, then pulls Pepper's underwear down.

"Pull up your skirt," Tony says, kissing the inside of Pepper's knee.

"Tony, we're in front of the win -- "

"We're on the sixty-fourth floor. Nobody will see. Besides, the glass is like at the Malibu house. It's the one way stuff."

Tony is lying through her teeth, and Pepper sort of knows it in the back of her mind, but Tony is also kneeling down on the floor. Pepper licks her lower lip, then pulls her skirt up.

"Slide forward," Tony says. "I'll get a crick in my neck if you're all the way back there, and I promise you, you're going to want me in there for days. You aren't going to want me to leave."

Pepper laughs, but bites her lip when Tony starts by kissing her way up the inside of Pepper's left thigh, then her right, and when Tony, to test the water, so to speak, slides two fingers against Pepper, she finds they come away shining.

"Look at me," she says to Pepper, and Pepper opens her eyes, holds her breath, and watches Tony lick her fingers clean. It takes a while, and Tony starts kissing the inside of Pepper's thigh again; first the right, then the left, and it takes so, so long that when Tony pulls Pepper's legs over her shoulder and presses her mouth back down, Pepper grips Tony's hair in one hand, hard.


"You're still angry with me about not telling you."


"I tried to tell you. With the omelette."

"An omelette doesn't work if you think you're dying."

Tony starts laughing, and something inside Pepper's heart eases.


Tony never climbs into the pit of an F-1 racing car at Monaco -- who keeps on hand an F-1 racing suit for woman eight inches shorter, fifty pounds lighter than the slated driver? Will her feet even reach the pedals? Ivan shows up on the track, and Tony tells Natalie to get Happy and bring her the suitcase. She fights Vanko and comes close to dying on the track, comes close to dying again in the jail cell when he kneels on her arc reactor and the world explodes in pain.

After Monaco, SHIELD Tony injects herself with Extremis, and when Justin Hammer's drones go berserk, she doesn't have to worry about shooting Jim Rhodes. In fact, without even having to consciously think about targeting systems, she wipes out half of the drones before they can leave the launchpads. The drones rely on Ivan's coding and Ivan's arthritic, cold-damaged fingers; Tony relies on her reflexes. on adrenaline, on a boost from --

"Listen, you don't need to worry about me so much," Tony says to Pepper, one morning when they're sitting together, having breakfast before Pepper takes the elevator two floors down. "Look."

There is a grapefruit knife on the table for Pepper's breakfast, and Tony picks it up and cuts herself across the palm. Pepper gasps, almost knocks over a glass of orange juice grabbing for Tony's palm, but by the time that she has hold of it -- the cut is gone. There is only the faintest smear of color on the skin, a little darker than normal blood, and that is fading, too, almost being absorbed back into the skin.

"You don't need to worry, OK?"

Pepper looks from the palm to Tony's face. Does something inside her heart ease?


"If they'll fix anything that goes wrong with you, what do you need the arc reactor for?"

Tony laughs and taps her chest with two fingers. "I have to feed the little assholes, don't I?"


Everybody knows how Tony is with girls, but Tony loves Pepper more than she has ever loved anyone in her life.

Tony is a morning person, and every morning, even if Pepper hasn't stayed the night, she and Pepper have breakfast together before Pepper goes downstairs. Tony fiddles around in her workshop, keeps an eye on the news and events. Goes out to save the occasional coastal village from a tsunami, or rescue a nuclear submarine feared lost with all hands.


"You let me find out from -- "


"You know who Captain America is?" Tony says, and leaves the tumbler on the bar and comes out from behind the bar and leans against, crossing her arms over the arc reactor. "You know how many times my dad was able to make him?"

Tony has a special sensitivity to the idea of thieves, considering that the last person who tried to steal something from her was --


"You let me find out from the newspaper."


One morning, Tony comes storming into Pepper's office. Her access code still works, which is almost certainly an oversight that somebody is going to get fired for after today, and she blows past the pair of secretaries outside her door and shoves the doors open. Pepper is in there, having her morning meeting with the CFO and two of the senior VP's, and Tony recognizes the office. It's her old office. Pepper redecorated, changed where she put the desk, got another conference table, and Tony is wearing a black Henley over jeans. Her arc reactor gleams through the shirt. Everyone else is in suits, except for Pepper, who is wearing a Caroline Herrera tweed dress with matching jacket and a gold bracelet.

"Out," Tony says, jerking her thumb over her shoulder.

Everyone in the room looks to Pepper, and she says, calmly, without looking directly at Tony, "I'll catch up with you later. Tony, what can I do for you?"

The secretaries hear the door lock from the inside, which is something that hasn't happened since Pepper took over the office.


Tony has a memory of Obadiah. It was mid-spring in New York. The weather was soft, damp, and the sort of misty gray where the sky and the mist and the rain mix together into a single color. In the memory, Tony was fourteen and on the roof of the Stark Tower, sort of rubbing her face and taking in lungfuls of the air that whipped past. She had the door propped open; no helicopters were due in, so she was alone until Obadiah came out. He was wearing a coat. Tony wasn't.

"I don't want to talk to you."

"Listen, kid, don't take it personally."

"I"m not taking it personally. And I'm not a kid."

"You're taking it personally, and you're a kid." Obadiah sighed. At that point, he still had hair, but it was starting to thin a little, and he ran one hand through it.

There was a minute of silence where Tony stared off into the damp distance, and then Obadiah laughed. "You're right, though. They are a bunch of assholes, every last one of them."

Startled, Tony finally smiled, sort of lopsidedly, and he touched her on the shoulder. "Come back inside with me. Convince me you're right, and I'll go to Richardson and see what I can do. If I can get her, we'll have Rodgers, Landon, and Weston. You might get it through then, if your dad decides not to be the biggest asshole of them all."

She let him walk her back inside. He didn't get Richardson, and her father had also decided to be the biggest asshole of them all, but it had been a good memory.

How long had Obadiah been selling weapons to the other side?


"You let me find out from the newspaper. From the front page of the Wall Street Journal."

Tony doesn't quite throw the newspaper down on Pepper's desk, but it's mostly because Tony Stark doesn't read newspapers. Also, Tony doesn't have to. There is only one thing she could be talking about. Pepper looks up at the ceiling for a moment, collecting herself, and Tony crosses her arms in front of the arc reactor.

"There wasn't any point in tell -- "

"There wasn't any point in telling me that you're settling with the Department of Defense? That you're going to start making weapons again?"

