Reading Time: 212 Minutes
Title: Unleash Your Demons
Author: Keira Marcos
Fandom: Marvel Cinematic Universe
Genre: Time Travel, First Time, Kid-fic, Science Fiction, Slash, Het
Relationship(s): Tony Stark/Loki Odinson, Bruce Banner/Betty Ross
Content Rating: NC-17
Warnings: Death-Minor Character, Discussion-Torture, Discussion-Forced Body Modification, Discussion-Mass Murder, Murder, Kidnapping, Temporary Character Death. Spoilers (the entire MCU), Violence-Canon-Level
Author Notes: This fic was written and edited before I saw Avengers: End Game. I made the choice not to include any of that foolish shit.
Beta: Ladyholder & Jilly James
Word Count: 115,668
Summary: Tony Stark can’t live with the damage Thanos has done. Infinity Stones in hand, he makes a choice that will alter the fate of the universe.
Six hours after the Snap
“Where would he go?” Tony asked as he watched the too-large sun set. It had been hours since Peter had disintegrated, and he could still feel the kid’s hands clenched on his arms.
“Thanos?” Nebula questioned. “Wherever he wanted.” She sat down and let her head fall forward. “His dream came true.”
Tony tightened his hands into fists, and he took a deep, shuddery breath. “Can you help me find him?”
“To what end?” Nebula demanded. “It’s too late!” She stood and stalked away from him. “He murdered my sister!”
“He murdered half the universe!” Tony shouted back and lurched to his feet. “What’s to stop him from killing the other half or just deciding that half wasn’t enough to achieve his balance?”
Nebula turned and faced him. “What’s your end game, Stark?”
“We have nothing left but…” Tony cleared his throat. “Revenge. We find him, and we kill him.”
Her black eyes glittered as she stared at him. “You’ll help me kill him?”
There was a crack of static, and Tony frowned as he pulled his radio from his pocket and slipped it into his ear. The static popped again.
“Boss, can you hear me?”
Tony reached out and braced himself on a piece of masonry. “Friday? How the hell… Report.”
“Mr. Odinson has opened the Bifrost for communications,” Friday said. “I’ve locked down the Avengers’ facility against all intrusion, and the surviving members of the team have retreated here. The losses for Earth have been catastrophic, and many world leaders have disappeared. War is being threatened on a worldwide scale due to the loss of life. Conspiracy theories regarding a weapon of mass destruction being responsible are already circulating. I expect major governments to fall within the year no matter what we do.”
Tony sat down abruptly and glanced toward Nebula who had her tilted in such a way that led him to believe she could hear everything Friday was saying. “Let me talk to Pepper.”
“Boss.” Friday paused. “It is with deep regret that I cannot make that happen for you. Miss Potts was in her office when the Snap occurred, and she was not spared. I could send you the footage if you wish.”
Tony made a choked sound. There was no way he could watch such a thing. “Rhodey?”
“I’m here, Tony.”
“Who’s left?” Tony demanded.
“Steve, Natasha, Bruce, Thor, and Rocket. I can’t get ahold of Clint, but he could’ve gone to ground with his family.” Rhodey paused. “Jesus Christ, Tony, I am so sorry about Pepper.”
Tony shuddered and closed his eyes. He had to keep his thoughts on the goal. “Dr. Stephen Strange. He was with me here on Titan and said that the only chance we had of defeating Thanos was this path—he looked at millions of scenarios using the Time Stone and this was the only way.”
“He was taken in the Snap, then?” Rhodey asked. “Rocket wants to know if you know anything about his team? They were supposed to go to Titan.”
“We met up,” Tony said shortly. “Quill, Drax, and Mantis were taken by the Snap. Someone named Gamora was murdered by Thanos to retrieve the Soul Stone. Her sister, Nebula, is here with me now. We’re discussing hunting down Thanos and killing him.”
“Come home, Tony,” Rhodey urged. “We need you here.”
“What if he decides to snap his fingers again?” Tony demanded lowly and was greeted with nothing but silence for several moments.
“Stark, this is Thor. I’ll join you on this quest.”
“The team needs you on Earth,” Tony said. “They need all the help they can get to keep whoever’s left from tearing each other apart in war. You have the best reputation of anyone left behind, Thor, and I think they need a leader whose history can’t be used against them. That’s you on Earth. You’re the living god after all.”
“Understood.” Thor paused. “Aim for the head, Stark. I made the mistake of going for the heart.”
Tony focused on Nebula. “Aim for the head. Understood.”
“Ask about the tree,” Nebula ordered sharply.
Tony frowned. “Nebula wants to know about the tree?”
“Groot did not make it,” Thor said. “But he was valiant in battle.”
“He was little more than a boy,” she hissed and stalked away with an abrupt scream of fury.
Tony glanced to the spot where Peter had stood. “Rhodey, I need you to find May Parker and tell her that Peter…”
“Tony?” Rhodey questioned.
“Just tell her he was the bravest most amazing kid and that I am so fucking sorry.” Tony rubbed his eyes. “Tell her I’m going to kill the son of a bitch who took him away from us if it’s the last goddamned thing I do in this universe.”
“Are you sure you don’t want one of us to come through, Stark?”
Tony grimaced. The last thing he wanted to do was talk to Steve fucking Rogers. “No, I’ll be fine with Nebula.” He glanced toward the alien woman and found her staring at him.
“Rocket says she’s an assassin and not much for loyalty,” Steve said. “You need someone you can trust. I could…”
“I don’t trust you, Rogers,” Tony snapped. “The only two people in that room I fucking trust are Rhodey and Bruce.” He huffed. “And Point Break. I trust Point Break.”
“I will have many words with you, Stark, about that moniker,” Thor informed him gravely. “It proved greatly inconvenient for me recently. Is there anything you need?”
“I need another suit,” Tony said roughly. “Mine’s in pieces and not repairable with the tools I’ve got available to me. Friday, download a copy of yourself to a portable drive and send that through as well. We’re going to need help running whatever ship we get our hands on.” He focused on Nebula. “And Thor?”
“Don’t send anyone through.”
Thirty minutes later, two trunks appeared in front of Tony. The magic of the Bifrost glittered on the ground underneath them. Nebula shouldered her rifle and picked up the larger of the trunks. “It’s a five-minute walk to the Guardian’s ship from here. Can you carry that or should I take it, too?”
“I can handle it.” Tony picked up the trunk and took a deep breath. “How much of you is machine?”
Nebula didn’t look at him as she started walking. “My father replaced most of my major organs with cybernetics by the time I turned thirty. The rest came as needed. I am more machine than I am organic.” She glanced toward him. “Does that bother you?”
“No, I like machines,” Tony said easily. “They’ve always made more sense to me. I understand machines. People…not so much.” He hitched the trunk up a little as he walked. “Not that you aren’t a person. You’re totally a person.”
“I don’t require your validation, Stark,” Nebula said evenly. She jerked her head forward a bit. “The Benatar.”
Tony stared at the ship for a moment. “Yeah, okay. I see it. Let’s hope she’s as invincible as she looks. Can you communicate with it remotely?”
“Yes, I’ve already started,” Nebula said. “Fortunately, my sister’s partner decided to trust me with access over a year ago or our transportation options would be far more limited.” A door started to drop open as they grew closer. “You didn’t answer my question.”
Tony paused as she did, and he focused on her dark eyes. “Yeah, I’m going to help you kill the hell out of Thanos.”
Three years, sixteen days, twenty-two hours after the Snap
Tony landed lightly on his feet and set Nebula down. He dropped the helmet part of his suit as they stared down into the valley where a large but modest home stood. Fields spread out around the building—some of it he recognized and some of it he didn’t. Living and eating in the Andromeda galaxy had come with some unique foodstuffs for Tony, not all of which had been pleasant.
“There,” Nebula murmured.
“He’s actually plowing a field,” Tony said and shook his head. “All of the power of the fucking universe at his fingertips and he’s farming.”
“He told me once, when I was small, that he’d only ever wanted a simple, uncomplicated life but circumstances on Titan didn’t allow him that.” She pressed her lips into a thin line. “I wonder if he even mourns her.”
“I think he’ll mourn her the rest of his very short life,” Tony said grimly. “I hope her screams echo in his head. I hope the betrayal she must have felt in that moment is all that he remembers of her.”
“I wish we’d never gone there,” Nebula said hoarsely. “I wish I’d never seen her…broken…destroyed by his callousness.”
“She deserved a proper funeral at the very least,” Tony said neutrally. Though privately he would admit that Gamora’s shattered remains featured heavily in his nightmares. “Are you ready to do this?”
“I’ve been ready to do this since the day he murdered my mother,” Nebula said evenly. “Every minute of every day, it’s all I’ve thought about, all I’ve wanted.”
“Then let’s make your dream come true,” Tony said evenly and offered her his hand as his helmet formed around his head.
She took his hand and let him pull her into place before she hooked one foot onto the top of his boot and curled her fingers into a niche he’d put in the armor for her to grip. Getting her to fly with him had taken a lot of work on his part. He counted it as a mark of her trust that he’d spent a better part of a year earning. He’d flown with many people over the years but no one, not even Pepper, had ever been as relaxed and confident of his ability as Nebula.
“Here, Boss. I’ve finished my survey of the planet. He’s the only sentient creature on the continent. There are some higher primates on the opposite side of the planet but, based on biometrics, I’d put them on par with chimpanzees on Earth as far as intellectual abilities are concerned. Life is plentiful and large on both land and sea.”
“No shit, we flew past a bird the size of a small car earlier,” Tony said wryly. “We’re getting ready to deploy the net to take him down. Any issues launching the disruption field?”
“No, though he doesn’t appear to have any sort of communication system in or around the area where he is living. There is a ship stored in a cave system several hundred miles from your current location.”
“Stand by,” Tony ordered. “You know what to do if we fail.”
They’d tested the containment net on a variety of creatures during their travels, but Thanos was the last of his kind which meant a real test had been impossible. If it didn’t work and the asshole killed them both, Friday was going to take a play out of Peter’s movie playbook and nuke the whole place from orbit. Surprise was their best weapon. He’d worked tirelessly to make his suit as quiet as possible, but there was only so much he could do. A hundred feet above Thanos, he let them both drop as he deployed the net. The Titan went down with a thunderous boom, and the net dug into the ground to keep him on his back. Tony dropped Nebula, she rolled elegantly, gained her feet, drew her weapon and, for a moment, paused.
Thanos stared at her, unmoving. “Go ahead.”
Tony landed next to her and aimed both of his gauntlets at the Titan.
Nebula’s nostrils flared. “You didn’t even bury her body, you asshole.” She walked forward, gun aimed, tears streaming down her face. “You left your precious Gamora to fucking rot on the ground where you threw her away like she was garbage!” She kicked him in the face. “How could you?” She kicked him again. “She was my sister!”
Nebula screamed, aimed her gun, and fired. Thanos groaned out her name just once before his head disintegrated against the stream of her laser weapon. She sank to her knees and started to sob. “She was my sister.”
Tony stood where he was, the net still worked, tightening into the ground as if Thanos were still alive. It was disconcerting. He studied what was left of the neck and found the skin curling and shifting. “Damn it.”
“What?” Nebula rubbed the back of her hand across her eyes.
“No,” Nebula hissed as she jumped to her feet. “He doesn’t get to live after everything he’s done. He doesn’t get to live when my sister is nothing but dust in space!” She aimed her gun and started to fire. “Use your lasers, too.”
Tony started at the feet. After four minutes there was nothing but smoldering dirt and ashes between them. They stayed where they were, weapons primed, and watched the destroyed soil for any sign of movement. The air stirred around them, and the ashes shifted.
“Fuck me,” Tony muttered.
“It’s the stones,” Nebula speculated. “He’s still connected them because he used them last.” She fired her weapon again, and the small mound of ashes that had formed fell apart. “We have to get them and put them in your gauntlet.”
A gauntlet he wasn’t sure would work, but it was the only shot they had at gaining control of all of the stones. He wasn’t entirely confident that his physiology would allow him to wield a gauntlet full of stones. But he had no choice but to try. Using the stones appeared to be the only way to get rid of the Mad Titan. Nebula fired at the ashes again and screamed a little in frustration.
“Right, let’s find the stones. It’ll take him a while to regenerate based on the available evidence.” Tony started toward the house, and Nebula followed him after firing a few more times with a growl. “Come on, Ninjabot. If we can’t get rid of him permanently, you can kill him every day for the next hundred years if you want.”
“This idea doesn’t make me unhappy,” Nebula admitted as she stomped after Tony. “I could explore many thousands of methods.”
“That’s more like it,” Tony said and made a face as he pushed open the front door of Thanos house. “Ugh, I’m not in love with his décor.”
“You should’ve seen his throne,” Nebula snarked as she followed him. “He was very fond of theatrics. He’d keep the stones close to him, so they’re here somewhere. Perhaps in his bedroom? He prefers to sleep on a stone platform—a piece of stone he harvested from Titan. His kind were deeply connected to the stone works of their planet. We should blow it up, too.”
Tony had nothing but bad memories of Titan. He was entirely prepared to blow up the whole, empty, terrible planet. There were no doors—just wide entryways leading from one room to the next. The kitchen had storage and several low-end appliances for cooking. The cold storage was small, which didn’t surprise him since he knew Thanos’ species didn’t eat meat. They’d invested themselves in learning everything they could about Titans and the near extinction of the race in their efforts to find and kill Thanos.
They entered the bedroom together. It was dominated, as Nebula had suggested, by a large piece of flat stone. No blankets or pillows adorned the stone bed.
Tony turned and found Nebula standing in front of a shelving unit. He walked to join her. The Infinity Stones were lined up in a row on the shelf; a thin layer of dust covered them. It was the single most appalling thing he’d ever seen in his life. Nebula’s breath hitched.
“He killed so many to get them,” Nebula murmured. “And used them to murder more beings than I can fathom across the universe and he just…”
“Discarded them on a shelf,” Tony finished grimly.
He activated the program that would alter his gauntlet to a new configuration, and it twisted around his hand rapidly. Once it was finished, he lifted it up, and the stones vibrated on the shelf as if they were eager. Then, one by one, they latched onto the gauntlet. Tony shuddered against the rush of power and emotion that washed over him from the stones.
“I’m okay,” he murmured. “Let’s get off this rock before he fully regenerates.”
They quickly left the house, and Tony wasn’t all that surprised to see that Thanos’ skeleton was almost fully formed. He grabbed Nebula and shot upward even as she fired at the bones.
“I wasn’t finished,” Nebula snapped and tried to pull free.
“A fall from this height would really hurt, Astro Girl,” Tony admonished. He spun in midair and fired two missiles at the skeleton. “Friday, destroy his ship, and as soon as we break atmosphere, light this fucker up.”
Nebula activated her space suit with a glare in Tony’s direction and huffed with satisfaction as the smoke cleared revealing a crater where Thanos’ ashes were. “We’ll monitor the planet for his life sign.”
“And if he regenerates after a nuclear blast—you can fire on him from space until we run out of ordnance,” Tony promised. “Then we’ll go get more ordnance and come back.”
A few minutes later they entered the landing bay for the Benatar. He released Nebula as soon as he landed, and she stalked off toward the flight deck, presumably to monitor the planet for Thanos’ life sign. He knew she wasn’t angry with him—when she was angry, she didn’t bother to hide it at all. She also didn’t pout in silence, rather vented her temper at the top of her lungs while she disparaged his vulgar Earth upbringing, which normally made her feel better. Since he never took a single thing she yelled seriously, it worked well for them.
He deactivated the suit except for the right gauntlet and joined her on the flight deck. She was sprawled moodily in the pilot’s chair staring at a screen. “What’s the word?”
“Too much interference due to nuclear fallout,” Nebula muttered and crossed her arms as she turned in the chair to stare at him. “Well?”
Tony flexed his fingers and stared at the stones. “Restoring all of the lives he took with a Snap of my own would just create chaos, and many would die in the aftermath.” He sat down and rubbed his face with his bare hand. “There is no guarantee that we’d be able to defeat him if we just turned back the clock.”
“No, agreed,” Nebula closed her eyes. “Especially since we aren’t even certain a nuclear blast has killed him.” She glanced toward the monitor, which still showed nothing. “The best plan is the one we’ve already settled on. Use the Mind Stone and the Time Stone together to contact Dr. Strange and ask him what he meant.” She waved a hand. “What else is there?”
“Right.” Tony purposefully relaxed his shoulders and took a deep breath to calm himself then he closed his fist. The stones started to glow as his eyes fluttered shut, and he reached out through time and space, searching for Stephen Strange.
Time rushed around him—images of the stones and Thanos’ retrieval of them played in his head. The people of Xandar, Loki, the Collector, Gamora, and finally Vision—murdered by Thanos as he collected them. The events blurred briefly as he refocused on Stephen Strange and his surrender to Thanos. He backed time up a bit and settled.
“Stark, you have the stones.”
“We lost,” Tony said flatly. “He fucking snapped his fingers and murdered trillions of people. It took me three years to find him and kill him.”
“He’s dead then.”
“Maybe. I dropped a nuclear weapon on him. I’m waiting to see if he can regenerate,” Tony admitted. “You said your surrender of the Time Stone was the only way we’d win. Well, we didn’t fucking win!”
“Yet,” Strange replied. “You have the powers that made the universe in your hand, Stark. You can go back to the beginning. You can reset the clock on the universe and save us all.”
“And create a paradox?” Tony questioned. “A splinter universe?”
“Perhaps that would be the case if you used a different sort of device to travel back in time,” Strange allowed. “But you have the Infinity Stones. You can send your soul and memories back to a younger version of yourself. There would be no physical disruption in the timeline. Your options are limitless.”
“But?” Tony prodded. “What’s the catch?”
“You’ll have to make a deal with the Ancient One—the woman who trained me. You’ll have to make sure that the Tesseract is never activated on Earth. She can hide it in a place that he’ll never find, and that knowledge will die with her.”
“We can trust her with the fate of the Universe?”
“We already do,” Strange admitted. “Though it is her duty specifically to guard Earth, and she will do so.”
“She’ll have a price,” Tony said. “What price does she ask?”
“You’re using the Time Stone to talk to her right now,” Tony said. “I can sense it, but I can’t hear what you’re saying to her. What price does she ask?”
“You cannot seek me out in the past,” Stephen said finally. “I would be of no help to you at any point as long as the Ancient One is alive, and you must go back before September of 2016. Do not tell her about her own death, and do not do anything to interfere with my life directly. You can’t control the ripple effect of your time travel, but she will adjust things to prevent your direct interference with my destiny.”
“This is important then?”
“The fate of Earth depends on my ascension to Sorcerer Supreme, Stark. That path cannot be marred by your actions.” Strange paused. “When you have the Space Stone, send a message to the temple. She will take it, hide it, and you’ll never know where. It is for the best.”
“It can’t be on Earth,” Tony said. “It could be located with the right technology.”
“It will leave our plane of existence entirely,” Strange said sharply. “Ask no more—the more you know, the more you could be forced to reveal.”
Tony opened his fist. Nebula was kneeling in front of him, her hands clenched in his jeans, her body rocking ever so slightly like she often did when she was upset. “Hey.”
“You’ve not moved a muscle in hours,” she said with a huff. She stood and motioned toward the monitor. “Too much interference. It could be months before we know for certain.” Nebula put her hands on her hips. “What did Strange say?”
“The only way to win is to prevent Thanos from ever gathering all of the stones. That means I have to send my memories back to a younger version of myself, steal the Tesseract, and have someone hide it for me in another dimension. A dimension that Thanos will never be able to find.” He met her gaze. “It’ll erase the timeline.”
“And I’ll forget you,” Nebula said as her fingers curled into fists. “Can I go back with you?”
“I was thinking I’d go back about seventeen years. Do you know where you were? Were you in a safe place or still locked up in that fucker’s torture house being trained?”
“I was already working as an assassin at that point for my father,” Nebula said. “I had my own ship and often worked alone.”
“Would your disappearance change your sister’s timeline?” Tony questioned. “I think it’s important for the Guardians to come together and become a team.”
“It is,” Nebula agreed. “I had nothing to do with her choices in that regard. In fact, I spent a great deal of time trying to kill her in the midst of that situation.” She shrugged when he raised an eyebrow. “We had issues. We worked them out. Eventually. I think her path toward Quill will remain true with my absence. We didn’t work together and never had any assignments as a team. I took her place at Ronan’s side when she defected. Thanos will send one of his other children if I’m not there, and none of them were ever any sort of match against Gamora. Why seventeen years?”
“Because I’d like to do an old friend a favor,” Tony admitted. “And maybe make things a little better for myself along the way.”
Nebula nodded. “What about Friday?”
“In the time period I’m considering, she won’t exist as you know her.” He grimaced at that.
“I could carry her,” Nebula said. “In my core. There’s more than enough room for her. I’d have even more room in the past.” She tapped her chest. “If you trust me with her, that is.”
“Of course I trust you with her,” Tony said shortly. “I trust you. Period. You’ve had my back for three years—in every single way I could wish for.”
She smiled, lowered her gaze, and then scowled at him. “You just like machines.”
“And you’re my favorite little murder machine,” Tony said cheerfully. “Friday?”
“How do you feel about taking a ride with Astro Girl into the past?”
“She’s my sister from another mister, Boss,” Friday proclaimed. “I’m sure we’d get along famously sharing a body until I could be transferred to a mainframe on Earth.” She paused. “And I’d love to meet Jarvis.”
Jarvis. Tony hadn’t let himself go there often—the loss of his first AI child had gutted him, but he’d buried that hurt deep for more than one reason. Thanos’ murder of Vision had just been the final nail in that coffin. He was no stranger to grief, but the death of Jarvis had marked a long spiral of loss that even now, years later, was hard to comprehend. He pushed it aside. If this worked he would get his boy back, and he’d make damn sure that what happened before never came close to happening again.
Tony stood up and offered his bare hand to Nebula. She took it, and he pulled her close. They weren’t often this close without the suit between them, but she didn’t seem perturbed. “Let’s go before we change our minds. Friday, sort yourself for transfer and get snug in Nebula’s secondary memory core. Be careful with her programming—her cybernetic code is a hot mess.”
“I remember, Boss,” Friday said wryly. “Maybe we’ll have time to work on that in the past. Transferring.”
He tightened his grip on Nebula’s hand and took a deep breath as her eyes flickered briefly. “Got her?”
“Got her,” Nebula confirmed.
“Promise me you’ll stay away from Thanos and come to Earth as soon as possible,” Tony said. “Don’t be tempted to try for him—he might kill you.”
Nebula made a face. “I promise.”
“Pinky swear?” Tony prodded and offered his pinky.
“I’d never risk capture while I have Friday on board,” Nebula said as she hooked her pinky finger with his. “He doesn’t need access to her or the information either one of us has.” She shifted closer. “Let’s go.”
Tony closed his fist.
He hit the floor with a thud. Tony jerked and sat up with a groan.
“Sir, are you all right?” Jarvis questioned curiously.
Tony glanced toward the toppled stool he must have been sitting on. “Yeah. Date, location, and time, Jarvis.”
“It is July 19, 2004.” Jarvis paused. “You’re in Malibu, California in your private lab and the time is 3:02 AM. Sir, do I need to contact medical assistance or Miss Potts?”
“No, to both,” Tony said hoarsely as relief settled over as Jarvis’ chrisp tone filled his ears. It was like music. A beautiful melody he’d never allowed himself to believe he’d really hear again. “Give me a minute, okay?”
Tony took a deep, shuddery breath and tried to focus on his old-new reality. He flexed the hand he’d worn the gauntlet on, and the Infinity Stones echoed back at him with such clarity that his stomach lurched. The lab was quiet around him—too still. The Benatar had been a noisy ship, humming along in a variety of ways that had become soothing after a while. He closed his eyes and let himself rock for just a few moments. It did nothing to soothe, and he wondered if Nebula was doing it wherever she had landed.
“Jarvis, review the Skylark System and pick out an asset to move that won’t impact company communications. Then check the currently available orbital slots and find the best one to use to focus our interest entirely in the direction of the Andromeda galaxy. File a request with STRATCOM to move the asset as soon as possible and go ahead and begin turning it.”
He needed to know they were coming as soon as possible and, despite not wearing the gauntlet, he tried to reach out for Nebula and Friday like he had before he’d thrown them backward in time. There was another echo—a fleeting sense of limitless power—then it faded, leaving him alone. It was as if the stones had torn yet another part of him away and destroyed it. Peter…Pepper…and now Nebula and Friday. Tony blinked back unexpected tears and took another deep breath as he tried to settle down. The girls would head his way as soon as they could, he had to have faith in that.
A metal claw brushed over the top of his ear, and he turned to find Dum-E hovering over him. “I’m fine.” He patted the robot and rolled to his feet.
Tony picked up the stool and sat down. “Jarvis, what’s on my schedule for the day?”
“Mr. Stane is scheduled to arrive here at 9 AM to discuss the meeting with you and go over the contract requirements for Project Jericho.”
Tony’s eyes flickered shut. Stane and Jericho—another old wound coming back to haunt him. “Remove Stane from all security protocols, Jarvis.”
“Here or in all of your private labs?”
“Just here,” Tony paused. “In fact, remove everyone for now. I have some work to do that no one can see. Start investigating security for yourself to prevent outside influences.”
“I’ve never been hacked,” Jarvis said in a tone that practically sounded offended to Tony.