"I'm not going to make weapons. The company is going to make -- "

"The company is me, Pepper. Did you forget whose name is on the side of this building?"

Pepper looks back at Tony. The desk is between them, and Pepper takes a deep breath and rests her elbows on the desk. "You're not the company anymore, Tony. You haven't been for months. Almost two years now, ever since the -- "

"Don't talk to me about the injunction."

Pepper breathes out. "It's not just the original injunction. It's the subsequent one. Ones, actually, because there are two shareholder suits, an SEC investigation. And the damage control."

"The damage control?"

Pepper decides not to mention the publicity fallout from the Senate hearing and the spectacle of Tony hacking servers and software bought from Stark Industries. Or the fact that she's tried to tell Tony about these. Multiple times. "It's destroying the company, Tony. I know you're angry at your father -- "

"Don't talk about my father."

"We're going to lose the lawsuit against the Department of Defense, Tony. It's open and shut. Clear as can be. We're fighting them in discovery right now, but the lawyers -- "

"I don't mind depositions. I can fucking get deposed all day long. You know how old I was the first time I had to answer questi -- "

"What happens if we go to trial? It'll ruin the company. We won't even have to lose, Tony, but we will. How many more tens of thousands of people are going to lose their jobs? What's going to happen to all of the people who depend on this company? The subcontractors? The -- "

"Don't talk to me about responsibility, Pepper," Tony says, and the tone of her voice makes Pepper think that maybe she should worry about Tony sweeping all the things off of the desk and shoving them onto the floor, but Tony is standing very still, very straight. Her face is pale.

They look at each other for a long, long, terrible moment, and then Pepper comes around the desk and tries to touch Tony on the shoulder.


Tony has a memory of Obadiah. It was mid-spring in New York.


Tony has a memory of Obadiah. It was mid-spring in New York.


Tony has a memory of Obadiah. It was mid-spring in New York, and Tony had stood on the roof of the building on a rainy day until she was pretty much frozen in place, and Obadiah came and found her. He convinced her to come off the roof, and they took the elevator down to the family quarters. Obadiah had his access card and settled in the living room to have a drink and read the newspaper while Tony took a shower and warmed up and the furor in the boardroom subsided a little.

Halfway through her shower, Tony hears the bathroom door open.


They look at each other for a long, long, terrible moment, and then Pepper comes around the desk and tries to touch Tony on the shoulder.

"You should kiss me," Tony says, her voice sounding a little rough, and Pepper puts her hand against the back of Tony's head and kisses her.


Halfway through her shower, Tony hears the bathroom door open.

"It's me," Obie says.

She can see him as a blur through the shower curtain.


"You should kiss me," Tony says, her voice sounding a little rough, and Pepper puts her hand against the back of Tony's head and kisses her.

Tony pushes the jacket off Pepper's shoulders and starts to unzip Pepper's dress.


Obadiah pushes the shower curtain back and switches off the water. Tony doesn't have the arc reactor, doesn't have Extremis, but she looks back at him, cool and steady. The bathroom is foggy; Tony is naked, and Obadiah is wearing a gray, checked, three piece suit and shoes. He took his tie off, loosened the collar, and they look at each other. Now that the shower is off, Tony can hear that he turned the TV on, too.

Tony steps out of the shower, stands on her tiptoes, and pulls his head down so that she can kiss him.


Pepper goes down on Tony. Tony lies on her back on the floor in the office, keeps her shirt on, and Pepper has gone down on Tony a few times, more than a couple times, tries the things that worked before, but none of them work this time, and after a while, Tony pulls Pepper back up. They kiss; Pepper knows that Tony likes to taste herself on Pepper's mouth, and then Pepper reaches under Tony's shirt and undoes the bra. Tony takes Pepper's hand and, eyes fixed on Pepper's face, moves it downward. Over the stomach. Over the hip. Tony grips Pepper's hand by the wrist; she keeps her eyes on Pepper's face; she slides two fingers of Pepper's hand into herself and fucks herself on Pepper's fingers until she comes so hard that her whole body shakes.

Pepper lies on top of her, as much to feel Tony's body underneath her as anything else, and when it's over, Tony unzips Pepper's dress the rest of the way, then slides her hand in and strokes Pepper's back, over and over and over.

She kisses Pepper, gently, on the side of the neck.


Obadiah --


Around 8:30, Pepper gathers up her papers, sorts them into her bag, and goes to take the elevator up to Tony's for the night.


In another universe, Tony joins the Avenger Initiative because Nick Fury challenges him to prove that he is worthy.

The difference between that universe and this one is not gender. There are plenty of universes where Tony presents as a woman; there are plenty of universes where a female Tony joins the Avengers because she is angry that Fury does not think she belongs, or because she comes to recognize that working on her own limits the scope of what she can do to protect Earth as a single superhero. Or any number of reasons.

That is not this universe.

In the elevator, Pepper swipes her access card. The red light flashes.

Pepper assumes that there has been a misread. She swipes again. The red light flashes.

She tries a third time, then goes to the backup system of keying in her private passcode into the alphanumeric keyboard and submitting to a retinal scan.

"Tony?" she says, wondering if Tony is watching on the surveillance system, and when that doesn't work, she pulls out her Blackberry and tries to call in. The system won't recognize her voice and let her in; Tony doesn't pick up, and --

"Jarvis?" Pepper says, turning around inside the elevator.

It isn't a full access system, but there is a small, abbreviated portion of Jarvis hooked into the elevator, but the small screen above the elevator button lights up.

"It's me, Jarvis," Pepper says. "Access code 32944-Potts."

There is no voice response in the elevator, but the screen thinks about the access code that she provides, then prints: Access Revoked.


Obadiah fucks Tony against the sink in the bathroom. He uses a condom that he had in his wallet, and Tony hisses and arches her back while he slides in; she can see them dimly in the fogged up mirror, and when he's all the way in, he puts his hand on her shoulder to keep her from leaning back and getting his shirt wet, and Tony spreads her legs a little wider, bends over a little more. He makes an approving noise, and the next time he pulls back, she takes the opportunity to put her hand down between her legs since this is, apparently, going to be a self-service operation.

It isn't anywhere close to the first time that Tony has sex, and to her mind, it isn't anything approaching nonconsensual, but it's the first time that Obadiah fucks her. Tony is fourteen.

How long had he been selling arms to the other side?


After a few dozen more tries, after another half hour, after some yelling and hitting the door, Pepper leans her head against the door of the elevator. For a while, her face is hidden from the security camera, but when she straightens up, she has to wipe her face off with her hands, and then sort of messily wipe them on her skirt and take a shaky breath. She puts her access card away in her purse, then punches the first-floor button on the elevator and leans back against the wall, and through the camera, Tony watches her leave.

Tony goes and takes a hot shower in the bathroom, almost forty-five minutes with the water on her face and body, hot as the water will go.

She doesn't come out until steam hangs in the room, heavy on the skin, and then opens the case containing the next round of Extremis injections: the heat of the shower makes her skin flush. It brings blood to the surface of her body

How long had Pepper been negotiating with the Department of Defense?

After a week, Tony is in room with Nick Fury, fully committing to the Avengers.


"You deserve better. You’ve taken good care of me in a tough spot, but you get me through it. So.”

“Thank you.”

She doesn't come out until steam hangs in the room, heavy on the skin: the heat of the shower and the steam has brought blood to the surface of her body. The blood bears nanobots; the nanobots look black in visible light, and when Tony looks in the mirror, she sees that the skin on the inside of her elbows, at the base of her throat along the collar bones is gray-tinged. Veins look faintly black at the edges, and no doubt, so do the back of her knees, probably. The palms of her hands, definitely. The opening in her chest around the plate for the arc reactor light, especially dark, and when she injects herself in the thigh, the nanobots --

Tony has gold-titanium bracelets in a box behind the bar in her penthouse at the Stark Tower, but the Stark Tower isn't on Park Avenue, directly behind Grand Central, and Pepper didn't give the bracelets to Tony. Would Tony have trusted the bracelets if they had?

How long had Pepper been --


"No, really, did you know she's actually a triple agent?"

Across the table, Natasha does not look impressed. Next to her, Clint Barton keeps his eyes fixed on the space above the door.

"And you don't even know where the big green guy is, and you think the other big guy will be done defrosting maybe next week, next month, who the fuck knows?"


Tony Stark joins the Avengers Initiative: Tony Stark talks to a man in a bar about his unusual problem. Tony Stark is on backup, idling in the suit and drifting at 15,000 feet over a town in New Mexico, just in case the new alien can't squash the other alien that his brother alien called in.

"Ma'm," Cap says to her in a plaza in Stuttgart.

"Captain," Tony says; behind them, Natasha, in one of the close-quarters fighters, drifts in close to pick Loki up. She managed to turn Shoot to Thrill off the broadcast PA system, but it's still playing, quiet as AC/DC ever gets.

How long had Pepper been negotiating with the Department of Defen --


How long had Pepper been negotiating with the Department of Defense?


Part III. Everyone and Almost Everything.

Begin at a point almost at the end: Chituari are coming down Park Avenue, and Grand Central is a ruin. Natasha and Steve stand in front of a pile of wrecked cars. More wreckage drifts down from the tops of the buildings, sometimes as ash, sometimes in car-sized chunks of concrete, and despite everything else, all the noise, all the destruction, they can see a squadron of Chitauri on aerial sleds coming down and a glint of something different, something else coming behind them. Small. Keeping pace with them. Not one of the fish-ships.

Natasha looks at Steve. Steve looks back at her.

Steve knows he is close to exhaustion, and Natasha has stopped using valuable energy to translate emotions that she may or may actually be feeling into facial expressions. She drops the Chitauri energy staff that she had been using and pulls out a pair of knives from the belt at her waist: these are small, just as long as Natasha's hand from the middle of her palm to the fingertip. The handles are matte black and the end of the blades are thin, but wickedly curved.

There is dried blood on the left side of Natasha's jaw from when one of the Chitauri caught her in the side of her head and made her bleed from her ears; Steve hurts every time he takes a breath, and there is blood in his mouth. He does not ask Natasha if she's sure. Natasha does not make a joke about it being fun or actually look, for a half-second, as if she might believe it.


After Loki , Nick Fury puts the cards with Coulson's blood on the conference table on the bridge. Tony looks at them. Steve touches them


After Barton comes back, Steve stops by the small interrogation room where they are holding him. He asks Natasha whether she can fly one of those jets; Barton comes out of the bathroom, drying his hands on a towel, and Natasha vouches for him.


After, Steve and Tony don't meet in the access ring above where Loki had been held: Steve goes, but stands alone and thinks about soldiers and wars and for a long, long time. Tony doesn't stand at the railing with him. Tony doesn't come into the room. Tony is busy, actually being of use in getting systems back online, and also, flirting with the cute brunette in the engineering with the world-class ass. Why should Steve and Tony have a conversation about whether Phil was married, or who Phil might have been dating? Pepper might have been fond of him, gone on a few dates with him, but does Tony Stark give a shit about Potts? As far as Tony can tell, all Coulson ever did was cockblock. On multiple fronts.

So the answer is no, and Tony doesn't give a shit about Nick Fury's speech about the remarkable people working together to fight the battles that SHIELD didn't have the ball sack to handle.

After the briefing table, Steve doesn't see Tony until hours later, late at night, when Steve can't sleep. He decides to go down to the gym; there are punching bags in the corner, but they're shared. He doesn't want to wreck them; he doesn't know where the tape is, either, so he goes to the weight benches and gets dumbbells from the weight rack.

Fifteen minutes in, Tony shows up. Steve sees her out of the corner of his eye, braces himself a little, particularly when she sits on the weight bench next to him, but she doesn't say a word for another fifteen minutes.

She doesn't apologize; he doesn't take back the line about ten men without her wealth or genius or superhero suit.


"You're just a woman in a suit," he says. "Take that away, and what are you?"


"You're just a woman in a suit," he says. "Take that away, and what are you?"

"Genius, billionaire, philanthropist." Tony says and pauses for a moment, then says, very distinctly. "Bitch. You were thinking it, weren't you?"

"It doesn't have anything to do with you being a woman."

"But I bet it helps you think of me that way." She smiles, then glances down at Steve clenching his fist. She looks him back in the face, and the smile is even wider. "You want to hit a bitch, big guy?"


In the gym, after Loki breaking out, after working together on the turbine and saving the ship, Tony doesn't apologize, possibly because she doesn't think she has anything to apologize for. Steve doesn't mention the line about ten men without her wealth or genius or superhero suit, even though he still thinks his assessment of Tony's character Stuttgart was right. But Tony doesn't say a word, for once, at least until Steve is between sets of incline chest presses, lying on his back with the towel under his head and shoulders, breathing deeply.

Tony clears her throat. Steve looks up at her, but doesn't say anything.

"Did you like my dad?" Tony says, finally.