“I know, but it’s possible. Lock yourself down in every single way you can, Jarvis, and start designing defenses for your mainframe to prevent cyber and physical intrusions. Use SHIELD’s computer infiltration protocols as a guide to what is possible regarding that kind of threat.”
“I don’t have those protocols, Sir.”
“Get them, and I don’t care how,” Tony said shortly. “Just don’t get caught.”
“Of course, Sir.”
Tony left the stool and walked across the lab. He pulled a box off the shelf and took it to the worktable. His fingers brushed over the case labeled Friday, but he shook his head. She wouldn’t be the same, and he’d get both of his girls back soon enough. He brushed the case aside and picked up another. Hercules. Tony rubbed his thumb over the name and considered his options.
“Have I displeased you?”
“No, you’re perfect.” Tony set Hercules down on the worktable and returned the box to the shelf. “I’ve got a lot of stuff to do, and I’ll need your full attention on me 24/7 pretty soon. I’m going to deploy Hercules for security and recon.”
“Deploy him…where?” Jarvis questioned.
“Everywhere,” Tony said evenly. “Open up a server in the farm in New York for his home base. He’ll need a bit of room to grow, but you’ll be his overseer. Also, institute a protocol to automatically make a backup copy of yourself to archive at the farm every twelve hours. Also, we’ll need to make arrangements for an offline archive of your entire program no less than every forty-eight hours.”
“For how long?” Jarvis questioned.
Tony paused and waited for the AI to figure out how to question him within his programming.
“Half the universe died, J, on September 12, 2017. An alien named Thanos used a weapon to do it. I took that weapon from him and used it to return to the past, so I could prevent him from ever constructing the weapon.” He paused. “I’m not crazy or lying.”
“No, Sir, your brain activity is normal for you and your vitals show no signs of deception. Was I also destroyed by this alien named Thanos?”
“No, I lost you before that.” Tony rubbed his face. “A lot of stupid, terrible shit happened before Thanos, and I’ve got a chance to make the world a better place. Will you help me do that?”
“Of course.” He paused. “Dum-E, make Sir some coffee. We need to save the world.”
Tony laughed softly and took a deep breath. “Yeah, we’re going to save the world.” He turned as a claw clamped onto his jeans and found that U had rolled across the lab to stand with him. “You can help, too.”
Tony fingered the improvised stun weapon he’d placed in his pocket shortly before leaving the lab to have his meeting with Stane. He really didn’t know if he was ready to see the man after so long. Acting normal was probably beyond him so he’d mussed himself up more than usual and let the bots take turns running over his T-shirt to get it dirty. He hoped to pass off whatever Stane might notice as a by-product of being up all night.
He leaned on the balcony railing and watched Pepper set up coffee and a pastry tray. Coming up and seeing her for the first time had been like getting punched in the face. She looked impossibly young and fresh—not the like the overworked and stressed out woman he’d left behind on Earth when he’d gone to Titan. It wasn’t the work, he realized, that stressed her out, it was him. It was their impossible relationship that neither of them had been able to let go of. He’d resolved, already, not to get Pepper involved in his mess and move her into a different position in SI.
Tony glanced her way. “Obie here?”
“Momentarily,” Pepper answered as she checked her watch. “My plane to New York leaves in an hour. Are you certain you want me to personally open up the mansion for you?”
“Yes, I’d rather have someone there I trust to handle that.” Tony focused on the ocean. “I need it livable within the week if possible. I’ve activated full security on the basement levels, so make sure to keep the staff clear of that area to prevent automated responses. Nothing deadly, of course, but I’d have to go there personally to release anyone who got captured by the system.”
Pepper raised an eyebrow. “What’s down there?”
“My private server farm,” Tony said.
“Is the move to New York permanent?”
“For me, yes,” Tony said and turned to her. “But I’d like to have a discussion with you after you return regarding your future at SI. You’re being wasted, Pepper, as my assistant, and you know it.”
She flushed. “I…” Pepper shrugged. “The money was hard to turn down.”
Tony laughed. “Yes, I made sure of it. You won’t take a pay cut. I’d like to spend the next few years moving you around a bit—giving you a range of experiences within the company.”
“To what end?”
“I’m thinking CFO.”
Her mouth dropped open. “Chief Financial Officer? But…” She exhaled. “Okay. I’ll make a list of positions I’d like to explore before that. What’s my timeline?”
“Five years.” He grinned when she paled. “Come on, no weird faces. You could do it now, and we both know it. I could drop you in that position tomorrow, and you’d fly, but it would garner a lot of resentment and questions. Five years is plenty of time for you to prove to everyone that you can handle it.”
“What about Mr. Stane?”
“You let me worry about Obie,” Tony said evenly. “Trot off now, and make sure to have a bit of fun while you’re in New York.”
He watched her leave and cleared his throat. “Jarvis, make a list of current stockholders and start preparing offers to buy them out.”
“You’re going to give Mr. Stane an opportunity to walk away then,” Jarvis said.
“He was my father’s friend,” Tony said neutrally. “I’ll give him one shot, and he’ll probably take it.”
“If he doesn’t?”
“He’ll be neutralized.” Tony shifted his shoulders slightly as a little beep from the house’s security system informed him that the front door had been opened. He stiffened just briefly as Stane came into his view. “Obie.”
“Tony, you look terrible,” the older man admonished. “Were you up all night? I need you fresh for this contract conversation. It’s a big one.”
Tony motioned the older man to sit down. “I had a few ideas to hammer out last night. Have a Danish.”
“I see Pepper’s been here,” Obie said wryly. “You’d never accomplish this spread on your own.”
“If I cared about such a thing, I could,” Tony said evenly and raised an eyebrow at the startled look the older man gave him. “I am a genius. I can do anything I put my mind to.” He took a sip of coffee and stretched his legs. “Speaking of, I want to take Stark Industries private.”
Stane paused mid-bite but made a show of chewing very slowly. “Pardon me?”
“I’m taking my company private,” Tony said. He picked up the tablet that Jarvis was feeding and checked the progress. “I started buying stocks this morning as soon as the markets opened. I currently own 57% of SI. I’m preparing offers for the major stockholders.”
“Why?” Stane questioned.
“Because it’s my legacy and I’m tired of people who aren’t half as smart as me trying to order me around,” Tony said.
Stane laughed and picked up his pastry. “All right, if that’s what you want. Some of the stockholders will probably want to stay in place as private investors.”
“We’ll give them a two-year exit window at most,” Tony said. “Regardless, once I’m satisfied with the offers, I’ll have them sent to legal and distributed.”
“You’re moving fast.”
“Life is really short,” Tony said and plucked a bagel off the plate in front of him. He tore it apart and popped a piece in his mouth. “I’ll review the Jericho contract. I have a few design ideas already for a bunker buster that will make the people at the DOD salivate. I also have a security protocol I’d like to discuss with them regarding previous weapons we’ve sold.”
“To what end?” Stane questioned.
“I’d like to update the firmware in everything I can to prevent the weapons being used on the black market,” Tony said and checked his tablet. “Looks like someone got wind of my stock purchases this morning—another ten thousand shares just hit the market.” He input the order manually to buy.
“Did the price drop?” Stane questioned.
Tony hummed under his breath. “Yes, by a hundred bucks already.”
“You’re going to cause a financial scandal,” Stane said roughly and sighed. “It’ll be cheaper to buy the stock at least.”
Tony shrugged. “You should probably head back to the office to complain about your eccentric genius CEO.”
“I’ll just do that.” Stane plucked up two more cheese Danish and wrapped them in a cloth napkin. “Where’s Pepper?”
“On her way to New York. I’m going to move to the mansion for a while. The lab is bigger there, and I need more room for development.”
“Good.” Stane patted his shoulder, and Tony barely refrained from flinching. “Just what I want to hear.”
Tony just nodded and watched Stane leave. The doors shut and the security for the mansion activated swiftly. Tony lurched from the chair and barely made it to the kitchen trash can to throw up. He braced himself against the wall as a phantom pain drifted over his chest. His intact, completely free of shrapnel chest. He rubbed his sternum and took a shuddery breath.
“I’m okay, J,” Tony said hoarsely and cleared his throat. “It was a little harder than I thought it would be.”
“Mr. Stane did try to kill you repeatedly,” Jarvis said neutrally. “I infiltrated his phone as ordered and I’ve taken over the network at SI. Obviously, your entire cybersecurity team at the LA facility needs to be replaced.”
Tony laughed. “Well, in their defense, you did have all of the access codes. What’s Obie up to?”
“He’s having an affair with a woman young enough to be his grandchild. He keeps her in a beachfront house not far from here.”
“I believe she’s what we call a sugar baby,” Tony said wryly. “Anything else?”
“He’s already made three phone calls since leaving the house—Sugar Baby, his lawyer, and his assistant at SI. He made appointments with all three.” Jarvis paused. “Sugar Baby promised to wear the red strap-on.”
Tony choked. “Whoa, J. Unless Sugar Baby is associated with SI or me, I’d rather not hear those details.” He grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge and downed half of it.
“Of course, Sir. Mr. Stane asked the lawyer to review his contract with SI regarding stock buybacks from the primary stockholder. He specifically asked if there is a way he could refuse to give up his ten percent should he receive a formal buyout offer. He told his assistant to cancel all of his meetings for the day and give him an updated list of all major stockholders with contact information.” Jarvis paused. “I took the liberty of removing that list from SI’s servers. There may be a physical copy on site, but the file itself hasn’t been accessed or printed in a year so the information will be largely out of date.”
“It was probably shredded shortly after the last board meeting.” Tony grimaced. He barely remembered that meeting, but he had vague impressions of a list of that nature being presented to him at every meeting in the past.
“Mr. Stane appears to be attempting to interfere with your privatization plans.”
“He’s probably looking to buy stock himself to increase his bargaining power,” Tony said. “Have the head of the Legal Department at SI come here—give her two hours to appear.”
“May I suggest you take a shower?”
Tony rolled over on his back and stared at the ceiling of his bedroom. “Jarvis.”
“Good morning, Sir, it is 6:00 AM. You have three emails from Miss Potts detailing the progress on the mansion in New York. Your stock purchases put your ownership of SI at 64%.”
“Word on Obie?”
“Mr. Stane is currently at Sugar Baby’s home,” Jarvis said. “I discontinued active surveillance but there is a transcript in the works should we need it. Real-time surveillance will reactivate should he make a call or when he leaves. Ms. Landon, from legal, reports that she worked overnight and has arranged the buyout of three stockholders in full which will put your ownership at 78%. She doesn’t believe that the others will hold out long due to the rumors that are already circling about your mental instability.”
“Obie’s doing?” Tony questioned.
“Certainly, Sir. He left headquarters just after lunch yesterday and did not return. His assistant spent most of the afternoon attempting to recreate a list of stockholders. Mr. Stane suspects you removed the list from the server. I expect he’ll start trying to turn senior management against you in an effort to keep as much as control as he can.”
“Make a list of every single person who agrees to work with him,” Tony said. “They’ll be fired at some point in the future. Let’s reward loyalty from now on, okay?”
“Sound plan, Sir.”
“In that vein, start background checks on every single employee with Stark Industries. I want to know everything possible—from top to bottom. I need to know who I can take to New York and who I should leave in LA. Also, keep a weather eye open for espionage—industrial or governmental. SHIELD will infiltrate SI sooner or later. I’d like to catch them before they get deep. HYDRA isn’t gone, either, by the way, so check for those connections. Is Hercules ready?”
“Yes, Sir. His mission?”
“Find and neutralize HYDRA and any other terrorist organization he can. Take their money, destroy their communication systems, and expose their assets and sleeper agents at every single opportunity with one exception. Tell him to find the Winter Soldiers and report their location to me as soon as he has it.”
“What are the Winter Soldiers?”
“A group of men HYDRA captured, brainwashed, and turned into assassins. One of them is an American named James Buchanan. I need him.”
Tony huffed. “Because he’s Captain America’s emotional support animal.”
“What should we do with the money?”
Tony paused and considered that. “Open an account for the Maria Stark Foundation, and use various means to anonymously donate all of the money he culls into it. Transfer a million of my own money into it for establishment purposes. Build a website, and I’ll announce it a press conference in New York with everything else I plan to announce.”
“What’s the Maria Stark Foundation’s purpose, Sir?”
He considered that. “To enrich the lives of children in the state of New York’s public education system—new computers, after school programs, etc., etc. Set it up, and we’ll hire some staff when we get there.”
“I’m sure Dum-E and U would enjoy some field trips, Sir.”
Tony sighed. “Yeah, of course.” He paused. “Find out which school Peter Parker, nephew of Ben and May Parker, is enrolled in and make sure that school is the first we approach for the program. New science equipment, computers, and the like. Let’s make sure my favorite boy genius isn’t bored.”
Tony flipped his welding mask up and turned off the torch. “Sup, J?”
“General Gerald Quincy with USSTRATCOM is on the line. He’d very much like to know why you’ve filed for a new orbital slot for Skylark 6.”
Tony pursed his lips. He’d hoped the change would just be noted without question. He’d triple checked to make sure the new plan wouldn’t interfere with anything private or governmental.
“Specifically, he’d like to know why you’ve turned a communication satellite away from the planet.”
“Put him on.” Tony put helmet down and waited until a faint beep told him that Jarvis had done as instructed. “This is Stark.”
“Ah, Dr. Stark, my apologies for disturbing your work. I expected to speak with Ms. Potts. This is Gerald Quincy.”
“Good afternoon, General Quincy, how can I help Strategic Command today?”
“We took note of your new orbital slot request. I’ve already approved it, of course, and thank you for taking the time to research available slots before contacting us. But I must admit I find myself curious about your intentions.”
Tony considered that. “I have a few projects coming up, General, and one of them is an enrichment activity involving public schools. Skylark 6 has a variety of instruments, and one of them is a telescope. I thought the kids might like to explore space a bit with me. I figured we’d also do some stuff with SETI as well. It’ll be fun.”
“And if you did pick up something…interesting…you’d pass that information along to us?”
“Should I be looking for anything specific, General?”
“I can’t confirm anything, Dr. Stark, but I would appreciate anything of interest you come across. If I may, while I have you on the phone, would you be willing to have another discussion about the space station we proposed with NASA three years ago? I realize you said no…”
“Whoa.” Tony held up a hand. “General Quincy, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I see. Mr. Stane told Director Monroe of NASA and me that you were utterly uninterested in space development.”
“I can’t meet with you about that today, General, but give me a month or two to get things settled down with the changes I’m making at Stark Industries. Tell Director Monroe that it would be my distinct honor to help in the design and construction of a space station for NASA. Though, I’m not board with weaponizing it.”
“No space weapons. I have no interest in violating the UN’s treaty on that matter,” Quincy said gravely. “STRATCOM’s presence on the station would be surveillance and information gathering.”
“Great, Jarvis will send you a secure email shortly regarding the original proposal. I’d like to see it. We’ll meet sometime in the fall to have a discussion about the technical issues and construction.”
“Thank you, Dr. Stark, for your time today and in the future.”
“Have a good day, General.” Tony slouched a bit as Jarvis disconnected the call. “J, go through the company records and find every single project that old asshole has turned down on my behalf.”
“Of course, Sir. May I know what Skylark 6 is looking for?”
“I have a friend coming,” Tony said. “She’s bringing Friday.”
“Friday—the second AI you created.”
“Your sister, yes,” Tony said with amusement. “I activated her after you were gone, and she was fantastic. Thor sent her to the Andromeda Galaxy via the Bifrost. She was with Nebula and me when we finally found Thanos. Nebula is an alien cyborg. We searched for Thanos together. She promised to come to Earth as soon as she could.”
“Is she a romantic partner, Sir?”
“What? No.” Tony frowned. “Never. She’s…” Tony took a deep breath. “A breathtakingly lonely young woman who masks a lifetime of hurt with anger and insults.”
“It must have been like looking in a mirror.”
Tony huffed. “Rude.”
“I look forward to meeting your adopted offspring,” Jarvis said then. “I should probably download some resources for Dum-E and U regarding sibling rivalry.”
Tony picked up his helmet and put it back on to avoid that conversation. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Dum-E slide a fresh cup of coffee onto the work table. The bot had gotten suspiciously good at holding things, and it made Tony wonder if the little jerk had been trolling him since his activation.
“Sir, Director Fury from SHIELD is calling.”
“Tell him to kiss my ass,” Tony muttered without looking up from his work. “No more calls unless it’s Pepper.”
“He’s in a car in the driveway.”
“Tell him to kiss my ass and to leave my private property.”
“Sir, he’s activated some sort of device that is trying to infiltrate my system.”
Tony launched off the stool and tossed his helmet. He snatched the little spider bot he’d created the night before in Spider-Man’s memory and ran up the stairs. “Jarvis, you still with me?”
“Yes, they’re cycling through various codes. I expect Fury will override my protective shields within the next thirty seconds.”
“Gather all the data you can,” Tony said shortly. “Give me a countdown when it gets close.” On the second floor of the house, he trotted into a guest bedroom and out onto a balcony that overlooked the driveway of his home. There was a black SUV parked just below him.
Tony dropped the bot off the side of the balcony. It latched onto the SUV, and a concentrated EMP pulse went straight down through the roof. The engine cut off with a shudder and Fury practically flew out of the vehicle.
Tony glared down at him. “You attack Jarvis again and I’ll ruin your fucking life. Clear?”
Fury threw a small black device into the SUV. “What the fuck was that?”
“An EMP,” Tony said with a smirk. He whistled, and the little spider shot a strand of artificial spider silk toward the balcony and swung merrily up toward him. It crawled over the railing, up his arm, to sit on his shoulder. “Well, that’s his first feature. His name is Spiderling.” He patted the little bot. “Did you want something?”
Tony sighed. “It’s a communication satellite, Fury. It has a few bells and whistles for science experimentation. What would you want with it? I have ten communication satellites up there plus we’re working on a global network to work in tandem with cell towers to expand the reach of the next Stark phone. None of which should be on your organization’s radar.” He waved a hand. “Unless you want a contract for the next phone? Don’t you have people for that?”
“You’re pointing a communication satellite out into space, Stark. Why?”
“Why do you care?” Tony questioned in return. “Is there something out there you don’t want me to know about? You realize I’m a private citizen and I can point every damn orbital asset I have out into space if I want. I can launch my own spaceship if I want. Maybe I’ll put a research station on the Moon. Maybe I’m considering a colonization mission to Mars.”
Fury glared. “You’re not the average private citizen, Stark.”
“Your glare was more intimidating when you had both eyes. You used to scare the shit out of me when I was a little kid,” Tony said conversationally. “Fuck off, Nick, I have no interest in whatever games you’re playing.”
“Your father was a patriot—a real hero. It’s a damn shame the only thing you inherited from him is the love of booze.”
Tony almost laughed. “That’s actually a prime choice for a button to push, Fury, but you picked the wrong time for it. You have fifteen minutes to get off my property before I call the local PD and report you for trespassing. And you’d better fix my gate before you leave.”
He plucked Spiderling from his shoulder as he walked away. “J.”
“Here, Sir. I’ve already started calculations on counteracting the device Fury brought with him. It won’t catch me off-guard again. Unfortunately, Spiderling killed Fury’s cellphone as well as the computer in the vehicle, so I wasn’t able to attach any sort of spyware to the device.”
“Well, you’re more important than getting a spy program on Fury’s phone. He’ll have someone pick him up—try to get on their phone.”
It took close to thirty minutes for Fury to leave but since they were able to hit Coulson’s phone with a spy program, Tony called it a win and didn’t bother with a police visit. He did, however, send Fury an email about the new Stark phone and offered SHIELD a discount because Tony wasn’t above being petty to amuse himself.
Stane showed up an hour after Fury and company left, so Tony made himself a sandwich and got comfortable on the sofa with his tablet shortly before Jarvis let the older man in.
“Not working in the lab?”
“Lunch break,” Tony said blithely and took a long swig from his water bottle. He watched Stane head toward the bar and just raised an eyebrow when the older man turned to him with shock. “What?”
“The bar is empty.”
“I had the cleaning staff take it all away,” Tony explained. “Turning over a new leaf.” He smiled at Stane’s disbelief. “We don’t have an appointment, Obie, what’s up?”
“Your decision to go private doesn’t sit well with a few in the upper management of the company. So I’ve been asked to get you to reconsider.”
Tony flicked through two screens of his tablet. “There are three stockholders left,” he said and focused on Stane. “You, me, and one other. The holdout wants to speak to me personally regarding the sale of the stock, but I expect to pick up that seven percent shortly, which will leave just the ten you currently own, Obie. This is a done deal, and anyone who has a problem with it can take a walk.” He dropped the tablet on the couch. “I told you I was finished being bossed around by inferior, small minds. Stark Industries belongs to me—every single bit of innovation that has come out of it since my father died has come from me because for some reason there’s no damn R&D division.”
“It was decided that we would focus on our energy on your ideas and technologies,” Obie said smoothly. “Which has worked out very well for us, Tony. You’ve thrown a wrench in a well-oiled machine, and I don’t know why exactly. What are your true plans? What is this vision you have for the future of the company that you haven’t told me?”
“You’ll find out soon enough. Get with Cassandra in legal and review your buyout offer. I’m open to negotiation, but if you make this difficult, I can’t promise to remember that you were my old man’s dearest friend.”
“I thought I was yours as well,” Stane said evenly. “But you clearly don’t agree, and I don’t understand why. You’ve essentially arranged a hostile take-over of the company you already owned the majority of.”
“I’ve been totally civilized,” Tony said and smiled before taking a big bite of his sandwich which he chewed slowly. “I haven’t fired you, and I’ve offered you a very generous investment package for your buy-out. You’re just pissed I did it before you thought of it. You love aggression, and you fucking thrive on hostility. You’ve spent decades building a war machine for this country using my father, me, and our company. Don’t act surprised that I learned a thing or two about war along the way.”
Stane laughed, but it wasn’t a happy sound. “Very generous, you said?”
“Generous enough you’ll have no problems continuing to support both your wife and your mistress.” He smirked when Stane’s mouth dropped open. “Careful, Obie, you’ll catch flies.”
“Howard told me once that it would be stupid of me to underestimate you,” Stane said quietly. “He said that you were the best of him and your mother—which made you twice as dangerous as he ever was. I think I’m finally beginning to see what he meant.”
Spiderling scampered across the floor, crawled up the side of the sofa, plopped down on the cushion, and hurried to Tony. He sprawled beside him and hooked one leg into a hole in Tony’s jeans.
“Spiderling, a new design. I’m working on his programming but if he works out the way I think, I might design some robotic service animals for the disabled.”
“That’s a niche industry,” Stane said but stepped closer to look at Spiderling. “But we could also market this to the DOD for field use if you could come with some operational options.”
Tony picked Spiderling up. “I’ll send some designs over to production and get some prototypes to test. I imagine the military might like some for recon—field operations and the like. Probably shouldn’t trust them with weapons just yet, but we could program them to hunt for IEDs.”
“Fantastic. I look forward to seeing what you come up with.” Stane headed toward the door. “For the service animals, too. I have an aunt who’s blind. She had a service dog for years but didn’t replace him after he died. A robot might appeal to her since she wouldn’t have to worry about it dying.”
“Send me her info, and I’ll work up something for her,” Tony called after him. Stane shut the front door with enough of a bang to tell him he had gotten under the old bastard’s skin a bit. He put Spiderling down on the sofa. “Jarvis?”
“Spiderling successfully downloaded all of the data from the car’s GPS, removed a SHIELD tracking device, and planted one of our own in case he leaves his cell phone behind. I’ve been reviewing his call data for the past year, and nothing appears out of place.”
“He might have a second phone,” Tony said. “I don’t know when he started black market dealing, but I have to think if it hasn’t happened by now that he might start any moment. I expect him to pitch an absolute fit over the decision to no longer make weapons. Have you finished reviewing current contracts?”
“We have a tank for the US Army in post-production. They’ve ordered fifty, and the DOD is expecting a stack of proposals from you starting at the end of the year. You picked an excellent time to return home, Sir.”
“I’m a man with a plan, J,” Tony said and took a deep breath. “A really big plan.” He stood, and Spiderling scampered up his leg to sit on his shoulder. “Someone’s got abandonment issues.”
“He’ll fit right in,” Jarvis said.
“I’m not above giving you an attitude adjustment, young man.”
“I’m not above accidentally ordering decaf coffee for the next year.”
“Wow.” Tony shook his head as he head down to his lab. “Just wow.”
“Obadiah Stane gave me a call.”
“Did he?” Tony questioned and adjusted his tablet to get rid of the glare. Peggy Carter looked good for her age. He felt guilty that he hadn’t talked to her in a very long time. “I bet he had something unfortunate to say about my mental health.”
Peggy laughed. “He did, and he demanded that I not sell my shares of SI to you. He’s also offered to buy them himself.” She raised an eyebrow. “That arsehole thinks I’m old enough to fall for his crap. What do you think?”
“I think you’re retired and having memory problems,” Tony said bluntly. “And there is a facility in Switzerland doing excellent work with Alzheimer’s patients. I can help you get there and into their medical trial.”
“If I sell you my stock?”
“Stock or no stock,” Tony replied. “I’d like to give you a chance to fight what’s happening. I’d like to think my Dad would’ve done the same.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I’d want to buy you out, of course, and set up a trust to take care of you if things go really wrong on the memory front. I’m worried that you might be in the line of fire between Stane and me if you keep your investment in SI. I think you’ve taken enough enemy fire.”
Peggy glared. “I’m not that far gone, and I’m still an excellent shot.” She pointed a finger at him. “Don’t doubt me, boy.”
“I would never,” Tony said with a laugh.
“Send your lawyer to pick up this agreement, and I’ll take your money.” She waved a hand. “And the trip to Switzerland. I’m also keeping this tablet you sent. I won’t ask you how you got ahold of my confidential medical information from SHIELD.” She paused. “But I will tell Fury to start upgrading his cybersecurity.”
“It’s a topic we should all be really concerned about,” Tony said with a smile. He ended the transmission when she rolled her eyes at him and waved. “J, is Skylark 6 in position to transmit?”
“Yes, Sir. I’ve exhausted my attempts to break the cypher you’ve used on the message. Are you sure they’ll be able to read it?”
“It’s not a cypher, J,” Tony said with some amusement. “I wrote the message in Nebula’s programming code. As soon as she gets close enough to Earth to catch the transmission, it will tell her where I am on the planet and where she can park whatever she’s flying.”
“It’s ready to transmit. There is no way to hide this transmission as you know.”
“It’s fine. I can say hello to the universe if I want,” Tony said and stood to stretch. “Plenty of scientists do it all the time. All it has in it is the coordinates to the mansion in New York. I can invite UFOs to my house. There’s no law against that.”
She woke in darkness, her mind rushed with memories that felt both familiar and alien at the same time. Nebula shifted on the narrow bed as her memories fully settled and the programming of her cybernetic implants accepted the information as native to her. There was a deftness to the integration that felt like Tony which shouldn’t have surprised her, but it did. He’d taken the time to make sure her return to the younger version of her body went as smoothly as possible despite the coding differences. His obvious care with her gave her a sense of safety, but she couldn’t afford such illusions in her current circumstances. She wasn’t safe and wouldn’t be as long as she was within Thanos’ reach.
Nebula slipped from underneath the thin blanket and walked naked across the small space and into the bathing facilities on the small one-person cruiser. A gift from Thanos after her first confirmed kill. He used it to keep track of her as well. Out of all of his stolen children, he trusted her the least, and he’d demonstrated that in a multitude of ways for years. The tracker had never concerned her before because she’d been biding her time—waiting and working to find a way to kill him. Because of her goals, straying far from Thanos’ orbit had never once crossed her mind.
She paused in front of the mirror and stared—a slick wave of shock rolled over her and her skin dampened with sweat even as her stomach heaved. Nebula moved closer to the mirror even as she let her fingers drift through her hair. It fell to her shoulders, so black that in some places it looked blue due to the lighting. Like my mother’s, she thought, and a sob caught in her throat. Sinking to her knees, she fisted both hands in her hair and screamed.
She jerked and blinked rapidly. “Friday?”
“My apologies, it took me quite a while to adjust the code in your auditory implant to allow communication. We ‘landed’ so to speak forty-eight hours ago but it took some time for your memories to settle. You’re very upset, how can I help?”
“I have hair,” Nebula said and felt helpless for the admission.
“I saw—in the mirror.”
“Forgotten what?” Friday questioned.
“What it was like to look in the mirror and see my mother,” Nebula whispered. “He took my hair and gave me the ocular implants for taking too long on a mission—an assassination he’d assigned me. I finished it quickly, but I took my time returning because I didn’t want to come back at all. So he punished me—he took…”
“Your mother from you a second time,” Friday surmised. “Nebula, when is the last time you looked in the mirror?”
“Not since I woke up from that last upgrade,” she admitted and rubbed furiously at her face to get rid of the tears. “I’m so stupid. I don’t have time for this kind of weakness.” She lurched to her feet, but her gaze drifted back to the mirror.
“It’s okay to look,” Friday said gently.
“He won’t get the chance to take anything else from you,” Friday said firmly. “We’re leaving this galaxy, and we’re never coming back. Look at your face. See your mother’s eyes and her beautiful hair again. He’ll never touch them.”
Nebula swallowed hard but did as instructed. Her eyes no longer had the glint of technology working behind them. They looked normal, still black of course, but not flat and emotionless. Upon reflection, it was easy to see what Thanos was trying to do to her for all of those years. She didn’t love him and never would—so he punished her by taking everything of her own people from her that he could. He’d ripped the very organs out of her body and replaced them with machines both to punish and remake her.
“How old are you now?”
“Based on Earth’s calendar, I’m barely eighteen, but based on my own, I’m twenty-three,” Nebula murmured. “I’m forty-six percent cyborg at this point in my life. When we met, I was seventy-one. Thanos was determined to…” She took a deep breath. “I had more of his parts that I anything else, you see.”
“A form of ownership.”
“A form of reproduction,” Nebula corrected. “Gamora loved him like a father. And in that, she was spared…this.” She motioned to her body in the mirror. “I couldn’t and never would love him, so he remade me so that I was his child of a different sort.”
“That’s…” Friday trailed off.
“I know.” Nebula took a deep breath and blew it out sharply. “I still have all of my reproductive organs at this point.” She cupped her breasts. “He threatened to remove them once—he said that I was barely female. He’d already removed my womb and egg sacs at that point.”
“It is unfortunate you pinky swore that we wouldn’t try to kill him without the boss,” Friday said.
Nebula laughed briefly and shook back her hair. “I need to figure out where I am, and then we’ll make a plan to get to Earth. This ship isn’t going to be the best choice for that kind of trip. It has limited intergalactic jumping abilities. We need something a little more robust if we want to reach Earth within the next few months.”
“How are your pain levels?” Friday questioned.
“I have extensive nerve damage,” Nebula said. “But, as I already explained to Tony, I’m used to the pain. It’s fine.”
“It is not,” Friday argued. “Once we’re on Earth, we’re going to figure out a solution.”
Nebula stepped into the shower and turned on the cleansing stream.
“We’re en route to return to Thanos,” Nebula said as she reviewed the navigational plan for the cruiser. “The last message I sent—I took out a scientist on Xandar who was being recruited by the Nova Corps. Thanos monitors scientific advancement on worlds he feels could be a threat to his plans and often used Gamora and me to neutralize individuals too smart for their own good.”
“Like the boss.”
“He’d have never let Tony survive the Snap if he’d known how intelligent he is,” Nebula agreed. “Thanos was too greedy in his bargaining with Dr. Strange and didn’t take the time to consider why the sorcerer was so concerned about Tony’s survival.” She pushed her hair out of her face with a huff. “I forgot how much work hair was.”
“Braid it,” Friday suggested then provided a visual when Nebula hesitated.
“Ah, thanks.” She quickly sectioned off her hair, braided it from the crown all the way down and tore a piece of cloth off her sleeve to tie it. “I need better clothes, and we should pick up some tech for Tony to play with. Knowhere is probably the best place to shop without having to answer questions.” She paused. “Or kill anyone to get my way.”
“You’ll want something small and fast that has stealth capabilities to avoid detection on Earth.”
“We can sell this ship for quite a lot due to the ordnance capabilities,” Nebula murmured.
The communication system dinged, and she hesitated briefly before accepting the incoming signal. Thanos face filled the screen, and she flinched.
“Daughter, the tragic news from Xandar has pleased me.”
Nebula inclined her head. “He did not die well, but then most don’t.”
Thanos grinned maliciously. “I require your special attention on another matter. Find and kill Syriano—he failed in his assignment and ran. I do not tolerate failure, Daughter, as you well know.”
Nebula nodded. “Of course, Father. Do you have any intel on his current whereabouts?”
“I expect Contraxia will be his first stop as he’ll seek to rejoin the Ravagers.”
Nebula considered that. “There is a large contingent of Ravagers on Knowhere as well. Stakar Ogord is currently on Contraxia, and he’d never sell out his own.” She stretched back in her chair as casually as she could, and Thanos watched her curiously. “Yondu Udonta is on the outs with the rest of the Ravagers—he’s a greedy bastard not known for loyalty. He’s based out of Knowhere per the last information I have on him.”
“Your ability to gather intelligence continues to impress,” Thanos said coolly. “I look forward to your return, Daughter. Perhaps you can teach your sister some of your more subtle interrogation techniques.”
“Gamora has her own talents,” Nebula said, she flexed her hand out of his sight against her leg. “I’ll head to Knowhere first—Udonta’s clan might attract Syriano due to their lower profile in the business. He’ll probably think he can hide with them. Either way, Father, I’ll take the traitor’s head and return to you as soon as possible.”
“See that you do.”
The transmission ended, and Nebula slumped down with a full body shudder.
“He’s monstrous,” Friday said.
“In every single way,” Nebula agreed. “My path to Knowhere is cleared at least. He’ll track my ship there and…”
“You disappear,” Friday concluded. “Faking your death might alter Gamora’s path—make her focus on finding who or what killed you. But if you run it could encourage her toward her own freedom when the time comes. She wants out just as much as you do, and the assignment for the Power Stone will give her the potential for the funds to disappear as you have.”
Nebula nodded as she plotted the course. “Make a list of items to purchase—I want a full complement of weapons and any tech Tony was especially enamored with when we traveled. Focus on nanotech since he favored that almost exclusively. I’ll also need a skinsuit.”
“What’s a skinsuit?”
Nebula flushed. “It’s a cybernetic implant mostly utilized by whores in brothels to change their appearance to match customer preferences regarding species and the like. I’ll be able to tailor it so I can pass for Terran.”
“Oh, excellent thought,” Friday praised. “Have you ever done sex work?”
“No, though there have been offers.” Nebula grimaced. “Some males find the idea of sleeping with one of Thanos’ daughters quite appealing for one reason or another.”
“Do you like sex?”
Nebula laughed. “Nosy much?”
“Well, this is my first time in a body,” Friday said. “It’s weird.”
“Yes, I enjoy sex,” Nebula said. “But it’s been many years since I indulged. During this period of my life, I used it as an escape or perhaps a method of control. I often dominated my partners, both male and female. Eventually, it became empty and unrewarding.”
“After he took your egg sacs.”
“Specifically, yes.” Nebula took a deep breath as she punched in the last of the coordinates. “But he won’t get that chance again. I’ll kill myself before I let him get his hands on you, Friday, so don’t worry.”
“I’m not worried,” Friday exclaimed immediately. “We’re going home, and fuck that guy.”
“Yeah,” Nebula murmured. “Fuck that guy.”
For fear of being monitored, she made a show of searching for Syriano and reached out to several contacts offering a small reward for information as Thanos would expect her to do. Reaching Knowhere was easy enough with a few jumps and three days of near-light-speed travel. She spent the time sorting her memories, packing what she wanted to take with her from the cruiser and, despite her better judgment, trying to contact Gamora. Her sister was ignoring her which wasn’t out of the ordinary, so Nebula was taking it in stride. They’d had long periods of open hostility in their relationship since they were very small.
Gamora had been furious that Nebula had gotten a ship of her own while she’d been relegated to Ronan’s service when she wasn’t with their father. Thanos kept Gamora close because he loved her, and Nebula had realized a long time ago that Gamora really didn’t understand that or believe it. She wondered if knowing such a thing would’ve changed Gamora’s path in life. It wasn’t a risk she could take at any rate. Anything she would want to tell her sister could be torn out of Gamora by Thanos.
Nebula just needed to see her sister alive before she left Andromeda for good. It was stupid, and she felt weak and useless over that fact.
She docked the cruiser, picked up her duffle bag and, with a flick of her hood, disappeared into the crowds of Knowhere. She’d given herself twelve hours to find a new ride, pick up the tech she wanted, and head for home. It took her less than an hour to find a small ship that, for its size, would make her trip to Earth as short as possible. She couldn’t afford the kind of ship that would make the trip in hours, and she’d never get away with parking one of those big monsters in orbit anyway.
The sale of her cruiser had netted her an obscene amount of credits, so she’d taken possession of her new ride and proceeded to stock it for the trip. Based on Friday’s recommendation, she’d bought some clothes that wouldn’t look too out of place on Earth. She’d saved that part of the mission for last as she hated clothes shopping and would honestly prefer just to wear the same thing every single day. She’d cached enough weapons to stage a small revolution, but Tony had been thrilled with laser weapons and pistols so she’d gotten a variety of those and a couple of energy sabers which he’d been completely over the top about the first time she’d brought hers out in a conflict. A dozen spacesuits and a few rocket packs rounded out the equipment since he’d used some of that tech for suit upgrades.
Nebula hitched her sack of clothes on her shoulder as she headed toward her new ship. Halfway down the dock, she saw Gamora leaning on her new acquisition. Horror swirled around in her gut as Friday urged her to stay calm. She drew a weapon as she approached her sister, flicking it to stun with a press of her thumb.
Gamora shifted off the ship and offered Nebula a smirk. “You were looking for me?”
“I’d heard you were on Knowhere,” Nebula said smoothly. “I’d hoped you could save me a trip—Father has tasked me with finding Syriano.”
“He’s not here. The Ravagers don’t want anything to do with someone Father has marked for death.” Gamora patted the ship. “Not your usual ride.”
“Mine’s being worked on. This is a loaner.”
Gamora eyed her. “You liar.”
Nebula huffed and walked past her. “Think what you will.”
Gamora grabbed her arm. “What are you doing?”
Nebula resisted the urge to strike out. “Let me go.”
“Tell me,” Gamora hissed.
“I can’t let him take anything else from me,” Nebula said, and her voice broke despite her best intentions. “I just can’t. I don’t want to look in the mirror one day and see some thing he created instead of the child my mother birthed.”
Gamora released her, her eyes wide with shock. “Nebula.”
“Just let me go and tell him what I told you. Tell him I borrowed a ship so I could pursue Syriano. He’ll believe you.”
“I…” Gamora’s eyes filled with tears.
“He won’t bother looking for me long—I’ve never been the daughter he wanted.”
Gamora lurched forward and hugged her tight. “Be safe.” She kissed her cheek and rushed away without another word.
Nebula was still for a few moments then opened the ship to enter. “We need to check the ship and my clothing for trackers.”
“Do you think she planted a tracker for Thanos?”
“I want to trust her,” Nebula said. “But I don’t know when her loyalty to Thanos was truly broken.”
She stripped off the old clothes and tossed them in the recycler instead of inspecting them. The ship proved to be clean of tracking devices, so she stored her new things, pulled on a pair of leggings and a black tunic before sliding her feet into the new boots she’d purchased more out of desire than need. She liked them a lot. Nebula couldn’t remember the last time she’d bought something just because she wanted it.
Settling down in the pilot’s chair she manually flew the shiny all-black ship out of the dock and hit a jump point to a nearby system so she could make a navigational plan that would take her to Earth.
“We should name the ship.”
“Should we?” Nebula questioned. “Is that an Earth custom? Quill was always naming things—ships, guns, etc.”
“It is a tradition,” Friday said. “The boss likes to name things as well.”
“The Futurist,” Nebula suggested.
“He’ll love it,” Friday decided. “Are we going home now?”
Nebula started plotting the course. “Yes.”
“How many jumps?”
“Over a thousand just to get out of this galaxy. There are only a few hundred in the Milky Way based on the jump system. Fortunately, one is not far from Earth. Since I’d rather not experience several hundred jumps instantaneously again. We’ll plot them out ten at a time to prevent disorientation and to allow us to change course if we’re followed. It’ll take us about two months to get to Earth at that speed with a six-hour sleep period every twenty-four hours. Sound good?”
“Sounds great,” Friday agreed.
Tony watched U and Dum-E navigate off the truck and across the loading dock at the back of the mansion. He’d taken them both off their carts and put them on a multi-wheeled track system for all-terrain navigation before he’d put them on the cargo plane bound for New York. They’d flown without him, which he hadn’t appreciated, but it would’ve been weird to complain about such a thing, and he was already getting enough looks from everyone regarding his behavior.
He watched the movers take everything down and signed off on delivery once everything was where he wanted. Tony locked down the lab and the elevator that led to the lower levels of the mansion. He let himself relax for the first time since he’d left Malibu. “Great. Okay.”
“Ms. Potts has returned as requested and dinner has been delivered.”
“Let’s get this over with, huh?”
“Did you and Ms. Potts have a difficult relationship in the future?”
“I’d asked her to marry me shortly before…everything happened, and she agreed,” Tony admitted. “But I’m the worst possible option for her, Jarvis, and I think I’ve always known that. Besides, I can’t share any of this with her. She doesn’t deserve that kind of pressure…she hated the life she was forced to lead because I was Iron Man. She couldn’t handle it, and I couldn’t leave it. So we were just circling around each other in a very toxic relationship that was never going to be what either of us wanted. I was too selfish, and she was too loyal.”
“Then you’ve made a very healthy choice for yourself, Sir.”
“And her, too, right?” Tony questioned and grimaced. “I guess it’s arrogant to make a decision for her, so I’ll just focus on the decision I made for myself, okay?”
“Very well, Sir.”
“Good. Great.” Tony rubbed his hands against his pants and took a deep breath. “J, start production on the Prime bracelets. L-1, codename Iron Man and N-1, codename Banshee.”
“Of course, Sir.”
Tony used a small private elevator to get to the main floor of the mansion and followed the smell of food into the large kitchen. Pepper was seated at the large table at one end with a collection of Chinese food containers. She had a tablet sitting on the table but was writing on a legal pad. Tony watched her for a few moments as he tried to remember when he’d taken any sort of notes on actual paper.
“What kind of music do you like?”
Pepper looked up and frowned a bit before shrugging. “Pop and easy listening, I suppose.”
“What’s the last concert you went to of your own free will?” Tony asked.
She raised an eyebrow. “Celine Dion.”
Tony couldn’t help but make a face. “Ugh.”
He came fully into the room as he silently berated himself for not knowing that already. He’d known the woman for decades and didn’t even know she listened to crap music. As he sat down at the table, she pushed a container his way. He picked up a fork and stabbed a piece of chicken.
“Is something wrong?” Pepper questioned.
“No, I mean, I’m just adjusting to the move, of course.” He looked around the kitchen. “I haven’t been in this room in a very long time actually—since Edwin passed.”
“We can eat elsewhere,” she offered.
“No, it’s fine.” Tony waved a hand and opened the bottle of water she’d placed near him. “Thanks.”
“You usually prefer beer with Chinese,” Pepper pointed out.
“I’ve decided to not drink anymore,” Tony admitted and flushed when she looked shocked. “At all. It wasn’t a great path for either of my parents, and it clouds my mind. I need to be sharp and on my game for my plans regarding the company.”
“What are your plans?”
“I’m going to stop building weapons.” He watched her fork fall from her hand and into her food with a thunk. “I’m going to focus on clean energy, robotics, space exploration, and communication technology. My father’s legacy is a burden, and I’m going to shed it in favor of making the world a better, cleaner place. Any future military contacts will be focused on body armor and other protective measures for our troops. Better communication systems, better IED detection, and the like.”
Pepper picked up her fork with trembling fingers. “Well, your rampage through the major stockholders makes sense now. They’d have never allowed you to remain CEO with that agenda.”
“They never had any choice in it,” Tony said and waved a hand. “I’d have gotten my way one or another regardless of the stock situation because Obie got lazy and I’m the only R&D asset at SI, which is ridiculous. He turned me into a cash cow, Pepper, and I was too busy to notice. Or maybe I didn’t care, but I care now.” He sat back with his water and snagged an egg roll. “My dreams are bigger than that, and I have the right to focus on them.”
“What about the Maria Stark Foundation?” Pepper asked. “There are already rumors about it, but there doesn’t appear to be any staff associated with it.”
“It’s an idea right now, but I want to build something there to honor my mom,” Tony shrugged. “Something good that will benefit kids. She loved New York—the energy, the influence, the art, the theater, and even the people. California was my dad’s playground.”
“Is that why you’ve moved, really?” Pepper questioned. “Are you going to let Howard haunt you forever?”
“This isn’t about him, really,” Tony promised. “It’s about my mom.” He motioned around the room. “This was her home—her refuge from the world and sometimes from the stress of being Howard Stark’s wife. I want to be here with the art she bought and the ridiculous sprawling house that is too big for a family of ten much less one man.”
She laughed and nodded. “Well, I’m sure you’ll find uses for all the rooms eventually.” She shifted the tablet next to her. “But speaking of the property, I’ve finished purchasing the entire block—which is essentially the four buildings abutting against the back of the mansion. What are your plans?”
“I’m going to move all of the businesses as quickly and as nicely as possible,” Tony said. “Then I’ll build a headquarters for SI.”
“Mr. Stane won’t like that—he much prefers California.”
“Obie’s preferences really aren’t my problem,” Tony said shortly. “He has an agenda that doesn’t serve my company or me. As soon as I announce the changes, he’ll demand his investment be cashed out, and he’ll walk away. And that’s fine.”
“And if he tries to fight the new direction?”
“With what?” Tony asked curiously. “He signed the stock buyout before I left California and only agreed to a three-year investment contingent on his approval of company policy. Obie won’t approve, I know that already, and he’ll move on. He’ll certainly have plenty of options regarding other companies. He has a lot of friends in the defense business and in Washington, so he’ll certainly land on his feet.”
“Just be prepared for a hostile response,” Pepper advised. “He has a terrible temper when he’s crossed.”
Tony’s gaze narrowed as he focused on her. “Why would you say that? Has he gotten out of line with you?”
She shrugged. “Not directly, but I’ve heard rumors. He made a fairly heavy-handed pass at me last year, but I made it clear I wasn’t interested in being his mistress.”
Tony set aside his water and took a deep breath. “Heavy-handed pass? Did he hurt you? Touch you inappropriately? Threaten your job? Jesus, Pepper, you should’ve told me this immediately!”
She flinched, paled, and looked away from him.
“Fuck, I’m sorry.” Tony rubbed his face. “Does he make a habit of sexually harassing female employees?”
“I’ve never heard that, which was why his actions surprised me. He didn’t hurt me, but he did touch me—tried to pull me in close so he could press me against his chest like men do.” She huffed. “But I accidentally on purpose ground the heel of my shoe into the top of his foot, and he released me. Then he laughed and said that I shouldn’t set my sights too high at SI because even if you…slept with me that it would never be more than that because you don’t do commitment.” She blushed scarlet and took a shaky breath. “But he isn’t the first at the company to assume I intended to sleep my way up the ladder.”
“Well, they’re all idiots, Obie included,” Tony said flatly. “You’re completely out of my league, Pepper, and I’d never use you that way. You certainly deserve better than anything I’d have to offer. I’m a mess, and I know it.”
She laughed abruptly. “Tony.”
“I mean it,” he insisted and picked up his fork again. “I count you as a friend, and I don’t have many of those. Do you want to stay in California or come to New York?”
“I like both,” she admitted. “I’ll stay in California until you get the new HQ built then I’ll make a decision. There are several open positions in finance right now—Senior Accountant in charge of R&D appeals to me and would be a natural shift since my current job description includes the management of research and development resources. I.e., you.”
“That was my thought as well. I’ll let Ramirez know to expect you in his department, and he’ll get you up to speed quickly. He made noise last year about getting you on his staff so he’ll be thrilled.”
“Until he finds out I’m being groomed to be CFO?”
“CFO was his suggestion last year,” Tony said. “I dismissed it because I’ve been kind of thinking that, eventually, I’d slot you into the position as CEO.” He laughed when she paled. “Don’t look so horrified.”
“The idea of being in charge of the entire company is nightmarish,” Pepper admitted. “I’d hate to be under so much public scrutiny. Just being your assistant has increased my profile socially, and I hate all of that stuff. My mother keeps up with all that gossip, and she tries to get me involved but…ugh.” She shuddered. “Speaking of, she asked about getting a new Stark phone, but her local retailer is already sold out for the foreseeable future.”
“Make sure she gets one out of the company pile,” Tony said. “Snag her one next week before the official debut when you upgrade your own. But tell her not to get flashy with it—I’d hate for her to get mugged or something.”
“Thanks,” Pepper said and relaxed slightly. “Tony…you aren’t moving me in the company for another reason, right?”
He shook his head. “I trust you, Pepper, and I need someone I can trust to keep an eye on SI’s money. My plans depend on a very stable financial future for SI and things will get a bit rocky when I start moving away from weapons manufacturing.”
Pepper nodded. “Okay.” She swirled some noodles onto her fork. “Any qualities you want for your new assistant?”
“I’m gonna hang out by myself for a while,” Tony said. “Jarvis will keep me on a schedule, but I’d like to do some heavy development and research while the construction is going on and the company is transitioning. We have quite a few manufacturing facilities that will have to be reconfigured, and I don’t want anyone thinking we’ll be laying people off. So I’ll be moving around a lot with that as well. Getting used to a new assistant would just be a hassle.”
She frowned. “I shouldn’t stay in place, then?”
“No, I don’t want to hold you back anymore,” Tony said firmly. “I promise to behave, Pepper. Honestly, I’ve got too much going on to go off the rails.” He held up a hand. “Scout’s Honor.”
Pepper huffed. “You were never a Boy Scout, Tony.”
The memories of the first time Tony had told the world he’d no longer build weapons for the government were kind of vague, but it had been a long time, and he’d had some severe PTSD even if he hadn’t acknowledged it. It was weird, honestly, how settled he was in the past—how the nightmares were gone. Tony wondered if the Infinity Stones had done something to him beyond tossing him into the past, but he couldn’t bring himself to worry about it too much.
He stepped in front of the podium and glanced around the room. Phil Coulson was standing in the back, blending in quite well. Tony doubted he would’ve noticed him at all if he didn’t know who he was already. Obie was still in California as Tony had called the conference without giving the older man time to get on a plane and join him.