"He worked on the Super Soldier Serum project with Dr. Erskine."

"He did."

"And he flew me thirty miles behind enemy lines when he didn't have to. Four hundred men walked out of a prison camp because of him."

"Did you like my father?"

Steve thinks about it a moment, then sits up and gets the bottle of water from down at the foot of the bench. He has a drink from it. "I did," he says, finally.


Tony considers him, and the edge of her mouth turns up.

"Still, you are pretty spry for an older fellow. What's your thing? Pilates?"


"It's like calisthenics," she says. "You might missed a few things, doing time as a Capsicle."

Steve considers her. In the air, the suit looks bigger. Standing on even ground, without the helmet on, Tony comes to around his shoulder. The voice is a woman's. The face is a woman's. The arc reactor glows in the chest and throws shadows upwards. "Fury didn't tell me he was calling you in," Steve says.

"Yeah, well," Tony smiles.

The arc reactor lights her teeth from below, making them gleam blue-white. "There's a lot of things Fury doesn't tell you."

Tony has known about the HYDRA weapons for months.


Someone else with insomnia comes into the gym on the cardio floor below. The gym at SHIELD is three floors: cardio and sparring on the first. Weights the second, a running track at the top. Central atrium running through floors two and three. Did this person come straight from being on shift? The bag they dump at the foot of the treadmill looks it's full of engineering tools, wrenches, screwdrivers, what and the way they turn on the treadmill and plug their headphones in and start running, grimly, jaw set and stride stiff, makes Steve wonder if he should go down and say something to the person, ask if they're all right, but decides against it. If she wanted to talk, she wouldn't be in the gym at three in the morning and still feel like they need to put headphones in.

Tony pauses for a moment.

Steve isn't sure what she's thinking or what she wants to say about her father, but she picks entirely separate words: "Loki made it personal for you, didn't he?"

Steve swallows a mouthful of water, then says, with a little of the earlier hostility in his voice: "You sure you want to go there?"

Saving the lives of fifteen hundred people gets you some points, but it's Tony Stark. She burns through points quickly. Tony and Steve look at each other.

"The best man I ever knew was in Afghanistan," Tony says, finally, and her face is hard at the beginning of the sentence, but actually, strangely, from what Steve read in her file, after the word Afghanistan. "He built the first version of the containment field and kept the shrapnel out of it long enough for me to build a miniature arc reactor. Saved my life twice."

"What happened to him?" Steve asks.

Tony looks him in the eye.

"Second time that he saved my life, he died on a sack of grain that was supposed to feed hungry villagers, but ended up in the hands of warlords."

Steve fixes her with a look in return and he has had enough exposure to know there are a variety of things she could do: she could smile, and it would be unpleasant. She could be serious, which would be less unpleasant.

Tony doesn't say: This is the first time I've ever told anybody about Yinsen.

Tony doesn't say: As far as the military debriefers who had me after Afghanistan are concerned, I abso-fucking-lutely managed to do major thoracic surgery on myself and implant an arc reactor while bleeding out from shrapnel.

"So it's always been personal with me." Tony shrugs. "You want to go downstairs and spar?"


Tony remembers Yinsen teaching her to play backgammon. Tony remembers Yinsen telling her about his family, with so much affection and warmth and detail that Tony felt like she could buy birthday presents for them and imagine what the tea and pastries would taste like if she came by to drop off the present. Tony remembers Yinsen with his steady hands, taking the palladium out of the mold and putting it into the arc reactor. How many years has it been? Tony can call up, very clearly, the image of Yinsen on his knees with his head held to the anvil, and Raza bringing the hot coal to Yinsen's mouth, a foot away, then six inches, then close enough that it lit up Yinsen's face, tinting it and lighting it from below.

Tony doesn't say to Steve: I think about him a lot.

"You want to go downstairs and spar?"

"Another time," Steve says. "It's three thirty in the morning."

Again, Steve has had enough exposure to have an idea of what Tony's standard reactions might be: a shrug, playing it off? A joke? Maybe a genuinely unpleasant joke if she had wanted to do it very badly.

She surprises him, though: she leans over, puts her hands on his shoulders, and kisses him. The reaction wouldn't have surprised, say -- Jim. Or Pepper. Or even Obadiah, but Steve is surprised. He is surprised, again, when he realizes what it actually feels like. It isn’t like he has much to compare getting kissed by Tony Stark to, but Steve has a vague idea that it should involve more teeth, more tongue, more aggression, and less of her lips, soft and warm and gentle against his. Her hand slides up and touches the back of his neck and and touches him in the dip there, and out of instinct, as much as anything, he touches his tongue to the bottom of her lip. He can taste mouthwash on her lips, and he has no doubt that Tony can smell the sweat on him. She moans, very softly, into his mouth.

Steve pulls away. He opens his eyes. From downstairs, they can hear the steady thump-thump-thump of someone setting a serious pace on the treadmill.

"You should mean what you do," Steve says, and it surprises him that he doesn't sound more angry. Maybe it's because of the way that Tony looks at him, steady, surprisingly solemn until she says:

"You think I didn't mean that?" Tony smiles a little, but also pulls back a little. She takes her hands off his shoulders, but stays in front of Steve. "Come back up to my quarters, and I'll show you what else I mean."

It doesn't take a long time for Steve to make a decision. He says, "No."


They look at each other. Tony's cheeks are flushed; Steve decides that maybe she does mean it. Her eyes are bright, and when she is in the suit, Steve knows it's easy to forget how small she actually is. Standing straight, without the suit or the heels, she doesn't quite come to his shoulder. Steve is wearing a SHIELD workout shirt and shorts; Tony is the same shorts, SHIELD regulation issue, but on top, she wears a Black Sabbath t-shirt with her arc reactor glowing underneath.

The person downstairs goes on running, and the edge of Tony's mouth goes up.

After a moment, Tony laughs, and strangely, it isn't unfriendly. "At least I know where I stand with you," she says, touches him lightly on the shoulder one more time, and leaves the gym.

Forty-five minutes later, she is gone off the Helicarrier.


Loki installs the Chitauri portal on the observation deck of the Empire State building. Not the tallest building, admittedly, but in this universe, Tony Stark doesn't own the tallest building in New York City. Loki still wants flowers, applause. Parades. He wants everyone to see it: he still chooses the building behind Grand Central.

Chituari are coming down Park Avenue, and Grand Central is a ruin.