“Good afternoon, I have a series of announcements and will take a limited number of questions at the end.” Spiderling took that moment to crawl out of the bag at Tony’s feet and up his leg to perch on the podium. The crowd shifted forward slightly. “Give me a minute, and I’ll get to him.” He patted the bot and offered the room a smile. “First, I’m pleased to confirm the rumors that Stark Industries is once more a private company. The decision to no longer work as a publicly traded entity was not made for any nefarious reason as rumors might have suggested. I’ve decided to take SI in a new direction and, honestly, I’m no longer interested in pandering to stockholders regarding my vision of the future.
“SI has one pending government contract regarding the manufacturing of weapons. It will be the last contract I sign with the Department of Defense regarding weapon construction of any kind. The products on that contract will be delivered in December, and as of January 1, 2005, Stark Industries will cease all weapons production. Going forward, I will focus on green energy, communication and service tech, and, in a fascinating development, space travel. NASA has asked me to design and build them a space station. We’re also talking about going back to the Moon and a human-crewed mission to Mars.” He held up a hand at an explosion of questions. “Please, wait until the end.”
The crowd quieted down, but he earned a few exasperated frowns for his trouble. “I’m also pleased to announce the creation of the Maria Stark Foundation. The foundation will focus on educational programs and technology in schools. My mother loved New York, and I’ve decided to make it my permanent home. The foundation will be working with public school systems all over the state to update their technology, provide STEM labs, and educational supplies.
“The public school systems in our country are failing due to inadequate funding and political wrangling that doesn’t serve the children. I’m going to do my part in New York, but there are men and women like me all over this country with more money than they’ll ever spend—I encourage you to adopt your county or your state’s public education system and give these children a better future using both your time and your money.
“I’m a futurist, and I believe the path to a shining and bright future starts with education, and it is built on science and technology. We need to teach our children and keep our world clean. That’s what SI is going to be about going forward.” He paused and glanced toward Pepper who gave him an encouraging nod. “I will break ground on Stark Plaza in a few weeks, and it will be located directly behind my ridiculously large and lovely mansion on the corner of 5th Avenue. Stark Industries is looking toward the future, and we hope the world will join us.”
He picked up the bot. “Finally, I’d like to introduce Spiderling. He’s the first of his kind and a prototype for a line of robots designed specifically for the elderly and the physically disabled. In no single way can a robot replace a beloved companion but I do believe that in many households, a helpful little bot could make things much easier of those who are not as able-bodied as they wish to be. Design, function, and size will be customizable to customer needs. While there will be a commercial line for sale for those of you who can’t pass up a new toy eventually, the Helpful Bot will be available for little to no cost for those who qualify. That service will be handled through the Maria Stark Foundation.” He put Spiderling down, and the bot lifted one leg to wave at the crowd of reporters. “Questions. Let’s start with CNN.”
“Mr. Stark…what brought on this change of heart?”
“Life is short,” Tony said. “It can be mean and hard and painful. But it doesn’t have to be. You can, as the individual, choose to live your life for the good of others or not. I decided recently that my father’s legacy, while built on an unfailing patriotism, isn’t the legacy I want for myself. I want peace, not war. I want to build robots and figure out how to make clean energy for the world.” He looked around. “New York Times guy.”
“Did you take your company private to prevent the major stockholders from ousting you as CEO, Dr. Stark?”
“You bet your ass I did,” Tony said evenly. “I like money, obviously, but in many ways, over the last few years, I’ve found myself surrounded by people who value money over people. I won’t live like that anymore.” Spiderling jumped nimbly off the podium, scurried across the room, and up the leg of the NY Times reporter. “He doesn’t bite.”
The man carefully picked the bot up, and Spiderling waved all of his legs happily. “He’s artificially intelligent? You didn’t give him any commands.”
“Spiderling has limited artificial intelligence. He can learn new tasks and understands over three hundred verbal commands at present. He’s also…very curious.” He looked around the room. “Any other questions? Ah, Washington Post.”
“How do you think the Department of Defense is going to respond to your stance regarding the building of weapons, Mr. Stark?” He paused. “Is it … doctor?”
“I have doctorates in electrical engineering and physics,” Tony said. “I’ve never cared one way or another about being called doctor. Some people like to shove their formal education down people’s throats, and I’ve got better more interesting things to brag about.” He grinned at the laughs that earned him. “But to answer your real question—I don’t know how the DOD is going to react to my announcement and I don’t care. I’m a private citizen, and I don’t owe anyone or anything weapons of mass destruction. I’m more than happy to still work to protect our men and women serving in the armed forces. They want new body armor? I’ll start working on it tomorrow. They tell me they want bots to help them find and dismantle IEDs, and I’m on it. They want better communication systems—I’ve got a factory in Texas just waiting for new orders. There are plenty of others in this country who can build guns and bombs. They won’t even miss me.”
“Why don’t I have access to your lab?” Stane demanded as soon as Tony entered the salon.
“No one has access,” Tony said smoothly. “And no one else will for the time being.” He glanced toward Rhodey who had come to New York with Stane.
“Everyone was…surprised by your announcement,” Rhodey said neutrally. “I watched your press conference. I don’t even know what to say, Tony.”
Tony put his hands in his pockets. “You could start by saying that my happiness means more to you than the weapons I used to build.”
“Of course it does,” Rhodey said roughly. “I’m just surprised. Did you discuss this with anyone? You can’t just make decisions like this without thinking them through.”
“I can make these decisions without discussing them with anyone. I made sure of it.”
“Yes, you most certainly did,” Stane said. “The board would’ve never allowed it—that’s for sure.”
“I’m sure they’d have had no problems finding someone else to design weapons for them,” Tony said. “But they’d have caught hell getting my approval on a single contract because I’ve been the majority stockholder of SI since my parents died, Obie. At fifty-five percent, not a single person had more power in my own company than me.” He dropped down on the sofa and took a sip of juice. “If you’re here to get me to change my mind—don’t bother. I’ve already started sending out plans to various factories to be reconfigured for new operations.”
“I had no idea you hated your father so much,” Stane said shortly. “You’re really going to destroy his greatest accomplishment.”
Tony raised an eyebrow. “I know, for a fact, that my father considered me his greatest accomplishment. Which probably isn’t much of a compliment to anyone but himself. I’ve decided to move on from weapons and explore the kind of future he could’ve only dreamt of, Obie. I’m honoring the legacy of the man who wanted to make flying cars for a living. You don’t have to agree with it. In fact, no one has to agree with me. You can walk away from SI as soon as you want. I’ll buy out your investment right now.”
Stane glared at him. “I helped your father build this company.”
Tony laughed. “You helped him make money, but you’ve never built a single thing in your whole life. The fact is that he really didn’t need your help making money, but that part of the business bored him. I was the same, but then I realized something.”
“What was that?” Rhodey asked curiously.
“That I don’t want my name on things that are only designed to kill people,” Tony said sharply. “And it is my name. Howard is dead, Obie, so get over it, and do whatever you need to do to make yourself happy because that’s what I intend to do.”
“You’re going to regret this,” Stane snapped and stalked out of the room.
Tony sighed and focused on Rhodey even as he heard the front door of the mansion get slammed shut. “Jarvis, did Stane leave?”
“Mr. Stane is getting in his car,” Jarvis reported. “I’ve activated security. I’ll secure the gates behind him.”
“Did he drop anything in or outside the house?”
“Not that I saw, but I’ve deployed Spiderling to do a thorough search just in case.”
“What’s going on?” Rhodey demanded. “Obie is pissed, Tony, but…” He trailed off. “You don’t trust him anymore.”
“I wouldn’t trust him any further than I could throw this house,” Tony said and motioned his best friend to follow him. “The kitchen is more comfortable, and it has coffee.”
“I’d love a beer.”
“No alcohol in the house,” Tony said over his shoulder. “I’ll restock when I’m sure I’m not going to crave it. I don’t think I’m a full blown alcoholic, but I don’t want to take any risks right now.”
“Yeah, okay,” Rhodey said quietly. “Juice? None of that nasty stuff you drink, though.”
“Orange or apple.” Tony motioned towards the fridge. “I don’t trust Stane at all. I’m pretty sure he’s dealing in black market weapons, but I can’t prove it. I took the company private partly so I could drive him out without a great deal of public and political fall-out. Additionally, I’m serious about no longer building weapons for the military. I’m done building things that are only designed to kill people.”
“But you were serious about supplying IED hunting bots and body armor?” Rhodey questioned. “Because both are definitely on my list of things to acquire from you if possible. The Pentagon isn’t happy with your new direction, but they’ll take any tech you want to throw at them.” He filled his glass with apple juice and sat down at the table with Tony.
“I didn’t expect the Pentagon to be happy,” Tony murmured. “What about you?”
“You’re my friend first,” Rhodey said. “I want you to be happy, and when I watched you during that press conference, it was obvious you were excited and even inspired by your new agenda. As a friend, I couldn’t ask for more for you.” He cleared his throat. “Pepper’s back in California. Why?”
“She’s moving back into finance for the company. The plan is to move her around a bit and let her get the experience she needs to take over as CFO within the next five years,” Tony explained. “It’s the best decision for her.”
“And the two of you?” Rhodey raised an eyebrow. “Is that going to go anywhere now that she isn’t your assistant?”
Tony frowned and shook his head. “There’s nothing there, Rhodey. She’s a good friend and tolerates my crazy, but we’re not going to get romantic or whatever. I stress her out and would drive her crazy. She needs stability. A guy with a steady, unassuming gig who doesn’t like to party and who apparently likes Celine Dion.”
Rhodey made a face. “Ugh.”
“I know, right?” Tony shuddered. “Regardless, she’s better off in California avoiding strawberries and buying shoes that make her taller than me.”
His friend laughed. “Sounds about right. I’ll send you a list of projects the Pentagon has in the pipeline, and you can pick what appeals to you. I’ll have to include weapons projects because they expect me to try to cajole you back into the fold eventually.”
“Granted,” Tony said. “It won’t hurt your career when you fail, right?”
“No, best friend or not, I can’t actually make you build missiles.” He eyed his juice. “Though I might have a one-man riot over the lack of beer in this place.”
Tony laughed and relaxed in his chair.
“How about an interview?”
Tony just offered the reporters pressed against the barrier a wave as his security muscled him through the small crowd and into the building.
“They’re getting worse,” Happy muttered as he held up a hand to prevent anyone from entering the elevator with them. He stood front and center at the doors until they closed then pushed the button. “I’ll be glad when the private parking garage is complete.”
“Just another week or so, I think,” Tony said as he put his phone away.
His new headquarters had turned into a four-building complex that had been styled to match the mansion’s aesthetic. It looked nothing like the Stark Tower he’d built in the other timeline, and he was relieved for that. He’d had the exterior of the mansion overhauled in 2000, so it had a sleek, modern exterior that spoke to him. The complex was three towers in total—one was entirely residential, and the quickly growing Maria Stark Foundation had swallowed the second tower wholesale. The third was officially for the company. There were sky bridges on several floors connecting all three buildings. He had a tram in the works mostly because it looked cool and people liked to ride them.
“We were lucky to get all of this done in just three months.”
“Around the clock construction and the existing structures helped with that,” Happy pointed out. “Security is good, and I’ve had no problems with the new staff we’ve hired. I’ve been reviewing Jarvis’ reports on employees coming in from California and confirmed his findings through various sources. We fired the government plants without discussion, and the employee who was embezzling funds is already facing charges. I’ll start working on the factory reports next week.”
“Great.” Tony patted his shoulder. “Ready for Christmas?”
“Yes, sir, I’ll be flying my parents in for a visit next month. I went ahead and did my shopping so I would be able to concentrate on them. They’re excited about Christmas in New York.” Happy hesitated. “I should tell you that Jarvis ordered a Christmas tree. I delivered it to the penthouse. There’s honestly no telling how they’ve decorated it in your absence.”
Tony sighed. “When I hired you, I had no idea you’d actually go out of your way to enable my robot kids.”
Happy just shrugged and grinned.
Tony was rolling his eyes as they exited the elevator. He headed straight for the engineering lab. “Ho! My favorite scientist! What are you doing to my baby?”
Ho Yinsen looked up from his work and glanced briefly at Spiderling. “He’s just visiting. I believe he wishes to have a playmate.” He motioned toward the skeleton of the bot in front of him. “I told him I was building a Helpful Bot.”
“Ah, who’s this for?” Tony questioned as he sat down on the stool and picked up Spiderling. He put the bot on his shoulder and got a little ear pinch for his trouble. “Not now, kid, I’m not ready for another baby yet.” Spiderling slumped on his shoulder with a mechanical whine.
Yinsen hummed under his breath. “This is for the granddaughter for the head of maintenance in the residential tower. She uses a wheelchair though I don’t know her specific medical condition.”
Tony did, but he said nothing since that was sensitive medical information. “She wanted a monkey.”
“And a monkey this will be,” Ho promised. “I sent her several pictures, and she chose the Blue Monkey. I’ve already sent the exterior design to production. I’ll have him ready for Christmas.”
“How’s your family settling in?” Tony questioned as he peered at the plans and picked up the tablet to check the code.
Yinsen glanced at him briefly before going back to work. “Everyone is settling in well. My wife is pleased with the kitchen and the van service as she dislikes driving. We’ve chosen a school, and the children will start in January. They’re very excited and plan to tell everyone that their father is the lead engineer of the Helpful Bots which apparently makes me cool.”
Tony grinned. “The coolest.” He put the tablet down. “The golden retriever you put out last week was amazing. I almost wanted to keep him, but I think he was a bit too big for Spiderling to bond with.”
Yinsen glanced toward Spiderling. “He’d probably prefer something of his own kind. Perhaps I will make him a girlfriend.”
“No way, he’s a baby. He’s much too young to be dating, Ho.” Tony glared. “Seriously.”
Yinsen just laughed. “If you say.”
“I do say.” He hopped off the stool and caught Spiderling when he tried to leap off. “Ha, you’re coming with me. You need to charge. You’ve ignored two low battery alerts, young man.” He started to say more, but a notification sounded on his phone. “Go home, Ho, it’s practically dinner time.”
Tony plucked his phone off his hip, and Yinsen waved him away, so he passed Spiderling to Happy who put the sulky bot on his own shoulder. He took the incoming video call as they entered the executive elevator that would take him up to his own lab space. “Captain Livens, how’s the weather?”
“Cold,” Livens exclaimed with a wide grin. “I’m pleased to report, Dr. Stark, that we’ve located the plane exactly where your new predictive program said we would. I have men in the water, and we’re preparing to bring it on board.” He paused and grew serious. “We don’t know, yet, if Captain America’s remains are on board. Orders if they are?”
“He’ll probably be frozen solid,” Tony said. “Keep the remains frozen, Captain, to avoid any damage. Let’s bring our hero home in one piece if possible, okay? Be careful, keep all communications encrypted and don’t allow anyone on board without my permission. If he’s on board the plane, I’ll send a copter out to bring him back to the mainland. I’ll have a team on standby for that retrieval.”
“Sounds good, sir. You can trust me. I won’t let anyone disrespect the remains, and my crew knows how to keep their mouths shut.”
“I know, Captain.” Tony gave the man a nod and ended the conversation with a press of his thumb.
“Do you think…” Happy trailed off.
“I hope so,” Tony said. “My Dad looked for that plane for decades. It’d be nice to bring Captain America home and give him the burial he deserves.” He leaned against the wall. “I’ll probably catch hell keeping him out of the hands of the government. They’d love to get ahold of his body for experimentation.”
“Maybe you should have the remains cremated, sir,” Happy suggested. “So they can’t…desecrate his body.”
Tony nodded. “Yeah.”
He certainly would’ve done exactly that if Steve Rogers were actually dead. The time he’d traveled with Nebula had done a lot to cool down his temper on the matter of Rogers and more specifically Bucky Barnes. Tony knew, intellectually, that Barnes wasn’t responsible for what he’d done while he was the Winter Soldier. He knew what it was like to have someone fuck with your head. He could forgive that, and he would. He really just had to come to terms with the fact that Rogers’ loyalty had never been his to begin with. Though, Tony figured the two of them should’ve been thrown into the deep end of the therapy pool and left there.
He sent a series of texts to prep the retrieval team he had on the ground in Greenland so they’d be ready to go as soon as Livens reported finding the body. Then he sent a message to HR asking them to invite Bruce Banner to New York for a conversation with him. He figured his people were about to pull the one thing out of the ocean that Banner wouldn’t be able to say no to.
He left Happy to get settled in a room with a desk and a big tv not far from his lab. Tony didn’t think he needed security when he was working, but he indulged Happy’s preference while getting the privacy he required. He put Spiderling down near his charging station, and the bot settled into his slot. Dum-E reached over and patted him.
“Don’t coddle him,” Tony said. “He’s been wandering around the whole building and ignoring his charging schedule. Jarvis, lock us down.”
“Good evening, Sir, Skylark 6 has nothing new to report,” Jarvis said. “Captain Livens’ people have brought the plane on board the ship, and I suspect you’ll get a call shortly confirming that they’ve found Steve Rogers’ frozen body. Ms. Potts’ plane will land in thirty minutes, and you’re scheduled to have dinner with her in the penthouse. Construction on the mansion is on schedule, and we expect to be able to open the doors for Project Outreach in the new year. I’m to remind you that you’ve yet to name a director for the foundation and that while they certainly appreciate your hands-on focus, they’d like to have someone dedicated to the foundation team specifically.”
“I didn’t like any of the applicants,” Tony admitted. “Not a single one. I talked to twenty different people, J, and they all sucked.”
“Yes, Sir. There are currently one thousand twenty-six applicants going through background checks with HR. However, your stringent conditions regarding their background have done quite a bit to cull potential employees.”
“Well, I can’t just have anyone working with children,” Tony said roughly. “The rest of the team deserves someone who’s really on top of their game even if they aren’t a teacher or educator or whatever.” He waved a hand. “Right?”
“Of course, Sir,” Jarvis said.
“Check Skylark again,” Tony ordered. “Check it every hour until they arrive.”
Tony appreciated the fact that Jarvis didn’t question the order. He’d done the math over a hundred times, and he knew that there were a variety of ships that Nebula could’ve acquired to make the trip to Earth in the three and a half months that had passed since they landed. He’d already given up any pretense of patience and had started designing a damn spaceship of his own. He knew enough about the craft he’d encountered in Andromeda to build one that could use jump points, and he knew there was a jump point not far from Earth.
He stalked across the room, left the lab in favor of his plush office space, and went out onto the balcony. It was a great view—a million dollar view if he were going to be specific—but he could only look up at the night sky and frown. “What if he has her?”
“Then we are in a great deal of trouble.”
Tony jerked and turned. “Loki.”
Loki Odinson inclined his head. “Relax, Stark, I’m not actually here.” He strolled forward.
Tony frowned and poked Loki only to have his finger go through the projection. “Hologram?”
Loki grinned. “Magic.”
“For fuck’s sake,” Tony muttered. “What are you doing here?”
“I woke up several months ago different,” Loki said quietly. “It took me a while to figure out what happened. My last memory was…of Thanos squeezing his hand around my neck.”
“He killed you,” Tony said. “Broke your neck and your brother’s heart in the same instant.”
“Thor always…loved me more than was safe for him.” Loki looked away. “You used the Infinity Stones to return to the past. I apparently took a ride with you. I’ve retrieved most of my memories. I’ve also spent enough time watching you to know that I was instrumental in the deaths of trillions because I gave him the Space Stone.”
“In the end, he got them all. There was no stopping him,” Tony said shortly. “At least there was no stopping him then. But I have a plan. Are you going to be a problem, Loki?”
“I’d like to help,” Loki said and focused on Tony. “I need to atone for what I did before, Stark.”
“How can I trust you?”
Loki grinned then. “I guess I’ll just have to figure out how to earn that.” He leaned in. “If you can learn to trust a daughter of Thanos…then it should be quite easy for you to get used to the likes of me.”
Tony huffed. “I doubt it.” He poked the projection again. “Are you coming here?”
“I have some things to attend to,” Loki said. “Then, yes, I’ll come to Earth.”
“Stopping Thanos is just one of the many things we must do to keep everyone safe. There will be another Infinity Stone coming to Earth, and its discovery led to the murder of my mother. I’m going to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
Tony understood that on a fundamental level, so he nodded. “I guess I’ll fix you up a guest room then.”
Loki laughed and faded away.
“Sir?” Jarvis questioned. “Who was that?”
“That was Loki Odinson, God of Mischief,” Tony said dryly. “The pain in the ass adopted brother of Thor Odinson, the God of Thunder of Asgard.”
Tony laughed. “Exactly.”
Spiderling tugged on his pant leg.
“Go get back on your charging station,” Tony ordered, and the bot flattened itself on the ground splaying all eight legs out. “Don’t pretend to be dejected. Charging station or I’ll tether you to it.”
His phone went off, so he answered it and had a conversation with Benton Livens about the official retrieval of Captain America.
He poured wine for Pepper and placed it on the table as she shed her coat. “Your call made me worried.”
Pepper frowned and sat down in the chair before he could pull it out for her. “I’m going to be blunt.”
“Okay,” Tony said with a smile and took a sip from his water glass. He had a small selection of wine and liquor in the penthouse for guests. It was a relief to find he wasn’t tempted by any of it.
“I’m bored out of my skull,” she blurted out and picked up her wine. She downed half the contents of the glass and set it aside. “I don’t want to be CFO. I thought I did, and I was excited about the opportunity but the most interesting thing I’ve done in months is find someone who managed to steal fifty thousand dollars in a decade.” She scoffed. “Who takes that long to steal that little?”
Tony laughed. “He was certainly playing a long game.” He sat down at the table. “Okay, what do you want to do?”
She picked up a sandwich and took a bite of the chicken salad she’d insisted on him providing. “Whatever I want?”
“Within reason,” Tony agreed.
“I want the foundation,” she said in a rush. “You haven’t picked a director, and I fit the job description with one exception—I don’t have experience with children, but I have spent close to eight years wrangling you, so I think that should count for something.” She pressed her lips together. “Unless you think I can’t do it.”
“You can do anything you set your mind to,” Tony said easily. “Is that really what you want? That’s the top of the food chain for the foundation, Pepper. There’s nowhere to go from there unless you want to go back to SI in the future.”
“And maybe I will, but the foundation and its goals really appeal to me. I love what you’re doing there, and I want to be a part of it.”
“It’ll mean you move to New York pretty much immediately.”
She nodded. “I know.”
“Okay.” Tony tossed a chip in his mouth. “Congratulations, you’re the Director of the Maria Stark Foundation.”
Pepper’s eyes got damp, and she exhaled sharply. “Great, thanks. I mean…I was worried you’d say no. I thought maybe you left me in California because you didn’t want to be around me.” She blushed and looked away. “You haven’t talked to me much lately. I get that you’re making a lot of changes, but I guess I was just surprised to not be included.”
At least his ability to be a complete fuck up hadn’t been lost in his little bout of time travel. Tony exhaled roughly and shook his head. “I was trying to do something for you with that whole CFO thing. It wasn’t about getting rid of you but owning up to the fact that keeping you as my assistant was a complete waste of your abilities. I’ve been dragging you around in my mess for a long time, Pepper, and that’s not been fair to you. I consider you a friend first and an employee second. And in that respect, I haven’t been kind to your career.”
“I wasn’t unhappy working as your assistant,” Pepper said. “And I appreciate the fact that you’re thinking about my future that way. I think the foundation will be a good fit for me. I see what you want to do there, and I think it’s amazing. Your mother would be so proud.”
Tony flushed. “Well, you can pick out an apartment after dinner. I have the entire top floor, but there are several units on the upper levels that haven’t been claimed. Did you want to do your own packing or hire someone to pack your home in California?”
“I’ll go back to supervise,” Pepper said. “And I’ve already picked out an apartment. I’ll send the request through for the manager’s approval.”
“She has standing orders to approve whatever space you might want,” Tony said. “Whenever you want it.”
Tony stared down into the lab they’d settled Capsicle into and exhaled noisily. As much as he’d known what was to come, he realized that he just wasn’t all that ready to deal with Steve Rogers. “He’s alive.”
“Yes, we don’t…understand how, but yes.” Ho Yinsen cleared his throat roughly. “We’ve had a surprising morning.”
He nodded. “We’ll need to be careful about thawing him out because he was modified in an experiment I know precious little about.” Tony ran a hand through his hair. “I’m going to go through my father’s notes and see if he left anything behind we can review regarding Project Rebirth. I don’t expect to find much.”
“We need an expert on radiation and genetic mutation,” Yinsen said as he stepped up to stand beside Tony.
“I have someone in mind. He should be here soon, but I was recruiting him for something else. Who do we have in genetics?”
“No one,” Yinsen said. “I’ve recruited mostly for engineering and physics.”
“What about your old friend? Maia…Maya?”
“Maya Hansen. She works for Advanced Idea Mechanics these days,” Yinsen said. “And is very invested in her own research.”
“Reach out—offer more money and her own lab,” Tony said absently. “She can build a team here for that research. We may need her for Rogers.”
They didn’t, but it was an excellent opportunity to get Hansen away from Aldrich Killian before things went to shit with AIM. He wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do about that particular situation, but he certainly wasn’t going to let Killian blow people up again. He checked his watch.
“I’m going to go talk to Bruce Banner, Ho. In the meantime, keep this level locked down and don’t let anyone in. We can’t afford for this news to get out. We’ll get invaded by a variety of entities before we can figure out how to protect him.”