Steve and Natasha wait for the Chitauri sleds to come closer. 37th Street. 38th. When they're at 39th and whatever is following them is maybe a forty feet behind, Natasha breaks the seal at the base of each of the knives; the place where the seal had been glows blue, and the edge of the blades start to almost -- shimmer. Natasha tightens her hands around the handles as if she doesn't quite like holding them, as if they might vibrate out of her hands if she didn't hold them tight enough, and when the sleds are a block away, she takes a few steps back. Steve drops into a crouch and puts his shield in front of him, and when he boosts her, she activates the Widow's Bite while still in the air and feeds it through her suit to her fingertips.

When she lands on Tony's back, the jolt of electricity cuts through the nanobots; the edge on the knives, just a few atoms wide, cuts through the gold-titanium armor. This shorts out the energy pack that maintains the edge on the knives, but the work is done: underneath Extremis and the armor, Tony is still human. Bone and muscle. Blood. There is a great deal of blood, and Tony screams.

Tony does a barrel roll to shake Natasha, which succeeds because Natasha has a choice between hanging onto the knives and possibly pulling them out of Tony, or letting go.

Natasha lets go; Natasha slams into the ground. How fast is Tony going in the air at that point?

Tony plows into a pile of concrete with the knives still in her back, and before the dust has cleared, Steve is already running towards her, shield in his right hand.


Obadiah betrays her. Jim Rhodes keeps his distance. Pepper is mostly straight unless and until she --


Obadiah betrays her. Jim Rhodes keeps his distance. Pepper is mostly straight unless and until she --

After she leaves the Helicarrier, Tony flies into Manhattan, and in a fit of irritation, decides to stop by the executive dining room at corporate headquarters. She kicks in the sliding door on the executive dining, helps herself to the Scotch, and falls asleep in the armchair in the executive dining room. When she wakes from a dream of being back in the cave with Yinsen, the rain has gone.

The carpet in the room is soaked; she asks Jarvis for the time, and he tells her: it's three thirty in the morning. Tony collects the pieces of her armor, or rather, they've drift back towards her across the carpet, and then she leaves the Scotch behind and the last of the trail mix, together with the broken glass. She flies the five stories up to her apartment because the elevators no longer recognize her access codes. Why should they? She isn't the CEO. She doesn't have a role in the daily working of the company. The settlement with the Department of Defense had an entire fucking section specifically requiring her to keep her fucking nose out of the company.

So Tony goes to bed, and when she gets up four hours later, even though he hasn't had Selvig put the portal on the terrace outside, Loki is in her living room, staff in hand.

They exchange a few words about how Loki has managed to piss every one of them off, about avenging, and then Loko touches the staff to her arc reactor.

In another universe, the staff touches metal.

In this universe, later that afternoon, Tony plows into a pile of concrete, and Steve Rogers rolls Tony over -- one of the knives came out in the crash, and Tony is awake enough to pull the other out of her back. She groans, brings a hand up to her head, so Steve knows it's a narrow window of opportunity. He has the shield on his right hand, and he puts a knee down on either side of her chest.

He starts hitting Tony in the head with the edge of his shield, as hard as he can, as many times as he can.


Obadiah betrays her. Jim Rhodes keeps his distance. Pepper is mostly straight unless and until she --


Natasha Romanov goes down.

Loki smiles at Tony, and she deletes Jarvis.


Tony does a barrel roll to shake Natasha, and Natasha has a choice between hanging onto the knives and possibly pulling them out of Tony -- or she can let go. She lets go and hits the ground at an airspeed exceeding a hundred miles an hour.

Loki touches his staff to the living nanobots around the arc reactor, and he suggests that maybe Tony should do something about this voice that keeps talking with increasing urgency about the rise of foreign energy readings. It isn't quite the same as hitting the ground at an air speed in excess of a hundred miles an hour, but Tony listens, then says, her voice almost sounding almost normal, "I had a run-in with hijacked suits a while back. If I don't answer him back in about thirty seconds, he's going to start a lockdown procedure that keeps me from getting into the armor if Jarvis thinks I've been mentally compromised."


"Computer system. Built my first circuit board for him when I was five."

Jarvis chimes again to indicate that warns about a further surge in foreign energy warnings.

Loki considers, then smiles at Tony.



"Computer system. Built my first circuit board for him when I was five."

Jarvis chimes again to indicate that warns about a further surge in foreign energy warnings.

"I'll take care of him," Tony says, and smiling back at Loki, she recites the vocal control chain that not only stops the lockdown, but also triggers personality module suicide.

An hour and a half later -- it takes longer to get into the suit without Jarvis, but there is a backup program for that, too -- Tony is in the sky, blowing police helicopters out of the sky.



Without Tony to contain the aerial perimeter on the Chitauri, Steve tells the NYPD that it's up to them: they need to contain the perimeter until the Air Force can get there, but what do largely unarmed helicopters mean to armored alien troop carriers, especially if Tony Stark in the Mark VII comes alongside, ignoring their small arms fire and ripping the panelling off with her fingers? She is saving her missiles because she knows the Air Force is coming for her. They scrambles the 103rd Air Control, but they make the mistake of showing up in H-22's.

Tony designed them; she doesn't need Hawkeye to tell her that because of budgeting cutbacks, they don't corner worth a damn.


Tony breaks into the SHIELD communication feed, and Maria tells her technicians to switch to broadcast lock, whatever they need to do to shake her, and they eventually succeed, but it's only temporary, the technicians tell her. They can skip around, but each frequency only buys them five, ten minutes of clean air time. Tony told JARVIS's personality modules to burn themselves out, but left the operational modules alone, and Nick Fury tries to activate the kill switch that he had built into the operating system of the suit.

There are roughly three seconds of silence, and Steve and Natasha and Clint and the whole of the Helicarrier hear Tony laughing over the PA and telling Nick Fury that he can shove that kill switch where he'll enjoy it because she found it months ago, deleted it just out of irritation that Coulson kept deleting her porn from the SHIELD server cluster, and just to make sure they know how clear Loki's air superiority is, Tony comes barreling out from behind the Met Life building with two fully loaded Chitauri troop carriers on her flanks. The situation is too desperate for Hawkeye to save an explosive arrow for Loki, and reports of Chitauri attacks are coming in from three states. The Air Force is activating fighter units as far north as Vermont and as far south as Maryland.

They are evacuating Washington DC.

Does Nick Fury fight the Council on using a nuclear warhead on Manhattan? Maybe, but he doesn't go onto the flight deck with an anti-aircraft missile.


When Steve is running towards Tony with the shield on his right hand, Hawkeye is up on a building. Steve isn't sure which one, but he knows Hawkeye is calling for a status update on Romanov. He should -- but Steve knows the window is short. He read the file about the recuperative abilities that Extremis gives Tony, so he saves his breath even though he can see Natasha out of the corner of his eye, a little pile of black, and he hits Tony with the edge of the shield hard as hard as he can. Tony raised up to push him off, but stopped moving when he hit her, so Steve hits her again.

A third time, and this time, the side of her helmet is done, so Steve switches gears and brings the edge of the shield directly down on the front of the helmet. It makes a crunching noise -- and then dissolves. Steve can't explain, exactly, how it dissolves. But one moment, it's there, and the next moment, it's melting away, and the moment after that, he's staring at Tony's face, even though it's pretty much unrecognizable under -- whatever the black stuff that seems to be, and he hits her in the face with the shield.

She says a word that is completely garbled because of the black liquid on her face.

Steve pulls the shield back to hit her again, but Tony spits out enough of the black stuff to form coherent words.

" -- me," she says. "It's me. I'm out. I mean, Extremis was working on it, but you -- helped it along, I guess."

Steve looks at her. Her eyes are brown, and she looks exhausted. He considers hitting her again with the shield, but doesn't.

The helmet crackles; Steve hears the actual words in his ear. Hawkeye --

"You can tell Agent Barton to stop calling for her," Tony says, quietly. "She isn't going to answer."

Steve doesn't say the words to say that he knows. He also doesn't want to turn around to look at Romanov's body, broken on the sidewalk, partially because looking won't change a thing, but also because he isn't sure he can trust Tony. As he watches, a cut along the right side of her fixes itself: a scab appears. The edges of skin knit together. Steve now realizes that the black stuff is her blood.

Hit Tony hard enough, and this is what comes out of her.

He takes a tighter grip on his shield, and then, the remains of the helmet around Tony make a crackling noise for the second time.

Tony closes her eyes.

"You know what a nuke is, Cap?" Tony opens her eyes. "Might have been after your time."

"I know what a nuclear bomb is," Steve says.

They look at each other. Steve is still on top of Tony; he still has the shield on his right hand, and it's still raised back high enough to hit Tony hard, especially if she can get the faceplate formed again fast enough.

"They've got one heading for Manhattan, and there is a mothership on the other side of the portal," Tony says. "You know how many troop carriers you saw come through? It isn't even a tenth of one percent of what they've got on the mothership."

"How do you know that?"

"How do you know you've got toes attached to your foot?" She sounds like herself for a moment, then closes her eyes and makes a noise in her throat, almost a whimper, as her broken nose fixes itself. It's suddenly very quiet on the street, and Steve can hear the bones crack in place. The blood on her face is almost black, and it seep back directly into her skin, through the pores. Tony keeps her eyes closed for a moment after her nose fixes itself, after the blood disappears back into her skin, then takes a deep breath. How many did police helicopters did she down? She took out five F-22's in the course of half an hour.

"Get off me, Cap," she says. " I've got this one."

Steve looks at her for another moment, then stands up and steps away.

The faceplate reforms over Tony's face, and she catches the nuke over the East River.


Who is the Avenger that Tony has the longest history with? Natasha, by a long margin. Hawkeye spends his time out at hot sites, acting as SHIELD headquarter's eyes and ears. Steve and Tony have known each other for three week, and Tony and Thor have only spent time with each other in the context of the two of them trying to beat the shit out of each other in a forest on the border between France and Germany. Normally, Thor wouldn't think of it as a hindrance to becoming friends, but he has other things on his mind at the moment.

Tony and Bruce work together on finding the tesseract. Tony gives Bruce a blueberry, and Tony also tells Bruce she is a huge fan of his work, but she never offers to let Bruce come and hang out at Stark R&D. After all, she doesn't have access to anything at Stark Industries except for her personal penthouse. Furthermore, a version of Tony that voluntarily puts Extremis in her veins as a solution to suicidal depression and palladium poisoning -- Bruce says he tries to commit suicide, but the other guy spit the bullet out. Tony rolls her eyes because what sane person doesn't think of that as a feature, rather than a bug?

They have different perspectives, so to speak, on the importance of collateral damage.

Natasha worked for Tony for three, four of the worst months in Tony's life, and this is part of the reason why Tony has no time or trust for her at all: Tony remembers the night before her birthday. In this universe, there is no party at the Malibu mansion with supermodels and music and ending with a brawl with Jim. This is also not the birthday that Tony spends in Jim's childhood home, where Tony is trying to have one last moment with her friend before she cuts him out of her life.

On this birthday, Tony is sitting in the bedroom of the Malibu house with the Pacific Ocean in front of her. The room is as bare as it always has been, and Natasha -- Natalie -- comes in.

She is wearing a neat gray dress with high, high heels. Her hair looks red in the overhead lighting, and Tony is exhausted from eight hours of dealing with the lawyers who are allegedly defending her from the lawsuit by the Department of Defense. Eight hours. Natasha -- Natalie -- brings her a Scotch with plenty of ice, and Tony downs it and puts it on the tray.

"You want to get me another?"

She goes, and when Natalie comes back, she has the whole bottle of Scotch on the tray, along with the ice bucket. She pours the drink in front of Tony and hands it to her; she stays while Tony takes a sip, and Tony is back to looking at her again: gray dress, conservatively cut, but showing her arms. Her hair looks red; her heels are high. The build is different. The way of standing is different. The expression on her face when she looks at Tony is different.

Tony will admit all of these things.

This is why, maybe, she asks. "If this was the last birthday you were ever going to have, what would you do?"

Natalie thinks about it and says, quietly, "I'd do whatever I wanted to do, with whoever I wanted to do it with."

Tony thinks about it, then hands Natalie the tumbler. There is still a fair amount of Scotch in it, and it's very good, very expensive Scotch. "What if you can't have that?" Tony asks, and Natalie takes a sip from the side opposite where Tony had been drinking: her lipstick leaves a clear print, clearly visible, just the color that her fingernails are painted.

Tony looks up from Natalie's hand around the tumbler up to Natalie's face.

Natalie says, quietly, "If you can't have it, you make do."

They look at each other for a moment, and then, moving slowly, giving Natalie plenty of time to make an excuse about needing to check something in the front room or step away from the window, Tony takes the tumbler out of Natalie's hand. She puts it on the desk, and when Natasha stays against the window, head angled a little to the side, eyes watching but none of the rest of her moving, Tony kisses her. It's slow. Careful. Tony doesn't put her hand in Natalie's hair; Natalie doesn't put her arms around Tony, and they start out that way, connected at the mouth, Natalie's back against the glass. Eventually, Tony works Natalie's dress until it's hitched around her waist, and Tony is working Natalie's underwear down to her knees. Natasha sighs when Tony slides a finger into her, and they move to the bed.