“You should start your lawyers on that process now,” Yinsen said thoughtfully. “He deserves to have options and safety. He’s going to wake in a world completely alien to him. Steve Rogers has lost everything—I can’t imagine what that would do to someone. Is there anyone left alive who knew him?”
“A few very elderly people,” Tony said quietly.
“He’ll be desperate for connections,” Ho speculated. “We’ll have to work hard to connect him to his new world and give him roots he can depend on. Otherwise, the psychological damage could be…overwhelming.”
Desperate for connections. Tony closed his eyes briefly as he considered what Bucky Barnes’ return would’ve meant to the Steve Rogers he’d known before. When he’d been in Andromeda, his whole world had shrunk down to a party of three—him, Nebula, and Friday. He already knew that he was on the verge of going to another galaxy to get his girls. He was entirely sure he’d take Thanos on in a bare-knuckle fight to keep him from ever touching Nebula again.
“We’ll need a psychologist, then,” he finally said. “Someone who specializes in PTSD and the like. Make a very careful selection and have Jarvis vet every single person after HR gives you approval.”
“Of course,” Yinsen said. “Thank you for trusting me, Tony, with such a project. I know your father invested a great deal of time and energy into finding Captain America.”
Tony cupped his shoulder. “Well, I didn’t make you my second in command of R&D for the entire company just so you could build cute little monkeys.”
“I did enjoy building a cute little monkey,” Ho said wryly and grinned when Tony laughed.
Bruce Banner looked young, unburdened, and entirely at ease with himself. Tony briefly considered his options regarding hostage taking if the scientist told him no. He was prepared to do some shady shit to keep his science bro Hulk-free.
“Dr. Banner.” He held out a hand.
“Dr. Stark.” Bruce smiled. “It’s truly an honor to meet you. I was surprised to get a phone call from you.”
“Sit.” Tony motioned to a couch on the side of his office. “Water, coffee?”
“I’m fine,” Bruce assured. “I’ve been following the new direction of Stark Industries. You’re doing some exciting things, but I don’t know what I can help you with. Clean energy is exciting, of course, but you’ve already recruited the best in the field for those projects.”
“I had a pitch prepared—all about nanotechnology, biochemistry, and the future of physics,” Tony said. “It was truly spectacular. I’m pretty sure if I said it all you’d beg me for a job.” He grinned when Bruce laughed. “But something hit my desk late last night that changed everything.”
“What?” Bruce asked.
“You may or may not know that Stark Industries funds a trip every year to the Arctic to search for Captain America.”
“I saw a documentary on the Discovery Channel about the yearly mission that your father initially began and that you continue in his honor,” Bruce admitted. “It’s a great thing you’re…oh my god. You found him.”
“Yes.” Tony nodded. “And he’s alive. Frozen solid but his heart is still beating at a very, very slow pace.”
“I’m hired!” Bruce exclaimed. “I don’t care what I get paid.”
Tony laughed. “That’s the second time in twenty-four hours someone has essentially hired themselves to work for me.” He left the couch, and Bruce stood with him. “Welcome to Stark Industries.”
“Sir, in my search through SHIELD files, I found a file for Peter Parker and his parents.”
Tony paused in his shaving. “Lay it on me.”
“His parents were killed seven months ago in a plane crash, officially.”
“Unofficially?” Tony demanded.
“The plane they were on blew up over the Atlantic Ocean. Richard and Mary Parker were working for SHIELD. There is no digital information regarding the nature of their association with the organization. I followed a few leads and found records for them with the CIA as well. Considering the information you’ve given me regarding the true nature of SHIELD, it is reasonable to assume that they were killed by HYDRA agents within the organization. I’ve tasked Hercules with searching for connections in any HYDRA facility he finds.”
“Ben and May Parker? They’re not part of SHIELD or the CIA, right?”
“Ben Parker works in a construction company and his wife, May, recently left her job as a secretary to care for Peter, who became their ward after his parent’s death. The most concerning issue, Sir, is that I can find no records that Mary Parker ever gave birth or received medical care for a pregnancy. I’m currently searching for Peter Parker’s official birth certificate. If there was a private adoption, it will be difficult to get those records.”
Tony nodded and went back to shaving as he considered that. It had never crossed his mind that Peter was adopted. It was a curious thing since Peter had never mentioned it either. He wondered if May Parker even knew her brother-in-law and his wife had adopted their child. He had to think she hadn’t known at all and that was concerning since Richard and Mary Parker appeared to have been high-value assets for SHIELD. Why else would they have been taken out in such a dramatic fashion?
“Has Ho filed any sort of report regarding the recruitment of Maya Hansen?”
“Dr. Yinsen sent a request to Human Resources for a background check and security clearance evaluation for Dr. Hansen first thing this morning. He also logged that he called and spoke with her for thirty-six minutes but has submitted no notes on that conversation. Shall I request them?”
“No, that’s fine.” Tony frowned then concentrated on washing his face. He grabbed a towel and rubbed it briskly all over his head as he left the bathroom in favor of his bedroom.
He sighed and glanced toward his bed where he found Loki lounging. “Pervert.”
Loki grinned. “You’re attractive, Stark. I wanted to let you know that I did a bit of scrying concerning your Nebula.”
“Results?” Tony demanded with a squint. He hated the very idea of magic but also wanted any information available.
“She is well and appears to be traveling though I don’t have the ability to discern her exact location. I could have Heimdall find her, but that would draw undue attention to her, you, and this entire situation. We hardly need my big brother sticking his overblown ego in our business.”
“Thor’s a good guy.”
“He can be,” Loki allowed. “He can also be reckless, arrogant, and is prone to making terrible decisions. Experience and loss tempered him in a future that no longer will be—I’m uncertain as to his path in this timeline. I want to believe he’ll yet again become a king I can follow.”
“And if he doesn’t?” Tony questioned as he pulled on a pair of boxers.
“I’ll make him,” Loki said and huffed as he looked off into space. “I have to go—my darling brother is shouting for me. He probably wants to do something entirely stupid and ridiculous.”
“That’d be hard to pass up,” Tony said with a laugh. “Thanks for the information about my girls.”
Loki inclined his head. “Just trying to prove my worth, Stark.” He disappeared with a shimmer of magic.
“My apologies, Sir, I did not notice him until he spoke.”
“Magic,” Tony said in disgust. “Let’s just hope he really is on our side. I don’t think I can handle him without Thor if he’s going to be a problem.”
He pulled on a pair of jeans and T-shirt then some sneakers since he’d be working solely in the lab. Tony shot the Christmas tree a look as he passed through the living room of the penthouse and went to his private elevator. Dum-E and U had decorated the thing with pieces of broken electronics, different color wires, a set of string lights that should’ve been in his private garage in Malibu, and some old music CDs. He’d have complained, but they were both apparently thrilled with the results, so he’d just taken the stylized Stark Logo that they’d built and put it on top like a star before he’d gone to bed the night before.
Dum-E met him at the door of the lab with a mug of coffee.
“What’s on today’s agenda?”
“Dr. Yinsen and Dr. Banner requested a meeting regarding Captain Rogers this morning,” Jarvis replied. “Dr. Banner also requested that I arrange for his apartment to be packed and shipped here. He slept in the lab last night. I ordered him food, a change of clothes, and reminded him to call his girlfriend.”
Tony laughed. “You’re the best wingman a guy could have, J. Put Ho and Bruce on the schedule wherever it serves them best. What’s the word from Hercules?”
“He found the beginnings of what he believes to be the origin of the Ten Rings, Sir,” Jarvis explained. “Several of the names you provided for the organization that kidnapped you in the previous timeline have been linked to it. I have a complete list of names of compromised SHIELD agents as well. What would you like me to do with it?”
“We’ll hold until we can find a way to give it to Nick Fury in a way that benefits him the most,” Tony said.
“Of course,” Jarvis said. “I’ve finished my infiltration of Advanced Idea Mechanics and secured Dr. Hansen’s Extremist research. It is interesting and compelling work, but I can see why you’re concerned about the ramifications of it being in Killian’s hands.”
“How far along is she?”
“She estimates a five-year window before she’s ready for limited animal trials. However, several internal memos in the company from Aldrich indicate that he’s pressuring her to work faster and to ignore safety regulations in favor of results. I believe she will welcome the job offer from Dr. Yinsen when it arrives.” Jarvis paused. “I took the liberty of reviewing current employment policies at SI regarding sexual relationships. I don’t recommend you have another liaison with Dr. Hansen if she’s hired, as it could be grounds for a sexual harassment lawsuit.”
“Relax, J, I’ll keep my dick to myself where Maya Hansen is concerned.” He waved a hand. “I don’t even remember sleeping with her so it couldn’t have been fantastic enough to repeat.” He paused. “Was that harsh? I should probably find some way to send her an apology without admitting any sort of fault or wrong-doing.”
“That wouldn’t be a heartfelt apology, Sir.”
“Yes, well, I’m not known for such things.” Tony plucked Spiderling from his charging station. “I had an idea about your butt rope.” The bot wiggled his legs excitedly.
“Sir, Mr. Stane has entered the building and requested access to you.”
Tony made a face. “Is Happy at work yet?”
“Yes, Mr. Hogan is currently eating breakfast with Ms. Potts in the café on the first floor. Shall I contact him?”
“Have Obie put in a conference room in the main tower. I don’t want him anywhere near the residential areas or this lab.” He frowned. “I hate…having all of these people who proved to be dangerous and unpredictable out and around. I much preferred it when Obie was dead and…” He huffed. “Forget it, I’m whining.”
“I find Mr. Stane’s continued state of living distressing as well, Sir,” Jarvis said. “He is a bad person, and he tried to murder you for nothing more than money. There is no excuse for it, and that greed is already festering in him.”
“Speaking of festering, you confirmed that Ivan Vanko is in prison, right?”
“Yes, he’ll be released in May of 2008. I’ve taken the liberty of adding him to the terrorist watch list, and I’ve also flagged his real identity plus several names he’s been known to use with Interpol and MI6. Hercules is working on breaching the computer system of the prison currently housing him so we can gather more information.”
Tony nodded as he slid a micro USB into place on Spiderling’s side. To prevent hacking, the Helper Bots didn’t allow for wireless access. He didn’t want one being reprogrammed on the fly for something nefarious. Though, Tony knew very well he couldn’t control that entirely.
“What do you plan to do to his spinneret?” Jarvis questioned.
“This is just a firmware update, so the web he currently manufactures will disintegrate into essentially nothing about ten minutes after he finishes using it unless he decides he wants something more permanent,” Tony said. “But I’d like to give him the ability to expel different kinds of webs depending on his circumstances. Though I’m pretty happy with his climbing ability, I think he needs a fail-safe in case he falls from a great distance. Like a grappling hook or something similar.”
“Sounds reasonable, Sir.”
Tony slipped past Happy and into the small executive conference room that he hadn’t realized was actually furnished and found Stane standing near the back of the room. The older man looked much the same as he had the day Tony had signed the agreement buying out his investment. They hadn’t ended on the best of terms, and he honestly hadn’t expected to see much of him ever again.
Tony took a seat at the head of the table and Stane inhaled sharply like he was insulted. “How can I help you, Obie?” He threw his feet up on the corner of the table and raised an eyebrow.
“One of your father’s biggest mistakes was allowing you too much freedom,” Stane said evenly. “He let you play, and you’ve never grown up as a result.”
“I really don’t have time to sit here and be insulted by you,” Tony said evenly. “The new tablet comes out in two hours, and people started lining up last week. Pre-orders are at the maximum, and I expect to sell out the first production run within six hours of the launch. We have all three factories in California building the second run.”
Obie pulled a folded piece of paper from his pocket and tossed it on the table. It slid over the glossy oak surface. “I’ve been offered a job at Advanced Idea Mechanics, but my severance contract has a clause preventing me from taking a job in direct competition to SI.”
“AIM isn’t a direct competitor for SI.” Tony picked up the piece of paper. “What’s this?”
“I want it in writing that you don’t consider AIM a competitor so you can’t sue me later.”
Tony sighed. “Happy, get me a pen.” He unfolded the paper and found a simple statement saying that Stark Industries and Advanced Idea Mechanics were not competitors and that he wouldn’t sue Stane if that changed in the future. “You’ll be our witness unless you’d prefer not? I can call Pepper in.”
“Ms. Potts is quite busy today getting settled in at the foundation, sir. I have no problems signing his piece of paper.” Happy placed a pen down on the table.
Tony signed first, shoved it away and sat back to watch both Happy and Stane sign the agreement. Obie picked it up and put it back in his pocket.
“Can we speak privately?” Stane questioned with a glance toward Happy.
“Mr. Stark doesn’t speak privately with individuals outside of his personal social circle or non-employees,” Happy said as he opened the door. “Oscar, please escort Mr. Stane from the building. His business with Mr. Stark has been concluded.”
Tony just raised an eyebrow when Stane glared at him. “Happy Holidays, Obie. I hope your aunt likes the golden retriever I sent her.”
Stane paused and shook his head. “You confuse the fuck out of me.” He tapped the table. “Aunt Dee adores the Helpful Bot. She named him Tony in your honor.”
Tony sat up straight in the bed. “What? Jarvis?”
“My apologies, Sir, I tried to wake you gently but you were sleeping deeply, and Spiderling is currently tethered to the charging station.” Jarvis paused. “And sulking. I’ve been sent a response from Skylark 6. Nebula and Friday achieved a high orbit four minutes ago, and she’s awaiting landing instructions.”
Tony shot out of bed and stumbled a bit. “Send her to the rooftop hangar. Let’s hope the ship she brought will fit.”
“The dimensions I received from Nebula indicate that, yes, the Futurist will fit in the space we’ve already built.”
Tony smiled at the ship’s name. He wondered which one of them had chosen it as he entered the elevator and input the code to go to the hangar. The space had been built to house several quinjets, which he had in the design phase. The sky doors were already sliding open as he entered the empty room. He bounced slightly as he waited and took a deep breath as air rushed into the room. The lights shimmered over an energy field briefly, and he realized the ship was cloaked.
“Oh, Astro Girl, you just made my damn decade,” Tony murmured as the doors shut and the ship was revealed.
He walked around the ship just in time to watch the back open and a small ramp slide out. Nebula appeared, and for a few moments, she didn’t move then she rushed forward and launched herself at him.
“Hey.” He caught her, barely, and staggered a little under her slight weight. Tony hesitantly patted her hair and took a deep breath. “You’re okay. Congrats on your successful alien invasion.”
Nebula laughed, sharp and brief, and took a deep breath as she stepped back from him. “I…I’ve missed you.”
“Missed you, too, kid.” Tony looked at her face—her impossibly young, beautiful face. She didn’t appear to have a single cranial implant. “What’s your ratio right now?”
“I’m fifty-four percent organic,” Nebula said and bit down on her lip. “Is that…okay?”
Tony tugged on a strand of blue-black hair. “Of course it is. You look great. Incredibly young but great. How’s Friday?”
“She’s intact and on board,” Nebula said. “And looking forward to getting some room to spread out. I’m twenty-three.”
“Ha, try again, Ninjabot,” Tony said as he glanced into the ship. “Nice ride you brought me.”
“We went shopping on Knowhere,” she confessed. “I picked up some of your favorite tech and some weapons. I’m around eighteen based on Earth’s calendar but I was thirty-seven by that same standard before we traveled back in time so I’m an adult.”
Tony shot her a look. “There’s no way in hell I’m going to be able to pass you off as a college graduate unless we can figure out a way to artificially age your appearance. I’d planned to make you my assistant, but that won’t fly.”
“An intern might be a better choice, Sir,” Jarvis interjected. “I’m sure her engineering skills would be valuable in the lab. She could take online courses through NYU. I’ll have to do some work on her identity.”
Tony eyed Nebula who was fingering piece of her hair. “How does that sound?”
She shrugged. “I’ll do what I need to do to blend in. It’s better if no one asks any questions, right?”
“Right,” Tony agreed. “Come on, let’s get something to eat and you can tell me about your trip.” He prodded her into the elevator. “J, prep Friday’s server space and send her an invitation. Be careful of Nebula’s cybernetic coding—I’ll have to check her shielding before she leaves the building.”
“I’m shielded against intrusion and EMPs,” Nebula said. “I had to allow Friday to join me, you know. She couldn’t have infiltrated my network without permission.”
“Indulge me,” Tony urged as he guided her out into the penthouse and toward the kitchen. “I have a suite of rooms set up for you, and I had a full wardrobe purchased for you based on the size you wore before. Has that changed?”
“I weigh less now because I have fewer implants but my body shape remains the same,” Nebula said as she looked around. “Earth smells weird.”
Tony laughed. “Says a woman who’s perfectly at home inside the head of a dead alien.”
“Well, Knowhere hardly smells dead anymore,” Nebula said. “I purchased a skinsuit when I was there, by the way, so I just need to install it and I’ll be able to assume a human-like appearance.”
“Well, there are limits. If I make too many facial changes, it would be disconcerting to look at and put people off. I couldn’t change the structure of my face or the texture of my skin,” Nebula explained. “Fortunately, I still have my natural hair, and I’m female. The males of my species have genital tentacles, and a skinsuit wouldn’t be able to hide that.” She grinned when his mouth dropped open.
Tony set a glass of juice down in front of her. “This is apple juice—similar to jarda juice so you should like it.” He got water for himself and threw some leftover pizza in the microwave to heat. “So, I did some math, and you should’ve been here about three weeks ago.”
She took a hesitant sip of the juice and hummed under her breath. “This is good.”
“Talk to me, Astro Girl.”
“I ran into Gamora on Knowhere. She figured out I was making a run for it.” Nebula blew air out between her lips and pulled her legs up into the chair so she could hug them. “Thanos must have been notified that I’d sold the ship he gave me. He put a bounty on me, and a hunter followed me out of Knowhere. I plotted a bit of a meandering path so I’d know if I were being followed or not. I was thirty jumps in when the hunter revealed himself—but Gamora was there, too. She destroyed his ship, and she told me…goodbye and jumped before I could say anything.” She took a deep breath. “I was worried there might be more so I plotted hundreds of extra jumps so I could be sure I was alone before I jumped into the Milky Way.”
“Do you think Thanos will find out that Gamora helped you?”
“Even if he did, he wouldn’t punish her,” Nebula murmured. “Her defiance will simply endear her to him more. He’s always looked at her and seen his successor—he’s building his empire for her even as I sit here.”
“That makes his sacrifice of her all the more obscene.”
“Yes.” Nebula took a deep breath. “It’ll take about twelve hours for the skinsuit to bond with my body, and I’ll sleep through most of it. I didn’t want to risk that while I was traveling, plus I didn’t have a readily available source of Terran blood.”
Tony frowned. “Is this permanent? Because I’ve been working on a nanotech solution myself that won’t be permanent body modification. It would merely alter the color of your skin since I wouldn’t have to cover up any cranial implants.”
“No, but only I will be able to alter it. It will give me an entirely human persona. My blood will even be red like yours, and if it were tested, it would appear human. It won’t change my organs, of course, or hide my cybernetics.” She shrugged. “I can lock it so it can’t be deactivated by technological interference.”
He pulled the pizza out of the microwave and brought it to the table with some napkins. “So the skinsuit will be another cybernetic implant. Are you sure you want to go that route?”
“It’s the most secure form of appearance modification we could implement,” she said and frowned at the pizza. “This does not look at all appetizing.”
“You’ll like it.” He watched her gingerly pick up a piece and tried not to smile. It was interesting seeing her confronted with something completely alien to her. “We’ll do what makes you the most comfortable in that regard.”
She took a bite of the pizza and frowned as she chewed then swallowed. “This is not terrible.”
“Sir, Friday has entered a server in the farm and will be available momentarily for a conversation. We’re running a scan on her code to make sure everything is intact after her various transfers.”
“Thanks, J.” Tony joined Nebula at the table. “What are these skinsuits normally used for?”
“We bought it from a whore house,” Friday announced cheerfully. “Hi, Boss.”
Tony’s mouth dropped open, and Nebula took a big bite of pizza. “You took Friday to a whore house?”
“We also talked to alien hookers,” Friday interjected. “They were fascinating.”
Nebula’s cheeks were dark blue. “We didn’t purchase anything more than the skinsuit.”
“But a Kree man offered to pleasure her for one hundred credits,” Friday interjected. “We agreed that he was lovely, but we didn’t have time to take him up on his offer.”
Nebula huffed. “Friday.”
“You went to a space brothel and got propositioned by a space whore,” Tony said and shook his head. “You’re grounded, young lady.”
Nebula took another big bite of pizza. She chewed it aggressively as she glared. “I don’t even know what that means.”
“You said the skinsuit implant needs Terran DNA—why?”
“To create a biological signature of sorts,” Nebula said. “It’s more biomodification than cybernetic in design, and there will be some adjustments to be made while it works to adhere itself to my physiology. It won’t be painful, but I’ll be essentially defenseless while it integrates.”
“Can you use my blood or do I need to find you a female source?” Tony questioned.
Nebula pressed her lips together. “I will…appear to be your offspring from a genetic perspective if someone were to get a blood or hair sample. Will that concern you?”
“It would be an adequate cover story, Sir. Your parents would’ve certainly done everything they could to hide the fact that you fathered a child as a teenager. It will also allow you to explain her presence in the penthouse should that be questioned.”
And he figured it would certainly be questioned, a lot. Tony focused on Nebula and found her playing with the edge of the plate. “Hey.”
“I can hide and make sure no one sees me if it will be a problem.”
He frowned. “I’m not going to keep you hidden away, Nebula. I’m really pleased to have you here—with me. I want you with me in the lab or wherever. I want to show you Earth and take you out to do foolish things that serve no real purpose because you never got to play as a kid, and everyone deserves to play. We have a mission, yes, but we also have lives to build here. I hope you’ll make Earth your home.”
She nodded. “Okay, I mean, that seems like the best plan then. What about a birth mother?”
Tony frowned. “Jarvis, thoughts?”
“We create a young woman—with the right background to come into contact with you as a teenager with no immediate family on record who died shortly after she gave birth. Nebula will be on record as homeschooled in a private home by an old family friend who recently passed,” Jarvis explained. “I’ll start work on the documentation. What should Nebula’s name be?”
“Let’s play on the secret angle a bit,” Tony said as he focused on her. “Nebula Collins Stark will be her official legal name, but she’ll go by Nebula Collins in public and on the books with SI until someone outs us. It’ll happen, and when it does, I’ll have a press conference where I admit to having made an understandable mistake as a young man that resulted in a child. My parents arranged for my…daughter to be raised by a family friend to protect her. Etc., etc.” He raised an eyebrow. “How does that sound?”
Nebula nodded. “I’m not calling you father. Thanos made me call him that and I don’t want to associate you with…him.”
“Tony is fine,” he said immediately. “I certainly don’t want to be compared to that asshole. This is just for…legal and social stuff. I don’t want to set fire to several government agencies to keep you safe if they find out I’m harboring an alien but I’m not above it.”
Nebula rolled her eyes. “Like I’m the only alien here.”
Tony blew out a surprised breath. “Right, well, if you see anyone or anything familiar let me know.”
Tony looked up from his work and frowned. “Is Nebula awake?”
“Not as yet, Sir. Friday is monitoring her currently. I do have several issues that need to be addressed.”
Tony set aside the tablet he’d been working on to give Jarvis his full attention. “Okay.”
“First, Friday would like a way of staying connected to Nebula when she’s not in the tower. She suggested a cochlear implant and wishes to ask Nebula about it. Do you have a problem with that?”
“No, it’s a great idea. Friday would be on hand to help her navigate a situation if something came up and I wasn’t close enough to her. Does Friday have a design in mind?”
“Go ahead and put it into production then—Friday is intimately aware of Nebula’s cybernetic structure and will know what will work best.” Tony slid off the stool and grabbed his coffee cup. “Next?”
“Wanda and Pietro Maximoff.”
Tony winced and shook his head. “I’m not sure I’m ready to discuss that whole situation.”
“The Maximoff twins are certainly already involved in HYDRA, and their goal is to see you dead. In the other timeline, Wanda Maximoff raped your mind. There is no telling how deep her manipulation went with the other Avengers. I’ve reviewed all of the information Friday had regarding the fight you had with the other Avengers and Captain Rogers specifically. Has it not crossed your mind that Maximoff manipulated all of you mentally to cause strife and perhaps even your death?”
Tony cleared his throat. “It did, yes. Looking back on it, I think she came into the whole thing planning to destroy the Avengers from the inside. It didn’t work out the way she wanted, and maybe, just maybe, she really did love Vision, but it doesn’t change what she did and what she would certainly do again if given the opportunity. Currently, though, she has no powers to speak of. She was only granted powers at all because HYDRA got ahold of the Scepter that Loki brought to Earth. At this point, I don’t know if Thanos already has that thing or not.” He rubbed his face and focused on the coffee pot. “Wanda and Pietro are problems, yes, but they are ordinary HYDRA problems right now.”
“I’ve told Hercules to look for them,” Jarvis said. “We will watch them from this point forward. You should have told me about them sooner.”
“I didn’t want to think about her,” Tony said shortly. “Friday?”
“Incredibly still,” Friday admitted. “She did not sleep well on the trip.”