Natalie goes down on Tony. Tony goes down on Natasha. They take turns, and Natalie gets Tony out of her clothes. She kisses Tony; she runs her fingers around where the arc reactor plate meets the skin of Tony's chest.

"Does it hurt?"

"It's a little sore," Tony says, so Natasha stops touching the arc reactor and starts kissing Tony first on the stomach, then on the hip, then on the inside of her thigh. She pulls Tony's legs over shoulders; Tony crosses her ankles on Natasha's back. The gray dress, the red hair, the heels stopped mattering somewhere between the window and the bed, and afterwards,they take a shower together, and Natalie borrows one of Tony's t-shirts. Natalie curls up on her side; Tony tucks up behind her, but puts a pillow between them, so the arc reactor doesn't poke Natalie in the back. Halfway through the night, Natalie rolls onto her back and pulls Tony onto her shoulder.

For the first time since putting Obadiah through the roof of the arc reactor building, Tony sleeps through the the night.

It isn't the last birthday that Tony ever has, but how angry is Tony when she finds out that it's actually Natasha and it was just a job? That it was just part of being a Shadow?

How many months later is Natasha is dead on the pavement?

Tony thinks about that on the way through the portal with the nuke.

Who is the friend that Tony has known the longest? Before Obadiah betrayed her and she dropped him through the roof of the arc reactor building, she would have said Obadiah. After Obadiah betrayed her, she would have said Jim, but she had a choice between Jim and the suit. Which one mattered to her more?

Pepper? Was she ever a friend? Did she ever --

Tony stops herself from thinking about it, and makes herself consider, instead, Jarvis. She made her first circuit board at five in order to make him. He was the first friend she ever had.

Tony thinks about that on the way through the portal with the nuke.


It feels like a long flight with very little on her heads-up display. She killed the personality module on Jarvis, so nobody asks whether to try Ms. Potts. The display inside the helmet is stripped down, bare, with the direct feed from the front camera on the helmet, overlaid with green fields for speed, altitude, radar. Other information appears only if she subvocalizes for it, and Tony stops trying to tap into the SHIELD communication frequencies. She shuts down the routines that had been activated on the Helicarrier, and she says, just loud enough for the suit to respond, "Turn off the sound filter. I want to hear this."

She tightens her grip on the nuke.

Tony knows it's a one way --


Tony knows it's a one way trip.

She knows there are any number of things that could kill her after she takes the nuke into space: first, the nuke. Second, space. Third, maybe the Chitauri mothership will get either her or the nuke before she can get the nuke in, because God knows that a race smart enough to bioengineer space-going living ships and gravsleds and energy weapons is smart enough to make proton torpedos or phase cannons or whatever it is, let alone maybe have shields. God also knows that the nuke is almost certainly not equipped to take evasive maneuvers against alien motherships with space technology. Missile designers are stupid like that. Missile designers are short sighted like that.

It's a one way trip.

Tony rides the nuke all the way into the mothership. The mothership does not have proton torpedos or phase cannons or shields, but what were Tony's chances of survival anyways?


Is there another way the story ends for Tony? In another universe, maybe she lets go of the nuke before it goes into the mothership. Maybe she doesn't tell the suit to maintain a magnetic lock on all points of contact between it and the nuke casing. In another universe, maybe she makes it through the portal before Selvig snaps out of it and closes the portal -- it's a good thing that he does it, actually, because it keeps the resulting radiation from blasting Midtown. Natasha isn't there to keep the portal open longer than maybe she should, and what connection does Selvig have to Iron Man? Does he even see Tony riding the nuke up and through the portal?

In another universe, Tony is not terrified as the nuke starts to close on the mothership and the portal disappears behind her even before the nuke hits the mothership.

In this universe, the mothership is getting closer and closer; the suit displays a distance to close, and Tony starts to cry. She doesn't particularly want to die, but she did the math in the fifteen seconds or so when she was going vertical with the nuke, heading through the portal. Her skin aches with cold, and she thought that when the other guy spat out the bullet for Bruce, it was a feature, not a bug.

In another universe, Tony is ready to die.

Those universes are not this universe.

What Tony does have in this universe, though, is Extremis.


Natalie thinks about it, then says, quietly, "I'd do whatever I wanted to do, with whoever I wanted to do it with."

Tony hands her the tumbler. "What if you can't have that?"


The suit is not intended for us in space, and Extremis works on trying to repair the damage, fixing the lungs when the extreme cold burns them, trying to repair the breaks in the seal and the surface of the suit. The suit is not properly pressurized or insulated for deep space flight, and Extremis comes to the inescapable, correct conclusion: it has access to Tony's brain, so it knows, insofar as Extremis is capable of knowing, what is happening. It has no sense of what is right or wrong; Tony did not give the nanobots any moral conditioning, but it was designed to do what it could for her. It considers, insofar as nanobots consider. It develops a protocol, insofar as nanobots can develop anything. What should it do? Which memories should it access?

It samples the most common figures from Tony's memories. Obadiah doesn't test well. Neither does Howard. Jim works better, but isn't quite right. Natasha? Again, better than Howard and Obadiah, but not quite right.

Yinsen. Extremis brings that image up in front of Tony. A cave, maybe. A board with triangles and markers. Dice. A small man with round glasses, smiling at her and explaining the rules of the game. He tells her about his family, and for a while, it works: Tony's heart rate slows. She stops trembling so much, but then, the memory of Yinsen dead on a grain sack overwhelms the happy memories.

Pepper? It calls up the image of her face, and Tony takes a shaky breath and closes her eyes. Anyways, who is left?

So Extremis goes with Pepper.


What if Tony can't have what she wants?


What if the ending isn't what Tony wants?

What if Tony doesn't want an ending at all?


Pepper: there are so many memories of Pepper. Tony has so memories of Pepper, so why does she end up with Pepper in Venice on the terrace of Cipriani? This exact scenario isn't even a memory that Tony actually has, but Extremis builds it for her very clearly. This is the suite at the Cipriani that has the private terrace, the private pool, the private dock. Venice stretches out beyond, and Pepper is stretched out by the pool on a towel, wearing a white bikini that Tony has actually seen on her.

"Tony," Pepper says.