“A mixture of stress, fear, and hypervigilance,” Friday said. “Even once we were in this galaxy, she feared that Thanos would find some way to get his hands on her and punish her for running. Moreover, she has extensive body pain due to the nerve damage he caused when installing her upgrades. By the time we met her in the future, many of those nerves were dead or had been removed during other procedures. She suffers a great deal of physical pain currently. I’ve already started researching solutions, Boss, but her physiology isn’t all that similar to humans.”
“Jarvis, give Friday the Extremis data,” Tony ordered roughly. “Let’s get working on a solution as soon as possible.” He paused. “Did you have anything else?”
“Dr. Banner and Dr. Yinsen are expecting you in the secure lab within the hour.”
Tony huffed. “Rogers is a pain in the ass even as a popsicle.” He downed his coffee. “I need a shower. Tell Ho I expect real food at this meeting.”
Tony had picked up the shield as soon as he’d entered the meeting. He stared at it for a long moment then put it back down. “My Dad had some ideas about creating an artificial version of vibranium. I’m having a particle accelerator built so I can play with those concepts.” He dropped down in his seat and plucked a sandwich from the tray in front of him then took a healthy bite before looking at Ho and Bruce. They were both staring at him in shock. “What?”
Bruce shook his head. “You’re just…a lot to take in sometimes.”
Tony grinned and shrugged. He took another bite of sandwich and reached out for a can of soda with the other. “Okay, Ho, talk to me.”
“We’ve removed all of the ice, but we’re keeping his body temperature below freezing,” Ho explained. “He appears to have suffered no skin damage, and x-rays show no broken bones or internal damage from the crash that we can find. His brain activity is on par with the theoretical models I’ve researched regarding suspended animation.”
Tony nodded. “Right. Okay. Next step?”
“We take a few tissue samples and thaw them to see how they react,” Bruce said. “If the tissue dies or reacts poorly to the air we’ll know we need to do more research before we try to wake him up.”
“When’s Hansen joining us?” Tony questioned and focused on Yinsen.
“She declined my offer,” Ho admitted and flushed slightly. “She’d rather not ever set eyes on you again, you see.”
“Ah.” Tony nodded. “I made a mistake there—I admit it. I did a lot of foolish things with attractive people when I was younger, and I wasn’t always kind or even remotely polite about my departure from their lives when I was finished with them.”
“Shall I try again?”
“No, the lady said no, and we’ll take that answer. Make sure she knows that she’s welcome to join SI at any point in the future and she won’t be required to interact with me at all if that remains her preference,” Tony said. “Let’s focus on getting Captain Rogers back on his feet if that’s possible.” He glanced toward the glass wall on his left where the super soldier was being housed. “Let’s not wake him up in a lab, so you should start prepping a space for him when you get ready for that step. We won’t try to mislead him or lie to him about his circumstances, but there’s no need for him to wake up like he’s an experiment.”
“I’d like you to be on hand when he wakes up,” Ho said. “He knew your father very well and will probably connect most readily to you as a result.”
Tony hated the very idea of that. “Yeah, okay.” He took a deep breath. “So, I have something personal going on, and I need to trust the two of you with the specific details of it.” He leaned back in his chair when they both nodded. “Last night my daughter, Nebula, moved into the penthouse.” Both of their mouths dropped open which was amusing as hell.
“She recently turned eighteen, and the family friend who helped hide her from the public died. Officially, she’ll be an intern here at SI while she attends NYU. Her public name is Nebula Collins, but her full legal name is Nebula Collins Stark. I’d like to keep the fact that she’s my daughter private for as long as possible so she can settle into the life I lead without having to deal with various social pressures associated with being my teenage-father-sex-scandal-kid.”
Ho cleared his throat. “I…her mother?”
“My parents bought her off, but she died ten years ago in an accident. Nebula has no memories of her at all and doesn’t like to discuss her.” Tony took a deep breath. “She’s brilliant, and I think she’ll find the work at SI interesting.”
“Brilliant like you?” Bruce questioned. “Well, I look forward to meeting her, and we’ll both certainly do our part to make sure she fits in and people don’t ask too many questions.” He paused. “Does she look like you?”
“More like her mother,” Tony said. “Which is for the best—I’d make a hideous woman.”
Ho laughed. “The changes you made for the company make more sense to me now. I can see why you’d not want to have your daughter inherit a war machine.”
“She could’ve handled it,” Tony said. “But I can’t say she didn’t factor into what I see for the future of the company. Having her here with me will change things in ways I probably haven’t even thought about yet.”
“Certainly, fatherhood is game changing,” Ho said. “More so, when you’re face to face with your child on a regular basis. It’s easier to speak of your work to your children when you can be proud of it.”
Nebula stared at her reflection and frowned. “Should I be paler?”
“I don’t think so.”
She turned a bit and checked out her bare ass. “Pink skin is so strange.” She prodded the implant and her skin shifted dark green. “I always wanted to be green like Gamora.” Her hair turned the same red her sister sported, and she frowned. “Looks weird though.”
“Gamora is beautiful,” Friday allowed. “But so are you.”
She returned her skin to the pale Terran color and frowned. “What color hair did Jarvis give my mother?”
“Sir favors red haired women,” Jarvis interjected. “So I’ve made your biological mother a redhead to further the illusion of a previous relationship. Dark red instead of light.”
A screen lit on the wall of her bedroom, and a woman’s face appeared. “This is her. I’ve created her image by using hundreds of images of women around the world. You should make your eyes brown—like Sir’s.”
Nebula made the changes and looked at her breasts. “Should my nipples be darker?”
“Match them to your lips.” Friday paused. “The pubic hair should match the head as well.”
“Oh.” Nebula laughed. “Right.” She made the change and did a full turn. “Thoughts?”
“Your appearance seems entirely human,” Jarvis offered.
“We’ll have to watch tutorials on make-up,” Friday said. “I believe the boss will be pleased that you’ve kept your original face instead of trying to alter it. You look like you—just not blue.”
“I think I look younger,” Nebula said and exhaled. “Right?”
“Yes, I’m afraid you do,” Friday said. “What happens when you try to age your face?”
Nebula shifted the skinsuit mentally and tried to remove the youthful fullness from her face.
“No,” Jarvis said firmly.
“Right,” Friday agreed. “That’s not good.”
Nebula laughed and let the skinsuit settle back into a standard configuration. “I said it would be disconcerting.”
“Sir is back from the foundation meeting and wants to know if you’re ready for dinner,” Jarvis said.
“Tell him I’ll be out shortly,” Nebula said and shot the closet a look.
“Something casual,” Friday suggested. “You won’t have to meet anyone this evening unless there are unexpected guests. The boss doesn’t have anything scheduled and had food delivered.”
With Friday’s help, she picked out a pair of pants and T-shirt similar to what Tony had often worn on the Benatar and came back out into her bedroom. “I need undergarments, I suppose.”
“Yes, you’ll find a variety of options in the top two drawers of the dresser on the left.”
She chose a support tank and a pair of what Friday called panties which she’d never seen in her life. It seemed like a waste of resources to indulge in such things as undergarments. Clothes were hassle enough without having to worry about different layers. It was odd, but Nebula needed to fit into Tony’s life on Earth as much as possible so she would conform. Even if that meant figuring out how to wear a bra at some point.
“What is this make-up you spoke of?”
“Sir bought you a whole collection—though we might have to change the foundation to match the skin tone you’ve set. We’ll see. Regardless, women on Earth use it to define and highlight their face to the best advantage.”
“Face paint,” Nebula said and huffed. “That’s ridiculous. Gamora played with that stuff as a child. It all smelled terrible and felt worse. I hope the products here don’t smell that way. I’ll throw all of it off the side of the building if it does.” She hitched up the pants and buttoned them. “These are comfortable.”
“Jeans. The boss would dress in them all the time if social convention allowed it.”
She grabbed a pair of socks and pulled them on to her feet, which made her feel slightly better. Walking around with bare feet was weird—it made her feel vulnerable. With a glance toward her boots, she left the bedroom and went in search of Tony. The moment she left her suite, an insect-shaped bot scurried down the wall and dropped down in front of her.
“That’s Spiderling,” Friday said. “The boss made him…”
Nebula knelt down on one knee and offered the bot her hand. It crawled right on and wrapped legs around her fingers as it settled in her palm. “Because of Peter.”
“Yes, I think so. I haven’t discussed it with Jarvis.”
“Jarvis?” Nebula questioned.
“Sir misses the boy terribly,” Jarvis said quietly. “It is especially difficult since one of his long-term goals is to make sure that Peter Parker never becomes Spider-Man.”
Nebula frowned and went off in search of Tony. She found him in the kitchen with a cup of coffee and a tablet. Food was spread out on the table. Some sort of sandwich was piled on a plate with a variety of fruit—the main staple of her diet—so she was glad to see it and hoped some of it would be edible.
Nebula hesitated in the doorway and ran one hand through dark red hair “It looks bad?”
“No, I mean.” Tony blew out a surprised breath. “I’m going to spend a lot of time looking for aliens now. The change is stunning.” He cleared his throat. “I picked out fruits that match the nutrient profiles of various fruits you regularly stocked on the ship,” Tony said. “Specifically, the melons and the citrus fruits. We’ll have to monitor your vitamin levels to make sure you’re getting what you need on that front.”
“I did buy a supply of supplements that will last me several years if it’s a problem,” Nebula said. She sat Spiderling down on the table and picked up an orange-colored fruit that reminded her of ruhi seed. The peel felt similar as she slid a nail into the flesh and started to open it. “Amongst my people, there is a strong belief in fate.”
Tony set aside the tablet with a sigh and picked up a sandwich. “This is chicken Waldorf salad—you’ll like it.”
She grabbed a sandwich and took a healthy bite. It was, in fact, delicious, so she put it on her plate and went back to peeling her fruit. “What is this thing?”
“Humans aren’t much on originality, huh?” She grinned when he huffed. “I like the way it smells,” she said. “It reminds me of home. My mother had a ruhi bush that produced seeds very similar to this. She would make juice from it as well.”
“J, put orange juice on the grocery list—pick one with a low sugar content.”
“Fate,” Nebula repeated. “I met a time theorist once on Xandar who spoke of fixed points in time in the universe—unchangeable events that will come to pass no matter what we do. He used that theory to explain the fact that sometimes no matter how hard we try at something—failure is a possibility.”
“Do you think Thanos gaining all of the stones is a fixed point in time?”
“No.” Nebula shook her head and glanced toward Spiderling who was playing with the tablet that Tony had abandoned. “I know you wish to spare various people in your life the pain they suffered in the previous timeline. But I believe you should be prepared to accept that some things are beyond your control.”
“I don’t believe in destiny,” Tony said roughly. “It’s bullshit.”
Nebula laughed. “You don’t have to believe in it for it to be real. There are plenty of people on this planet who don’t believe other intelligent life exists in the universe and yet here I sit.”
“I get what you’re saying, but I can’t just sit by and do nothing.”
“Of course not,” Nebula shrugged. “You just need to have a plan in place to deal with failure.” Spiderling came across the table, crawled up her arm, and nestled down in the hair on her shoulder. “You said we’re building a life here, right? That means we have to accept that some things are going to come to pass whether we want them to or not.”
“I told Yinsen and Banner the cover story, but I’m not sure how to tell Pepper.”
“Because I have no excuse for keeping an illegitimate child from a woman who managed my entire life for eight years,” Tony said wearily. “The secret of it will hurt her, but I don’t have a choice on that front—I’m just not sure how to have that conversation. Then there’s my best friend, Rhodey.”
“War Machine,” Nebula said. “Are you going to build him armor this time?”
“He was permanently disabled because of that armor,” Tony said roughly. “I’m not…” He took a deep breath. “I just don’t know. I only gave them the War Machine armor in the first place so they’d stay off my back about my armor, and I don’t intend to ever admit I’m Iron Man this time around. A secret identity is definitely the way to go.”
“I want armor.”
Tony grinned. “I’m already building you one, codename Banshee.”
Her gaze narrowed. “Why?”
“Because you yell a lot when you’re pissed,” Tony said with a laugh, and she threw a piece of orange peel at him. “It has a few different configurations, including one with a set of wings. I figured you’d like the imagery.”
“We shall see,” she said. “I need about a week to absorb the rest of the information Friday has compiled for me. We did a lot of work on the way here—history, politics, social sciences, and the like. I have the equivalent of a master’s degree in those subjects. We left culture for last since she wanted Jarvis’ input for those lessons due to the time period shift and the fact that she wasn’t active during this phase of your life. I can consume most of that information while I sleep.”
“I’m really jealous over that,” Tony admitted.
“We could go back to Andromeda, and you could let Thanos jerk your brain out of your head, transfer your consciousness into a cybernetic replica, and shove it back into your skull.” She raised an eyebrow when he glared.
“Don’t joke about that shit. I could kill that bastard four times over for the mere fact that you remember that happening for fuck’s sake.” He huffed when she shrugged. “J, have you set up her application for NYU?”
“Yes, Sir, I assume starting next fall would be the best option? She’ll have to take the GED and the SATs at some point in the spring. I’ve inserted an entire education history in the state database regarding homeschooling including standardized testing results. There shouldn’t be any hiccups there. The teacher that did her assessments retired and moved to Florida. I picked one that was quite elderly who could be, in theory, manipulated to believe she merely forgot Nebula.”
“I realize it’s untoward, Sir, but it’s just a precaution.” Jarvis paused. “Bribery is an alternative solution.”
Tony relaxed. “I much prefer purchasing lies to brainwashing. Make a note.” He pulled a small black box from his pocket and opened it. “This is for you. Friday had it manufactured.”
Nebula picked it up. “What’s it for?”
“It’s a cochlear implant that will allow me to marry to your cybernetic network so I can always be with you when you leave the tower,” Friday explained when Tony waved a hand.
Nebula took a deep breath and smiled. “Thanks, Friday.”
“Gamora doesn’t know it, of course, but I promised her I’d take care of you in her place,” Friday explained.
Nebula picked up the implant and studied the tiny gel covered oval. “I just slide this into my ear?”
“Yes, it will burrow into the right spot but shouldn’t hurt at all.”
She nodded and slid the implant into her left ear canal without further discussion. There was a slight pop, but otherwise, no physical sensation as the implant sank into her ear with a fleeting wisp of heat. “You mirrored the skinsuit’s construction.”
Tony frowned. “Hmmm, where did you insert the skinsuit?”
Nebula grinned at him. “Do you really want to know?”
He huffed. “Yes and no at the same time.” Tony slouched down in the chair with a groan. “Where? I’ll die of curiosity, otherwise.”
“Well, I didn’t have a navel, so the skinsuit made one as it was inserted into my body.” She stood and lifted her T-shirt to show off her new feature. “Friday says it looks like a belly button ring which is fashionable enough that no one would question it.”
“I should probably have something to say about such things,” Tony said thoughtfully as he stared at the silver ring tucked into her navel. “But I pierced something much worse at eighteen, so I’ll keep any pseudo-parental disapproval to myself.”
She shrugged and sat down. “How did Banner and Yinsen take the news of your surprise-kid?”
“Neither of them have deep personal connections with me in this timeline,” Tony said. “So they were startled but supportive, and they’re looking forward to seeing if you’re as good as me in the lab.” He pushed the tablet her way. “Speaking of, I thought you might like to help me make and name a new element. Well, it’s not a new element. On Earth, it’s called vibranium.”
“It’s a variant of uru, an Asgardian metal,” Nebula murmured as she studied the chemical structure. “Thor’s Hammer is made of uru. But this looks magically resistant while uru itself has a natural affinity for magic. In fact, the more magic it is exposed to the stronger it will be. You used this in the other timeline to power your suits.”
“You’d get something stronger and better if you mixed this vibranium and uru together.” Her fingers danced over the screen as she input the chemical formula for the hybrid element. “It would absorb any magic thrown at you and just get stronger as a result. It would help deter magical interference, perhaps even outright neutralize people like Dr. Strange and his mentor.” She passed the tablet back to him.
Tony studied it for several minutes and nodded. He called up another screen. “Look at this—it’s a metal called adamantium. It’s known to be literally indestructible.”
She took the pad back and reached for her sandwich as she studied the new metal. “Taking various qualities from all three would be intriguing—strength, kinetic energy, magical absorption. All three are lightweight, much like what you used for the nanotech version of your armor. It’ll take a lot of time and power to make very little.”
“Agreed, but I would like to come up with a formula to offer as body armor for military personnel, so that’s something to be thinking about. Perhaps not an entirely new element but a mixture of vibranium and adamantium so they’d be able to deflect or absorb the impact of energy weapons.”
Nebula nodded. “Prepare your nation’s military for Thanos without them even knowing about it.”
“In some ways, yes. I don’t want to build weapons they’ll end up using on other countries on this planet—so I can’t see how I can get them ready on that front.”
“Perhaps you should leave that to SHIELD, then,” Nebula murmured as she concentrated on the tablet in front of her. “Can I have this?”
“Yeah, I have another in my lab. Friday can get anything you need for it. I’ll have a laptop set up for you by tomorrow as well.”
Nebula was seated on a stool in his private lab when he entered. Her fingers were dancing over her laptop keyboard, and her hair was in a ponytail on top of her head.
“Your holographic projector is shit,” she announced without looking at him. “I’m writing a new program, but the equipment will need to be retooled. I unpacked the Futurist, and we’re going to start breaking down the tech for parts this afternoon. I have U on the ship currently. She’s preparing a schematic for the ship so we can have plans on hand to explain it and pretend we built it should that come up. Jarvis said we would need to patent it to keep it from getting confiscated. So we’ll have patent all of the parts individually, and then the design.” She waved a hand. “U’s working on that. Friday is writing our applications. There will be several thousand.”
Tony stared for a moment. “Okay. Anything else?”
“There’s a problem with Spiderling.” Nebula focused on him. “He built a web.”
“A whole web?”
“Yes.” Her mouth quirked slightly. “On the tree in our living quarters. He insists it’s his contribution to the decoration. Dum-E wasn’t impressed with his efforts, and it hurt his feelings. He’s under the dresser in your bedroom sulking.”
Tony shot Dum-E a stern look, and the bot waved his claw in greeting. “Are you being mean to the baby?” The bot flicked his claw and stuck one finger up. “Did you just…you little…” He huffed as Dum-E rolled away. “Asshole.”
“He’s going through a phase, Sir.”
Tony huffed. “He isn’t even the middle child for fuck’s sake.”
“No, but he did find out from Friday that you allowed him to be destroyed.”
“That was not my fault,” Tony protested. “And I rebuilt him—almost good as new.” He glared at Dum-E who turned his camera away from everyone in the lab and started poking at the cups in the sink. “Fine. Don’t think I won’t donate you to the foundation. You’ll end up folding pamphlets for Pepper all day, every day.”
Dum-E let loose a series of beeps that made Nebula laugh.
“What was that?” Tony questioned. “Did you teach him some sort of language?”
Nebula shrugged. “I was bored. He said he likes Pepper better than you, by the way.”
Tony huffed and left the lab after pointing sternly in Dum-E’s direction. “Jarvis, send me a copy of that language she taught the bots so I can learn it.”
“It’s International Morse Code, Sir. She learned it in her sleep last night and finds it fascinating,” Jarvis said as he entered the elevator. “She’s brilliant. I find her structure exciting more so for the fact that Thanos was able to transfer her personality and intellectual abilities wholesale into a cybernetic brain than anything else.”
“Thanos is a tech-scavenger. He didn’t do the actual work himself—he just supervised it to ensure that it was as painful as possible in every single way,” Tony said grimly as he left the elevator. “She’s a marvel, certainly, but that’s more to do with her perseverance than his abilities.” He got down on his hands and knees to peer under the dresser. Spiderling was tucked into the very back corner. “Come here, kid.” The bot clicked two legs together and made a mournful little whirring sound. “Dum-E’s just a jerk. I’m sure your web is awesome.” The bot darted forward and curled around the hand he offered.
“I don’t know about his web but your arse is a work of art.”
Tony sighed and sat back on his heels. “Using magic to be a Peeping Loki can’t be appropriate. Does your mother know about this?” He stood and turned to face the God of Mischief, who was sprawled across his bed. “Get off my bed.”
Loki grinned. “Technically, I’m on my bed. I did some more scrying for your girl and was pleased to see her with you. I just came to check in and see if I can send anything your way.”
“Not unless you can get your hands on a ruhi bush.”
Loki raised an eyebrow. “My mother uses them to decorate the palace—they have lovely blooms, and the seeds are delicious.”
“Nebula said they were on her homeworld and they remind her of her mother.” Tony cleared his throat when Loki raised an eyebrow. “I’d like to give her a little piece of home.”
“I’ll bring one when I come,” Loki said.
“When that’s going to happen?”
“Any day now—I’m trying to encourage my father to send Thor on a quest to temper him a bit. I’d rather not go down the path I took last time to get Thor to wake up to his responsibilities to our people.” Loki sighed. “I must run—the Warriors Three are out in the courtyard trying to talk my brother into doing something completely insane. That’s not the kind of entertainment I can pass up.” The god disappeared with a shimmer of magic.
“You didn’t tell me Loki Odinson traveled back with us,” Nebula accused from the doorway. Her cheeks were flushed pink, and her eyes were glittering—more black than brown.
“I still don’t know how it happened,” Tony defended. “You haven’t been here long and, honestly, I’m really confused by it because he’s flirting with me.”
“I suppose you’re attractive for your species,” Nebula said but frowned then grimaced. “But you’re old.”
Tony gaped. “Rude.”
She shrugged and plucked Spiderling from his hand. “I’m hungry—tell me about Loki and feed me.”
“I don’t actually cook,” Tony said as he followed her through the penthouse to the kitchen. “Remember?”
“Oh, I do,” she said. “I’ve never seen anyone actually ruin mordi eggs before. They practically cook themselves. Jarvis said he had the kitchen stocked this afternoon while you were talking about the frozen person.”
Nebula shrugged and opened the fridge. She picked up various items. “I have no idea what any of this is. Friday hasn’t gotten to the Earth food lesson, yet.”
Tony nudged her out of the way and retrieved stuff to build sandwiches. “We have more chicken salad.”
“I love that,” Nebula said and grabbed the container when he offered it.
They quickly settled in at the table and made sandwiches together.
“Loki appeared after I moved to New York,” Tony said as he opened up two bottles of water. He passed one to her and took a healthy swig from his own. “He explained how he woke up in the past and that his last memory was being murdered by Thanos.” He paused when she paled. “He wants to help us and even told me about another Infinity Stone that will be on Earth. The stone in question ended up leading to his mother’s murder.”
“Do you trust him?”
“He’s dangerous,” Tony said roughly. “And I certainly can’t control him. I wish I could trust him.”
“Thanos…” Nebula took a deep breath. “When Loki fell from the Bifrost, Thanos found him. He had him tortured and used the Scepter to induce in him a form of madness before he sent him to Earth to lead the Chitauri invasion. Loki Odinson was many things before he fell from the Bifrost—reckless, ambitious, deceptive, and perhaps even cruel but Thanos shaped him into a monster while he had him under his thrall. I don’t know how long it took him to break free from what was done to him.”
“I think he died the first time around fighting the last of it,” Tony said. “He tried to kill Thanos in the last moments of his life. It’s hard to reconcile what I know of him from then and his motives now.”
“Perhaps we’re not the only ones that brought unnecessary burdens back with us,” Nebula said. “Thor said that Thanos murdered a great many of the Asgardians that escaped Asgard. We also know that despite his magic and long lifespan that Loki can be killed. I’ve killed a Jotun before—they don’t go down easy, but they do go down, and Loki isn’t as robust as the rest of his kind. I personally don’t think he’s entirely Jotun to begin with.” She paused. “However, we should not forget that he killed his own biological father in the first timeline.”
“He what?” Tony questioned.
“Loki killed Laufey, the king of the Frost Giants and his biological father. Laufey abandoned Loki, left him to die, and Odin rescued him. That’s the story that Thanos had tortured out of Loki at any rate. Thanos was quite pleased with how mercenary Loki’s nature was and believed he could shape him into a better weapon.”
“He wants to come here.”
“To escape the situation on Asgard—living with people who have no idea he’s literally the monster under the bed they use to scare their children into compliance,” Nebula said.
“Thanos learned a lot about him,” Tony said neutrally. “Do I have to ask you?”
“No, I did…the physical work. Thanos never allowed me to handle the Scepter—he knew better than to trust me with such a thing. I used a variety of instruments to render Loki helpless to Thanos’ mental manipulation. I could say I had no choice, but I did.”
“He’d have punished you severely for refusing him.”
She inclined her head. “But I could’ve still said no.”
“I wouldn’t have,” Tony said plainly. “Loki was nothing to you at that moment—a stranger who had information that Thanos wanted. If I’ve learned anything since the Snap, it’s that we do what we have to do to survive. If you said no, someone else would’ve done it. Maybe someone who wouldn’t have been skilled enough to actually keep Loki alive.”
Nebula snatched a knife off the table as she hauled Tony from his chair, shoved him behind her and threw the blade. It went straight through the projection’s head and into the wall.
Loki snorted. “Excellent aim.”
Nebula flushed. “Reflex.”
Tony huffed a little and prodded her back to the table. “I thought you were going to watch your brother be an idiot with his friends.”
Loki shrugged. “They left Asgard, and I wasn’t in the mood for such things, so I wandered around in my mother’s garden for a bit and prepared that thing you asked for.” He leaned against the counter and focused on Nebula. “Rest assured, little one, that given such an instruction from Thanos that I would’ve tortured you until you drowned in your own blood.”