"Pepper," Tony says and comes and stands by her.

"You did what was right," Pepper says.

"What do you know about right and wrong? You're a bunch of nanobots accessing my memory banks to come up with something convincing."

"You want to argue about philosophy now? I'm wearing a bikini, Tony. I need sunblock put on me, or I'll turn into the world's biggest freckle, and I'm not meeting Larry Gagosian for the first time as a giant freckle."

Tony laughs in spite of herself, and Pepper turns over. It's a long stretch of back, and Tony takes a deep breath. For a second, she feels her lungs burn and struggle. The oxygen tanks in the suit must be almost empty. The suit needed some kind of atmosphere to process to refill the tanks, and there is nothing in space, so Tony lets the breath out and sits down on the ground next to Pepper. The ground is warm; the sunblock is cool on Tony's hands, and she rubs it into Pepper's back. When Pepper's back and legs are done, Pepper rolls over and puts her hand against Tony's cheek. Tony knows better than to take a deep breath, because that'll hurt, so she just closes her eyes and tries to keep her breaths shallow.

"You're not Pepper," she says.

"I'm all you have," Extremis replies.

"So I'll have to make do." Tony swallows. It hurts to swallow. Her body hurts.

"We'll both make do."

Tony starts to cry again, and there is a flash on the horizon that wipes out Venice, the water, the building, the pool, everything in the world for Tony, but Extremis keeps as long as it can, for Tony, the touch of Pepper's hand against her face.


What if you can't get what you want?

"You make do," Natasha says to Tony.

In the end, Tony does.

  1. This is obviously and clearly inspired by Gabby Silang's fucking amazing Transhuman, which is the definitive Extremis fic to me. As jamaillith put it, IM3 is basically going to be a fic of that.
  2. This fic exists because destronomics basically spent the past four years continuing to be willing to spin out AU's and talk about g!Tony with me. She also directly contributed the line about Tony suspecting that her dad stole the arc reactor because why hadn't he miniaturized it if he really understood it, since building miniature ones after the big one is like making cupcakes when you have a cake recipe. She also did the feature, not a bug, and she basically once told me the scene with Natasha and Tony before Tony's birthday is also from her. She sketched out the whole thing, especially the bit about them going from the window to the bed and the fact that this is why Tony hates Natasha so much.

    Also, probably any other part that you liked in this fic. I'm serious.
  3. The Jim Rhodes/recap of IM1/Senate hearing bits were written to Bloodbuzz Ohio (HEY OHIO) and Think You Can Wait by the National. The Pepper/Ivan Vanko/inventing Extremis/the problem with Dad wasn't that he was a sexist, but that he was an emotionally distant asshole bits/SHIELD is basically the Ten Rings bits were written to Maps by the YYY's. In my head, you know, the first half is Tony to Pepper? And the latter half is Extremis to Tony. The Cap parts were written to Born to Die by Lana Del Ray. Tony mindcontrolled by Loki and wrecking shop were written to DJ Earworm's United State of Pop 2010 (I don't know what to tell you), and Death in Space was Holocene by Bon Iver and Islands in the Stream by the Constantines and Feist.

    Yeah, I know, you care.
  4. The titles of the sections are supposed to be what Tony learns to make do without. Like, the structure is that she makes do without Jim in the first part, without Pepper in the second part. In the end, all she has is Extremis. Hence, everyone and almost everything in the end.

  5. The working title for this was, no joke, TONY IS DONE WITH BALD ASSHOLES after I was harassing the Hive with G!Tony, and jamaillith pointed out that, read out of context, that line made her think that Tony had taken an anti-Brazilian wax position. She is a genius.
  6. This was always going to end in Death in Space and involve Rhodey's childhood home.
synecdochic: torso of a man wearing jeans, hands bound with belt (Default)

[personal profile] synecdochic 2012-06-05 09:03 am (UTC)(link)
That was utterly amazing, and you have broken me in, like, every single way possible.

Jesus. I think I need a drink.
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[personal profile] obsession_inc 2012-06-05 02:31 pm (UTC)(link)

I am just. You fixed IM2, HOWARD IS A TERRIBLE ASSHOLE AND A THIEF, seriously the noise I made there oh my God, IT MAKES IT ALL BETTER. The horrible awful thing with her cutting Rhodey out of her life, and Pepper's betrayal for a good cause but Tony can't ever see it that way because she's so broken, and then LOKI MAKES HER DELETE JARVIS, OH FUCK, and Natasha dies taking her down and Cap beats her head in and that fixes her and she takes the nuke up and DEATH IN SPACE, OF COURSE, and oh god.

You are completely evil and I love you. The end.
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[personal profile] droolfangrrl 2012-06-06 12:55 am (UTC)(link)
Ow ow ow
kissed: (Default)

[personal profile] kissed 2012-06-15 03:36 pm (UTC)(link)
oh my god

i am crying so hard i can't see anything



i am a mess and i hate you and this fic is the worst THE WORST!!!!!

although reading #5 of your notes made me crack up a little bit so that makes it better i guess.


I ACTUALLY GASPED OUT LOUD AND SHOOK MY LAPTOP ANGRILY WHEN YOU KILLED JARVIS. HOW COULD YOU KILL JARVIS aarghhhhh and holy shit jarvis is tony's first friend and you made her kill him aksjdfkjskdjf oh my god this hurts so much.

when tony starts CRYING akjsdkfj. *sobs* and extremis gives her pepper! and the 'giant freckle' thing made me laugh so hard through my tears, and it's such a stupidly beautiful fake memory, and these two lines:

It's a long stretch of back, and Tony takes a deep breath.

Tony starts to cry again, and there is a flash on the horizon that wipes out Venice, the water, the building, the pool, everything in the world for Tony, but Extremis keeps as long as it can, for Tony, the touch of Pepper's hand against her face.

JUST THE WORST TWO LINES. i am completely destroyed.

(btw this is shadings on lj who once left you a comment on 'your fixed point' wondering whether you'd ever write a sequel, so i guess all my dreams came true in the worst way. WORST.)

i loved everything with tony and pepper. and the section where tony kisses steve, oh god.

excuse me while i go weep into my pillow and stare at my tony/pepper desktop for a while and recover from this fic. i need to remember that there are other universes where this doesn't happen, but at the same time this fic is so real to me and i am so convinced that this does happen in one universe and the thought of that breaks me. although there are also other universes where EVEN MORE TERRIBLE THINGS HAPPEN that i don't have to read about, which is a disturbingly consoling thought.