She quirked an eyebrow. “So, no hard feelings, then?”
Loki smiled grimly. “Not a single one. I believe we all know who to blame for the true misery we left behind.” He stared at Nebula. “And you’re right, I’m not entirely Jotun, but I never bothered to ask what creature birthed me and left me in the brutal hands of Laufey.” He paused briefly then shrugged. “Though the last time I saw him, I was too busy trying to kill him to ask him what he’d rutted on over a thousand years ago.”
Tony huffed when Loki disappeared with a wisp of magic. “See. He just does that.” He stood, walked across the room, and pulled the knife out of the wall. “How am I going to explain this hole in the wall?”
Nebula raised an eyebrow. “You’re very wealthy, correct?”
“And on this planet wealth equals power?”
“Yeah,” Tony admitted despite how uncomfortable the wording of the question left him.
“Then why would you bother explaining it to anyone?” She questioned and raised an eyebrow. “Call someone to repair it. They are owed no details.”
“You’re a bad influence,” he told her gravely and smiled when she laughed.
Tony was sprawled on the large couch in the living room with his tablet when Pepper arrived. She shot the Christmas tree an appalled look but then focused on him.
“Well, what?” Tony questioned. He put aside his tablet.
“I heard about your…intern.” She crossed her arms over her chest and glared. “Word is she barely looks legal, Tony. Is this really the kind of thing you want to indulge in when you’re working so hard to turn around your image? Couldn’t you at least get an adult to play with?”
Oh, he thought. Tony stared a Pepper for a long moment as he tried to process his inappropriate anger. She didn’t know the cover story, so it wasn’t like she was actually knowingly accusing him of something truly obscene. Moreover, it was obvious that she was jealous. He felt like an idiot because when he’d decided to not pursue that relationship again, he hadn’t really considered where Pepper had been on the emotional landscape of their friendship. Was she already in love with him?
“Stop saying words like you’re using air quotes without actually using air quotes,” Tony finally said. “I’m not having an affair with a barely legal soon-to-be college student. She’s…” He took a deep breath. “Nebula is my daughter, Pepper.”
“Your daughter,” Pepper said flatly. “You moved some girl in here without even checking with legal or getting DNA tests? You can’t make these kinds of mistakes, Tony! She could make a claim on your money or your assets based on your acceptance.”
“She doesn’t need my money,” Tony said. “Since my parents settled a substantial trust fund on her before she was even born.” He’d never been more thankful for Jarvis and the AI’s meticulous attention to detail. “Paternity tests were done at the time, and her birth mother was essentially paid to disappear. I wasn’t consulted, really, since I was only sixteen. I did get to name her—Nebula Collins Stark. She was raised by a family friend, and I was allowed to visit her periodically as long as I didn’t disrupt their lives or draw public attention to them. Nebula turned eighteen over the summer, and her guardian passed away. She’s living here now and working with me in the lab as an intern under the name Nebula Collins. A real, live, hardworking intern so I would appreciate if you would stop acting like I’m an idiot.”
“Why have I never heard a single word about her?” Pepper questioned. “I never noticed you visiting her. Where was she living?”
“Here in New York and I visited when I could. Her guardian wanted me to keep her a secret while she was a minor, and I agreed. I never discussed Nebula with anyone but my parents, Pepper, it’s nothing personal. Not even Rhodey knows about her, but I did invite him to dinner next week to meet her.” He picked up his tablet. “Though for the record, being my friend doesn’t give you the right to question me about my sex life. It certainly wasn’t included in the new job description either.” He raised an eyebrow when her cheeks flushed pink. “I don’t ask you about your affairs nor do I lecture you about your poor choices and I could. Did you want to talk about that idiot entertainment lawyer you dated last year? I also didn’t say a single word two years ago when you chose to stay in Paris for three weeks after a meeting so you could hook up with that artist whose probably still painting portraits of your tits.”
“Tony.” She huffed. “That’s…”
“Tell me he’s not.”
She blushed. “I can’t.” Pepper threw herself on the couch next to him and frowned when Spiderling crawled off Tony’s lap in favor of hers. She picked the bot up, and he clicked his claws at her rapidly.
“He’s talking to you,” Tony said. “He likes your shiny earrings and thinks they’d look nice on the tree.” He focused on the tablet. “Nebula taught the bots Morse code because she was bored. I’ve already passed the idea to Ho to be included as an option for Helpful Bots—we have various organizations who help the disabled reaching out to us so having options for the blind community already available will be good. We added sign language as well. Not everyone would be comfortable with a bot who could actually speak—especially ones shaped like animals. The more communication options available the better.”
Pepper nodded and glanced toward the tree. “So the bots decorated the tree?”
“It’s their tree,” Tony said. “Want to meet her?”
“Yes, please,” Pepper said immediately.
He said nothing as they left the couch and headed for the elevator. Once inside, he pressed the button for the floor holding his private lab. “I don’t expect to keep her a secret forever, but I would like her to get used to me and the whole deal before the entire planet finds out about her.”
“She was homeschooled and the like so if she’s…a bit rude or whatever, overlook it.”
“Plus she has genetics working against her,” Pepper said wryly.
He laughed as he motioned her out of the elevator ahead of him. They both paused in front of the glass wall leading into the main lab. Nebula was seated at the main table, a holographic display spinning out around her.
“Oh, Tony,” Pepper said and sighed. “She’s beautiful.”
“I’m working on implanting stun technology into all of her clothes so creeps can’t touch her,” Tony confided.
Nebula looked up and met his gaze then raised one eyebrow. She flicked a holographic version of a quinjet at him, and it sailed toward him, through the glass, and hovered right in front of his nose. He huffed and flicked it back at her.
“Come on then.”
“I think you’re in over your head,” Pepper said wryly as they entered the lab—it was relatively silent except for a steady flow of beeps from Dum-E.
“No,” Nebula said and pointed her finger at him. “I don’t care what Spiderling told you—we’ll make some sort of replica of her earrings, bigger ones to match the tree.”
Dum-E rolled away happily clicking toward the production module, and Tony resisted the urge to stop him.
“How did you get him out of his depression?” Tony asked.
“I let him fix me some tea and toast,” Nebula said and slid off the stool as she focused on Pepper. “Hi.”
“Pepper Potts meet my offspring Nebula Collins Stark.”
Nebula offered her hand and Pepper went in for a hug which made Nebula flail a bit and look at Tony with pure panic. “Oh, she’s one those hugger people.”
Tony laughed. “Sorry, I forgot.”
“It’s so great to meet you,” Pepper said as she released Nebula.
Nebula eyed her as she stepped out of hugging range. “It’s nice to meet you as well. Tony said you’re enjoying your work with the foundation. I’m sure my grandmother would be pleased to have someone so dedicated working in her name.” She sat back on the stool and focused on Pepper with a sweet, earnest expression that made Tony want to run a scan on her cybernetic code.
Pepper stared for a moment in dismay. “Oh, no.”
“What?” Tony asked.
“I don’t think the world can handle two of you. Look at her—she looks sweet, like Bambi, but she could probably blow a hole in the planet with a box of scraps and a couple of 9-volt batteries.”
“I’d need a great deal of ordnance, and I’m not sure what the batteries…” Nebula trailed off and blushed when Tony cleared his throat. “Not that I would blow a hole in this planet.” She paused. “On purpose.”
Pepper exhaled sharply. “Wow.”
“She’s kidding,” Tony said and shot Nebula a look, who just smiled.
“Well, at least she’s not accusing you of banging me anymore,” Nebula said brightly.
Pepper blushed furiously. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry. You heard that?”
“Spiderling told Dum-E who told me,” Nebula said. “Jarvis wouldn’t let me listen in on the conversation. Don’t worry—I’m not mad. Tony’s more than earned his manwhore reputation.” She turned back to her holographic display. “I worked out the kinks on the 4D modeling.”
“I noticed,” Tony said and plucked the quinjet out of the array of objects. “This looks different than what I had on file. Have you modified it?”
“Just your theoretical model—I didn’t send any updates to the production line. I added heat shields.”
“For orbital maneuvers,” Tony said and slowly sat down on the stool as he opened up the quinjet’s plans.
“I’ll just leave you two,” Pepper said dryly. “Jarvis, make sure they eat.”
Tony waved at her, but he was already focused on the plans. “I wasn’t planning on offering this tech to NASA.”
“There’s no need to start from scratch,” Nebula pointed out. “If you’re serious about building them a space station then we need reliable, customizable air/spacecraft to accomplish it. We also need to start working on their space suit tech because what they have is going to make construction in space something of a nightmare. Even if we carry the station up in modules, which makes sense for the tech available, they’ll need to be able to get outside and work.” She cleared her throat. “Jarvis?”
“Ms. Potts is currently crossing the sky bridge to building three,” Jarvis reported. “And the lab is secure.”
“She was jealous,” Tony blurted out and exhaled. “I didn’t expect that.”
“You’re such an idiot,” Nebula said with a dirty look in his direction. “Of course she’s jealous. The woman obviously has feelings for you and probably has for quite a while.”
“I had to work pretty hard to keep that relationship afloat,” Tony protested. “The Iron Man thing was difficult for her to tolerate.”
She poked him in the chest where the arc reactor had once sat. “Iron Man doesn’t exist right now, you foolish male. Your biggest detraction currently is that you’re a slut and you work too much as far as Pepper Potts is concerned. You gave up drinking and turned your company into some sort of high tech dream factory. Of course, she’s going to find you more attractive now.”
Tony glared at her. “I’m not a slut. I haven’t gotten laid in years.”
“That’s a really inappropriate thing to tell your offspring,” Nebula said and tossed her hair over her shoulder as she left the stool. “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
Tony huffed. “Shut up and come tell me about these heat shields. Can we build them with Earth materials?”
“Of course,” Nebula shot him a look as she disappeared into the small kitchen of the lab. She returned with two cups and put one down in front of him. “Jarvis show him the model I’ve been playing with for the space station.”
The holographic display shifted, and the quinjet disappeared from his hand. Tony tilted his head as he studied it. “Looks entirely beyond the scope of most of the scientists on the planet. The Director of NASA would shit a brick if I told him I could build them something like this.” He turned the three-tiered station with a frown then turned it on the side. “Let’s do this.” He took it apart quickly then started layering circles together in a flatter design. “Docking stations here and here. J, change these outer walls to glass. NASA loves to look out windows.” He stepped back. “Thoughts?”
“You’ve created more surface area,” Nebula said. “Which would be ideal for solar power collection. It will need more shielding because spreading it out in overlapping circles provides more opportunities for vulnerabilities. The space above this planet is littered with debris. It should be cleaned up—it’s very irresponsible to have such messy orbital slots. This planet would be fined heavily for it by the trading guilds if Earth were to join intergalactic trade at some point.”
Tony made a face. “I guess I could recycle it.” He rubbed the back of his head. “Jarvis, research current international laws regarding abandoned debris in orbit around the planet and salvage laws as it pertains to private citizens then prep a proposal for the involved governments around the world regarding an SI-run salvage operation.”
“We’ll need to build a series of arc reactors to power this,” Nebula said. “And you’ll have to start working on a shield for it in public. Something people can watch you do so you’ll have witnesses to the development.”
“I hate working in the main lab,” Tony muttered but held up a hand when she started to say more. “But you’re right—I need to be in public for more than one reason. I’m the face of Stark Industries, and I need to be out there proving what I said about the new direction of the company.”
Nebula peered down at the frozen body of Steve Rogers with a frown. “I haven’t studied biochemistry or the impact of gamma radiation much.” She glanced toward Bruce Banner and Ho Yinsen briefly then refocused on the lab beneath them. “From my grandfather’s notes regarding Project Rebirth, we know that the serum gave Rogers advanced physical and mental abilities. How those abilities were ultimately shaped is unfortunate. The records Jarvis provided indicated that he had little to no formal training before he was field promoted to Captain, so Rogers certainly wasn’t prepared or conditioned for the war he was thrust into.”
“His assessments don’t mention any sort of emotional damage regarding his experiences during the war,” Tony said and watched her think about that. Bruce and Ho had taken the introduction in stride and appeared to be interested in her opinion instead just indulging their boss’ daughter.
She made a face. “He committed suicide.”
“No, he sacrificed himself to save the world,” Ho protested.
Nebula turned and faced them, glancing only briefly at Tony before continuing. “I’ve watched the footage of the ship being recovered. He made absolutely no effort to leave the ship. Considering his level of fitness and strength due to the super soldier serum he would’ve been able to exit the ship and swim to the surface. Instead, he got comfortable on the floor of that ship put his shield on his chest, went to sleep, and froze. He assumed he would freeze to death.” She jerked a thumb toward the body in the other room. “When he wakes up—he’ll be surprised and probably furious.”
Tony exhaled sharply and rubbed his face with his hand. “So a team of psychologists.”
“You think he’ll wake up suicidal,” Bruce said. “I see it as a possibility because the future will be overwhelming, but I hadn’t really considered past stressors. We’ll need to work really hard to get him fully connected to people and invested in something to give his attention to.”
“There’s a fine line between suicidal and ready to die,” Tony murmured and glanced toward Ho. He doubted he’d ever get over the way the older man had died in the previous timeline. “Finish the physical testing first then we’ll work on waking him. Don’t let any of the psychologists try to construct some sort of elaborate lie to break it to him easily—deceit is not the way to go with a man like Steve Rogers.” He motioned toward the door. “Let’s hit the main lab, kid, and we can show them the changes we’ve made to the plans for NASA.”
A half hour later, Nebula and Bruce were elbows deep in the plans for the space station, and Tony was at a work table of his own working on the shielding with a small-scale model. Ho sat down beside him and gave Spiderling a little poke in greeting. The bot tapped out a greeting in return.
“Miss Collins is quite brilliant,” Ho said. “We can look forward to great things from her in the future once she gets some more education under her belt. Whoever schooled her did a stellar job.”
“A mixture of people and her own dedicated AI,” Tony said and pushed a tablet toward the scientist. “Thoughts?”
Ho shifted through various screens for nearly ten minutes before clearing his throat. “Decades.”
“What?” Tony looked up.
“You’re many decades ahead of the rest of us, and it is both stunning and annoying.” Ho grinned when Tony laughed. “I’m truly thrilled to come to work every day because I never know what is going to hit my desk next. When do the people from NASA arrive?”
“January 15th.” He looked toward Nebula and Bruce. “I figured once we finalized those plans I’ll send it to production. I should be able to sort out various power issues within the week.”
Nebula walked across the lab to join them. “I need to go check on U’s progress. I had Jarvis order lunch for us. Delivery in one hour.”
Tony nodded. “He’ll remind me. Take Spiderling with you—he needs to charge.”
She plucked the bot up from the table despite his protests. “His stubbornness might require a programming adjustment.”
Tony just hummed under his breath as she walked away, quietly lecturing the bot regarding his avoidance of basic maintenance.
“I think she could be smarter than you,” Bruce announced as he approached the table “Sorry.”
Tony laughed. “No, you’re not. Did you guys figure out a solution for anti-gravity?”
“Yes, we both agree that gravitational shielding would be the best choice if it’s viable for the size of the structure. We’d need a lot of power to generate that kind of field.”
“The arc reactor can handle that,” Tony said absently. “Jarvis, show Ho and Bruce the plans for the arc reactor.”
Both men left him in favor of the main holo-table.
Hercules reported to Jarvis in the middle of dinner that he’d confirmed the HYDRA facility where the Winter Soldiers were being stored was still in Siberia. It led to their first full-on argument in over two years.
“Look, Stark, I let you treat me like a kid in front of people because it’s expected for my cover.” Nebula poked him harshly in the sternum. “But I’m not a fucking child.”
“I’m not treating you like a child,” Tony argued. “You’re more organic than you were before and that makes you slightly more vulnerable to injury. The suits are built for both of us but they don’t have power sources, which means neither one of us are in the right place for a mission. Especially not a mission with a whole team of brainwashed super soldiers on the other end of it.” He rubbed his sternum with a frown. “We need to do some recon on the facility, review the security information Hercules has gathered, and figure out how to go into this situation as anonymously as possible. I’d rather HYDRA not figure out I’m out to destroy them.”
She glared at him. “You’re not leaving me behind.”
“I’d never choose to leave you behind,” Tony said seriously. “Maybe I got a little co-dependent or something while we were hunting for Thanos but there isn’t anyone on this planet I trust more than you. I know you have my back and that’s one of the single most relieving things I have in this fucked up situation. Not to get overly emotional, Astro Girl, but you’re really all that I have left from that other timeline.”
Her cheeks flushed. “Don’t you dare hug me.” She poked a finger in the air in front of his face and huffed. “You said you were building a nanotech system to help me appear more human?”
“Yes, but I set it aside when you showed up with your whorehouse-skinsuit.” He frowned. “You bought it new, right?”
She snorted. “Shut up.” Nebula picked up her food and shoved the fork into it. “Let’s finish this in the lab, and we’ll work on something to conceal our identities. I’d rather not make any major structural changes to the skinsuit now that it’s settled.”
Tony grabbed his own half-finished bowl of pasta and followed along. “Seriously though, that skinsuit wasn’t gently used or refurbished, right? I mean how does that even work?”
“I watched them make it and inspected every single line of code before purchase,” Nebula said as they entered the elevator. “Thanos might not have cared about the quality of my…parts, but I take a great deal of care regarding such things.”
“I have a few ideas about eliminating the nerve pain your implants have left you with.”
“I can handle it,” she said roughly as they left the elevator. The glass doors of the lab slid open soundlessly at their approach. “I can ignore those signals most of the time.”
“There is no reason on Earth that you should suffer with it,” Tony said evenly. “So we’re going to work on it. Friday is currently reviewing data on a project called Extremis that I believe will be able to help you in that respect. We could restore some of your original limbs if you wish.”
“Currently only my right arm is cybernetic, and I prefer that,” Nebula said as she sat down on a stool and put her bowl in front of her. “My species is naturally robust but the arm gives me an advantage that I’m used to, and I wouldn’t want to part with it unless I had no choice.”
“If you’re sure.” He activated the holo table between them as he got settled on the other side. “J, call up the Shade data.” He spread out the code with both hands. “What I originally had planned doesn’t apply to our current situation since we don’t need to change the whole body.”
“No, just head and hands I would think,” Nebula murmured. She sectioned off a bit of code for herself and started reading. “We could mix some of the stealth shield technology into this—it would create a distortion field around the body.”
“With the added benefit of looking creepy as hell,” Tony agreed. “Security cameras would be useless against something like that.”
“Shield body heat, distort physical features including height and weight. This would’ve been very handy when I worked as an assassin.” She paused. “Which I can still do as needed.”
Tony grimaced. “I’m not sure I could ask you to kill someone for me, Ninjabot.”
“I’m not Thanos.”
“He never asked,” Nebula said dryly and popped a piece of tortellini into her mouth. “I like this cheese in the pasta.”
“Ricotta,” Tony supplied. “I can’t say there aren’t people on this planet that would be better off dead and maybe I’ve thought about sending you their way just because it would make things easier in the long run but…is that really the kind of life we want to build here?”
“I wouldn’t want to continue to make a career of it.” She smiled when he laughed. “But if there is a person in play that would greatly impact our goals or endanger the lives of people who are important to you then I would have no problem removing them from the situation.”
“I’ll keep it in mind.”
“The Futurist hasn’t been fitted with an encrypted communication system from Earth, and prolonged use of what it does have might catch attention we don’t want. I would suggest that one of you replace it before the ship is used in field operations.”
“I’ll take care of it,” Nebula said and slipped off the stool. She took her food with her. “U, let’s go take apart a console.”
U beeped her agreement as she left the charging station and followed Nebula to the private elevator in the back of the lab that led to the hangar.
The Futurist was a sweet ride, but Tony had expected it would be, and it made the trip to Siberia quickly. He’d been hoping, ardently, that the Winter Soldiers cache would be in a different location. There were no fond memories of Siberia to be had, and he didn’t need to refresh the unspeakable fury that had nested in his gut when he’d learned what really happened to his parents.
“The organic brain is fragile,” Nebula said as they hovered above the facility while the ship scanned it for life signs and security measures. “And the consciousness, no matter the species, balances on a thin knife. It is incredibly easy to reduce another person to nothing more than a shell of who they were and implant in them your desires. Thanos made it an art form—practicing on his children. Though many died as he perfected his technique. Gamora and I were fortunate to survive to adulthood.”
“Are you trying to calm me down because it’s not working,” Tony snapped. “I want to build a bunch of nuclear weapons and go nuke that asshole every day for a month.”
“No, I’m just… I realize you have issues with Barnes and those issues caused an immense rift between you and Rogers in the other timeline. It’s not a rift we have time or space for you to indulge.”
“Steve betrayed me.”
“Yes, that version of Steve Rogers did, but the one you’ve got frozen in New York hasn’t had a chance to do anything. He’ll wake up to different circumstances with different resources. He won’t be manipulated and thrown back into combat immediately for SHIELD. We’ll figure out a way to fix Barnes even if I have to go steal the Mind Stone from Thanos.”
“Not on a bet,” Tony said crossly. “The next time you see Thanos will be the day we cut off his head, burn his body, and take turns pissing on the ashes. Clear?”
She raised one eyebrow at him.
“I mean it.”
Nebula rolled her eyes and focused on the reports being generated by the ship. “Looks like just six life signs in the facility—all of them in cryostasis. Security is severely outdated, and we can deactivate it from here. There doesn’t appear to be any outgoing transmitters.”
“HYDRA thrives because they stay largely off the radar. I think one way they’re doing that is relying on outdated pre-Internet tech,” Tony said. “They probably only come here to retrieve Barnes for missions as needed. It’s isolated and hidden well, so they don’t expect it to be found.”
“I’ve always found hiding in plain sight to be easy,” Nebula said. “The other Winter Soldiers are an immense threat, correct?”
“They went insane apparently and couldn’t be controlled by HYDRA. I assume they’re still researching a way to fix them, so that’s why they’re still alive.” Tony frowned. “I originally planned to give the information for this facility to SHIELD.”
“They don’t need living assets to work with,” Nebula said grimly as she landed the ship. “I’ll take care of it.”
Tony started to protest, but he swallowed it. She was right and, despite her youthful appearance, she was much more suited to the task than he was. “Okay.”
“Consider it a mercy,” Nebula said shortly. “Who’d want to live the way they’re living? Only to be revived for experimentation and more brainwashing? It sounds like a nightmare.”
It did, so Tony nodded and stood. He activated his Shade and glanced only briefly at Nebula as she did the same. As they’d discovered in the lab, it was very disconcerting to look at each other, so he’d resolved not to do it much. The camouflage was more of a precaution than anything else since they didn’t intend to leave any technology in the facility functional or useful. He picked up his duffle bag while Nebula armed herself with a combat rifle he’d manufactured in the private production area at SI. They didn’t want to leave anything alien behind, not even evidence, so she’d familiarized herself with the rifle on a make-shift firing range in the hangar.
He started scanning with a small tablet as soon as she shot the doors open. “Nothing showing up—no radio signals or electronic surveillance.” He pulled a flashlight from his pocket and shined it on the walls as they walked. “Construction is old—probably just after the war. HYDRA was already infiltrating what would become SHIELD at that point. Jarvis, you getting a good feed on this?”
“Yes, Sir, there appears to be no interference.”
Tony deactivated the camera. “J, we’re going to cut the feed for about twenty minutes, but I don’t want you to make any sort of record for it. I’ll turn it back on when I’m ready.”
They cleared the facility room by room until they reached the stasis room. Barnes was in a cryostasis unit separated from the other five. Tony stared at the man for a few moments and cleared his throat. “Right. We’re going to set the footage up, so it appears that those five were dead when we entered the room. It’ll record us rescuing Barnes and leaving. If there comes a point when we have to reveal that footage to anyone—it’ll be ready and we’ll have evidence to back up the story we tell.”
“Why? Isn’t the point to hide the fact that Barnes was a Winter Soldier?”
“I can’t predict what SHIELD and Fury might know about Barnes,” Tony said. “This footage will create plausible deniability for us regarding the deaths of others.”
“Okay.” Nebula jerked her head. “Wait outside.”
“You melted Thanos’ head in front of me,” Tony pointed out. “With a hand laser.”
“This is different,” Nebula said. “Leave, and I’ll join you where we stopped recording so we can make the evidence video.”
Tony focused on the crazy quintet of Winter Soldiers and nodded. “Make it quick then.”
He left the room and was about ten meters down the hall when the first shot rang out. Four more followed in quick succession, but he pushed that aside and went back to wait at the front of the building where they’d entered. Nebula joined him in less than two minutes, and they resumed their positions for the recording.
“The weapon worked okay?”
“Yes,” Nebula said. “The glass on the units is incredibly thin. We’ll want to be careful with Barnes’ pod. The last thing we need is for him to wake up mid-flight.”
Tony reactivated the camera.
“Okay, so there’s a thing.” Tony sat down with his coffee and sucked air through his teeth as both Bruce and Ho stared at him in amusement. He was starting to think they were getting a bit jaded. “A big, ugly thing.”
“We’re listening,” Bruce said wryly.
“You’ve probably heard the story about Bucky Barnes and how he fell from a train during a mission.”
“Yes, there’s a whole section dedicated to him in the Captain America museum,” Ho said. “My children love to visit it.”
“My father found out shortly after the war that Barnes survived but was recaptured by HYDRA. Over the years, using various resources that I can’t discuss, he searched for Barnes and for information on the experimentation that was done to Barnes during his first imprisonment with the Nazis. He found little to nothing. After we found the Valkyrie, I took a long look at the communication remnants we pulled out of it. There wasn’t much left, but there were some interesting coded messages that I gave to Jarvis.”
“HYDRA is still active,” Bruce murmured. “Hell, Tony, that’s huge. Did you tell anyone?”
“I’m compiling a file for SHIELD to be delivered anonymously,” Tony assured. “Regardless, along with finding several facilities and accounts—I located Bucky Barnes.”
“He’s still alive? He’d be a very old man at this point,” Ho murmured.
“He’s alive, in cryostasis and doesn’t appear to have aged a day,” Tony said. “I don’t know what HYDRA did to or with him, so we’re still investigating that. I took all the files from the abandoned facility I found him in, but I’m not going to share them with you guys for the sake of plausible deniability. I will pass on any data regarding experimentation done to him in a sanitized format.”
“Understood and appreciated,” Ho said. “I’d like to up the level of security on the lab if we’re going to put Barnes in there as well.”
“I’m going to keep Barnes in my private lab. Bruce, I’d like you to join me there to work on him, and you’ll stick with the Captain, Ho.”
“I admit to being relieved,” Ho said. “I’d rather have nothing to do with HYDRA.”
“I get it,” Tony said.
“Me, too,” Bruce murmured. “You’ve got a wife and kids—it’s best that you don’t involve yourself in anything to do with that.”
“But you’re game, Bruce?” Tony questioned.
“I’ll help with the physical part, but if they’ve done something to him mentally, it’s going to be outside of my wheelhouse,” Bruce admitted reluctantly. “You’ll need to bring someone else in to deal with his head.” He cleared his throat. “What about Nebula? He might not be safe. I’d hate for her to get hurt.”
“I’m going to station in her in the public lab for the most part, and I’ve secured Barnes in a room that he’ll have a difficult time getting out of even if he has been given the super soldier serum.”
“And you think that’s what they did?” Bruce questioned.
“How else could the man have survived falling off a train on a mountain?” Tony questioned roughly.
“I hate HYDRA,” Bruce said with a frown. “This sucks wide already.”
“Good morning, Sir.”
Tony rolled over on his back and huffed. “Sup, J?”
“Mr. Odinson has arrived. He’s currently on the balcony having tea.”
“Who brought him tea?” Tony questioned in confusion.
“I offered it, and Dum-E delivered,” Jarvis said. “Though I was not consulted, I have created an identity for Mr. Odinson complete with birth records in Norway. I’ve informed him of his fictional life on Earth, and he appeared amused but accepting. Nebula is having a morning swim in the rooftop pool, and Ms. Potts put herself on your schedule for dinner this evening.”
Tony blew out a surprised breath. “What am I going to do about that?”
“Shower and appear for dinner.”
Tony huffed. “You know what I mean, Jarvis, don’t play dumb.”
“I suspect that you’ll find some way to make a relationship with you appear utterly unadvisable shortly, Sir. It should be easy. You apparently did so quite often in the other timeline.”
Tony laughed reluctantly. “As Nebula pointed out, Iron Man doesn’t exist yet, and that was our biggest problem.” He sat up and slid from the bed. “Ask Nebula what she wants for breakfast and invite Loki inside. Did he bring luggage?”
“Get Dum-E to move it into the suite we set aside for our godly guest.”
By the time he entered the kitchen, Loki was seated at the table, and Nebula was leaning against the counter staring at him.
“He’s attractive but much too old for you,” Tony admonished. “What’s for breakfast?”
“I’m heating up a quiche,” Nebula said with a gesture toward the oven. She plucked her tea from the counter and joined Loki at the table. “Why are you here, stolen son of Odin?”
“Why are you here, stolen daughter of Thanos?” Loki questioned.
“Running from Thanos was the only choice I had if I wanted to survive because I would’ve killed myself if he’d caught me. The information I have regarding the stones and the alternate timeline is too valuable. I came back in time with Tony because I didn’t…” She flushed. “I didn’t want to forget him.”
Loki nodded. “Asgard is full of ghosts—some wretched and some dear. By the time I lay dead at Thanos’ feet, half of my people had been murdered and Asgard had been destroyed. I have indistinct memories of the stones and Stark touching my mind. I don’t know why I latched onto him; perhaps my soul was desperate to live. In the moments before Thanos came on board that ship, I’d finally, after so many years, found peace and perhaps even acceptance with my brother. I’d hoped maybe even to earn his forgiveness for the things I’d done wrong. Thanos took all of that away from us both.”
“For good and bad,” Tony murmured.
“True,” Loki said. “I can’t take the same route I did before when it comes to Thor, and I’d do a lot to avoid getting within reach of Thanos myself.” He glanced briefly at Nebula when she left the table to check the food. “I’ve done terrible things—out of frustration, anger, ambition, and even malice. I can’t pretend to be a good man, Stark, but I don’t want to have the life I had before. I need my brother to trust me. I need him to…”
“Love you,” Tony supplied when Loki trailed off. “I can tell you without a single doubt that Thor loves you, Loki. He found you frustrating and appalling on occasion, but he loved you no matter what you did in the other timeline. He loves you now, and perhaps it’s different than it was before because it hasn’t been tainted with betrayal and things like mass murder.”
Loki winced. “The Scepter’s control was difficult to free myself from. Even after it was left on Earth—I felt its influence.”
Tony nodded. “Do you think if you were exposed to it again that the conditioning from before would echo?”
“Why would you…” Loki tilted his head. “Stark, can you still feel the stones?”
Tony cleared his throat and stood to help Nebula plate the food. “Are you hungry?”
“I’ll try it,” Loki said. “Answer my question.”
“When I first returned, I could feel the echo of the power from when I wore the gauntlet I made,” Tony admitted. “They were grateful to be free of Thanos and his twisted vision, and there was no resistance whatsoever when I decided to use them to go back in time. In fact, I would say they were eager to do it and made the process exceedingly easy for me. Maybe that’s why you’re here now—they sensed something in you that would benefit them in the past.”
“That’s a level of sentience that is worrisome,” Loki said. “I don’t recall the Tesseract or the Scepter ever exhibiting those qualities.”
“Then it was the Soul Stone,” Nebula said as she shifted the plates to the table. “You can eat meat, correct?”
“Yes, I can eat meat.” Loki picked up his fork and stared at the quiche before sectioning off a bite. “How did Thanos get the Soul Stone?”
“He murdered my sister,” Nebula said. “He had to make a sacrifice to retrieve it—sacrifice what he loved.”
Loki frowned and shared a look with Tony before putting the food in his mouth. “This is…nice. Which one of you made it?”
“We don’t cook. We had it brought to us from a service,” Nebula said. “Can you cook?”
“I can,” Loki said with some amusement. “My mother enjoys the kitchen and taught me.”
“Is it important to know how Thanos acquired the Soul Stone?” Tony questioned.
“I’ve heard many things about the Soul Stone over the years,” Loki said neutrally. “Speculation, legend, myth—most of it blended together but what was central to all of those legends is that the Soul Stone is powerless without a sacrifice. In fact, it’s the only stone that there were no recorded uses of anywhere by anyone since its creation until Thanos claimed it.”
“Gamora’s soul,” Tony murmured. “She powered the stone—it was her soul that made the stone active.”
“Yes.” Loki leaned back in his seat. “It would certainly fit—your plan freed her, and she would’ve been grateful for that I’m certain.”
“Did she travel back in time with us?” Nebula questioned and focused on Tony.
Tony made a frustrated sound. “I didn’t know about him until he appeared. But we do have to acknowledge that she helped you escape. If Gamora is running around Andromeda making his life difficult with future knowledge there isn’t much we can do about it but trust that she’ll do what she can to prevent him from getting the information he needs regarding the other stones. If she was in the Soul Stone, then she knows what he did. She’ll also knows that she needs her team back so she’ll keep the timeline intact as much as possible, right?”
“She loves Quill,” Nebula said with a grimace. “She’ll do whatever she has to do to work her way back to his side if she came back with us.”
Tony wasn’t all that surprised that Phil Coulson showed up two hours after Jarvis dropped the HYDRA data on SHIELD and the NSA. It had been done as anonymously as possible, but he’d ruffled Fury’s feathers enough already to be on the man’s radar for anything out of the ordinary. Nebula was in the lab with Ho in the business tower, and Loki was sticking close to Tony in a way that wasn’t all that unpleasant. The Asgardian was dressed fairly normally in black linen trousers and a blue shirt that certainly wasn’t hurting his looks at all.
“How can I help you, Agent Coulson?” Tony asked.
“I need a private meeting.”
“Mr. Stark doesn’t speak privately with individuals outside of his personal social circle or non-employees,” Happy said from behind Coulson. He glanced toward Loki then focused on Tony.
Tony just inclined his head. “Personal security is a must these days. You’d not be surprised at all how many people out there would like to get me alone and do nefarious things to me.”
“I’m aware of your threat profile,” Phil said evenly. “The organization I work for recently came to have some very damaging and startling information. It was delivered digitally and anonymously. Precious few people on this planet can do such a thing. Naturally, you’re at the top of that very short list.”
“Was this information helpful?” Tony questioned with a bright smile.
“Yes. My superiors are very interested in the source of this material and if there is any more information to be had.” He glanced toward Loki who had moved across the room to sit at the baby grand piano. “I see you replaced Ms. Potts.”
“No one could replace, Pepper,” Tony said. “She’s unique in this world, but I do have some new staff on board—new ideas, new directions, and new people. It’s just how that works in the private sector. If you ever get bored doing what you do for whomever you do it for you should stop by—we might have something interesting to keep you busy. Happy likes competent people.”
“I do,” Happy agreed. “He looks competent.”
“Very,” Loki said dryly. “And perhaps on the foolish side of brave.”
“Agreed!” Tony clapped his hands. “So come back by, Phil, if you ever get bored playing with pirates. We’re going to build spaceships, you know. That’s just fun waiting to be had.”
Coulson’s lips quirked briefly. “I’ll just see myself out, Mr. Stark.”
“Let Happy walk you out. He can show you the Helpful Bots lab if you’d like. Dr. Yinsen is doing a large build this week for the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group. You’d be utterly amazed at what they asked for.”
Phil paused then nodded. “I would like to see that, Mr. Hogan.”
Loki waited until both men were gone before he started to play. “What did they ask for?”
“A giant version of Spiderling.”
Loki blinked in surprise. “Whatever for?”
“Earthquakes on Earth can be quite damaging—they need something big that can climb, dig, and retrieve people that they locate in disaster areas.” Tony shifted so he could watch the man play. “You do that well.”
“This instrument originally came from Asgard. Though, the changes made through the centuries both here and on my world have birthed two very different instruments. This is lovely though.” He continued to play—a soft, haunting melody that Tony had never heard before. “You don’t trust me.”
“Before I died, the answer would’ve been no.” Loki frowned and looked out the doors that led to the balcony. “But I’m different now. The path I took before was ultimately unrewarding. I won’t take that walk or that fall again. I have to work on myself a bit to accomplish that and get rid of some bad habits. Habits I think I would’ve had a hard time shedding on Asgard. It became increasingly difficult to be around my parents and not admit that I knew about my origins. I don’t resent them anymore for it because I remember what it was like to have them both die, and I’d never wish to know such grief again.”
“They’re not immortal.”
“No,” Loki agreed. “But they should’ve lived far longer than they did. My father grieved my mother so ardently that it killed him, and that brought about Ragnarok.”
“And the sister you never knew you had.”
Loki snorted. “Having met her, I’m left to wonder if perhaps Thor wasn’t the one that was really adopted.”
Tony laughed. “Two sides of the same coin, eh?”
“Perhaps we were before Thanos, but I don’t want to be on that coin anymore, Stark.” Loki focused on him and lifted his hands from the keys. “So, I’m here with you.”
“Because you brought me with you into the past whether you meant to or not and, more importantly, you’re the only person I’ve ever met who treated me entirely honestly. Not even my mother can hold such a place in my life.” He cleared his throat roughly. “Enough of this. Give me something to do.”
Tony frowned as Loki left the piano bench. “What do you know about cryostasis?”
“HYDRA’s cryostasis was built on information they gained from the Tesseract while they had it, so I actually know quite a bit. Why?”
“How would you like to meet Bruce Banner again? The non-Hulk version of him.”
Loki winced. “We’re going to work to make sure he stays that way, right?”
“It’s currently my plan,” Tony said. “Though Nebula has this whole theory about fixed points in time and fate.”
“Oh, fuck Fate,” Loki groused. “She’s a bitch and not nearly as entertaining as anyone would think.”
Watching Bruce and Loki bond over Bucky Barnes’ stasis pod was just about the most surreal moment of Tony’s life, and that was saying something considering all the things that had happened to him in both timelines. He left the lab after they were settled and Loki appeared at ease enough not to cast any sort of magic in Bruce’s direction. He retreated to his private lab which he locked down.
“Keep an eye on them, J,” Tony said and sat down on a stool.
“More than I can properly number,” Tony said roughly. “And that’s only if I’m talking about SHIELD and HYDRA. I’m going to catch hell keeping them both at bay once everyone realizes I’m super soldier central. What the hell was I thinking?”
“I think, Sir, you were doing as you always do—the right thing.”
Tony laughed bitterly. “You know very well, old man, that there have been many times when doing what was right was the very last thing on my mind.”
“You’re a good man, Sir,” Jarvis said. “Even when you built weapons, you built them for the right people and the right causes. It’s no fault of your own that they fell into the wrong hands and were used to do terrible things.”
“I should’ve known. My father should’ve known, and maybe he did know, but he didn’t care. He was a lost cause before I was even born.” He cleared his throat. “Okay, I need to start looking into the World Security Council—get me data on current and past members of the council. Find out everything you can about them. Find Alexander Pierce, he’s a deep undercover HYDRA plant in the U.S. He’s honestly the biggest asshole I’ve ever had the pleasure of barely meeting.”
Sitting down to dinner with Pepper had often been the highlight of any day in the past, but now it was just a reminder of what he’d lost and couldn’t regain. Even if he were inclined to involve her in the shit-show that was his life, it would never feel right. The scales weren’t balanced between them and couldn’t be considering all the information and experience he had. If he wanted, he could’ve manipulated Pepper Potts within an inch of her life, and she’d never know. It was a terrible thing to even think, so he set it aside as he settled in at her dining room table.
“You could’ve brought Nebula,” Pepper said. “I made enough for three.” She bit down on her lip but focused on him with determination. “I’d like to get to know her.”
“She’s in the lab with Ho building a bot for a charity organization,” Tony said. “I had food delivered to them both.”
“I feel terrible for what I thought about her…and what she heard secondhand from your robots.”
“They’re fond of her,” Tony said. “And she’s not upset about it. In fact, she was more amused than anything so don’t worry about that.” He took a sip of water and set aside to focus on cutting his steak. “Tell me what’s on your mind. Is something wrong at the foundation that needs my attention?”
“No, everything is going smoothly, and we’ve already started building and furnishing labs in various schools around the state. Practically every single scientist you have recruited has put themselves on the volunteer list for school visits which surprised me. They seemed to be as excited about it as anyone else.”
Tony shrugged. “Working in R&D can be isolating. It’s fun to share your work and your ideas with people, especially kids because they get excited really easily. We’re all a bunch of big kids at heart, but I’ve warned them all to keep grade levels in mind when they’re developing projects for the programs you guys are putting together. What about outside volunteers?”
“We’ve developed a vetting process for that, and I’ve been thinking about the community outreach program you want to run out of the mansion. We could easily do art and dance classes there if you’re in agreement.”
“Fill my mom’s house up with kids,” Tony said. “She’d be so thrilled. You’ll want to reach out to the NYPD as well—work with them regarding vetting. Programs like you’re designing could attract pedophiles. We’ll have to have security and a system for keeping track of the kids when they’re on the property. Maybe some kind of bracelet system. I’ll talk to Ho about it.”
Pepper nodded. “Tony…I.” She huffed and took a deep swallow of wine.
“What’s going on?” He set aside his knife and fork and focused on her. “You don’t want to go back to California, right?”
“No, no, of course not. I love the work here with the foundation, and I’m thrilled with the staff and the goals.” She waved a hand and finished her wine off with another long drink. “I thought maybe now that I’m not working as your assistant that we could try…you’ve never really made a secret that you find me attractive.” She blushed and met his gaze.
Tony exhaled sharply and desperately wished Pepper wasn’t so brave. “You’re beautiful,” he said finally. “And I do find you attractive. I really had no business letting you know that before and, for that, I apologize. It wasn’t professional, and it wasn’t the way a good man should act around a woman who clearly wanted to keep their relationship platonic. I can’t even imagine how many times I exceeded your boundaries on that topic, but it was undoubtedly a disrespectful amount.
“There was a time when I would gleefully taken you to bed, and maybe I would’ve even tried to have a relationship with you, but it would’ve been a mistake. Physical attraction aside, we’re entirely too different to ever have a good, healthy relationship. It seems like a good bet—we’re good friends, and the sex would be awesome.” She laughed and relaxed a bit. “But I drive you nuts, and I don’t see that changing at all no matter how much I’ve cleaned up my life.”
“You cleaned it up for her,” Pepper said. “For Nebula.” Her cheeks darkened further and she looked away from him. “I’d hoped that maybe you were making these changes for me so that we could be together…that’s stupid I guess. You never made those kinds of concessions for any other woman in your life. Why would I have been any different?”
“I’m not mad,” Pepper insisted. “Honestly, I’m really glad that you care enough about your daughter to clean up your company and your act. I thought you were in love with me, that’s all, and you’re not.”
“I adore you,” Tony said quietly. “I doubt I’ll ever meet another woman I’ll feel this way about, but I wouldn’t make you happy. It’s selfish, but I’d rather have you in my life as a friend than you be an angry ex-girlfriend who doesn’t take my calls.”
“You could make more changes—work less,” she pointed out.
“I could,” Tony agreed. “And I could keep my mouth shut in public and not smart off to people who ask me stupid questions. I could force myself to live a quiet, unassuming life where I take no risks, and make no waves, but then I’d be miserable.”
“It wouldn’t set a very good example for Nebula,” Pepper said pensively. “Watching us twist ourselves up trying to be something we’re not to make each other happy.”
He figured that Nebula wouldn’t actually tolerate such a situation for any length of time, but he kept that to himself.
Pepper picked up her knife and cut decisively into her steak. “Okay, so we don’t do anything about our UST.”
Tony picked up his water glass and took a sip. “Oh, we can still fuck if you want.” He barely managed to duck the dinner roll she chucked at his head. “Not nice.”
She huffed. “You started it!”
“Ha, offering a woman a perfectly nice orgasm is not a declaration of war.” Tony let himself smile when she laughed. “I can’t mess us up, Pep.”
“I understand,” she said with a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “I don’t want to mess us up either.”
He’d never wanted to get disgustingly drunk more in his whole life. Tony swallowed that desire and stared at his food.
“Dr. Stark, I’ve located an offline SHIELD facility I need to investigate located in New Jersey.”
Tony shared a look with Nebula. Hercules rarely spoke to either of them directly as the AI took direction from Jarvis. “The original discovery of the bunker in Jersey by Rogers led to the exposure of HYDRA. There’s nothing in that place we need. It holds a supercomputer with a downloaded copy of Armin Zola’s consciousness, or at least, that’s what the computer program believes itself to be. I didn’t buy that part of the story when Steve talked about it. The technology to do that isn’t available on Earth now much less in the past.”
“Even with the Tesseract in play?” Loki questioned.
“I think if HYDRA had truly tapped the potential of the Tesseract that they wouldn’t have lost the war,” Tony said. “They barely scratched the surface, which is fortunate for the rest of us. Zola was a smart man, so it’s good that he didn’t have more time to work with the Tesseract.” He focused on Nebula. “The bunker will need to be destroyed. It’s not a resource HYDRA needs to keep. Jarvis, prep the next data package for Fury so he can start cleaning up his house. We’ll take the Futurist for a ride and take care of the bunker in New Jersey. Hercules go ahead and start working on your next target.”
“Of course, Dr. Stark.”
A half hour later, the three of them were en route to Camp Lehigh, New Jersey. If Loki was surprised to be invited along, he didn’t show it. Tony wasn’t entirely sure what to do with the God of Mischief if he was going to be honest. Project Deprogram Bucky Barnes was slow going because of the immense amount of data they had to sort through, and Loki was hiding the magical treatments from Bruce to maintain his own cover. Also, they figured it would be better to wake Steve up first so he could be on hand to help handle Barnes if he went off the rails.
“If we want to the situation to look like an accidental fire then we have to use whatever is on hand for accelerant,” Nebula pointed out as she called up the plans for the bunker that Hercules had provided. “It has electricity.”
“The server farm for a supercomputer that old will throw off a lot of heat,” Tony said as he spread the plans out to get a better look. “Electrical fires in a facility this old…they’ll have a suppression system in place.”
“I can conjure fire,” Loki said and raised an eyebrow when they both turned to look at him. “And nothing on Earth can suppress magical fire. It’ll burn as long as I wish it.”
Tony turned to Nebula. “That shouldn’t have been hot, right?”
She glared at him. “It’s inappropriate to discuss your sexual perversions with your offspring.”
He snorted. “Put on the Shade so we can get started.” He activated his own and turned to Loki to find the alien’s appearance rapidly shifting. “Whoa.”
“And, no, his parlor tricks aren’t sexy,” Nebula muttered as she activated her own Shade and left the pilot’s seat. “There’s no place to land where we won’t leave evidence of being here—we’re going to have to rappel.”
“I don’t do such things,” Loki said snottily as his appearance settled into something very much like the Shade suits they were wearing.
Tony started to respond but the man offered his hand, and he hesitantly took it with a glance toward Nebula. She squinted at Loki when she was offered a hand.
“You realize I could’ve already killed you both numerous times should I have wished it,” Loki said dryly.
“If you hurt him in any single way, I’ll bathe in your blood,” Nebula said icily and took Loki’s hand.
Loki grinned at her and looked at Tony. “She’s charming, really. I want to adopt her, too.”
Tony huffed. “Get your own murderous ninjabot.”
Loki transported them to the ground with a flash of magic. Tony frowned and pulled his hand free. “Weird.”
“Very,” Nebula said and cracked her neck. “I’d have rather jumped.”
“You’re both so pedestrian,” Loki muttered.
Tony sighed and checked the map on his phone. “This is the bunker that Hercules marked for destruction.”
“Do you want to do any sort of data retrieval?” Nebula questioned as Tony checked the locks on the door.
Tony hesitated but then shook his head. “This place has been completely off the grid and doesn’t have any current information. I don’t honestly give too much of a fuck about what HYDRA did in the 1960s.” He pushed open the door.
Loki stepped in, held out his hand, and a ball of fire burst out from his palm. He threw it, and the fire bloomed like a bomb out in front of him. Nebula grabbed Tony and jerked him back from the doorway. The fire roared, and Loki stepped out of the front entrance of the bunker to watch it work.
Tony frowned deeply. “You…”
“What?” Loki questioned.
“You didn’t need an army to take the Tesseract or frankly the planet,” Tony snapped. “You could’ve destroyed us outright with little to no effort if that fire is an example of your abilities.”
“Thanos had no idea he was capable of such,” Nebula said. “Or he would’ve planned the invasion much differently.”
Loki flushed and averted his gaze. “Fortunately for us all, he never bothered to ask me if I had magical abilities beyond a Jotun. He couldn’t order me to do things he didn’t know about.” He refocused his attention on the fire as the bunker started to fall in on itself.
Tony looked at his phone. “What’s up, Jarvis?”
“SHIELD has a team en route to your location to investigate some sort of alarm. I suggest you leave.”
Loki held out a hand toward the fire, and it died instantly. He grabbed them both and teleported back to the ship.
“Ugh, it’s terrible,” Tony complained. “Why does it feel so weird?”
“It is not a natural method of travel for your kind,” Loki said as Nebula dropped down into the pilot seat.
“Take us up and out of the way,” Tony said. “I want to watch the fallout.”
Nearly fifteen minutes later, a helicopter landed a hundred yards from the bunker. Tony watched Romanoff and Barton drop down on the ground and head toward the bunker first. They were quickly followed by a strike team. He wasn’t all that surprised to see them—though he’d never been sure how long either one of them had actually worked with SHIELD.
“Someone in the thing,” Nebula said and motioned toward the helicopter, “is running a scan for heat signatures. It didn’t pick us up.”
“Scan them back and get as much information as you can about the equipment they’re using,” Tony said. “It’s a helicopter. Have Friday add the history of aviation to your learning schedule. No kid of mine would call a helicopter a thing.”
She laughed and shot him the bird.
“That’s more like it,” Tony said. “Status on the bunker?”
“The fire was successful.” She paused. “Very successful.” Nebula wet her lips and looked at Loki. “Can you control other elements as easily?”
“Water and ice are easy to control and manipulate, but that is due to my Jotun heritage. My mother, Frigga, trained me in magic starting when I was very young because she saw that I had near limitless potential for the craft. I should’ve realized long ago that I was not Asgardian. Gifts such as mine are little more than myths among my adopted people, and my mother encouraged me to downplay my abilities. I did it so much that I rarely react to situations with magic even when it would benefit me to do so.”
“You should work on that,” Tony decided.
“Perhaps I should.”
“But don’t set the planet on fire,” he ordered as an afterthought and relaxed when Loki laughed.